The Winemaker Finds a Ghost by Chuck Thurston

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Prologue

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.

Look Ma, No Hands! by Chuck Thurston

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Driverless cars are coming. Audi has tested one and others are ramping up. U.S. automakers Ford and Chevy have advance plans; in Europe, Mercedes-Benz and BMW are in the hunt. Google has one on the road, and Tesla can’t be far behind. Many experts look for them to be commonplace in another 4-5 years.

One experiment by Audi had the vehicle drive itself from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas – about 560 miles – and Audi claims that it can navigate through city traffic. We can expect more widespread testing in the near future, but I, myself, would watch carefully before I stepped off a curb, unless these cars have been put through a testing regimen that satisfies me. Here is the Thurston robo-car premium test package:

1) Take that jitney down to Atlanta and put it on the I-285 beltline at rush hour. Put a piece of cardboard about the size of a cell phone in front of one of the front sensors to block part of its vision.

2) Have the jalopy circle the parking lot of a super Walmart on Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving. Have it compete for the closest parking spaces next to the entrance. It should be able to ignore thumps on the trunk and hood and be oblivious to various vocal commands and suggestions received by shoppers.

3) Send that robo-rod up to the back roads of Pennsylvania deer country after dark during rutting season. Choose a time when many hunters will be going back and forth to hunting lodges with cases of refreshments. For the most effective testing, time the cruise to coincide with a late November snow or ice storm.

Okay, if the car comes back in one piece from this – and hasn’t wiped out any other traffic on the road – send a salesman around to talk to me. He’d better pull up in front of my house hands-off, though.

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Quit Yer Bitchin’ by Chuck Thurston

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I have been watching the 2015 US Open championship at the Chambers Bay golf course in Washington state. The course has a nice industrial landscape cachet about it – you can imagine Duke Power looking it over for coal ash dumping; it might be used for motocross on alternate weekends.

A highly respected senior golfer from the Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino (none of them, incidentally) era said that it was an unplayable disgrace and totally unsuited to host such a prestigious event as the Open.

I take strong exception to that. I think it is high time that professional golfers be subjected to the same indignities that we weekend hackers are. The group I hang around with is not the country club set. We generally look for the low cost option and we know all about scalped tee boxes, unplayable lies on brick hard fairways, and baked greens. Taking divots on the fairways I am familiar with is a calculated risk. Wildlife abounds. A coyote ran across the fairway in front of me as I was teeing off on one course. I know a guy who surrendered a ball to a copperhead; took a drop several feet away, and we didn’t make him take the penalty.

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One course that I particularly love is built over an old landfill. Two or three days of rain often bring strange things to the surface. I would not stick my hand in any of the ponds on the course to retrieve a ball. I’m also partial to a course that was developed out of an old dairy farm by the retiring farmer. He had never played the game himself (I assume he had watched some on TV) but designed the course himself and carved it out with his tractor and box blade. It has more moguls than an Olympic slalom course. I know a course where the bunkers are gravel. My golfing pals would feel right at home at Chambers Bay; it would be an upgrade!

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I am not about to take this “unplayable” baloney from a guy who practiced five days a week, didn’t even have to pay for his own equipment, played in highly manicured landscapes, won several majors – and made millions at it!

My advice? Suck it up, dude! Join my buddies and me now and then. We gripe and complain, but we laugh a lot and we fudge the regulations a little. We allow one mulligan per nine holes; a foot wedge to a little tuft of grass perfectly acceptable to compensate for a fairway lie on a rock outcropping; pick the ball up after a triple bogie and count it. Look if we don’t fudge the rules, how in the world are we expected to improve at this game?

Chuck Thurston is the author of the Senior Scribbles series, available on Amazon and Second Wind Publishing.  The 4th in this series “Senior Scribbles Bathroom Reader: Your Results May Vary” will be published this fall. He is an incurable hacker, but loves to hack.

 

 

Gadgetry by Chuck Thurston

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I draw near – it unlocks the door;

A button will close it behind.

It shows what’s behind me – and more –

Lets me know when the traffic’s unkind!

My New Car is smarter than me…

 

When I’m watching some foreign flick,

And I don’t understand what they say;

It gives me subtitles real quick,

Or lets me back up and replay!

My TV is smarter than me…

 

It tells me the minutes I’ve used,

And let’s me block all the blockheads.

It knows time and date, stops abuse,

‘Cause it knows when I’m due for my meds!

My Cell Phone is smarter than me…

 

My Gadgets are smarter than me.

I’ll bet yours are smarter than you;

Don’t fret, friends – just let them be.

Kick back and enjoy this breakthrough.

 

It ‘s tough to admit it, I know;

And saying it really makes me blush.

I feel more and more like a schmo.

Our gadgets are smarter than us…

Mother-in-Law by Chuck Thurston

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Mother-in-Law

I loved my mother-in-law. There – I said it, and I won’t take it back. The bad MIL jokes never hit home with me. We have a picture of Elli at eighteen – about my wife’s age when I first met her, and the resemblance is clear. She was a dish…the mom, I mean…and it was like mother, like daughter. So I guess my goose was cooked from the beginning.

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My father-in-law was a different matter. It wasn’t that I didn’t care for him, but he could be a difficult man. When I later had a daughter of my own, I understood some of his protectiveness. His attitude was probably shaped because his daughter was an only child; my own daughter had two older brothers who required my sustained vigilance. I only had so much time, you understand.

My wife and I had only been married a few years when her parents divorced and my now ex mother-in-law returned to her native Denmark. Elli had not been particularly happy about moving here with her husband to begin with. The United States was not a good fit for her, and the marriage didn’t stand the strain once my wife left to begin a family of her own.

Ironically, we saw more of her after the split. She would fly over from Denmark and spend two or three months with us almost every year. She was the most accommodating houseguest you could imagine. She knew when to inject herself into the life of the household and when to retire discreetly and let the others go about their business without her. She insisted on buying her own beer when I went to the store, and I kicked back more than once and knocked one (possibly two…) back with her. She was worldly wise, with a wonderful sense of humor. I thoroughly enjoyed her company.

She was still a dish, incidentally, and I had no problems escorting her to whatever events we thought she would have fun at – and Elli managed to find the fun in almost everything.

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So keep your mother-in-law jokes. Mine was a gem. And I miss her, doggone it.

Rooning it Doing it by Chuck Thurston

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Long ago I heard an expression, “Rooning it doing it!” The “rooning” was a corruption of “ruining” and it described those actions whereby we create a malfunction in the process of fixing one.

A classic case: A small electronics firm turned out circuit boards that were part of a subassembly going into a larger electronic device.

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After fabrication, the boards would successfully pass all of the subsequent inspections and tests they were put through – visual, electrical, etc., until they were given a final “OK” stamp and installed in the larger assembly – and then a large percentage of them would fail! Why? Engineers and technicians were puzzled until they made an incredible discovery.

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The ink used in the OK stamp contained carbon – an electrical conductor! In many instances, the placement of the stamp bridged a small section of the circuitry creating a high resistance short in the circuit board! In the act of approving the part, the final inspectors were innocently introducing a failure!

My wife and I discovered that life can be like that. Last week we were headed into the Y for our morning workouts when Heidi tripped on the rubber mat in front of the entrance and fell. She managed to break most of her fall, but broke a bone in her right (naturally – she is right-handed) hand.

Now get this: Last year Heidi went through a number of trials – culminating in a terrific automobile accident in November. Another driver ran a stop sign and T-boned our van. Long story short, Heidi went through some serious rehab and began doing exercises at the Y designed to improve her balance and increase her strength and stability.

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So why is this girl smiling? Well, what else can you do? The doctors say that she will be as good as new in 4-6 weeks. Incidentally, she was back in the Y five days later. Some of her program is on hold to be sure, but she is still able to make a recumbent bike whistle, so life goes on.

 

Catch Us If You Can by Chuck Thurston

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Seaplanes used to be a staple of the US Coast Guard search and rescue business. As with any aircraft, periodic training is required to stay fresh in its operation. With seaplanes, “water work” – takeoffs and landings on the water must be conducted now and then.

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Greenwood Lake is a seven-mile long lake that runs roughly northeast to southwest straddling the New York and New Jersey state line. That’s where the pilots and crews of the Coast Guard Air Station in Brooklyn did their practicing when I was part of that unit back in the 1950s.

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The lake was a popular resort area then – it still handles a lot of boating activity – and there was a small Coast Guard unit on the lake. This unit was alerted beforehand if we were planning to do our maneuvers there. These were always conducted in good weather. To be sure, there are no landing strips as such on a waterway, but our plane would come in on an announced heading and the unit would send out a 40 foot patrol boat to “sweep the sea lane” as we made our approach. This meant that they would criss cross the anticipated descent path of the plane and look for debris in the water – perhaps a half sunken log – that could easily puncture the thin aluminum hull of the Grumman Albatross that we flew.

Such activity wouldn’t go unnoticed by the lake residents, of course, and as we approached the lake, boats from all corners of the lake would head toward our intended landing path. When we touched down, watercraft of every type and vintage would look to surround us. One of the pilots would bark out to me, “Hey Radio, get up in the bow and tell those *!@#$&!’s to get their *!@#$&! away from this plane!” Understand that the plane would be settled in the water at this time – plowing – with the big props still turning at idle. A miscalculation by one of the boaters might send him and his craft under one of them with catastrophic results.

I would climb down out of my radioman’s seat on the flight deck, get on my hands and knees and crawl forward between the two pilots to the nose of the plane. I would open the bow hatch there. Before standing up, I would settle my cap low over my stern visage, and put on my aviator’s glasses. Then I would rise up out of the nose of this big plane and holler at the boaters edging closer to the aircraft. “Hey you dumb *!@#$&!’s! Get your *!@#$&! away from this plane!” I took particular delight in this task if there were several hot speedboats (and there always were) with young dudes and their girlfriends – the bathing beauties of the day.

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The best was yet to come, though. The pilots had executed their water landing to their satisfaction and now would come the takeoff! I kept the boaters shooed away from the plane as we taxied down to the end of the lake where we would start our takeoff run. Naturally the little flotilla would accompany us. As we make the turn, I duck back down into the nose, secure the hatch, crawl back to the flight deck and my seat, strap in and wait for the real excitement!

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The CG lake unit’s patrol boat has swept the sea lane for our takeoff and the pilots pour the coal to the two big Wright Cyclone engines. The boats have made the turn with us, and as we start our takeoff run they are off to either side of the aircraft and running full throttle themselves. A few have gotten the jump on us and are ahead. We soon overtake them until our only competition is from the fastest of the lake’s speedboats. Not for long, though. Our takeoff speed is almost 100 mph and we show them our rooster tail as we sail down the lake and lift off into the blue of a lovely day.

 

Chuck Thurston is the author of Senior Scribbles Unearthed and Senior Scribbles Second Dose, available from Amazon and SecondWind Publishing.  

 

Take ‘er For A Spin by Chuck Thurston

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Car salespeople sell Fords and Chevys; door-to-door salesmen sell most anything, and politicians peddle baloney now and then. But my friend Joe — now retired — sold airplanes! Imagine that!

He is the only airplane salesperson I ever knew, so I was always curious about his experiences. Did his customers kick the tires as they walked around his product? Were they interested in the gas mileage? How many wanted to listen to the radio or take it for a ride around the block…um….local airport?

After discharge from the Navy, Joe worked as an aircraft mechanic and ultimately became a licensed FAA Airframe and Powerplant mechanic. A flying club in Toledo asked him to maintain their club aircraft, and Joe accepted — with the condition that his work on their aircraft be traded for flight training. Such a deal! After 2 years of moonlighting maintenance work, he got his pilot’s license.

Joe was off and…flying, and before long found himself in aircraft sales — eventually at Grumman, a big name in aircraft design and manufacturing, with a penchant for feline nicknames, e.g., Wildcat, Hellcat, Tomcat, Tiger, Cheetah, etc. In the 50s, they designed an agricultural applicator aircraft ( crop duster to you) known as the Ag-Cat.

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His customers were the kind of folks who…dusted crops. Right away, this tells you that these are not your garden variety pilots — flying the girlfriend down to Myrtle Beach in the old Cessna for a weekend. Nope, this is flying at hair-raising low altitudes belching out a load of toxic chemicals behind you. And flying this contraption is no walk in the park, either.

Joe took an Ag-Cat — specially outfitted for fire-bombing — to France. South France has an active forest fire season due to the hot, dry winds from African deserts. Joe checked out 4 government pilots on the plane — power settings, take off speeds, landing approach speed of approximately 70 MPH, propeller reversing for short field landing, etc.etc. — and what to expect in flying a Biplane. All four did fine and Joe thought he was finished when he saw striding across the ramp a guy with a black leather jacket, dark mustache, sun glasses, and — as Joe was to discover– an ego bigger than the Eiffel Tower. He was the pilots’ Supervisor, and he also wanted to fly the Ag-Cat.

Joe figured this French Eagle might have some influence on the purchase, so began to check him out. As he stood on the wing next to him and went over the aircraft’s performance characteristics, he noticed that the supervisor was obviously annoyed. What did he need with this simple instruction? Joe became a bit concerned that he might have a problem when he saw the other pilots rolling their eyes. Uh-Oh.

Joe watched him take off OK and felt relieved. On his first landing approach, however, he was doing about 90 MPH. An Ag-Cat characteristic – it will continue to fly at that speed. He didn’t touch down, ran out of runway, and went around for another try.

On his second landing approach he repeated the same problem — too fast. When he was about 10 feet above the runway, he decided he was going to land by one means or another, and put the prop in reverse. Another Ag-Cat characteristic — this maneuver will cause the Ag-Cat to stop flying very quickly. It ended up on its nose. After a quick trip to the bathroom, Joe took a good look at the damage. The first 4 feet of the aircraft was destroyed.

That evening after a couple of drinks, Joe called his company and said that he would need some spare parts sent via air freight — one each, including engine, propeller, cowling etc. — everything forward of the firewall, to be exact. There was a long pause on the phone, then his boss said, “Don’t sweat it, Joe. This happens in this business!”

Joe got to spend another three weeks in South France — certainly not the worst duty in the world — helping to repair the Ag- Cat. “And then,” said Joe ruefully, “they didn’t buy the damn plane!”

 

Take ‘er For A Spin was first published in Chuck Thurston’s Senior Scribbles Unearthed – available on Amazon and Second Wind.