“Where is he?”

“In the hideout.”

“Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhrrrgggrhhhh!!! We’re going to get you this time Butch Cassidy (or someone).” Run, run, run, run, run, run across the pasture to a hole we’d all dug. And there he was, of course, in the hideout.

“Bang, bang, bang!” Wooden guns or fingers. Nothing draws faster than fingers.

“You can’t get me!” Up out of the hole. Run, run, run, run, run, run across the pasture to an unanticipated destination (behind the chicken house? Behind the cottonwood tree? Behind the COW for godsakes?)

“Get ‘im!” Run, run, run, run, run, run across the pasture.

“OW! WAAAAaaaaaa!”

“What happened?”

“I got a nail in my knee!”

“Uh oh.” War over. Cousin on one side, cousin on the other, brother behind. “We better go to gramma’s.”

Hobble, hobble, hobble, across the pasture. Blood streaming down my leg.


Dad comes out. Practically faints. “We have to clean that right now or she’ll get lockjaw.”

“She’s had the DPT, Bill.”

“Infection then.”

“What’s lockjaw?” Suddenly the mortal wound — quite bloody and fairly deep — doesn’t matter as much as this strange word. “Lock+jaw.”

“Tetanus, honey. Put your leg under the water.” I sit on the edge of my gramma’s old bathtub. “The hotter the water the better. Remember, there are no antiseptics better than lots of hot water and soap.” Truth.

“What’s lockjaw?”

“It’s a terrible disease where your jaws lock shut and you can’t eat and you can’t drink and you die. Put your knee UNDER the running water, dammit! Do you want to die?”

My dad was never chintzy with consequences.


The Drives of ’89

In 1989, Montana was 100 years old. The event was marked by a major drive — the Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive — and I was there. The cattle were driven from Roundup (after they’d been rounded up, I guess) to Billings. There were all kinds of events along with the cattle drive and two of my students, both Swiss, came up from California to join in on some of them — one of them turned out to be Montana Fondue which is bull gonads fried in hot oil on the end of a pitchfork. All of it was a lot of fun and I picked up a horse shoe from the biggest horse I never saw, but the evidence was irrefutable.

There were cowboy poets reciting around campfires. There were men in old-style slickers (sweating underneath?) riding their “ponies,” women in carriages, and me in my then brand new pair of c’boy boots. My Uncle Hank — who’d worked on oil rigs in Oklahoma but who had never been a cowboy — had so much respect for cowboys that he never let his own boys buy boots. “You’re not a cowboy,” he’d told them. “You have no right to those boots.” But he didn’t say anything like that to me about mine. “They suit you,” he said. They turned out to be surprisingly comfortable and I wore them as a fashion choice for years, resoled them three times and had countless new heels put on them.

Of course the Great Centennial Montana Cattle Drive was fraught with drama and almost didn’t come off. It was months long in its planning and a corporation was founded to organize and raise funds for the event. Rules existed regarding the authenticity of equipment, forbidding baseball caps and running shoes and recommending sunscreen and bug spray.

I’m pretty sure that Larry McMurtry’s GREAT novel, Lonesome Dove, had an inspiring influence on the whole thing. It came out in 1985. Everyone I knew in Montana read it and loved it. It was a standing joke in my family (among which there were retired cowboys and farmers) that once in a while a man likes “haul off and kick a pig.” Then the mini-series came out in 1989…

I also got my second (of four so far and that’d better be it) speeding ticket. “I didn’t think Montana had a speed limit,” I said to the officer when he told me I’d been driving 82.

“There’s a thing called good sense,” he replied. I remember looking around and seeing a warm, sunny day, not a car anywhere around, no hazards anywhere, nothing that would influence my good sense. My two students and my ex-husband decided it was just a money-making opportunity for the constabulary.

During that weekend the tiny town of Reed Point, Montana, decided to get in on the action. Its school needed a new roof and being a tiny town, the money wasn’t going to be easy to raise. They held a sheep drive. Lots of people went and stood on the main street. Concessions were situated on the side streets. Mostly it was sheep. Sheep driven by kids on bikes, sheep organized by border collies and Australian shepherds, sheep driven by ATVS, sheep driven by men on horseback — pretty much ever permutation of sheep driving possible at the time. There were sheep wagons — some old and restored, some new — with big signs saying “Norwegian Bachelor Sheep Herder” on the sides, the suspendered sheep-herders were sitting on the backs hooting and hollering at some of the town’s women who came along dressed up as “lady’s of the evening.” The only bad thing about the Reed Point Sheep Drive was that it only lasted five minutes. That was such a let down for people, who really liked it, that they decided to bring it back around a second time. It took a little while to reassemble the sheep, but when they managed it and came back through town, a huge cheer went up. It is really indescribable especially now by me since the main figure in my memory is that it was hilarious good fun and the town made enough money to roof two schools.

It was voted the best one day event of that Labor Day weekend in Montana. Take that, cattle.

This video tells you more than I can about an event that started that late summer day and has been going on every year since.


At the airport as we waited for the plane, I heard a couple of cowboys standing at the big window that looked out toward the Bull Mountains where the Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive started. One of them said, “You ride in that thing?”

“Hell no. Why would I pay $150 to chase a cow? I can do that any day.”

I had a great time that Labor Day Weekend, and I’ll never part with these boots. They mean something to me and they’re still comfortable but a little fragile at this point. They’ve been resoled so often, that the leather on the outside toe area is thin and could rip easily. I’ve even worn them while riding a horse and not just this one time.




Uncle Hank

Who was your first childhood crush? What would you say to that person if you saw him/her again?

This man was not just my first crush, he was one of the great loves of my life. If I saw him again, I’d know there was a Heaven because he’d be there (with all my dogs, but Cody O’Dog would be right beside him).

Uncle Hank

Uncle Hank at his 50th wedding anniversary dinner. He and my Aunt Jo celebrated sixteen more anniversaries. ❤

I always adored him because he was so beautiful and he was also so nice to me. I remember once arriving in Montana and feeling shy and little — I suppose I was 5 — and Hank taking me outside with him to help him finish stretching a fence. I wasn’t any help, but I felt much better outdoors with Hank than I did inside with all the people and the noise. If he talked to me, it was like I had an opinion about things or he was just quiet, sometimes telling me what to do.

Over the years things like this happened hundreds of times. The most dramatic was the afternoon in 1996 when I learned from my mom’s doctor two sad facts. First, that my mom could never go home again and second, that she had been an alcoholic. I did not know the second thing though I guess it was in plain sight for years. I am a pretty emotional person and I started to cry. Our family’s “cowboy mentality” spoke up in my Aunt Martha’s voice, “Quitcher crying. You have work to do.” I was so bewildered by that; I knew I had work to do and I knew I would do it, but that moment I hurt like I do not think I ever hurt before. The depth of my mother’s betrayal took me years to contend with.

I couldn’t cry (I wanted to) but I knew I could just go outside and DO something so I went to the garage and got a snow shovel and went out to Jo’s driveway (Foster Lane — the house to the left facing you in the photo above. Hank built both these houses.) and started to work. I looked up and Hank was there. He wanted to be with me, to be my pal and to share my sadness and that was the best way he knew. I didn’t want him to. He’d had a heart attack not long before, so I hurried and shoveled a walkway to the cars and said, “That’s good enough, don’t you think?” and he said, “I think so.” And we came in. I still needed to get rid of all that emotional energy and I couldn’t cry and I couldn’t shovel and I did not know what to do. I decided to go out and see the hawks the vet had. I headed out the back door and started to run across the pasture but when I looked up, Hank was coming. I went back to him (he couldn’t see very well) and said, “I’m going to go look at the hawks.” Hank said, “That sounds like a good idea. Hang on a minute.” There was no escaping this man. Though it worried me, it also made me happy. He knew how sad and scared I was, and he was not going to leave me all alone with my feelings.

When I was five and my brother just three, my dad’s father died. There were two flights each day  — Denver to Billings and back. My dad drove us all to the airport to meet the plane Hank came in on. My dad got on that very plane and went back to Billings to be with my grandmother. Hank drove us home, we packed the car, headed to Billings to join my dad, driving all night in a 1949 Ford. Hank was tired, my mom was scared, Kirk and I were confused, it wasn’t easy to find an open gas station in the middle of the night in Wyoming, but in Wheatland Hank was able to wake up a gas station owner and fill the tank. We got to Grandma Beall’s very early the next morning.  Before Jo took Hank to the airport in Billings, they’d gotten White House Ice Cream — my favorite — and put it in Grandma’s freezer. Before my brother and I crawled into grandma’s bed, Hank gave me a bowl of my favorite ice cream for being a good girl on the trip.

A couple years later, Kirk and I went to live for three+ months with Hank, Jo, David and Greg. It was wonderful, but naturally I missed my parents. It was different having two older brothers. David was a pestilence, Greg was my best friend and angel. Kirk was wild. There were three steers in the pasture between my grandma’s and Jo’s house. I thought they were “Bret, Bart, Hobie and Chester” but I later learned their names were “Bret, Bart, Hobart and Festus” — named from TV westerns. They were calves then big cows, pets and later meat for someone. One of our adventures was all of us getting into the back of Hank’s black pick-up (early 50’s late 40’s Chevy, probably) and heading out of town to pick up dried corn stalks and ears that had fallen in the harvest.

It was a great golden Montana fall day, unforgettable. The brown pasture dirt, the big sky, the Big Horns and Bear Tooths in the distance, the golden beams of the sun setting behind the mountains, the light — the particular light of sunset Montana ANY time of year. I felt all these things already then when I was just a kid. A gift from my dad or my blood; I don’t know. I remember standing on that pasture looking at the sky until someone said, “What are you doing, Martha Ann?” Probably Aunt Jo. We loaded up the foraged steer food and went home. It was dusk when we got there. Dave and Greg unloaded the truck. Jo made steak, fried potatoes and onions for dinner. It was a great afternoon. The rest of that fall we picked up sugar beets from the side of the road where they’d been dropped by trucks and loaded them into the feed shed for the steers. We took a couple of runs in the pick-up to the railroad tracks to gather sugar beets that had fallen from the train.

I started school in Billings that fall. I can’t say I liked it (I didn’t; it’s never easy being a “temporary” student), but I liked that summer. I liked playing croquet on the front lawn after supper, catching snails from the irrigation ditch, the exotic expeditions to open the “big ditch” to water the pasture, the treehouse in the cottonwood where I was not supposed to go (because I am a girl), the picnics in the backyard with all the family — my grandmother so nearby. I loved the way Hank and Jo were with each other; they were playful and affectionate and silly.

Later, 1979, I got my MA at the University of Denver. In all honesty, for a long time I didn’t understand why Hank and Jo came. I didn’t feel then that my MA was worth anyone’s 12 hour car drive just to watch me walk across a stage. I hadn’t “done well” in grad school. Lots of things happened that were not pleasant and not fair. I was anxious to get out. I didn’t even let my department keep a copy of my thesis in the department. I was a misfit and was all but thrown out. It was impossible not to buy in — a little bit — to their assessment of me. But the day of the ceremony, Hank and Jo were there and went with my mom and Aunt Martha. They yelled “Yee–HA!” as I crossed the stage. Not all that long ago, maybe 7 or 8 years ago, Hank explained to me that he was so proud of me and what I had accomplished. He said, “I never wanted to tell you, honey, because I don’t want you to be ashamed of me, but I didn’t finish high school. Your Aunt Jo and I are very proud of you. We wouldn’t have missed your big day.”

Sometime after — the following summer — my mom (who still lived in Denver) went up to spend a couple weeks with her family in Montana. I went up to spend 4th of July weekend. Back then, people smoked on planes and it was a nightmare for someone like me who is sensitive to cigarette smoke. I got off the plane miserable to be miserable some more with my mom’s cigarettes, but… We went to Fort Smith, near the Little Bighorn River, the Yellowtail Dam where Hank and Jo had a trailer they used for a summer cabin. Down the “road” were tee-pees set up for the same purpose by some Crow Indians. Though this would sound exotic to many people it was normal for us. Hank still had a boat and still liked to fish, but the really large trout that appeared before the dam could be caught only by the Crow.

It was lovely being there. We drove around (new pick up truck, a Chevy, copper colored and white) and looked for rocks, picked wild-plums and chokecherries and then, one evening, Hank said to me, “Get your Aunt Jo’s clubs. I’m going to teach you to play golf.”

The golf course at Fort Smith was all rough. The greens were cut a little closer and some were gravel. The 7th hole was not played because it has a rattlesnake nest. Hank showed me how to hold a club, how to lean over the ball, how to hit. He did not know — and I did not know either — that my years of playing baseball were about to play off in a big way. I’d spent MANY summers staring at the moving wonder of a speeding white ball hurtling at me and then hitting it. I very seldom missed. There was a connection there that had not become conscious (but was about to). I leaned over the golf ball and prepared to make my first drive. “Don’t be nervous,” he said. “You’ll do OK.”<

I lifted back my club (years of field hockey made my swing a little odd) and took a swing, and drove the ball EXACTLY where it was supposed to go. I ended up my first hole a stroke under-par with NO handicap. This happened over and over. It was the same as baseball. It was the whole world vanishing in the moment of hitting a small white sphere. By the time we got to the 6th hole, my Uncle Hank was mad. I was ahead something like nine strokes. We walked toward the hole, Hank suddenly said, “It’s too dark to play.” He grabbed Aunt Jo’s clubs, turned around and headed home.

He went inside, fixed himself some coffee and disappeared. Jo and I sat on the porch looking for Sputnik.

In the year after my mother died (1996), and while my Aunt Martha was living in Billings (until 2008) I spent holidays and some of summer in Montana. Hank told me a lot of stories. He told me his and Jo’s love story, about Christmas Eve and running five miles to keep his promise to be with her before midnight that night. I am happy to have heard them. I love their love story. I think it’s romantic and sweet and the way it worked out is inspiring. But as Jo said, the thing that made it work is that Hank respected her and admired her; they were real partners and had what it took to stick it out in hard times.

His obituary didn’t tell his story. It didn’t tell of him being stationed on an island in the Pacific that supplied the men fighting Guadalcanal; it doesn’t tell about his dengue fever or the kid sitting near him watching a movie outside who’d chosen to sit on a bomb that blew up, killing him. It doesn’t show him as the handsome escort to Aunt Jo when she was Worthy Matron at Eastern Star. It doesn’t show him coming home from work on a Friday night loaded up with Shasta sodas. It doesn’t show him and Uncle Bob cutting the grass in grandma’s pasture using push mowers, or the day he had to kill at least a dozen bunnies who’d gotten out of the hutch and were trampled by the horses. It doesn’t show him running around that dirt paddock with a shovel, crying and banging in their heads. There was nothing else to do, still, it was a horror. It doesn’t show him carrying my dad into a movie theater to watch the last movie my dad ever watched that wasn’t on TV. It doesn’t tell of his great love for Jo, or how he grabbed and snuggled her when he came home for lunch from the auto mechanic job. It doesn’t tell how the smells of a garage still make me happy because they remind me of Hank. It doesn’t show him in the garage trying to teach his boys to build a bird house — Cub Scout project. It doesn’t show him standing on a dirt crossroads with my dad and Uncle Bob surrounded by little kids — me, my brother, David, Greg, Paul and Tom. Hank, my dad and Stocky (Uncle Bob) had driven to Sheridan, Wyoming, to buy real fire-crackers, illegal in Montana. They wanted us to have the fun of firecrackers. None of us thought they were that great, but those three young men — all in their 30‘s — were beautiful in their white t-shirts, their khaki pants, their Lucky Strikes.

The obituary didn’t tell about the last time I saw my cousin Greg. It was winter and snowy. The family was sitting in Jo’s living room, the women in what seemed to be gigantic and hideous Christmas sweatshirts, all arguing about what they would each do if they had a million dollars. Greg and I were going nuts. He had a book — Thomas Carlyle — that had belonged to our grandfather Beall. I love Carlyle and was very happy to know my grandfather — who died when I was 5 — had loved Carlyle too. I said to Greg, “You want to go see the hawks?” The vet who had his office behind my aunt and uncle’s house kept wounded wild birds in cages and used them to teach kids not to shoot them. Many were returned to the wild. There were often bald eagles and sometimes owls. At that moment, there was a snowy owl with some rapidly-growing chicks. “Where?” asked Greg. He didn’t know! So we got up, put on our coats, and went across the snowy pasture in which we’d played as kids. We both remarked on Grandma’s old house, the trees had grown, some other random and passing memories. We got to the hawks and were still talking when I looked up and here was Uncle Hank trudging out to join us. He didn’t see well and it worried me, so I went back to give him a hand. The three of us stood in the snow a long time and talked. I cannot think of many things in my life — a life that’s been filled with beauty — more lovely than those moments. My cousin Greg died soon after of self-destruction; the same illness that took my brother.

The obituary written for Hank in the paper didn’t show Hank riding around with me in his twenty-year old (1980s) Dodge (Mitsubishi) truck, Little Red, shopping for Christmas presents for Aunt Jo, or pushing a cart in Target, both of us laughing at gargantuan red bras and saying, “What about?” (I can say that; I’ve inherited Aunt Jo’s physique.) It doesn’t show us goofing at the supper table and making Jo mad. Sometimes, if Hank laughed too hard, she’d send him outside. It doesn’t show us on long rides out of town imagining a farm I would buy, one with a small house and slightly larger barn and a painted horse. It doesn’t show driving to see the Christmas lights at the zoo and on to Laurel where they still have — and use — the decorations that they had when I was a kid in the ’50’s. It doesn’t show him standing by the baggage carousel at the airport, leaning on his cane — his horse — with Aunt Jo, waiting for me.

The obituary didn’t show us helping each other rehab — him from a stroke, me from hip surgery — taking walks with our matching canes. Hank would tell me stories and ask if he got the facts right. We talked for hours rebuilding and reawakening his memories. He liked the books I gave him and we had lots of chances to talk about Barbara Tuchman’s writing which we both loved.

And, it doesn’t show the hard things he overcame. Life hit him with hard things; no mom, his oldest son was gay, his second son married a Japanese girl. For me — and many of my generation — these would be nothing, but for my uncle, from his moment and place in time, they were almost unbearable, but he did more than bear them. He overcame them and as much as he was able, he accepted his gay son. He adored his granddaughters and their children.

He ended his life friends with the world and his fate. We do look at the older generation for lessons and the real ones we get are not from what they do right or what comes easy for them; certainly they seldom come from what they tell us; the real lessons come from keeping our eyes open and seeing how they struggle and overcome life’s puzzling, personal challenges.

Last time I was in Montana was July 2010. I drove up the route we took in 1957 and I stopped in Wheatland and Chugwater knowing that I may never pass that way again. My dog, Cody, a Siberian husky, traveled with me. Cody was a special dog and he really took to Hank — and Hank to him. When the time came for me to head back to San Diego (actually 3 years ago to the day Hank died — Hank died on July 30, 2013; I last saw him July 30, 2010) I put Cody in the back seat of my red Focus and opened the garage door. Hank came out and said, “I want to say goodbye to my pal.” He opened the door, leaned into my car, gave my big dog a hug and said, “It was nice knowing you, buddy.” I was pretty teared up. I gave Hank a hug and told him I loved him and backed out of the garage. He stood in front of the garage door and saluted us as we drove away and that’s the last sight I had of my very precious Uncle Hank.

Cody O’Dog died the following April and I wondered if he hadn’t gone to keep Hank company.
Cody O'Dog

Cody O’Dog


Pi and Pie

Writing Challenge Pie Food evokes all the senses: the scent of pastry baking, the sound of a fork clinking on a plate… This week, make our mouths water with stories about pie.

When my dad was busy, and I was hanging out with him, he would sometimes say, “Honey, here. Go divide π.” I thought he was seriously interested in the answer, and I did the best I could, though, sadly, I never got the same answer twice, adding dimensions of irrationality to an already irrational number.

As for pie, my grandmother made apple pie from the apples growing on her trees; cherry as well, though most often she “put up” the cherries and used them in pies later. She made gooseberry pie from the gooseberries growing behind my aunt’s incinerator. Many WordPress readers won’t know what that is. We used to burn paper trash in our backyards. It caused air pollution, so the practice was banned. Good thing, too, because we have infinite space in landfills…


My grandmother made pie from scratch and from memory and from Crisco and flour. I am sure in the old days she made the crust from lard rendered from their own pigs.


One day I came in from playing outside in the pasture. I had a milkweed pod in my hand. I asked my grandma for a glass so I could pour the milk from the milkweed stem into the glass and drink it. She laughed. Wiped her hands on her apron. Took the milkweed out of my hand. Threw it in the trash. Told me to wash up because I was going to help her. She lifted me on a chair, put a handful of pie crust dough in front of me and set me to work making the sugar pie. For those who might not be familiar with this wonderful thing, it’s remnants of pie dough rolled out flat. On one side you sprinkle sugar and cinnamon, then you fold it over so it looks like a taco shell or an omelet. You can sprinkle more sugar and cinnamon on top if you want. It goes into the oven with the pie.

In her day, the little house above had green asbestos shingles and a front porch that ran the width of the house. There were turned pillars to hold up the roof. Her sons-in-law kept up the place for “Mom” and had even been the ones to add the indoor toilet in the old-time bathroom. Everything about those days has achieved the golden-rose glow of time.

My grandmother made the best pie I’ve ever eaten. I know I have never tasted anything like it since. Still, it is hard to know so many years later if it was the pie or whether it was the light coming into her Montana kitchen window and dancing from her eyes, my grandmother’s particular magic.


Fred’s Saga

Daily Prompt Second-Hand Stories What’s the best story someone else has recently told you (in person, preferably)? Share it with us, and feel free to embellish — that’s how good stories become great, after all.

NOT Recently, but it’s a good story!

My grandmother drove the school bus on weekdays. On Sundays she drove it around the the fields and farms near the southern Montana town of Hardin picking up people for church. As for the school bus, it was a large wagon with a eight wide seats on each side, a top and roll-down windows. It was hauled by two large horses, one of whom was named Fred. The other? I never knew his name. To my knowledge he never did anything remarkable, but Fred?

I had no idea how large Fred and the other horse were until I saw a photo of my grandmother filling a cistern at the well while Fred and his yoke mate patiently waited their turn to haul that heavy thing home. My grandmother’s head does not even come up to Fred’s shoulder. True, she wasn’t a tall woman — probably topped out at 5’2″. Still…


The family got up early, hitched the horses (the older boys’ job) and dressed for church. Starting in Hardin and ending at Crow Agency (where the Baptist church was) they picked up all the church members and took them to hear Reverend Bentley preach. Afterward, handshakes and thank you, Preacher, they all got back into the wagon. They drove their route backward and then, as they were crossing a bridge over the big irrigation ditch, Fred keeled over and fell, unhitching himself, landing in the ditch.

My grandfather got down from the wagon with his two sons, Tummy and David, and climbed carefully down the ditch bank to see what had happened with Fred. A tragedy, actually, for their livelihood, not just for Fred. Fred was dead.

The little kids went wild. They were too young to grasp the seriousness of the situation they were in, and they only saw a Bible conundrum playing out in front of them. Here it was, Sunday. On Sunday they were not allowed to do anything except absolutely necessary chores. No reading other than the Bible, no singing, no playing, nothing. It was the Lord’s day and would be honored as such. But here was a real, live Bible story in front of them and they recognized it. They’d been through enough hair-splitting debates on the Gospel to wonder, was a horse in the ditch the same as an *ox in a pit?

* Luke 14 And it came to pass, as he went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the sabbath day, that they watched him. And, behold, there was a certain man before him which had the dropsy. And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day? And they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go; And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day? And they could not answer him again to these things.



I think my Aunt Martha always knew where the arrowhead was going, but she never let on. Then, toward the end, when all the aunts had read the will, they knew. One afternoon my Aunt Jo said, “Come here, Martha Ann. I have something for you. Martha left you the arrowhead.”

The will says my Aunt Martha left it to me because my name is Martha, too. I’m not sure that was all, though. I think it was more.

I was only five when my grandfather died, but we’d had one experience together, anyway. When I was one or two, my parents took me to Montana to meet him. He liked me a lot and bundled me up and took me out in the cold to visit all his friends up and down Foster Lane.  Of course, I got pneumonia and ended up in the hospital in Billings, St. V’s, just like Hemingway in the “Gambler, the Nun and the Radio.”

I grew up loving books and thinkers. One of those I loved when I was an undergraduate was Thomas Carlyle. Time passed, my interests grew and diverged, and then I “met” Goethe. I read everything I found, and thought about all of it. I had not “met” a mind like his (was there ever a mind like his?) and felt I’d met a “friend.” One day in the university library I happened on the correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle. Of course I checked it out. I read it from cover to cover that night, very moved. Carlyle was young; Goethe was old. Carlyle had promise, intelligence, talent — but a darkness running through his character. Goethe recognized all of this and wrote the letters Carlyle really needed as a young human being, as a thinker and as a writer. I saw in their friendship a reflection of my “friendship” with Goethe. These were letters he might have written to me. I did not know of my grandfather’s love for Carlyle at that point. I learned of it that Christmas when my cousin Greg handed me a well thumbed, well-loved book of Carlyle’s essays that had belonged to my grandfather.

Perhaps my grandfather and I would have been friends. Maybe we would have had many things in common. Maybe we would have walked the fields north of Hardin and talked about ideas. Genealogy says we all resemble our grandparents more than we do our parents. I see my mother’s mother in my appearance. But what of this unknown man? All I know is this arrowhead and that my beloved Aunt Martha treasured it above everything else she owned.

Gifts for Teachers

IMG_0254My mom was an elementary school teacher. Her first teaching experiences were at Warman School on the Crow Indian Reservation. Over the years she taught in a couple other one room schools and then moved into the town of Hardin where she taught for a while. After she married, she taught at Englewood Elementary in Englewood, Colorado. Her favorite grade to teach was third grade.

A month or so before I was born (in between semesters) she resigned. I think she liked teaching, and one reason I think this is because she saved these beautiful handkerchiefs given to her by her students.

Cliffhanger Part 1/Weekly Writing Challenge

“Mrs. Beall? Mrs. Beall?”

A man stood at the back door with a flashlight.

“Mr. Faye. What is it?”

“An earthquake. You probably felt it.”

“My Lord! That’s what that was!” The old woman wrapped her arm more tightly around the little boy beside her. “I’m sorry, Kirk. I shouldn’t have swatted you like that.”

The little boy was too sleepy to care. He stood with his thumb in his mouth looking up at Mr. Faye.


“Hush now. Mr. Faye is talking to me.”

“We know your kids are up at The Park. Do you know where?”

“Not rightly, no.”

“Do you think they were — are — camping at Hebgen Lake?”

“No, not usually. They like Fishing Bridge.”


The old woman now clung to the little boy as if he were a life preserver in a tossing sea.


“What happened, Mr. Faye?”

“The earthquake was centered in Yellowstone. They don’t yet know much about it, only where it hit.”

“My Lord,” she said.

“Do you want me to stay here with you, Mrs. Beall? Until you hear from the kids?”

The old woman held the little boy even closer.

“I’ll be fine, Mr. Faye. Thank you kindly for coming to tell me.”

“Call me when you hear from them?”

“I will, sir, I will.”

“All right, Mrs. Beall.”

Mr. Faye walked back out into the August night.



Putting a Good Face on It: Daily Prompt

Daily Prompt: Happy Happy Joy Joy: What does “happiness” look like to you?

Happiness is a burden laid on the spirit of modern humanity — those living in prosperous countries, anyway, you know, the lucky ones who get to think about “happiness” rather than how to feed their kids or where the bullets are coming from.



People worry about happiness and wonder why they’re not happy and wonder why others are and they aren’t but…

Happiness is a choice. I learned this when I was a little kid. My mom and dad (mom hadn’t gone over to the dark side, yet) went to Hawaii for almost four months when I was 7 and my little brother was 5. My dad was doing research for the government. My brother and I went to live with my Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank in Montana. It was hard for me because I was very attached to my parents and there I was with two older (mean!) boy cousins. One day was awful. I was thrown out of the tree fort (not literally or I wouldn’t be writing this) my Tiny Tears doll was used as a football, my brother hit me in the head with a hammer (again, not hard). I just wanted to go home. At supper I just started to cry which is NOT something kids did in Montana in 1959.

“What’r you crying about?”

“David won’t let me in the tree fort, they used my doll for a football and Kirk hit me in the head with a hammer.”

“Are you hurt anywhere?”


“Well, then quit yer cryin’.”

I did. I swallowed those tears, but I thought these people were inhuman and I felt more alienated than ever. After my aunt finished washing the dishes, she found me and said, “C’mon. We’re going to go count our blessings. I do it every day after I wash up.”

We went to the front porch and sat down. She said, “OK tell me one good thing.”


“Like this. I’m grateful because you and Kirk are here to spend the summer.”

“OK. I’m grateful because …” I didn’t know what to say. I was only 7.

“I know you had a bad day, but did anything good happen?”

Tears were forming but I didn’t dare cry. I nodded.

“OK, honey, what?”

“Well, after Kirk hit me in the head, Greg took me to buy a popsicle.”

“He did?”


“OK. There’s your first blessing. Count it. We have to have five before we can stop. If you have five blessings, you’re a happy person. You need to think of four more.”

I’m a lot older now and I’ve gotten to know my Aunt Jo well. “Into each life a little rain must fall,” they say. I know her life and my life and a lot of other lives by now and there’s rain falling constantly, it seems. Some people are daunted by the rain. Others, like my Aunt Jo (aged 90) remain…uh…happy. She is the second-to-youngest child in a family of ten. They grew up very poor in Depression Era Montana. She worked on ships in the shipyards in Portland during WW II. There’s no way to say she has had an easy life; a lot of things happened to her that were challenging, hard, but she always found something to love, a blessing to count even if, sometimes, it was just that the geraniums she planted from seed came up…

That summer in Montana I learned that while we need to pursue our own happiness we must also BE happy with what we have. A combination of frontier stoicism and counting one’s blessings looks like happiness to me.


“Hole in the Ground” – Memoir

I don’t have kids, but I do have students. Considering that every semester I teach between 150 and 200 students, and I’ve been teaching for (YIKES!) 35 years, that’s, uh, a lot. 6000 students, roughly? (I try not to teach roughly.) This past semester in my upper division writing class, one of the required projects was a memoir. I wasn’t sure of the value of this, to be honest, but my students got behind it 100%. I started off the project by telling stories from my life (which, they say, has been interesting so far). Along with the stories I told them, there were three examples in their workbook. One was mine, there was Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” and Langston Hughes’ “Salvation.” They liked all of them. This set the bar for them; nothing mysterious; just tell your tale.

Somehow, probably for catharsis and because they think sad experiences are more meaningful than happy ones, people feel that the sorrow of their life MUST be told. I read some harrowing stories.  My students and their memoirs dwelled on the hard stuff from their lives. The stories ranged from being with their grandmother when she died of cancer to losing faith in the military after two stints of active duty in Iraq…

There really were very few happy stories. I thought of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the woman about whom I wrote my masters thesis. At one point she was adamant and straight with her contributors, basically saying, “No more elegies, for the love of God!” Her language was more flowery than mine. She said, “Feelings of grief are universal and a well-established theme for poetry, but we could not publish all of them lest we make our magazine a repository of sorrow, only.” One story, however was, for me, very happy in the experience of watching one student writer learn what it really means to write.

This student wrote about his friend’s suicide, but his first draft was about as powerful as the prose on the back of a toothpaste tube. I chided the student, “Really? That’s it? That’s how it was? Dude, this is a C.”

“How can I get an A?”

“SAY something. What was it LIKE for you! I’m sorry, but this is just boring.”


“Yeah. I wasn’t there. I’m sure it was awful for you, but you haven’t told me anything about that. How would you like to be me and have to read a hundred boring sad stories?” I grinned. He cracked up.

“I guess that’s kind of what your life’s like, huh, Professor?”

That weekend he sat down and tried to remember how he felt when he learned his friend had jumped off a bridge. He wrote it. He couldn’t even wait for class for me to read it; he emailed it to me he was so excited.”It was amazing. I just sat down and thought about it. I tried to remember everything I could about that night and then, bam! It was incredible! I felt all of it again. I could see everything.” He wrote WELL. I was a very happy writing teacher because that’s what it means to write. Not some academic formula that gets a grade, REAL writing is the expression of the human soul across time. He went from looking at writing as an obnoxious but necessary task to looking at writing as an experience and a process through which he could better understand life.

It’s not easy to write a good memoir, but my grandfather succeeded. He was born on a farm in 1870 near Keokuk, Iowa, and “only” finished the third grade. That’s not to be mistaken with his being poorly educated, because he wasn’t. He was — for any time — extraordinarily literate. Around the end of WW I, he took his then little family to settle in Montana. I was lucky to inherit two of his books; Les Miserables and a history book, Queen of Republics. I believe he was also either somewhat sadistic or had a dark sense of humor. His custom was to open the cold, dark month of December (the family was very large and very poor, living on the high plains of Montana in the 1930’s) with Whittier’s “Snowbound” and then take the family through their frugal Christmas with Les Miserables. I can imagine them saying, “You think you have it bad? What about Jean Val Jean?” and having disputes about the ethics of stealing to feed your family.

Along with two books I have two things he wrote; one a memoir. It’s one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

“Between my place and town there is a hole in the ground. A long time ago I noticed some boys digging. I stopped and looked. A small hole. They built a fire and I furnished the marshmallows. We roasted them and then they forgot the hole in the ground. Some played marbles and some flew their kites, but the next spring a new bunch of boys enlarged the hole, built a fire, I furnished the marshmallows and by then it was time to play marbles and fly their kites so year after year a new bunch of boys would enlarge the hole and finally we organized a club. We named it the hole in the ground. I was too old to dig so they elected me an honorary member with the title “Dad.” Every spring a new bunch of boys dig until the hole is big enough for a basement and then came Pearl Harbor. I would go to the depot to see the boys leave. Just boys they shout, ‘Bye Dad’.”
S. A. Beall, Hardin, Montana, 1941

Grandpa Beall Calf