20. June 2023 · Comments Off on A Reprise Post from 2005 – The Chalk Giant · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

Granny Jessie, tiny and brutally practical, was not particularly given to fancy and fantasies. When she talked of old days and old ways, she talked of her girlhood on her fathers’ ancestral acres, a farm near Lionville, Chester County, Pennsylvania; of horse-drawn wagons, and cows and cats, and how pigs were cleverer than dogs. Of how she and her sister and brother would have to stop going down to the pig-pen early in the fall, lest they become too fond of an animal whose fate it was to be butchered for ham, and bacon, roasts and sausage and scrapple to last the winter through. Of how she played on the Lionville boys’ baseball team, since there were not enough boys, and she was a tomboy and skillful enough to play first-base, and how her grandfathers’ house was once a fall-back way-station on the Underground Railway. (It was the inn in Lionville itself was the main way-station, with a secret room and a concealed access to the woods, or so said Granny Jessie.) It was all very prosaic, very American, a breath away from the Little House books and so very familiar.

Granny Dodie’s stories, even if she did not have a spell-binding repertoire, were touched with fire and enchantment because of the very unfamiliarity of the venue… a row-house in Liverpools’ Merseyside, a few streets away from there the Beatles had come from, where Granny Dodie had grown up the youngest of a family of nine, sleeping three in a bed with her older sisters. “The one on the side is a golden bride, the one by the wall gets a golden ball, the one in the middle gets a golden fiddle, “she recited to me once. “Although all I ever got of it was the hot spot!” All her brothers were sailors or dockworkers, and her ancestors too, as far as memory went. Even her mothers’ family, surnamed Jago, and from Cornwall— even they were supposed to have grafted onto their family tree a shipwrecked Armada sailor. Granny Dodie insisted breathlessly there was proof of this in the darkly exotic good looks of one of her brothers. “He looked quite foreign, very Spanish!” she would say. We forbore to ruin the story by pointing out that according to all serious historic records, all the shipwrecked Spaniards cast up on English shores after the Armada disaster were quickly dispatched… and that there had been plenty of scope in Cornwall— with a long history of trans-channel adventure and commerce—to have acquired any number of foreign sons-in-law. She remembered Liverpool as it was in that long-ago Edwardian heyday, the time of the great trans-Atlantic steamers, and great white birds (liver-birds, which according to her gave the port it’s name) and cargo ships serving the commercial needs of a great empire, the docks all crowded and the shipways busy and prosperous.

One Christmas, she and my great-Aunt Nan discovered a picture book— John S. Goodalls’ “An Edwardian Summer”, among my daughters’ presents, and the two of them immediately began waxing nostalgic about long-ago seaside holidays; that time when ladies wore swimsuits that were more like dresses, with stockings and hats. They recollected donkey-rides along the strand, the boardwalks and pleasure-piers full of carnival rides, those simpler pleasures for a slightly less over-stimulated age. But the one old tale that Granny Dodie told, the one that stayed my memory, especially when Pip and JP and I spent the summer of 1976 discovering (or re-discovering) our roots was this one:

“There are places,” she said, ” Out in the country, they are, where there are stone stairways in the hillsides, going down to doorways… but they are just the half the size they should be. They are all perfectly set and carved… but for the size of people half the size we are. And no one knows where they lead.”

Into the land of the Little People, the Fair Folk, living in the hollow hills, of course, and the half-sized stairways lead down into their world, a world fair and terrible, filled with faerie, the old gods, giants and monsters and the old ways, a world half-hidden, but always tantalizingly, just around the corner, or down the half-sized stairway into the hidden hills, and sometimes we mundane mortals could come close enough to brush against that unseen world of possibilities.

From my journal, an entry writ during the summer of 1976, when Pip and JP and I spent three months staying in youth hostels and riding busses and BritRail… and other means of transportation:

July 9- Inglesham
Today we started off to see the Uffington White Horse, that one cut into the hillside in what— the Bronze or Iron Age, I forget which. We started off thinking we could catch a bus and get off somewhere near it, but after trying quite a few bus stops (unmarked they are at least on one side of the road) we took to hitch-hiking and the first person took us all the way there. He was an employee of an auctioneering firm, I guess & I guess he wasn’t in a hurry because he asked where we were going (Swindon & then to the White Horse) & said he would take us all the way there. It was a lovely ride, out beyond Ashbury, and the best view of the horse is from the bottom, or perhaps an aero plane. It’s very windy up here, very strong and constantly- I think it must drive the grass right back into the ground, because it was very short & curly grass. We could see for miles, across the Vale, I guess they call it. After that we walked up to Uffington Castle, an Iron Age ring-embankment, & some people were trying to fly a kite-it’s a wonder it wasn’t torn to pieces.
We sat for a while, watching fields of wheat rippling like the ocean & cloud-shadows moving very slowly and deliberately across the multicolored patchwork.
The man who brought us out advised us to walk along the Ridgeway, an ancient track along the crest of the hill, and so we did. It was lovely and oh, so lonely. Nothing but the wheat fields on either side and looking as if they went on forever.
We looked at Wayland’s Smithy, a long stone barrow in a grove of trees & when we got to Ashford, we found the Rose & Crown pub and had lunch. It was practically empty, no one but an elderly couple and their dog, a lovely black & white sheepdog, very friendly. Then we set off to walk and hitch-hike back to Highworth, but we picked the two almost deserted roads in Oxfordshire to do it, because it took nearly forever to get two rides. One got us from Ashbury to (indecipherable) and the second directly into Highworth. Both were women, very kind and chatty; I wish I knew what impulse people have which make them pick up hitch-hikers. What I do know is that the loveliest sight is that of a car slowing down and the driver saying “Where are y’heading for?”

Thirty years later I remember how charmed we were by the people who gave us rides— the auctioneers assistant who was so taken in by my reasons for seeing the White Horse that he decided he had to see it himself, and the two women— both with cars full of children— who were either totally innocent of the ways of this soon-to-become-wicked-world, or had unerring snap-judgment in deciding to slow down and pick up three apparently innocent and apparent teenagers. (I was 22 but was frequently and embarrassingly informed that I looked younger than the 16 year-old Pip, and JP was 20, but also must have looked innocent, younger and harmless.)
With their assistance, we spent a lovely day, in the sun and wind, in the uplands along the Ridgeway, examining the form of a running horse, cut into the turf on a chalk hillside, an ancient fortress, a legendary dolman tomb, and an ancient highway along the backbone of Britain… always thinking that just around the next bend would be the stairway into the hollow hills, and the giants and fair folk of old… Adventure and peril just as Grannie Dodie said it would be in the lands of our ancestors… always just around the corner.

23. May 2023 · Comments Off on A New Diversion · Categories: Domestic

I used to do miniatures – scale interiors, mostly at the 1:12 scale – that is, inch to a foot scale. Some shadowboxes of single small rooms, a couple of buildings at that scale, which if they are houses – are pretty large. I got into this hobby and began building a collection of miniature elements when I was in college and making dolls for a lovely little shop in Montrose, California. The owner of the shop paid me, week in and week out, for five 12th scale dolls in various costumes (some to specialty order). I wasn’t the most accomplished and artistically-realistic miniature doll-maker in that part of California – but I was one of the very few practicing then and there, and that shop was one of a few catering to such enthusiasts. I made the heads, hands, and feet from a home-made composition of soda, cornstarch and water, painted with hobby paint, and hair made out of ordinary sewing-thread and white glue, set on a bendable armature of ordinary light-weight wire; the body wrapped with thin strips of sheet fabric, usually torn from outworn bedding, and then fitted out with hand-sewn clothing … no, those dolls were nothing much artistically, but they sold, reliably over half a decade. Kay Kelley, of Miniature World paid me $25 a week for five dolls, sold them at $10 each … and there I had enough from working at a craft to pay all expenses for my college education, enough to splurge on a summer in England after I graduated. Some of the money I earned at this went straight back to Kay, of course. I should search out the very first item I bought there – a little wooden silverware box, fitted out with half a dozen pot-metal forks, knives and spoons…

But I carried on with the miniature hobby for years – all the time that I was overseas. I had an enormous kit for a Victorian-style house when I was in Japan, when I had a tiny flat out the POL gate and the Daughter Unit was a baby. I remember working on it, with her in a sling against my chest, while I painted the exterior with one hand … when I PCSed from that assignment, the moving crew had to take it out through the kitchen window – it was too large for the door. (I sold that house, still unfinished, to another NCO, three moves later, to a family who wanted it for their daughter.) I went on building shadowboxes, fitting out kit structures and furniture for another sixteen or seventeen years. I went to a couple of miniature conventions, when at home in the states and I could afford to splurge on quality items … but somehow, it all stopped when I bought a house – a full-sized house of my very own, and somehow, the miniature building lost interest for me. I can only think that my enthusiasm for miniatures was a way of building a portable dream house. Once I had that real home, all my energy, time and money were focused on it, rather than sublimating all that into miniature structures. There wasn’t much difference in the concepts, by the way – only that the building stock was larger and the tools heavier.

But of late, I’ve been tempted again – and this week, I gave into that impulse and bought a miniature kit – a 1:24 kit, that is a half-inch to a foot scale. I have to unlimber all my old mini-building tools – the claps, blades, saw and all. I’ve started assembling the furniture, and I’ll take it in easy stages. It’s quite an elaborate set-up for all that it won’t take up too much space: a three-story Japanese house, fully furnished, with a pavilion, koi pond, trees and garden, mostly of about two million laser-cut wood pieces, with a paper overlay for some details, and a bag full of beads, wire and findings. Oh, and tiny electric lights, for the whole thing is set up to be wired for lights. I plan to do a bit of kit-bashing, painting some things different colors, and to route out space to pour resin and create the fishpond with tiny carp modeled from air-dry clay, and add more decorative elements and food items modeled from Fimo and air-dry clay. Yes, I have been watching too many YouTube tutorials about how to create realistic waterways and outdoor vistas…

16. May 2023 · 2 comments · Categories: Domestic

Most importantly, my daughter and Wee Jamie, the Wonder Grandson returned from the visit to California this morning … very early this morning, as I had to get up at half-past one in the morning, to meet their train, which was supposed to arrive at 2:40, but which didn’t actually pull into the station and begin off-loading passengers and baggage until well past 3:00. We weren’t home and settled until about half-past four in the morning, and our next-door neighbor’s caretaker, Miss Eileen, was sitting in the open garage to meet us. Miss Eileen’s dog, a charming but bossy little Shi Tzu named Angel apparently woke her up at that ungodly hour, and Miss Eileen thought that Angel had to pee. She went out to the garage in her pajamas since Angel demonstrated that she simply had to go out that way. Miss Eileen looked towards our driveway and noted that the Montero was not parked there. Just as she thought of us, I drove the Montero around the corner and pulled into our driveway.

Miss Eileen now wonders how Angel knew that we were on our way back at that very moment. Angel is a young dog, and rather fond of all of us, besides being excessively devoted to the main human in her little doggy life; Shi Tzus are like that. Being bred to be affectionate companion dogs, they are never happiest until the moment when they are glued to their chosen human. Although Angel is also affectionate towards my daughter, Wee Jamie and I. She barks when she hears my front door open, and Miss Eileen is sitting in the garage with the door open, enjoying her coffee and morning cigarette. I usually make a comment along the lines of ‘hark, the herald Angel sings’ or ‘the better Angels of our nature’. My daughter had brought Miss Eileen a box of specialty See’s chocolates from California, so she was able to transfer them at once. Miss Eileen has raised sons and thinks the world of Wee Jamie. She came to San Antonio to be caretaker for her aunt, our neighbor since we moved into this house – a dear sweet retired and elderly civil servant who now is suffering with progressive dementia. As someone about my age once grimly remarked – unless one is extraordinarily lucky, after a certain age, either the mind or the body goes.

It is a peculiarity of Amtrak service in San Antonio, that departures and arrivals are all in the very wee hours. I have entertained the possibility that the staff of the adjunct to the historic and very scenic Sunset Station are all vampires, since everything happens at night … but none the less, traveling on a train, if you are in no particular hurry, or with children, and going to and from a city with an active passenger terminal – a train may be the less fraught way to go, even if only in coach, the lowest and cheapest class. The seats are wider, movement is freer about the car, baggage allowances are more generous, and there isn’t anything like the security theater to endure. And if one springs for a roomette or a cabin in the sleeper coach – even more comfort. And free meals. My sister and her husband sprung for such, this year, so that my daughter could bring Jamie out to meet what remains of the family, supervise the care of my mother while their family took a break at their Hawaii condo – it worked out generally well. My daughter and Wee Jamie had a compartment to themselves and got upgraded to a first-class compartment on the return, a compartment with a toilet attached, since it seemed that their originally-booked roomette had been double-booked. Someone among the staff on the Sunday Amtrak from Los Angeles Central Station realized that it would best to placate an irate woman with a small child in tow, intent on returning home to Texas, on a reservation that had been done and paid for, months ago…

Anyway, on some of these midnight excursions, I sometimes wish that Amtrak would re-open the historic Sunset Station as a facility for serving passengers going east and west, instead of the mean little shed tucked away by the Alamodome. Alas, passenger train traffic isn’t anything what it used to be, in the golden age, and Sunset Station has been repurposed into an event venue. A very nice one, actually – I covered an event there, some years ago.

Several of our neighbors wondered about the perils of going downtown, in the wee hours – and I must admit that going to the Amtrak station in the pit of the night in San Antonio is probably degrees of safety greater than most other big city-downtown-train terminals at 0-dark-thirty. The Amtrak terminal may be small and out-of-the-way in regard to the rest of downtown San Antonio – but it is safe, there is relatively secure parking, and it is patrolled by security.

11. May 2023 · Comments Off on The Shape of Research To Come · Categories: Random Book and Media Musings

So, now that a number of items off the 2023 to-do list have been checked off, I have to apply myself sternly to the next item on the list, which is to complete the Civil War novel That Fateful Lightning. Which at this point is about half completed … the half remaining though, is about Miss Minnie Vining’s journey through the Civil War as a battlefield nurse, after the previous decade and a half as an Abolitionist campaigner.

I have been reminded once again, how small was the circle of intellectuals and campaigners for the Abolitionist cause, especially when it came to the female personalities. They all knew each other, or at one or two connections removed, and many of them continued in various other causes – notably for the rights of women with regard to legal matters and the vote. So, now the deep, deep dive into the American Civil War; on one side, Shelby Foote’s massive three-volume history, a fair number of Bruce Catton’s books that I have on hand (since my mother had an abiding interest in the Civil War and had nearly all of his books) a volume of Alexander Gardner’s photographs, and sixteen or seventeen of the Time Life series on the war, which is useful to me for the pictures more than the scholarship involved. I need to be able to visualize scenes, places, and people. My father once asked me how I went about describing a scene, and I told him it was almost like building a miniature set, only I built it in my mind: picturing the room, the place, the people in it, how the sunlight poured through the windows, what they could see from those windows, imagining the way that the place smelled, the little details of dust, sounds from outside,  and small things in the corners.

So, I need to be able to build a picture in my mind of the characters; how they would have moved, spoken and the words they used, acted towards each other. I won’t go much into the battles and personalities of all the ‘big’ players of the war – it’s just the little hints, details and insights that I am snorkling after. Like the death of Elmer Ellsworth, the first officer to be killed in the war – taking down a Confederate flag from a building in Alexandria, just across the Potomac from Washington. He was a handsome man, a minor celebrity and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. (Huh – Sam Houston once described Jefferson Davis as ‘ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard’. Not that this will have a bearing on the story, but that Sam Houston found Davis to be a ‘dislikable man’ … interesting.) And Lincoln himself was so very much the odd fish, as a president; scorned as ignorant backwoods, uncouth yokel, a hick from the sticks, who didn’t understand how things were properly done in the ruling chambers and corridors of power among those who were bred and educated suitably to rule… hmm. The contemporary political cartoons lampooning him, and the editorials about him were positively vicious, especially in the European newspapers. The English magazine Punch was especially poisonous. I’ve wondered if the viciousness was precisely because he proved to be a better and more able man than he appeared at superficial glance and the carpers and cartoonists were embarrassed by their inability to see this. I’ve already written a scene where Miss Minnie meets him and is wholly charmed.

But a lot of the details I am after, aren’t in the significant histories of the war itself – they’ll be buried in the memoirs of various women and men who volunteered for the Sanitary Commission in various capacities, especially the women who were moved to volunteer as front-line nurses and after the war was done, wrote about their experiences. Fortunate I am that a lot of them were available online – including one that I am still pursuing, since it gives me the personal link between the Bostonian Minnie Vining and the Chicagoan Mary Bickerdyke … who was apparently an irresistible force to be reckoned with; WT Sherman allowed that Mary Bickerdyke outranked him, in the general scheme of things. My general plot has Minnie joining up with Mary Bickerdyke, and the Union Army in the west.

The specific plot depends on what I discover in this. Pray for me as I venture forth…

(From the work in progress … I am now reading my stacks of materiel on the American Civil War, and making notes for the next half of the book. In this excerpt, Minnie is introduced to a man who will soon become very important.)

“Auntie,” Richard Brewer asked one afternoon, on a mild spring afternoon some three years later, “There is a man I think that you would enjoy being introduced to – a Westerner, so you might not already be known to you or you to him, but he is fierce regarding the limits of the slave system, and not allowing it in those proposed new states.”

“I thought that I knew every prominent abolitionist that there is,” Minnie fretted. She and Lolly were preparing for another lecture tour, this time to Illinois, where the fight against the vile institution was fierce and unrelenting – nearly as fierce as it was in the Kansas and Missouri Territories, where the cause had already been baptized in blood – the blood of abolitionists and slavers alike. “But of course – when do you propose that we shall meet?”

“At our house, tomorrow evening for supper and a small gathering of like-minded among legal circles,” Richard replied, with a grin. “And I’ll have you know that he has expressed a desire to meet you, Auntie – the famed and impassioned lady lecturer.”

“I suppose that my attendance has already been assured?” Minnie asked, concealing a small sigh. She had yet to pack for this latest circuit of lectures, although Lolly had already made most of the travel arrangements. Lolly was incredibly thorough about such matters – a passing miracle for everyone who had ever thought of her as one of the most feather-headed females imaginable.

“Of course,” Richard assured her, with a bow over her hand. “And I think you will enjoy Mr. Lincoln’s company, enormously – he is one of the most entertaining and companionable gentlemen I have ever had the pleasure of spending a number of hours with – and could have spent twice as many in his company, while laughing like a fool.”

“Mr. Lincoln?” Lolly Bard exclaimed in delight. “Why yes – I know of him, and he is a delight, if it is he who is the chief legal counsel for the Illinois Central Railroad! Mr. Bard was a shareholder in that company you know, and I still correspond with many of his old friends! They think the world of Mr. Lincoln, if that is the same man…”

“It would be,” Richard agreed, “For he has practiced as a lawyer for many years, and was elected to state office, and served representing Illinois in Washington for a term. The word is that he is a formidable man, for all that he looks the picture of the ungainly country yokel, and never darkened the door of a schoolhouse after the age of about ten or so. They say he split rails and felled trees to earn a living, early on. You can imagine what our cultivated acquaintances will think of that!”

“Oh, my,” Minnie exclaimed. She could just imagine what some of the other erudite, comfortably monied and well-raised Bostonians would think and say of Mr. Lincoln, the country-bred, self-educated westerner. “But I have had occasion to meet many people, in my tours, Richard – and many of them in ragged working-men’s garb, who are more courteously-mannered and considerate than … then my brother Tem,” she added, for Tem, for all the wealth of Papa-the-Judge and the advantages of education, had often been waspish, rude and … not to put too fine a point on it, snobbish to a degree that would embarrass an English noble. “I would be honored to meet this prairie lawyer acquaintance of yours. If he is determined an abolitionist as you say, then he is already a man of whom I am inclined to think well!”

“I thought you would welcome the introduction,” Richard said, “As you and Mrs. Bard are venturing into the near west, in the next weeks. And I think that Mr. Lincoln will prove to be an important man, soon enough.”


Minnie privately thought that Richard exaggerated – she had met all sorts, when she was a girl, and Papa-the-Judge offered hospitality to a great many, either obscure or of note, but all interesting. She had met even more, as she had said to Richard, traveling from city and city, town to town, giving lectures on the iniquity of the slave system. But none of them were like Mr. Lincoln. Tem would have said he was sui generis, one of a kind, when she was presented to him in Sophie’s parlor; she and Lolly Bard and Mr. Lincoln were nearly the first arrivals. When Betty the maid opened the front door of the Brewer mansion, the sound of delighted laughter led Minnie and Lolly to the parlor almost at once, where Sophie and Richard sat with a tall, awkward gangle of a man clad in an ill-fitting suit, a man in intense conversation with Richie.

“… three boys,” Mr. Lincoln was saying, “You’d be right in between Robert and Willie … ma’am!” he added, upon seeing Minnie in the doorway. He and Richard both rose hastily from where they sat, and Richard performed the introductions, barely concealing his own amusement, as Sophie took Richie by the hand and led him out of the room.

“I am mos’ pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Vining,” Mr. Lincoln bowed over her hand – a very disjointed bow, like a badly-strung puppet, for he was very tall, towering over Minnie like a tall tree – and she was barely taller than she had been at the age of thirteen. Rather to her surprise, his voice was thinner than she expected, a light tenor, like a boy whose voice hadn’t broken yet. His hands were powerful, the hands of a working man, who did more than just wield a pen; she sensed that he was particularly, purposefully gentle with her own hand, as she was in handling the birds, with their delicate bones, bones that could so readily be crushed without care taken. “I have read your articles in the Liberator with much interest, although I cannot honestly claim to be an absolutist when it comes to Abolition of the slave system.”

“You are not a reformer, then?” Minnie replied, somewhat surprised.
Mr. Lincoln smiled – he had a rather homely face, with knobby features and a great beak of a nose, but the smile transformed into a rather melancholy countenance, although the melancholy never really lifted from his eyes, deep-set as they were under a brow that the unkind would later liken to that of an ape.

“Of the Whiggish persuasion, Miss Vining – I would advocate for reformist measures in a slow and gradual manner, upon which most would agree.”

“But your feelings on the matter of slavery,” Minnie persisted.

“I would not be a slave,” Mr. Lincoln replied, thoughtfully, “And I would not be a master of slaves, either. It is a great injustice to be the first, and an insupportable moral burden to be the other …”

“That is exactly what was said to me, early on,” Minnie replied earnestly. “By one who had good reason to know. But what is the principle with regard to the vile institution that you hold to, without reserve?”

“This one,” Mr. Lincoln replied, with another one of those melancholy smiles. “That I would work to keep the institution from extending to those new territories of ours, which will become states, and very soon, I believe. They shall not have the stain of slavery marring them. And that is my governing principle, Miss Vining, although it may come about that I might be forced by circumstances to acquire others, as the situation suggests. Predicting the future developments in our world is a chancy thing, which would try the talents of a modern Nostradamus.”

“Indeed,” Minnie agreed, and Mr. Lincoln favored her with another one of those transforming smiles.

“Your late father, Judge Lycurgus Vining – he was a notable jurist in his day, was he not? A number of his rulings and arguments before the superior courts were cited in several of my independent readings … are you able to enlarge upon his reasonings in those matters? Mr. Brewer assures me that you were a student of your father’s dealings in that regard…”

“At another time, perhaps,” Richard Brewer intervened, as they heard Betty opening the front door to another guest. “We have invited all to a purely social gathering, Mr. Lincoln – not a meeting of the American Missionary Association.”

“Still,” Mr. Lincoln made a slight bow towards Minnie, and Lolly Bard. “I’d ‘mire to meet with Miss Vining again, and speak with me, concerning her reminiscences of her father, and of her observances of the slave system.”

“Of course,” Minnie replied – and she had been charmed beyond words, at meeting a man who might yet become an ally in the great cause – and who knew of and wholly admired Papa-the-Judge.