Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Magic of Keys by C. K. Thomas

If you’re famous, you might be given the key to a city, and if you’re in love, someone might have found the key to your heart. Then again, if you’re a chemist you might become famous by finding a key ingredient.

The humble key opens locks of course, but the word key, it seems, has become a handy metaphor as well. My interest in keys stems from childhood when my dad frequently managed estates. Often he found mysterious keys without the locks to go with them. Those keys found their way into my key collection. I had quite a horde of all kinds of keys that I kept in a flower pot. Unfortunately I’ve lost them somewhere on the journey of my life. However, my fascination with keys remains.
Skeleton keys have been stripped down to the bone and thus the reason for their creepy name. There is only one remaining bit at the tip of the barrel (hollow) or shank (solid). 

A skeleton key could open most of the doors inside my grandfather’s house. In fact, most houses built in the 1940’s have mortise locks that respond to a skeleton key. In my grandfather’s house, the attic door, with its big square, metal lock and large keyhole, easily opened with a skeleton key. The turning of the key revealed a winding stairway behind the door; topped by a trove of attic treasures to explore. This explains, in part, the magic I attribute to the skeleton key.

Magical thinking about keys began in the Middle Ages when keys and locks were made of iron. Many believed evil spirits might find their way into dwellings or religious buildings through keyholes, but that iron keys and locks had the power to repel these demons.

During these times, superstitions about the power of keys dictated that if keys were left on a table, there would be chaos and strife in the household. The Finns believed keys in her bed could help a woman in childbirth and that a key

made in the form of a cross could cure boils. In Europe large, iron keys for church doors usually had a cross imprinted somewhere on them. (above) These keys were thought to be powerful enough to cure whopping cough and other ills of children.
“The key for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is believed to be at least 500 years old. It is still used daily, and is held by an ancient Muslim family in Jerusalem. The family has held this position since 1244, and the key may be that old.”* (above)

I was surprised to realize the considerable variety of keys, some of which follow: prison keys, church keys, clock keys, railroad keys (small brass ones), skeleton keys, trunk keys, desk keys, briefcase keys, suitcase keys, diary keys, house keys, car keys, file cabinet keys, keepsake box keys, padlock keys, jewelry box keys, cedar chest keys, music box keys, toy winding keys, skate keys and on and on and on. You can probably think of many more.

If you’re intrigued enough to want to know more about keys, consult the Internet links below. The book Keys – Their History and Collection by Eric Monk, published by Shire Publications will help in identifying keys you might find in antique stores and also in estimating their value.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Great Grandma and Grandpa’s Stories of World War II

My granddaughter needed to interview a veteran for a school project just as my son did many years ago when he was her age. For my son, the timing was perfect since his grandpa and grandma were visiting Phoenix from Indiana. At that time the most sophisticated method we had for recording the interview was a small tape recorder. 

We recorded both sides of the tape and captured the voices of both grandparents relating their experiences during WWII. Grandpa had served as a navigator on a B17 bomber while his pregnant wife lived at home with her parents. The interview reveals what life was like both on the “front” and on the “home front.” 

A few years ago I managed to transfer the taped version of the interview to my computer and save the .wav files to my family history folder. Even though my son’s grandpa has passed on, his voice on my computer is as strong and true as ever. 

Yesterday I converted the .wav files to mp3 format and loaded them into the public folder on Dropbox. I sent the links to my granddaughter, and her mother told me they spent the evening listing to her great-grandpa’s amazing story of not only his wartime experience, but of the compassionate food-drop missions he participated in immediately following the end of the war.

I’m amazed at the technology that allowed me to pass on this historic piece of my children’s and grandchildren’s heritage so quickly. My granddaughter’s request came to me in the late afternoon and by early evening the stories she needed were in her hands in Seattle. 

The thought than my granddaughter can hear her great-grandfather’s voice telling her his first-hand account of such historic events is so magical and poignant that I’m overwhelmed with gratitude at this opportunity to share it.

Below are the three links to the recordings in order: The introduction I recorded followed by sides 1 and 2 of the original tape. I’d love to hear your comments if you have the time to listen to these voices from the past. 

I try to make it a priority to thank a veteran whenever I have an opportunity, and I’ll remember them especially today on Veteran’s Day, Saturday, November 11, 2017.

Side 2  (voice quality improves toward the end of this side)

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Two Old Hippies

A Short Fiction Story Inspired by a Photo
By C. K. Thomas

Squatting somewhere in the outback of British Columbia while dodging the draft, we came dragging with us the idea that peace, love and marijuana would see us through the toughest of times. Though young, ragged and ill-equipped, we managed to live off the grid up in the wilds of Canada for the duration of the Vietnam War.

Forty years later, we stand at the bottom of the hill by the lake looking up at what remains of the abandoned cabin we inhabited in 1967. I slipped my backpack off my shoulders and retrieved the camera from one of my hiking shorts’ plentiful pockets.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to take pictures looking uphill, but right now I don’t have the energy to walk another step to get closer,” I said to Jim who had already removed his pack and lay sprawled on the ground using his pack as a pillow.

“You’re right, no uphill pictures, but I’m not a bit tired. I’m just lying here looking at the sky to assess the weather. We might be getting some spotty sunshine right now, but from the look of those thunderheads it won’t be long until we’re getting seriously wet. Of course, I might have to lie here a bit longer to make absolutely sure of my prediction,” Jim grinned as he threw his arm across his eyes in a pose that suggested he wasn’t getting up anytime soon.

Back in ’67 frozen ground and the beginnings of a snow storm greeted us as we staggered up this very same steep hill toward the abandoned cabin that looked as if it might be a place where we could at least weather out the storm. We made ourselves at home within its sheltering walls and with a few feeble repairs to keep out the drafts, ended up staying for the duration of the war.

We survived our stay in rural British Columbia largely because we had stumbled upon the Slocan Valley where in the early 1900’s Russian pacifists had settled. We’d found a community sympathetic to our plight that welcomed us at first with much needed supplies and secondly with offers of employment among them. By the time the war ended we were so entrenched within the community that the thought of returning to the States during the Carter amnesty in 1977 held no appeal for us.

Jim and I married while in Canada, and you might say we grew up here because we certainly weren’t adults when we arrived. Today, I’m a stringer for a local newspaper in a small Canadian town many miles from the Slocan Valley, and Jim still does free-lance photography for magazines and newspapers. We’re both retired and very happy in the frozen north. When our own country sought to throw us into the jaws of an unjust war, Canada welcomed us, and we never forgot that welcome.

This trek to the “old homestead” reminded us just how far we’ve come since those days. We may be approaching old age, but this old cabin looks to be in far worse shape than us. Thankfully, it’s still early enough in the day to make our way back to our truck parked at the trail head. 

As great as it is to reminisce, I’m not about to lay these old bones down in a sleeping bag on the dirt floor where we conceived our first child. “Those were the days,” and I’m very happy I don’t have to relive them. Just making it up here to explore the place where Canada refused to let war come between us is quite enough. Thank God and those plucky Russian pacifists for our adopted country!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

United States Women’s Firsts

U.S. women continue to “break the mold,” and our country’s history needs to reflect their accomplishments. Here are just a few of the many women brave enough to be first.

"Take a chance. Amaze yourself!" - C. K. Thomas

1762 – Ann Franklin – First Woman Newspaper Editor
1776 – Margaret Corbin – First Woman Revolutionary War Soldier and Pensioner
1812 – Lucy Brewer – First Woman Marine
1846 – Susan Bagley – First Woman Telegraph Operator
1866 – Mary Walker – First Woman Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient
1869 – Arabella Mansfield – First Woman Lawyer
1869 – Ada H. Kepley – First Woman Law School Graduate
1870 – Esther Hobart Morris – First Woman Justice of the Peace
1871 – Frances Willard – First Woman College President
1872 – Victoria Claflin Woodhull – First Woman Presidential Nominee
1876 – Louise Blanchard Bethune – First Woman Architect
1887 – Susanna Medora Salter – First Woman Mayor
1887 – Phoebe Couzins – First Woman United States Marshall
1905 – May Sutton – First U.S. Woman Wimbledon Winner
1907 – Dorothy Tyler – First Woman Jockey
1911 – Harriet Quimby – First Woman Licensed Airplane Pilot
1916 – Jeannette Rankin – First Woman U.S. Representative
1921 – Edith Wharton – First Woman Pulitzer Prize Winner
1925 – Nellie Tayloe Ross – First Woman Elected Governor
1926 – Gertrude Ederle – First Woman to Swim Across English Channel
1928 – Amelia Earhart –  First Woman to Pilot a Plane Across the Atlantic Ocean
1931 – Jane Addams – First Woman Nobel Peace Prize Winner
1932 – Hattie Wyatt Caraway – First Woman U.S. Senator
1933 – Frances Perkins – First Woman Cabinet Member, Secretary of Labor
1944 – Ann Baumgartner – First Woman Jet Aircraft Pilot
1953 – Jerrie Cobb – First Woman Tested for Astronaut Training
1972 – Juanita Kreps – First Woman Director of the New York Stock Exchange
1980 – Paula Hawkins – First Woman Elected to U.S. Senate, Not-inherited
1981 – Sandra Day O’Connor  – First Woman United States Supreme Court Justice
1983 – Dr. Sally K. Ride – First Woman to Enter Outer-Space
1984 – Geraldine Ferraro – First Woman Major Party Vice Presidential Nominee
1997 – Madeleine Albright – First Woman United States Secretary of State
2007 – Nancy Pelosi – First Woman Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
2016 – Hillary Rodham Clinton – First Woman Major Party Presidential Nominee

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Fireworks and Christmas Trees

Continued from A Portrait in Words

My first grade teacher lived in a ranch-style, red brick house kitty-corner across the street from me on Kingston Road. On the Fourth of July, the town of Kokomo would have a fireworks display at Highland Park, and we thought her backyard was the place you could see them best.

The neighborhood kids would show up to the hill out back of her house lugging blankets and folding chairs along with snacks. We’d camp out there watching for the sky to get dark and the fireworks to begin. I went back as an adult, and the hill that seemed so big to me as a kid now looks like a small rise just beyond the back porch steps.

Next to our house on the south side there used to be a vacant lot where I caught butterflies with a butterfly net made out of a mop handle, a wire hanger and a pillowcase. The house on the other side of the lot belonged to close friends of ours. One Fourth of July we went over to the neighbor’s fenced-in back yard and watched as one of the older kids put firecrackers inside tin cans to shoot them way up in the air.

It was terrific fun, but every year we would read in the paper about someone who was injured while playing with fireworks. Our parents would go “tsk, tsk, tsk,” and the next year we’d shoot off fireworks out in the driveway and wave our sparklers just like we did every year. Luckily none of us were ever hurt. 

The most amazing fireworks I remember were the ones our young family watched from the Capitol Mall in Washington D.C. when our country turned 200 years old in 1976. The Mall was a mass of people wearing everything from shirts and slacks made from the Stars and Stripes to barefooted women in bikini bathing suits carrying flags. 

We spread our blanket in a good spot and took turns walking around the Mall to see all the people, while either my husband or I stayed to guard our blanket and the picnic stuff we brought. 

When the celebration was over we hopped on a bus to the Pentagon where we had parked our station wagon, put our three ragamuffins to bed in the back and went to sleep until the traffic cleared. Then, we drove home to Annandale, Virginia. Our three kids each got a U.S. flag that had been flown for a few seconds over the Capitol on that historic day. 

One year the kids and I drove all the way to Indiana from Arizona to see my folks in Kokomo. On the way home to Phoenix, we stopped in a state that still allowed fireworks to be sold. We picked up bottle rockets, sparklers, and firecrackers. 

On the Fourth of July we shot off fireworks in our backyard. A police officer came to our front door and politely asked us to “cut it out!” Our fireworks fun was now illegal! Of course, I knew that, but thought I could get away with it. Luckily, I didn’t get a ticket or arrested. 

Putting Up the Christmas Tree

The house on Kingston Road had a crawl space beneath it with a dirt floor and spider webs. It provided access to pipes and electrical boxes under the house. In other words, we didn’t have a basement. 

In the early 1950s we always purchased a nice fat Christmas tree with long needles. I thought Grandma and Grandpa Thomas couldn’t afford a nice Christmas tree like ours down at the house in Sharpsville. Their tree always had short needles and was very sparse. 

Looking back, I can see they just preferred a different kind of tree. Grandma always placed presents on the limbs of the tree where they were easy for the kids to see.

We loaded up our tree with all kinds of decorations including silver icicles and a big star to top it off.  We even had bubble lights with tubes that showed bubbles going up and down inside them. The other big green, red, blue and white tree bulbs would get hot after awhile, so we had to be very careful about leaving them on too long. Just think, before people had electric lights they used candles to light their trees! 

Our tree was usually short and fat. Daddy would put it up on a table so people could see it through our front windows from the outside. However, this particular year, we bought a tall, fat tree. Daddy sawed the trunk off straight and attached an x-shaped tree stand to it. After we finished putting all the decoration on the tree, it began to lean precariously to one side. 

Daddy kept adjusting the stand and working hard to keep the tree from leaning. Eventually, he got so frustrated that he crawled under the house in the crawl space and nailed that tree to the living room floor, right up through the carpeting! That sure fixed it! We never got tired of telling that story over and over again.

My life is wrapped in the fabric of stories like these. What stories make up the quilt of your life?  Remember to put them in writing. Future generations will bless you for it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Sifting Through the Past

Throwing away pretty cards and lovely letters from friends and family seems such a waste to me. Being the self-appointed family historian, however, has compelled me to save far too much of this type of history. Today I feel as if I’m drowning in it.

Right now I find myself conflicted about how much of this “stuff” I need to keep for sentimental and “historic” reasons. Part of me wants to pitch the manila envelopes and file folders packed full of the past that reside in my overcrowded filing cabinet. 

During this time in our lives (meaning those of us in the over 70 set), isn’t this a time for discarding all but the essentials so our “kids” don’t inherit the task of wading through the detritus of our lives following our demise? Will these fragments of my life stuffed in folders and 3-ring binders give my children and grandchildren insight into the kind of life I’ve lived in comparison to the kind of lives they’re living? Will they have any time at all to spend reading through these epistles and well wishes of mine? I truly doubt it.

How well will my children and my children’s children ever know the “real” me? They have their own memories and may not care to consider the ones I hold dear. I want them to know what it’s like to drive to Sharpsville on Christmas Day and mix it up with aunts, uncles, and cousins in Grandma and Grandpa Thomas’s little cottage there. 

I’d like them to know about the bustle of the women all working together in Grandma’s kitchen to get Christmas dinner set out on the big table in the dining room. Oh, and the aroma of Aunt Devona’s chicken casserole and the delight at seeing Grandma’s banana cake all iced with penuche icing and waiting to be cut for dessert. There’s Aunt Imogene’s delicious apple pie and Aunt Olive’s smooth and creamy chocolate one with meringue on top. 

How will they know how it feels to hear Uncle Charles (Reverend Charles Taylor of the denomination of Methodists) intone the prayer thanking God for the food and blessing all of us gathered there? My brother and I have already opened presents at home, but after dinner at Grandma’s there will be more flurry of pretty paper ripping and bows being sorted to save. The younger kids get to pass out the presents while the adults sit back and guess who got their name in the Christmas drawing.
It seemed there were always new babies showing up every Christmas. My cousin Bob and his wife Betty had Rusty, Rickey, Donnie, Deena, and Debra. These cousins of mine still live in Indiana up around Rochester where Indiana lakes make summer getaways for weary Kokomo dwellers. 

I’ve recorded the members of our family tree on, but somehow it doesn’t seem quite the best way to convey how much I miss that rowdy bunch. For me it was a rich experience growing up among them. 

Maybe it’s impossible to share the memories and the essence of who we are and who we were then in a meaningful way. These letters, cards and family histories mean the most to me, not to those who come after me. They have their own Christmas mornings to remember, don’t they? How important is it for them to know how my life unfolded when they’re so wrapped up in watching their own unfold? 

How am I to organize all these old letters? Letters are something of a novelty these days, aren’t they? So much history evaporates with email and instant messages. Also, consider how it’s no longer a worry how much a long-distance phone call will cost or who is listening in on the party line like the one at Grandma’s house. I remember cranking that old wooden-boxed phone on the wall in Sharpsville and asking the operator to place a call to Kokomo for me. Gosh, cell phones just don’t have the same charm!

Spock where are you when I need to mind meld with my progeny? Maybe everyone wants a bit of the history of their lives to live on in the minds of their kids and grand-kids. I have always wished for that. I guess I’ll just keep on writing my memories and chuck all these letters as soon as I’ve mined them as I write an autobiography that someone someday might want to read. It’s important to learn from the past, isn’t it? I sure hope so. 

I guess what I really want is for my kids and grand-kids to treasure the lives of the people I knew as a child as much as I still do. It’s a tall order, and I’m not sure it’s attainable.Recently I read a memoir called Hillbilly Elegy. Through that book, the essence of the author’s life began to dawn on me. If I could achieve just that kind of enlightenment with a book about my life, maybe I’d feel I’d achieved the kind of mind meld I’ve always hoped would be possible.