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.

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The Pumpkin Chronicles by Chuck Thurston

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We carved a Jack-O-Lantern every year when our children were little, and after – when they had grown and gone and a crop of grandchildren was hanging around at Halloween. Initially, my wife and I did the initial designs, but eventually the youngsters took over this job. They drew the face on the pumpkin and we wielded the knife to render it. We had some very interesting visages on our porch to greet trick-or-treaters.

Pumpkins once carved, don’t last very long, and they would start to soften up before long. A hard frost would hasten this collapse, and they would slump into faces even more interesting and ominous than the original – nature would add its own unpredictable art. Ultimately what was left was tossed into the garden or compost.

After the youngsters of our own clan had grown up and moved on to establish Halloween traditions with their own offspring, we continued to put a Jack-O-Lantern on our porch for trick-or-treaters, until our neighborhood of older established houses stopped drawing crowds of them and we settled on putting a whole uncarved pumpkin on the porch. These would last a much longer time and we could leave them there until Thanksgiving, where they still seemed appropriate.

Some years later we bought a cabin in the NC foothills. Not a chance for a trick-or-treater up there, but a pumpkin on the porch still seemed like a good idea, until we found that some unknown scavengers – probably deer or raccoons – discovered them. Only occasionally would one last longer than a few nights before their raids.

One year, our neighbors up the hill proposed a game to get rid of any pumpkins that survived the wildlife. We would do a “pumpkin chuck”. We gathered below the deck behind their cabin – overlooking the long, steep meadow and woods below. We would give the pumpkins a vigorous roll and see how far down the hill they would go. We were amazed to see them bounce down the field and disappear into the woods – still carrying an impressive amount of steam. We realized that if they somehow negotiated the woods, they could possibly land on the roof of a cabin further down the hill! We never heard any complaints from that direction, though, so assumed we had gotten away with it. We only tried this game a couple of years, and gave up setting out pumpkins for critter food.

For this past Halloween, we bought a very nice, firm, not too big, not too small symmetrical pumpkin and put it on our porch. As it happened, we didn’t get a single trick-or-treater. In anticipation of this possibility, we had purchased candy that we happened to like.

So Halloween came and went, as did Thanksgiving. The pumpkin sat on the porch, resolute as ever, and as we began decorating for Christmas this past weekend, we began to feel a little self-conscious about this relic from other holidays. But wait, I thought. This is the holiday season! Couldn’t we get a little more mileage out of this round orange gourd? Look, after Thanksgiving we’ve still got Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Day – why somewhere on some South Pacific atoll, some obscure celebration we have never heard of is marking the solstice! Our artsy granddaughter came up with a brilliant idea. We made a quick trip to a local store for a few supplies and she went to work. Thus was Jack–O-Santa born.

 

Granddaughter Mary Kathryn (Mickey) poses with her creation – our very first Jack-O-Santa. 

The Thanksgiving No-Shows by Chuck Thurston

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Several years ago, my family and I drove back to North Carolina after spending Thanksgiving with family in Pennsylvania. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, that Thanksgiving is the most heavily traveled holiday on the American calendar. I learned the hard way. The junction of I-81 and I-77 in southern Virginia was a virtual parking lot. There were long complete stoppages interrupted by slow creeps forward for a few yards. We had gassed up the car, eaten lunch, had made recent rest area calls and carried snacks and drinks in the car – so we were in pretty good shape. We could only guess what discomforts were being experienced in the vehicles around us. For all that, though, most of the travelers seemed sanguine about the experience. Many took the opportunity to leave their cars and stretch; some had footballs they were tossing around.

It struck me that I might be looking at the lingering effects of a good time spent with family and friends – the Thanksgiving after-glow, if you will. For Thanksgiving is recognized as the quintessential family holiday. Perhaps because it is centered around a meal – usually the most elaborate one of the year – and one we feel we must share with those closest to us. It is the one holiday we are either drawn to – or host for others – this “groaning board”.

When I was a youngster in a small, remote country school, we were led in a singing of Lydia Maria Child’s poem “Over the River and Through the Wood” around about Thanksgiving time. The poem is too long to reproduce here, but two stanzas stick in my mind to this day;

Over the river, and through the wood,

To Grandfather’s house we go;

the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

through the white and drifted snow.

 

Over the river, and through the wood—

now Grandmother’s cap I spy!

Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?

Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

 

So early on, we are introduced to this special holiday, and appreciate its peculiar power to bond us together. Yesterday we celebrated our Thanksgiving 2017 at the home of a dear friend of the family. Much of her clan and a few of ours filled our plates and retired to two tables to work on the traditional offerings: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, rolls, cranberry sauce, casseroles of several varieties and desserts too tempting to ignore; wine, of course, and Irish Coffee afterwards.

As is the case most years, we missed the loving faces of several who could not make it this time. Our hostess had mounted an ingenious display to remind us of them and to include them in our thoughts for the day. Some were enjoying feasts with other family members. Some had other commitments that required their attention. One was out of the country. No matter – their pictures were posted on the door leading into the banquet lest we forget them as we carried our plates to the table.

So, Dear Thanksgiving No-Shows, you weren’t forgotten. We hope that wherever you were on this wonderful day, you didn’t forget us, either. Know that when we said Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Grace, you were included in spirit.

“For each new morning with it’s light,

For rest and shelter of the night,

For health and food,

For Love and Friends,

For everything Thy goodness sends.”

 

Amen.

The Twelve Days of Turkey by Heidi Thurston

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Now, everyone knows about “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but how many of you have ever considered “The Twelve Days of Turkey?” Turkey is uniquely American and to most citizens it would not be Thanksgiving without having a meal with a big bird complimented by all the trimmings. But unless you are part of a family consisting of at least a dozen people, a large turkey can create a big problem…namely, leftovers. Most women having spent a small fortune on a turkey will look forward to spending a little less money on meat for the week following Turkey Thursday, and heaven knows, everyone enjoys that. The rest of the family, however, does not always see it that way and a pattern, at least in my family, is set:

On Thanksgiving Day my family says to me, “Oh, what a delicious big turkey.” On the day after Thanksgiving my family says to me, “Boy; those cold turkey sandwiches sure taste good.” On the third day of turkey my family says to me, “Hot turkey sandwiches are a real treat.” On Sunday afternoon, while they all watch football games my family says to me, “Turkey hash goes good with a game.” Coming home Monday, from school and work, my family says to me, “Do we indeed smell turkey soup?” On the sixth day of turkey my family is impressed and says, “We did not know you knew how to make turkey filled crepes.” On the seventh day of straight turkey my family looks resigned and eat turkey chowder and say, “Well, that’s different.”

On Thursday after Thanksgiving the turkey, served with leftover trimmings, receive just a, “Not again!”            By Friday they all yell, “Oh, No!” By the 10th day my family says absolutely nothing at all. On the 11th day, while looking at what’s left of the hated bird, they tell me they are not hungry.

And on the very last day – the 12th – as I sit alone (they all called and said they were sorry but they could not make it home for dinner,) I take what’s left, dump it in the garbage and settle down with a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk.

Needless to say, we do not have turkey for Christmas.

 

 

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