Category Archives: family

When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 30

Canto Thirty – Rage in the Clarke Name

Kyle Clarke came storming into the Zeffer house before either the sheriff’s deputy or Mrs. Philips could arrive.  He was angry to the point of curse words over what apparently had happened to Valerie.  He made Mrs. Zeffer and Ray repeat the story of how Ray found her three times before he even started calming down.  He made it clear he wanted the story from Ray, not Valerie.  Once he had learned she had been unconscious, he didn’t even want to hear her version of events.  He told her she would not be able to make sense of things until she was well rested and recovered.  He wanted Mrs. Philips, a registered nurse, to examine her before any other investigation took place.  Valerie could only imagine in horror what he suspected.

“Mrs. Philips!  We need you to examine little Valerie Clarke,” said Mrs. Zeffer as Mary’s mother arrived at the Zeffer home.  “She’s been attacked by someone.”

Mrs. Philips was very pale, and also seemed shaken.

“What is the matter, Mrs. Philips?” Kyle asked.  “You seem unwell.”

“My daughter Mary and her boyfriend Pidney Breslow are missing.  I’m afraid it has something to do with what happened to Valerie.”

“Oh, no!  We’ve phoned the sheriff already and he’s sending Deputy Harper from Belle City to investigate,” Kyle said in a concerned tone.

“Do you know what happened?” asked Mrs. Zeffer.

Ray was sitting on the bed in Bobby’s room next to Valerie who was already wearing the clothes Kyle had brought her.  Both of them looked at the adults standing just outside the bedroom doorway.  Valerie’s fear for what might’ve happened to Mary and Pid was overwhelming.  She leaned against Ray’s shoulder and began to cry softly.

“It was the strangest thing.  The three of them were all in our basement, reading some old book.  Then, suddenly there was a purple fog in the house.  It smelled so sweet it made me sick to my stomach.  It apparently knocked me out.  When I came to, I found my daughter Amy and her brother Jason were both sleeping on the floor.  They had been knocked out too.”

“And the kids were taken from your house?”  Kyle looked alarmed and upset.

“Yes, all we found were their clothes in the basement.  I have never seen anything so strange.  Whoever took them must have stripped them naked first.”

“Oh, you poor dear,” said Mrs. Zeffer, taking hold of Lady Philips’ shaking hands and guiding her to a chair in Bobby’s room.  “Sit here.  Let me get you some tea.”

“Was there any indication who might have done this terrible thing?” asked Kyle.

“I… I don’t know,” Mrs. Philips said as Mrs. Zeffer bustled out of the room to make tea.  “We found the empty clothes… and then you called asking me to come here and examine Valerie.”

“You should’ve said something then,” Kyle said.

“I… I just felt numb.  I told Jason to look after Amy and came right here to see what I could find out.”

“All right… um, Mrs. Philips… I called you over here to examine my daughter Valerie.  I was worried someone might have… well, she was found naked in the alley, unconscious.”

Lady Philips made a small strangling sound in her throat.  Valerie knew immediately what she must have thought had happened to Mary.

“I’m okay, Daddy.  I know for a fact that nobody did anything like that to me.”

“Valerie, princess, you were unconscious.  Somebody drugged you and stripped you naked.  We need to be certain what happened.”  Daddy Kyle was trying to be comforting and soothing, but there was a cold, desperate edge to his voice that actually scared Valerie.  She looked at Ray.  Ray’s eyes were frightened too.

“Your dad is right, Val.  You need to be checked.  Mrs. Philips is an RN, a professional nurse.  She’ll be able to tell.”

“Okay, Ray,” said Valerie’s dad coolly, “You should go help your mother in the kitchen.  Deputy Harper will be here soon.”

Ray reluctantly let go of Valerie and stood up.  “You know, sir, that I would never hurt your daughter.”

Kyle’s angry glare softened a bit.  “I… I do know that, son.  And believe me, I am grateful for the way you rescued her and brought her somewhere safe.  I’m on edge right now.  I don’t know what was done or who did it.  You know what I mean?”

“Of course.  If I were in your shoes, I’d be afraid for my daughter too.”

Ray nodded resolutely.  Then he went out of the room.

“I will examine her in private, Mr. Clarke.  I will be able to tell.  I have treated rape victims before.  I don’t have a kit with me, but I will know if one needs to be used… Only…”

“What?” Kyle asked.

“After we know, I am going to need you and Deputy Harper to find Mary.” Valerie’s dad was grim-faced, but he nodded his agreement.

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Closing in on the Ending

Valerie is in this picture, as the squirrel.

I know this title sounds like a total bummer of a post written by a sixty-plus-year-old loser in poor health and totally obsessed with his own imminent mortality. And I know why you might think that based on the general trends you have observed in my reflections-on-life sorts of posts, especially if you actually do more than only look at the pictures in this goofy blog. But it is not the ending of me that I am obsessed about. It is the ending of a novel.

I wrote the first draft of When the Captain Came Calling in 1996, twenty-three years ago. And I knew then that it was not finished. And I thought, perhaps, that it would never be finished. It was a hard thing to write. And I knew from the writing of the novel Snow Babies that I could not write this book without writing directly about the suicide. Something like that can’t just happen to a major character in a series of novels in between what happens in novel one and the start of novel two. It has been a twenty-three-year struggle with a plot-knot that was almost impossible to untangle.

Valerie Clarke and her skateboard

You see, the most important character in the patchwork-quilt-book that is Snow Babies, is Valerie Clarke, a skateboarding thrasher of a girl from the 80’s based on a girl I taught in the 90’s and named after a classmate I had a hopeless crush on in the 60’s. And she could not have been the character I wrote about in that book without having survived the fact of the suicide in the previous book. But when I completed Snow Babies, the Captain still didn’t have the suicide in it. And believe me, writing about suicide is hard. It is something that has been a life-long hardship to explain and to deal with.

You see too, that suicide has been a thing I have had to deal with in real life. Ruben got himself killed in a car accident in a car-theft joy ride. Osvaldo took his own life with a gun after getting out of prison. J.J. got drunk and ran his pickup truck into a train. And they were kids I taught and learned about from talking to them about their lives. And two of them I loved like they were my own children because that’s how teachers do… And I have spent three whole days in emergency rooms and one terrible night in ERs with suicidal teens, two long conversations with kids over the telephone when I had to talk them out of hurting themselves, and I had no idea where they actually were. And I have talked to counselors at three different schools about suicidal things kids shared with me more times than I can count accurately. And some of those incidents I am listing are about family members. And my cousin’s son… Well, you can see how that kind of battle can make a suicide something hard to write about. Especially since all the scars it leaves makes you hyper-aware of how precious and fragile life really is.

But you see three, now that I have taken time out to cry a bit for having written that last horrible paragraph, that it is important, as a writer, to share your truth with the world in the best way you know how. And as the spirits of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Terry Pratchett nod knowingly from beyond, I can honestly say that the best way that I can deal with it is by writing comedy, making readers smile and laugh and feel good about enough good stuff to make up for the bad stuff that everybody faces… even suicide. And I have finally passed the test. I wrote the chapter about the suicide. I have written about Valerie’s recovery, and I am nearing the end of the book, my current Work In Progress, When the Captain Came Calling. A good story can heal the world, the way Oliver Twist did, or the way The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did. And while the jury has not yet convened on this book of mine, and I can’t begin to compare my book to those, I don’t hate it now the way I did for the last twenty-two years. It is going to get finished. And then the whole world can ignore it the way they have all my other books.

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Where the Heart Lives

Every year that passes, life becomes more challenging, more difficult.

Ill health denies me many things. The poverty that comes with ill health and teacher retirement denies me even more. But I made it home to Iowa to visit the family farm once more. It could well be the last time. My parents are in their 80’s and more ill than I am. I lost my aunt a little more than a week ago. She passed away one day after her 80th birthday. Nothing is permanent. But those things that resist the ravages of time, the places, the people, the culture, the wind in the corn…

…Give me comfort, give me peace.

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Generations Gone Before

Of the people in the school picture from Rowan Rural School #4 (a one-room schoolhouse from Midwestern history and lore) all the ones who survive are octogenarians. Three of the survivors were at our family reunion for Great Grandma Hinckley’s descendants. My mother and uncle were there. Their cousin was also there. The school house stood on the Aldrich corner, near the house where my Grandpa and Grandma Aldrich lived, the farm house of a farm that’s been in the family for over a hundred years. My mother and Uncle Don and Uncle Larry could easily walk there. The rest came from country miles around by horse-drawn wagon.

This is not a school-bus wagon, but rather, an oat-seed spreader. So, almost the same.

Uncle Larry is now gone, but they have survived from the time of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the time of Criminal President Doofenschmertz Jehosephat Trumpennoodle. Things have changed. The house I now sit in was, back then, a place with a windmill and hand-pump for water, an outhouse for bathroom chores, and a radio for entertainment.

If they hadn’t endured through World War Two, and Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare, and the assassination of JFK, we wouldn’t even be here. We are the children of hardship, endurance, and conviction of the rightness of life on Earth.

We saw progress through the creation of Disneyland, landing the first man on the surface of the moon, Bugs Bunny cartoons, Scooby Doo, and the Pink Panther… Nixon and his Watergate break-in, Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk, Laugh-in… President Ford falling down stairs, Saturday Night Live, the Peanut-farmer President, Reaganomics… the Iranian hostage crisis… Saved by the Bell, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones… The invasion of Panama… Operation Desert Storm… the second war in Iraq… the downfall of Saddam Hussein… Thundercats, Jerry Seinfeld, Friends, the Wonder Years…

I am especially impressed that they lived through all those Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethons. And Leisure Suits… Aagh!

Mother’s entryway table with pictures of Grandpa and Grandma Aldrich in the back

And their time is not completely up. Mother and Dad and Uncle Don still move on and go to reunions and bury loved ones… and tend to the needs of grandkids and great-grandkids… And pass on the good things to the next generation… and the next. So it goes, towards times not yet dreamed of.

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When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 16

Canto Sixteen – Uncle Dash

Mom loved to cook.  She could do wondrous things with a casserole.  In fact, her Tater Tot casserole was such a hit that it had spread to households all over the county and people from as far away as Illinois were writing her letters to get the secret recipe.  It wasn’t such a secret.  Browned and loose ground beef, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, Tater Tots from Ore-Ida, and real cheddar cheese went into her magical casserole.  But friends of friends and family were practically rabid about wanting to get their hands on the special secret recipe.  They didn’t realize until she told them that the recipe came from the label of a Campbell’s soup can to begin with.

So the house smelled wonderful because Uncle Dash and Valerie’s cousin Stacey were coming to dinner.

Stacy was college age now, and Valerie looked up to her.  She was smart and independent, and she knew how to dress up like a fashion model whenever there was an excuse to do it.  As Val and Stacy set the table, the two had a brief moment or two to catch up on cousin stuff.

“I hear the Pirates are re-forming,” Stacy said.  “And they tell me you are going to be one of them?”

“Well, yeah… so?”

“Don’t bring it up tonight.  Daddy will get mad.  I mean, more mad than he already is.”

“Uncle Dash is mad?”  Valerie was slightly taken by surprise.  Uncle Dash was the kind of guy who was always laughing, always joking.  Valerie had relied on his sense of humor and mature wisdom her whole life long.  She believed he was even wiser than Daddy Kyle.  He was a farmer.  He had the wisdom of the Earth.

“Your Uncle Dash is mad at me,” said Stacey.

“Why would he be mad at you?”

“I told him a secret today.  One I have to tell everybody sooner or later.”

“Really?  Tell me.”

Stacey was obviously biting her own lower lip for some reason.  Why would she do that?  It didn’t really make sense to Val.  There were tears in her cousin’s eyes. 

“I mean it, Stacey.  I love you.  You can tell me.”

“Well, I…”  Before Stacey could spill it, the adults came into the room.

“Really,” Uncle Dash said with a frown on his face, “We could sell that sixty acres southwest of town and the big pasture along the Iowa River.  That would give us enough money to at least bargain for more time… maybe another growing season.”

“But, Dash, that’s all your land.  This is my debt.  I can’t let you sacrifice from your share.  It should be some of my land.”  Kyle sat down at the head of the table with a defeated-seeming kerplunk.  Valerie knew her dad’s basic onomatopoeias, the sound-words of his soul, and kerplunk was definitely not a good one.

“But it is some of the less-valuable land I am offering to sell.  All of your land is better, and we should be trying to keep all of it.”

“Yeah, well… I still don’t want you to make sacrifices to pay my debts.” 

Uncle Dash took the seat next to Daddy Kyle where Valerie would’ve sat if they didn’t have company.

Mom came in carrying a big casserole dish full of steaming-hot tater-tot casserole.  She proudly set her work of art down in the middle of the dining room table.  “Stacey, will you help me get the peas and the mashed potatoes?” Mom said.  Then she dashed back out to the kitchen.

“You’re my brother, Kyle.  You have to let me help you.  And it is all family land.  We have to work together, even though we divided the farms when Dad died.  It is all one large farm, really.”

“Well, yeah, but…”

That conversation died too as Mom and Stacey brought the rest of the supper to the table, and Mom insisted that everybody sit down and eat.  Valerie said Grace and food was passed all around.  Everybody at the table had a farmer’s healthy appetite, and soon mouths were too full to talk.  Conversation was suspended for the more important thing… at least until all were stuffed and satisfied.

“It’s a shame that Patricia couldn’t come with you this evening, Dash,” Mom said.

“She was sorry to miss it, but she really wasn’t feeling well.  She needed to take some medicine and go to bed.  Which reminds me…  Stacey has some new she needs to share with everyone in the family.”

Stacey looked at her father with a distinctly angry expression.

“Well, you may as well tell them.”

Stacey’s glare at Uncle Dash made Valerie suddenly worried for her cousin.  What could be wrong?

“I’m… not going to college anymore.”

“Oh, Stacey!” Mom said.  “Why not?”

“Well, I’m…”

The pause was unbearable.

“I’m pregnant.”

Stunned silence followed.  Uncle Dash’s face was so sad it almost made Valerie burst into tears.  Stacey did cry, and that was almost worse.

“How, I mean… who?”  Daddy didn’t know what to say.  He was kinda tongue-tied, right up until the answer hit him square in the memory.  “Not the Toad!  Oh, Stacey!”

“His name is Brom, not Toad.  I don’t know why everyone needs to call him that.”  Stacey’s tears were replaced almost instantly with fury.

“It’s the way he drives.  He reminds everyone of Toad in the Disney movie Wind in the Willows.  You know how recklessly he roars about in that yellow Ford Mustang of his.”  Uncle Dash was very direct and soft-spoken.  It was an argument Valerie had overheard before.

“He also has a big mouth like a frog,” said Valerie timidly.

“Oh, Val…”  Stacey shot her a wounded look.  Whose side was she supposed to be on, anyway?

“Well, I have to say, it isn’t such a big surprise.  You have been in love with that boy for a while now, haven’t you, Stacey?” Daddy Kyle said.

“Yes, I love him with all of my heart.”

“Is he going to do the right thing by you?”  Mom asked.

“He’s willing to marry me… if Daddy doesn’t forbid it.”

“Dash, you can’t forbid it,” said Daddy Kyle.  “That’s no way to start off a life… for Stacey or Brom either one.”

“You would take their side, wouldn’t you,” Uncle Dash said harshly.  “You know, as my little brother, it wouldn’t kill you to take my side once in a while.”

Daddy stared straight at his plate.  His mouth was a tense and very straight line.  “Stacey would be good for Brom.  As Mrs. Brown, she’s bound to settle him down at least a little bit.  Like the way Julie settled me down.  You remember what a wild kid I was, right?”

“We haven’t decided how it’s going to be, yet,” Dash said calmly.  “There is a lot to be decided yet.”

“You really can’t decide for her, you know,” Daddy Kyle said.

Uncle Dash got angry at that.  “How would you feel if it were Valerie in this situation?  Maybe with somebody like that Murphy kid… or Richard Martin’s little rag boy?”

“It’s not the same.  Valerie is still too young to be a mother.”

“And Stacey isn’t?”

“Kyle, Dash, please!” said Mom, “don’t discuss this in front of the girls.  They can hear everything, and I don’t think it helps anybody to hear you two argue about this.”

It was quiet for a few moments, but a very tense quiet.

“Julie is right, Dash,” Daddy said.  “Why don’t you and I go for a drive in your pickup, and the girls can spend some time together here.”

“We have a lot to talk about, Kyle.  But it won’t do a lick of good if you don’t listen more than you talk.”

The two brothers glared at each other.  But they were family, and too much alike not to smash heads together like a couple of rams in springtime.  So they both went out and got in Uncle Dash’s Chevy pickup and drove on into town.

“Headed for Martin’s Bar and Grill,” said Stacey, blowing a stray hair out of her eyes to show disgust.

Valerie wordlessly snaked her thin young arms around her beloved cousin and gave her a distressed and tearful squeeze.

“It will all get worked out for the best,” said Mom in her most comforting voice.

“I hope so,” Stacey said.  Then after a long pause she repeated, “I hope so.”

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Rebuilding

The retaining wall that keeps the yard from flowing downhill into the park and down to the creek, is now growing back upwards, visibly straighter and better grounded than it was before.

In his poem “Mending Wall”, Robert Frost suggested that the wall dividing his property and the neighbor’s property is constantly falling down and requiring mending. He gets together with his neighbor and they replace the fallen stones, mending the wall between them. And then the neighbor says the oft-quoted line, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Ironically, the neighbor is not saying that having a wall between them makes them better neighbors. He is saying that their friendship is built on mending the wall together.

And so it is with me and number two son as we labor together to straighten the foundation stones and replace all the heavy stone bricks that we had to remove to get to them. It is hard work, slowed by heavy bricks, one arthritic back, multiple rainy days, cold weather, and fatigue. But slowly we have problem-solved together, discussed the state of the world, and mended the wall. We have also mended our working relationship as father and son. A good wall makes a stronger family in the Frostian sense.

And so, I have come to see how life imitates art, and work begets poetry. A little sunshine creeps back into the picture when you engage in a little rebuilding.

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When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 6

Canto Six – Bacon and Eggs

Mom had breakfast ready and on the table.  Eggs and bacon on stoneware plates, one for Val and one for Daddy Kyle.  She was a great cook and loved to stuff her small family with what she made.   That was probably the reason she was watching over a second pan-full of sizzling bacon.

“Your father isn’t ready yet?” asked Mom, left eyebrow raised.

“Oh, he had to change his pants again for some reason.”

“That man can find more excuses for dragging his feet than…”

“Mom?  Is something the matter with Daddy?”

“What do you mean?”

“Last night I thought he was crying in the machine shed.”

“Well, you know your Daddy Kyle.  He loves his machinery, and that big old combine is broken down again.”

“It shouldn’t be.  It’s only two years old.”

Mom looked at her with unreadable eyes.  Was she mad?  Sad?  What?

“He says he can fix it.  He says the problem is just mechanical and you know how handy he is with tools.”

“Sure.”  He did love that combine.  Maybe that was what made him sad.   He loved Valerie and he was always sad when she was sick too.

Valerie gobbled eggs and bacon.  It was good, but even better eaten fast so you could enjoy those bacon burps for the next half hour.

“You eat like you’re starving.  I wish I could eat like that, Val, and stay as thin as you do.”

“Mom, I’m only eleven.   I’m not supposed to be a fatty at my age.”

“I thought you were ten, dear.   Where does the time go?”

Valerie was still thinking about yesterday, the holiday Monday… and why did so many people have to feel sad?

“Do you know what makes Ray Zeffer so sad, Mom?”

“Ray Zeffer?  What brings that up?”

“He and Danny Murphy walked me all the way home last night from town.  He’s such a gentleman.  But he always seems sad.”

“Well, I would guess that losing your father the way he did, such a short time ago… well, it might have something to do with it.  I know his mother, Donna Zeffer, is sad a lot too.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“And there was a brother that died… older brother…  Bobby, I think.  His family has been through a lot.”

Valerie buttered a piece of toast and then sipped her milk from the mug that Grandpa Larry had given her years ago.  The mug had a big red heart on the side of it.

“I didn’t know about the brother.  Younger or older?”

“Definitely older.  More than ten years ago.”

“What was more than ten years ago?” asked Daddy Kyle as he came in to breakfast.

“Valerie was wondering about Ray Zeffer because he and the Murphy boy walked her home from town last night.  How long ago did Bobby Zeffer die, Kyle?”

“Oh, at least sixteen years ago.  But what’s this about boys walking Valerie home last night?”

Uh-oh.  Dad radar had picked up a boy-alert… a potential boyfriend/trouble/rock salt alert.

“Danny and Ray were just being gentlemen,” said Valerie.  “They wanted to make sure I got home safe.”

“And they didn’t have anything but your safety on their little minds?” Kyle asked with a skeptical smirk.

“I suppose now you want to shoot Ray?” asked Valerie.

“Who said anything about shooting Ray?” asked Mom.

“Dad did.  He wanted to shoot Pidney and Danny last night, and now he wants to shoot Ray!”

“Kyle!”  Mom’s scolding stare could wither flowers that were otherwise in full bloom.

“I was just kidding around!” said Daddy in a defensive voice that sounded a lot like a little boy who’d been caught pulling his sister’s hair.  “I wouldn’t really shoot anybody…  It’s a dad thing.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Mom.  “But let’s not joke about that anymore.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  He was thoroughly chastised, and Valerie marveled at how Mom could make him so instantly repentant, like a Baptist preacher preaching Hellfire or something.

“The bus is here, Princess,” said Daddy Kyle while peering out the window. And it really was.  Valerie had to hustle.  The old yellow bus driven by Milo Volker was waiting at the end of the Clarkes’ lane, and he wouldn’t linger if she didn’t show up fast.  Still, it made her grin to see the look of relief on her Daddy’s face as he realized the dangerous conversation was at an end.

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