Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Leaving Home,"

I have always wanted to write more about Virginia City, Nevada.  I've published articles in historical journals and such, but this is my first attempt at fiction.  Please let me know what you think and how I might be able to strengthen this piece.  This piece is set in mid-November 1914. 

"Leaving Home"

Looking North on C Street, Winter 1989
Christine steps out of her home on Stewart Street.  The night is not yet over.  In the dim light of the gas street lamp, she sees her breath and wraps her shawl over her head and around her shoulders for warmth before reaching for her small suitcase.  Duncan, her son-in-law, beats her to it and picks up the bag.

 “You’re always such a gentleman.  I can carry my own bag.” 

“No, let me,” Duncan insists, offering his elbow. 

Christine grabs his arm.  Jennie, her daughter, joins them on the porch and the three step out, walking briskly through the dark streets.  Although she is a woman of sixty-seven, there’s still a spring in Christine’s step.  With her arm interlocked with her son-in-law, Jennie looks up.   Shortly after dark, earlier in the evening, she been out on the porch and watched Orion rise.  The constellation is now toward the west and appears to being chased by his dog out of the sky.  The Gemini twins and Tarsus the bull, whose advent in the eastern sky had preceded Orion, is now about to set behind Mount Davidson.  She wondered if they’d set before dawn erased them from the sky.

A neighbor’s dog barks as they pass and the horse in Old Man Sutton’s barn snorts.  Far down Six Mile Canyon, a coyote howls.  The wind rustles the loose tin on the dilapidated homes down the street. 

“There are too many abandon houses,” Christine said.  “When I moved here, I thought this place was at the end of the earth, but there was excitement, and no empty houses.  We had three families sharing our house.” 

“Virginia City now feels as if it has been abandoned at the end of the earth,” Jennie says with a laugh. 

At the corner of Union Street, they turn east and begin the descent down the hill toward the station. Off in the distance, the waning crescent moon hangs over the Pine Nut Mountains.  A little light is showing on the edge of the horizon, the promise of a new day. 

Between A and B Street, the three of them walk past the darken Piper’s Opera House. 

“Piper used to have the best shows on the Pacific Coast, but now there are only second-rate traveling companies.  I wish you could have seen it in its heyday,” Christine says.

“I expect the moving pictures are going to take over,” Duncan predicts.  “Jennie and I saw Ben Hur last weekend.  It was quite a show with Murray Mack pounding on the piano.”

“I don’t like reading the script, I want to hear the actors talking!”  

Between B and C Street, they step down the sidewalk stairs beside the International Hotel.  In the kitchen, Won, the cook, is fixing breakfast, his long hair braided and hanging down his back under his skull cap.  He is one of only a handful of Chinese left in Virginia City.  When the city was thriving, Chinatown consisted of a large chunk of the lower city.  In the dining room, under the bright electric lights, a couple of guests are finishing their breakfast in preparation for catching the train.  Stepping past the hotel, they reach C Street and stop and look both ways out of habit.  It is nearly deserted at this time of the morning, but it’s been nearly deserted for the past twenty years.  They cross over and begin the final descent toward the V&T Passenger Station a block below.

Two toots are heard in the distance and then a rumbling as the locomotive chugs out of the roundhouse and stops on the turntable.  Duncan pulls out his watch. “It’s barely Six, they‘re going to be late leaving.”  After a brief pause, the engine and its tender rumbles to life and pulls off the turntable and onto the mainline, where it stops and then reverses and heads up into town tender first.  The three step into the waiting room where a fire in the potbelly warms the air.  They crowd around the stove warming their hands.  A few minutes later, the locomotive emerges from the tunnel under the front steps of St. Mary’s of the Mountain and moves on past the station toward the car barn to the north. 

 “I don’t see why I can’t ride in the buckboard with the two of you,” Christine asks.  “When I came to this country, with Ma and Pa and your Uncle Owen and his family, we all rode in a buckboard, all the way from Folsom.  That was as far as the train ran, in those days.  Ma and Pa rode up front, Owen and I rode in the back on top of our stuff.  It took us four days to cross the Sierras.  At night, we’d camp and fix dinner over a fire and then, sleep under the buckboard.  By the time we got to Carson City, we were filthy."

“We’ve been through this, Ma.  You’ll be a lot more comfortable on the train.  It’s going to take us all morning to load up the wagon and a day or a day and a half to make it over the Geiger Grade and down to Reno.  Hopefully, we'll see you tonight.  If not, we'll be there tomorrow morning.” 

Ten minutes later, the locomotive, The Dayton, pulls back in front of the station, dragging a coach and a baggage/mail car.  A few businessmen who had been waiting to the last minute in the International Dining Room join Christine as they step onto the platform.  Christine notices the stars have all but faded from the sky as the new day is beginning.   A railroad worker loads a sack of mail and a handful of parcels  into the mail car.  Christine boards the car, turning waving to Jennie and Duncan before finding a seat near the stove at the far end of the car.  She stows her bag on the rack above and sits down and presses her face against the frosty window pane.  The conductor shouts all aboard and pulls up the stool.  The whistle blows and although she can't see it, the engineer pushes the throttle forward and slowly the wheels catch and the train lunges forward.  In the distance, the whistle at the Con Virginia Works blows, announcing the change of shift. The conductor punches their tickets as the train pulls into the dark tunnel under the Catholic Church. 

When the train emerges from the tunnel a moment later, Christine catches the first rays of the sun race through Six Mile Canyon, glistening the windows of the town she’d called home for nearly fifty years.  Morning always come quickly to this town, just as it became a major city almost overnight.  Likewise, twilight seems always extended as the sun sets behind Mount Davidson long before dark, leaving the town in the mountain’s shadow.  The town’s decline has been just as slow as evening is to come.  As it withered, she buried a husband and a son in these hills and now wondered if she’ll ever see the town again.

The train passes the Collar Mine and enters a second, shorter tunnel.  On the other side, she looks back but can no longer see much of the town.  High up the hill on the right she sees the Fourth Ward School where her children attended.  Then the car jerks and wheels squeal as the tracks snaked first to the left and then back to the right, rounding another curve at “The Divide.”  The car is again plunged into darkness, the only light being the oil lamps of the car, as it moves through the third tunnel, the longest one on the upper end of the tracks.  The air is smoky and heavy inside and the when the train emerges from the tunnel, Virginia City is gone. 


This piece is partly based on real person who came to the Comstock Lode in the early/mid 1860s and lived her life there, before moving to Reno where she died in 1919. What kind of things would you now want to know about Virginia City or Christine?  Do I need more or less detail?  Help me out!  What has been your experiences at writing fiction?

Monday, February 23, 2015

An end to a good weekend...

The racing's over and we're heading back in...
 It was a good weekend.  On Saturday, I raced (sailboats) and our team came in first overall.  I've been on a winning team before, but this time we were the top over all finisher in addition to having one first place and being in the top three each of the three races.  It was an exciting day with a fair wind, but an excessively strong outgoing tide that made things challenging, especially when rounding the pin on a downwind run which was against the tide and needing enough forward thrust to make it around the buoy without hitting it.
Non-wading cranes at the Port of Savannah

Yesterday afternoon I explored the Savannah River National Wildlife Refuge, which is in South Carolina, just up the river from Savannah.  There are miles of hiking (and biking) trails and we spent the afternoon walking along the dikes that crisscross through the wetlands.  For some reason, I forgot to bring a pair of bincolars and a bird book, but there were lots of ducks and a few cranes, herons, hawks and buzzards, along with a few alligators enjoying the warm winter day.  Although you felt all alone, in the distance you were reminded that you weren't far from civilization as the loading cranes (as opposed to the wading kind) at the Savannah ports along with the industrial plants such as International Paper (thankfully the wind wasn't from the south!) were visible.

This canal (for some reason) was a reddish-brown
and even this gator was stained by the water
The highlights of the day had to be the armadillos.   These guys aren't afraid of anything and would continue digging in their search of food and ignored me with the camera, allowing me to get close shots.  It is interesting to see the hair on the back of armor which I was close enough to see.  One did run away and went straight into the briers, the armor protecting him.  Even a rabbit might leave behind a bit of fur, but this guy just slide on through. 

The refuge, in the 18th and 19th centuries, was a series of rice plantations.  The islands of high ground (hammocks) are covered with hardwoods draped in Spanish Moss.  Some of these islands were used as slave communities where they lived in the middle of the rice fields where they worked.  Today, no rice is raised here, only grass and reeds for the waterfowl.

In the distance is the US 17 bridge over the Savannah River
 The day was beautiful with temperatures in the mid-70s F and a light breeze which created a nice rustling sound in the dried grass and which keep the sand gnats at bay.  I think I'll come back again and do some more exploring around here (and bring with me binoculars and a bird identification book).
International Paper Mill
Well, that wasn't all for the weekend.  There was also a community pancake breakfast fundraiser on Saturday morning and on Saturday evening, friends prepared an incredible five-course Italian meal.  On Sunday morning, at church, we held a "Kirkin' o' the Tartans" in which everyone dressed up in their Scottish plaid and celebrated the old country (from which my ancestors left 250 years ago, so the memory is a bit distant).  I've learned this event is really an American creation, but it was fun and very colorful to see the tartan banners being marched into the sanctuary and besides, there was a bit of English bashing as we recalled the days the English wouldn't let the Scots wear the tartans of their clan nor play the bagpipe.
An island hammock with ducks flying
What did you do this weekend?  I hope it was fun filled and adventuresome!

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Most They Ever Had

Rick Bragg, The Most They Ever Had (Blackstone Audio, 2009).

Several years ago I listened to the unabridged audio version of this book read by the author, Rick Bragg.  For some reason, I never wrote a review of it at the time.  I recently re-listened to the book and highly recommend it.  I am sure the written copy is also excellent (I am a big fan of Rick Bragg’s writings), but with the audio version you can hear Rick Bragg “sing” the lyrics of his prose.  This book celebrates the life of hard working men and women who worked in the cotton mills of the American South.  It has been decades since I read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was accompanied with Walker Evan’s photographs of the down and out during the Depression.  I do remember that Agee recommended his book be read aloud (I didn’t do it), but there is something about the way working people use language, that both Bragg and Agee captures, which is enhanced when audible. 

The Most They Ever Had is a tribute, a love story, to the working men and woman (and even children) in the Southern cotton mills that have mostly closed.  Bragg tells the story through the mill in Jacksonville, Alabama.  His brother worked in that huge brick building where the machines rumbled as they turned cotton into thread.   Bragg describes the building as “living” and it often consumed who worked behind its walls.  The mill ran for over a hundred years and continued on long after many other mills in neighboring communities shut down. 

Bragg presents the mill as a savior to the hill people who struggled to feed their families.  The wages were low, “but it was still more than they ever had.”  It was a regular paycheck, that was gone as soon as it arrived, but allowed people to get by.  In time, the mill became safer and children were no longer desired for their nimble fingers that sometimes were lost in the machines.  Wages rose as well as benefits.  People owned their own small homes or trailers instead of living in company housing.  And then, in 2001, after a century of operations and families that had sent generations into the mill, it closed for good.

Through extensive interviews, Bragg captures the heart of the workers at the mills.  We’re told of the excitement on Saturday afternoon baseball games in which they played company teams from other mills.  We’re told of the man who played the guitar in such an incredible way that he was invited to go to the Grand Ole Opry but wouldn’t because he couldn’t miss work.  He tells the story of soldiers from the mill who head off to war and how one, when he would dream of home, would think of the smokestack that was so high he was never lost when at home for he could always look up and find the stack.  And then there is the eccentric Old Man Greenleaf, who managed the mill for years and was hung in effigy during the labor troubles of the 1930s when the workers went on strike because he wouldn’t pay the new national minimum wage.  And there are the stories of brown lung and the people who lost their capacity to breath due to accumulating cotton dust in their lungs.  In telling these stories of people who were defined by their ability to work hard, Bragg has given voice to people who could easily be forgotten.  “It is rich people who live on in biographies; working people live on in a ledger,” Bragg notes.   But in this book, working people move out of the ledger of how many spools were spun and a part of their lives live on.  I am thankful to Bragg for the stories.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Saturday Night Live 40 Years Later (or, am I really this old?)

Jane Curtin was one of my
favorite SNL actors
I have a major lecture to prepare, yet I found myself watching the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live.  I can’t believe it has been on that long.  I really haven’t watched it much in the past 30 years but when it first came on, I wouldn’t miss it.  It was blessing to date someone who had an 11 PM curfew because I could be home in time to catch the show.  I have many memories of it: Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford as he bangs his head on the door of Helicopter 1 and Dan Aykrovd playing Jimmy Carter, the nuclear engineer President tackling, hands on, the problems of 3 Mile Island.  I always liked the political humor, tossed in with good music from my generation.

 Who could forget poor Mr. Bill, the clay puppet who was an apocalyptic “Punch and Judy.”  “Oh no,” he’d cry.  A few years later, in my first stint as a camp director, Mr. Bill made regular appearances in the staff’s campfire skits.  Like many on SNL, Mr. Bill went on to become a major star in other venues.  And then there were the Coneheads…

I also liked the way the show parodied television commercials. Back in the late 70s, there was a commercial about how a car's ride was so smooth a craftsman could cut crystal glass while sitting in the backseat.  Saturday Night Live reproduced the commercial with a rabbi performing a circumcision.  Watching this 40th Anniversary Show, with clips from the past, I realize the reason I gave up watching SNL was that show was pretty sophomoric, or crude (and often down-right lewd).  After graduating from college, I watched less and less of it.  One episode that I remember had Chevy Chase (or maybe Dan Aykroyd) on a phone call while also handling the evening news.  He was having to explain something (we were only hearing one side of the conversation) and it was pretty obvious that he was talking about oral sex.  It was a few months after my grandfather’s death and I was at my grandmother’s for the weekend and she was watching the show with me.  I don’t know how much she understood, but I expect it was more than I care to admit, but she never said anything about it.  I suggested in the middle of the episode that we turn the TV off and go to bed, but she insisted we continue.  I was very red and hot around the collar. 

Jane Curtin had one of the best lines of the evening, lamenting lamenting how times have changed. “I used to be the only blonde girl reading fake news, now we have whole networks of them."   Jane (you ignorant slut, as Aykroyd called her during their “point/counterpoint section) also had the second best line, saying the show was still sponsored by one of the original supporters, cocaine.  Sadly, there is more truth to this than we'd like to admit and it's one of the reasons some of the best talent was unable to make the 40th anniversary gala, for comedians have yet to master resurrection.

The program went on for three and a half hours, about twice as long as necessary, but everyone and their brother had to make an appearance.  Did they really need Miley Cyrus sing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover?” Or Sarah Palin popping up in the audience and asking about running for president  (with Donald Trump as her running mate, no less)?  Or Derek Jeter and Payton Manning?  And did Payton really drop the F-word and need to be beeped out?  All in all, three and a half hours of stars patting themselves on the back is a little more than I could take so I did a load of dishes, cleaned the kitchen, and began to check some facts for my talk…

One of the best things, in my humble opinion, to come out of Saturday Night Live was Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s film, the “Blues Brothers.”  It is my one of my all-time favorite movies and not only does it contain great music, the movie provided wonderful public service by trashing a multitude of 70-era junk cars.  There were many other movies to spin off the show and a host of the actors went on to become famous.  Would we even have the Daily Show without SNL?  I don’t know, but it now appears that SNL will outlive it!   And after last night, with all the arms thrown out from clapping with the applause cards and patting each other on the back, I’m sure there are some orthopedic surgeons in a financial position to upgrade their boats. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Happy Valentine's Day

Hopefully everybody got through Friday the 13th and are ready for Valentine's Day.  The above Valentine was postmarked (it was a post card) in 1911, so the commercialization of Valentine's has been around for a while. Do you have any plans or traditions that you maintain for the holiday?