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Ten peeks into ten lives

 

Memoir workshop

Let me tell you about spending the last three days with some very different people; the ages ranging from early twenties to … considerably further along the road.

And no, I wasn’t on jury duty.

The first day of my Telling Your Own Story: A Memoir Workshop was spent defining what a memoir is and what it isn’t. An autobiography is everything in your life so far; but a memoir is a carefully selected series of special events  tied together by a common theme.  We also, that first day, looked at various possible resources for building the database needed to undertake this project: old photos and letters, scrapbooks and yearbooks, journals, diaries, family trees and people with longer, or better, memories than yours.  Then we spent the lion’s share of our day digging around in the toolkit of devices and manipulations available to every writer, the tricks of the trade and rabbits out of hats like sentence length variation, sensory description, suspense, irony, analogies, and on and on and on.  It’s a big toolkit. And a writer’s unique narrative voice depends on how he or she uses some or all of them.

On day two we got specific, looking at how each participant might go about selecting the several episodes from their past they would include in their final draft and determining a common theme that would be the plumb line dropped down through each little story that ties them all together.

Day three, the best of all, saw all of us grouped around the table reading and marking up several pages of one episode by each participant.   I encourage the participants in my workshops to see the memoir they envision as a metaphorical house, and each of their chosen episodes as a different room in the house that they open the window to so their readers can look in that room and live a piece of their lives with them.

Let me tell you, ten intriguing windows were thrown open for us on that third day as we critiqued each offering. Everything from a courageous battle with cancer to a frustrated teacher’s attempt to cure an attitudinal student’s constant smirking to a young boy being slowly lowered in a bucket down into a well  to clean out a sump hole at the bottom to a young fellow’s trip to Europe in a small cabin on a freighter in the 1950’s.

Some of the ten participants in that workshop had known each other for decades, others for exactly three days.  But at the end of it we all knew each other better, had widened our horizons a bit, and felt a very real, very special bond with a small group of fellow travelers on life’s pilgrimage.

Whether those ten folks decide to staple the pages of their efforts into a packet just for their children and grandchildren or take the bigger step and try to find a publisher so we call can enjoy them, I hope they’ll finish their memoirs.  Because, believe me, those ten books will be gems.

I encourage you to consider writing your own memoir, getting a little help along the way in a workshop, mine or somebody else’s, or getting a copy of one of the several fine books about how to go about it, like several titles available from Writer’s Digest Press or, one of my favorites, The Art of the Memoir by Mary Kerr.

I totally agree with with whoever said “when your life story is told, make sure you’re holding the pen.”

 

 

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A tempting tale for anglophiles

 

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If you are one of the thousands of my former high school students who either enjoyed or suffered through (opinions vary) my senior English class I have a recommendation for a book you might enjoy.  And for anyone else whose interest in British history ranges from slight to the level of making you an absolute anglophile (one interested enough in English customs, cultures and history to get up at four in the morning next week to watch a royal wedding live on television) I can highly recommend the same book.

I bought London: The Novel when it was first published in 1997 because I had enjoyed an earlier book by its author, Edward Rutherfurd, titled Sarum.  That first novel, set in south central England, had started with the construction of Stonehenge and followed numerous generations of several families  up to the aftermath of the second world war. It was a staggeringly wide canvas for a writer to cover, and Rutherfurd did it admirably.   So when his London hit the shelves in the bookstore, a handsome hardcopy landed in a bookcase  in my house.

Where it stayed for over twenty years.

I don’t know why some books sit up there and wink occasionally at me for years before I pull them down and read them.  Sometimes I never get around to them at all of course.  Either I read a bit and determine I don’t like the writing or my interest in the subject has waned sufficiently for me to donate the book to the library or Goodwill or collect my pittance for it at a used book shop.  I have a steadfast rule about throwing books away, which I consider a high crime bordering on a sin.

London patiently waited.  And when I finally began reading it I was immediately caught up in the characters’ various trials and triumphs and tribulations and the broad sweep of British history that served as their setting.  At over eight hundred pages it’s a hefty tome; if books were classified like navy ships this one would be a James Michener class aircraft carrier.  In fact I remember hoping, back when I read Sarum, which followed Mr. Michener’s tried and true formula of following many generations of characters through many decades of history, that Rutherfurd would write the book that I had always hoped Michener would, about the rich and fascinating history of England.

Which he promptly did, with this book whose praises I am singing so loudly. I was the tardy one in the equation, waiting so long to read it.

If it sounds like your cup of Earl Grey tea, I encourage you to not wait at all. If you want a good yarn that will keep you turning pages for a while, full of some characters you know – like a thousand years’ worth of kings and queens and folks like Chaucer and Shakespeare and Cromwell and Churchill – and more importantly, finely drawn characters that sprung whole cloth out of the novelist’s imagination, some upright and some downright rascals, this will be a good choice.

And in addition to being told a fine tale, you’ll likely learn a good bit of interesting British history.  Probably more than some of you did in that class you took from me.

 

“When writing your life story, don’t let someone else hold the pen.”

 

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That’s a great quote about not letting someone else tell your story, so often repeated that nobody seems to know who actually coined it, and it’s fine advice for anyone considering sharing some of their experiences.  Your life thus far is unique and rich and full of things that those who will come after you will want to know about and maybe, just maybe, your telling of them will prove to be a comfort on their own journey and a light on their path.  Only YOU can tell it.   So, if you’ve ever been inclined to write something for just your family or for the rest of us to enjoy in a published book, my three-day memoir workshop titled “Telling Your Own Story”, offered in the Brazosport area in May and Brenham in June, might be just the nudge needed to get you going.  There will be an abundance of useful instruction geared specifically to how to research and then write in this particular genre, a chance to put your new skills into practice with a brief episode from your life, plus the opportunity to have it critiqued by other participants tackling the same task.  I hope to see you at one of these events, generously sponsored by the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences and, in Brenham, Lifetime Learning of Washington County.

Here’s the specific info for each workshop …

BCAS

Friday, May 18 — 9:00 a.m.- 3:00 p.m.

Saturday, May 19 — 9:00 a.m.- 3:00 p.m.

Sunday, May 20 — 9:00 a.m.- 1:00 p.m.

16 hours of instruction.       Ages 16 & up.

Call (979) 265-7661 during normal business hours or visit the Center’s website to register.

or in Brenham …

       Lifetime Learning of Washington County 

 

June 15, 16, 17, 2018

The workshop will be held at the Blinn College Student Center from June 15 through 17.

Call (979) 353-1089 or visit the Lifetime Learning website to register.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missiles, maypoles and mayhem

 

Happy May Day.

And if you’re wondering what we’re supposed to be celebrating on this first day of the fifth month the line forms here, right behind me.

Back when I was a gangling, crew-cut lad full of questions up in Oakwood I’m sure I asked, probably more than once, what the day meant because it was mentioned often enough for me to wonder about it. But I either never got a definitive answer or I couldn’t make much of it.  All I know is that I was perplexed.

Whenever somebody shouted “May Day! May Day!” in the movies something very bad usually happened, like a plane spiraling to earth or a ship sinking beneath an angry sea.

And every year Walter Cronkite – we never watched Huntley and Brinkley on another channel on our big Zenith: my mother didn’t care for Mr. Brinkley’s constant smirk – described the May Day parade over in Moscow, complete with images of plump Comrade Khrushchev saluting tanks and missiles and goose-stepping troops as they went by his reviewing stand.  I might not have been the sharpest pencil in the box, but I was smart enough to know that, so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, we wouldn’t be celebrating Communists and their weaponry.

The fact is I didn’t have a clue what the day signified.  And I’m not much better off now. So I set my crack research team (Google.com) to work clearing everything up.

Having perused some of the data that was generated, I can report that the only things the various sources seem to agree on are that the origins of May Day lie so far back in misty history that the specifics are blurry at best, and at some point the day was given over to the appreciation of workers.  Apparently everything began with a pagan celebration of the arrival of spring, complete with sacrifices, the consumption of copious amounts of wine and mead, and a good bit of misbehaving.  Probably because of the wine and mead.

When the early Christian church took over the day they weren’t about to have any such shenanigans, so it became considerably holier. But some remote pockets of Gaelic folk were far enough removed, geographically and philosophically, from pope and bishop to hang on to some of the original festivities.  Like dancing around a maypole for example.

Centuries later May Day became a worker’s holiday, a precursor of Labor Day, the American celebration of which, to further complicate matters, falls not in May but on the first Monday in September.

Several of the sources mentioned that at some point it became common to hang little sacks of wildflowers on friends’ and neighbors’ doorknobs on May first.  To hearken back to the whole spring festival motif, I guess.  If any of that was going on during my youth I must have missed it.  People would bring covered dishes of good food when somebody died, and fresh vegetables when they’d grown more than they could eat, but I can’t quite imagine the citizens of Oakwood, pragmatic and sensible souls, hanging flowers on doors.

I do remember being made to dance around a maypole once.  That would almost certainly have been at the Oakwood School Coronation, an annual spring event. All the grades, 1 though 12, took part in that extravaganza that was attended by the entire town in the school auditorium.  The King and Queen, always seniors, were crowned and their court was made up of a duke and duchess from each class.  I always wanted to be elected duke, which meant all I had to do was wear a white coat and a narrow snap-on black bow tie and escort the duchess down the aisle and sit on the stage for the rest of the evening. If I wasn’t the duke I had to take part in some sort of group dance with the other kids in my class, like the unfortunate “Sweethearts on Parade” routine to a Guy Lombardo Orchestra recording that lodged itself tenaciously in my memory and will not go away.

And I’m pretty sure we did a maypole dance one year when I wasn’t a duke. I’m just as certain that the wildly applauding audience wouldn’t have known the significance of it being called a maypole or its association with the first day of May.   Neither, a good many years later, do I.

Anyway, Happy May Day.

Whatever the heck it means.

 

 

When society’s habits went up in smoke

A professor once told told me successful authors are fueled by a constant intake of cigarette smoke.  Which must explain why none of my stuff has ever wandered anywhere close to a bestsellers list.

But if there is anything to the theory about secondhand smoke being hazardous to health it’s amazing I’m still here at all. And if you grew up in the fifties or sixties the same probably goes for you.

Back in my butcher shop days, when I worked in one in a country store as a teenager, a tobacco salesman came in once a week to refill the racks behind the checkout counter.

He was a friendly fellow probably in his sixties who was either smoking or chewing some of his merchandise whenever he arrived.  One week he’d be enjoying a pre-rolled cigarette (one brand seemed to serve as well as another) and the next week he’d be smoking one he’d rolled himself in a lightning-quick process that required only one hand.  Other weeks he’d puff away at a slender briar pipe, or a drooping Sherlock Holmes model, or a simple rig fashioned from a corncob.  Occasionally he’d be smoking cigars, large or small, and he often would show up with a jaw full of chewing tobacco or a protruding lower lip filled with Garrett sweet snuff.

I asked him once why he kept changing.

He smiled – he was always smiling, possibly the effect of such constant and varied nicotine stimulation – and told me he enjoyed tobacco in all its manifestations.

I was probably a high school freshman at the time, not yet a wordsmith, and in all likelihood I had never heard the word manifestations.  But I got the gist of his philosophy.

I don’t know what became of him; he was a traveling salesman and didn’t live in Oakwood.  But he’d be well over a hundred now if he’s still alive.  Which is doubtful, given the many and sundry carcinogens he consumed.

Though that fellow did use more types of tobacco than anyone I ever knew, it wasn’t at all uncommon in the mid 1960’s for most of the customers in that store to be smoking as they did their marketing.  Folks smoked in the post office, at the eateries – the Bus Stop Café and Laurene’s – in Miss Flossie’s dress shop, and in the bank.  Ladies smoked under big hair dryers in beauty shops and men smoked while they got haircuts.  Some of the teachers at the school came into class from their breaks with smoke billowing out of their mouth and nose, and, though nobody smoked during services, the front porches of churches were stagnant and cloudy from the last frantic intakes before heading in.

My mother smoked unfiltered cigarettes until my sisters and I convinced her to switch.  Then she used Pall Malls, and I can still smell the unique stench of a burning filter from her transition period, when she as often as not lit the wrong end.  Still, we considered it a victory, hoping that the tiny filter would protect her from all that smoke.

It didn’t.  She died when she was younger than I am now after a long bout with cancer.

My father gave up cigarettes early on, replacing them with occasional cigars. He chose – no surprise here – the least expensive available: King Edwards.  By the time my mother died he had moved on to pipes, of which he had a handsome collection. He was an easy man to buy a present for; a new pipe was always appreciated. Until he remarried, that is, late in his life.  His new wife was intolerant of smoking – and a good many other things come to think of it – so the pipes got tossed.

I managed to get though all of that constant smoke – at home, in town, in the car – without taking it up myself.  Until I went into the army, at least.

When my battalion in Germany took part in month-long war games we had to eat C-rations, boxed meals consisting of horrible potted meats and canned cakes so hard and dry that they made good paperweights.  Each C-ration box also had a small pack of cigarettes.  Being thrifty – I was my father’s son – and not disposed to look gifts horses in the mouth, I started smoking them.

But I gave it up after several years, hopefully before any permanent damage was done to my lungs.

There’s a lot I miss about times gone by, but all that constant smoking going on in public places isn’t one of them.  I’m appreciative of no-smoking restaurants and hotels.  And I particularly hate to see kids lighting up, trying to look debonair, waving a cigarette around as if it were Harry Potter’s magic wand.

Because even though that tobacco salesman seemed to find some magic in his wares, I only have to remember my mother’s last years to know that it’s a very dark magic indeed.

 

 

It’s time to tell your story

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Here’s the info on my upcoming memoir workshop at the Center for the Arts and Sciences.  Please share it with anyone you think might be interested.   I’ll be doing the workshop again at Brenham in June.

BCAS          presents  

Telling your own story:  

A Memoir Writing Workshop  with Ron Rozelle

Friday, May 18 — 9:00 a.m.- 3:00 p.m.

Saturday, May 19 — 9:00 a.m.- 3:00 p.m.

Sunday, May 20 — 9:00 a.m.- 1:00 p.m.

16 hours of instruction!

Ages 16 & up.

 

To register for this workshop, please call The Center Administrative Office during normal business hours at (979) 265-7661

BFAC Member price: $150      Non-member price: $175

Have you ever considered putting several events from your unique life into book form, or maybe focusing on just one special, challenging, or particularly rewarding time from your past that readers – maybe our own children or grandchildren – will be inspired by or helped along on their own journeys?  Do you want to make your writing as clear as the planning that goes into it? If so, then Ron Rozelle’s three-day memoir workshop titled Telling Your Own Story is for you, whether you are a beginner or a more experienced writer. The instruction will begin with a summary of general storytelling techniques and approaches, followed by ways to do the necessary research, carefully plan, and finally actually write the first draft of your memoir.  There will also be valuable information regarding writing query letters to potential publishers and/or literary agents, manuscript preparation, and sources of contact information for publishers and agents.  Excellent examples of finely crafted memoirs will be provided, along with other handouts. Whether you intend to find a mass market publisher or publish it yourself for your descendants, this is a great opportunity to get started on an admirable, fulfilling project by getting the assistance of an expert and the chance to get a bit of your writing critiqued by others starting the same journey. Plus it’s great fun.

To register for this workshop, please call The Center Administrative Office during normal business hours at (979) 265-7661

BFAC Member price: $150      Non-member price: $175

 

The Instructor

Ron Rozelle, a 2007 inductee to the Texas Institute of Letters, is the author of ten books, including Into That Good Night, a memoir that was the first non-agented property published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in over five years, was a short list finalist for the national PEN Prize, and was selected as the second-best work of nonfiction in the nation in 1998 by the San Antonio Express-News. His other books include The Windows of Heaven, a novel of the 1900 Galveston storm and winner of the Texas Review Prize, A Place Apart, a novel set in modern day Ohio, Warden, Death and Life in the Texas Prison System coauthored with Jim Willett, and Write Great Fiction: Description & Setting, a volume in the Writer’s Digest ‘Write Great Fiction’ series.  Touching Winter, a novel made up of a quartet of stories, was published in October, 2005, by TCU Press and was a short list finalist for The Texas Institute of Letters Best Fiction of the Year Prize. Sundays with Ron Rozelle, a collection of newspaper columns, was published by TCU Press in 2009. My Boys and Girls are in There: The 1937 New London School Disaster (Texas A&M University Press, 2012) was the recipient of the Calvert Prize, was pronounced the “sleeper hit” of the 2012 Texas Book Festival, and was a short list finalist for the Texas Writers League Nonfiction Prize. His most recent book is Exiled: The Last Days of Sam Houston, recently published by Texas A&M University Press.
Ron has taught writing workshops at numerous conferences and universities and was twice the memoir instructor at the Newman National Writer’s Conference at Mississippi College. His articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, and he has been the Barnes and Noble Author of the Month in both the Houston and Dallas markets. He has been a featured author at the Texas Book Festival in Austin and the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio.

Recently retired after a forty-year teaching career, Ron now has a writing consultation service and is the editor of Image magazine, which celebrates the history and people of Brazoria County.  A graduate of Sam Houston State University, Class of 1977, with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Political Science, he was named SHSU Distinguished Educator of the Year in 2017, the highest honor given by the College of Education of his alma mater. He and his wife Karen, a retired third grade teacher, are proud grandparents and share their home with a pair of elderly, opinionated cats.

 

Some testimonials from previous writing workshops …
I wish this had been the writing workshop I’d taken first.  I now have a better understanding of sensory description, attention-grabbing first sentences, mixing short and long sentences/paragraphs, powerful endings, knowing where the story really begins, and especially getting rid of clutter!   Ron taught all of it with great humor.  A delightful weekend!                                  –  Diane Kramer
I participated in the Brenham Lifetime Learning writing seminar with author Ron Rozelle in 2016.  The best testament to its success is the fact that a group of us who attended have formed a follow up writers’ group.  We meet monthly and critique one another’s work using the rules we learned in the seminar to guide our discussion.  From his experience as a published author, Ron shared with us ways to develop good writing skills, practical do’s and don’ts, and many examples and stories about the craft of writing.  It was a fast-moving weekend that was challenging but really enjoyable.  I recommend it highly.       – George Harding

 

I signed up for the Writing Workshop with a feeling of trepidation.  I was out of my comfort zone. Mr. Rozelle quickly put me at ease.  He is a great teacher; the workshop was informative, fun, and entertaining.  He made me feel like I could write with work and I learned valuable tips about the writing process.  I highly recommend this workshop for anyone who wants to improve their writing skills.                                            – Cindy Nash

A letter I will keep forever

 

Letter

Several years ago somebody at Texas A&M University Press thought it would be a good idea to send a signed copy of a book I’d written and they had just published to former President and Mrs. George H. W. Bush.  Mrs. Bush was an honorary member of the board of the press, and I guess they occasionally sent new editions her way.

So I took down a fresh copy of My Boys and Girls are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion and autographed it.  Then a folded newspaper on my desk caught my eye.

I wrote a weekly column back then, and it so happened the one in that most recent edition had been about the Bushes. A few weeks before, my wife Karen and I had gone up to Houston to see a production of the musical Annie at the Hobby Theater. Before the show we had lunch at Artista, the restaurant beside the lobby. After we’d been seated and were perusing the menu we noticed that other diners were turning in their seats and looking in our direction.  Knowing that we certainly weren’t the attraction we turned and looked too.   Seated behind us with another couple were the Bushes, their secret service detail standing not far away trying to blend in. One of the dark-suited men was whispering into his wrist.

After the meal, when we’d found our seats in the theater, we watched just before the curtain went up as the men in the dark suits followed the Bushes and their friends to their much better seats somewhere in the neighborhood of third or forth row center.  The audience began to mumble then and a few polite attempts at clapping suddenly erupted into a mass standing ovation and wild applause; the former commander in chief got to his feet, which was obviously painful for him, turned and waved at the crowd.  Mrs. Bush stayed in her seat and also applauded.

I called the column I wrote the next week, a whimsical tongue-in-cheek bit of business, “My Sunday with George”.  I laid it on pretty thick about the president looking over in my direction in the restaurant, obviously hoping that I would come over and say hello, how when Karen and I left he looked up at me passing, hoping against hope that I would at least nod in his direction, and how after the performance as we passed them standing by a black SUV parked by the stage door he waved not at the gathered crowd but directly at me.

After I’d signed that book for the Bushes I clipped the article out of the paper and inserted it in the pages, figuring either the director of the press or a secret service agent would probably remove it and throw it away. Then I sent the book to College Station.

A few weeks later I got a note from the director of Texas A&M Press, with an enclosed letter addressed to me.  The letterhead said simply Barbara Bush, with no address, in blue of course; all the world now knows it was her favorite color.

The note was short, typed, and cordial, thanking me for sending the book and ending with “George joins me in sending our best wishes.”  Her neat signature was one of probably many she provided that day on a stack of correspondence handed to her by her secretary.

But under that signature Mrs. Bush wrote this in her own hand:

“Ron, we loved your story about the day of “Annie”. George did notice you, of course.” After which she drew a smiley face.  She went on to say she and her husband looked forward to reading my book. But it is that perfect little smiley face that I most treasure.

Barbara Bush didn’t know me from Adam, but she took the time one day to send along a personal greeting.  Now that she is gone, we all know that little outreach was typical for her.

Though she didn’t know it, she and I shared a cause, a passion.  Mrs. Bush fought long and hard on the world stage to bring awareness to the importance of literacy.  In a considerably smaller venue, I do too.

Since the theme of this blog is supposed to be (and sometimes actually is) focused on reading, writing, and literacy in general, I needed to tell my one and only story about a good lady who I never met, but whose life and legacy have been inspirations for me.

God bless you, Mrs. Bush.  And thank you.

 

Please excuse my absence

 

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If you’re one of the group, not an enormous one I assure you, that pays some attention to this occasional diatribe you might have noticed that it has been significantly less than occasional of late.  In fact, you probably thought that I had given up on wordsmithing altogether or had finally fallen face first onto my computer and was out of commission for good.

The fact is Karen and I have downsized.  Which meant the vast amount of stuff that we somehow came in possession of over several decades had to be sorted through, parceled out, sent off to the Goodwill or Habitat for Humanity stores, or put on the curb for trash collection.  It also meant I had to put any writing on the back burner for the duration.

We’d talked about doing this for years; it had definitely been on our agenda. I’ll wager its been on more than a few of yours too. But planning and doing are two different things, and my good wife, who is better at doing than yours truly, came home one day from running some errands and informed me she had stepped into a realty office and met an agent she liked.  I nodded, went back to whatever I was doing, and figured if anything came of it the house would be on the market for six months to a year and we would have plenty of time to bring our old downscaling scheme to fruition.

A couple of days later there was a sign in the yard and the next day we had a buyer.

Then the cold realization sunk in that in a very short period of time, a matter of a few weeks, we – and all of our stuff – would have to be out of the home we had been comfortable in for almost thirty years.

Now, after saying goodbye to good neighbors and asking the post office to forward our bills and disconnecting utilities in one town and connecting them in another and watching our possessions that made the cut get loaded into a truck and hauled north and unpacking more boxes than we remembered packing and arranging furniture and hanging pictures … I am back at the computer and hoping the collective response out there will not be “Oh, God, please not that!”

I  am writing this on our third story balcony on a nice late afternoon with a splendid view spread out before me like a patient etherized upon a table (apologies to poet T. S. Eliot for the blatant theft of that simile). Out there is a pretty little lake with two fountains and a few geese gliding slowly across it.  Beyond the lake, on the far horizon, downtown Houston rises up in silver splendor in the last light of the afternoon not unlike the Emerald City across that field of poppies in Oz.  To its right the medical center makes a lesser effort and, further west, the blinking beacon atop the tall Williams Tower is winking at me.

Our search for new digs took us to this four-story, gated community in Pearland for active folks over fifty-five.  There’s a restaurant, a workout room that caught Karen’s attention, a big swimming pool that caught mine, an attractive enclosed courtyard, various get-togethers with friendly people (two of who whom used to live not much more than a stone’s throw from our old house who we had never met), Friday afternoon happy hours, and even a cheerful concierge who hands me my Houston Chronicle every morning.

The upside of our difficult and absolutely exhausting transformation is that we finally did the sorting out that we knew we needed to do.  And we wanted to rent – at least for a while, maybe from now on – rather than worry about the myriad things that might suddenly need replacing or fixing and a big lawn that demanded to be mowed every week.  I can now vow, with the conviction of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, that I will never go mowing again!

The downside of the move was leaving the house where we raised our daughters and the town where we have wonderful friends and countless memories.  But we’re just a little more than a half hour away, and we’ll make the trip three days a week during the school year so I can teach a few classes at a preparatory academy and Karen can do some specialized testing for the school district we both retired from.

On those three days we’re back in our new home at midday.  And late afternoon usually finds both of us sitting here on the patio.

 

My life has been, like many other people’s lives, a fascinating journey filled with a few sad things but mostly blessings.  And this comfortable place, with less square footage than we’re used to but still an abundance of comfort, is a fine place to continue the trip.

The view from my wicker chair looks due north toward Houston. And I sometimes imagine that I can see even further than that, maybe all the way up to Huntsville, where the university is located that changed me completely and still holds part of my heart. And I can see further, in my mind’s eye, to the little East Texas town where I grew up. Novelist Graham Greene once said that a writer’s childhood is the bank account that he most often draws from.

He was right.

Most days, out here on the patio, I can see all the way to Oakwood.

 

 

A few of history’s unexpected gems

 

 

When I was writing a nonfiction book a few years ago my research led me to an abundance of old newspapers where I really ought to have been focusing just on articles about my topic: the explosion of a rural school.  But much too often I caught myself reading the advertisements.

Actually, I could have defended such a detour by saying this might nudge me toward a better sense of the daily life and customs of that era.  But truth be told was I was drawn to them because they were fun.  I was fascinated by what people back then ate and wore and used, and what they paid for all of it. And, being a wordsmith, I was intrigued by the way those ads were written.

Let’s take a look.  Here’s a stack of papers from various places, all dated March 19th, 1937. It was the height of the Great Depression, before World War II, before “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz”, before television, and before most people had a telephone in their house, much less in their pocket.

Page 5 of the Ada (Oklahoma) Evening News had a small ad for the City News Stand, which promised a good variety of cigars, magazines, and cigarettes (15¢ a pack). Here’s a bigger spread touting Martha Washington Health Bread: “A glass of milk in every loaf, available at your local grocer for a dime.”

One such local grocer in Ada was – and might still be for all I know – Branscome’s Market.  The ad for that establishment took up a full quarter of a page and announced – in fat, bold letters – a SPECIAL FRUIT DEMONSTRATION!

Now, for the life of me I can’t imagine what such an exhibition might have entailed – Cutting pears and peaches open to reveal their fresh innards?  A cooking lesson using fruit?  Juggling apples?.

Here were some of the weekly specials. Folgers coffee was offered for 29¢ a pound or 56¢ cents for 3 pounds.  Pork sausage, bacon, and fresh hams went for 20¢ per pound, pig livers and brains for “two pounds for two bits” (that’s 25¢ for those of you hindered by excessive youth). Branscome’s apparently made every molecule of a pig available to their customers.

That outfit must have been a busy place. And why wouldn’t it have been, with all those livers and brains for the taking?  Their ad lists no less than three separate telephone lines: numbers 787, 788, and 789.

One minuscule spot – wedged tightly between news of Amelia Earhart’s current flight and President Roosevelt’s vacation in Warm Springs, Georgia – offered a taxi for 10¢ per single passenger and a nickel for each additional fare to the same destination. Just call 500.

The Brownsville Herald ran an ad recommending cheese and crackers and icy cold Magnolia Beer, a brew that “makes good food taste better!”  Next to it was a blurb aimed at readers who “enjoy bathing in the Gulf.”  Such folks, it advises, should try Del Mar Beach, “just a short drive from Brownsville on a concrete highway, with free parking and modern cottages at low rental.”

These advertisements – caught as they are in the past, like faded old snapshots pasted into albums – are actually mirrors of who the people were that read them.  And of the world they inhabited.  I was discouraged, and sad, that so many of my high school students in my career found so little to like in history; some even told me the past doesn’t really matter. Personally, I think the past is a country we should visit often.  Not only to confirm how far we’ve come, but to see, in some cases, how badly we’ve made the journey.

A reader of something set in a particular era should be able to expect that era to be accurately presented, down to the smallest detail.  And writers should immerse themselves as much as possible in that other, earlier world and its ways.

Anyway, back to those ads.  Page 12A of the San Antonio Light had a big one which claims “Sensible shoes CAN be pretty!”, with drawings of several clunky pairs of footwear, priced four to six dollars, that aren’t very pretty at all.

Here’s a splashy layout on page 12 of The Corsicana Daily Sun for a Dance and Floor Show at the Centennial Nite Club. Where “the beautiful Miss Dorothy Vernor of Kansas City, Missouri” would be the star attraction, performing the New Sleeve Dance, a Hula, a Fan Dance, and – last but not least – “that sensational up-side-down dance”.

Now I don’t know about you, but if I was a Corsicanian (Corscianite?) in 1937 I’d have been tempted to lay down a buck or two just to witness that last bit of business.

It might well have ranked right up there with the SPECIAL FRUIT DEMONSTRATION up in Ada.

On a still morning, under a wide sky

 

ALAMO-DAWN-Limited-Edition-Art-Print-Signed-and

One hundred and eighty-two years ago next week, on March 6th, a group of men looked out from a sprawling collection of crumbling old buildings at a massive army that pretty much filled up the entire horizon.

The structures, having been built over a century before to be a mission and a church, offered little in the way of a fortress.  And the men must surely have known from the start that they would either have to surrender or die there.

Which meant, to those men in that place, that they would die there.

They probably even knew, after being under siege for almost two weeks, that it would happen that very day.  The enemy’s bugler had already played the eerie, ominous “Deguello”, which meant there would be no mercy shown, no quarter given.

It was a quiet morning probably.  The men had done all of the talking to each other they’d needed to do, and those that were given to praying had prayed.  Many of them couldn’t write, and those that could might have scribbled something down.  But there was no way to send out a letter.  One or two very optimistic fellows might have written a page or two and addressed it to a wife or parent or son or daughter back home.  In Tennessee or up east or even in England or Scotland – they’d come from all over – or maybe right over there in San Antonio de Bexar, a few hundred yards away.  But the chances of one of the fifteen hundred soldiers surrounding the place later finding a letter or mailing it were equally unlikely.

What the men in the makeshift garrison were doing there was simple enough.  They were buying precious time for General Sam Houston to pull his ragtag army into some sort of fighting unit that could stand any sort of chance against this huge force commanded by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the famous “Napoleon of the West”, who was bound and determined to obliterate anyone and everyone seeking independence from Mexico.

The two armies that faced off on that long-ago morning have long since found their way into myth and legend.  But back then they were, on both sides, just soldiers waiting for the shooting to start.  Some were young, some old, and many were in between.  I’m betting most of them were thinking of wives or sweethearts, of children or parents. And I’m betting a good many of them were frightened, and trying hard not to show it to the men around them who were probably just as frightened.

On that morning the defenders of the Alamo weren’t heroes.  Not yet. Their last names weren’t the names of counties or cities or streets.  All of that would come later.  On that morning they were still just men. Who believed strongly enough in a thing – call it freedom, or independence, or stubbornness, or maybe just “Texas” – to stand up and fight for it.

In the long decades after the battle the old mission was used as an army depot, a feed store, a hay barn, was almost torn down (twice), and finally was designated as a shrine to the patriots who bought and paid for liberty with their lives.

There’s a fine line in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, a novel which has not one thing to do with the Alamo, that goes like this: “There are some people in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us.”  The author, Harper Lee, could have been describing the men who all died one hundred and eighty-two years ago next Wednesday.

There shouldn’t be a parade that day, or a celebration of any sort, like there will likely be on April 21st. That’s when Sam Houston, who had made the best of the time given him by the defenders of the Alamo, led his brave, exhausted army against Santa Anna’s and won Texas’ independence.

On the Alamo’s front door there’s a brass plaque, not a very big one. In fact it’s so small that it’s usually overlooked.  Its inscription is short and to the point.  “Be silent, friend,” it says, “here heroes died.”

Next Wednesday won’t be a day for celebrations or parades.  It will be a day for gratitude, and for remembering.

It will be a day for being silent.