Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Uncle Nick

He rattled the pages as he searched for the sports section of the Delaware State News. Leaning back in the metal porch glider, arms held wide, his teeth clamped down on the unlit stub of a Phillies Blunt. The cigar was fireless because Aunt Sadie put her foot down about smoking in the house.

"Get rid of that stinking thing, eh!" Aunt Sadie's words are stamped on my memory.

Uncle Nick never gave up his cigars though. He just chewed them to death. They became a part of his presence after he went into the Army in 1941 when he was twenty years old.

I stayed with Aunt Sadie and Uncle Nick many summers as I was growing up. They never had any children so I guess they sort of adopted me for the months I had no school. I didn't mind. In fact, I loved it.

Uncle Nick was a movie projectionist, and there were numerous perks for me that went along with that. He even showed movies in the service, training films and first run movies to departing soldiers. He told me he was stationed at some base in New York State for the entire War because it was such an important job. He was responsible for keeping up the soldiers' morale.

When he was fourteen, he got a job as circular boy, handing out movie programs from house to house with free movie passes as pay. He sneaked up to the projection booth to learn the job. Nobody under eighteen was allowed up there at that time, but the theater owners saw that he was determined. They encouraged him with the promise of a real job as projectionist when he was old enough.

He showed his first film in 1938, a movie titled The Crusades, a Cecile B. DeMille spectacular starring Loretta Young. He never stopped until the theater finally closed its doors in 1982. He did everything from splicing film, playing the music before the show, dimming the house lights, even opening the curtain.

I know some of this firsthand because I got to sit in a special chair in front of the little window in the projection booth and watch movies. Of course, some movies I wasn't allowed to see, but that was okay. Disney films and westerns were my favorites anyway, and they came with hot salty French Fries, fountain sodas, and sometimes a Sugar Daddy for dessert. Aunt Sadie came with us once in awhile, but I think the newness of it all had worn off for her years before. And the booth reeked of cigar smoke.

When a new feature started, Uncle Nick had to go early enough to check the film for breaks. He set up a full reel on this old hand-cranking machine, fed the film onto an empty reel, and with his thumb pressing down on the film to feel for splits, he turned the crank with his other hand until all the film was loaded on the empty reel. He repaired breaks with some kind of stinky brushed on glue. Then, the reel had to be rewound to start at the beginning again. I never remember a film breaking during a show in all the times I went with him. He said he never wanted to hear those boos the audience makes when the screen goes white. A feature film came on several reels so there were two projectors for switching from one to the other. This happened almost every twenty minutes. Uncle Nick did this seamlessly without missing a beat. He showed me how to look for a little blob in the right hand corner of the screen. This was his cue to get ready. He said there could be a murder scene happening, and he had to make sure the audience never missed a shudder. Years later, as I watched Psycho I thought about Uncle Nick switching those reels in the middle of the shower scene.

Since Uncle Nick never learned to drive, Aunt Sadie always picked us up after the show. At home, he would turn on the television and watch Jack Paar for a few minutes, then channel check for a late movie. Yep, he watched movies at home. He said he never got to see the good parts because that was when he was busy changing reels.

Uncle Nick smoked Phillies Blunt cigars, but that was not the only Phillie he was fond of. He was a Philadelphia Phillies fanatic before the real Phillie Phanatic ever existed. I'm talking about the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. I watched the games with him when they were on television, and we knew every player, every position, and all their stats. We yelled and shouted at the TV screen as though the players could hear us. I am a big Phillies fan to this day, never to change. No matter how many times they let me down, I'll always be looking forward to next year.

Going to the horse races was another of Uncle Nick's favorite pastimes. He always claimed he was not superstitious, but when he won an exacta or trifecta, he would wear the same tee shirt, unwashed, back to the races the next time and the next time if it kept bringing him good luck. Sometimes it did. I remember some of those tee shirts getting holey. He was a pretty lucky fellow. He never bet a lot, but he loved to see the horses coming down the homestretch. His dark brown eyes grew animated and intense as they neared the finish line. To punish his losers, he threw his program and tickets on the ground and stomped on them. He chewed his cigar down to nothing by the last race.

When I got to tag along to the races, on the way home we always stopped at a restaurant specializing in chicken and dumplings. For dessert, we ordered rice or bread pudding, his favorites and mine, too. Oh, and I forgot to mention, he especially loved donuts and Tastycakes. A covered cake dish for these sweets held center place on Aunt Sadie's red-trimmed Formica table. Tastycake sponsored the Phillies. When their song came on during a game, that was my cue to grab two. Vanilla was the best.

When I think of Uncle Nick, I always picture him on the porch glider, reading the sports page, and chewing on that cigar. He had curly black hair and, of course, a little paunch from all those sweets. I miss him. There'll never be another one like him. He passed away in 2011, at ninety years old. I don't think anybody had as good a time at living as he did, and it rubbed off on everyone nearby. A person couldn't help but have fun with Uncle Nick around.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Another Corner



Standing in the corner was a frequent punishment in grade school when I grew up in the 1950s. Hardly anyone escaped it. This particular day it all started on our return trip from the library when I was in the fourth grade. Mrs. Quillen, my homeroom teacher, never smiled, and she wouldn’t have known what to do with a joke if it had crawled up and sat down beside her. She dressed fashionably, yet conservative would have described her tailored clothes. Her hair, though short, fell in soft waves and framed her black cat eye glasses. She asserted her authority in the classroom and expected everyone to follow her rules without exception.

Our class library excursions happened once or twice a month. Everyone lined up single file to make our way to my favorite place in the entire school. Once there, we were turned loose with admonishments of “no talking” and “conduct yourselves like ladies and gentlemen”. Of course, I never had a problem with that. I searched for books with such intensity that the passage of one hour seemed like a few minutes. When we were called to line up again to check out our books and return to our classroom, I invariably ducked in near the end of the line. Sometimes I needed a special invitation, if you know what I mean.

Now, I don’t remember liking boys in the fourth grade. At the very least, I didn’t pay much attention to them, but apparently, I had a secret admirer, an admirer who wanted to make me aware of his presence in that snaking line back to our classroom. Harold Cain (will I ever forget that name) was behind me, and as we walked back through the long hallway, he was intent on getting my attention. At first, he quietly kept saying my name, but I gritted my teeth, counted to ten, and did not encourage him by turning around. I ignored him because I knew I would be in trouble with Mrs. Quillen if I so much as uttered one syllable. With no results from name whispering, he resorted to using the only thing he had at hand. He kept tapping me on the back of my head with his library book. Tap…tap…every few steps.

At first I managed to remain calm and continue walking, thinking he would soon give up and quit, but he had the persistence of J. K. Rowling. I turned and gave him my most menacing stare. I can see him now, tall and skinny with spiked short blond hair and sporting a smug grin. High water pants, a less than white t-shirt, and a pair of grimy tennis shoes highlighted his wardrobe. He was quiet, saying nothing, but as soon as I turned around toward the front, he began again, tapping me on the back of my head with every few steps I took until I could no longer stand it.

I twisted around, swung my outstretched hand that grasped my library book, and I let him have it smack on the side of his face. Wow that felt good…for a few seconds. I heard the thunderous shout, “What’s going on back there?” Mrs. Quillen marched back in plenty of time to see a huge bright red lump appearing on Harold’s cheek. Harold, who now appeared shy, meek, quiet, and a little surprised, became the perfect victim as I sputtered angry abusive epithets to anyone who would listen.

After my outburst, Mrs. Quillen neither wanted nor allowed any explanation from me. I was to stop shouting this instant. She clearly saw the injured party and reached her own conclusion. She grabbed my arm, marched me back to the classroom amid snickers and positioned me in the far corner by the blackboard “for as long as it takes to calm down and apologize to Harold”.

I don’t remember how long it took me. It seemed like hours, maybe days, but finally, I said “sorry”, grudgingly, and Mrs. Quillen warned me never to strike another person in her class ever again, or I would be more than sorry. Harold never said anymore about it. I think he was scared of me after that, and of course, over sixty years later, being a Scorpio, I still remember his name.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Tete a Tete Instead of an Event

I went to an "author talk" today at the library and only two people showed up, the librarian who set it up and yours truly. I felt so horrible for the author, Nancy Nau Sullivan, a memoirist, which is the reason I went. Turns out, it was great. I asked all kinds of questions I never would have asked had there been a crowd, and shared things I would not have shared. Each of us was very chatty, including the librarian.

Of course, I bought her new book, The Last Cadillac, how could I not? She gave me some good tips about transitioning stories and even some advice on what might be the message of my memoir. Little light bulbs were going off in my brain like fireworks. I am so glad I went and got to meet her. It was such a shame there was no crowd, but their loss, my gain.

I haven't started her book yet since I am still slogging through Untamed by Will Harlan, our book club selection for next month's meeting. Basically, it's a "save the wilderness of Cumberland Island" book and a biography of Carol Ruckdeschel, its biggest defender. There is a little bit of story which seems repetitive to me, but I'm not finished yet so maybe things will improve. I read about her online and she continues to live there (until her death by will of the Park Service), doing her thing with sea turtles, etc. I have to admire her since she is three years older than I am, tough lady.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Dress From Hell

When my daughter was little, first grade size, I decided in order to be a good mom I should try my hand at sewing her some cute dresses. After all, I had taken home economics in high school and made myself a stylish, well-put-together jumper with the help of my teacher and a Simplicity pattern. After that success, my mom promptly bought me a portable Singer for my next birthday with only a little whining from yours truly. But then, with a few attempts at more intricate patterns, my interest waned, and the Singer was lugged from home to college to married life with very little use.

But now I had a daughter, a real live guinea pig, um, model, on which to try my brilliant sewing ability. You should know that I am not a patient person. I am also endowed with more confidence than real know-how, but no matter. When I decide something, I am ready to do it. I did not have any little-girl patterns, but I had plenty of little-girl dresses. Why not use one of them for a pattern? And material? Well, how about those pretty yellow print curtains that would not work on any of the windows where we lived now? Why take the time to shop for patterns and material when I could improvise and get started right away?

I have to say that little dress I made looked divine, on and off my daughter. No one could have done a better sewing job. It hung perfectly, I hemmed it to match the same length as its real dress pattern, and when my daughter tried it on, the fit could not have been better. I was so proud I could hardly wait for her to wear it to school the next day.

I made her stay in her jammies until after breakfast so there would be no chance of a food catastrophe at the last minute. Then I slipped my beautiful creation over her head and tied some pretty yellow ribbons in her hair. I helped with her coat so as not to muss anything, and we were on our way to Allen Frear Elementary. It was so cold but the school was close, and the car heater barely had time to warm up before we were there. At the doors, my beautifully dressed daughter hopped out and mumbled something about an itch around her neck, and I thought, oh no, not those horrible hives again. But we hadn’t had strawberries since last fall.

“It’s probably just some chapping from the cold weather, honey. Go ahead in and show everybody your new dress. Love you, Sweetie. See you in awhile.”

And I drove home, glowing in my proudness. Remember that saying, from the Bible I think, about pride coming before a fall?

Hardly an hour had passed when my phone rang.

This was my end of the conversation.

“Yes, this is her mom.”

“Yes, I did.”

“What problem?”

“I’ll be there right away.”

It seems my poor daughter was one red mass of itching from her neck to her legs. When she told her teacher I had made her a new dress from curtains, Mrs. Bickling suspected fiberglass to be the cause of the problem.

I hurried back to the school and picked up a sad-looking little girl who now had a coat on with no dress underneath. My masterful creation was stuffed in a paper bag never to be worn again.

My poor itchy daughter spent the balance of the day in a cool baking soda bath until she looked like the proverbial prune, but at least she wasn’t bright red anymore and the itching had eased. Our doctor prescribed some cream and antihistamine and by the next day, she was her normal pale blond self and back in school with a hilarious show and tell story.

I wondered why I hadn’t itched when I was making the dress, and I posed this question to our doctor. Apparently, some people are not allergic to fiberglass, and I was one of them. The only negative effect on me was damage to my pride and a quick end to my renewed interest in sewing.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Power of the Writer



If you’re a writer, do you think of yourself as powerful? Or do you think of your writing as a pastime, something to do when you have nothing else to do? Consider the following subjects as examples of the impact of writing.

First impressions

We have all heard the term applied to meeting people but how about the books you have read? James Michener comes to my mind right away. He gave me my first impressions of Alaska, Hawaii, Africa, and many more. News stories assault us almost every minute and give us first impressions on numerous topics, some true, some not. We get our first impressions on so many subjects through reading other people’s writing; it is staggering to think about.

Inspiration

I feel this term would not exist if it were not for the writer. Encouragement through inspiration leads us to further our knowledge of something that interests us. It makes us act, try something, read more, and it feeds our soul. Positive thoughts, advice, ideas…all of these come to us through inspirational writers. Inspiration means different things to different people, but if you are interested in being inspired, there is a book out there for you. And if there is not, you should write one.

Immortality

History, how would we know it without writers? Sure, someone may dig up a mastodon or a dinosaur, and we can visit a museum to see what they looked like, but if it were not for writing, why would we even be interested? We need writers to make us act. Our stories can give us immortality if we put them to words and pass those words on to readers. Some of us may think our life stories are dull and uninteresting, but there is someone out there waiting to read about us. Think how your story would interest a person living in another culture, and how it might impact them.

A Memory Bank

Alzheimer’s is prominent in the news and seems to be something in all our futures if we live long enough. Who knows what we will remember when we finally succumb to this tragedy of the mind. We can make it less of a tragedy by writing down things we remember now so those memories can be passed on to others. It does not matter your current age because we do not know what tomorrow may bring, or even if we will have a tomorrow. Journals are our memories for tomorrow. Pretty though they may be, don’t leave them blank.

Artistic Creation

How many have turned to a book to learn how to do a craft or play an instrument or paint a picture or use a camera or any number of other things. A piece of writing may have originally planted that seed in our imagination. Books always go along with how-tos. Unless we are just browsing, we search youtube videos after we have read about something that interests us. Self-help books are a multi-million dollar industry for the writer. Have you ever ordered something you had to put together. Although directions may be a last resort, I always have to go there eventually.

Engagement

I am not talking about the marrying kind, but the writing kind that captures your attention and makes you think in ways you would not have thought before. It gets you involved, stirs you to participate in some way. Do you remember the movie, The Sixth Sense? Yes, maybe it was a little far out, but engaging? You bet. It was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.  This is powerful and engaging writing, not soon forgotten. I know you can think of many other books you will never forget, even some that may have changed your life.

Persuasion

I hope this little essay I am writing will persuade you to take up or resume the practice of writing. Through rhetoric, I have offered reasons to write, appealed to your emotions, given examples, used metaphors, and many other writing techniques to sway your thought process to this end. If you have ever written a letter of complaint, you know what persuasive writing is. Op ed pieces fit in this category, too.



Writing is a powerful force in today’s world, and you hold that power in your fingers and in your mind. Share it. I may be one little dot in the universe (Carl Sagan’s Cosmos), but I have the power to decide if anyone remembers me when my little dot floats away. You have that power, too.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

How To Write A Review

I am a member of an online writing site, which I dearly love, and from time to time I participate in helping judge site contests. All the judges are required to review each entry submitted, and I thought I would devote this post to my review method.

In order for a review to be effective, that is, constructively received, it must be balanced, not all good and not all bad. All of either one will negatively impact the writer. No one is perfect and no one is all bad; we all know that. So, how do I get that balance?

First, I read the story as a reader, looking for something that will hold my attention. This first read is usually a quick one, unless I stumble around, bumping into glaring mistakes.

After the quick read, I start looking for plot, characters, conflict, resolution and possibly a theme. Then, I make a point of answering these questions:

  • How did it make me feel? What emotions were invoked?


  • Can I relate to it? Have I had similar experiences?


  • Is it believable? Even sci-fi and fantasy must be believable.


  • Does the dialogue flow easily? Can I hear it? Does each character sound like he should?


  • Is there a time period mentioned? How about a place? And setting?


  • Did anything in particular stand out or especially draw my interest?


  • Is there anything in the story I would change if I were writing it?


  • What was memorable about the story, something I might think about later?

I also like to scatter a few relevant emoticons throughout my reviews for attention, for color, or to get a point across. They help lighten the atmosphere.

I always begin and end with a few words of sincere encouragement, and I stress that the review is my opinion and meant to be helpful.

I hope something in this post will help you review others and perhaps allow you to receive helpful reviews with the intent in which they are given.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Remembering Christmas Past

Christmas has always been a happy time for me, and now, without Jim, I have many memories of happiness for comfort. I remember three Christmases in particular as I think about the holidays of the past.

One is an image of teens, boys in white shirts and dark trousers, and girls in white blouses and dark skirts. The year was 1960 and I was among this group as we progressed, two-by-two, up the center aisle of my high school auditorium. Each of us held a lighted candle in our right hand with little paper drip pans pushed up through the bottoms. All the girls wore corsages of sprigs of holly tied with a red bow, which we had helped to pin on each other as we waited in the library. We sang the words to “O Come All Ye Faithful” as we slowly walked to the front of the auditorium, and we glowed in the admiration of the onlookers, our parents and friends filling every seat. 

We filed into the rows of our designated seating and blew out our candles, wisps of white smoke floating upward. We heard the special music of soloists, one I remember in particular.. She was a tiny little girl with long black curly hair, but her voice was anything but tiny. I don’t remember her name. She was younger and in a lower grade than I was, but when she began to sing “Oh Holy Night”, I got goose bumps all over. She was magnificent and captured the complete attention of the entire audience. I’m thankful for this special Christmas memory of my junior year in the glee club.

Another Christmas I remember well was my first with Jim as his wife. He was an Airman Second Class at Dover Air Force Base, and, of course, we were poor. I think his monthly allotment was something like $125. Credit cards were still in the future and our rented living quarters were tiny. We managed to get a small tree and a few decorations and lights from my Mom. I can see myself sitting on the sofa in the dark, watching them blink on and off as I waited for Jim to come home on Christmas Eve.

The only presents under the little tree were from our relatives, and we agreed presents were not important between the two of us. We were happy just to be together. But when Jim came home, he was carrying a huge heavy gift-wrapped box. I couldn’t imagine what it could be, and I knew whatever it was, we had no money for it.

He wanted me to unwrap it right away and I was eager enough. There would be time for questions later. It turned out to be a portable stereo record player and in another package there was an album of our favorite songs by Peter, Paul, and Mary. We played that album until we knew the words of every song and the order in which they would come up. Jim’s favorite, Old Stewball and mine, Blowin in the Wind, were played over and over that night and for many weeks afterwards. Nothing could have made me happier

Even later when I found out the way the present came into being, my enthusiasm remained high. It seems Sears and Roebuck had discovered a way for everyone to spend money in their store for Christmas. It was called a revolving charge account. I won’t tell how much that stereo ended up costing. But it was worth every penny.

The third Christmas I think of is a sad one, but has ended up being a wonderfully happy memory for many people. In the summer of 1986, Jack, Jim’s older brother, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Surgery revealed the cancer had already spread, and he was given less than a year to live. As Christmas neared, his family decided to make it a very special one since it might be his last. All Jack’s friends and relatives were invited to a huge Christmas party in his honor. People brought every food imaginable, games were played, the kids, and even some grownups, put on hilarious skits and went out of their comfort zones for laughter and memories.

One of Jack’s daughters took rolls of pictures and had copies made for all the relatives. I still have my set and always pull it out near Christmas time each year. Everyone looks so happy, doing their very best to make Jack’s Christmas special. I always get a warm feeling as I see the faces of love in those pictures.

I have many other happy Christmas memories, but these three are way up there at the top of the list, and it makes me feel good just by sharing them.