Be A Clown by Chuck Thurston

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When I was a youngster, there were many stories and films in which adolescent boys succumbed to the draw of the circus, and hopped on an outward-bound circus train to join this life of exciting adventure. I am sorry to tell you this, but the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus closed down in May, 2017. If you still hide a secret hankering to run away and join the circus, your train has left the station. Sorry about that.

I, myself, was immune to this urge, but I was raised on a farm. I had done all the mucking out after cows, pigs and chickens that I cared to. I could only imagine cleaning up after an elephant. A clown, though, was something to shoot for. I could picture a life in makeup and funny clothes – performing antics that made people laugh. I didn’t picture it so strongly that I ran away to pursue it, but as time has gone by, I am beginning to feel that it caught up with me as I grew older. In fact, as I look around me, I see that others in my cohort exhibit the same characteristics!

We eschew lace up shoes – we amble along in clogs or slippers. We appear to be getting shorter – and our pants baggier as a consequence. We haven’t bothered to update our wardrobes, and we are stuck with old, wide, bowties and plaid outfits from the 70’s. We find that our head has grown up through our hair, and the hair fringe fuzzes out from under our ball caps. Our noses are getting redder. We find ourselves acting silly around little children.

We needn’t have worried about missing the circus train and the chance to be a clown. The circus has come to us, my friends.

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Hansel and Gretel in February by Chuck Thurston

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Come May, Hansel and Gretel will bound and spin out from the wings to the center of a warm lighted stage, and charm an audience with this beloved fairy tale by the Brothers’ Grimm.

But this is February, and it’s a cold and windy Saturday morning outside the drafty old studio. Benjamin is wearing loose pants and a baggy shirt. Kelsey is in leotards and a sweater. They could be kids hanging out at any mall in the country, but on this Saturday they are focused on Anne’s tutelage.

Anne has danced ballet on New York Stages. She has done Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan and “every role in the ‘Nutcracker,’” she says with a wry smile. This spring’s project, though, is Hansel and Gretel — and Benjamin and Kelsey must master the opening movements on this blustery Saturday morning.

The first time or two, their movements are ragged and unsure. They smirk a bit when Anne reminds them that they are “not a romantic pair, but brother and sister!”

Gradually they assume their characters. They become the woodcutter’s children — skipping and playing, unaware of the dark times ahead. The movements are practiced in silence until Anne thinks the music should be added, and she starts a boom box on a table at one end of the dance floor.

Kelsey has worked with Anne before. On a particular sequence, Anne reminds her, “Kelsey, this is nothing but part of the Sugar Plum Fairy routine!” Benjamin is not quite as polished, but he knows the ballet principles — and his Tai Chi and martial arts training give him body control that he can adapt to the dance.

I am there at Anne’s invitation. I sit on a well-worn metal chair off to the side, but I soon realize that I am invisible to the three people. They are focused on the few square meters of stage on which they perform. Anne often demonstrates particular movements with practiced grace.

I hear snatches of her instruction. “Wait! Wait! Hips and shoulders in alignment! Don’t show your butt to the audience! Both feet flat when lifting, Benjamin!”   When the pair gets it right, I hear a “Bingo!” or “Hah!”

I suddenly realize that I am witnessing something special. I find a scrap of paper in my jacket pocket and a stub of pencil. I try to recollect what I have already seen, and begin taking notes.

There is a short break. Kelsey removes her point shoes for some adjustment or other, and I see that some of her toes are bandaged. I see a spot of blood. A box of Band-Aids is among the contents of her small duffle bag. Hansel doesn’t have to do anything en pointe, and Benjamin has worked in his socks all along.

The break over, he and Kelsey – warmed to a sweat now — are down to T-shirt and tank top as they resume the rehearsal.

Over and over, they do the same opening sequence. The music is added at almost every iteration now, as the piece becomes more polished.

I feel like clapping, but realize that I mustn’t interrupt the concentration of these amazing energies.

Next fall, Benjamin will return to classes at the College of Charleston and Kelsey will enter the University of South Carolina. Before that, though – in May — there is Hansel and Gretel. Benjamin will be wearing lederhosen — those leather britches — and a snappy Tyrolean hat. Gretel will be in braids, and a Bavarian girl’s costume. An appreciative crowd in comfortable seats in a warm auditorium will applaud their skills.

But that’s a long way to go. It’s February and they’re in old clothes and leotards, in a drafty old studio, repeating moves over and over, before an audience of one — and waiting for Anne’s “Bingo!” to let them know when they’ve nailed it.

This story first appeared in Chuck Thurston’s book “Senior Scribbles Unearthed” available on Amazon. Chuck’s son Curt Thurston did the artwork illustrating the story.  You can find Curt’s “day job” stuff at CurtThurston.com….and Chuck still follows Ballet – and Anne is still teaching it.

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.