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.

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.

 Grumman AgCat

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.

Promises, Promises by Heidi Thurston

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While working as a reporter and weekly columnist for a local paper some years back, I suddenly began to feel like The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker; the main character in the 1959 movie starring Clifton Webb. He is a respected and charming man with a slight problem. Unbeknownst to anyone, he has two families – one in each of two cities. Before you jump to conclusions, let me assure you that I only have one; the one I have had for many years.

However, I suddenly noticed that people around where I lived and worked, began to think I had more than three children – the three I lived with and the three I wrote about. I should have suspected something was out of the ordinary when I offered to treat the kids to a movie on an evening my husband was at a meeting. This was a film they all had been anxious to see and I was surprised when they all came up with one excuse after another.

My oldest son informed me he felt compelled to do some laundry (this was a first), his younger brother said he had to find some stuff in the attic (we never had one) and their sister insisted it was her turn to walk the dog (we have a fenced in back yard). By the time I realized these were lame reasons not to join me, they were gone and I went to the movie by myself. It was not until I received a call from the boys’ homeroom teachers telling me they had requested a transfer to a school outside the circulation of the local newspaper that the light began to dawn: they had become afraid to say or do anything that I might find good column material.

I questioned their younger sister and she admitted they had told everyone that they were not the children I wrote about in my weekly column. That, of course, started the rumor of my additional offspring. After a confrontation, I promised to try to be more tactful in the future; mainly because I dislike going to the movie by myself. My husband would rather stay home and read. The problem with going solo to see a film is that I invariably need to visit the ladies room at the most interesting parts in the movie and have to be told – in a whisper – what happened while I was away.

I have, by the way, tried for many years to estimate the dullest part of any flick, to no avail – it just escapes me. Waiting for the movie to come to television does not do me any good either – for the same reason. To this day there are action parts of most movies I have still not seen.

Back to the kids who all promised to begin to relate to me again provided I gave up my weekly yell: “that’s a great idea for a column,” every time one of them did something a little different, which was quite often. I had to promise not to comment on the way they left their rooms and the bathroom in complete disarray, how they left lights on all over the house and refrigerator door open.

messy-room

I was also not to write about our daughter sleeping open mouthed on the floor in front of the TV. I further promised not to mention how our youngest went to school in second grade with his clothes over his pajamas and had to be sent home to change; nor about how our oldest son flunked singing – in kindergarten!

Oh, there was a list a mile long of promises I had to make. They all, in turn, told me that for keeping all this, and any other of their peculiarities, a secret they would keep their clothes picked up daily, turn off the lights when not in a room, and at all times leave at least one clean towel for me to use.

They promised, and I promised – while I kept my fingers crossed behind my back – knowing full well they were all just kidding. Keeping their rooms clean – never! Just the same, I removed any incriminating column from the paper before any of them picked it up to glance through. I saw no reason to provoke my best resource material.

Heidi Thurston moved up from her newspaper column to full length novels.  Her adult romance, “The Duchess, The Knight And The Leprechaun” is available on Amazon.

 

 

Kannapolis Local Authors Fair

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Dateline Kannapolis; April 25, 2015

2015 Local Author Fair Flyer

Heidi and I were there.  We spent a couple of hours schmoozing with readers and other authors.  We sold a few books.  I gathered a few more names for my monthly Writers’ Night Out meetings.   It was the first of what we hope will be an annual event.  Count us in!

Kannapolis Local Authors 2015

That’s Heidi middle, far left (with the red sweater) – talking with a visitor to our table.  I’m taking the picture.  Candie Leyvas and the many others in the Kannapolis Friends of the Library are to be complimented; Terry Prather and her staff at the Kannapolis Library were outstanding.

 

Senior Scribbles Bathroom Reader by Chuck Thurston

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Coming this fall!  Yet another book in the continuing series of Chuck Thurston’s Senior Scribbles — the Olde English Grave Robber introduces another collection of…well…stuff.

ssbr front coverCover by Curt Thurston who hasn’t yet indicated he’s tired of knocking the polish off his sophisticated day job to handle this  pro bono low rent work for his old man.  Good thing, too.

Bug Out by Chuck Thurston

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stink bug army

Someday, someone is going to discover that stinkbugs are an enormously valuable insect. Some scientist will extract an incredibly potent serum that extends life for 15 or 20 years, and cures acne and toenail fungus in the process. I don’t care. They are still on my extermination hit list and I don’t miss an opportunity to kill one.

Most bugs do not ordinarily bother me. They go their way and I go mine. If occasionally our paths cross, I brush them off and continue on. I admit there are a few varieties I wouldn’t miss. In a perfect world, fire ants and yellow jackets would fight each other to the death. If there could be a triple annihilation, wood ticks could be thrown into the mix. All those bugs are all aggressive, biting, stinging critters and would seem to welcome a chance to have at others. Stinkbugs don’t seem to be the type that would mix it up in such a battle royal. They lay around, mostly inert, and very often a close inspection is required to determine whether or not they are alive, so I rule out interspecies bug battles as a strategy for getting rid of them.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I discovered a few stinkbugs in our cabin sunroom. We made discreet inquiries to see if other friends and acquaintances had experienced this problem. It was enormously gratifying to find this pestilence was common in the best of homes. We could hold our heads high when discussing eradication tips and tricks with others.

We made our plans. After one stay at the cabin, I set off one of those fogging bug bombs in the sunroom. We were gone for a couple of weeks. When we returned, my wife opened the sunroom door and showed me the results. The floor was literally – I shudder to tell this – carpeted with dead stinkbugs. This ran counter to all my expectations. Tell me, if you were in a closed space and some noxious chemical was suddenly released, wouldn’t you make every attempt to get out? Why hang around?

We were stuck with a 2-hour cleanup detail, but finally got them all cleaned out. Every now and then a lone survivor would wobble feebly among the carcasses of his dead brethren, but there was no escape from our purge. When it was done, neither of us had much appetite for supper.

I decided to celebrate at the scene of our victory. I closed the sunroom up and lit a big, black, Diesel Maduro cigar. We hadn’t had an evening meal, but I had some Guinness in the refrigerator. The great bread chef, Peter Reinhart, once called stout “liquid bread.” I had a couple of loaves worth.

dead stink bug

Opening Night by Chuck Thurston

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A couple of years ago I wrote a 10-minute play accepted for staging by the Old Courthouse Theatre in Concord, NC. I had written barrels of technical stuff and reams of newspaper columns and stories, but had never done a play. I was nervous as a cat in a kennel as I looked over the program on opening night, with descriptions of the seven plays selected. I noted that the woman who would be doing one of my roles was also in the opening play that night and I was anxious to see what she was like.

Well now. Amy Hope Laughter jumped all over the character in that play. She was vivacious, energetic, improvisational (a key prop was missing) – and with a deft comedic touch. I turned to my wife and said, “Heidi, I think I have hit the jackpot!”

And I had. She nailed my role – actually gave me insights into the character that hadn’t occurred to me. After all of the performances, I waited backstage (feeling rather like a “stage door Johnny”) until she appeared – beautiful, gracious, accommodating.

Why in the world hadn’t I thought of flowers?

Amy Laughter at OCT