The Winemaker Finds a Ghost by Chuck Thurston




It is 1898. Joe Stanton’s Irish immigrant father, grimy and exhausted after a long day’s labor and beaten down under the weight of company store debt, has little hope to pass on to his youngest son. And yet there are the evening fiddle tunes, the dark Irish stories told around the small stove in the miner’s shanty and the wit that never buckles in the face of grinding poverty. Joe has some token schooling, but at 12, he takes his place alongside his father in the mines. He would seem to be yet another “strong back and weak mind” — slaving life away building the wealth of others. But he has a different plan. He does not want the new century to see him coughing up the black flecks that mark his father’s hacking spells.

At nineteen, Joe manages to exchange the coal company scrip from his last month’s work for American cash and heads south across the Piedmont to escape the meager prospects in the West Virginia coal fields. Surely he can put his strong back to work to support himself, and send some “real” money home to help his struggling family.

Granite is being quarried near the small North Carolina town of Mount Barclay. Barclay Mining is run by Millard Wheatley — the latest of several owners. None before him have been able to turn a profit, but, with Wheatley’s influence, a rail spur is being extended to the quarry proper which should finally make the enterprise profitable.

Wheatley is rich, arrogant — and unscrupulous. He controls what he doesn’t own outright in the little town — from cradle to grave. A general store with children’s shoes and candy barrels — and a funeral parlor — sit at opposite ends of Barclay’s single, dusty business district. In between, scattered offices house his land, real estate and lumber interests. The head of the last elk shot in the region is mounted prominently in his hardware store. This building is two stories with a full basement under it – one of the most impressive structures in the small town, and the headquarters of his Mountain Empire.

Wheatley’s quarry boss takes on Joe and is soon pleased with his strength and tireless labor — and his wit and humor. Joe is quick with a joke and a laugh and not given to the complaints and grumblings that mark most of the other laborers. Days spent in the free air of the open quarry are reason enough to lift Joe’s spirit, after the grimy pits of West Virginia. He describes his family’s misery and his gratitude toward his present circumstances to his Tarheel coworkers.

He is soon the most reliable “dynamiter” in the operation — analyzing the granite seams, drilling the holes, placing the charges and finally, lighting the fuses. All this done, he sprints to a safe spot for viewing, and watches with pride as the resultant blast frees exactly the portion of the granite wall he aimed for.

Wheatley doesn’t spend much time at the quarry, but hears enough about Joe to realize that the young Irishman could be useful to him. Young, naive and trusting, Joe is increasingly asked to run personal errands for Wheatley who teaches Joe some rudimentary money handling and soon has him clerking at his hardware store. He begins to mold him into a tool for a scheme that the great man is hatching.

Some of the tycoon’s dealings have caught up with him and he realizes that unless he turns a large profit on one of his enterprises soon, his entire house of cards is apt to tumble. He comes to the conclusion that the hardware store might be his salvation.

The store sits smack in the middle of Mount Barclay’s main thoroughfare, on the east side of the north-south running street. The bottom floor is filled with the paraphernalia of the day: nails, nuts, bolts, horse tack, plow points, metal cookware, axes, knives, shovels, picks, tubs, kegs, — and a thousand other items useful in a nineteenth century town. Wheatley’s hunting trophies occupy any wall space that doesn’t have a bridle or harness hanging on it. A pot-bellied stove sits in the middle surrounded by three or four cane-bottomed chairs. The second floor has a large meeting room and several smaller rooms of stored merchandise and files containing the store’s records. The stoned up cellar houses jugs of turpentine, kerosene and a few bottles of locally made spirits that Wheatley consults on occasion.

But it all has to go. Wheatley has insured the store and its contents to double its real value with the connivance of a bribed insurance auditor. He begins to set in motion a scheme to collect this windfall. The store must be destroyed, but it must be done in a way that throws no suspicion on him — and ideally – directs the blame toward someone else. He has no lack of enemies. He just needs a willing collaborator.

Wheatley cultivates Joe’s trust with patience and cunning. Joe thankfully accepts the credit that Wheatley extends to him. He can, after all, send more of his own cash back to his impoverished West Virginia family. He discovers – with Wheatley’s encouragement — the charms of the whisky collection in the cellar. Wheatley also feeds the gullible young man tales of greed, fraud, bribery and other malfeasances that Wheatley himself is exquisitely familiar with. Wheatley paints a picture of himself as a struggling businessman beset on all sides by others wanting to do him in. Joe remembers his own family’s servitude under unscrupulous mine owners, and he is inclined to believe his employer.

The tycoon concocts a tall tale. He gradually convinces the uneducated Joe that a rapacious insurance company has worked a devious scheme to seize most of his property. Joe is astounded, however, at Wheatley’s carefully described plan to burn down his own hardware store to forestall this takeover. As Wheatley hopes, Joe doesn’t fully comprehend the fallacy of this logic and is seduced into helping his boss carry out the plan.

On a cold, blustery October night in 1899, Wheatley provides Joe with the last of the details. The store ordinarily closes at 5 or 6 in the evening, when Joe locks up and leaves for his boarding-house supper and pint at the Quarry Tavern; Wheatley customarily holds court with a few of his cronies in his upstairs room. On this night, however, there will be a change in the routine.

Wheatley tells Joe that following lock-up, he is to stay behind and clean up the store. The crowded aisles and dusty merchandise have not seen the hand of broom or brush in some time and Joe will busy himself with these chores until he hears Wheatley and his shady crowd leave by the back exterior stairs. The early darkness of autumn will have fallen.

Joe will wait a bit until he is sure that Wheatley and the others have all left, then light a kerosene lantern and take it with him to the cellar. He will hang the lantern on one of the darkened cellar’s supporting posts. Wheatley tells him that he will see an empty whiskey barrel which Wheatley has filled with various combustibles — pitch pine knots, straw, some oily rags. Joe is to drop the lantern in the barrel, make sure that a nice blaze is started and then make his way up the short set of stairs to the cellar’s outside entrance – large swing-out doors opening to a side alley. Wheatley assures Joe that the fire will provide him plenty of light to exit by and that he need not panic. Wheatley will join him at the Quarry Tavern, buy his supper and treat him to a pint of his favorite. They will be dining and toasting long before the flames have raised an alarm in the small town.

Joe carries out the scheme. But Wheatley has added something else to this tub of destruction that he has not told Joe about. As Joe watches the flames catch and begin to devour the barrel’s contents, he hears another sound that chills him to the bone – the unmistakable hiss of a fuse! Wheatley has planted dynamite beneath the top layer of kindling!

Joe is paralyzed for a brief moment, then turns and runs headlong up the three steps and pushes up against the wide cellar doors. But Wheatley has taken no chances that his treachery will be uncovered. The doors have been barred from the outside. Joe realizes the fuses must be short. He backs away from the doors and rushes at them again, putting all of his weight and the strength borne of his terror against them. The old wood splinters and the doors bang open against their frames. He senses briefly the cold, fresh air — then he is enveloped in a light and roar and blown into the windy October night.

Health Bulletin by Chuck Thurston


The human immune system is strengthened by exposure to good art and nature – according to some reputable scientists – in an article I read last week. I was in a hurry and didn’t read much beyond the title and first paragraph, so I didn’t discover what their definition of “good” in this context was – but I can make some fair guesses.

Good art would be of the type you might see on a gallery wall; or a good play (not some harrowing thing from Ibsen) or a lovely dance performance. Good nature would be almost anything not scorched, desiccated or floating belly up in pond scum.

This news couldn’t have come at a better time – as we enter the cold and flu season. I immediately hurried into the bedroom where my wife was folding the laundry and relayed this bulletin. “You know – we should take in a show at a strip club the first chance we get!”

Declarations like this never get a good review. I had to explain. “Look, la danse is undeniably art – even if it’s performed around a pole – and you will never see more of raw, lively nature! And, by golly, if we have a glass of good red while we’re watching, we have the equivalent of a booster shot! Antioxidents! We’ll get out of this winter without a sniffle!”

She had turned her back and was arranging the hangers in her clothes closet. I might have to go by myself.

pole dancer

Offing the Boyfriend by Chuck Thurston

mangled bicycle

Last night my wife said to me, “I have to kill off a boyfriend.”

“Well, Paul Simon said there must be 50 ways to leave your lover. I’d stop short of doing him in, though. That seems kind of drastic to me.”

“Oh don’t be silly,” she said. “This is a character in the new book I’m writing.”

“Why do you have to kill him?” I said. “Can’t his girl friend just dump him?”

“It’s more complicated than that. They are engaged to be married. But there is a plot twist that makes it unlikely, and well – it would just work better if he was out of the picture – permanently.”

“Damn,” I said. “You are starting to sound like The Godfather here. I didn’t realize that your romantic fiction was so cold blooded.”

She ignored me. “The heroine can’t move on with her life until he is gone, and it has to be an accident.”

“I don’t see the problem,” I said. “Automobile, drowning, getting shot, let me count the ways!”

“Well – he lives in Denmark,” she said.

“Piece of cake,” I said. “You guys never cook anything. You and Gitte used to eat beef tartare all the time. Raw beef with a raw egg yolk! That is just asking for food poisoning!

She dismissed my argument. “Danish beef is grass fed, so they don’t have to load them up with antibiotics. Gitte and I have never had a problem – and look at you! How many times have I seen you put away pickled herring?”

“True, but I washed it down with aquavit. It’s a know fact that salmonella can’t swim in schnapps.”

“Exactly!” she said. “Do you have any more bright ideas?”

“You are going to make this really difficult. We could waste him in a New York minute over here in the states — sure you can’t have him on a business trip over here? Why – a little tainted BBQ at some county fair in the U.S., and his girl friend’s worries are over! She can go after that ferry boat captain she wanted in the first place!”

“I thought of sending him on a trip,” she said, “but it doesn’t work with the rest of the plot.”

I gave myself a healthy pour of a good North Carolina merlot and began some serious thinking. Finally, I said, “Ok, let’s work on this. Denmark is pretty much surrounded by water. How about you drown him?”

“That’s the catch,” she said. “Since you are never more than 20 minutes from the ocean anywhere in Denmark, everyone knows how to swim.”

“Well, perhaps a shark…”

“No sharks in the Baltic.”

“How about he gets caught in a police crossfire, while they are chasing a bank robber?”

“This story takes place in the 1960s,” she said. Danish policemen didn’t even carry guns then.”

I was getting a little irritated now. “Well, I know the Danes have cars – can’t we have him get killed in an accident?”

“I thought about that, too, but Denmark has very few traffic deaths. Most people use bicycles for short trips – or the public transportation – busses, trains.”

“Oh yeah – I remember trains,” I said. “Ran on tracks. Nice big roomy seats. You could get a meal in the dining car and then go back to that seat and take a snooze. Say – how about he is walking across the street and gets hit by a drunken driver!”

“Hmmm…drunken driving is pretty rare in Denmark. They don’t just pull licenses – they take away your car!”

“Well, I guess that would tend to make you want to bar hop by bus,” I said, and added, “Dearie, you would be better off moving this plot line to the U.S. We could get him shot almost any old place – a movie theater, a Walmart parking lot, a college classroom…you name it, we can shoot it up! Are you sure you can’t bring him over here to visit an ailing relative – maybe take the afternoon off to catch a movie?”

She did not go for this at all, and insisted that this boyfriend had to meet his Waterloo in Copenhagen. She looked dejected, and I was getting desperate. I didn’t want to abandon an automobile as an accomplice in this.

“Say, you mentioned that they do a lot bicycle riding in Denmark. Why don’t we have him get hit by a car while he is out biking!”

She thought that this had promise, but pointed out that bicycles have the right of way over almost every other conveyance. “Automobiles, pedestrians – everything defers to the bicycle; and everyone in the country knows this. There are separate sections of the roads for bikes. A bicyclist is very rarely killed by a car.”

“But wait,” I said. “Suppose it was a foreigner – a tourist! He could be from a country where the auto is king and everything else must revolve around it! Drive-in banks, restaurants, funeral parlors — a country where bicycles and bicyclists are ignored or treated with disdain – where they are viewed as pests on the public highways, routinely ridiculed for their spandex outfits, and run off the road if they dare to slow traffic down!”

“Why…a tourist…that might work,” my wife said.

mangled bicycle

“Great. I knew I could slip an American into this plot!”


Funky Friday Sci-Fi by Chuck Thurston


My wife and I started a new Friday evening tradition.  I discovered that you can find old full length sci-fi movies on YouTube and play them  through your TV!  We’ve seen three so far and I believe that the common denominator is that all of the titles are misleading!

Take Devil Girl From Mars.  This is no girl, boys – this is a woman.  W-O-M-A-N!   She is here to recruit healthy, virile males to replace the increasingly wussy Martian men.  Furthermore, she is dressed in cape, high boots and shiny black vinyl.


And she is having problems?  Her first mistake was landing her damaged spaceship outside a little Scottish countryside tavern.  She tries negotiation first (before she resorts to intimidation), but they have to put on a pot of tea and think it over.  I will never look at the Highland Games the same.

The Riders To The Stars don’t actually go to the stars.  In fact, they never leave low earth orbit. Even the cosmologists of 1954 knew better than that.  Scientists want to know why some meteors survive the atmosphere and strike the earth intact.  They suspect that they are coated with some substance – that if it were found  – could enable them to build spaceships that would stand the rigors of outer space.

They send three meteor-collecting rockets out there to capture some and bring them back. The pilots are all scientists with not as much as an hours flight time in a Piper Cub, but never mind.  Two of the boys come croppers, but the last (and best looking one) grabs a rock – using the last of his fuel and has to crash land in the desert.


His space ship is torn to shreds, but he is a miraculous survivor and comes back to conscientiousness just in time to suck face with the gorgeous Doctor Flynn, who has lusted for him from the beginning.

A very young Robert Loggia is the lead in The Lost Missile, and he would probably be just as happy if this piece of work was left off his filmography.  Well, the missile isn’t lost at all.  It damn well knows what it’s all about.  It came from outer space and is circling the world at low altitudes and leaving a five mile path of destruction below it as it cruises along.


Ultimately these orbits will leave the earth a cinder, so something must be done.  The film looks to have been made for Civil Defense footage and a lot of time is taken showing populations heading for underground shelters or fleeing the anticipated path.  Poor Ottawa is in the way, and school children are shown crawling beneath their desks, curling up in a ball and tucking their head between their legs.   Their next logical action should have been to kiss their patooties goodbye, given the scenes of Ottawa’s post missile condition that follow.

New York is next in the path, and I won’t spoil the ending for you.  Ask Robert Loggia, if you can contact him – but he may not own up to it.

Night Watch by Chuck Thurston

meteor shower

Last night was supposed to be a good night for Perseid meteor watching. I waited until the last glow of evening – around 9:45 p.m. local time – and went out on my back deck to have a look. I hung onto the rail and craned my neck skyward. The sky was clear. I saw the Big Dipper and located the North Star. I saw four airplanes. I saw a lone lightning bug.

I turned around to all the compass points I could manage from my deck and scanned high and low. I saw what might have been a UFO low on the eastern horizon. It was just above the trees and looked like one of the big 18-wheeler rigs with all of the running lights lit. It hovered above the trees for a minute or two and disappeared below the treeline. It didn’t make any noise.

I saw my neighbor’s son pull into his dad’s driveway. He is older and married now, but he works odd shifts at his job and comes around to check on his parents now and then. A good son, to be sure.

I saw another lightning bug – perhaps trying to locate the one I spotted earlier. I didn’t see any more flashing, so perhaps they hooked up. I can understand that if not much else was going on. I considered lighting up a cigar myself, but decided it was too close to bedtime.

I saw a small dark form scurry across the back yard. It might have been one of two neighborhood cats I have seen now and then, or perhaps a rabbit. I wondered if it might be an escapee or perhaps a scout from the UFO I spotted earlier. I thought of going back into the house for a flashlight to check it out, but I was primarily interested in meteor watching so I bagged that idea.

I was out for a half hour or so. I was getting a stiff neck. I never did see a meteor. I went back into the house and had a small glass of port before I went to bed. I can hardly wait for the Ursid meteor shower in December.

Chuck Thurston is the author of “Senior Scribbles Unearthed” and “Senior Scribbles Second Dose” – both available on Amazon.  He has a third, “Senior Scribbles Bathroom Reader” in the works and will finish it if he stops wasting his time at other useless activities.

Down To The Crick by Chuck Thurston


I recently got a Facebook post from one of our friends, a day after our annual church picnic:

“After the picnic Sunday, Drake and I played in the creek with Rosie and Amelia. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. We found crayfish, some eggs we could see the eyeballs of whatever they were going to hatch out as, a golf ball, and metal parts from a car or tractor.”

Does that paint a mental image from your childhood? It certainly took me back. We lived on a farm that had a sizeable creek running through it. In my mother’s West Virginal vernacular it was a “crick,” and that’s what it was to us, as young boys.

On any given summer day—after morning chores were taken care of—we’d respond to Mom’s question, “Where are you headed for?” with “Down to the crick!” She didn’t seem to fret about any great hazard associated with this expedition, and waved us away, if our work was done.

The crick was a source of endless fun. It passed under the two lane blacktop just a few hundred yards east of our house; we owned land on both sides of the road. On the downstream side of the bridge was what we called the “deep hole.” It was perhaps four feet deep and contained all manner of minnows, chubs, frogs, crayfish, water bugs, and an occasional water snake. We splashed among them all. We had no bathing suits, as such, but wore cutoff jeans that had worn through the first—or even second—generation of knee patches, and the bottoms hacked off.

The hole itself was not much larger around than a good sized hot tub, and just one or two strokes of what passed for us as swimming took you from one side to the other. We even fished in it. An occasional four or five inch chub would grab one of our hooked worms.

Additional delights were to be found along other stretches. When there was a fair volume of water running, we floated all manner of things downstream: cans, bottles, crude homemade boats, then, bombarded them with rocks. Ultimately, we would upgrade our arsenal to BB guns. These were the war years, and our targets were German or Japanese vessels, to be attacked from our shore batteries and sunk, before they bobbed out of range of our cannonade.

In the spring, the rains and snow melt would turn the crick into a fearsome torrent. We ventured down to watch it, and could hear large rocks being tumbled end over end by the force of the current. At these times, the crick was far from the gentle brook that would provide us with so much fun later. It seemed dangerous and threatening, and we kept our distance.

During the heat of a long summer, the stream was often reduced to a sluggish trickle. Pools would shrink and some disappear. This would reveal new wonders. Areas that had been scoured by the spring floods would have moved the channel a bit to one side or another. We would see new sand bars and pockets of gravel previously unknown. We would explore these endlessly, looking for the gold that we knew must be there. We never found any, but, now and then, as we wandered along the stream bed, we would come upon something intriguing—half buried in the sand. What in the world…? We would commence to dig.

It might be an old plow point, the tine from a harrow, a sheet of tin—perhaps blown from a barn roof—other metal objects the origin of which we couldn’t identify. It was all salvaged and laid away to await the next visit of the scrap man.

During the war years, parents—ours included—were genuinely terrified of the dreaded Infantile Paralysis—Polio. The disease and its means of infection didn’t seem to be well understood. Certain food items were associated with the affliction and were removed from our diet. I remember that peaches were one of the suspect fruits, and I don’t believe I was allowed one during those years. Turnips—which I could as well have done without—apparently passed the health muster, and I was permitted any number of them.

I am amazed, as I think back on it now, that the crick was not put off limits to us. By the end of summer we would be covered with stings, welts, cuts, bug bites, scratches—badges from our summer fun—and all bathed in the crick.

It drained the woods, fields and pastures to the north and east of our farm. It carried the flotsam of the farms and wilds it traversed. It was a watering hole for every critter known to those parts, and carried God knows what with it. But it also carried the joys of our boyhood. Perhaps in the great wisdom of nature, it also carried our immunization.

Writers Night Out by Chuck Thurston

FE open mike poster

FE open mike posterDear Writers –

Here’s what’s coming up in the next few months:

July 23 – Writers Night Out – Mike Knox

Mike Knox is a journalist with the Kannapolis-Concord Independent Tribune. He’ll be our discussion leader and tell us how his reporting skills helped him in putting together a documentary film on the circus. Who doesn’t like a circus? This promises to be an interesting and informative evening. As always at our meetings, we will wind up the evening with an open mike so you can share your poetry or short prose selections with us.

August 27 – Writers Night Out – Peg Robarchek

Peg published a book of poems, Inventing Sex this spring. Listen – if that title doesn’t get you off the coach and to a meeting…Peg will read from her work, and discuss poetry generally – or whatever else pops up. Be prepared to read some of your own or perhaps a favorite poem by someone else for open mike. An evening with Peg Robarchek is to be much anticipated and subsequently savored.

September 24 – Writers Night Out – Melinda Metz

Melinda will discuss her plans to support NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – This is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.  On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Melinda is a tremendously productive creator of Young Adult literature.

All meetings are at the French Express Coffee House at the corner of S. Cannon Blvd and Dale Earnhardt Blvd. – around the corner from the new Planet Fitness facility. We get started at 6:30 p.m. and go until the FE folks kick us out – generally around 8:00 pm.  Get there early to sign in and get a cup of the good French Express coffee – or iced mocha this time of year might be your choice.

September 26 and October 24. Kannapolis Arts Festival dates

This is an outstanding opportunity to sell your published material at an authors’ table. Check with Mike Knox ( for details.

Chuck Thurston

Regional Rep, North Carolina Writers’ Network

Charlotte Metro North Region


Kwitcherbitchen by Chuck Thurston

bad attitude

My wife has had a string of gnawing physical ailments over the last month or so; recovery is sure, but too slow in her view, and she is not a paradigm of patience. She is getting snarky. Today she gave me a semi-apology. “I shouldn’t bitch to you about my problems. You didn’t do anything to deserve it!” Well, I gave a quick second to that emotion.

bad attitude

We got talking though. Bitching about what gripes us is quintessentially human. It might even be necessary. There is probably some therapeutic value in letting all your grumpiness hang out, but how can we do this without jumping on those close to us?

My wife remembered a time several years ago when I came home from a particularly bad day at work and said a few unpleasant things to her in the kitchen as she went about preparing dinner. She was irritated and snapped at our oldest son who was lax in doing something she had asked him to do. He, in turn, hollered at his younger brother over some matter – and he got on our daughter – the youngest – for no good reason at all. She, justifiably, took it out on the dog, which continued its doggy smile and wagging its tail. Labs for some reason known only to their maker seem to have a perpetually friendly attitude. My bad day at work fizzled out at that point.

The dog – Maxine – was available in our incident, but had her limitations. Granted, she could maintain a cheerful composure, but she couldn’t provide what the bitcher really needs – someone to say things like “sit down…tell me all about it,” or “I don’t blame you – that would irritate me, too,” or “there, there…it’s going to be alright.”

Look – there are visiting nurses who visit convalescents to change dressings, administer medicines and perform other such ministrations. Why can’t there be a specialist in listening to our complaints and empathizing with them – a kind of designated bitchee? Surely, as the population ages, and gets more cranky, there is a call for this skill. We can’t leave it all to ministers who have enough problems of their own. These good people tend to have to much anxious concern. We need people who can be totally unobjective – who could care less about what is ailing you.

george burns

I am reminded of a remark that George Burns once made in response to someone who asked him what the secret to his success as a comedian was. Burns didn’t hesitate. “Sincerity,” he said. “Once you learn to fake that the rest is easy!

I can see a promising career path here.


Chuck Thurston is the author of Senior Scribbles Unearthed and Senior Scribbles Second Dose – a collection of humorous essays and memoirs.  Available on Amazon or through Second Wind Publications.