Essays on Childhood: Wild Things

Over the past year, I’ve become fascinated with stories about childhood encounters with animals. It started with Julian Martin’s description of his grandmother clubbing, skinning, and cooking a groundhog; since then, it seems everywhere I turn I hear great stories about courage, life and death, love and affection, loyalty and hearbreak connected to children and animals.

What’s your story?

I hope you’ll consider being a writer this year for the Essays on Childhood project. (Click the link to see deadlines.) I am working on an essay right now that I plan to share via EOC, and I leave you with a little portion of the story to, hopefully, inspire you to jump in!

Some months after Peter’s death, a black snake took up residence around the brick patio in our back yard. It was the perfect situation for him. The bricks heated up to a glorious baking warmth under the summer sun, and he could bask all forty inches of himself for hours undisturbed. My mother knew black snake in the garden was a good thing. Black snakes, or “rat snakes,” have no venom and are not aggressive toward humans. Shy and retiring, all they really want are three things. They want to lie on a rock in the sun. They want to be left alone. They want to eat small mammals.

This snake was doing well for himself on our property, and he no doubt was benefitting us as he ingested pests like mice, moles, and shrews that otherwise might have overrun our shared environment. Every now and then we would find one of his shed skins, long and lacy, lying on the patio. My mother named him “Oscar,” and she took a special pride in allowing him to co-exist with us.  When other neighborhood mothers would shudder and say, “Betty, I just don’t know why you haven’t killed that snake. It’s hideous. Aren’t you scared he’ll bite the children?” she would laugh and present a lecture on the nature of black snakes and the long list of good things they bring to any house fortunate enough to attract them. My mother was loyal to Oscar, and he was constant and true to his nature, as we all expected he would be.

Then came the day when the nature of a black snake challenged mom’s allegiance.

Nowhere to Stop | a short essay on place

I prefer the road to the left after crossing the Kanawha River. Today a spiral staircase appears out of the rock face, and the last step drops just in front of my car.

My eyes have seen these delicate tiers, must have seen them, thousands of times. I was conceived in these hills. Only now on this autumn afternoon do the little elevations register.

Gorgeous golden sandstone, sculpted beyond pure function into art, I realize I have missed them all of my life because they are nearly one with the rock, tight to the white line of the road.

One has to have distance to see them.

I promise myself I will return, slow down, but when I go back I can’t pause. There are people behind me. They are pushing me along.

Next time, I will make it happen.

Next time, I will look for a place to pull over and take a photograph, but next time I realize there is no place to stop. One side is rock and one side is guard rail. There is no margin.

Who built you?

I drive this Appalachian road up from downtown Charleston because I can. There are other ways but I choose this one every time. It winds in unsurpassed beauty each season across water, over railroad tracks, gently up and up into layers of gracious homes and luscious trees. Every yard travelled pulls me more deeply into a sensed but barely visible past. At one turn there is a tiny set of graves. I must stop, unless turning right. If I turn right I may miss the dead, so focused I am on the Children’s Consignment Fair sign or the Old Colony Real Estate sign.

I promise myself this time, this time, I will focus. I will see those stairs to the top. I am sure they must no longer connect to anything, the mansion they once served long gone. I am certain the stairway’s connection has dissolved.

As I pass, unable to stop – there is nowhere to stop – I see where they lead.

They still climb to a house. I see young, contemporary dark wood in shocking contrast to the one hundred year old organic mineral steps; this is not their builder’s home, but I recognize this place. It is the home where my father’s friend lay dying for years, unable to live in this world and unable to find purchase in the next.

When I passed on the road above I would avert my eyes from this place. The pain was alternately dull and ripping to be outside looking in. I stopped looking. I stopped seeing. I stopped passing on the road above.

The road below brought me the staircase. I drive as carefully as I can, the visual distractions now equal between the captivating winding stairs and the dangers of looking too long.

There are others behind me, and nowhere to stop.

In a Man’s Voice: Daddy Used to Whistle by Steve Alberts

Steve writes faith-based stories about “God’s grace throughout (his) life.” He dabbles with song lyric writing, is attempting to write a novel, and enjoys acting, photography, hunting, fishing, and woodworking.

Born in Charleston, West Virginia, raised and educated in Spencer, and having Bachelor and Master Degrees from WVU Steve says, “I now live in Tennessee and love it here, but West Virginia is my forever home…until I get to the other side.” Visit his blog, On Steve’s Mountain.

Daddy Used to Whistle | by Steve Alberts 

I love wakin’ up in the mornings!

It’s just starting to break dawn, but I‘ve already been up here for an hour or so… I was way up on top of tHis mountain before I ever woke up this morning…could hardly wait to visit the past…up on my mountain.

Lookin’ down on the little community of Speed…near Spencer…Roane County…West Virginia.

Moved there in ’47.  I was just barely two years old at the time.

We lived there until we moved to town in ’56.

It hasn’t changed much since we lived there in the late forties and early fifties.  O.O. “Double O” Casto’s horse show arena and barns are gone from the field beside Charleston Road, but our old house still stands on up the hollow… it’s the next to last house.

My bedroom was on the left just at the top of the stairs.

When I was real little I didn’t sleep there often ‘cause most nights I had dreams that would awaken me. Most nights I would slip out of bed, sneak down the hall and into the bedroom that Auntie and, my sister, Roylene shared…slip to the sanctuary of Auntie.

Never did figure out why Roylene got to share a bedroom with Auntie and I had to have my own bedroom.  After all, I was the one who woke up every night imagining the bears and wolves from Grandpa’s stories coming to hunt me down. Even the Roy Rogers bedspread with its six shooters and lariats woven into the fabric wasn’t the sanctuary that Auntie provided.  But, that’s another story.

When I was perhaps 5 or 6 years old … and sleeping in my own bed more frequently, early summer mornings I would often awaken … bedroom windows open…the humid summer air barely stirring…and just listen to the sounds.

…songbirds

…the grey fox barking up near the barn in the hill meadow

…the rooster crowing

…the feed buckets clanging

…the barn cats meowing for their breakfast

…and, daddy whistlin’.

It was comforting to hear the sounds of those routines being repeated.  It meant my world was safe and solid.

I could tell when daddy had just fed and milked the old Jersey ‘cause I knew the sound of the stall door opening and the gentle lowing from her little bull calf as he was “turned back in” to nurse the last of her milk.

I knew the barn cats would get a portion from the milk bucket as daddy made his way back to the cellar to set the milk to cool before he finally made his way back to the house.

If daddy stayed with his normal routine next would be the sound of the chickens contentedly clucking as the grain was scattered and then the sounds of the trace chains clinking along the floor of the barn as he began to harness which ever work horse he was going to use to skid logs to his sawmill across the run.

The little grey horse was more tractable, easy to drive, stood well when being hooked, but was lighter framed and best when skidding the logs down the mountain.  If there was to be a long haul or if the logs had fallen in the bottom of the cove and had to be skidded up hill the bay was used as he was a little stouter ‘though a little more difficult to handle.

Lying there in my bed in the early morning I could even tell which horse he had harnessed just by listening to the rhythm of the trace chains as the horse pranced across the barnyard…then I would know whether daddy and Bud were cuttin’ on top of the mountain or somewhere around in the cove … in case I decided to test my resolve by hiking up the mountain later to share his cheese sandwich and drink from his water jug at lunch.

I guess it was part of my growing up to leave the sanctuary of the house, wander up the mountain through those scary woods, find daddy, sit with his arm around me as I ate part of his sandwich, then have to return down the mountain by myself.  I knew each end was safe, but the journey in the middle was sort of scary… at that age.

Once I got near the top of the mountain I always knew what final path to take through the woods by listening for the gentle rhythmic sawing of the cross cut, the sound of the horse skidding the logs toward the landing, or …daddy whistlin’ his way through the day.

The little sawmill is long since gone, but I can clearly see it in my mind’s eye sittin’ on the bank at the south side of the run…the motor and drive train from some old truck providing the power…the large circular blade slicing through the white oak and red oak…the sawdust piling up beneath…the slab pile…the ricks of lumber being air dried…Daddy and Bud Nichols using the peaveys and cant hooks to sort and align the logs to get the greatest yield, the straightest grain… and daddy whistlin’.

Cuttin’ red oak and white oak logs with a two man cross cut saw, skiddin’ it to the mill, sawing and stacking was all hard work.

Most days the routine was the same except for Saturdays when we went to town or Sundays when we went to church, visited with neighbors and rested in preparation for another week probably just like the last. 

And, … most days … daddy would whistle all day long.

Daddy used to whistle

…as he wandered through the day.

‘Till now I hadn’t even realized I had heard him

…I’d been young … busy with childhood play.

Whistlin’seemed to make daddy happier

as he made up a brand new tune.

The tunes were seldom ever alike

Whether ‘twas in the early morning, or

late

…in the afternoon.

Except that “Rock Of Ages”

or

“Amazing Grace”

would sometimes just appear.

I guess those hymns were thrown in to keep him grounded

…humble,

…grateful

…to help keep Jesus near.

‘Till lately I hadn’t realize just how much that whistlin’ stuff

had stuck there in my mind.

But, now I think of daddy’s whistlin’

often

And,

…now

I whistle

…from time to time.

I see daddy when I whistle.

I see him driving his old truck.

I see him working at his little sawmill,

…skidding timber

…and,

…doing other stuff.

But most times when I see daddy

He’s standin’ in the creek

…waiting,

…white shirt,

…dark tie,

Easter Morning,

…lightly snowing.

Standin’ up with his friend Carl

… the Reverend Raymond Straight’s just startin’ to speak.

Daddy “standing up” with his friend Carl Cutright – Roane County, Spring Creek along US 219 south of Spencer – “out Charleston Road” – an Easter baptizin’ – probably around 1950 or so.

Friends and neighbors from the church

were watchin’ from the bank.

Most had already been baptized

but, some were waitin’ their turn.

And, still a  few others were dunkin’

…for a second time

…just to reaffirm

…the cleansing of an Easter baptism

at the shoal along Spring Creek

between Watson’s barn

and the Hickman place

with the neighbors lookin’ on.

I see daddy when I whistle.

It puts a smile upon my face.

Don’t know if it’s seein’ daddy,

the baptizin’

or,

if it’s the whistlin’ that’s takin’ place.

But, more important,

Whistlin’ taught me

at an early age

…to listen

…by now, I guess you knew.

That whistlin’ reminds me of daddy,

…of Jesus,

…of life’s lessons,

the ones we should daily do.

And

…every time I whistle

whistlin’ make me a little happier, too

There’s a whole lot more to this whistlin’ than a man would have ever thought

First there’s

…the whistlin’,

then there’s

…the listenin’.

that leads me to

…the thinkin’

about the sanctuary of my earthly and heavenly homes

…the sometimes scary journey in between

about grace and faith along my path

in things I have not yet seen

I think about my daddy

standin’ in the creek

I think about the cross

about

…our eternal sanctuary

that through God’s gracious act of love

our savior, Jesus, bought.

Thank you Lord for another dawn, thank you for giving me another beautiful sunrise, thank you for those memories of growing up, thank you for a family that taught me Your ways, thank you for not giving up on me when it perhaps would have been easy to do, and Lord, thank you for a daddy that whistles…today up on tHis mountain.

Steve Alberts

                                                                                                            Bethpage, TN

 September 3, 2007

© 2007 Steve Alberts

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

In a Man’s Voice: Three Silver Dollars by Terry Gillispie

Terry Gillispie was born in South Charleston, West Virginia. The only son to a single mother, he spent most of his formative years residing in various locales within the Kanawha Valley before a period of stability landed him at South Charleston High School, from which he graduated in 1986.

Blogger’s note: Terry was in my class in junior high school. I never knew where he went, or what his life at home was like. What I did know was that he was one of the most well-liked boys in our class, and yet he seemed to have a secret. I was too young to notice what were probably tell-tale signs of a stressed economic situation at home. Until this year, I never knew what happened to him. I had no idea he graduated just a few miles from me, probably the same week, from another local school. For sure, I never knew he had the heart of hero. Now I do. Thanks for finding me on Facebook, Terry, and for sharing this amazing story. You are someone special, and I’m privileged to be part of making sure everyone knows it. — EDG

Three Silver Dollars | by Terry Gillispie

Of all the stories I have regarding my childhood in West Virginia, the following tale stands out the most, and reflects an incident that had profound impact on my life.

I had an uncle I was close to during my childhood.  Uncle Shorty.  I never fully understood how he came to have this nickname.  From my earliest memories as a young child, to the day I towered over him by at least five inches, Shorty always seemed larger than life.  He was the kind of man represented by the popular cliché, “When God made him, he threw away the mold.”

Christmas 1978 wasn’t particularly memorable for me.  I do not remember the toys or gifts that that year, save the one present I received from Uncle Shorty.  In a tradition between him and me, every year shortly before Christmas morning I would visit his house and give him a “present,” of a tin of cashews.  Invariably, on Christmas morning, I would find an empty cashew tin containing some sort of treat.

In 1978, that treat was three silver dollars.

Silver dollars to an eleven year old were pretty special, and in typical eleven year old fashion, I hid them in the same tin under my bed.

The following year, 1979, was a particularly tough one for us.  It was just me and Mom, and like most single parent families, she had to cut a lot of expenses just to get from one month to the next.  Mom typically spent her days working several jobs and was gone throughout the day and late into the night, so I learned responsibility at a young age. I learned these lessons partly because one of the expenses that fell to the wayside early on was babysitting fees, and mostly because, well, I had no other choice.

Despite Mom’s expense management, spring 1979 was very tough.  I can remember short periods where money was tight and Mom was frantic with worry over how she would pay a bill.  There came stretches where we were without food for several days between paychecks from Mom’s various employers.  Now a parent myself, I can only imagine the worry Mom felt then over how she was going to feed me, keep me decently clothed for school, keep utilities on, and several other worries and fears a parent endures.

During this time, for whatever reason, I came to be playing under my bed as eleven year old boys are prone to do.  I happened upon the tin I had placed there on Christmas morning and quickly remembered the three silver dollars.

As I crawled out from under the bed with the tin in my hands, I knew instinctively that I needed to give the silver dollars to Mom so that she could use the money in whatever way she needed to get us through until her next payday.  I was torn over giving the money to my mother.  Yes, I wanted desperately to help, yet at the same time the thought of giving up my “treasure” from Uncle Shorty sickened me.

In the end, my eleven year old sense of duty prevailed.

Terry with cousin Kurt

Of course, Mom was ecstatic to discover that I had not spent the silver dollars and immediately went to the store to get us some items to get us by for a few days.  I recall a few days diet of milk, potted meat sandwiches and Cheerios.  My treasure, as it were, had gotten us through a very rough patch, and lifted Mom’s spirits enough that after this “between paycheck” crisis, she took some steps to ensure I was never that close to going without food again.

Most prevalent on my mind, though, was the heartbreak I felt over surrendering my treasure, even if for the welfare of Mom and myself.

Luckily, the local food mart in the South Hills area where I grew up in was owned and operated by a very friendly man, one who was always telling stories to the local children while negotiating menial chores for candy or small dime store variety toys.  His name escapes me after all these years, no doubt removed from the recesses of my brain responsible storing names and replaced with something more import to my early adulthood, such as the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody.

The following day I entered this store and approached the store keeper nervously, trying to keep a grown-up face as I related my story and my desire to buy back the silver dollars at a later time.  I was delighted to discover that he was well aware of my mother’s purchase and actually had set aside the silver dollars.  I’m not sure if it was my sad expression, his generous heart, or perhaps a combination, but he told me I had an opportunity to earn back the silver dollars.  All I had to do was sweep the store and the store’s parking lot early every morning before the store opened for a month.  At the end of that, he would return the silver dollars to me.

Perhaps he thought this was a fair exchange.  A month’s worth of free labor in return for three dollars.  Ha!  I would have swept his store and parking lot for a year.  It was not until years later that I discovered one of the silver dollars in question had a slightly higher value than the other two.  I am sure this fact escaped my mother’s attention, but I’m fairly certain the shop keeper would have been aware of this fact.

Flash forward to 2003.  Shorty’s 70th birthday party.  Sadly, I was unable to attend and was at a loss as to what kind of present to send in my absence.  Cashews had lost their luster years prior.  I sat down and decided to write the story you are now reading, events that had never been relayed to anyone else in my family as Mom was a very proud and private woman.  In the letter, I detailed how three silver dollars had taught me a lesson about life, family, and duty.  I also included the three silver dollars.

Reports I received from my cousin suggest that the story and the present were very well received.  My cousin read the letter aloud to my uncle at the height of the party, and Shorty was so moved that he described me to other party-goers not privy to the family dynamic as his “second son.”

Needless to say I was moved by this, and felt very much at peace with the silver dollars’ legacy in my life.

A few years after that, we lost Shorty to a long and difficult fight with lung cancer.  I was blessed in that my schedule afforded me the opportunity to drive home and visit Shorty in the hospital prior to his passing.  Even throughout his sickness, and his incapacitation to a hospital bed, he managed to look so much larger than life. I was amazed, and I told him so.  He couldn’t reply, but his eyes passed on to me that he had heard and understood.

As I left his hospital room and went into the ICU’s waiting room to seek solace and comfort with other family members, my aunt approached me and gave me a long embrace.  As she pulled away, she pressed a plain unmarked envelope into my hands.  She looked into my eyes, “From Shorty.”  As I left the hospital and sat in my car, I opened the envelope.

In my hand were my three silver dollars.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

Essays on Childhood: In a Man’s Voice

There are moments in life when someone casually helps you make a connection, and the effect is anything but small.  Such was the case when I grumbled to my friend Allan that I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to get a commitment from men to write for the Essays on Childhood project.

Allan said simply that it did not surprise him at all.  “Elizabeth, a lot of men find it very hard to write about their childhood.”  Something about the way he phrased that made me rethink the dynamic.  I realized I processed the hesitance to follow through as a lack of interest.  Allan helped me see it’s not that at all.  It’s a level of difficulty and often of pain that may be more pervasive in male childhood experience than female — not at all to say women have easy childhoods, but there is something here connected to the male psyche and experience in the early years that may be keeping a lid on what is actually a very keen interest in writing.

William Stafford

Allan is a writer, editor, teacher, and author published many times over.  His second book on the spiritual struggles of boys is due to roll off-press soon.  Obviously he was himself a boy once, but beyond that he has jumped into the deep end, both personally and professionally, of analyzing the male childhood experience.

Allan’s first book on the issues opens with this chilling poem by William Stafford:

Sure You Do

Remember the person you thought you were?  That summer

sleepwalking into your teens?  And your body ambushing

the self that skipped from school?  And you wandered into

this carnival where all the animals in the ark began

to pace and howl?   The swing they strapped you in?

The descent through air that came alive, till

the pause at the top?  The door on the way down

that opened on joy?  And then, and then, it was

a trap.  You would get used to it:  like the others

you could shoulder your way through the years, take on

what came and stare without flinching, but you knew at the time

it was goodby to everything else in your life.

The great door that opened on terror swung open.

The first time I read this poem I was unable to speak, literally, for a full 30 minutes.  I put it in front of a few men I know, and with limited commentary said, “I’d like to know what you think of this.”  The effect of the poem on my friends was similar to the effect on me, but with a key difference:  While my silence came from the shock of surprise, theirs was from the instant recognition of what was presumed to be a secret.

In 2012, Essays on Childhood will engage this challenge of creating a space and a process for men to write about their childhood experience.  One observation is that men tend to write with more personal distance from their subjects than do women, and when the subject is one’s own childhood that is not exactly an option.  I am fortunate to know a lot of very cool men — smart, funny, serious, engaged people who possess unique viewpoints and an interest in connecting with other people.  They may not know I identify them this way, but part of the next wave will be telling them and asking them to lead this grand experiment…………

Esse Diem readers, your suggestions for this outreach are more than welcome!

(Much gratitude goes out to John Warren, who was the first man to write for Essays on Childhood, to Michael Powelson who shared an essay from his own blog for EOC, and to Julian Martin, who will be representing the male voice in the essays shared before the end of the year.)

Image credit:  Poets.org

Writing About Place: “Where I’m From”

I am from pastel and oil, acrylic and watercolor, pencil and ink, wood and ruler, hammer and nail, chisel, chainsaw, miter, drill, screw.

I am from Mr. Rogers and Bob Marley, Uncle Wiggly and The Rainbow Goblins, The Monkey King and Thumbelina.

I am from a marriage and a divorce, love and its opposite, the familiar clang of the world at its end and at its beginning, splitting apart and then reformed, broken and whole, the consistency of two people working out their distances across town and across a river and across a home and across a little girl.

Fascinated?  Visit the Essays on Childhood website to read the entire piece of writing and to connect with writer Valley Haggard, the founder of Richmond Young Writers!

Many thanks go out to Valley for her generous permission to share her writing on Esse Diem and Essays on Childhood.

“There’s No Crying in a Tobacco Field”

Writers participating in the 2011 Essays on Childhood may be interested in this link from the North Carolina Writers’ Network (NCWN):  Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition Winners Announced.  This essay sounds right in line with the work we are doing at Esse Diem around Essays on Childhood, especially the sense of place focus in 2011.

The winning essay, “There’s No Crying in a Tobacco Field,” is described by a contest judge as follows:

“This essay took me into a world I barely knew—a North Carolina tobacco field—and taught me something,” Varner said. “The writer effortlessly weaves together a personal narrative about working as a ‘tobacco kid’ in the fields and the chilling research about the unseen health hazards thousands of children surely suffered. Here is a piece wrestling with the hard lessons learned plucking leaves from the field and long-term medical concerns these former tobacco kids could face.”

The NCWN is a wonderful resource, and I encourage anyone writing for the EOC project to peruse it.  I like to think of the Essays on Childhood as one day being part of something larger that will offer even more resources and encouragement to writers, a la NCWN.

West Virginia is fortunate to have West Virginia Writers, Inc., which I am rather ashamed to say is new to me but I was quite pleased to find online today.  I am looking forward to being a part of that network, and I hope anyone participating in the EOC project will visit the WVW site and engage the resources there.

Happy writing!

Image credit:  The Human Rights Brief

Writer’s Digest – How to Create a Narrative Arc for Personal Essays

“One of those pieces of writing advice so common that even nonwriters have heard it, right up there with “write what you know,” is that a good story always has a beginning, a middle and an end. Of course, “write what you know” is somewhat misleading advice; we often write about what we think we know, in order to see if we really do.”  – Jody Bates

via Writer’s Digest – How to Create a Narrative Arc for Personal Essays.

While both experimenting with a new WordPress app and finding new essay resources, I discovered this today on the Twitter account @writersdigest.  If you are mulling the essay project this year, may it bring you inspiration!

Image credit: E. Gaucher