Saturday, October 13, 2012

Guns and Skates

This post is the result of yet another writing exercise for the Writers Society of Jefferson County. The task was to bring a picture, any picture, to the meeting and then write about it. I had forgotten to bring in an actual photo, but I did have thousands of pictures on my netbook. I immediately jumped at this one.
 It all started back in the early 2000's on a holiday trip from our home in Lusby, Maryland to Springfield Mo. . . . 

I found the box in the basement. I found lots of other things too, a full, rich lifetime’s worth. My wife’s maternal grandmother had died earlier in the year at the full, rich age of eighty seven. She was bright, funny and busy up to the very night of her death.
Now we were in her house, alone, during a blizzard. We couldn't even get across town to my in-laws for Christmas dinner. Their house was small so we’d opted to stay at grandma’s.
My own Brownie Hawkeye, on display in the man cave.
The full basement was piled high with arts and crafts. Seashells, pretty rocks, colorful bottles, beads, plastic flowers, a kiln, everything a very busy person needed to stay very busy.
I was drawn to the boxes of old photos.
There was little else to do really, and it allowed me to snoop into my in-laws' past. Angel busied herself looking through other piles of stuff, Adam was at his grandparents' house.
The mysterious treasures in the box were the negatives, hundreds of them. Most had no accompanying print. Most dated back to the 620 and 120 days. That’s a film size most commonly used from the 1930’s through the late 1960’s. If you are old enough or photo-nerdy enough to know what a Kodak Brownie is, you know the film I am talking about. The negatives are much larger than 35mm, the later film favorite, which made enlarging them pretty easy.
The common boxy cameras that exposed the film were not exactly precision instruments. No settings, just look down at the backwards, sometimes upside-down  image in the viewfinder and thumb the big button. Turn the knob on the side till it stopped and you were ready to shoot again.
The exposure was fixed, the lens was tiny and of only mediocre quality. The manufactured, fixed settings were designed for a bright sunny day or a blinding, nuclear-level flashbulb (sold separately).
For decades this was how most American families recorded their lives. Blurred, too-dark and poorly centered prints.
The negative
If you didn't have your own darkroom you took your film to a photo processor and they ran it through a machine that rarely tried to improve the quality. A good darkroom processor could, if motivated, take a low quality negative and crop and dodge and over/underexpose it to draw out a decent photo.
I knew this because I had a darkroom.
I could hardly wait to get back to Maryland and my modest, but capable lab.
I got permission from the in-laws to take the box.
This was my wife’s hometown and family, not mine. Most of the people I did not know. I was looking for art and history, not  genealogy.
One underexposed negative challenged me more than most. Two girls, maybe, wearing short skirts and odd hats, with what appeared to be boots. They were standing next to each other as if in formation, I assumed cheerleaders or majorettes.
The negative was awful. Details were impossible to make out, and my mind had trouble reversing the dark and light to make it recognizable beyond those first vague impressions.
I loaded the fragile negative into the carrier and pushed it carefully into the enlarger. I made a test strip to find the best exposure time, then another. It was pushing the edges of sane exposure times.
Finally finding a good-enough time, I loaded up a fresh sheet of 5X7 photo paper and set the timer.
I dipped it into the developer then the stop-bath  then the fixer. Then rinsed it thoroughly in clean water and hung it to dry.
I was pleased with the print and also taken aback.
Two girls, circa mid-1950’s, in skater skirts and hats, and not boots, but high top roller skates. At their sides, rifles, held at something akin to 'order, arms'. Not real guns I’m sure, just those used by high school drill teams.
Guns and skates. I tried to imagine this drill team, one that seemed completely odd until one recalled the time and place. Back in the fifties in middle America drill teams were quite common, and so were roller skates, so there.
What really made me laugh though was the girl on the right. Dark hair, harshly painted lips, a familiar crooked grin.
I was looking at my mother in law.  Priceless.

Other prints from 'the box'.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Bear with me for a minute or two, this is sort of a roundabout story but it does eventually come to a head. 
A few weeks back I started reading a series of crime novels by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. I don’t recall exactly how I came across this author other than one of those ‘if you like xxx xxxx , then you might also like ’  Google searches I am prone to run when I exhaust one author’s books.  This series has been translated quite well from Viking to English. In the early parts of the first book, the protagonist, Harry Hole (I’m not making that up) is discussing serial murderers. He talks about how rare it is that women are guilty of such heinous crimes. He does mention a name, an American in the early 1800’s, Lavinia Fisher.
At an idle opportunity I looked up the case to see if it was a real reference. It was. The list I first came across also made mention of one Bertha Gifford, of Missouri.
Interesting, So I looked that up. “Bertha Alice Williams Graham Gifford was born in Grubville, Missouri"
Even more interesting since I almost bought a house in Grubville, and it’s not many miles from where I currently live. So I dug deeper.
Bertha actually lived in Morse Mill, about seven miles from Grubville, and about five miles from my current residence. I knew Morse Mill, it’s on the same road as one of the glades I used to hike, as well as just five miles from the poor farm I’ve mentioned here a few times. The cemetery where poor ol’ Bertha is buried is right on that road, and you know I’ve got a thing for old cemeteries.
(L-R) Bertha Gifford, Eugene Gifford
(Front) Henry Graham
Oddly enough she is buried alongside her first husband, Henry Graham. Also near her headstone are those for her second husband, Eugene Gifford, Eugene's mother Emilie Gifford, his thirteen year old brother James, as well as his uncle, Sherman Pounds. Henry, Emilie, James and Sherman are by some accounts, among Bertha’s earlier victims. Shortly after marrying Gifford, the couple moved to Catawasa, in neighboring Franklin County.
There the deaths continued. The exact count will likely to never be known for sure, though historians put the total at around seventeen, many of them children.
Bertha was considered quite attractive in her youth, and grew into a matronly, nurturing soul. She was considered a first-rate cook, and would rush to the side of anyone in need of medical assistance. Though never formerly trained as a nurse, she went so far as to wear starched white dresses as she went from place to place to tend to the sick. She often took in the very sick, staying at their bedside with them, often up to their last breath.
This was the early 1900’s Medical care was still rather primitive and child mortality quite high, especially in remote, rural areas. At the same time dubious potions, tonics and 'snake oil' cure-alls were quite the rage. Bertha made her own home remedies.
She also bought a lot of arsenic, telling the seller she was having rat problems.
For several years if there were any suspicions at all, they were few and reserved. It was only upon the deaths of two young brothers,(Lloyd and Elmer Schamel) within six weeks of each other, and subsequent to the death of one of the Giffords' farm hands (Ed Brinley),  that an investigation took place at all. The local doctor who had signed the death certificates of many of her victims had never bothered with autopsies as the deaths seemed to fit common serious ailments, gastritis, for example.
But  investigators got a letter of concern from one of the victim's family and looked into it. Brinley and the Schamel boys were exhumed, and large quantities of arsenic were found. The Schamel boys had been nursed and fed by Bertha.
These were the three victims that set an arrest and trial in motion. This trial, attended by 'thousands' in Franklin County was quite the media frenzy, not unlike those we still see today. The killing of these three victims were the only cases in the matter that were ever adjudicated. At the trial, Bertha Gifford was found to be insane and sentenced to live out her life in the mental hospital in Farmington. She died in 1951, without ever revealing much more about the whole affair.

Based on times and types of deaths it is generally assumed that there were many more than these three victims. A more thorough list can be found here.
I paid a visit to the cemetery in Morse Mill. It is on the grounds of the Church of God Faith of Abraham Cemetery (AKA Soul Sleepers Cemetery) on Highway B, a church that  Eugene Gifford, Bertha's second husband, himself helped build.
I also stopped by the big, old hotel in Morse Mill.
Morse Mill Bridge
Morse Mill is just off Highway B, above the Big River. Yes, the 'Big River', that's the actual name of the meandering Meramec River tributary. There's an old iron bridge, long ago closed off to vehicles, and the remains of the eponymous old mill just outside of town. The mill and the bridge were built by John H. Morse as was the hotel, originally the large, New Orleans style Morse homestead.  Morse also built the Sandy Creek Covered Bridge north of Hillsboro. The old Hotel, now in pretty bad shape and in constant state of repair, stands out in this sleepy little bedroom community. Bertha and Eugene lived there before moving to Franklin County and later the place became quite famous/notorious. It is said that Morse was in certain cahoots with the legendary James Gang and that they stopped by occasionally, other accounts list Charles Lindbergh, Clara Bow, and even Charlie Chaplin as hotel guests. Legend also has it that Al Capone had an investment in the place during the wild 'roaring' twenties. This is also believed to be the site of the death of Bertha's alleged first victim, her first husband, Henry Graham.
Thus the hotel is frequented by  ghost hunters and fans of the paranormal. Why wouldn't it be haunted? The former home of a notorious serial killer?
Morse Mill Hotel
Well, I'll let you be the judge of that sort of thing. The interwebs is full of reports from paranormal investigators struggling to find spirits or ghosts there. The current owner even invites investigators, and offers tours.
Notice please my frequent use of phrases such as 'believed to be', 'by some accounts', etc. I'm simply covering my ass here. I have seen discrepancies between the various sources I've cited, I can't be exactly sure which are accurate and which are not. All local historical documents, the ones that still exist, list only statistical data, like census and birth/death records which do not speak of the stories surrounding these people. There are even some discrepancies in newspaper accounts of the times, places and events. Since the Bertha Gifford story was quite the big news item at the time, it received national attention, I'm sure that there were more than a few rumors, legends and embellishments that were printed and later remembered as fact.
Bertha's great-granddaughter S. Kay Murphy researched her infamous ancestor and wrote a book 'Tainted Legacy' Which is available from Amazon. I've ordered a copy.
"So what does this have to do with you?" You smugly ask.
Well it hits on several notes. First, I already have photos of the Morse Mill Bridge, the Sandy Creek covered bridge and the mill. There's a park on the river between the mill and the iron bridge, I visited there a few years ago while discovering my new home county's history.  Then of course, there's the cemeteries and graves, as well as my old hiking place, Valley View Glades in the same area.
So it's like discovering that there was once a serial killer in your own neighborhood, how could a person NOT be curious.
Bertha's  stone was put in place in 2008-2009.
I'm not sure why there wasn't one there before, or who placed it.
To this day there are those that believe Bertha was at worst, a misguided angel of mercy, that she had no mens rea (guilty mind) about her. Others, of course, think of her as pure evil and quite mad. I don't know for sure, but even the little we do know is quite compelling.


This whole thing is not intended to glamorize tragedy. And there was certainly a boatload of tragedy surrounding Bertha Gifford's life. However, we are foolish to ignore the story or sweep it under the rug. Part of the reason the whole affair lasted so long, and the death toll was allegedly so high, was precisely that people chose to ignore, or at least not look on the situation in a bad light. People wanted to believe the best, wanted to believe there was no evil afoot. Thus it went unreported and in most cases, not even suspicious for nearly two decades. 
I love my new job, I really do. It’s challenging without being overwhelming. I like the people I work with and they pretty much leave me alone.
When I first started here I was located with my five immediate co workers, in a small, secluded office area with twenty desks. Only about half of the desks in that office were occupied. The desks were vintage 1970’s wooden office desks with typewriter trays intact. (remember those?) One of the trays still held a typewritten 1975 office directory held on by cracked, yellowing cellophane tape. We think everyone on that list has since passed away.
The desks were scratched, stained, missing hardware, and I suspected, somewhat moldy. For the two months I sat in that office every time someone rifled through a drawer my sinuses would launch a red alert. This was followed by an immediate and violent evacuation of all head fluids. I sneezed at least a couple times per day. Not cute little wheezy sneezes either, these were supersonic, geyser-like neck snappers. Within a few minutes of leaving the office each evening my sinuses would clear and would be just fine until about eight fifteen the next day.
So when we were told that we would be moving to a more modern area closer to our cousin-teams, I was quite relieved.
Last week they moved us to ‘temporary’ desks/cubicles in the newer area. The cubes / desks were nowhere near each other; they simply had us fill whatever empty accommodations there were. There are two distinct cubicle areas sharing one large, L-shaped open office space. In the middle, at the intersection of the two areas is the main entry door. There are other exits, but this central one is the only one leading to the elevators and restrooms. As we are on the third floor and are by far mostly over the age of forty, the elevators and restrooms are crucial and busy.
The door is card-activated. Everyone has a key card and has to swipe it in a finicky card reader to get into the area. (All card readers are finicky in my opinion.)
At this narrow intersection are two cubicles all by themselves. They are arranged so that whoever is unlucky enough to inherit one of these cubes has their back to both the door and the voluminous foot traffic. The two large sections are home to perhaps seventy five people and one shared break room which is also nearby.
So in the course of a normal day, whoever is so richly blessed to have one of these two orphan cubicles gets walked behind by everyone, often several times a day. So forget about napping, web surfing, staring off into space, belching, or discreetly scratching one’s self.
Of course with these less than ideal seating arrangements, those lucky two are interrupted several times per day to answer the timid knocking on the door of those poor souls that forgot, lost, or are having trouble swiping their key cards.
You guessed it; I inherited one of these two prime cubicles. I was told it would be temporary, but in a nearly two hundred year old company time has its own, slightly different perspective. My previous desk you may recall, was thirty five years old. What do you have in constant use around where you work or live that’s thirty five years old? So I don’t have a lot of comfort with the company’s concept of ‘temporary.’
As far as the foot traffic, that’s just a minor annoyance that I can often tune out. (Ask my former co-workers about my uncanny ability to tune things out, including them!) Having my back to everything is much worse. I hear the footsteps and feel the breeze but I don’t know if the person behind me at any point in time is the vending machine guy, the boss, HIS boss, or just one of my fellow worker bees. Often there are footsteps, a breeze, and then the footsteps suddenly stop right behind me. About once per week it’s someone coming to talk to me, the other ten thousand times it’s just someone pausing at the door. This morning some guy paused long enough to noisily throw his pop can into the garbage bin under my desk… while I was sitting there, without uttering a word, as if it were a public park receptacle and I was just another bum sleeping on a bench.
The lady in the adjoining cube is a programmer. She doesn’t talk much, doesn’t get a lot of visitors and seems to work shorter hours than I do. She’s not a problem at all. I’ve been working on improving her sense of humor though. I need someone nearby to laugh at something I’ve said at least a couple of times per day or I just don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, after all I politely pretend to not eavesdrop the ten times per day she’s on the phone with her family members. (Her teen-aged daughter is home with pinkeye, the medicine seems to be working better now, but they are now out of pudding cups, so yogurt will have to suffice till after work.)
Tap, tap.. Someone else forgot their key card. That’s okay, I’ll get it. I just hope they don’t explain in more than enough detail WHY they don’t have their badge. As the reluctant, de-facto doorman, I can assure you that I really don’t care. I already know it’s a simple mistake to make, and everyone does it once in a while. I really just don’t care to listen to feeble, forgettable and irrelevant excuses, it’s simply unnecessary. I sit by the door, I answer the door, that’s just fine by me, and it all pays the same.
Which is the only cool part; whether I’m troubleshooting a German language error message on a massive business-critical database, or simply answering the door, I get paid as if I’m troubleshooting a German language error message on a massive, business-critical database. So go ahead, be my guest. Those ships, trains and barges at the grain mills in the Ukraine can surely wait to be loaded or unloaded.
“Okay Comrade Grohenikivovski, I’ve just about got the problem solved, we should be able to start reprocessing your offloading documents again in just a moment or two I just need to clear up one more…. Oh, sorry about that, someone’s at the door, I’m going to put you on hold. . . So you’ll be listening to some decadent, capitalist, country-gospel music by a group called ‘Heavenly Banjos. ’ ” . . .while I take care of this more pressing matter.” (Long pause). “I’m back, who is this again please? Oh yeah that’s right comrade, and what were we talking about?” Those Ukrainians can be so impatient. “Oh, of course, sorry for the very expensive delay and I certainly hope it does all get offloaded before it starts rotting, but Janie from desktop support didn’t have her key card since she left her adorable brown jacket, the one with the belt, in her husband’s car and he left for work before she did, but she’ll be sure to have it tomorrow. She’s been just so darn forgetful since her mother’s been in that horrible new nursing home and calls like ten times a day, ALWAYS at the worst possible time.”
Then there’s the other thing; visitors to the area looking for someone specific. Now recall that I’ve only been working for this company for three months, and I just moved into this new office area last week. There are about seventy five people in this area and I know about eight of then by name or job. But since I sit right inside the door I am always the first person that a visitor sees and that absolutely MUST mean I know where David Johnson sits. Well lady, today is simply not your lucky day, ‘cause I’ve never heard of David Johnson, I don’t know what he does or who he sits near or who you might talk to from his team since I don’t even know what the GTR Team’ is, and in fact I don’t even know who WOULD know.
The visitor’s reaction to my sincere apologies and understandable ignorance? Disgust, anger, fury.
My neighbor, the programmer, and I discussed this during one of the three actual conversations we’ve had. (Since I moved in she’s been wearing a noise cancelling IPod thingy and no longer hears the knocks at the door. She claims de facto seniority.) I told her I should get a couple of little ‘go away’ signs made up that say “NOT a Receptionist” or “These desks reserved for people that are currently under criminal investigation for heinous violent acts.” or “We apologize for the inconvenience, but just because you don’t know where you are or where you are going does not mean that we are required to either know or care.” or “My third grader is selling wrapping paper!”
But it’s all okay, it’s just petty work stuff, and in this economy a good job is a very precious thing. And if there is one, even more valuable thing that I’ve learned recently it’s that. . . . hang on, someone’s at the door.

The dating crisis

I am not incredibly close with my co-workers. By that I mean I don’t know most of their spouses’ and kids’ names, ages nor do I visit or chat with them after hours. There’s nothing wrong with my co-workers, they are typical, average people with typical average issues and experiences. Those of you that know me understand that I’m simply not a social flower.
I do chat with them occasionally, but not so much as to actually become involved in their domestic lives. Life is just simpler for me that way.
One of the groups of co-workers I deal with daily is what I refer to as the ‘change control ladies’ I call them that because they are responsible for managing changes in the system software, and they all happen to be female. I use the word ‘ladies’ because I am a polite southern boy, not because they have done anything specific to actually earn the title.
Yesterday I approached them on yet another work-related issue. It was easily and quickly resolved and the conversation suddenly broke down into banal pleasantries and chit-chat. Though I tried to break away politely I found myself uncomfortably engaged in their personal lives. Vicky, who I know to be recently de-coupled is the mother of two teen-like children whose names I can never remember. She is somewhere between thirty five and forty as I recall, (My bet is closer to forty though she has denied that on a few loud occasions.) She’s a reasonably nice lady, and competent at her job, which is all I really care about. The personal information she has given me over the course of the last two years was all unsolicited. She just likes to chat about her personal life, and I am just too nice to tell her to shut up and leave me out of it.
For some irrational reason she asked me for an opinion about a dating crisis. This, of course was a pitiful mistake.
“I’ve got a question for you Dennis, about dating; I’d like a man’s opinion.” She said.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” I answered.
“No really, this is really bothering me and I need some advice!” She was pleading.
Abby, another of the change control ladies jumped out of her chair and ran to the cubicle. She leaped towards Vicky, in a way that reminded me of those slow motion scenes of a brave secret service agent jumping in front of a sniper’s bullet. “Noooooooooooooo!’ she cried.
“Why not?” Vicky asked her.
“Do you realize who you are asking for relationship advice?” Abby answered while looking at me with that disgusted look in her face that she gets whenever I visit the area.
I actually like Abby. I know little about her other than she’s married to a guy, has somewhere between one and twelve kids, and at around thirty is probably the youngest of the ladies. None of that is interesting or appeals to me, but she does own a dog, or maybe more than one dog, and I think it is a pit bull. Anyway, Abby asks me about my dogs occasionally and that’s enough for me to like her. And she is competent at her work.
“Have you forgotten? He’s married everyone he ever dated!” Abby answered.
“Vicky looked at me as if I had just emanated a foul odor. “Eww, that’s right, you have haven’t you?”
“You only say that because that’s what I told you, so you certainly don’t know it as a fact since I tend to lie about such things.” I answered.
“You lied to us about marrying everyone you ever dated?” Abby asked.
I thought about it for a moment. “No, no I didn’t, but the point is I could have lied about it.”
Vicky pondered for a bit. “Well, still I’d like to know your opinion.”
Abby sighed. “You asked for it.” She muttered as she headed back to her own cube.
I sat down, leaned back, crossed my legs and pressed my fingertips together in front of me. “How can I help you ma’am?”
“I told you not to call me ma’am, it makes me feel old.” She scolded.
“That’s what makes you feel old?” I answered, adding; “Not the actual aging process? Hmm.”.
She swore at me with her eyes. I felt an apology was in order:
“You know that I am incapable of calling you anything other than ma’am, since I am a proper southern boy and am zealously mindful of propriety. ‘Ma’am’ is an expression of respect that should make you feel flattered, not disgusted. Had you paid heed to or actually had a proper upbringing you would know that, so do not dare blame me for your inexcusable lack of couth.”

Her face reddened and tightened a little more, but she was still not deterred, I was perhaps being too polite, perhaps sending mixed messages.
“Seriously, I just need some help with a dating crisis.” She looked frustrated.
“Proceed then, I’m happy to be of service.” I resumed a completely false compassionate posture and tone.

“Here’s the deal..’ The story unfolded. “I’ve got a blind date tonight at six-thirty at Applebee’s with a man I met on the internet.
“That is a problem.” I responded.
“What?, No, no, no, that’s not the problem…” She replied.
“I assure you ma’am, that that is not just A problem, that’s like three problems already, are you saying there’s more?”
“What three problems?” She asked, genuinely worried
“ Applebee’s, Internet, blind date, man. You’re right there’s four problems, not three.” I answered counting on my fingers.
“ What’s wrong with any of that?” She foolishly asked.
“1. Applebee’s, you’ve set the bar too low. The cheap date flag is up. 2. Internet. Internet dating sites are where pathetic liars go to lie to each other. 3. Blind date, they got the name ‘blind’ because of the common desire to gouge one’s eyes out upon actual meeting. 4. You want to date a man? That both surprises and disappoints me.”

She stared at me for a few moments, probably in awe of my analytical skills.
“Why would you … how the… what makes you think I don’t date men?”
“Hmm” I reflected, “Just a false assumption on my part, don’t worry I do that a lot.” I glanced at my watch to let her know I had other things I’d rather be doing. She didn’t get the message. (Note to self, work more on improving body language skills, get a bigger mirror and practice, practice, practice!)
“You think I’m, … uh, why would you..?” She seemed to be at a loss for words over this minor point.
“I said don’t worry about it, my mistake, I shouldn’t take everyone else’s word for things I don’t know to be a fact.”
This did not seem to relieve her stress any.
“Who.. but , wait, what the?” She was starving for a coherent sentence.
“Please go on with your dilemma, I don’t have all day to waste on a trivial tangent, besides, I’m very open minded about such things and I hope you don’t feel the need to apologize or explain yourself, regardless of your personal tastes, that’s not why I’m here.”
“Why ARE you here?” Abby shouted over the cube wall.
Vicky finally closed her mouth long enough to start thinking again.
“Anyway, the date is not the real problem.” She drummed her fingers.
I felt the need to calm her down, get her back on focus. “We can vehemently disagree on some things and still make progress, it’s all a healthy part of the process, so please, go ahead.”
She now appeared to be mentally chewing her nails. “Anyway, there’s another guy I’ve dated a couple of times, nothing serious..”
I broke in. “By serious I assume you mean you haven’t . . . “ I paused.
Her eyes flared again. “What? Haven’t what? What are you asking ?”
“Uh, It’s not really important, we can get back to that later.”
“So this other guy, called me earlier, and we just chatted, and he mentioned that he was taking his daughter out to dinner tonight. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but I. . . “
I had to interrupt. “How old is his daughter?”
“Fourteen, but what’s that got to do with anything?”
“I’m just creating mental imagery, it’s vital to my full understanding of the situation. So is she a mature fourteen or a pigtail and Hello-Kitty fourteen?”
“I don’t think I’m going to answer that.” She seemed distracted again.
“Very well, continue, but don’t blame me for bad advice later if you won’t give me important details now.”
“So I didn’t think much about it at the time, but later I started thinking how awkward it would be if he took his daughter to Applebee’s while I’m on this blind date.” This lady was unstoppable
“You think he would feel awkward at Applebee’s with his daughter? I can’t pretend to know why since you are obviously withholding information about her.”

“No, you idiot, how awkward it would be for him to see me out with another guy!”

“He doesn’t know you date men either? How odd, where would he have heard that?”

“No, no, no, of course he knows I date men. I mean the fact that we have dated and I didn’t tell him I was going out tonight, you know!”

“I’m not sure I understand the problem.”
Wouldn’t you think it was awkward to walk into a restaurant and see someone you dated having a date with someone else?

“That’s completely different.”
“How is that different?” She asked, obviously devoid of common sense.
“Because… “ I started…
“Because he MARRIED everyone he dated!” Came the cry over the cubicle wall.
I just smiled and nodded my head.
“You don’t see that it would be awkward for ME, and these two men?” She continued despite my lack of interest.
“Well that depends on how much you have lied to them.”
“I haven’t lied to them about anything!” She seemed hurt.
“Really? You’re dating a couple of men and you haven’t lied to them at all? What kind of clueless idiot do you think I am?”
“I know, I know !” called Abby like an anxious school girl. We ignored her, at least I did.
“I have not lied to either of them!” she insisted.
“ How could you possibly get two guys to ever take you out on a date on truth alone. Such a notion is completely unthinkable, impossible!”
“Well I never told them I was dating other guys.” She looked suddenly sheepish.
I decided to let her off easily. “Well, now that you finally admit that I was, in fact completely correct by calling you a liar, I think we can go forward. I have a conclusion and a couple of words of advice. I’ll go ahead and share them with you In the interest of time, since we’ve wasted quite enough already.”
Abby joined us. “I’ve got to hear this.”
“Vicky, assuming that the scant information you have given is correct, complete, and honest, I can not see any reason whatsoever for you to be concerned. In fact I really can’t believe you have created a colossal crisis here out of such a contrived pile of tedious trivialities composed of nothing more than balled up gooey wads of emotional insecurity. “
“So you don’t think that it’s a problem?” She asked.
“Didn’t I just say that? You’re a female; you are expert at creating drama for any and all reasons, especially where none actually exists. You can’t help it, just recognize it. There is no problem here, assuming you were not lying anymore than you have already indicated, and I apologize for continuing to come back to that point, but it is vital. If you have made no promises, or assertions about fidelity to either man then you are not at fault for any irrational expectations or assumptions that they might make.”
“I told you that’s what a guy would say” Abby piled on.
“Wow, I’m really glad to hear that, thanks.” ( I kid you not, she actually thanked me.)
“However…” I started.
“There’s more?” Abby looked anxious.
“However, what?” Asked Vicky.
“I should warn you that should this unlikely event actually occur, that the dynamics of both relationships will irrevocably change.” I offered.
“How will they change?”
“If they are both normal men, or, considering your options, near normal, and neither is already too badly damaged, then both men will start to become even more and more interested in you.”
She looked utterly shocked. “Why that’s just what Abby said!”
I glanced over at Abby, her face was proud, arms folded, nodding.
“She’s a dog owner, of course she understands.” I winked at Abby.
“What’s that got to do with anything? Vicky asked.
“I’ll speak more slowly so you can understand. If you ever watch a group of dogs, just laying about minding their own business, then one of them gets up and picks up one of the many chew toys lying around, what happens?”
“I have no idea.”
“Abby, you tell her.”
Abby perked up. “They all suddenly want THAT chew toy.”
“That’s correct, Abby, absolutely correct.”
“Why?” queried Vicky.
“I’m not a botanist, I have no idea, but its in their DNA, it’s in OUR DNA. We want what someone else has; we covet to the point of sheer madness. As soon as a guy sees you with another guy he becomes more interested in you.” I felt silly explaining this basic primal concept.
“That makes no sense.” Vicky replied.
“It doesn’t have to make sense, it’s just how animals behave”
“Especially men!” Abby interjected. I scolded her with a furrowed brow.
“If you go out somewhere by yourself you will appear damaged, desperate and undesirable. That certainly appeals to some men, but probably not the kind of man you are looking for. If you are out WITH a man, it’s like being pre-approved for a loan; you are desirable to the men who want someone who is less a risk of being just another crazy loser”
“That’s pathetic!”
“I don’t make the rules princess; I’m just here to explain them to you. It probably wouldn’t be necessary had you had better parenting, But that’s not entirely your fault.”
“Did you just insult her parents?” Abby asked, gleefully. I shushed her again and let the short silence hammer home the resounding wisdom.
“Wow, that explains quite a bit.” Vicki deflated.
“One more thing, if I may, ma’am.”
“He called you ma’am again! He never calls me ma’am, I guess I’m not old enough to be a ma’am yet.” Abby giddily interrupted.
Vicky pretended to ignore Abby:” What else?”
“If you remember or heed nothing else from this conversation, please promise me at least one thing.” Vicky’s eyes perked up, begging me to continue. “Never, ever, ever take relationship advice from a man, ever.”
“Especially a man like Dennis.” Abby added without permission, trying to be funny, but failing miserably.
“Hey that’s right, you’ve been married like seven times, what makes you an expert on any of this anyhow?”
“I’ve been here and there sunshine, and actually tried to improve my understanding of the wiles and ways of people rather than just flopping around in the same festering cesspool of ignorance year after year, relationship after pathetic relationship. I’d love to explain it all to you but I just don’t have the time right now, perhaps we can discuss it after hours someday.” I consoled, still desperately searching for an exit.
Abby jumped up. “Oh my god! I think he just asked you out on a date!”

This story is pretty much true, the actual dialog has been 'enhanced' for entertainment (my own) purposes. If any part of this tale seems upsetting, untrue, or insulting, please feel free to assume that is the part I made up. You'll probably be wrong, but I'm all about making people feel better. db

Where there is a goal, there is hope....

There was a time in my life when I was not at peace with the world. My marriage was not living up to expectations; my career path seemed to be a random meandering through meaningless and unfulfilling chores. I wondered, at the age of twenty eight, if the best parts of life were indeed already in my past.
Do you have those times when days blend in with each other and form a shapeless blob of existence? The very notion of getting up and getting ready for the new day is foggy, damp, dark, and dirge-like? You look in the mirror and try to recall what once was attractive about you, and realize that it is gone for good, and may as well have never been at all? Hope, faith and dreams are just a depressing waste of time and energy, easily quashed by a few sips of wine or beer?
I recall a former co-worker that came into work everyday, usually with candy or other snacks, smiling, “good morning” to all around the office, easy to laugh, and easy to joke. I could not figure it out. He had the same miserable, tedious job as me, made the same pay, and yet he found something in this existence, this dreary, swirling, endless pursuit of meaningless survival, that made him joyful, jocular and hopeful.
I asked others about this and was more than a little surprised with what I found out. His wife had been gravely ill and bedridden for several years, since the traffic accident that killed their two children. All their income and savings was exhausted paying medical bills and to settle the massive lawsuit, and this would continue for years to come. They lived in a twenty five year old mobile home in the middle of an impoverished area outside of town, riddled with meth labs and occasional gunplay. Already in their late 50’s it was unlikely that they would ever realize any semblance of the American dream. They did not even have a car, Roger walked or bicycled three miles to work each day. Yet, with all this adversity, with this heavy dark cloud of dismay and gloom, he seemed genuinely happy, blessed to have the few things he did have, and perhaps appreciated those things even more than those more fortunate then him.
This lay heavy in my heart. Here was a man with more woes than Job, and yet he remained joyful, hopeful. I looked at my petty little complaints and took stock. I didn’t have it so bad after all. I was younger, skilled in a couple of marketable trades, I could work on my marriage and maybe, tend to my life a bit better.
From seeing Roger’s unfailing joy, it occurred to me that indeed, problems and obstacles and tribulations will only beat you down if you allow them to. Your own happiness is entirely about what you yourself make it! I decided that I would get out of my depression and just stop being so miserable. I would fix those things that kept me down, and stop letting every little speed bump pile up into an enormous mountain. I could be happy, I WOULD be happy, I could improve my life!
Dear friends, I must tell you, it is not simple. Even after all these years, and many, many improvements in my life, I still have not been able to achieve Roger’s level of joy, peace and satisfaction. I have not let that become an obstacle though. I have a goal, one that I may never achieve, but I keep it as a single, full-focus goal. I take each trial as it’s own task, manage it and move on, I forgive the indiscretions of others and strive to let that forgiveness show.
No, I will never reach Roger’s level. You see there was something special about Roger that I cannot imagine for myself. After that car accident that killed his children and cost his wife’s health, He had one fourth of his brain removed. That he could function at all was the real miracle.
Perhaps those of us that are still intact can somehow find that same level of peace. There is always hope as long as we are open to the possibility of happiness. We need only ourselves to find and share our own joy.

Grab each day by the boots and shake it till all the hidden happiness falls out of the pockets!

I have never buried a body in the woods, I assure you, I have not.

Tuesday was typical. Work stuff was normal, the drive home uneventful. Angel was still in Wisconsin. There was a bit of stress relaying messages to her about the owner of one of the dogs we adopted out now having second thoughts… But other than that, the weather was nice and my biggest concern other than the dog owner in question was whether to have leftover spaghetti or a sandwich for supper.
I opted for the pasta and made a salad. After I finished and cleaned up the mess, I took Myster (Mystery, the pit bull) for his first evening walk. He only did half of his expected business, he’s a bit poop-shy. I made a mental note to myself to take him to one of his more favored spots on his second evening walk.
I sat back in my recliner, and flipped through the channels looking for something stupid to dull my brain. Myster laid down on the floor on my right expecting to have his head stroked. I called Angel and told her the latest on the dog owner, she said she’d take care of it.
Movement outside the sliding glass door caught our attention. Myster loves visitors but has trouble communicating that glee. It is usually misinterpreted by those that don’t know him. He growls, barks wildly and runs directly towards them, massive jaws wide open and thick muscles taut and active. To the unfortunate uninitiated this looks a lot like they are being attacked by a wild and angry Pit Bull.
I got up and thumped his ear, he retreated like the big baby he actually is. Outside the door was a very alarmed and wide eyed County Deputy. I slid open the door and stepped out, the deputy’s eyes never left the dog. “Does he attack?” the deputy asked… This presented a quandary for me. After all I did not know why the deputy was there, so I shrugged my shoulders and replied “He’s in training”. Leaving the deputy to conclude for himself what that actually meant.
“Do you own this property?” he asked. “Some of it, five acres.” I replied very quickly.
Our property used to be a part of a ninety four acre spread, mostly wooded, some of it could have been pasture at one time, though not very good pasture. Very hilly, wooded over, swampy in many spots. The owner of the ninety four acres inherited the acreage and the house and tried to sell it all. No one was willing to lay out the money to take it all, so he split the house and surrounding five acres and sold that, to us. The remaining eighty nine remains unoccupied and unused, the ‘Acreage For Sale’ sign is fading.
I explained this all and pointed to the orange sticks and paint marks that separate the properties. “Well sir I’m sorry to bother you, but we need to take a walk around the entire area” He paused, I let him continue. “We found some partial remains up by the road.”
I know, you’re thinking “So what? This sort of thing happens every day!” Well believe it or not, I can’t recall ever having had this come up before in my short and handsome life.
“We don’t know if the remains are human or not” (ughhh) “We’ve sent them to a lab but we won’t hear back for some time, and we’d like to look around if you don’t mind.” He said rather professionally.
“By all means!” I sounded too excited, I’m sure. Bailey and Blue were outside in the fenced back yard, barking wildly at the uniformed and armed intruders. “Do your dogs or other dogs run free?” he asked. I stared at him trying desperately to look as innocent as possible, which is very difficult for me especially when I am actually innocent. He continued:” It looks like the remains were dragged to the roadside out of the woods.” I sighed with relief, even though there was no reason to feel relieved about anything. “No, we keep them fenced in or on leashes, and they would let us know if there was another dog about, much like they are alerting now to your being in the yard. So no, I haven’t seen any strays.” He seemed to believe me, or he was very good at hiding suspicion. “My wife’s a dog trainer and is outside with the dogs a lot every day. “ I added for no apparent reason.
“Are any of your dogs trained to track cadavers?” He asked. It took me a moment since I don’t keep up with Angel’s complete curriculum. “No, but we have one, George, that went through a week of training with the DEA in Maryland a couple of years back I don’t think they covered cadavers though, drugs, mostly drugs and we certainly don’t have anything like that here of course, never did, never would, no drugs.” (Wow, I really over-answered that!)
“We lost our tracking dog.” He said flatly, once again not showing any suspicion at all. “Is your wife here?” he asked. “No, she’s been out of town for a few weeks. ” I answered sounding to myself exactly like a nervous confronted husband on ‘Law and Order’. “And that dog, George?” He quickly fired back. I stuttered a bit: “She took George (the only trained drug/cadaver tracking dog in the county apparently. How convenient, too convenient?) with her, to Wisconsin, quite a ways away. Her cell phone doesn’t work where she’s at most of the time.” Sweat was forming on my brow,
did he see it? Sheesh, there’s sweat on his brow as well, what does that mean? Oh yeah, it’s eighty degrees out with very high humidity, get a grip!“That’s too bad.” Was all he said. Man this guy is good! “Well, if you don’t mind, could I get your name?” He whipped out a cheap, generic pocket pad of paper and touched he tip of a golf pencil to his tongue. I answered, spelling it three times for him until I finally got it correct.
“Alright Dennis, we’ll just look around a bit, sorry to bother you with all this” he said, obviously baiting me for a sophisticated mind-game trap.
“Sure, no problem.” I retreated back into the safety of my home, called Myster over to my side and stood there at the door with my arms confidently folded. Myster leaned forward, bared his enormous teeth, growled and barked at the departing intruder. This is what he does when he wants someone to scratch his belly.

I sat down once again in my comfy recliner and explained to Adam what was going on. “Interesting” was his entire contribution to the conversation. In the telling, it occurred to me that when the deputy was asking about dogs running loose, that he was actually trying to figure out what dragged the remains out of the woods and up to the roadside. “I forgot to tell them about the coyotes!” I shrieked. (I didn’t actually shriek I just ran out of unique verbs to use instead of ‘said’) I put on some shoes and glided out the door. (sorry, I left my thesaurus open)
I crunched my way down to the bottom of the hill where I found not only the deputy from earlier, but two others as well. I joined up and explained that there had been a lot of coyote activity the past few weeks, and if anything was going to scavenge, shred and drag, it was probably them. They nodded and stroked their chins.
They were walking side by side about twenty feet apart. “Can we get to that lake from here?” the chubbier of the men asked. “Sure’ it’s right around this ravine.” I pointed. It occurred to me then that I knew the area better than they, and without asking decided to stay with them as they stumbled through the thick, tick laden saplings, oak leaves and brush. The ‘lake is what the neighbors call it. To me it looks like a large pond, no more than an acre in size.

As we trudged we chatted and one of the deputies asked me if I ever shot deer or anything else because they had found several animal bones and skulls. “No, I don’t hunt, and the neighbors told me when I first moved here that there was a deer with an orange collar that was kind of a free-roaming pet, and asked me to please not kill it. I assured them as well that I don’t hunt.”
“Yeah we heard about that deer, saw it a couple minutes ago.” Another one replied. “You heard about it?” I asked, wondering if this was some sort of larger local legend. “Well your neighbor that told you about it is our dispatcher, we’ve been talking to her on the radio.”
As if this whole affair had been scripted by Kafka himself, a surreal and dreamlike sensation came over me. The collared doe, which I had seen several times, but only from a distance, stepped out of the thicker woods at that very moment and walked directly up to us. She stayed along in line with us as we searched the ground for the remainder of the remains.
“How many teeth do people have?” One of the deputies asked me. “Thirty something isn’t it?” I replied. “Yeah I thought so, so you think this probably isn’t human then?” he asked, pointing to a spot in front of him. I looked at the bleached jawbone half buried in swampy muck and sized it up pretty quickly. “Well it’s a bit pointy, disproportionately so for a human, and if it is human we’re talking about a serious vegetarian.” They looked at me as if I were Noah explaining all the construction noise to his neighbors. “The teeth, no incisors, those are the teeth of a grass eater, not a carnivore. It’s probably deer.” It could have been a zebra or a kangaroo as well, but I was betting on logical probability, not possibility. “You know anatomy stuff?” One asked. “Only basic stuff, I did take a college course in anthropology twenty years ago and spent time on a dig site, so yeah we learned some basics” (Like the difference between deer skull and a human one)
“Wow, that’s handy” the largest one said.
It was getting dark, and we were a good half mile from the house. I suggested that we take an alternate route back to the house, a clear logging trail after a rather significant incline. The deer stopped following us at the bottom of the hill; I patted her neck and she quickly scampered away.
We reached the top, and I noticed that I was in the lead. Odd, three of Jefferson County’s finest were huffing and puffing, red faced and sweaty. To be fair, I was red faced and sweaty and breathing very hard myself, but I’ve been holed up in cubicles most of my adult life. I used to be forty-something, these guys were all in their twenties or early thirties, with jobs that require them to do much, much more than push a mouse around a spongy pad and tap it occasionally. They were huffing and puffing and asking for a break. I laughed, I finally knew I could out-run them if I needed to.
A cell phone rang, which surprised me since I can hardly snag a single bar out of the sky from my house. The small deputy answered and started laughing. “Yes we did find it!” (Had I missed something?) “I’ll send you a picture!” He started laughing and fiddling with the buttons on the phone. “It’s Nancy, wanted to know if we saw her deer.” They chuckled, I stood in awe, wondering exactly what cell service provider the county used. “Tell her that her deer is covered with ticks” I jealously told him.
We approached the house, and shook hands. “Well if we find out the remains are human, and from what you’ve told us, they probably aren’t, but if they are human we’ll be back to bug you for a while longer.”
I smiled and replied “Cool, I can make sandwiches.” They didn’t get the joke, but neither did I, for that matter.
It was getting late and time to cycle the dogs. Bailey was tired from barking at us the entire $%$$!! time we were in the woods, Blue was hungry, because Blue is always hungry, and Myster was anxious. Myster had stayed in the house the whole time, because he’s my dog and Angel’s not here, so I get to make the rules.
I cinched up his choke-chain and long lead and headed up the driveway for his late evening sabbatical. I recalled that I need to take him to his favorite spots. One of those is at the top of the driveway where I can conveniently step in it on trash day.
He did nothing. There was the sound of a car coming down the road and that is all he could think of. Myster tends to obsess over cars going by at night. By obsess, of course I mean ‘go berserk’. I pulled the slack out of the fifteen foot lead and prepared for the imminent fifty pound thrust of raw and singularly purposed muscle launching toward the road. He tensed, waiting, waiting. I dug in. The headlights soon broke the darkness, Myster didn’t flinch, he’s just a dog and hasn’t associated headlights with cars, just the noise. The headlights seemed bright, and high. Then it occurred to me that it was actually a car mounted spotlight, like those on the deputy's cruisers. “That makes perfect sense, they’re still looking around. Must be a slow crime day!” I told Myster, who wasn’t listening at all. The stocky black dog tightened up as the car drew nearer. I could feel his vibrating tension through the lead. Just as he was prepared to leap (and suddenly rediscover that he was on a leash) it turned all surreal again, suddenly and loudly. At the very point that Myster would normally lunge; just as the car, a mere twenty feet away became visible from his low vantage point, the Deputy, for reasons unknown activated his blue flashers and ridiculously loud siren and sped off.
Myster froze, absolutely froze, he didn’t leap, he didn’t blink, he didn’t breathe. It was as if he had been hit by cosmic, Old Testament lightening, completely frozen in place. The car was well gone when he finally moved. He sighed, turned around, squatted on his favorite spot and fully relaxed the required muscles. He’d been holding on to that for a while.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hillsboro Library: Been there, done that, even got the t-shirt.

The opinions expressed herein are mine and mine alone. They do not reflect the opinions of others, including the oft-mentioned Library committee, unless specifically stated as such. I am NOT a spokesperson for any organization, whatsoever. AND Just because I support a cause, does not mean I support the whole bowl of Kool-Aid that people in these groups may espouse either. I find it odd, that I need to explain this, but I've been called on it before. I support some 'liberal' causes as well as some 'conservative' causes. Please don't make any assumptions about my opinion on any specific issue based on broad, subjective labels or comparisons. 

I’m not usually considered a community activist. I have been involved in various causes and organizations over the years, but not to the point of being one of those people that seem to be constantly hip-deep in dozens of organizations and committees at a time.
I’ve also run a couple of political campaigns, losing ones, myself as the candidate. I even chaired a county party organization for a while until I got fed up with the pettiness and simply walked away from it.
Now, I only get involved with causes and campaigns that I feel I can actually contribute to. I don’t have a lot of spare time, especially during the week, so that’s a consideration as well. Then there’s the on-call thing, a rotation at work where for two weeks out of every twelve, occasionally more often, I am required to respond to a call within twenty minutes, 24/7 for that period. The call may be minor or it may kick off an all-nighter, I never know until I get it. That ‘never knowing’ means that there are large sections of time I simply cannot promise to anything or anyone else in advance. It’s the reason I have, more than once, refused nomination for elected office in the few organizations I do belong to.
I wasn’t actively seeking another cause, but this one fell out of the sky and into my lap. I read about it in the local paper and was smitten.
Hillsboro is the seat of the sixth most populous county in the state. Hillsboro does not have a public library branch. Residents of the Hillsboro area do not even have free access to the several libraries in the county.
The libraries in the county are not unified. This is another absurdity in my mind, but the fact is that people with a library card from Desoto do not get to use that card in other libraries, such as the one in Festus.  There is a county library system, there are branches, but they are separate entities from those in some of the larger towns. I don’t know what to do about this ridiculous fractured system but that’s an issue for another day.
County Council:
The immediate cause was to get the proposal for a modest property tax increase on the November ballot, for Hillsboro area residents to vote to establish a sub-district of the Jefferson County Library system.
Petitions had been signed and turned in, verified, and approved. The petition was submitted to the County Commission to vote to put the proposal on the Autumn ballot.
This is where I came in. This is what I read about in the paper.
I contacted the named chairman, Karen Huskey, via email, letting her know that I supported the cause as I understood it, and would like to learn more. She suggested I meet her and her merry band of pro-library-nistas at the county council meeting. It was to be the upcoming Monday night at six-thirty.
Which meant I had to drive from work directly there, not enough time to go by the house or have dinner. I got to the county facility about six-fifteen. There were a few cars in front of the nice, newer building, but plenty of spare parking. As is my custom, I parked away from the front. I sat for a few moments but didn’t see anyone I recognized. I would only recognize Karen from her Facebook photo, which if like most people’s, might be waaaaaay out of date.
So I went in, followed the din of voices to the back, a very large meeting area arranged to accommodate public hearings. On the wall behind the dais was a portrait of a rather youthful, if not downright virile Thomas Jefferson. Red wavy hair pulled back into a tight, short, colonial ponytail. The council member’s seating was side by side in a slight concave arc. Seven councilmen and a seat in the middle for the County Executive.
Jefferson County re-vamped it’s county government a couple of years back, when it adopted a ‘home-rule’ style. I really don’t know what that means. This though did mean that there were frequent pauses and conversations with the county’s attorney about procedures and rules.
The din subsided as the councilmen took their seats, the county executive called the meeting to order.
I had seated my pretty self near the back, close to the door, once again as is consistent with my chronic, introvert nature. For a while I didn’t see anyone remotely looking like Karen. I was fairly sure I’d be able to recognize her even if she did fudge her Facebook photo, due to her shock of short red hair. Sure enough she came in surrounded by a harem of school-teacher looking ladies (not an insult). She packed a bundle of folders and papers. Karen’s that type, I can’t imagine her without at least two immediate tasks at hand and carrying around every single item required for those tasks. Karen, though she would probably deny this, makes ordinarily organized people look like complete slobs.
I was going to rise to approach her, but the councilmen were getting ready to start. Coincidentally her large brood of lackeys and hangers-on filled the entire row beside me.
We settled in for a long, boring ride, our proposal was near the bottom of the agenda.
The exec called forth a local Baptist preacher for the invocation, a quaint nod to the prominent Christian traditions of the area. The prayer was bold and broad, dipping occasionally into old-English (King James) thee’s and thou’s because everybody knows God really likes it when people talk to him like a hammy, third-rate Shakespearian actor.
Then a kid led the Pledge of allegiance, since if nothing else we’re a country of loyalty-oath-synchronized nationalists obsessed with symbolism over substance.
(Why yes, I am itching for a fight!  ;-) **
Then things got really dull. Tedious amendments to the minutes, parking lot zoning issues, property usage, appointments to boards, the dusty grist of the county political process. Nearly three hours in, with only one seven minute break by the council, the exec finally announced and personally endorsed the library proposition. They voted, unanimously, to pass it.
That was it. No dropping balloons, no confetti, no champagne, no marching bands. It was simply on to the last minor items, then adjourned.
I met up with the clutch of librarians and teachers outside the meeting room. I introduced myself to Karen and a few others. I asked my questions, the first one being: “A proposal to raise property taxes, in this conservative area, in this lousy economy, on the same ballot as one of the most polarized presidential races in American history. Are you nuts?”
The ladies I talked to were very friendly, generous and welcoming. They took my questions and answered them eloquently, confidently and openly. I gathered enough from this little informal, impromptu chat that I knew I wanted to be part of this effort.
The Committee:
The next regular meeting of the campaign committee  was the following Wednesday. Over the weekend I'd presented a proposal to the Writers Society of Jefferson County, or as I refer to it 'Write Club' to make a donation to the campaign.  It seemed a natural fit. Write Club meets in a Library, the one in Festus, and is all about writing and books, etc. I knew the financial situation of the group since I was the treasurer for two years. I also knew the members to all be community and literacy advocates. I was right, it was a fairly easy task. I made the proposal, threw out a number and they voted to approve it, unanimously. (should I have asked for more?)
I also hit up a local small business I happen to have an intimate relationship with, my wife's dog training business. To add to the growing sum, I wrote a check from our personal account as well. In my my mind it's one thing to 'support' a cause and quite another to throw down for it. I wanted the library campaign to know that I was serious about my support by putting my own money (as well as that of others) where my mouth was.
The Wednesday meeting was slated for seven P.M. so I didn't have to break the law to get there in time. In fact I got to Hillsboro around six-thirty, not enough time to go home, but too early to show up fashionably. So to kill about fifteen minutes I headed over to the Hillsboro's new and improved Dollar General Store. There I picked up a cheap novel and a box of mini-moon pies (banana flavor). I didn't even know such a wonderful thing existed. They're moon pies just like I used to munch on with an RC Cola as a kid, just smaller. A box of six of these lovely treats was only a dollar.
Having wasted some time and pocket change I headed over to the Presbyterian Church.
It was a small, old-style church, with an open meeting room in the basement. I entered the foyer (vestibule?) and heard voices from below.  I stepped down into the musty basement and found a beehive of activity.
Karen and her flock were laying out tee shirts, exchanging papers, stacking up pamphlets, all things familiar to a grass-roots political effort. I felt oddly at ease with the buzz.
I still sat in the back, near the exit. It didn't matter, they found me anyhow. I was handed a stack of pamphlets and a couple of pages of stickers. The stickers had a legal disclaimer as required by law and policed by the state ethics commission. In Missouri all campaign signs and printed material must cite the full name of the committee paying for them along with the name of the treasurer. A lot of the pamphlets that had already been printed didn't have this, so stickers were made and applied.
Other papers were passed around, the minutes, the agenda, and a campaigning guide. As I toiled away a lady stepped down the stairs looking a little lost. Another n00b. Perhaps seeing me as a safe ally, or more likely as an irresistibly handsome, potential sugar daddy, (I get that a lot) she sat down next to me and was immediately welcomed by one of the worker bees and handed a stack of pamphlets and stickers.
Eventually the business meeting was formally called to order, the first item of business, introductions. We went around the room. Renee, the new lady, spoke first. The main items I took from her lengthy, yet information packed spiel was that she worked with the high school speech teams and that she was willing to conduct children's book readings at a new local restaurant. She would be collecting donations from the readings and contributing them to the library effort.
I wrote those things down so I'd remember to ask her about them offline. *
I was up next. I told them my name, and about my interest as a concerned citizen, and about my affiliation with Write Club. I then presented the three checks with a disclaimer. "I'm not a fundraiser, salesman, or a public speaker, I can't promise that I'll be able to bring in any more money."  I wanted this to be perfectly clear. I'd rather pole-dance naked in a busy biker bar than to stand in front of strangers and ask them for money.
I kept rambling: "Letters to the editor, I can handle though, I cut my writing teeth (deliberate mangled metaphor) writing LTTE's." Karen seemed pleased with this after I told her about the scores of letters that I'd written in the 90's to the Springfield News Leader.
Then we went around the room and learned about the rest, those that had been with the effort for a while. A few were even involved with the previous, unsuccessful effort to get this done, twelve years back. There were teachers, librarians, local politicos, and an impressive teen-aged kid who came up with rather clever fundraising ideas.
I made a few notes, mostly indecipherable, as to who was whom.
Then we got to the meat of the meeting, the nuts and bolts of community campaign strategery. How many signs to buy, color schemes, fund raising ideas, the booth at the county fair, the upcoming raffles, etc. We also voted to hold the next meeting in late August. I marked it on my calendar.
After all was said and done I was given a tee-shirt, sky-blue, just like the ones being worn by many in attendance. I was part of the team.
So what's next?
I'm not sure. I'll write a couple of LTTE's, drop links on my restaurant review blog, and even write up a Tedious Discourse dedicated to the effort. I'll offer to help put up signs, maybe pitch ideas or offer opinions for firing up the masses.
We've got an uphill battle ahead of us. The greater Hillsboro area is largely rural, and if my observations are accurate, populated by a significant number of right-wing/anti-tax types. We've got to juice up the base, those that would support the initiative, enough to get them to actually show up and vote for it, as well as offer rationale to those that might instinctively be against a tax hike of any flavor, that this is an exception, a tangible exception that speaks to quality of life, of providing local families and kids with the most modest, yet essential of basic community services.
I don't think I know how to do that. However, after watching this group in action just for  a very short time, I'd say we have the brainpower, the energy and sufficient collective passion already in house. If we can just keep it focused, on point and on message through election day, then we'll drive this thing home. We don't need a landslide, just one more vote than the opposition, and at his point there is no organized opposition.

So that's where we are, and what I've been up to lately. If you want to help out, then let me know, or contact the group directly. If you have advice or thoughts about the effort, please feel free to let me know.

For updates on the effort, tune your Facebook dial to:


*Local Restaurant: See the eatandcritique blog for 'Texas Taters N' More' 7/23/2012.
  Speech Teams: Something else new to learn about my mysterious and closely guarded past. A High school speech student and competitor myself, I took that experience  and training and occasionally applied it to my adult life. Not by public speaking, I still don't do that if I can possibly avoid it,  but by judging debate and speech contests in Springfield, Mo. back in the 90's.  When I heard about Renee's connection to the local teams, I volunteered my enviable and handsome services once again. She gave me the email address of the person in charge. I've yet to hear back, they're probably still quivering in awe.

** Pledge/Prayer: No disrespect intended. Of course, if you take issue with my front-loaded, deliberately baiting, tongue-in-cheek perspective on these hallowed traditions, let me know, we can talk it out... but do keep in mind these two words: 'Debate judge'.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A New Pen Pal!

 “ . . . it was the poor caring for the poor that rescued them from total chaos.” – Toby Hightower

My home county in Kentucky, Trigg, is bordered on the east by Christian County; Christian County is bordered to its east by Todd County. Christian is the most populous of the three, by a factor of five or more.  Neither Trigg nor Todd counties have a daily paper, Christian does. Based in the county seat of Hopkinsville, the "Kentucky New Era" serves as a regional daily paper.
My mother and father still reside in Trigg County and like most really old people they still read actual paper newspapers. Mom was doing this very thing last week when she came across an article that she knew I would be interested in. So she clipped it out, pulled out an old-fashioned, #10 standard business envelope, sealed it up, wrote my street address on the front of it, (by hand!) stuck one of the world’s few remaining postage stamps on it and dropped it off at something called a ‘post office’.
When I called her dutifully on Mother’s day she mentioned that she had done this. She didn’t say a lot about it other than I’d find it interesting.
It arrived on Monday. Twenty four hours later I had a new pen pal.
It was actually two articles, one by the staff writer Jennifer P. Brown (“Writer’s quiet life thrives on contact, May 12, 2012) and “Annals of poor help explain mother’s role” by Toby Hightower.
Ms. Brown wrote kindly and respectfully about Mr. Hightower, stating that he recently moved to Indiana, is 91 years old and a full time caretaker for his Alzheimer-stricken wife, Iona. He is also a regular, twice-weekly columnist for The New Era, as well as a contributor to the weekly "Todd County Standard". He is a retired teacher and served in World War II. (Salute!) But that wasn’t the part that fascinated me most, it was this part, from Mr. Hightower’s own column: From 1927 through 1933, my father was the keeper of the Todd County Poor Farm.”
My mother was right. I was very interested.
For those of you who have known me for a while, you will recall that a few years ago I developed an interest in the poor farm system of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I had located the farm site here in Jefferson County, Mo, visited it, stood in the overgrown, untended and unmarked cemetery. (which actually was the seed for my interest in visiting cemeteries as a hobby/contributor to I contacted the local historical society and found out as much as I could, which wasn’t a whole lot. I even wrote a blog post about it on this site.
I’d stated that I was going to write something, a novel maybe, or a series of essays/stories on the subject. I did in fact start several chapters of a fictional work based on the life and experiences of a young girl and her helpless/emotionally incapacitated mother on a poor farm in the 1880’s.
Several attempts.
The problem was in the details. I knew the raw facts, that most counties in the U.S. had established the farms beginning just before the Civil War, and that most were closed down after other welfare systems came into being in the 1930’s and 40’s. I had names, census data, and a few clippings from archived newspapers across the country. But that was about it.
When it came time for my characters to do normal, everyday things, I came up empty. Questions far outnumbered data. Records of the era are all but gone in floods, fires and neglect. Very few survivors of the farms can be found alive. Most of the farms themselves no longer exist, except a few that evolved into asylums and nursing homes.
So the work dried up. I occasionally tried to fill in the gaps, but some were just too big. Names and dates were nice, but they spoke so little about the actual lives involved. And since I wanted to reanimate their lives in story form, not in some cold, statistical documentary, I was unable to go further without simply making stuff up. If I’m going to make stuff up to tell a story, I’d just as soon have space ships and time travel, it would appeal to a wider audience.
So I sent an email to Mr. Hightower. I told him about my interest and asked him, politely, for recollections, anecdotes and observations.
To my surprise, he was not only agreeable, but very forthcoming. He was a child when his father was appointed superintendent, around seven years old, but he lived on the farm for the next seven formative and impressionable years.
He replied: I am so glad to find someone who is interested in those poor people who fell under had times and wound up in poor houses.  I spent seven years of my childhood in close contact with such people and I have several stories that I will tell you as times goes by. I was seven (1927) when my father became supt  of the poor farm and the number of residents was around twenty-five but the depression which started in 1929 caused that number to double.”
He continued:
I will tell you a few stories of individuals and tonight I will feature an old lady in her seventies who was active in the cooking operation by her own choice.
Mary Mays was an intelligent widow with a son who was mentally handicapped.  Mary and her sister had both fallen on hard times through long illnesses and deaths of their husbands.
The two sisters and the handicapped son were assigned to a small cabin but they took in an eight year old orphan girl and mothered her tenderly. They kept the cabin scrupulously clean and Mary was the clear leader of the little unit.
One day Mary lost her most prized possession--her wedding ring- and was almost totally devastated.  A young Black man, Charlie Key, who was a quite ill resident, figured that she might have lost it in the dish water which had wound up in pig slop and he carefully sifted through gallons of slop and found the ring.
Mom had only a fifth grade education but she knew a little about leadership and encouragement. She baked some simple cakes and held a little celebration of the finding of Mary's ring”

He encouraged me to ask specific questions, which I did.
1. Were there 'typical' meals? Special meals? Hog butchering, etc.? How about during the dead of winter?
2. What sort of clothing was available? Bedding?
3. How frequent/infrequent were visits from church or charitable organizations? Sunday services?
4. Was there schooling for the children?
5. How much involvement, if any, was there with the local law enforcement?
6. Were the residents in Todd County segregated by gender/race/affliction?”

Plus a few more.
And by the next day, the answers started flowing in. I’ll not print them all here, but though none of it was really alarming, it was all very real and human. We spoke of human nature, of the peculiar but essential spirit that enables people to rise above the starkest adversity and seek, or if necessary, create a society, a family, an order amidst disorder, regardless of how miserable and bleak.
 In one exchange he closed: Looking back, I am unable to see how my parents managed, but I realize that it was the poor caring for the poor that rescued them from total chaos.”
Though this largely unilateral information exchange is still very young, I have already learned a lot, I’ve been recharged. Something will become of this. 
  This welfare system, with all it's warts and wrinkles stood as the national standard for nearly a hundred years. It describes the treatment of the most helpless among us. It should serve, for bad or good, as an example of that which has been tried. This is certainly history that, if forgotten, we're certain to repeat.
 Times were mostly hard for our ancestors, few safety nets, tough conditions, rugged souls. Yet as a young, immature society we still cared enough to try something, to do something, to care for those that could not care for themselves. And they were people, real people, hundreds of thousands of them. Sure, we hear about the cowboys, the railroad barons, the pioneers and founders, but what about the downtrodden, the forgotten? They too had lives, loves, joys and fears. Their lives were worth no less to them than ours are to us. These people knew struggle and adversity that would crumple most of us here and now. How did they get by? What got them up in the morning? What about their hopes and dreams? How do you sit around and just simply wait for your cheap (lowest bidder) pine box to be lowered into a forever unmarked grave, with no one you ever knew in attendance other than those other pathetic souls in the very same situation, to grieve over your loss?
And most importantly, what gave them joy? 

Friday, May 4, 2012

While my family and I were ignorantly ignoring weather warnings, dining out at a burger place in Arnold, Mo. Many of my friends, (yes, I have friends and yes, more than one.) were diving for cover, or as my cubicle neighbor Ramesh was doing, watching a dream shatter.

Shredded leaves behind my workplace.
Arnold is on the south side of St. Louis County, The storm whipped through the middle, hitting Maryland Heights, where I happen to work, the hardest. This wasn’t a gentle storm, it wasn’t even a typical torrential,  electric April thunderstorm. Sure there were wind gusts up to 70mph downtown that blew down a beer garden tent and killed a poor guy, but this one had the meteorologists really harking about hail. Big hail, NASTY big, baseball sized hail.
Hail is ice. Layers of it. As a frozen pellet falls, high lower level winds can shoot it back upwards in a storm system, coating it with moisture, which freezes at high altitudes, and then falls again. If the upward air currents are strong, as they are in a big thundercloud, they get tossed back up again. This repeats over and over, layer after layer until the stone is simply too heavy to be thrown back up again. Nasty thunderheads can produce ridiculously large stones. These stones are solid ice, hard and heavy. Dissected one can expose the concentric layers of ice formation.
Golf ball sized hail can be nasty, causing windshield and window damage and some serious injuries to exposed humans. We didn’t have golf ball sized hail, ours were different balls altogether. Think tennis balls and baseballs, yes indeed, officially confirmed, baseball-sized hail.
Yeah, ouch!
In some cases it appeared that smaller stones had bonded together to form stupid-large chunks. Tree shredders, car-destroyers.
If you live or work in the heavy-hit area, you lost any skylights you had. You also are likely on the phone with your insurance adjuster and a rental company. Forget it though, last check there were very few rental cars available in St. Louis.
So my poor friend Ramesh watched as the hail slammed down, the sound of rocks hitting his roof, sounds of windows and windshields being shattered.
Just a few short months ago, Ramesh took delivery of a new car. He’s a pretty frugal, sensible guy, a devoted husband and doting father to his young daughter. He is not at all a flashy, big spender.
For several years he’s dreamed of one really nice thing, a new car. He owns a late model, practical Hyundai, but Ramesh, like many men, had dreams of something a little flashier. He scrimped and saved for a few years, never sacrificing any family need. He put away a little here, a little there until finally he could afford it, and finally, proudly, almost guiltily ordered himself a nice BMW.
Guys like us make decent money. But not at all one-percent’er kind of money. Most of us drive reasonable, reliable, practical cars, family cars, except for the few single guys who may do a bit better. Personally I’m rather satisfied with my 100k-mile, 2004 Cavalier, but who wouldn’t be? Actually cars are just not my thing, they are a tool, a necessity, and in many cases little more than a metal money-pit. Some guys really, really like cars. Another friend of mine scrimped, saved and sacrificed all other luxuries to buy a new Jaguar XJR. It’s pretty much the only really, really nice thing he owns and he absolutely spoils that car. It is a pretty car, he’s taken me to lunch in it a few times. I have to admit, it’s an ego-trip I could probably get used to.
Ramesh works hard and takes very good care of his small family. This car though meant a lot. He researched, compared, researched some more, months went by figuring out just the right options before he finally pulled the trigger on that deal.
A couple of months ago he finally took delivery. He fiddled and fussed with every detail. He shined it up and parked it away from the heavy traffic spots in the parking lot.
Unfortunately though, Ramesh lives in Maryland Heights.
He watched from his window, completely helpless as the sudden storm dropped frozen chunks into his neighborhood. He watched, helplessly, as they slammed with a fury into his pride and joy, not once, not twice, but scores of fist-sized icebergs crashed into the pristine BM’er’s windows and polished metal.
The new car, with less than three thousand miles driven, was reduced in a matter of five minutes or less, to a punctured and pelted wreck. Big round dents, some the size of sledge hammer blows, dozens of them. The front badge, torn away, the windows and windshield shattered by multiple mighty blows. The storm didn’t spare the trusty Hyundai either, if anything it suffered even more.
I asked him, and even being the proud man that he is, admitted that yes indeed, he cried. I can’t blame him. Sure it wasn’t a physical injury or loss of a real family member or anything like that, it was a car. Just a car, but seriously, have you ever worked really, really hard for something? A thing you and other people admire and respect, and then had that thing simply bashed up in front of you?
I’d cry too.