House Racing

I’ve been trying to remember what sorts of activities we used to participate in before video games. I remember racing around the outside of the house. Our house was set into a hill, and sometimes, when the cousins were over, we would time ourselves running around it. It was dusk, on one particular evening, and I had forgotten something very important. A few weeks earlier, my dad had bought a regulation horseshoe pitching set, and charged me with the task of laying out the court between our house and our neighbor’s. It was a massive set: 2 ½ pound cast iron horseshoes, and 1-inch steel bars to be driven deep into the ground so that only 15 inches remained above ground, leaning slightly forward, and 40 feet apart. The “clink-clink” of a ringer is a satisfying sound.
But, on that weekend, the cousins were over, and someone wanted to race. We always used a crude timing device: a Timex watch with a sweep second hand. The only persons with stop watches, back then were horse trainers, and track coaches. The first LED digital watch, the Pulsar, had not yet been marketed, and when it was, it would cost over $2000 for a device that only told the time when you used your free hand to press the display button. No, we used the Timex sweep second hand, which invariably caused observational difficulties. It wasn’t hard to differentiate between the thirty-second runs of the younger kids, and the ten second runs of the older teens, but there were no tenths, or hundredths of a second, either. It took some rather subjective interpretation, and charges of “Cheater!” sometimes, to determine the winner. It was best, therefore, to leave the timing up to a single individual, which was usually Michael, because he didn’t like to run, and he had a watch.

It was always best to start at twelve, three, six, or nine on the dial, so I’m sure I heard something that night like, “Aach! Just missed it. I’ll get the next one. Okay, here we go…ten seconds…five…three, two, one, Go!”

And, I was off! Under the first tree, down the hill, across the driveway to the corner of the garage. There, you made a decision: slow down enough to make a sharp right to reduce the overall distance, or blast around the corner at full speed, in an arc that would carry you all the way around to the backyard hill. I “blasted” that night. Big mistake.

Midway into the arc, with my dusk-challenged eyes blurrily focused on rounding the back corner, my right foot landed adjacent to the forgotten horseshoe stake. As my left foot came flying by to meet its destiny, the force of the impact ripped my favorite blue Ked’s sneaker completely off my foot, and sent me into an immediate faceplant with the grass.
I think I said, “Ow.”

Well, okay, I probably said more than that, but I did not say, “Owie, owie, owie,” or scream like a girl. I do, however, remember thinking, “OH……….. Yeah…….. Stupid…….. Idiot!” —all before my face even hit the ground.

I did writhe in pain, grab my foot, and moan and roll a lot. When I did not complete the course in my allotted ten seconds, I had cousins to the rescue, and soon a whole assortment of adult assistance as well. However, once it was determined that my foot was not actually broken, only strained and badly bruised, I’m pretty sure I heard worse than stupid and idiot from that same adult assistance crowd.

Then, “Okay, all you kids get in the house now! It’s dark out here.”

“And no more racing around the house!”

“These things are dangerous! You could get hurt!”

Sheesh! Talk about overkill. And like any of the rest of us would need to be reminded. Now, I had adults mad at me, kids mad at me, my foot throbbing (it would be tender for a couple of weeks), and to top it all off, I had just ruined my favorite pair of worn-in-with-holes-here-and-there, comfortable, never-take-em-off, stink-like-a-locker-room, teenage-wardrobe-necessity sneakers. What a crappy night. Stupid stake.

We actually used that horseshoe set a lot over the years, after that, and nobody else ever got hurt. We didn’t use sand around the pit, though, so there were plenty of times when people had to jump out of the way of a rolling 2 ½ pound horseshoe. I even won a third place ribbon at the Mississippi Valley Fair one year for a picture I snapped (with a Kodak Instamatic, no less) of that same stake poking out of a big mud puddle after a rain. Okay, there weren’t very many entries in that category that year (three, I think), but it was still a ribbon.

Note: The title picture is not my long lost, ribbon winning picture of forty years ago, but is instead, from a wonderful blog piece I came across, about spending time with your dad. Visit it at http://goo.gl/k2074

Harold and Rose

So, I’ve started work on Harold and Rose, an historical novel about the adventures and struggles of a young newlywed couple who, in 1930 Great Depression America, move thirty times in the first year of marriage, following roadbuilding, sawmill, and grainmill work throughout the idosyncratic German and Swedish-American towns of northeast Iowa.

I won’t be posting every in-process draft, but today, I thought I would, to see if this works as a Chapter One.  I want to lay some background down for Rose’s family, and another for Harold’s, before bringing the two together for the rest of the novel.  I suspect that some of the characters from these backgrounds will lift themselves off the pages later in the novel to influence the direction of the main characters’ thoughts and actions.  We shall see.  I’m going to have to keep notes on things raised in earlier chapters that need to be resolved in later ones.  Should be fun.

But, for today, here’s Chapter One:

            One of the worst accidents in this part of the country took the life of Frank Gerlach, one of the best men in the country last Wednesday afternoon.  They were threshing at E. W. Priem’s place, and about four o’clock Mr. Gerlach went to climb up on the load of grain with fork in hand.  No one saw just what happened but they saw him start to get on the load and just afterwards they found him lying by the side of the load on the ground with the end of the fork handle thru his left eye into his brain.  Drs. Westenberger and Culbertson were called and arrived at the Priem farm as soon as possible.  It was decided to take the injured man to the Mercy Hospital at Mason City and, tho everything possible was done, he passed away at 12:30 o’clock in the night. 

            Just how the accident occurred no one knows, as no one happened to be looking in that direction, but it is supposed that a tine of the fork was caught in the big drive belt and thrown in such a way that the end of the fork handle struck Mr. Gerlach in the left eye.  The eye ball was crushed and from all evidence the fork handle entered his head to the depth of five or six inches.

            Frank was one of the best known and best liked men in this section of the country, one of the men we can not afford to lose.  —St. Ansgar Enterprise, Aug. 9, 1927

 _____________________________________________________________

After the funeral, Earl Gerlach drove his mother and two of his sisters to Carpenter, and parked his father’s old Maxwell 25 at the corner by Sefert’s store.  Frank Gerlach had bought it in 1919, for $655, when the enterprising salesman inMason Citypersuaded him with the company’s new slogan, “Once a Luxury–Now a Utility and Economy.”  Inside Sefert’s, an electric fan whirred.  Frank Gerlach had been persuasive in arguing that Carpenter should “be progressive and bring the future to the town, for us and for our children’s children.”  Gilbert Severson had been the quick to see the potential for his store, and convinced the board to sign on with the St. Ansgar Power Company, if they would bring electricity to the schoolhouse without a construction charge.  He also recognized its potential in another enterprise.

_____________________________________________________________

In  March of 1908, with Emma’s due date still about a month away,  Frank Gerlach, had a bit of an itch.  His good friend, Herman Canada, had bought his own family a shiny new Victor, two Christmases ago, at Severt’s store in Carpenter, and it had been attracting nothing but compliments ever since.

Though they had been best friends, and friendly rivals back in high school, the frequent refrain of “Why don’t we meet out at theCanadaplace?” had been burning just about long enough for Frank’s ears.  So, when George Severt motioned Frank over in the store, to show him an advertisement in Harper’s magazine for a floor model Victrola, with internal horn and space for 130 records, all in one elegant mahoghany cabinet, Frank was of a mind to do something to even the score.

“Whoa, that’s something,” said Frank.

“’Refined entertainment in an elegant setting’”, George read out loud.

“Yeah, two hundred dollars elegant,”said Frank, daintily fluttering his fingers in a high society salute.  He figured he could buy a quarter of an automobile, or a good wagon for two hundred dollars, and have change left over for a box of Hershey bars.

“I could get you one for one-seventy-five,” offered George, “but keep it quiet.”

Frank was squirming.  Herman’s Victor was a table top model, with an external horn, which had fallen off a couple of times, judging from the dings Frank had noticed last time.  This model was called a Victrola.

George slowly brushed imaginary crumbs from his apron, and leaned in on the counter.  “Canadawas in here, yesterday,” he mentioned, resting on his elbows.  “Ordered some more records for his machine.”

Frank looked around the room.

“One-seventy,” he countered.

“Said something about bringing it out to your place to help celebrate your new arrival,” George added.

Frank said nothing.  George stroked the stubble on his cheek, turned his gaze down toward the magazine page, and waited.  But, Frank didn’t budge.

“One seventy-three,” said George.

“One-seventy,” said Frank, again, firmly.

Their sideward glances met, and lingered while the two men assessed.

“One-seventy-two, and I throw in a full box of Hershey bars.”

Laughing, Frank slammed a hand on the counter, and said, “Ah, sold, you fox.”

“Be about three weeks,” said George.

“Just about right,” said Frank, calculating. “Baby’s not due ‘til the middle of the month.  Be just about right.  Don’t you say nothing, now.  This’ll be quite the surprise, I expect.”

“Yes, I expect it will,” nodded George, with the practiced calm of a successful merchant.  “Anything else for you today, Frank?”

“Yeah, I’ll need a couple of Hershey bars this afternoon.”

“That’ll be four cents.”

________________________________________________________

Across the street, in front of the Andersonbuilding, stood the lone remaining gas light in the town, where a small crowd of mourners gathered beneath the lamp that lit the curfew bell that Frank Gerlach had mounted for the town when the council deemed it necessary to provide juvenile order to a sleepy town of 200 souls.  Tonight, it would be rung by Emma, in one final tribute to her husband.

________________________________________________________

Frank Gerlach was greatly respected about Carpenter.  He had a playfulness about him that made people smile .  It was well know that he worked his farm hard and kept it in well groomed order, but if it was raining, he would sometimes instruct the older children to finish the chores, while he himself went fishing at Deer Creek.  There, he would catch a pail of soft shell crabs from his secret bank.  Back home, he would stuff several of them into his hat, and then put the hat back on his head.  Walking into the kitchen, he would proudly doff his hat, revealing a Medusa head of crabs nestled into his thick dark hair.

“Hey, Emma, look what I brought home for dinner tonight!”

Around the county, his good humor, bright smile and thick hair were what people would remember.

“Frank, your beard feels like velvet., but still cuts like wire,” the barber often remarked,

“There you go, boys,” was his winking response, “chug a few raw eggs for breakfast, and you too can impress the ladies.”

For Newburg township, Frank Gerlach had become the one they trusted as their voice, if they had any business with the county.  He was useful for other business, as well.

“I ain’t no politician,” he had told them, “but I guess I can be a pretty gabby messenger.”

Affable enough to earn the trust of most of his neighbors, the sight of him smoking his pipe and driving up for a visit was call for a break.

“Thirsty, Frank?”

“Parched.”

“Offer the man a drink,” the husband would say.  It was a watch phrase, and for the men of Newburg township, it signaled there would be a private drink, and a transaction, usually inside the barn.  When wives returned, they would say, “Now, you tell them trustees my road is washing away down that hill to where I can’t keep a wagon on it.”

“Oh, yes, I understand.”

Now, the lane belongs to me, I know that.  But the road is county.  You tell ‘em I need it fixed, and to stop trying to bring in electricity everywhere.”

“Oh, yes, sir, I will do that.  I certainly will, and thank you, ma’am for the lemonade.”

________________________________________________________-

The paper had said he would be “greatly missed from all good enterprises of the community”

Rose knew about the distribution of Templeton Rye.  Iowahad been dry since 1916, and the corn whiskey traffic fromTempleton,Iowa, had a well-established underground by the time national prohibition began four years later.  Dry was not popular with German American men.  Frank and Emma would battle over his involvement with Templeton.  Frank loved his liquor, and Emma found the WCTU’s arguments about saving husbands from themselves very persuasive.

Rose cried deeply and sobbingly at her father’s funeral.  His death had been a double tragedy, an unfortunate accident with a preventable beginning.  Though the paper would not mention it, she knew the rumors were true.  Someone had iced a barrel of beer at her uncle’s farm the day of the accident, and had gotten it out early because of the heat.  She knew her father.  She had been with him the day he first encountered the Templeton traders.  She had been six years old,Iowawas still wet, and her father didn’t think she understood what was going on.  She did, but what could she do?  Always, what could she do?  Now, she was filled with regret.  It really would be children running the farm.

Roy and Earl had farms of their own by now, just across theMinnesotaborder.  Irma had married and moved toSt. Louisin March. Art, twenty-six, and Bill, fifteen, would stay on for a lifetime, never marry, and raise championshipHolsteins, and Yorkshires.  Gene, the youngest, would become a writer for the Des Moines Register.

It fell to Rose and Lucille to help their mother.  Lucille was not as much help.  She was to be a senior at Carpenter High in the fall.  Everyone insisted those plans not change.  Rose, class of ’27, was ready for the world.  Her world was getting smaller.

Their mother, Emma, retreated into depression as the harvest season moved on into full swing. Art was working non-stop.  Bill stayed home to work in the fields with Art that fall.  Lucille, and Gene went off to school.  There was no time for fishing.

It was left to Rose to nurse Emma through the dark days.  Confining herself to her bed for days on end, she found no comfort in the well wishes of friends and neighbors.  Lucille was trying to bravely move on, but seeing her mother’s defeat weakened her own resolve.

“Mama, you’ve got to get out of bed,” she would plead before school.  “If you don’t get out of bed, I…I just don’t know what I’ll do.”

The conflict between living a “normal” life, and the nausea of broken-heartedness began taking its toll on Lucille.

Rose could not live that way.  She had seen her father’s darker side, but she had also inherited his zest for seeing things brightly.  She went about opening curtains, singing little songs, making quips throughout the day, and chuckling at her own comments, trying to cheer her mother.  But Emma found no comfort in such cheeriness.

“Such a sunny day today.”

“Mmm, clothes smell so fresh from the line.”

“Papa would have loved this sunset, hmm, hmm.”

Winding up the Victrola, on a particularly bright morning, she selected a recent Jolson recording, put the needle down, and began to sing along.

When the red, red robin comes bob, bob bobbin’ along, along,

There’ll be no more sobbing when he starts throbbing

His own sweet song.

Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head,

Get up, get up, get out of bed,

Cheer up, cheer up the sun is red,

Live, love, laugh and be happy.

When the red, red robin comes bob, bob bobbin’ along.

“That’s enough, Ruth,” came a voice barely loud enough to be heard over the music.

“Mama?” said Rose.  She quickly lifted the needle from the Victrola, and came over to her mother’s bedside.  She said again, “Mama?”

“That’s enough, Ruth.  I don’t like that song,” Emma softly sighed.

Frank and Emma’s firstborn had been a baby girl that lived only eighteen months.  Her name had been Ruth Rose.  Emma had reversed the order to Rose Ruth, in naming Rose, so she would never forget her littlest angel.

“I’m Rose, Mama.  Rose.  Not Ruth.  Ruth is dead.  Ruth is gone, and…and Papa would have loved this song.”

Silence followed.

“Papa,” whispered Emma.

Rose sat down by the bed.

“Mama, look at me.  Look at me.  This is not Papa’s world anymore. Ruth is gone.  Papa is gone.  That’s the way it is.  Now, we have to go on, Mama.  We have to go on.”  When Emma still said nothing, she added, “Lucille is hurting, don’t you know?”

Emma looked up.

Rose continued. “She’s thinking about quitting school.  She is so torn up, because you’re torn up, that she can’t concentrate.  She’s not doing well in school, I’m afraid.  She misses her mama.”  She let this sink in.

“Papa was a drinker, yes.  We all know that.  Everybody knows that.  And we also know things might have been different if…  But they’re not.  Still, Papa was a great man.  In my eyes, he was a great man.   I will always think so.  Please come back, Mama.  As hard as it is to believe, this was no surprise to God.  Please believe that.”

Emma turned to the wall.  Rose hung her head and sighed.

“Temperance,” said Emma, softly.  Rose raised her head.  The word hung in the air.  She turned and looked Rose in the eye, and said more firmly, “Temperance.”

Changes

Changes

Morph Images             @ FreeCodeSource.com

Morph Images

Ever wonder what goes on inside the mind of a writer?

I’m going to allow my blog to morph this year. Up to this point,  http://cakabala.wordpress.com , has merely been a convenient repository for things I’ve written—songs, personal essays, experimental memoir-esque storytelling from social media sources, and such.  Not much readership, although I certainly appreciate those who have stopped by.

But, now I think I’ll archive most of that in favor of developing a theme and a purpose. I will be focusing (I think) on memoir-based historical fiction striving to become literary fiction.  I’ll be learning the ropes as I go, so to speak, so bear with me.

“Spicing things up a little bit” has always been tempting.

In a scene from the early 60’s sitcom, Leave It To Beaver, young Theodore (the “Beaver”) Cleaver decided his mother’s story of having been fired from a book store, because she messed up the receipts, wasn’t exciting enough for his assigned composition, so he described her instead as a chorus line dancer who performed in beer joints for a notorious gangster until she married Ward Cleaver, the tap dancer.  The trouble wasn’t his imagination.  It was his trying to pass it off as history.

In A Million Little Pieces, the writer, James Frey, marketed his tale as a memoir. It resulted in a sort of media scandal when it was discovered that he had greatly exaggerated significant sections of the book.  Again, the trouble wasn’t his imagination, or intent (to help other addicts), but that he told lies, and called them facts.

Mark Twain once used the term, “lies, damned lies, and statistics”, in referring to the persuasiveness of exaggeration.  What may start off as a boring memoir, that even family members avoid reading, somehow morphs inside the writer’s mind to become the American tough guy story.  Americans love their tall tales.  They just don’t like being suckered.

In Beaver’s case, the kids all knew he was making it up, but they didn’t care, because it was more creative than their own stories.  In James Frey’s case, the public was incensed because they were told to be incensed.  All of his humiliation could have been avoided if he had just turned his work into a novel instead.

I do find it ironic, however, that journalists get so carried away with the vetting process, and the relentless finger-pointing persecution that follows.  Who among us believes everything they read in a memoir?  Look deeply enough at the motive behind the expose, and I suspect that it usually comes down to money, more than morality; first for the author who initially stretches the truth, then for the journalist who uncovers the lies, and then for the talk show hosts who air the egregious scandal.

Really now, doesn’t there come a time for caveat emptor? Aren’t we, the readers, at least partly culpable when we allow mob consciousness to determine our outrage?  Literary novelists often write with visions of creating masterpieces that impact in profound ways, and change lives forever.  It is their intent.  In their effort to do so, they fabricate.

A recent American Masters episode, on PBS, examined the life of Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird.  One of the commentators spoke of the transition from an author’s real world to the fictional worlds they create.

I first came, over the years, to a realization, that I bet is true of Harper Lee as well, …you know, you start with who and what you know.  It’s sort of like, take a survey of the lay of the land that formed you, shaped you, and then you begin to lie about it.  You, you tell one lie that turns into a different lie, and after awhile those models sort of lift off, become their own people, rather than people you originally thought of…and when you weave an entire network of lies, what you’re really doing, if you’re aiming to write literary fiction, I think what you’re, what you’re really doing is, by telling lies, you’re trying to arrive at…a deeper truth.

Wally Lamb, novelist, I Know This Much Is True

Novelists have been granted a freedom that their journalistic counterparts have not.  Label something “fiction”, and you are allowed to “create”.  Label it “fact”, and you may be vilified.  So, as this blog progresses, this year, I shall be examining the process of morphing family histories into novels.  That means changing names, inventing characters, and rounding out the details (putting flesh on the bones).  The “deeper truth” toward which historical fiction sometimes strives, is a destination that will not be often reached, but the end result of a tale well told is better than being called a liar.

Ancestry.com teams up with Midwest Writing Center for family history seminar May 5

A Hard Road Home (Part Thirteen) Meditations

 

“…this morning I was so rash as to read some of the public newspapers; suddenly an indolence of the weight of twenty atmospheres fell upon me, and I was stopped, faced by the appalling uselessness of explaining anything whatever to anyone whatever. Those who know can divine me, and for those who can not or will not understand, it would be fruitless to pile up explanations.”

                                    -Charles Baudelaire,

from the preface to Fleurs du Mal                                                                                                  (Flowers of Evil)

The dynamic current of humanity moves with the dull force of hugeness.  Discoveries, however, are made along the fringes, where secrets are revealed to those who dare to soar.

The Boundary Waters are so-named because they are part of a country with a prescribed perimeter.  What if it were not so?  Might we more aptly call them the Boundless Waters, a place to discover limitlessness and connectedness? 

Walking toward the cemetery, during a rehab walk, after my knee surgery, it finally dawned on me that the tree that had blown down during the July derecho had been the tree.  In February, it had defined one half of the “V” that had given me direction during the blizzard.  That lone tree had stood for decades on the edge of the cemetery hill.  It had suffered numerous bruises and battles with the weather, as evidenced by its gnarled limbs, and awkward branches.  It had been broken before.  But, it had withstood.  Until now.

I was stunned.  All of the stories and blessings, and relationships that had made my life immeasurably richer this year, would have still gone on whether I was here or not.    Stumbling blocks can lead to triumphs or to tragedies, and often the only difference is in our perception of what matters.  As I gazed at the broken remains of that landmark tree, it occurred to me that I had been blessed with a great gift—an opportunity to matter.  Is there anything more significant than that?  Sometimes we miss what is being accomplished in our absence, while we are off accomplishing. 

As I stood there in the cemetery, surrounded by the “Larkrise” beauty of the fields turning into the golds of harvest, I had no words of explanation.  The same God that had planted my tree, and then watered it, nurtured it, and given it the strength to overcome, had taken it away once it had led me home—a personal glimpse into the divine, my own Jonah’s gourd. 

I had been so stubborn.  I would have missed it all.  I would have walked away in blindness, years earlier when times were rough, trapped in my own addictions, but I could not shake His presence.  I had tried.  I know, now, what trials would have been avoided, but not what snares would have ensued.  There is a nakedness before God that we try to hide with leaves.  And yet, there are these moments of divine communion that reveal his power and capacity to care. 

There is a fear, of course, that goes along with cooperating with God.  Perhaps, I will accomplish my purpose then, and he will take me away?  I don’t want to go.  I want to say I’ve learned my lesson and things will be different this time.  This time I will put people first, I promise!  This time I will treasure relationships over accomplishments.  I will.  I promise I will.

Welcome, Conner Talon Schultz.  Perhaps we will play together.  Bob, the Builder?  Thomas, the Train?  Barney (nope, nope, nope, nope)?  I’m sure I will read to you.  Or, we’ll make up our own stories.  What do you want to be, a private-eye, or a super-hero?  How about, C.T. Schultz: Conner by Day, Talon by Night!  You could be the “Caped Crusader”, or the “Winged Warrior”!  (I’m laughing now, because, in my days, there was a radio program where the hero used those very monikers.  It was a tour-de-farce called, Chickenman!)  I’d like to tell you about that.

Perhaps you will be a rugged outdoorsman, and a sensitive lover, without being fettered by the expectations and definitions of either.  May your “talons” be liberating.

I’ve had a rich life, watching your parents grow.  And I will watch you, too.    And I will tell you about me.  And I hope you’ll like that.  And the God that protected me, and gave me the opportunity to tell you anything, I want to tell you about Him too.  And if you don’t believe in him the same way I do, that’s okay.  But I believe you will.  Even if it takes a blizzard.        

“Wherever you are, be all there.”  —Jim Elliot