Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas Trees and memories of bygone holiday celebrations

I recently interviewed the owners of the Beautancus Christmas Tree Farm in Duplin County, N.C. As I left the farm, I couldn’t help but remember other Christmas trees in my life, both real and artificial.
Jody and I smile in front of the silver Christmas tree.
When I was a kid, putting up the Christmas tree and decorating it was one of the major events of the Christmas season. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, dad went to one of the Christmas Tree lots in Rialto, California, and bought a real one. Those were splendid trees with their evergreen smell that so expertly summoned the Christmas spirit. But they dried and presented a fire hazard, so dad bought one of those less-than-stellar silver trees. They were just a step above Charlie Brown’s little tree. Like Charlie Brown’s tree, that silver tree didn’t look too bad once decorated. A slowly turning color wheel took the place of the cords of lights that had been strung around the real Christmas trees in earlier years.

I’ve a photograph of my sister Jody and I standing in front of that straggly silver tree. She’s showing off a new doll while I hold a ball glove. Like many photos from the early ‘60s, time hasn’t been kind to it. It’s smudged, damaged when removed from a photo album. I cropped it to remove the damage.

In later years, when we lived on Mount Eaton Road just outside Wadsworth, Ohio, and then down south on the Muskingum River in Beverly we decorated a green artificial tree that was a bit more complicated to erect than that silver tree we owned in California. It was prettier, but the silver tree still holds a special place in my heart.

Grandpa Frog and Grandma Mid at Uncle Denny's house.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were hectic at our houses in Wadsworth and Beverly. On Christmas Eve we’d celebrate Christmas at the house of my cousins, Candy and Pat Kelly. It was quite an affair. Many branches of the family came to the celebration including my dad’s sister Emmy and her husband and their kids, Billy, Kim, Ken and –born much later – Brian. The kids ate at our own table while the parents ate at the "grownup" table. Candy and Pat’s dad Jack would head to Akron after the meal to do his shopping, then come back and wrap his gifts. We waited and waited and waited, and only after Jack returned and wrapped his presents could our gifts be unwrapped beside the Kelly’s huge "real" Christmas tree. Each December Jack chopped down a tree on the Kelly property and hauled it to the house. The Kelly’s recreation room had a high ceiling, perfect for that extra-tall tree erected in front of the large picture-glass window that over looked the driveway.

Bruce Snyder on Grandma Mid's lap; Denny with Taffy.
One Christmas Eve we left the Kelly house after midnight – actually, Christmas morning, right? – and discovered several inches of newly fallen snow. The overcast had cleared and a fall moon casts its brilliance down on the white blanket that covered the yard. Even now, decades later, I can say that night was the brightest I’ve ever seen. It was mystical ... I expected to see fairies fluttering above the snow or maybe a unicorn to emerge from the woods.

After celebrating our own Christmas on Christmas morning – and eating the traditional fruitcake supplied by dad’s mom, our Grandmother Nan, we’d pack presents in the car for Grandpa Frog and Grandma Mid, Uncle Denny and Aunt Dee and their kids, Kim and Kevin, and head to the Fourth Street house in Rittman.

In earlier times, when Denny was young and still living at home, Grandpa Frog bought a real tree for the living room. My dad, who will be 87 in April, recently shared some memories of Christmas in Rittman. He said that Grandma Mid would study the tree and whenever she saw a "thin" area she’d have grandpa hammer in an additional limb. That’s right ... grandpa would not only bring the Christmas Tree, he’d also come back to the house with extra limbs. He’d saw them to fit the trunk and then affix them to the tree with nails. He must have been grateful when they purchased an artificial tree, one that had not only limbs that needed to be attached to the trunk, but branches and twigs that had to be attached to the limbs.

"Joyful" partying at Christmastime 1981.
In the 1940s and 1950s Denny’s train set ran around the tree. That’s the way Christmas should be ... a Lionel engine and railcars wheeling around a real tree.
Nowadays my sister Jody and her husband put up a couple of artificial trees, one in the living room and one in the back family room. I don’t know if any of her three daughters, all married, plan to return to Beverly to celebrate Christmas. Two – Quinn and Vanessa – live in Charlotte, North Carolina, while the third, Nicci, lives up in Central Michigan. Jody is a grandmother now ... Quinn and her husband Lance have a toddler, Griffin, 15 months old, who will be experiencing his first Christmas where he can actually open presents. In the not-so-distant future, Griffin will be tucking away memories of Christmas trees and celebrations that perhaps he’ll write about in the 2070s.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Would Shakespeare like NaNoWriMo?

I admit I don’t get it.

It’s not my – get ready for a tired metaphor – cup of tea.

This month is NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month.

Fellow writers on Facebook are busy writing thousands of words a day trying to write a 50,000 word novel by the end of Nov. 30.

Posts keep appearing on my timeline:

·         Wrote 4,331 words over the weekend;

·         Managed 1,133 words today;

·         My cat is sick; going to have to give up NaNoWriMo this year.

Back in 2008 a writer friend of mine who lives in Oregon asked me if I planned to participate in National Novel Writing Month.

I told her no. Five years ago I needed to finish up The Emperor’s Mistress and line up a literary agent to open doors to big-name publishers. Boy was I naïveté.

While not as naïveté today, I remain a skeptic of NaNoWriMo. That’s because I put a great deal of time and effort in a first draft. For me, an intense revision and editing process is a major portion of a first draft. Writing the initial draft is 40 percent writing the scenes and 60 percent sweat-and-blood editing.

NaNoWriMo writers are spewing forth the scenes’ sentences without a thought to editing and polishing the chapters. I fear many of them end up doing complete rewrites.

Write, write, write ... don't worry about editing. 
It takes careful thought to weave in description so that it blends with the narrative and dialogue and doesn’t turn into big info-dumps.

Hard decisions have to be made on how you approach a scene: should you “show” the action or resort to tried-and-true “telling?”

Strategy falls by the wayside when the primary objective is word count.

Even before National Novel Writing Month, some writers on Facebook were bragging about the number of words they managed to write each day. That makes me cringe. Autoworkers should brag about the number the number of cars that roll off the assembly line. Writers shouldn’t be bragging about the words rolling off their laptops or tablets … creative writing shouldn’t be assembly line writing.

It was a dark and stormy ...
The National Novel Writing Month organizers claim more than 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published. They include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator. So that means the NaNoWriMo method works for some authors, just not for me.

National Novel Writing Month is 14 years old. It’s a 501(c) (3). This year 304,026 writers are participating. Merchandise sales, donations by participants and sponsors fund NaNoWriMo.
So let me conclude … all you NaNoWriMo writers out there … you had better hurry … only eight days left to write your 50,000-word romance novel. Forget baths, forget eating, forget sex, pound the keyboard … faster, faster, faster.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where are the Groggs? Wow … they’re on Live Journal!

I’m turning Live Journal over to my author friend Cherley Groff, a fine West Virginian author who wants to tell folks about her YA novel, The Secret in Grandma’s Trunk. She’s offering it for free on Amazon for a short time.

*  *  *

Cherley Grogg
I’m so glad to have this opportunity to share a little about myself and my children’s novel, The Secret in Grandma’s Trunk, which is free to download from Amazon for a limited time. The inspiration for the book came from my grandsons. I have three grandsons and a granddaughter.

My granddaughter loves to read, but the boys do not so I decided to write a book they would love to read. I knew it’d have to have strong kids in it, strong physically and headstrong too. The characters would all have to be realistic with problems and scuffles among themselves; it would have to be fast paced and full of adventure. Plus my grandsons like sports and girls so I needed to put that in there as well.

I couldn’t leave my granddaughter without someone to relate to so I gave the brothers in the story a female cousin who could keep up with them in most things and top them in others. In addition to the children, there are some strong, funny and interesting adult characters. This book appeals to people of all ages.

Brandon, the main character in The Secret in Grandma’s Trunk, is not quiet. He’s very outgoing and loud. He’s a leader and his outgoing, boisterous personality works well for him, but not listening gets him into a lot of trouble. Jordon, his cousin, is a female version of Brandon, but Jacob, his brother, is the opposite – a quiet listener, a thinker. The 13 year olds get in a passel of trouble because of not listening, and Jacob quietly follows them.

Here’s the blurb:

A teen’s life gets disrupted when his grand-grandmother, a stranger, comes to live with him and his family. She upsets his life so much that he stoops pretty low to get rid of her, including trying to find a way to get into the oversized trunk she has stored in the garage. Spunky Grandma keeps the trunk's key in a special place.

The kids expect to find treasure, but discover a terrible secret instead, one that puts Grandma in danger’s way. Will she turn to her grandchildren for help or to a young ghost?

Read Cherley's novel and find the secret.
And here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14:

Jacob looked astounded. “How in the world did you pull that off?”

“A girl has to have stuff.” She grinned. “You know … girl’s stuff.”

“No, we don’t know, and we don’t want to know. The important thing is you got the card.” Brandon reached for the credit card.

“I want to know,” Jacob said.

“Believe me, you don’t want to know.” Jordan laughed as she handed the card to Brandon. “Hurry up. I need to get Dad’s card back to him before Mom’s out of the shower.”

In the next chapter the kids want to play soccer. Grandma went with them. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 15:

Lilly turned to Grandma. “It doesn’t matter what she thinks, she’s not on our team. I don’t know why the coach favors Jordan. Maybe he feels sorry for her. She’s so big and clunky.”

Grandma’s eyes flashed, and her little fist doubled up. Brandon hoped she wouldn't spit. He put his hand on Grandma’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”

“I’ll go, but I want her to know that Jordan sure is big. She has a big heart, and a big personality, and she’s twice the lady that girl is. She would never put someone else down to try to make herself look better.”

"I don’t need to put her down to make myself look better. I always look good.”

Grandma turned her head and spit.

The Secret in Grandma’s Trunk is free from Amazon; I hope you enjoy it.

Cher’ley’s Books are listed below and on sale at Amazon and local bookstores.

And here’s her FB fan page, hosted by a good friend of hers, Cindy Ferrell:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Don’t let the past stay dead and buried …

Trips and vacations are excellent vehicles for reviving memories, some wonderful, some not so wonderful.

My dad as a baby with his Grandpa Louis Iuppenlatz
A long drive gives a man – or woman – a chance to think. In my case, it was nearly nine hours of driving, 90 percent on interstates, nine hours to remember other trips up to Grantsville, West Virginia, and Beverly, Ohio, over the last quarter century.

My memories of my travels along Interstates 40 and 77 up to Beverly in 2003 are especially poignant. That year the drives were what I now think of as deathwatch journeys. We’d learned mom had ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and was slowly dying. On that first trip northward after learning she hadn’t suffered a stroke, but had somehow contracted the still-cureless neurological killer, my thoughts while driving kept coming back to this unsettling thought: How was I going to cope with watching her die, and could I handle being in her bedroom with her when she took the last few breaths?

Of course, I coped. And I was in the bedroom with her, sitting in her easy chair, when she – as the song “I’ll Fly Away” says so beautifully – flew away “to that home on God’s celestial shore.”

My sister Jody and I one Christmas in the early 1970s.
On my most recent trip around Independence Day, my sister Jody and I took walks through her neighborhood including a foray through the village cemetery and past mom’s grave, decorated with summer flowers.

Last November I turned 61, and more often than I like I find my thoughts returning to the past. I had believed that my Uncle Denny had my Grandmother Mid’s photo scrapbooks. No, Jody told me, she had them. “He didn’t want them,” she said, bringing them out from a closet for me to thumb through.

My re-enactment days ... Gettysburg 1976.
Jody lacks the scanning equipment to turn the old photos into jpegs, so I took some of them – as well as some of mom’s – back to my house in Wilmington to scan and save. I intend to post some of them on Facebook with newsy captions, maybe even a short story or two.

A few days earlier, dad and his wife Linda had picked through a box of old photographs looking for Brownie snapshots of his mom Nan, his dad Bud, his sister Emmie and other Staton and Iuppenlatz relatives. One photo in particular stood out for me – a slightly out-of-focus shot of the extended family taken sometime in the mid to late 1940s. By then dad’s Grandpa Louis Iuppenlatz was no longer living. The photo shows Emmie as a child, and dad's brother Steven is a toddler.
I love that photo, even if it doesn't include Great-Grandpa Iuppenlatz. I never knew him and barely knew my Grandpa Bud; he died in August 1960 when I was eight. But I spent many, many fun evenings chit-chatting with my Grandmother Nan and her sisters, Hortense (my grandma’s identical twin) and Avis.
Staton/Iuppenlatz family in 1940s.
They lived together in a supposedly haunted two-story house in Sharon Center, Ohio. I never stayed overnight in that house until one summer when I was in college, and I have to concede … I had trouble getting to sleep … I half expected the ghost of a young woman in a Victorian era dress to make its way down the hallway past my open doorway.
The stories these photographs summon to consciousness could someday give rise to scenes in yet-unwritten novels. My books now are fantasy-genre tales, but future endeavors could see me wandering far from that genre. First, though, I have to finish Assassins’ Lair, the last book in my trilogy, and see it published by my publisher.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Some thoughts on how we’ll be remembered

I wrote my mom’s obituary.

My great-grandmother
burned to death.
Hand-delivered it to the mortician, a big brother of a high school friend of mine.

He offered to let me see my mom in the embalming room. I turned down the offer; that was too brutal even for a grizzled old reporter like me who has covered murders and fatal vehicle accidents.

And like seeing my mom in the embalming room at the funeral home, I have no intention of writing my own obituary.

Fellow Writing Wranglers and Warriors blogger Neva Bodin recently wrote a blog about how we view our lives and if given the opportunity, would we write our own obituaries. Neva said, “… an artist friend and I once joked about publishing our own obituary just to become famous – you know it seems artists become or are more famous after their deaths. And we certainly needed help!”

She compared an obituary to a company’s mission statement that states its purpose, its reason for existing.

At my first-ever newspaper reporter job, my responsibilities included writing obituaries. It was ho-hum work for me, but I soon came to realize that an obituary is the last chance for a family to show that their loved one lived a fulfilling life and followed the biblical principle of shining his light before others so that they could see his good works.

Newspapers, especially the last bastion of local news – weeklies – thrive on the various notices that
A great-uncle owned and operated an Ohio carnival.
people mail and email to the newsroom. People buy the newspaper to read about themselves and their relatives and neighbors.

Think about it for a moment. People send in:

·         Birth announcements;

·         Graduation announcements;

·         Engagements and marriage announcements;

·         Military service announcements;

·         Job promotions;

·         Family reunions;

·         Wedding anniversaries;

·         Children’s special parties;

·         Scholarship awards their children receive;

·         High school and college graduations;

·         Sports awards;

·         Death notices.

My mother's birth
Truly, a person’s life is chronicled in the local newspaper.

During my days at the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette in Ohio I edited the copy of small-town columnists who wrote about the everyday lives of their neighbors who lived in towns like Rushville, Bremen and Millersport. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were creating “memory treasures” for later generations of genealogists and for descendants who want to learn about the lives behind the photos in old scrapbooks.

I have photocopies of my mom’s birth announcement, the obituaries of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, and a news story about the death of my great-grandmother who died in the 1930s when she caught on fire as she lit her cooking stove. I also have a copy of a news story about a relative who owned a carnival in the 1920s and 1930s.

My 86-year-old dad likes to say that in 100 years nobody will even remember that he lived.
That could turn out to be entirely true for the grandchildren of his new great-grandchild, Griffin Goff, who will be one year old in September, if they have no curiosity to learn about their families. But I think with all this rich genealogical information in the past editions of newspapers that will be available on microfilm and online, our descendants will want to attach lives to the names on the tombstones in local cemeteries. If they don’t, shame on them.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Story: The Cloaked Sorceress

I’ve been posting paintings on my Facebook author’s page and writing what I call short-shorts – usually between 10 and 20 paragraphs– that weave a story around what the painting depicts. My author page has almost 1,100 likes, but the short-shorts typically get no more than 15 percent penetration. I’ve shared them on my regular page and linked back to my author page on several FB writer groups. Very few wander over to my page to check out the stories. Writers on FB like to post cute illustrations that say how much they love to read, but most of the ones in these groups seem to be one-way posters … Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book, they shout – and that’s about it. So while I’ll keep posting these short-shorts on my FB author page, I decided just this once to post my latest one on my blog. So here it is … I call it The Cloaked Sorceress.

She came up to me – didn’t give her name – and said in a thick accent I couldn’t place, “I hear you’re good with a sword and composite bow. I want to hire you to take me to Opet City.” She turned her scarf-covered face toward the doors leading to the Burning Coals tavern.

A perfume of jasmine escaped past her scarf and teased my nose, making me forget the smells of dead fish, kafia and turpentine. Only the rich could afford that scent. Perhaps her father owned all these wharves and warehouses along Dock Street. Curiosity piqued, I let her lead me into the tavern.

I trailed her so I could get a better look at her, but to my chagrin the hooded robe concealed her curves. She looked back at me … her eyes spit fire. Sweet goddess Larenia, I thought, her eyes are glowing! I’d never seen such blue eyes – a cat’s eyes. Kafia addiction could do that, I knew. I needed to see her fingernails; they’d glow too if she’d gotten a taste for kafia. I glanced down one of her sleeves, and swore under my breath. She wore gloves.

Directly ahead, above three sets of mage-lights, a mural famous throughout Setor City began to sparkle along its border, as if infested with lightning flies. She stopped to watch, catching me off-guard. I bumped up against her, prompting an angry retort, “You really are clumsy. Perhaps your skill with the bow and sword is exaggerated?” She deigned not to look back at me.

I gazed beyond her shoulder at the mural’s scene … a terrified boar caught in mid-stride as it strained to escape the spear of a mounted warrior woman. Suddenly, the wild boar came to life and raced along the wall. The warrior woman’s horse bounded after it, the woman flung her spear and its spearhead sliced through skin and muscle. The boar tumbled and the woman raised her fist in triumph. Then the scene melted away as if wet paint dissolved by a rainstorm – and a moment later reappeared in its earlier inanimate rendering.

Everyone in the smoke-filled common room cheered, and no one took notice of the robed woman or her glowing eyes. She turned suddenly, seized my arm, and guided me to the farthest table from the mural. Motioning me to sit, which I did, she sat adjacent to me, so close her robe brushed my knees. Perhaps she wanted to flirt. Why else sit so close? I reached out to caress a patch of skin between a glove and the end of her sleeve. She yanked her hand away from mine.

“I am not your plaything,” she growled, her voice sharp enough to cut the block of cheese the serving wench had left on the table.

 “My apologies, My Lady,” I said in my most humble voice. I attempted to shift the subject away from my gaffe. “The boar mural … the owner’s brother, a mage, created it. A magnificent display of magic, don’t you think?”

“I would have preferred to see the boar turn and gore the woman’s leg.” She drew a money-purse from insider her robe, untied the drawstrings and let dozens of gold imperials rain onto the tabletop. “These are yours if you take me to Opet City. I’ve been told the Imperial Way is no longer safe since the Emperor’s stroke. Bandits raid with impunity. My source also said you are the best guide in the empire.”

I ran my hands over the coins, felt their sweet coldness. I wondered how we could safely exit the tavern without getting our throats cut. Drunkards and their dollops sitting at nearby tables were eyeing the coins too. “You were foolish to–”

“Move your hand away from the coins,” she commanded. As if her words were magic tinged, my hand jerked against my chest.

The coins and the money-purse vanished.

A damned sorceress, I thought to myself. Nonetheless, the stack of coins amounted to more money than I had ever seen in one sitting. I would have guided Blue Eyes to Opet City had the coins been half that number. I could buy a love slave with those coins and have my every desire fulfilled. Or buy a tavern.

“You have a deal,” I said, and noticed that our neighbors had grown subdued and slid their tables and chairs away from us. No one wanted a sorceress to take notice of them.

“Just a couple of stipulations, then I will retire for the night and meet you in the morning at McPeak’s Stables.” She reached inside the robe and I heard the jangle of coins. “I will bank these in your account at the Imperial Bank. Once we are on the road you are not to try to crawl into my bedroll or find excuses to rub up against me.” Suddenly, I felt invisible hands squeeze my neck, and then the pressure vanished. “Understand?”

“Perfectly, My Lady.” I cleared my throat. “If I may ask, why would a sorceress need a guide for protection?”

She laughed, a sound that reminded me of glass shattering. “Normally I wouldn’t. But I have this with me.” She opened her robe, revealing not just inviting cleavage, but a sleeping baby dragon. “When she’s awake, she drains my magic. Human babies drink their mother’s milk. Dragon babies drink their mother’s magic.”

I glared at my hands and forced them to stop shaking. In the morning, I would be traveling with a dragon in human form – and her child.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Precious memories of my cousin Billy …

One weekend in 1980 I traveled back to my childhood and played Army. This time I dressed as a Confederate soldier and war-gamed with Union re-enactors on military land in Indiana. Truly I had a great time; even a blustery cold night in a tent on a hilltop could not dim my happiness.

Then I returned home.

Billy with his mom Emmie and dad Bill in California.
My mom telephoned me. “Billy’s gone,” she told me.

“Gone? Where did he go?” I didn’t grasp the enormity of her words.

It took a few more moments before I understood.

“He and his wife burned up,” she said.

I was so angry at her for not just telling me straight out. My frustration traveled the telephone lines and burned her ear. Life – and death – shouldn’t be a soap-opera drama.

Now, 23 years later, I feel guilt for my anger at my mom. The terrible scourge of ALS battered her body and stopped her heart forever on Nov. 14, 2003. Life can be so unfair – to a 24-year-old man with a new wife and a new a house he’s restoring, and to a 73-year-old woman who wanted but didn’t get to see her youngest granddaughter graduate from high school.

Billy was my sister Jody’s age. They both graduated from high school in 1975. My cousin married a beautiful girl, Terry, and they were restoring a house in the Akron area when the furnace exploded on an October night in 1980.

Billy sits with my sister Jody at Santa Monica beach.
Billy spent his early years in LA. His mom Emmie and dad Bill moved west from Ohio in the mid ‘50s. We followed in the summer of ’57, settling in San Bernardino in a stucco housing development between Foothill Boulevard and Base Line Road. We’d take turns traveling the San Bernardino Freeway to visit each other. I always looked forward to the visits to their home nearer the ocean. It was amazing how much colder it was. We wore sweaters – in the summer in Southern California. Emmie cooked amazingly tasty meals. Even today she laughs when she recalls how I munched down on her rolls and mashed potatoes.

Billy and I would play typical kid games during our visits. My sister wanted to join in, but we’d say “no girls allowed.” Years later, Jody told me our behavior was hurtful. Boys can be so cruel and brainless.

We moved back to Ohio in October 1965 and moved back into our Wadsworth house that had been rented out during our time living in San Bernardino and later Corona. A year later Billy’s family also
An older Billy with his family.
returned to Northeastern Ohio. We’d all gather together on Christmas Eve at Uncle Jack and Aunt Gloria’s house in Granger, and open presents under the huge Christmas tree in their recreation room. A torrent of wrapping paper always filled the pine-scented air on Christmas Eve. The get-togethers included seven rambunctious kids – me, Jody, Billy, his sister Kim, his brother Ken (later Brian would be born), and our cousins Candy, Pat. And the most important kid of all, Steven, our uncle, born mentally retarded. Steven loved Christmas. The adults – mom and dad, Emmie and Bill, Gloria and Jack; the older generation of Grandma Nan, Aunt Hortense, Aunt Avis and Jack’s mom – would dutifully wait for the kids to open their presents before unwrapping their own gifts.

There always seemed to be a half foot of snow on the ground at the Granger house on Christmas Eve. You could bank on it. Cleveland’s snow belt extends just far enough south to encompass Medina County’s Granger Township. One year in the ‘60s a splendid full moon shone down on the snowy scene, turning the twilight night into a Christmas carol: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

Grandma Nan with the Eternal Boy, Stevie.
The last time I saw Billy was at one of the Christmas get-togethers at the Granger house. He brought his girlfriend – his future wife – to the family gathering. I thought, “Boy, Billy has great taste.”

Billy loved cars, and in his early 20s he test drove cars for Goodyear. It was while he was up in Wisconsin testing the Goodyear tires on iced-over lakes that he met his true love. Billy and Terry were married in the summer of 1980.

In California days, Billy’s dad raced stockcars. Bill gave me one of his trophies that I kept on top of my dresser. Later, back in Ohio, Billy, Kim, Ken and Brian all raced Soapbox Derby cars at Derby Down in Akron and more times than not they won.

Bill has turned the basement of their Doylestown house into a Soapbox Derby shrine. He’s built a dais where all the cars, trophies and other memorabilia are displayed prominently.

My sister Jody and me in Santa Monica wading pool.
Kim recently gave her mother a new IPad and Emmie has started hanging out on Facebook. She’s noticed some of the family photos I’ve posted and has copied them to her photo folder. They’re photos she has never seen, most snapped by my mom and dad back in California days. I’m glad I’ve been able to share these photos with her.

The ‘60s and ‘70s now live only inside our heads. So many who gathered around the tall Christmas tree each Christmas Eve are no longer with us – Aunt Hortense, Aunt Avis, Grandma Nan, Uncle Jack and his mom, my mom, Billy.

Seven holes in my heart.

Seven holes that will never heal.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Heroes, Heroines and Holy Puppeteers ...

Writers who pen historical novels have to make a decision: How realistic do they make the world view of their chief characters? If a novel is set in 13th Century England, should the hero, heroine and other characters who populate the pages of the book think like 13th Century men and women?

The Great Puppeteer God controls our hero.
That’s an important decision. If you want your character to belong to the 13th Century, then you have some closet cleaning to do. Right now your storage closet is filled with some very interesting boxes and chests. One says: Renaissance.

Take the Renaissance box and toss it into the trash bin. Your 13th Century characters won’t be alive when the Renaissance dawns. No invention of metal movable type, no flowering of Latin and vernacular literatures, no resurgence of learning based on classical sources, no paintings using linear perspective or other techniques meant to render a more natural reality, no increased reliance on observation by scientists.

Our well-dressed hero and heroine
See that chest with the plaque that reads Scientific Revolution? That flowering of knowledge lay almost 300 years in the future. Get some help so you can transport the Scientific Revolution chest to the landfill.

Without the Scientific Revolution to spur men and women to bring scientific principles to intellectual and social thinking, you can also toss out that big box with the oversized lettering that reads: The Enlightenment. That means your characters won’t be debating the merits of constitutions and democracy versus socialism and absolute monarchies. Or building steam engines and hot-air balloons.

Which means no Industrial Revolution, so you can tell the Waste Management folks to haul off the giant chest containing the machine parts for textile and paper mills.

That leaves just one more chest, the one with the lid covered with taped postcards showing moon rockets, skyscrapers, movie posters, and a DNA helix. It’s the chest with the plaque that reads: Modern Age.

Better watch out for quakes and whirlwinds
Your 13th Century characters can’t use those boxes and chests. They’re gone, buried in the landfill or burned up in the incinerator. Instead, the people of your book will see God directly manipulating their world for his own sometimes unfathomable reasons. To them, he’s the Great Puppeteer and their 13th century world is his grand stage.

If you plot out a scene where a whirlwind levels your hero’s villa, your hero knows God was behind the whirlwind and punished him for some reason he must uncover through prayer. In fact, he probably believes God was inside the whirlwind using his mighty breath to power the tornado.

13th Century book binding
How would your hero or heroine react if an earthquake damaged their castle or walled city? Their thought processes would work the same way as they did with the tornado. More prayers, perhaps more interpretations of dreams since they can be messages from God. And if your hero is a king or baron and decides that God wants him to punish a particular group of people – perhaps Jews or gypsies – then your hero knows he must fulfill God’s will and that means holy bonfires cooking ungodly flesh.

21st Century readers won’t go for such a hero who has never heard of natural law and believes God is the Great Puppeteer who provides favors for some and curses for others.

That’s why often the heroes and heroines appear to have been plucked out of the second decade of the 21st Century and deposited in another century, or in the case of the genre I write in –fantasy – another world usually governed not only by natural law but by the forces of magic as well – and that means a whole other class of creatures, creatures spawned by magic.

Realism can go only so far when writing novels that stray away from modern times.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Railroad tracks still lead us home in our dreams

Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail.
Fifteen cars and 15 restless riders,
Three conductors and 25 sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey,
The train pulls out at Kankakee,
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields,
Passin' trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.

Bud Staton
Railroading has been an integral part of America’s soul since the first steam locomotive – called the
Tom Thumb – and its open car pulled out of Baltimore one sunny day in the early 1830s and rolled west 13 miles to the village of Ellicott’s Mills. The passengers, mostly VIPs, thrilled at the then unheard-of speed of 18 mph.

This was the beginning of the Age of Railroad in the United States, and the organizers named this railroad pioneer the Baltimore & Ohio, or B&O. The railroad’s objective was to connect Baltimore and its harbor with the Ohio River and points farther west, and end the barely begun heyday of the canal system.

My fraternal grandpa was a railroad man. Maynard F. Staton started out a farmer tilling 75 acres near Seville, Ohio, but his father-in-law, Louis Iuppenlatz, convinced him to join the Akron, Canton & Youngstown Railroad (A.C. &Y.) as a telegrapher. My Grandpa Bud had only worked for the A.C. & Y. for six months when the depression hit. He was let go and it would be nine years before the A.C. & Y. would rehire him.

Nan Staton in the Restaurant
When my Great-Grandpa Louis retired as station agent and telegraph operator of the Sharon Center, Ohio train depot, Grandpa Bud took over and ran the station for 18 years until the railroad closed its doors in the 1950s. In its heyday, folks in Sharon Center and the surrounding farm country would take the train into Akron to shop or do a bit of picnicking. A newspaper article about the depot’s closing in 1952 said old-timers in Sharon Center could recall a time when the depot was “full of passengers as late as 10 o’clock.” But more and more folks were driving their cars to Akron, eventually dooming the the depot and the passenger train service started in the 1880s.

The newspaper article says Grandpa Bud bought the depot and used its lumber to build a restaurant on Ohio 94 just north of Sharon’s Center’s Gettysburg-like town square. I remember sitting on a stool in that restaurant. Grandma Nan would serve me a Coke. Sadly, Grandpa Bud only lived a few years after leaving railroading and running the restaurant. He died in August 1960 during the Democratic National Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy. I remember that bit of trivial because my mom, sister and I were at his house for a cookout and we all watched the convention on TV. I would have been about eight at the time. A day or two later we learned that Grandpa Bud had suffered a fatal heart attack. Mom took me to his viewing, and I think it was the first time I had ever seen someone in a casket. Dad had stayed behind in California to keep working while mom, my sister Jody and I visited loved ones in Ohio. He, his sister Emmy and Emmy’s husband Bill had to drive across country for the funeral.

Bodie Staton
My dad Louis, nicknamed Bodie, worked summers in his youth for the railroad, doing repair work on tracks. He said hoisting the individual rails and driving in spikes built him up and had him physically prepared for the rigors of military life when he joined the Army Air Force in 1945 shortly before the war ended.

Now 86 years old and living in Grantsville, West Virginia, my dad likes to tell the story of how he and co-workers were caught on a bridge as a train approached. They had to cling to the bridge structure beneath the rails until the train passed. So was the life of a railroad man back in the 1940s.

When I was about 10 dad bought me an H&O model railroad set. He built a simple layout on a plywood tabletop. He laid out a small village with streets. We bought houses, stores, a gas station and school for the village. Of course he bought a depot as well. Other extras included a mountain tunnel, telephone poles, trees, cars and people so I could populate the village. For a later Christmas, he bought me an older model train engine that would have been seen in late 19th century America.

During one birthday I opened up a present and discovered a toy telegraph. It’s only now as an adult that I realize he was trying to introduce me to the family’s railroad heritage. The depot duties of my Great-Grandpa Louis and Grandpa Bud included operating the telegraph. The dots and dashes coming over the telegraph line gave them the news that let them keep the depot train schedules up to date.

Wilmington's Downtown Union Station
It’s fabulous that many towns are restoring their old train depots. I live now in a place steeped in railroad history and lore. On the northern waterfront of downtown Wilmington, North Carolina, the local community college has just finished constructing what it calls Union Station. The educational building sits on the site of the original Union Railroad Station, the pride and joy of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad (ACL), which had its corporate headquarters in downtown Wilmington until it left for Jacksonville, Florida, in 1960.

The ACL, now known as CSX, is the descendant of one of America’s most famous railroad companies – the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. At the time of its completion, the line was the longest railroad in the world with 161.5 miles of track. Two of the depots along the track, one in Burgaw and one in Wallace, have been restored and are being used by each town’s chamber of commerce. They are the downtown focal points of two festivals, Burgaw’s North Carolina Blueberry Festival and Wallace’s Carolina Strawberry Festival.
Many families like mine can trace their roots back to railroading. While farming was important in 19th and 20th century America, the railroads were what linked us together and made it possible for us to be one country, not like balkanized Europe. I’m proud of my railroad forbearers.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

In North Carolina … Strawberry Festival is a time to forget politics

I’ve been caught up lately in local politics … that is covering local politics in North Carolina as local governments prepare their Fiscal Year 2013-14 budgets.

Politics or strawberries?
It’s not been easy for small towns in the county I cover for the Duplin Times newspaper, a weekly that has a circulation of about 5,800. Duplin County has a population of around 60,000 and its largest city – Wallace – comes in just short of 6,000 people.

Politicians in the state capital – Raleigh – and in the U.S. capital – Washington, D.C. – have been in a cutting binge since just after the Great Recession. Here in North Carolina, Republicans rule in Raleigh with Pat McCrory as governor and both legislative houses in the GOP’s hands. It’s what the voters want … they made that clear when they told gays to forget about ever getting married or enjoying civil unions in North Carolina.

With all the political changes going on in Raleigh, towns like Wallace are trying to figure out how they’re going to revitalize their downtowns, pay for sewer and water improvements, attract new industries and jobs, and build parks and greenways. You see they’ve become use to getting 50/50 matching grants from the state as well as loans to pay for infrastructure and other improvements.

Strawberries -- Taste to savor
There really doesn’t seem to be any way out of higher taxes. Cut federal taxes, cut state taxes, but roads still need to be paved and maintained, people still need to drink clean water, rivers and lakes still need to be clean for fishing and swimming. That means the taxes will come from the local level through higher property taxes, higher local sales taxes, higher gross receipts taxes on local businesses, higher utility bills, high tap fees. Otherwise, water systems and wastewater treatment systems can’t be upgraded and expanded, and that stops growth – no new residential neighborhoods, no new factories and plants.

Sometimes I don’t think local politicians see the writing on the wall – to use a worn, tired metaphor. National and state politicians are passing the buck to mayors, councilmen and county commissioners.

Strawberries and optimism
Wallace was hoping to build a regional park around a 19th century gristmill and sawmill. But with expected cutback in state grants to purchase land, the park may not happen – unless more local funding sources can be found.

So when the town councils like the one in Wallace seek tax increases, what are the local citizens going to say. Will they say: “We understand. We too want parks and jobs and clean-tasting water.” Or will they rebel at new taxes and accept pothole streets, foul-tasting water, bridges that collapse, and closed parks?

In a month, Wallace will be holding its third annual Carolina Strawberry Festival. It’s brings locals and tourists to the downtown for a two-day party with lots of strawberries, barbecue, shag and beach music, and recipe contests. It’s a time for optimism, so hopefully the party poopers in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. won’t spoil people’s spirits.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Moving into the future can mean a bumpy ride

Muskingum River Power Plant

Some days are bummer days.

I just read a news story on the Marietta Times website that says American Electric Power’s Muskingum River power plant’s Unit 5 in Southern Ohio will shut down by 2015.

That means the loss of more than 100 jobs at the plant located a couple of miles north of Beverly. I went to Fort Frye High School in Beverly and know many people who did or are working at the AEP coal-burning plant that straddles the Muskingum River.

Yes, I know the nation is transitioning to cleaner fuel sources, but this news still leaves me in a melancholy mood.

View from Muskingum River

I’ve had jobs vanish in this struggling economy and know it’s hard to get work that pays a comparable salary.

I first saw the plant’s smokestack towering above the hills as the family car traveled along curvy Ohio 339 toward the back entrance into Beverly. That was 1968. Dad had a new job at the B.F. Goodrich plant in Marietta, and we were moving from Wadsworth, Ohio, near Akron down to Beverly.

Through the years the tall stack has been a welcome sight as I traveled not only on Ohio 339 but Ohio 60 down from McConnelsville.

The summer after high school graduation I played softball on a baseball field owned by AEP’s subsidiary, Ohio Power. The field lay beside the bank of the Muskingum River under the shadows of the plant.
If you didn’t park your car in the garage in the late ‘60s, you’d find a coating of coal ash on it when you went out to start it in the morning. We were breathing that into our lungs.

On some Saturdays in the mid ‘70s, I’d drive from Lancaster where I was a newspaper reporter to Beverly to visit family. The 1.5-hour trip took me past New Lexington and a nearby strip-mining operation, one of the feeder systems for the Muskingum River plant and others that depend on coal to generate electricity.

Unit 5 is shutting down by mid-2015 because AEP just inked a legal settlement with the U.S. EPA, eight states and 13 citizen environmental groups to end operation of some its oldest, dirtiest coal-burning plants. The Muskingum River plant is one of them.

Beverly, Ohio

The news isn’t unexpected in the Muskingum River Valley. Back in June 2011 the company first announced that the plant was on a list of units to be retired by 2015. It didn’t go over well with Beverly friends I’ve friended on Facebook, and many lambasted the EPA, the Obama Administration and Democrats in the Congress. They took it personally. Through the decades the power plant and a steel plant on the river were important income generators for Beverly and the sister town on the western bank of the Muskingum, Waterford.

But technological change stops for no one. The U.S. is moving toward natural gas and alternative energy like solar farms for electric generation. As part of the legal settlement, AEP has made a commitment to develop 50 megawatts of wind or solar power this year, and additional 150 megawatts by 2015.

The first four of the plant’s units were commissioned between 1953 and 1958, and are scheduled for closure by 2014. Unit 5 was built in 1968, and could be converted to natural gas, but that would probably not be economical for AEP.

As a reporter for the Duplin Times in North Carolina, I cover the Duplin County towns of Wallace and Rose Hill where I am witnessing the transition to alternate energy sources. Both towns are in the process of approving solar farms. Earlier this month the developers of the solar farm on the edge of Wallace came back with a revised conditional use permit. They had to change the footprint of their farm to move solar panels away from wetlands.

Solar farm in North Carolina

Photovoltaic power (PV) solar panels convert sunlight into electricity that can be sold to utility or private companies. A smaller number of solar farms use CSP technology that captures and concentrates the sun’s heat to create electricity. CSP systems direct solar thermal or heat energy from mirrors and lenses to a steam turbine that drives an electric turbine generator.

A solar farm is considered a utility-scale solar power plant if it is selling power to a utility, is ground-mounted and larger than 2 MW (megawatts), meaning it’s capable of powering more than 300 average homes.

Growth in North Carolina has been driven by state policy that encourages deployment along with federal incentives. Solar farm owners can receive a federal tax credit for 30 percent of the cost of the system.

Sunlight or coal? What choice would you make?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

When actresses first ruled the Social Scene …

“Abandoned pregnant and penniless on the teeming streets of London, 16-year-old Amber St. Clare relies on her wits, beauty and courage to climb to the highest position a woman could achieve in Restoration England – that of favorite mistress of Merry Monarch Charles II.”

Anyone here in the second decade of the 21st century know who teenage Amber St. Clare is?
Amber is author Kathleen Winsor’s heroine in “Forever Amber,” the bestselling U.S. novel of the 1940s. It sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week of release in 1944 and went on to sell more than 3 million copies. More than a few girls born in the mid to late 1940s are named Amber.

I don’t read many romance books, but I did read “Forever Amber” in my early 20s after I saw the movie that starred Linda Darnell as the bed-hopping beauty.

English Stage
What I especially liked was Winsor’s portrayal of the 17th-century English stage. Nell Gwynne, the actress who became a real mistress of Charles II, even makes an appearance in the novel. Called “pretty, witty Nell” by Samuel Pepys, she has come to be regarded as the embodiment of the spirit of Restoration England. Considered an extraordinary comic talent, Nell’s rags-to-royalty tale echoes another story made famous by Disney … “Cinderella.”

Nell set the stage for the celebrated actresses of the 18th-century English stage, the women who helped establish the 18th century as the Age of the Actress. These actresses achieved star status in that bygone time, much like today’s actresses like Angelina Jolie and Hallie Berry are trend-setters.

Anne Oldfield, Frances Abington and Susannah Cibber have been mostly forgotten, but in another time and place were major players at the dawn of what we know today as Celebrity Worship. They became beacons of style and taste. These actresses had money of their own and exerted political and cultural influence far beyond the stage.

During the 1757-58 season, Susannah Cibber ranked a close second in popularity to David Garrick. This helps explain the jealousy Garrick harbored against his female colleagues throughout his long career.

The Broadsheet Tatler
Both the highborn and the lower classes loved the London stage. The broadsheets of the era loved publicizing the gossip and scandal surrounding the stage. And at the center were the actresses.

No doubt many today think the actresses were like Amber, prepared to offer a special performance in the bed of a wealthy nobleman. That was sometimes true, but the actresses also formed friendships with ladies of quality and were in demand at parties and social events. As one observer said of Abington, “A great number of people of fashion treat her in the most familiar manner, as if she were their equal.” In turn, the ladies of quality shared in the spotlight and cultivated their own spheres of cultural influence.

While these superstar actresses were able to hobnob with noblewomen, they came from lower-class women employed in the trades as milliners, seamstresses, servants and orange girls. Frances Abington was a servant to a French milliner early in her life. Yet she was able to mesh her acting talent with shrewd business acumen to become an 18th century celebrity.

These stars of the stage refused to classify themselves as immoral or whores. In their autobiographies and memoirs, the actresses used their popularity to depict their sometimes scandalous behavior as socially acceptable. People overlooked Gwynn’s scandalous behavior because of her philanthropy and benevolence. A generation later the fans of the London stage overlooked Oldfield’s wild ways because of her skill and talent on the stage.
See … some things never change. 18th century folks were willing to overlook misdeeds and hanky-panky just like we are.