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. 

 

Spill Your Guts by Chuck Thurston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I seen some dirty magazines,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Cracker Crumbs by Chuck Thurston

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Christmas, Peace and a Soft Wool Dress by Heidi Thurston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.