“Tenting Tonight in a Four Poster” by Walter Giersbach [Non-Fiction]

 

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[Pictured: Marion Fisk on the Chautauqua Circuit billed as “America’s Foremost Cartoonist.”]

I eagerly anticipated tales of Indian lovers and horrifying winters and camping with a horse-drawn wagon when my grandmother came to stay each summer in the early 1950s.  The rewards came when Moms let me sleep in her rope-strung, four-poster bed with the canopy that formed a tent.

I rushed to get in my PJs and pulled the comforter up to my chin while she unbraided her long gray hair and placed her false teeth in a glass of water.

Then the stories began.  My favorite was about a boy, born in New Hampshire years ago, “who would rather die than hoe beans.”

Moms said that with the boy’s talent for music, “He took a hollow reed and fashioned a flute.  His father felt that such genius should be encouraged.

“So, the boy and his sister learned to play on a pump organ.  They played everything they knew, then they made up their own songs.

“When the man was 21 years old, he went down to Boston, purchased a horse and wagon, and a little organ and drove through the countryside giving concerts in schools and churches.

“Then the time came,” she said, “when Uncle Sam ordered, ‘Come, follow me.’  It never occurred to him to seek an excuse why he shouldn’t enter his country’s service.”

I knew who Uncle Sam was, and the air raid sirens told me we were fighting the Germans and Japanese.  But she was talking about some long-ago war and I was quiet.

“He was away the night the summons came, and all the way home the words and music to a little song kept running through his mind.  When he had reached home he took an old violin and wrote a simple little piece.

“A few days later, he went down to Concord, New Hampshire, to report for service.  He was found physically unfit and was dismissed. But there was a demand for a song by which the soldiers might march and sing in camp.  The Oliver Ditson Company advertised for such a song, and the young man sent down the simple song he had written, offering to sell it to them for fifteen dollars.

“They were disgusted because of its simplicity and refused to have it at any price.  Instead, they hired a musician of considerable note to write a song for them. But, the soldiers wouldn’t sing it.  Then, they remembered the little song they had refused, purchased and published it, and in less than six weeks it was being sung by every Southern campfire and in every Northern home.”

Moms would make sure I was still tucked in — and still awake — before she continued.

“I remember when I was a little girl, seeing an eccentric looking man come into our yard.  He was driving a brown horse hitched to a pink express wagon, and in the back was strapped a melodeon.  My father and mother — your great grandpa and great-grandma — received him with joy in the kitchen.

“I was allowed to sit up late while I listened to them talk, often about things I couldn’t understand.  But I liked to listen to his kindly voice. At last they sang songs, and he told us this story of his boyhood and sang the song he had written the night of his draft, the song that made Walter Kittredge known and loved all over our country.”  And she began to sing softly, sadly.

 

“We are tenting tonight on the old camp ground,

Give us a song to cheer,

Our weary hearts, a song of home,

And the friends we love so dear.

 

“Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,

Wishing for the war to cease,

Many are the hearts, looking for the right,

To see the dawn of Peace.

 

“Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,

Tenting on the old camp ground.”

 

Moms passed away in that bed in 1961 at the age of 86.  The bed is now in the guest bedroom of my house.

Marion Ballou Fisk — my Moms — had traveled the Chautauqua Circuit across the country week after week between 1906 and 1926 to support her family.  She was billed as America’s Foremost Lady Cartoonist when entertainment and uplifting lectures were delivered under the large tents. In small towns across America, this was the only source of culture and respite from weary, rural chores.

I finally dug through cartons of her papers and found her hand-written stories — including this one — and a photo of her as she told crowds about Walter Kittredge who wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous ballads.

I’m sure that one of the most rapt audiences Moms ever had wasn’t a real audience at all. Just a small boy sleeping under the “tent” in her four-poster bed.

 

 

Walt Giersbach’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a score of online and print publications, including Soft Cartel.  He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and now moderates a writing group in New Jersey.

 

‘On Letting Oneself be Taken Care Of’ by Adrienne Pine

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As the eldest in a large family, I grew up taking care of others. Watching my younger siblings, I learned to develop a sixth sense; I reserved a part of my attention to wander on that periphery where something might flare up among any one of them, at any time.

This ability turned out to be useful during the decade in my young adulthood when I was a teacher. All children share a yearning and striving after something too unformed and unknown to put into words. A great teacher is someone who takes a student’s poor question and, without any embarrassment to the student, transforms it into a profound inquiry with reverberant answers that ripple through the consciousness of the class like circles of water spreading outward in a pond. I wasn’t a great teacher, but I was a good teacher who got my students excited about learning and served as their guide.

All of my life, I have identified with being competent, dependable, responsible. My parents were strict with me and punished me for infractions. I absorbed their lessons and was hard on myself. I didn’t allow myself to make mistakes, and when I made them, I suffered agonies. Self-torture was the price I paid for error. I missed opportunities where others might have helped me because I wouldn’t let them.

There were times when I wanted help, and I didn’t get it. For a long time I was frustrated and unhappy. It took a paid professional—my therapist—to tell me that I didn’t get the help I wanted because I never appeared as though I needed it. His observation stunned me. I thought others could tell when I felt needy and vulnerable. Apparently not. I had learned to conceal my feelings. I thought neediness ugly and repellent, and I was afraid of being vulnerable. Being vulnerable meant letting my defenses down, leaving myself open for attack.

It’s often said that to be loved, one must be a lovable person, someone who knows
how to love. It’s the same with receiving help. To an extent, it’s knowing how to ask. That was hard for me, because I always thought I had to be in charge. From my parents I had learned that any help they gave was in exchange for something else. They expected a return, and often I thought the price was too high. The help they gave wasn’t really help at all. It was barter.

I knew that not everyone was like them, but my fear of this transaction infected my
interactions with others. When I needed help, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it until I was desperate. When I did ask, it was with the expectation that the price would be too great, or else I would be turned down. The cycle fed on itself: my defeatist attitude ensured that I would be defeated.

And sometimes I was guilty of the same behavior that I deplored in my parents. I
asked for help as if I were extracting a promise, and when I met with resentment in return, I only had myself to blame. That was another of my misperceptions.

Continue reading “‘On Letting Oneself be Taken Care Of’ by Adrienne Pine”

‘The Worst Call’ by KR Pendergrass

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I sat alone on the bench of my ambulance, tears falling unchecked, quite sure I had made some seriously bad career decisions. The stretcher was all made up with clean, folded linen and a fresh pillow, but in my mind I still saw it disheveled, only one strap fastened over the tiny, still body. I wasn’t cut out for this. I mean, who was? What kind of lunatic could do this?

The infant had been gone too long for me to do anything to help, but in the dimness of the mobile home I couldn’t be sure. In the bright lights in the back of the ambulance, it was clear. She was blue, and cooling quickly out of the hot environment of the trailer in the summer heat. There was no activity in her heart. She was dead, and there was nothing I could do about it.

My partner had kept her distance, not sure how I was going to react, giving me time to compose myself. It was cool inside the ambulance bay, but I could still feel the heat from that home, giving me false hope that the baby could be saved. I had put on a professional mask, informed the family that she had been gone too long, transferred the scene to the state troopers and the coroner. Being a paramedic, there was nothing else I could do there.

It was the first question everyone asked when I said I wanted to be a paramedic. “How will you handle children, babies, dying?” It was the topic of conversation among students, the first thing rookies asked the old pros. “How did you handle your first SIDS baby?” It is the question on everyone’s mind when they first get into an ambulance on the first day. The half-finished letter of resignation on the bench beside me was my answer. “How did you handle your first SIDS baby?” “Not well, kid. I quit to become an accountant…”

I sat there alone trying to deal with my feelings for almost an hour. Layers of tears dried on my face as I went through waves of being ok, NOT being ok, wanting to finish my letter, wanting to tear it up, and wanting to just lay down and sleep for a month. I was so deep in thought that I jumped a mile when the back door opened and a familiar face appeared.

This particular state trooper had worked dozens of scenes with me, seen me hold together through some messy ones, heart-wrenching ones, all the stuff that goes along with our professions, and had seen me be strong. I guess now it was only right that he see me be weak.

Without invitation, he climbed inside and sat down on the bench. Picking up the half-finished letter, he read it. Putting it down and looking at me, he said, “That’s your plan? Walk away?”

I shrugged, changing the full battery on my monitor so I wouldn’t have to look at him. “Not a bad way to deal. There’s plenty of other jobs out there where you don’t ever have to hold a dead baby.”

“True,” he said. “There are. But not for you. This is where you belong.”

“Not necessarily,” I replied, now deciding my airway kit needed cleaned.

“Then tell me this,” he said, taking the airway kit so I had to look at him. “You couldn’t help this one. And that feels like crap. Maybe you can help the next one. But I can tell you this for sure.” He held up my letter. “If you turn this in, you go become a teacher or a carpenter, you absolutely, one hundred percent, CAN NOT help the next one. You stay here in the ambulance, the next person who needs your help will get it. If not… Well who knows who will get the call?”

I stared at him, processing his words. He was right. I might be able to walk away from the job, but I would always wonder. Every time I saw a wreck or obituary in the newspaper, I would wonder if I could have changed the outcome, If I could have done something someone else wouldn’t have thought of.

Before I could form the words to respond, my partner hurried out. “We got a diabetic emergency at the nursing home. You ok, or do you want me to send the other crew?”

The trooper gave me a questioning look, still offering the letter to me. “It’s your call,” he said.

It was. And there was only one I could make. “We got this,” I told my partner. “Let’s roll!”

As we exited the back of the truck, he held up the letter again. “And this?”

I shook my head. “Just toss it. I don’t think I need it anymore.”

KR Pendergrass is a paramedic of 13 years, author, homeschool mom, wife, pet of a particularly spoiled dachshund. Years in rural EMS has produced many heartwrenching stories. It has also produced many hilarious ones as well. Her home with her husband, sons and dogs is full of both laughter and stories, because you can’t let the heartbreaking stuff take a piece of your soul. Her first novel, Incompatible With Life was released last spring, and her followup, Crisis of Faith, should be out in time for Christmas this year.

‘The Seven Words That Changed My Life’ by Mary Campbell

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April 1991. I want to be anywhere but indoors. A light rain has rinsed the dust off the creosote bushes, leaving that fresh, ephemeral scent of just-washed desert foliage that you absolutely cannot describe but that leaves a vague sense of having been an earthworm in a previous life.

By dusk, the whole world smells of Mock-orange in bloom. Nothing can compete, not jasmine or honeysuckle, diesel fumes, steaks cackling over mesquite; nothing brings on spring fever like the Mock-orange at the glorious height of its blooming season.

Tonight I must forgo my small luxuries: watching the sun set over the mountains, imbibing Mock-orange fragrance, chipping with an ice pick at the solid inch of salt atop my cold, tart margarita-on-the-rocks. Tonight I must attend a Leadership Class. Titled “Managing for the Organizationally Challenged,” it offers “useful strategies for ADD/ADHD sufferers,” on the apparent assumption that we’ve already exhausted the useless ones.

Arriving, parking, and going through my mental checklist—“clip keys to purse handle, lock doors, note car location”—I take a last, longing look at the Tucson Mountains to the west—always purple and mysterious when the sun sets, hinting at secrets in those backlit hills: The Elves’ Masquerade is about to start and you’re invited, but you must find the Enchanted Quarter-Acre. Sighing, I enter the windowless building and follow the unmistakable pre-class hum of desultory conversation and languid laughter.

There isn’t a soul I recognize in the large, drab room, which is packed to capacity with bodies steaming slightly from the unseasonably humid warmth of the April night. Tables and chairs are nowhere to be seen, so when the instructor says, “Find a seat, folks,” gesturing to the floor with a small laugh, we plop down complacently on the industrial-grade carpeting.

The instructor—“Sheila,” if her name tag is to be believed—is young, blonde, and busy, answering questions, emptying a large tote, then handing out single sheets of paper to the floor-sitters. She catches my eye, all confident, intelligent energy, as she works her way back to my corner. Over the heads of a half-dozen dark-suited up-and-comers, she sends two pages sailing. I catch them neatly, giving one to the jean-clad woman behind me. She is sitting on a small, quilted pillow. Has she been tipped off about the absence of furniture?

I glance incuriously at the letter-size sheet. In the years to come I will wish I had kept my copy, though it contains only four or five lines in the familiar Courier font. Perched on a bare table someone has scavenged from a closet, Sheila clears her throat and conversation dies down. With little introduction and no fanfare, she explains what we are to do, elaborating on the written instructions.

First, we have to “find a partner—someone you’ve never met before tonight.” I have been chatting with Diane, the woman in jeans, and we give each other that raised-eyebrow half-smile that seals our common destiny for the next hour or so.

Continue reading “‘The Seven Words That Changed My Life’ by Mary Campbell”

‘Talking Dogs Aren’t Real, but If They Were They Wouldn’t Be Cool’ by Maddy Isenbarger

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I don’t think enough people are upset by the concept that Scooby-Doo speaks English. If a dog ever spoke to me, I would never be okay again. In fact, I think I would enter such a severe state of fight or flight, I would panic-murder the dog just to be certain I would never hear it speak again. It is fucked up that the Mystery Gang recklessly exposes Scooby-Doo to others as if that isn’t a crime against humanity. They carelessly parade around this gargantuan beast of a hound that moves its dog mouth and says things like, “ruh roh, Raggy” and, “Scooby-Dooby-Doo” as if that isn’t going to unravel the minds and lives of those who hear him speak English out loud.

A lot of people say they would be psyched if they encountered a talking dog, and I think that’s because they haven’t considered what it would actually be like to be alone in a room with one, and have it say, “hey, I was thinkin’ about heading over to Josh’s later if you wanna come.” In that moment you would be petrified beyond recovery, because everything you understood to be true would be in question. Even if the dog said something super nice, like, “I just want you to know that I love being your dog, and I think you’re a very special and kind person” it wouldn’t make it any less upsetting, because the DOG is TALKING; implying that nothing is real, and yet everything is, and that overwhelming realization is enough to cause anyone to cry out to a vague-deity, and bring them to their knees in unspeakable horror.

I’ve had my share of traumas I didn’t think I’d be able to recover from; they manifest as intrusive thoughts and images that terrorize me when I least expect it, but in time have dulled and become manageable to live with. That being said, I cannot fathom how infinitely haunted I would be by a dog speaking to me. No amount of time could pass where I would no longer be consumed by the thought of it. It would taint every aspect of my life, slowly destroying my interpersonal relationships and forcing me to implode until my untimely self-destruction.

Anyways, Scooby-Doo doesn’t accurately depict the reality of talking dogs, and it isn’t fair that we’re all just okay with that.

Maddy Isenbarger is finishing up her degree in Film Studies, and just trying to stay alive long enough to hold hands with Frances McDormand on day. You can find her screeching into the abyss of the World Wide Web on Twitter: @maddymoiselle.

‘Things She Left Behind’ by Walt Giersbach

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My wife, Judy, and I moved back to New Jersey with relief.  Earlier in 2008, we had returned to Connecticut from a year of raising a new-born grandson in Cambridge, Mass., sold our home and decided to rejoin our son’s family in Jersey.  We swore this was the last time we were moving.  We were both tired of relocating and excited about settling into our final home.

After a day of cleaning house in February 2014, Judy complained uncharacteristically of being tired and in pain.  Half an hour later, a heart attack took her out of my life.  My attempts at CPR while simultaneously talking with paramedics on the phone had been useless.  All my life I’d believed everything was possible, but I ran headlong into a roadblock when her body refused to respond.  It was the end of a 46-year marriage in which “she” and “I” had become “we.”

It had been a successful marriage of opposites: She was a hard-working Taiwanese and I’d grown up in a comfortable middle-class American household.  I was a college grad and she had no more than an elementary school education.  She’d been raised as a Buddhist and I was the son and grandson of Christian ministers.

Eighty-five friends and family attended her funeral service, and then time stopped for me.  It hit me that when a person goes missing from your life, the entire world is empty.

George Eliot wrote in The World Before Us, “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.”  But knowing that doesn’t ease the grief or lessen the loneliness even when surrounded by crowds.

The months since then have been long and difficult, costly in terms of burial arrangements and mental turmoil, and unusually quiet with just half the household noise and even less conversational chatter.  I’d never before noticed how loud a light switch or clock can be in the silence.

Slowly, as I go through her things and select clothes that will be given to charity, I’m uncovering the bits and pieces of her life that I wasn’t aware of.  I found loose change in the pockets of her jackets hanging in her half of the closet.  I uncovered clothes, purses and scarves with store tags attached or still in their boxes.  These were her anticipated holiday and birthday gifts.  And there were shoeboxes with our children’s greeting cards from years ago.

Tucked in her bedside table were half a dozen hung bau, little red envelopes the Chinese use to give children money on the Lunar New Year, each containing a $20 bill.  They were all to be gifts in case a child or older person came to our house or was celebrating an event.  Judy was a great gift-giver, with protocols and propriety.  No birthday or anniversary was ever missed in our extended family.

We took Judy home to Massachusetts for burial in the cemetery where she now rests with my parents, brothers, grandparents and great-grandmother.  Although she was born in Taiwan, she had adopted New England as much as my forebears had.

And then a curious thing happened in that Northfield cemetery overlooking the Connecticut River.  Following the interment service, the pastor came up to me and said, “While you were delivering your eulogy this leaf fell on your shoulder.”  She held out a red maple leaf.

I seized on this as an omen, a sign that Judy was listening and perhaps death is not the finality it appears to be.  I’ve saved the leaf as a keepsake.

And now I have much more to think about than the things she left behind.

Walt bounces between writing genres, from mystery to humor, speculative fiction to romance. His work has appeared in print and online in over a score of publications. He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and moderates a writing group in New Jersey. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and to a couple of Asian countries.

‘Surfin’ Indiana’ by Rick Joy

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“Yeeehaaa,” I screamed, feigning exuberance, trying hard not to vomit as we slammed down onto the much-abused roof of the five-year-old station wagon, holding on to the luggage rack with the grips of supermen. We acted like we thought supermen should, but inside I was freaking out, able to do little but hold on to the cross bar of the luggage rack and hope the ride ended sooner than our lives.

My buddy Mike and I were surfing, Indiana style. It was 1968 and we had just graduated from high school. We were convinced we were indestructible and willing to tempt fate to prove it.

It began one early summer Saturday afternoon when five of us were riding around the farm-strewn countryside looking for something to do. There didn’t seem to be much on a Saturday afternoon in east central Indiana in those days. Actually, there was plenty to do – just nothing we wanted to do. The local movie theater was playing Prudence and the Pill, which none of us would admit to wanting to see. Now, if it had been The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen, well, we all would have been up for that. Steve McQueen was the coolest of the cool after all. So no movie that afternoon. There wasn’t much left to choose from for entertainment, so we opted for the old standby. We would ride around the Indiana countryside, exploring the flat cropland of Jay County, listening to music, sometimes shooting rifles while riding on the front fenders, sometimes drinking beer. No guns or beer that day, though, just driving around shooting the bull and listening to our favorite radio station. Eventually we came to a remote bridge where we often stopped, while Summertime Blues, by Blue Cheer was playing on the radio. This bridge was over a small creek with barely any running water, but it was on a little-used road so we could park right on it and throw stuff, rocks mostly, into the creek while we expounded on how we were going to change the world…or land a date with that former cheerleader we just couldn’t forget.

“I’m gonna git a date with Renéee,” I declared, fast-balling a rock into the creek. Renée was our age and had been a cheerleader for three years. She was smart and gorgeous and didn’t have a boyfriend at the time.

“Oh bullshit, Rick, you’ll never git a date with Renée,” said Mike. “And you know why? You don’t have the balls to ask her!”

That hurt. Mostly because it was true. Mike was kinda wild, yeah, but he was also smart and insightful.  I couldn’t let it go, though, so I responded over the music blasting out of tinny-sounding speakers.

“I have a plan and when I’m done she’ll go out with me. I know she will.”

“Oh yeah, so what’s this plan of yours?”

“It’s a secret.”

“A secret plan,” said Mike, skepticism thick and obvious.

“Yep, and I’m not tellin’ you guys what it is because you’ll either use it yourselves, or figure out how to blow it up for me.”

“Back to my original statement: bullshit.”

“Hey, you guys,” yelled Alan, who was driving his father’s station wagon that day, “there’s a muskrat swimmin’ down there! See it by that log? Bet I can hit it with a rock.”

The first and only rock throw landed pretty close to the muskrat. Predictably it dove under water, never to be seen again. We were all pretty bored by then, ready to find something exciting to do. After all, we were seventeen- and eighteen- year-old boys, full of energy and brimming with unjustified self-confidence.

“I have a great idea,” said Steve, struck with inspiration. “How about a couple of us git on top of the car and ride around for a while? It’ll be fun. We kin take turns. It beats the hell outta standin’ around here doing nothin’.” Steve had a knack for getting people to do that which they would normally avoid.

“Whatcha mean?” asked Alan, protective of his dad’s car.

“I mean a couple of us’ll get on the roof of the car while you drive around the countryside. We kin hold on to the luggage rack. It’s perfectly safe.”

Oddly enough, that made sense to us all, which is proof that critical thinking skills are not well-developed by age eighteen.

Continue reading “‘Surfin’ Indiana’ by Rick Joy”