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.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This by Chuck Thurston

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I have a friend who has done a lot of writing in various media. To establish his credentials as honest and grounded in reality, I have to point out that he does considerable technical and business writing. In a former life, though, he did script writing for TV shows. That will tend to lower the objectivity bar for many.

Now that he’s earning an honest living, he can look back on his earlier efforts with a critical eye. He told me some time ago that the rise of TV “Reality Shows” was because of a lack of good writing these days. It was far easier to get some interesting folks, put them in an unusual situation, give them a few instructions on what was wanted – and record the results.

The result can’t be entirely without direction, however. The characters are chosen because of their good looks, shapeliness, quirkiness, wiseassery, likelihood of drawing sympathy, etc.  In other words, most of the traits that would have gotten them selected for traditional TV acting roles – if there had been good writers producing these shows now.

The advertisements for these shows are designed to entice the viewer in much the same way that ads for traditional shows did – emphasizing the excitement, adventure and possible eroticism to be displayed.

My wife showed me an ad for The Bachelor in Paradise show, that said  “Ashley takes Jared to a hotel!”

“What could possibly be her motive for that?” she asked.

“Don’t read too much into it,” I said. “That hotel has the best breakfast buffet in town!”

 

 

My Grandparents Tug Of War by Heidi Thurston

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In everyone’s life there is often a person who leaves an impression so strong that he or she seems to live on forever.  Such a person was my grandfather.

One of the earliest things I recall about him was his consistent battle with my grandmother over the small coal stove in their inner-city apartment. My grandfather was a firm believer in heat of any kind and insisted that the draft on the stove remain open in order to “get the room really warm.” Grandmother, however, through knowledge obtained from books or others, used to inform him, “Too much heat is unhealthy.”  And so they went on arguing winter after winter and with the cool temperatures in Denmark this would often go on from late in the months of August until late in the month of April.

In the summer, of course, things were simple!  The just transferred their bickering during the few summer months to a battle over whether or not the windows should be open or closed. Grandfather wanted them shut and grandmother wanted the fresh air in.

I entered into their arguments many a time when my grandfather would maintain that his little granddaughter should “dress warm,” and this would be fine in November or December when you could count on freezing weather. But when in mid-April he would require that I wear long stockings, sweaters and bloomers over my regular underwear – which used to embarrass me no end since they made me bulge all over the place – I would turn to my grandmother for help.  She would quietly let me remove one of the sweaters, grandfather’s scarf, his woolen cap, and the bloomers after which she would turn around and give her husband a significant look.

About the time he was about to open his mouth and object, I was diplomatically sent out of the room; but that did not keep me from listening to the two of them argue while I stood outside the door.

Shortly after my sixth birthday my grandparents moved into a modern senior citizens apartment complex that featured central warm air. This of course meant no coal stove and no draft over which to argue!

This had my whole family very concerned since so much of my grandparents affection for each other really showed up in their “arguments.” It had been their way of communicating and in going along with their lifelong routine she would close the draft with determination when he went out of the room while he in turn would open it as soon as grandmother went into the kitchen to prepare their meals.

When they moved in to their new home, everyone in the family held their breaths for a week – waiting – and then they all drew a deep sigh of relief when it turned out that the new apartment had a small ventilation door that, when opened, would let in fresh air. It was located up high on the wall behind grandfather’s rocking chair and had a long string attached so it could easily be opened and closed.

And so with this new found ground for a hassle. Grandmother quietly kept opening the vent door to let in fresh air while grandfather, just as quickly kept closing it when she left the room.

Everything was again as usual.

The Coroner Takes A Ride by Chuck Thurston

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It’s a few days before Christmas, 2012. Bad weather is on the way and Woodrow “Woody” Stanton, the 63 year old retired Chief of Police of West Hepzibah, is hunkering down – resigned to another uneventful and vaguely disappointing holiday in this small valley town in the North Carolina mountains. Always wary of being seen as the “kept man” of his wife, Margot, a successful writer of romance novels, he hacks at golf, occasionally offers advice to the new Chief, and babysits his eleven year old great-nephew Daniel “Bruiser” Stanton. The boy has Asperger’s Syndrome – a variant of autism – and is Woody’s frequent companion.

Woody’s routine is abruptly changed by the escape of an eccentric mountain man – Morris Kearsey – charged and institutionalized as insane for the brutal murder of his family eight years previous. Shortly afterwards, Woody finds the body – bizarrely hidden – of a member of the Villains, a notorious biker gang, that Woody always suspected might may have had an undiscovered role in the Kearsey family killings.

As the weather deteriorates, Woody’s old friend Everett Hartsell, the elderly, widowed, highly respected, and often reelected Sykes County Coroner, suddenly disappears in the company of a much younger redheaded waitress. Rusty Kinkaid – termed a “tough cookie” – has a history with one of the Villains, but claims she has left that life behind. Woody wonders: is she really a bad girl going good, or is the Coroner being used for some sinister purpose? And Woody has a thought even more troubling – Is there a connection between the Kearsey family slaughter of eight years ago and the vanished Coroner in the company of someone who may have been associated with that crime?

Brooding over all of this is ‘Old Hep’ – the wind blown, derelict ghost town that looks down on West Hepzibah from the top of Foster Mountain. What might be up in the old town that perhaps ties everything together?

Woody and The Bruiser do some sleuthing. The boy’s savant observational skills compliment Woody’s dogged unwillingness to settle for the irrational why of things, when, somewhere, there must be a rational what. They enlist the help of several allies: ‘Old flame’ County Librarian Harriet Metzler, Sheriff Floyd Shores, Patrolman D-Day Ardell, and others, as they try to solve an old mystery and come to grips with a new one.

Chuck Thurston will publish The Coroner Takes A Ride later this year. Cover art is by Curt Thurston. 

 

Assembly Disassembly by Chuck Thurston

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“Nature doesn’t know extinction.” – Werner Von Braun

“Time is an illusion.” – Albert Einstein

“I ain’t dead yet!” – Richard Feynman

 

Assembly Disassembly

 

Things start before we think they do;

Not over when they’re done.

 

E.g., I used some Keats once on a maid —

“She walks in beauty like the night…”

And yada, yada all the rest.

 

Time was, reciting stuff like this could get you laid?

“Yes”, she said and proved Keats right.

Lit 101 (of England) made possible this tryst —

But I digress.

 

Take me. Dad’s seed, Mom’s egg,

Moved more by lust than purpose, I would hope —

Began assembly of this mortal pup.

 

Oh sure, some early disassembly frays;

Placenta, foreskin gone as things elsewhere were

Adding and Subtracting in those old cloth diaper days.

 

So up I went: “He’s growing like a weed”,

And netting out to: “such a handsome boy”.

 

But anon Ma Nature eats your lunch;

Teeth, hair, (good riddance kidney stone)

And other sloughing off of form and function.

 

But Ma just doesn’t know extinction, so

Back and forth across the stuff and energy divide.

Matter now, but kilowatts soon, you cosmic toy!

 

Then back again, soon enough, whatever soon is,

Time being also illusory.

Whew! What a ride!

 

Think — David and Goliath now both mouldered,

Perhaps a bronze breastplate and slingshot stone around.

That’s it – the rest is disassembled in suspension, and

Even now, you might be breathing ancient molecules,

Of Jesus even – with vapor from the Ascension!

 

Hitler maybe not yet disassembled to the point

Where he is readily available to inhale;

Don’t slow up to take a breather, though.

 

Nature plays no favorites here;

It’s all rock and roll to her, Pal —

Now rock, now rolling in the ether.

 

But here’s the good part.

Some day the sun will swallow all this up;

A-Yup, hup, hup, and re-assembly will commence —

Again! Who knows what shape this time?

 

Golf champ? Blue whale? Green slime?

Hope for the best, of course, but worms turn —

And any old sport in a dorm.

 

Things start before we think they do,

And not over when they’re done.

 

Chuck Thurston June 2012

Spill Your Guts by Chuck Thurston

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I once read of a study that claimed Catholics were less likely to seek the help of psychiatrists or other mental health professionals, ostensibly because they had regular access to the confessional and could unload there. I sense that this outlet has been getting less action in recent years. The Catholic Mass – among several other religious traditions – routinely offers a group confession, so you can mumble about your transgressions under your breath and don’t have to hem, haw and blurt them out to another human.

Many years ago, mother told me that on one occasion when she was in the confessional as a young girl, she hunted her conscience diligently to find some little misdeed she could own up to so as not to waste her time and the priest’s. The priest tried a gentle prompt, “Have you taken the Lord’s name in vain?”

“No,” she replied. “But my poppy does all the time!”

The priest sternly reminded her she was there to confess her own sins, and not her father’s.

This is a new age, though. The need to confess hasn’t gone away; it’s now played out in public, and we feel obligated to reveal not only our own transgressions, but those of others!

My wife and I helped to form an outdoor camping and hiking group some years ago. One evening around the campfire, someone (probably after a couple of beers) complained that a Significant Other (SO) had done them dirt. That broke the dam and started a round-the-fire-circle of “She/He done me wrong” stories. Almost everyone had one or the other of these. Many had several.

Fast forward a few years and our large family clan is sitting around a dining room table after rain had washed out the deck party. Someone (probably after a couple of beers) complained a SO had dumped them. That started a round table of stories by dumpers and dumpees about times in their lives when they went through one or the other of these traumas. I had myself been dumped three times in my earlier years. My wife looked at me with narrowed eyes, and said, “Hmmm…I only knew of two of those…”

Well, I wasn’t going to stir anything up from the bottom of that pot. I told her I could give her the details later, and prayed she would forget about the remark. Silly me, as it turned out – but that’s another story.

All of these episodes got me thinking, though, and I saw the appeal of airing these things in public. If you have been the wrong doer or the dumper, you have to assuage your guilt or make a legitimate case for unhooking. If you have been done wrong or been the dumpee, you have to establish your undeserved treatment and certify your innocence.

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That was a more innocent time. Nowadays, many can’t go public enough for their vents. When my wife and I check out our groceries at the supermarket, I scan the tabloid covers and bring her up to date on the latest. “Kim confesses…,” “Justin reveals…,” “Katy accuses…”

Some people, in fact, invite this. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy’s daughter, told her friends, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me!”

Facebook has augmented and amplified the old campfire and dining room circles and tabloids as the go-to place for sharing your grievances, admitting your wrongdoings and complaining about your treatment at the hands of others. Some of the revelations are fantastic; but why? Why on earth would you want to air this stuff to complete strangers? Even if the complaints are legit, they can’t possibly function as anything more than voyeuristic entertainment to those not closest enough to you to have first hand knowledge of the facts. You’d be better off hunting up old Father Michael if he were still around, and schedule some confessional time. You’re shoveling out Too Much Information, folks, to titillate and amuse other folks who have no inclination at all to empathize or help.

It reminds me of the story of the country preacher who was soliciting confessions of sinful behaviors from his congregation. A young lad of 8 or 10 stepped forward.

“I used some bad words I heard from my uncle,” he said.

“Ah, that’s truly shameful, boy. How else have you soiled your mind?”

“I seen some dirty magazines,” he said.

“Oh!” said the preacher. “The devil is at work here! Tell it, son!”

“And…and…Susie and I played doctor down behind the barn…”

The preacher, sensing that he was homing in on real pay dirt, pressed forward. “Tell it all, son! Tell it all!”

“Well, once,” said the boy, “I screwed a chicken.”

The preacher groaned. “I wouldn’t have told that, boy…”

“Spill Your Guts” is excerpted from Chuck Thurston’s latest book – Senior Scribbles Bathroom Reader – to be published later this year.

 

 

Cracker Crumbs by Chuck Thurston

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When my brothers and I went to the Saturday matinees at our local theater in the 40’s we could look forward to a news reel – usually an update on WWII activity – a cartoon, a comedy and a serial – all before the main feature, almost always a cowboy movie.

The serials were very formulaic, but always fun. Every episode would end with the hero in some dire situation that seemed impossible to get out of. We would have a week to speculate on just how he could save his hide. The following week’s episode would begin with a short clip of the predicament he was left in – and his miraculous escape.

One of my favorite serials was “Nyoka, The Jungle Girl.” Nyoka ran around the jungle and desert in shorts and safari jacket and carried a pearl handled revolver. She was a tough and resourceful girl.

In one episode, Nyoka and her male companion are captured by indigenous evil doers of an indeterminate sort (jungle inhabitants, robed Arabs and oily mercenaries all show up at one time or another) who have tied them to a stake encircled by a ring of fire. Outside of this fire ring, snapping crocodiles are licking their chops. The chief evil doer gives an evil laugh and announces to the hapless pair: “When the fire goes out, cracker crumbs!”

Whaaat? Cracker crumbs? Cracker crumbs? We left the theater astounded. In what fiendish torture could cracker crumbs possibly be used? This was a totally new twist to us and we puzzled over this until we sat in the theater the following Saturday and watched the repeat of the predicament Nyoka and her buddy had been left in. We leaned forward in rapt attention as the insidious villain taunted the couple with a repeat of the week before: “When the fire goes out, crocker comes!”

Of course…crocker referred to the waiting crocodiles who would certainly come when the fire died down. We never admitted our confusion to anyone else, but for many years it became an inside joke amongst us. “Oh, yeah…sure…that’s as clear as cracker crumbs!”

 

 

Christmas, Peace and a Soft Wool Dress by Heidi Thurston

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The aroma of the Christmas goose drifting from behind a closed door, mingling with the scent of pine from yet another quickly closed door. Coats and boots dripping with melting snow, falling on my feet and the hallway runner. Large mysterious packages quietly slipped through a door behind which nothing but velvet darkness lingered. A soft green wool dress swirling in a darkened hallway and patent leather shoes reflecting white silken knee socks. These were all part of a very special night in Copenhagen in 1945, the first Christmas Eve after World War II had ended.

Earlier, leaving our apartment with armloads of gifts, my parents and I had eased into the warm seats of an awaiting taxi and watched the holiday lights reflect on the black exterior of the moving car.

As the auto rumbled through city streets, we observed hurrying crowds bustling from store to store on last minute errands, while others, like ourselves, were carrying gifts wrapped in bright Christmas paper. All were dressed in warm coats and mufflers and everyone were headed for the homes of family and friends in order to share with them this exciting evening.

This was THE big night and it all began with the new dress, sewn from soft green wool, embroidered in red and white holiday flowers and made especially for me for this occasion. The very feel of the gown, as it fell softly around my knees, held promises of a wonderful time at my grandmother’s home where, in addition to my father’s mother, we would be joined by his bachelor brother and maiden aunt.

Traditionally, every Christmas Eve began with amber-colored sherry, sparkling in antique, crystal goblets and the bell-like clinks as five adults toasted, while a smaller glass, bubbling with red soda tickling my nose, helped heighten my festive mood.

Grandmother studied cooking in France. On this night, she served succulent goose, mouth-watering red cabbage, tiny potatoes browned in butter giving them a caramel look and a tempting aroma.

When all this was devoured, it was my turn to help in the kitchen. With a starched, crisp, white apron wrapped around me, protecting the new green dress, I stood on a small stool, chest just above the counter, and beat the metal whisk until small peaks swirled from the ice cold, heavy cream. This would be smoothly blended with fruit, nuts and rice into the rich, traditional Danish dessert.

After the holiday meal was over, I would sit on the kitchen “hot-box” filled with musty newspapers and country-fresh straw, where previously the dishes had been kept warm. Seated, I sang Christmas songs for my grandmother while she prepared steaming hot coffee for the adults and warm, delicious cocoa for me.

Then, after what seemed an eternity, my father and uncle would call from behind the sliding doors leading into the previously closed off living room. As the doors squeakingly receded into the walls, they revealed a dark fir, shining with lighted candles, gold and silver ornaments, saved from years past and now reflecting my bright eyes.

My grandmother and my father each took my hands as we joined up with my mother, uncle and great aunt, and slowly circled the stately tree. Old Danish hymns rang out in bass, tenor, and one small soprano voice while thin tinsel strands fluttered from the fragrant branches like silver rain.

Later, as a feeling of peace fell on the room, I sat on the smooth carpet, family and presents all around me, and watched the flames in the coal stove sputter against the glass window.

At the age of five I was too young to know that some day the green woolen holiday dress would become an important part of my memories. I would recall that this was a time when the tiny kingdom, the home of Hans Christian Andersen and The Little Mermaid, had again returned to a fairytale land; coming out from its long years of darkness and into the lights. The presence of the Nazi regime would be gone, but not forgotten; the King would resume his daily ride along the streets near the harbor, and my mother and grandmother would again take their Sunday stroll through the walking street in the inner city.

I would remember this time, as I still do, with a warm heart and recall that this Christmas Eve in 1945 would forever symbolize peace on earth and good will toward men.heidi-xmas-montage