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.

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

I Take The Con by Chuck Thurston

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Every now and then, Captain Kirk orders one of his starship Enterprise crew to “take the con!” as he beams elsewhere to handle other business. It’s usually Spock, but if Spock joins him on his mission, the con passes down to Sulu or Checkov, or…who knows? In a recent movie, so many of the high level regulars were elsewhere, that the duty might have passed down to a surprised ship’s steward, as he delivered coffee to the bridge.

Just what is the “con” and what does one do with it? The expression originated on early battleships and cruisers, and dates as far back as 1840 sailing warships. These ships were built with “conning towers” – a raised platform on a ship, often armored, and usually located as high on the ship as practical, to give the conning team good visibility of the entirety of their own ship, and of ocean conditions and other vessels. The officer could “con” the vessel, i.e., command or “conduct” the operations of a ship during battle by passing orders down to the helm. The Star Trek crew assumed a lot of Naval terminology as they sailed through the stars.

I was always obsessed with airplanes. As a young boy in WWII, I collected books and pictures of the warbirds of that era. I wanted to be a pilot. One of my idols was the lead character in a movie serial, “Don Winslow of the Coast Guard.” Commander Winslow piloted a seaplane on the lookout for spies, saboteurs and other enemy agents that might be threatening America’s Pacific coast.

Some years later, I had the con for a very short time.

I never did get to pilot training, but I did get to fly – and I had the best seat in the house. I joined the Coast Guard, went to Aviation Electronic School and flew as radioman on the principle search and rescue aircraft of the day – the Grumman Albatross amphibian, military designation UF1G. The radioman’s seat was on the flight deck on a slightly raised platform directly behind the co-pilot – one looked over his shoulder, as a matter of fact.

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On one SAR flight, the co-pilot had to answer a call from nature and went aft to the plane’s small head (toilet, to civilians) – smaller than a phone booth, and located in the very rear of the aircraft. As he left, the pilot turned to me and said, “Like to sit up here, Radio?” Did I! I hurried up and strapped myself in before he belayed (rescinded, to civilians) the order. After a minute or so, he spoke again, “How would you like to feel the plane?”

To this day, that short query remains among the most exciting offers I have ever received. I can’t describe the feeling as I took the yoke and gently moved it up and down just a bit, while watching the artificial horizon gauge on the instrument panel. I had the con!

I’d like to say that I spotted something in the ocean below, turned and banked, and roared over the object of our search – a distressed soul waving frantically from a life raft. Of course that isn’t true. Soon enough, the co-pilot finished his business, returned to claim his seat and I went back to mine. My four or five minutes at the con were over.

 

Chuck Thurston is a retired IBMer living in Kannapolis, NC. He is married to Heidi Wibroe Thurston and both are published authors. In another life, he flew in US Coast Guard search and rescue aircraft as a radio/radarman. Chuck has published two books of essays and remembrances – Senior Scribbles Unearthed, and Senior Scribbles Second Dose. He is currently working on a full length mystery thriller, The Coroner Takes A Ride.

 

The Sleep Of Reason by Chuck Thurston

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Many of us believe things to be true that have been proved not – e.g., President Obama is Muslim or Kenyan-born. Many of us do not believe in things that have been demonstrated to be true – climate change is one of the most pervasive non-beliefs.

These positions are part of our personal belief systems. If we disagree with the president’s policies, believing that he has strong ties to a particular religion or country allows us to rationalize behaviors of his we see as suspicious. It confirms our fear, and we tell our acquaintances, “See! I told you so!”

If we don’t believe in climate change, then the dire predictions of what the long term consequences are likely to be won’t worry us.

In either case, our beliefs are driven by fear. Franklin Roosevelt took the office of the presidency during the depths of the depression – with turmoil in Europe and the Far East. He quickly realized that many public fears were irrational or unfounded and kept the nation from moving toward solutions. He was probably familiar with Mark Twain’s famous quote: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened!”

FDR early on told people “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”

I recently discovered the science fiction of Alice Mary Norton, who wrote under the pen name of Andre Norton. Female sci fi writers were rarer than hen’s teeth and had very little cred amongst fantasy and sci fi readers in the 50’s and 60’s. I won’t go into a long critique of her work – which I am enjoying – but a particular passage in one of her works stuck with me. Here’s the scene:

A group of space travelers from earth land on a strange planet – almost paradisiac in its beauty, climate and inhabitants – a gentle, handsome Polynesian-type race with extraordinary ESP skills. They can, for instance, communicate with dolphins. In the course of events, the earthmen are following a native girl, guiding them through some very old, dark tunnels toward an old structure that may be frequented by an ancient evil that frightens the natives. At one point the girl says that these tunnels are inhabited by their “old gods” – and they have hundreds – and to disturb them is very dangerous. The girl is terrified and is ready to abandon the expedition.

One of the earthmen attempts to calm her fears. He says, “But they are not our gods! There is no power where there is no belief!” Another adds, “No being without belief!” The girl eventually concludes that she must be safe if she is in the company of those who simply do not believe – and therefore evaporate – the old deity’s which so frighten her. The troop continues on.

So Norton’s characters are saying that if you don’t believe in these whatevers, they cease to exist. Is it this easy? Over the course of millennia, humans have taken up, worshipped, and eventually discarded – thousands of gods. Most of us don’t believe that Thor or Jupiter have any power over us any more. We aren’t moved to offer up prayers to Venus or Aphrodite in exchange for some favor. Is there going to be an eventual discarding of whatever is left?

Should we consider bringing back a few specialists to handle modern complexities – or does boiling it down to one streamline the process and make it more efficient for the digital age?

Chuck Thurston’s “Senior Scribbles” are available on Amazon. He is currently working on a longer work, but the muse of mystery thrillers hasn’t helped him much. He is about ready to dump her and try cheap wine.

The Root of all Believable

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The Root of all Believable

“I don’t care too much for money…” John Lennon sang, but that’s easy for a member of the Beatles – who was rolling in it – to say. “Money can’t buy me love,” he adds, but that’s not entirely true, and just adds insult to injury for us of modest means. Money can buy you all kinds of companionship if you’re not very picky, although my wife has pointed out that companions are like wine: money will allow you to pick good ones over the cheap types you used to hang out with.

As it turns out, even if you are not looking for love outside your significant other, money might be needed to stay in the game. When my doctor wrote my first prescription for performance enhancing pills some years ago, he said, “I bet you never thought you’d be paying for sex, did you?” He paused, and then thoughtfully, “Of course we always have, you know…flowers, dinner, drinks, theater…”

Mae West hit the nail on the head: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – and rich is better!”

We don’t play the lottery regularly, but now and then as our supermarket purchases are being checked out, I glance at the customer service desk and see it’s manned. I check my wallet, find a single or two and buy a ticket. At home, along with an evening glass of a lower-priced wine, we play the popular game of what we’d do with a multi-million dollar prize. After we have factored out allowances for kids, grandkids, other close relatives and favorite charities we examine our own pipedreams. New car maybe…better wine, for sure…move to a big house in a gated community or restore our 30+ year old house and stay in a neighborhood we like? Pretty tame stuff, really. Maybe it’s just our lack of imagination. I’m sure we have friends who could suggest several ideas – probably even offer to help us realize them. I’d pick those pals carefully, though.

Some years ago I hired a contractor for some work and enjoyed his company well enough to have a beer or two with him when the workday was done. When he found out I was a writer, he suggested that I might be interested in his story.

“I made a million dollars and lost it,” he said.

I told him I didn’t think his story was that unique – that lots of people have made fortunes and lost them.

“I’ve done it three times,” he said.

I happened to be acquainted with him during one of his financial troughs, but not long after, he divested himself of his property and holdings, and was probably back to seven figures after those deals. He headed for Florida. I wished him well, but if his karmic sine wave holds true, he is probably cutting bait on some fishing wharf in the Keys by now.

 

Chuck and Heidi Thurston live in Kannapolis, NC. You can find their books on Amazon and help make these their happy years by buying them. The lottery thing hasn’t worked out so far.

Code Yeller by Chuck Thurston

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Code Yeller

A few years ago, my wife and I volunteered to man a booth at a health and nutrition fair. Our bunch was pushing the value of fruits and nuts. After we had done our shift and our replacements had taken over, we wandered around to see what other good advice was available.

Not far from our booth was one that dealt with air quality. A young lady was passing out literature and answering questions, so we dropped by to see what we could learn. How are things in our neck of the woods? Not very good, it turns out.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg region, with its million plus population, is just a few miles to our southwest. In this area a million population probably translates into about twenty million vehicles once you total up cars, pickups, motorcycles, trail bikes, ATVs, various watercraft and riding mowers. Our prevailing winds in this latitude are from – wouldn’t you know it – the southwest. In 2011, the EPA ranked Charlotte as the 10th smoggiest city for the second year in a row.

“But, there is a nearby area just as bad!” our young lady chirped. “Rowan County!” In fact, in 2011, Mecklenburg County was ranked number two in health risks from criteria air pollutants and Rowan was ranked a respectable 4th in the state!

Now wait. Rowan County is just to our north. Big parts of it are bucolic fields and woodlands. There are probably as many cows as people. How could this be? Well, the roaring traffic’s boom from I-85 traverses the county on the east side and I-77 does the same on the west. It is a geographic bowl where stuff tends to settle, it is downwind of Charlotte – and there are all those cows.

And we poor citizens of Cabarrus country are right in the middle of this. We never used to pay a lot of attention to the Air Quality Index until Heidi began having problems with asthma. Even after that diagnosis, we didn’t think that we would have to worry until the AQI got into code red. We have since decided we aren’t going to spend a whole lot of time outdoors once it reaches yellow. That is occurring more often these days and a good part of the summer air is…lousy. What to do?

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Heidi has been putting a wet washcloth over her nose and mouth to make the journey from house to car and car to supermarket. She keeps it in a plastic bag in her handbag. I told her that it might be handier if I just brought her a gasmask she could use for these short treks.

“They look terrible,” she said.

“We could decorate it – kind of like hockey goalies do their face masks. Might even give you a little air of mystery.”

“It would scare the great grandchildren,” she said. “They’d be fine with a wet washcloth.”

I hadn’t thought of that.

Chuck and Heidi Thurston (cough) live in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Their books can be found on Amazon (hack, hack). They are currently working on new projects when time and oxygen allow. (hack, cough).