“Antonio, Antonio, Tell us a Story”

April 11, 2011 § 5 Comments

“Once there was a band of cowboys sitting around a campfire, and they said, ‘Antonio, Antonio, tell us a story.’ And he said, ‘Okay, boys. Once there was a band of cowboys sitting around a campfire, and they said, ‘Antonio, Antonio …’ ”


You get the idea. Tales around a campfire … memories of my youth.

In the summer of 1957, my first as a member of the Youth Group at Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth, my brother and I arrived home from a youth trip to Glorietta Baptist Conference Center near Santa Fe, NM, to find a living room full of camping equipment. On the tent – not standing yet, but spread out for all to see – was a note from Mother: Get ready. We’re going camping!

Glorieta today

In less than five days the Summers clan had packed up and headed back to Glorietta for Bible Week. Dad taught the Bible study, while Mother worked in the Children’s Building. Glorietta was a regular summer destination for us – and we loved it, but we had a cabin that week as always. So where did camping fit in?

One week and several New Mexico-Mex dinners later, we left the wonderful atmosphere of cool days and cooler mountain nights at Glorietta, and headed north into the Rocky Mountains, destinations – Colorado Springs & Pike’s Peak, then on to Aspen. But our first stop would be a campground in the Cimarron National Forrest, in northern NM.

Cimarron Canyon, NM

We rolled into our assigned camping spot with all the equipment we could possibly want: tent; 5 cots and assorted blankets and pillows; Coleman two-burner camp stove with butane canisters; Coleman ice chest – the heavy metal kind; a folding table with 5 folding stools; boxes of utensils, skillets, sauce pans, flashlights, food stuffs, and dominoes. We were all set. The only problem – except Dad, who had been an Eagle Scout some 40 years before – no one had any experience camping.

David and Dad had practiced putting up the tent in the backyard, so they got busy. Mom unpacked the boxes on the cement picnic table provided and organized the “kitchen”. Sarah and I explored – there had to be a bathroom somewhere, surely.

We found the outhouse a few camping spaces down the trail – a ‘two-holer’, although who would want to share the moment I didn’t know. We also found the only potable water spigot in the whole campground. Did I mention that this was a “primitive” campground? Until that moment we hadn’t realized what that meant!

We returned to camp to see an organized outdoor kitchen and a lovely green tent and five cots – unfolded and set up. However, to the consternation of all, Dad had just discovered that only three of the cumbersome things would actually fit in the tent. Two of us would have sleep outdoors.

“Dibs on outdoors,” David and I both said, leaving Sarah to sleep inside. She complained, of course, but, as the youngest, to be last in line seemed to be her lot in life.

“Mom, did you bring toilet paper?” I asked. “We’re going to need it!”

Mom had indeed brought TP – I guess she’d already read the brochure from the campground!

As the sun slid behind the mountain peaks, the air turned cool. I closed the tent flap to the outside world and put on my sox, substituted jeans for shorts, and donned my new hooded sweatshirt – the one with the hand warmer pocket on the front.

For supper, Mom had chosen a familiar and favorite meal. While she did the fried apples, I fried the pork chops then wrapped them in foil to keep them warm. I then made the country gravy – no lumps! I had four years experience in our home kitchen, after all!

David and Dad punctured each ear of fresh corn with long-handled camping forks and held them over the campfire. A bit browner than usual, but butter covers ever-so-many sins! Sarah set the table, put out the condiments and got the ingredients out for the s’mores to follow. My mouth waters even now – there’s just nothing as good as a meal cooked and served around a campfire!

After clean-up, we all trekked to the outhouse and water spigot. Dad carried a jug for extra water, too, promising to show us how to brush our teeth without running water or a sink. Finally, after several rounds of “42” – Sarah & Dad played partners since this domino game only has room for four players – we decided to turn in.

Sleeping in the Great Outdoors

David and I wrapped up in our blankets and sacked out in the great outdoors. I’d never seen so many stars. The breeze rustled the tall pines and shorter cedars, their heady, blended perfumes ready to lull me to sleep. I twitched and rolled and pitched, but I couldn’t get comfortable.

“Daddy, I’m cold!”

We were all cold – no, we were all freezing, David and I most of all!

“I can see my breath!” I was beginning to panic. I had read a novel about the California Gold Rush that year and thoughts of the Donner Party and cannibalism suddenly brought me wide awake.

Daddy, bless him, brought newspapers and lined my cot and David’s. I never told him, but, Boy Scout training to the contrary, all those papers only served to keep me awake with all that crackling every time I moved.

I was never so glad to see the first rays of sun peeping over the mountains. That morning I learned to build a campfire from scratch, and by myself. I’d be darned if I was going to wait until Mom and Dad got up!

Pikes Peak, Rocky Mountains

After breakfast, we packed up and drove on to Colorado Springs. The new campground had a shower house with hot water. The bathrooms had regular toilets and a sink for hand washing and teeth brushing! Halleluiah!

If memory serves, Dad bought blow-up mattresses for us and we all slept in the tent and on the ground from then on. By the end of that week the Summers clan had become veteran campers. Next stop, Aspen – I think Dad and David had decided to grow beards, but they didn’t last – too scratchy.

After that first trip, camping became a summer of fun for all of us – Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Grand Canyon, Glorietta Baptist Conference Center. Some of these were family trips, others just two sisters seeing the west.  And then there was that trip to Big Bend National Park when a ‘norther’ swept down from Canada and blew that old tent to Mexico and gone.

Tenting Tonight!

But that’s another tale for another campfire!

Yellow Hats

April 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

Traffic crept that Monday morning. The dashboard clock in the van read 5:45 AM when we reached the western end of the Verrazano Straights Bridge. Bumber-to-bumper, we inched out over the great span linking Staten Island with Brooklyn. The sky above the island’s hills and apartment buildings showed a slight glow … a promise of dawn brightening the eastern sky – but too soon … too soon!

Finally the hills blocking our view of the city dropped away to gray, fog encrusted sea and I looked left, toward Manhattan. The false dawn bloomed with the red glow of burning fires as great plumes of smoke rose where only six days before two towers had filled the sky.

9.17.2001 - Into the City

Difficult to watch. Impossible to turn away.

For days we’d hoped for survivors, and couldn’t sanction the thought of none. But reality stood in scattered and unclaimed cars dotting commuter parking lots throughout northern New Jersey, western Connecticut, and the Hudson Valley of New York. While the world watched for miracles, we knew a cruel truth.

We arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by 8 AM, two hours later than expected. We donned our yellow hats – emblazoned with “Disaster Response Team – BGCNY (Baptist General Convention of New York) – and large aprons, stuck our food thermometers in our apron pockets and got down to the business at hand.

We toured our facility – a canopied kitchen area set up on tarmac. Just beyond the cooking end of the canopy stood the Disaster Unit and industrial strength generator. At that end of the canopy stood six large burners fed with butane from slender canisters every bit as tall as I am. In the middle, three 50 gallon trash cans held near-to-boiling water for washing, rinsing and disinfecting. At the far end, stacks of red Cambros® – heat or cold retaining rectangular “boxes” with airtight lids that we would use to send hot meals out to their destinations below 14th street in Manhattan, across the East River from us – and a world away.

SC Baptist HAMs Making Contact

Across a small impromptu courtyard stood another disaster kitchen, this one from Virginia. Beyond this sister kitchen stood two trailer trucks. One was a small antennae-festooned 8-wheeler from the South Carolina Baptist Convention, its HAM radio teams ready to connect us with lower Manhattan, which had no other means of communicating to the outside world. The other, much to our delight, was the North Carolina Baptist Convention Shower & Laundry 18-wheeler.

Other 18-wheelers were parked in a semi-circle around the perimeter of our Red Cross staging area. Refrigerated trucks with fruit and other “live” veggies, and non-refrigerated food trucks filled with #10 cans of fruit, vegetables, potatoes, hearty vegetable and beef stews, chicken in broth, brown gravy and beef. But no marinara and spaghetti … nothing red … nothing to remind those eating the meals of the gruesome task before them.

“The set-up team has begun the noon meals for you,” our blue hat boss said. “We have orders for 1,500 meals and they must be ready to load on the Red Cross ERVs (Emergency Rescue Vehicles) by 10:30 AM. First order of business … our head cook is sick. Anyone of you with experience who would be willing to take over?”

I’d been cooking meals for our church’s Wednesday activities for two years, but 1,500 meals? Could I do this?

No one else volunteered and I lifted my hand. While the others scrubbed their hands and arms to the elbows, I sat down with the head cook of the Setup Team and she gave me the crucial figures for meals, written in a spiral notebook, and procedures that I would need to follow.

By 9 AM my team had taken over the positions held by set-up. I looked at my list: 450 meals to the Police Academy (for police volunteers from around the country working on the WTC site); 35 meals for the Coast Guard Cutter in the harbor …

6 #10 Cans of Veggies = 150 servings

As head cook I planned how each meal set would be prepared, heated/cooked and dumped in the Cambros. For hot meals, before the lid was sealed, I took it’s temperature and wrote that and the time on the Address Sheet on top of the Cambro. The temp had to be 165° or better going out. If the food dropped below 140° it could no longer be served.

Baptism by menu! The first meals – rice, chicken with broth and pineapple; fruit salad; mixed vegetables – went out on the ERVs on time,10:30 AM, all 1,500 of them to their various locations.

The head cook from VA and I worked out a plan so that whichever of our kitchens finished meal prep and loading first would prepare lunch or dinner for both our crews and anyone else in the compound at that time. That first day we finished first, prepared lunch, ate, then began supper, which had to go out by 4:30 PM. That night VA did supper.

And so the days ticked by, working from before sunup to long after dark, from breakfast to nightly cleanup when we hosed down the cooking area, especially after cooking rice or pasta. Each night, with aprons, hot pads and oven mitts in the laundry for North Carolina to wash overnight, we sat down in the kitchen area for devotions and then walked the weary two blocks to the Navy brig, where we would live in quarters built for prisoners, not disaster cooks. Even those hard slab mattresses looked good.

On Saturday afternoon, as we finished lunch and began preparations for dinner, our replacement crew arrived. I handed the new head cook the spiral recipe book with its careful figures for so many cans = so many meals.

Finally, as the sun began to set, we climbed into the vans and drove back to Jersey, over the Verrazano Straights Bridge, across Staten Island, leaving the still smoking ruins behind.

On that trip back to sanity, and ever since, on the anniversary of that fateful day that changed us all, I look back and remember not the sight of two towers falling, but stacks of red Cambros full of hot food and the 30,000+ meals we cooked in six days for those on the front lines.

NYC Light Memorial

World Trade Center Disaster Response – A Day in the Life

Are We Having Fun Yet?

March 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

I hurt … I’m stiff … I’m sunburned – on my toes!

Why am I in such tortured estate? I’ve just finished a stint volunteering at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Golf Tournament at the Bay Hill Golf Club in Windemere (near Orlando). Oh, what we will do for a “free” round of golf at a private golf club!

Arnold Palmer Invitational

Tom and I have volunteered for the API for the past two years, working in concessions for a ladies’ charity group out of Mount Dora – 6 hours selling hot dogs, apples, chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, bananas, cookies and chips, and of course, don’t forget the Arnold Palmer Tea (half tea/half lemonade). For this we received free entrance to the tournament for the duration. Great!

Last December we took the plunge and volunteered for the LPGA Championship in December – also in Orlando – working 4 days, I in the cart barn and Tom on the BIG scoreboard. Fun; worked in shifts; got to watch the tournament (these girls are good!) and free food and a round of golf. What could be better?

On to Tavistock – the “club championship” of the Tavistock developed multi-million dollar subdivisions of Isleworth and Lake Nona, and this year joined by Albany in the Bahamas and Queenswood of England. This is a two day, televised event between PGA players who live in these enclaves. I drove an 8-passenger golf cart, transporting spectators and marshals from hole to hole (and the kids of the golfers from the playground to the “day camp” house). Tom was a walking marshal. We get to play Isleworth in June. Can’t wait!

So why not Arnold Palmer? It’s for a good cause – the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.

Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children

 [How appropriate was it, too, when the news came that Anika Sorenstam of Isleworth had been rushed to that same hospital with the premature birth of her second child – a son – at 36 weeks. Reports are good – mother and son doing well. The golf world breathed a sigh of relief.]

I volunteered as a hole marshal for this tournament. This way I’d got to see all of the golfers – even ringside for Mickelson and Woods. My gig – Back 9 Marshal, Hole #15. Hooray!

So, for the past five days I have stood at the tee with my arms raised: “Quiet, please.” “Stand, please!” “Please put your cell phones in your pockets.” I’ve got these phrases down along with the differing tones of voice needed.

I have stood at the green with my arms raised – and my back to the action – to keep the crowd under control while the players hit their shots for the big bucks.

I have stood at “the magnolia tree” near the bunkers where the fairway “doglegs right” and dodged golf balls aimed at my position – this is so that if the ball flies out of bounds I can signal the tee and the golfer will know he needs to hit a second shot.

I’m not saying I never got to sit down. I did. But each new golf group that came through my position meant getting up to control the ropes and stare down the beer guzzling young people who didn’t know that “Quiet Please” meant them! Or the Bay Hill club members who thought the rules didn’t apply to them. Or the parents who brought their young children and didn’t corral them at the appropriate times. For this I paid $85 for the uniform. For my 48 hours work, I received lunch every day, all the donuts, coffee, water and soda I wanted. In May or June I will play a “free” round of golf and chase it with a bar-b-q lunch at Bay Hill.

My knees are sore … my back is sore … my toes are sunburned (I forgot to put sunscreen on them)! And I think I’ve gained 5 pounds, in spite of walking and standing and sitting.

So I ask myself – is it worth it? Heck, yes! I think we’ll volunteer for the Miracle Network Tournament at Disney next fall. They give two rounds of golf and park tickets!!

Bay Hill - Straight Down the Middle

Play Golf – Straight down the middle!

But I’m Not Irish!

March 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

Shamrocks Galore

Yesterday, many Americans, whether they possessed the blood of the Blarney Stone or not, dressed in green, painted their faces with shamrocks, sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and drank some green concoction or other. It was fun, raucous and a great builder of endorphins!

But what does the day really mean? Obviously it is a celebration of a culture that invaded America as many other immigrant groups have done, to find a better life. Here in The Villages we also celebrate Italian Day, Octoberfest, and just about every other nationality you can name and for that special day we all become that cultural group – just because!

Celebrations such as these make me think of my own cultural identity. Who am I and where did I come from – ancestor-wise I mean. Where to begin? Aha, you say. Perhaps Ellis Island?

Ellis Island - First Landing

Tom and I lived in New Jersey when the Ellis Island Historic Immigrant Museum opened in 1990. That Thanksgiving weekend Tom, my sister and a friend and I spent the day touring the exhibits and reading the history of immigration in the US.

Between its opening on January 1, 1892 as the new inspection and transition base, and its closing in 1954, approximately 12 million people were processed there by the US Bureau of Immigration. Today, over 100 million Americans – one third of the population – can trace their ancestry to these immigrants.

They came because they were starving. They came because their governments suppressed their freedoms of worship, self-government, and property. They came for the right to learn and grow. In short, they wanted new lives.

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

As we toured Ellis Island, I looked in awe at the photographs, keepsakes, and histories of the people who had landed here, within sight of New York City and the Statue of Liberty, with so many hopes and dreams. But as we talked among ourselves we realized that none of our families had entered the US through this portal.

Mother’s family stories tell of maternal ancestors – Scotsmen – who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rebellion which sought to overthrow the Hanovarian King George I and return the Stuart line to the throne of England. They lost! After the final battle at Culloden near Inverness, Scotland, in 1746, those few who survived were transported to the penal colony of Georgia. Their families – some of whom are my ancestors –  eventually made their way to America, by the end of the 1740s, through Charleston, South Carolina.

Her father’s ancestors were Baptists, dissenters.  When Bismarck began forming the German city states into the a new country – Germany – he designated the state religions of each region: some Roman Catholic, others Lutheran. In either case the Hilgers were unwilling to pay taxes to support these churches. They arrived in the US through New Orleans and settled near the Black River in upstate Arkansas in about 1835.

Dad’s family rumor mill whispered that both of his parents were part Native American. I’ve been doing ancestral research and haven’t found the link yet, but if it’s there I will. In any case, his parents came to Texas in a covered wagon shortly after they were married to start a new life.

What wonderful themes these are: religious liberty; freedom of speech; self-determination – all indisputably American and running rampant among my family on both sides.

The Statue of Liberty is a proud symbol of our country and the promise it still gives the world. And at the base of the statue is inscribed a poem by America poet, Emma Lazarus:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and every other immigrant or Native American cultural festival you can find. These are the pieces that make up the jigsaw puzzle that is the United States of America!  

Regression Theory – For Children’s Writers et al!

March 10, 2011 § 3 Comments

In I Corinthians13:11 Paul says, “When we were children, we thought and reasoned as children do. But when we grew up, we quit our childish ways.” (Contemporary English Version). Well, no disrespect for Paul or the Word, but anyone who wants to write for children had better forget about quitting childish ways … at least in the thinking and reasoning department.

As I listen to stories for children by authors in my different writers groups, I realize that although their stories may be good – based on their own childhood as we all do – they are invariably written from the adult view point. We children’s writers are adults – that’s a given – but we need to regress, find that inner child that still lurks, get down on the 4’ level again and look up at the world.

A number of years ago Tom and I took a trip to California. We have dear friends there whom we wished to visit, and I wanted to tour the Queen Mary and matar saudades (Portuguese for “kill homesickness” – in other words, a nostalgia kick – in this case childhood memories of our family trip to Europe aboard the QM). I planned to write a story starring me at 10, on that ship, back in 1954.

RMS Queen Mary, Long Beach, CA - January 2011

When we drove onto the pier where QM is permanently moored, she looked just as I remembered her – black hull, white upper decks, red and black smoke stacks and large! As we walked up the gangway and boarded QM, it all came back.

I knew the location of the grand salon – we’d attended church there – and the enclosed Promenade Deck. Both were in First Class.

QM Grand Salon today

We’d not been allowed on that deck once the ship sailed, but we found a way using a service elevator on a back hallway. I think the steward found this amusing.

In 1954 we’d traveled Tourist Class and our recreation decks were up top. When we reached the Sun Deck, I remembered the WWII anti-aircraft guns that had still been in place in 1954 – although covered with bolted steel housings.

Queen Mary forecastle with gun emplacement

There, near the masthead, stood a replica, now placed on the deck as part of the museum.

But the more I explored, looking for the old haunts (mine, not the several ghosts said to inhabit the ship!), the more changes I found! Our cabin had been on C-Deck going over in January and D-Deck coming back to New York in August. And both times we had been aft (that’s the back of the ship). C-Deck was now a passage way, and D-Deck and all the decks below had been gutted to create a Cunard Line museum!  Bummer! The only cabins we could tour were the First Class ones, now used as part of the QM hotel.

The entrance hall to our Tourist Class dining room was still in place, but the doors were bolted shut and standing in that hallway I began to feel a bit claustrophobic. When I found my way through a service door I discovered that the huge dining room was now a not-so-huge storage facility. The ceiling seemed low and the room narrower than I remembered.

The same feeling of “small” came over me when I found the Tourist Class library and lounge. The elevator we had used to sneak into First Class was no longer in use, although the door was still in its proper place, but the tea room on the upper deck was now part of a WWII museum.

What had happened? I grew up, that’s what happened, and my perspective with me! I learned a valuable lesson on that trip. If I’m to write a child’s story, I’d better find out about that child’s view of her world and respect it! I also realized that the younger the child, the larger her world seems to her. Food for thought!

I kept my appointment with QM’s publicity director and dutifully recorded our conversation about the history of the ship; the ghosts and the locations of their sightings; and the ship’s activation as a troop transport during WWII. Everything I had come to research I accomplished. I had the background for a short story or book, too.. But as I experienced the ship in her new role as hotel, a different germ of an idea began to invade. Not a picture book. Not a storybook. A teen mystery!

When we got home, I changed my main characters to a modern teen and her cousin, and me and my sister’s characters into their grandmothers. I also set the story on the QM as a hotel in ‘today’.

It worked – I think. I’ve never had that story accepted for publication, but I like it. See if you do. “Queen Mary’s Diamonds” is posted on this web site. Enjoy!

Lady Bears Crowned Big 12 Basketball Champs!

March 5, 2011 § 2 Comments

Now this news might not be of much interest to some of you … okay, a LOT of you … but to Baylor Alums it’s GREAT! To Baylor sports fans it’s STUPENDOUS! To me personally it’s FUN!

Lady Bears Rock!

I have either listened or watched every Lady Bear game this season – via my laptop. I am an unashamed Baylor grad with a love of sports – and Baylor sports are my faves!

But basketball isn’t the only sport I like. Many of my colleagues through the years have been surprised by my sports mania. “You LIKE sports?” they ask. “YES!” is always my resounding reply. The guys are particularly surprised by my list of “follows”:

Football – Baylor football, of course, but any college game will do. I’ll even watch pro-ball up to a point. I think I lost interest in the Cowboys when Landry was fired!

Baseball – Yankees against the world! When we moved to Florida from NJ I had withdrawal symptoms. Here we don’t get the YES network (Yankees Entertainment Sports) and have to wait for ESPN or Fox to decide to broadcast the Yankees! Last week, in desperation, Tom and I drove down to Lakeland to watch a spring training game between the Yankees and Detroit. Even as we lost (trying out new players is always iffy!) we reveled in it!

Golf – the Golf Channel is on constantly in our house. I have a 20 handicap myself – not bad for an old duffer! I love watching the ladies play, but The Masters is coming, so you know what I’ll be doing that week!

Soccer – learned to love this game in Brasil, only there we call it futebol! The best broadcasts here in the US are on Univision and in Spanish, but who can’t understand “GOOOOOOL!”?

Let’s see, there’s tennis – the grand slams mostly; gymnastics; and ice skating, of course! Skiing (before arthritis I skied any chance I got!); Track and Field (in-door and out); and anything in the Olympics – even “heel and toe” racing! Don’t forget the Triple Crown in horse racing. You get the picture!

Where did this love of sport come from? My dad! I take you back now to my childhood. I’m in 2nd grade. Every kid in school has a TV but us.

“This house doesn’t get a TV until we get a new piano,” Mom said, and she meant it. At the time David and I were both taking piano lessons and had to practice on a tinny upright. One day Mom came home with the news. She’d bought a new piano, to be delivered the next day.

Now, Dad played golf in those days. When Arnold Palmer and the guys began playing their tournaments on TV he wanted to watch. He was also a baseball fan – Yankees were tops on his list (Texas didn’t have a pro baseball team in the early 50s) but any game was better than none at all!

Before the piano arrived, Dad had bought a TV -Black and White, of course. We had limited broadcasts with only two channels – WBAP in Fort Worth and KRLD in Dallas (or was that WFAA?) – but Dad could hardly wait. Now, on Saturday afternoons he could actually watch sports, not just listen on the radio!

Sarah was too young to care. David was too interested in other stuff. But I loved sitting with Dad and watching the games. He explained the rules, talked about the players, and made popcorn for us to eat – just the two of us … together.

When David went to high school Dad took me to the football games. By then I was an old hand. When Tommy Ryan ran 98 yards for a touchdown on a kickoff return, I predicted it! I knew his stats. I knew his capabilities. I had a crush! Tommy was a member of our youth group at church. He had a steady his own age, but a girl can dream, right?

I think if high schools had encouraged girls to play sports in my day, I might have become a lady jock. Although I didn’t have the depth perception and arm strength needed for basketball or softball, I think I might have been great at golf. But no Title 9 in those days.

Next week the Lady Bears are seeded first in the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City. After that, we march to the Final 4. The Lady Bears are currently #3 in the nation. I will watch every game possible and wear green and gold. I will pop popcorn and remember the days in the den with Dad.

And then I will go out and play 18!

Just Over the Horizon …

March 1, 2011 § 7 Comments

As a young child I had no idea of distance. We lived on McCart Street in Fort Worth, Texas, in the third house from the corner of McCart and Gambrell. To get to the seminary where Daddy taught, we only had to walk four blocks, across the railroad tracks and up Gambrell Street, to arrive on campus, home of the best roller skating sidewalks ever created!

South on McCart, beyond our house, sat two houses and then the City Limits, and beyond this the Gypsy farms—Mother said the King of the Gypsies lived there, but I never met him. Then the road ran on to Crowley … just over the horizon.

Purple Thistle

 On summer evenings after supper, Daddy walked us down the road. Sun flowers, milk weed and purple thistles waved us by.

Bobwhite Quail

Bob Whites and Mocking Birds called to us. We searched the ground for tarantulas to avoid.

When we reached the bend in the road, where McCart Street became Crowley Road, we turned back, reaching home just as the sun set. Mother had finished the supper dishes by then and the nightly ritual of storytelling and bedtime could begin.

Often after a walk I’d wonder what lay out there, beyond where I could see. David had been all the way to Houston with Daddy one weekend when he went to preach in a church there. They’d ridden the train and I sooooo wanted to go, too.

“Where is Houston?” I asked when they returned, and David pointed down McCart Street toward the Crowley Road and said, “That way.” Ever after, I looked at the bend in the road and thought, if only I could look over the hill, I’d see Houston!

That curiosity has never left me. That need to see and know what’s out there has taken me to far flung corners—of the US, South America, China and Europe. Yet, there remain places unseen, waiting for me to show up so that they can wow me with their color and music, sights and sounds.

I invite you to take a trip with me now. Go to the Gallery and experience China – just a little corner of it, mind, but a fascinating corner.

First, Comb Your Hair…

February 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

Mother once told me that when she and Dad married she could boil water, but always over-cooked the boiled eggs! Her mother had never taught her to cook. As she put it, “your grandmother didn’t have the patience”. I believe that’s also why she never learned to sew – her mother was a professional seamstress – or crochet.

At the time of her marriage, Mom taught school in Chilton, TX – high school English, Latin and coach of the girls’ basketball team. As part of her salary, she received free room and board in the home of the chairman of the school board – whose wife was one of the great cooks of the world. Her wedding gift to Mom was a cookbook. Appropriate! Mother always said that if one could read, one could cook and she proved the rule!

Years later, as my siblings and I grew, Santa gave us a children’s cookbook and Mother gave us free reign in her kitchen. “Cook anything you like,” she told us. “Just clean it up when you’ve finished!”

Soon we were Chef and Sous Chefs (David being Chef as he was oldest). Cookbook propped on the kitchen table, we read the riddle (our kid’s cookbook had a riddle to solve with every recipe) then assembled all of the utensils and ingredients. We baked brownies, cookies, eggs-in-a-basket, waffles, muffins. What delights! Our sweet-tooths never had it so good!

Fudge with Pecans!

One Sunday afternoon, tired of taking a nap, I asked Mom for her sacred recipe – fudge – the one thing she learned to cook early in life and never forgot. She wrote the recipe down on a piece of paper, and at the top she wrote, “First, comb your hair. I don’t like hair in my fudge!” I dutifully combed my hair and secured it with a barrette before gathering the ingredients. and beginning.

Fudge is an art and this recipe was no exception. The most important requirement of the cook, after “strong beating arm”, is planning and observation!

In a 2Q sauce pan:

  1. Combine 2Cs sugar and 3Ts cocoa powder until thoroughly mixed;
  2. Add 1C milk and stir until thoroughly mixed;
  3. Put on the stove over a low flame (I still like gas best!) and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
  4. Bring to a slow boil;
  5. Cook until a drop of fudge in a cup of cold water holds its “ball” (no, don’t use a candy thermometer – they don’t work as well!)
  6. Remove from the fire and add 1T butter or margarine and 1tps vanilla extract;
  7. Beat until your arm drops off, then beat some more!;
  8. AND WATCH – when the sheen on the fudge begins to dull – the fudge is hardening and it’s time to “plate” – did I mention that you need to butter the platter earlier? Sorry! If you haven’t, then the fudge will probably harden in the pan while you do so, and when you pour it onto the platter it will harden into mounds (kind of like little “prairie muffins” in the venacular!). No, you want a smooth pour – next time!
  9. Top the fudge with pecan halves and cut into squares.

10.  Pour yourself a glass of cold milk and enjoy.

At first my efforts produced runny fudge – great for spoon-eating or pouring over ice cream, but never hard enough to cut and stack on a plate.

Then I let it harden too much before plating and had to scrape it out of the pan. Doesn’t look great – but tastes wonderful nevertheless.

In the summer between my 6th grade year and junior high, I became a full-flown cook. Every day at 11:00 AM I watched the “Julie Bennell Cooking Show” on WFAA TV – and wrote down every recipe. (I still have some of them!) I made a deal with Mom. I’d be in charge of Friday night supper – planning, cooking, serving.

My first meal, served on our best china, with silver place service and crystal glasses – consisted of bacon-wrapped, cheese-filled wienies, baked beans (the slow cooked kind), baked potatoes, salad, yeast rolls, iced tea, and ice-cream cake. This last was a Julie Bennell special – angel food cake prepared by cutting a layer off the top, scooping out the inside of the bottom layer and packing it with a favorite ice cream, putting the top back on and freezing. I think I used peach ice cream.

The meal was a hit. Throughout my junior high and high school years I added other recipes to my repertoire – mother’s chocolate pudding pie; pineapple pork (from Aunt Lois) with rice; cornbread, beans, and pan fries; fried pork chops, country gravy – no lumps! – and fried apples. The list is endless. Remember, if you can read you can cook!

Unfortunately, most of these recipes are NOT politically correct today – too many calories, too much fat! – but I still comb my hair first before starting dinner!

RISE! – In Memory & Honor of the Sport I Love

February 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

In my high school years I joined the US Figure Skating Association (USFSA) and the local skate club in Louisville, KY. I didn’t compete – hadn’t begun training early enough – but I loved to skate … and dream.

One of my idols in the sport was a girl just my age – Laurence Owen, 1961 National Champion and touted as the next World Gold Medalist. She was great! Spins, jumps, musical artistry – everything needed to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Mirabel Vinson-Owen had been US Ladies Singles Champion nine times.

Although we had never met, my skating buddies and I all felt like we knew Laurence. The Nationals had been televised the first time, and we had watched and cheered. Laurence and her teammates represented the US and us!

On February 15, 1961, Laurence Owen, her coach and mom Mirabel Vinson-Owen, her sister Mirabel “Jr.” and her partner as National Pairs Champions, boarded Sabena Air Flight 548 with the others of the US Team, heading for the World Championships in Prague.  

1961 US Figure Skating World Team

On Feb 15, 1961, their 707 Boeing jet crashed on takeoff from Brussels, Belgium – all 73 souls lost. Among the dead were 34 members of the US Figure Skating Team-18 athletes, six coaches, four judges and officials, and six family members. I cried then as I cry every year at this time – remembering the promise of greatness lost.

Last night Tom and my sister and I drove to Orlando to attend the live broadcast of the premier of Rise – a movie tribute to those who died, those who remained, and the history of the new beginning of the US Figure Skating program.

The personal losses were far reaching. Mirabel Vinson-Owen, Laurence, and Mirabel “Jr” were gone. One coach left behind a wife and 5 children. Another family lost both daughters. A Men’s Singles Bronze medalist became ill and another went in his stead – he lives today with guilt because … he lives. And a coach who couldn’t make the flight, and survived, started collecting money to help young skaters learn the sport he loved. With his efforts the US Figure Skating Memorial Fund was born.

The loss of the US Figure Skating’s top officials and coaches left huge holes in skating programs around the country. Who would guide the young skaters? If the sport in the US could even be rebuilt, who would do it and how long would it take? The speculation of three generations staggered our hopes in 1961.

Looking back over the fifty years since the crash, though, the reality of the determination to rebuild has reached almost miracle status! In 1968, Peggy Fleming won Gold in the Olympics – not even one generation after the crash. And although it would take 28 years before Scott Hamilton won a Gold in Olympic Men’s Singles, the program grew strong and thrives today.

We all know the names of those who came after, winning gold, silver, and bronze medals in both World competitions and the Olympic Winter Games. Last night all 13 US Olympic Gold Medalists living today were present, from Dick Button to Evan Lysacek, from Tinley Albright to Sarah Hughes.

But the brightest and best are yet to come, for the future of US Figure Skating is assured through the US Figure Skating Memorial Fund-paying for ice time, buying skates for those whose parents must work 2 jobs to pay for the most expensive sport to master.

On March 7th Fathom In-Theatre Events and US Figure Skating will present an encore performance of Rise. Check with your local movie theaters to see if there is a presentation in your area. Take tissues!

The US Figure Skating team will compete in the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo March 21-27.  When you watch it on TV, remember those who came before. They are with us in spirit, every time we glide across the ice.

And keep your tissues handy. I will!

A Book a Day

February 14, 2011 § 5 Comments

When we moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1959, the summer before my sophomore year in high school, I was excited. I loved discovering new places and making new friends!

In September—David had already left for college—Sarah walked to Barrett Junior High, across the street from our house, and I boarded the city bus to Atherton High, near downtown.

But Atherton wasn’t what I had expected and I soon realized I didn’t fit in. I hadn’t come into the school from a “feeder” junior high, so I was in the “left over” homeroom—we were “the others”. Because we’d all transferred from non-Louisville schools, we didn’t stay together for our core classes or have the same lunch hour either. Therefore, after homeroom we never saw each other again … so much for making new friends fast! 

Bass Weejuns

And I won’t even talk about the unofficial dress code. Who knew I should have filled my wardrobe with A-line khaki or navy skirts, white round-collar blouses, circle pins and Bass Weejuns? In Texas white suede loafers were all the rage!

By the third day I’d become tired of lunching alone. When I arrived at school that morning I went straight to the library for a book to read while eating. By the end of my senior year I had read through most of the library—I was reading a book a day—and the lunch reading group had grown to five tables in the middle of the cafeteria.

Funny thing, though, about my love of reading—I was and am still a poor reader … I should say a poor ‘performance’ reader. When asked to read aloud in first grade—Hubbard Heights Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas—I used to get so nervous. I knew I would make a mistake and then Mrs. Silk would say “You don’t read as well as David, do you?”

Embarrassed by my stumbling over words, her comparing me to my older brother just made matters worse. Oh, I wasn’t in the lowest reading group, but I wanted to be a blue bird, not a cardinal! Throughout elementary school I did poorly on—and even failed some—reading comprehension tests. Because I was too nervous to concentrate, I never finished one! I was a terrible reader and I knew it. I grew to hate reading class, and thus reading. In Sunday School I always volunteered to pray—no way was I going to read the King James Version out loud!

The summer between 6th grade and junior high, Mother offered us each $1 to read a book. She gave me one of her girlhood favorites, Elsie Densmore by Martha Finley—I don’t recall which one of the series. I never earned that dollar. I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—finish the book! Of course, I was a wretched reader—hadn’t that been proved o’er and o’er?

Then, in 7th grade at Rosemont Junior High I was relegated to the ‘needs help reading’ English class. That’s not what they called it, but we all knew! About the second week into the semester, my English teacher called me to his desk.

“You have two study halls, I believe? Mine and another in the afternoon?” He had a rather mincing voice and a sarcastic tone I couldn’t appreciate!

“Yes, sir.” I quaked in my Keds. Was he giving me another study hall? Was I that bad?

“The librarian needs another student worker during our morning study hall, and I thought you might like to do that. How about it?”

I was floored. Me? Work in the library? Wow! He thought I could do that? “Yes, sir!”

“Okay, I’ll inform the office. Report to the librarian next period.”

I loved working in the library. Each week, when the new books came in, I helped catalogue and prepare them for the shelves. I became adept at shellacking the hardback covers and painting Dewey decimal numbers on the spines. And if a book looked interesting, I got to read it first. I discovered that I loved reading and I’ve had a book-a-day habit since the first day in that library!  

I still stumble over words when reading aloud. Even now I always practice before critique group each week.

I never finished a reading comprehension test until my freshman year in college, and was greatly surprised when I did. That Frosh week entry exam put me in an advanced English literature class, with an emphasis on creative writing.

Now, when asked why I write for children and not for adults, this is my answer: I want kids to love reading as I do. I want them to know that they can learn anything, as long as they can read!