On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

From Norway to Vicksburg and the Long Road Home

From Norway to Vicksburg and the Long Road Home

    He was thirteen when he traveled with his family from Etne, Norway, to the verdant prairie land of central Iowa.  The year was 1855, and Severt Tesdel felt an immediate kinship with this seamless vista, so different from the picturesque hills where his father had scratched out a living.  That little farm remained as his sole knowledge of Norway, never even visiting Oslo, the capital.  The Iowa prairie must have seemed like the whole world with all its possibilities stretching out before him.  But soon after their arrival, his mother died, and the five children had to take on many responsibilities.  Severt helped work the land with his father, a task he welcomed.  Soon, though, he hired out as a farm hand to a neighbor. The family liked the intelligent, hardworking young man, who picked up their English handily, and they taught him to read and write in this new language.  Each Sunday, Severt traveled by horse to the Norwegian Lutheran church and afterward spent the day with his own family.  His devotion to the church became a lifelong practice.  Within five years, the boy had become a man with his own land, purchased with his earnings.
    Then war broke out; Severt heard the call to arms, and at the age of twenty, he joined the 23rd Iowa Volunteers, Company A.  He loved his new country and believed in the Union.  The danger was great, the odds of survival were poor, but it seemed the right thing to do.  And so his odyssey began in September, 1862.
    The company trekked to the Mississippi River, boarding a steamboat to St. Louis, where they spent some time carrying wounded soldiers taken off boats to hospitals.  Severt comments in a letter: “It was a gruesome sight to see those poor fellows.”  Their orders were to stay in the vicinity until the ten regiments there were joined by thirty or forty more, the troops massing for the eventual assault on certain Mississippi strongholds, including Vicksburg.  He describes several skirmishes around Camp Patterson during the winter months; it would be a slow and perilous march with the troops at last boarding another steamboat for New Madrid.
    All spring they marched and fought their way toward their target, Vicksburg. “I am still well,” Severt writes, “for which I thank God,” a prayer he expresses several times in his letters. Many around him, including all the Norwegians from his company, had taken ill, some dying.  On the way, they engaged the enemy in a hard fought battle, taking 5000 prisoners and escorting them to Memphis before returning to Mississippi.
    By now, it was early July, 1863, and the Battle of Vicksburg had begun.  Grant’s army had surrounded the city, bombed the redoubts with cannon, assisted by gunboats, and even charged forward with bayonets.  Now the plans, Severt writes, were to starve out the Rebels, “because it is almost impossible to conquer them in battle.”  The night of July 3, Severt was part of a tunneling group that was spotted by the enemy, who had themselves tunneled in the hope of blowing up the Union soldiers.  Their efforts to bomb them failed, and both tunnels were abandoned.  The next day, July 4, Vicksburg surrendered, with 27,000 being taken prisoner.
    Then for the next year or more, Severt writes of their movements along the Gulf coast, from Mobile to Matagorda Island in Texas, where they picked up a Norwegian prisoner, whose wife’s brother-in-law was a neighbor of Severt’s in Iowa.  “Brothers fighting brothers,” he laments.  Finally he was mustered out in September, 1865, after spending three full years fighting.  Of  the 58 men in A Company who had left together in 1862, only five returned.  For his war efforts, he got no medal, but instead won his citizenship, a prize infinitely more valuable to him.
    He resumed the life of a farmer, having sent his pay home regularly to his father with instructions to buy cattle and horses in preparation for his eventual return.  Ultimately, he acquired more land, amounting to 1000 acres, as well as a wife, the strong and handsome Ingaborg Lie.  They reared six children, including my grandmother, who found herself through her mother’s line to be the second cousin of Chief Justice Earl Warren, another Norwegian.  She herself married--who else--a Norwegian farmer, Cyrus Sydnes.
    Severt never forgot Norway, the land of his birth, treasuring his memories like a small jewel in an old fashioned setting, brought out occasionally to admire.  His new country, however, had captured his allegiance, and as a small businessman, he preferred the Republican Party.  In 1913, along with the other early emigrants still living, Severt was honored by the Governor as one of the Original Pioneers of Iowa.  He died in 1920, respected and successful.
    His story is not unique, not even out of the ordinary, but it should not be forgotten.  It is stories like Severt Tesdel’s that make up the fiber of our nation, so diverse, yet one.  Courage, devotion to family and God, resilience, and industriousness define his character.  I am proud to claim him as my great-grandfather.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

I Was a Model for King Features "Why Grow Old" Column

(This account is an accurate depiction of my time spent modeling for a King Features Syndicate column with only some names changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)
            The studio was not glamorous, consisting of a large room, empty except for photographic paraphernalia concentrated in an area with different flooring and a plain backdrop.  I was told to change my clothes in what had obviously been designed as an office—without windows, also empty except for a chair and a distorting full-length mirror.
            It was my first “shoot” for a syndicated column at the Des Moines Register and Tribune where I was working in Advertising. (see previous post, "The Newspaper Game").  I had graduated from high school in January 1955 and needed a job until I would start college that fall.  Working at a newspaper for someone planning on being an English major was a boon I’d never expected, even a lowly job as a classified advertising clerk.  Then out of the blue I had been offered an extra job as a model by a young man who worked in Features and Promotions.  I’ll call him Howard Last.  In our initial conversation, which was in the elevator as I was returning from running an errand to Editorial for my boss, he suddenly addressed me with the offer.  I’d seen him before, staring fixedly at me, and was quite put off by his presence.
“I’ve noticed you around here.  It struck me that you might be interested in modeling for pictures that illustrate a nationwide syndicated health and beauty aids column.  My last model didn’t work out, and I need someone with your looks.”
I was taken aback by his words, but didn’t completely lose my cool, asking him questions as we briefly discussed the work.        
“Well, it’s a longstanding column called ‘Why Grow Old’ by Josephine Lowman.”  He grinned suddenly, looking less intimidating.  “I have a feeling there’s no such person anymore.  Just other people writing the column to keep the name alive.”
            “How could I pose for you?” I asked, still not sure.  “I can’t take time away from my job.”  We had gotten off the elevator and were standing in the main lobby adjacent the Advertising Department doors.
            “We could set up weekly shots either after work or on Saturday.  Most would take place at Younkers Store for Homes since the copy has to do with housewife stuff.”
            Well, that was reassuring—naming the foremost department store in Des Moines and its seventh-floor simulated apartment, which consisted of living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, all furnished with lovely furnishings supplied by the store.  I’d been there on numerous occasions with my mother and friends.
            Since I hadn’t immediately agreed, Howard went on, “This modeling pays three dollars an hour.”
            Gosh!  I was bowled over.  That was nearly three times what I was currently making.  I immediately agreed.  This would help the college fund immeasurably.
            “Good.  I’ll call you before you leave work tonight and we’ll set up a time.”
            I sailed back to my work area, heady with delight and near disbelief as well.  I said nothing to my co-workers that day, especially to my wise-cracking supervisor, Shirley Shaw, even though I knew her to be a kind and sympathetic person.  I seemed to have an embarrassment of riches and didn’t want anyone to think I was conceited about the modeling; still, Howard’s comment about the work being “housewife stuff” assured me it would not be glamorous duty.
            That evening at home I told my mother about the new job, and I got the expected reaction.  “This won’t take away from your regular work, will it?”  Mother was always slow to congratulate me or even give a compliment, always fearful I’d get a swelled head.  She also laughed at the idea of me, an eighteen-year-old, acting the part of a housewife.  "You don't exactly look the part."
            My best friend, Bette, was thrilled for me, however, making me promise to tell her all about it.  “What an adventure!” she exclaimed.
            “I don’t know about that, but it will be interesting.  The first shoot will be Saturday afternoon, and I’m to wear something that looks like a house dress.”
            We discussed which of my more simple cotton dresses would fit the bill, and I hung up the phone, feeling some satisfaction in getting approval for the unexpected stint.
            Thus I began my work by changing my clothes that Saturday in the makeshift dressing room at the newspaper.  Howard had already set up his equipment at Younkers, waiting for me in the fifth-floor studio to drive me over to the store.  We went to the parking garage and into a company car, saying very little.  I remember thinking how gauche I felt and how un-smooth was Howard’s style.  He was the epitome of a man with a camera, operating alone and rather silently with his face hidden from view.  But I didn’t care, only hoping I would not spoil the shot somehow, as we entered the Store for Homes and I took up my position in the ersatz living room.  Howard gave me a dust cloth, telling me to look disgusted with the housework before me.  That was not hard to do as I hated housework myself as my mother could attest.  Come to find out, my expression was supposed to be that of a housewife doomed to frustration because of her insistence on perfection.  Relax—was the message!
            I would never have remembered the point of my pose since neither I nor my mother cut out the articles with my picture; however, my sister saw it in the Pittsburgh paper and sent me the clipping.  Later on, my aunt, who lived in Rockford, Illinois, also sent me a clipping of another article I posed for.  Howard had been correct in telling me it was a nationwide syndicate, and I felt rather humble representing a venerable, wide-spread column.
            I don’t know for sure how many columns I posed for, but Howard gave me most of the glossies.  I was happy he did so, since I knew it would be the only proof I’d ever have of my one really fun job.  
            Oddly enough, the following summer, needing a summer job, I reapplied at the newspaper and got my old clerking position back.  Howard spotted me walking through the lobby midway through the summer, and he repeated his modeling offer for the remaining weeks.  Again, he was short of a model, he said, and would like to put me to work.  Always eager to earn money as I was paying my own way through college, I was please to accept.  Midway through the summer, Howard surprised me again by asking if I’d do a swimming suit spread for the Sunday Register’s Women's section.  In that day and time, swimming suits were extremely modest and completely covered the feminine torso, and I had no qualms about accepting the work.  I wore four different suits, posing in the studio with props like a beach ball and hat supplied by Howard.
            Despite all my modeling, it didn’t turn my head, as my mother probably imagined it would, and I went off to college again without a backward glance, never again to do photographic modeling but in short order to be the ordinary housewife I was supposed to depict.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

EYE OF THE SUN: A Judge Godbold Mystery (Book 1)

He stood in a small clearing in front of his easel.  Water was nearby, a fast moving stream that cut through bluffs of limestone.  He liked water, the stream, the pond, the waterfall.  Its movement and changing colors excited him.  The sun, low in the northwestern sky, struck full across the side of the bluff and outlined its surface.  As always, he seemed to see a face made by the shadows outlined in the rock.  Sometimes he thought it was the spirit of the woods, sometimes his own face.  Now from the corner of his eye he noticed a quiet, darting movement among the harboring trees.  He turned to look, but it was gone.  Nothing.  
Painting like this, in these hills, he felt more strongly than ever his keen pleasure when as a youngster he ran among these woods.  Sometimes, even then, he stopped to draw on the tablet his sister had bought him.  Life had been good then.  He remembered a dog they had–Blondie.  Not his dog, though she ran with him.  Sister’s dog.  Both were gone now, many years, he thought.  Poor Agnes.  She was older, so she had to take him and move to Nashville after Mama died.  She wrote things, little Bible stories for the man who paid her money.  Then she died and he went to The Place.  He didn’t draw or paint for a while.  How long?  He couldn’t remember. 

They let him go finally, and he got his check once a month so he could buy his paints and canvases.  Sometimes he’d go by the shelter where the people there would buy him canvases.  He needed more and more canvases so he could go to the park in Nashville and paint.  There, he felt more at home.  Then he found out buses came near here, and he could walk the miles into the hills with his box of paints.  He brought along cans of beans and a pan to heat them in.  Apples, too.  Crackers.  He liked crackers to munch, and a candy bar or two.  When he ran out of food and canvas he went home again to the old downtown hotel where they gave him a room that didn’t cost much.  But there was a store here, and he thought he might dare to buy food now.  He didn’t want to leave again except to go to Nashville and get his check so he could buy more paint and brushes and canvases. 
He could barely remember his days in the old house not too far away in the little town, or his mother.  He searched for the memory of that feeling when he could run and see with the happy eyes of a child.  Mostly he got the feeling when he stood alone and watched his hand make the picture that was in his head.  The colors he saw inside of him stood out the most; all the people and trees and lumps of hills and pooling waters were soft, bright colors that belonged to him.
He wiped the brush and stepped back to see his work.  The  palette knife now, for the water.  He liked it quiet, not noisy like the city.  But the silence of these woods was not silent at all.  He had again grown used to the small sounds around him and overhead‑‑rabbits, woodchuck, squirrels, birds.  He had made no friends among the creatures of the woods; he also kept away from the few people he saw in the woods.  Sometimes he put the people in his paintings if he was sure they hadn’t seen him.  He needed no one, no living thing except those few creatures, human or animal, he happened upon and could use in his paintings.
Footfalls came from somewhere beyond the clearing and blended with other rustlings.  He would pay no mind to the sound, he decided, but still they intruded.  Then he felt a creeping of the skin along his spine, a danger signal, not the first time he had had to take cover.  He turned his head for a glance.  But no, the figure coming nearer was a familiar one, safe, would leave him be.  He turned back to his painting.  The soft steps through deep wild grasses grew closer.

He couldn’t quite fix what happened when the blow came, the sensation of being struck hard, and again.  Rock met bone, and a scream, his protest at extinction, arose in his head and died in his throat as the light faded.

The person beside him watched him fall like a log onto the earth.  Blood seeped from the wounds, pooling and then mingling with the dry grasses under his head.   It took no longer than a few seconds to walk to a nearby sinkhole hidden by a large hawthorn bush and toss in the bloody rock to endless depths.
Now to drag the body out of the clearing.  It was too large to go into the hole, but the bush would cover it.  The paintings and paint things were stuffed in the cardboard box and hoisted up onto a strong shoulder.  Then the figure with its awkward burden set off and soon disappeared among the trees and underbrush.

Chapter 1

The old Mercedes tooled along the nearly empty highway at a moderate speed, rounding curves solidly, slowing down occasionally as the driver glanced around here and there to examine the countryside.  She’d left the interstate thirty minutes ago, traveling on the two-lane highway that led her closer to the village of Barton.  It had been many years since Judge Penelope “Baby” Godbold had been in the remote foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains.  She and Dan had gone to a concert at the University of the South–how long ago had it been?  At least fifteen years.  And now she was making this trip, fulfilling some need that had been building since Dan’s death almost two years ago.  Funny how even her job had paled without him to discuss legal points and their respective cases.  With his practice in civil defense litigation and her work in Chancery, they ran into many of the same issues.  It was mainly because of the bleakness that now overhung her life, the emptiness that yawned before her, that she’d decided to retire much earlier than she’d planned.  Life must hold more for her, and she was determined to seek out new adventures.  Thus, this trip to the hinterlands of Tennessee.  And she couldn’t have picked a more beautiful time for a trip to Barton.

The early April weather was always changeable in this part of the country, as if teasing the locals into believing spring had arrived.  But even though the day had been mild when she left Nashville, and March had gone out like a lamb, spring was not necessarily around the corner, especially in the hill country.  Of course, many of the trees had begun to sprout leaves, showing off their delicious new green colors, and some of the flowering ones like the dogwood and redbud were starting to bud out, giving the roadside a more decorative look.  Backing the smaller trees were the conifers, huge and dense, and beyond them were what seemed to be virgin forest.  But that wasn’t possible.  Baby knew the land had been settled and, if not developed around tiny hamlets, was owned by timber companies with the trees routinely harvested and the strips, obviously, replanted.
The swelling hills she traveled over were like stepping stones across the deep gorges that cut into the land, a wild and wooly landscape to her eyes.  She was more accustomed to the gentler slopes of the Nashville basin where the land undulated with the geosynclines that swept across middle Tennessee.  These were formed during the subsidence of the inland sea from an earlier geologic era and had become rich farmland.  Still, Baby appreciated the ever-changing landscape of this very different, rougher country.  She suspected the people would be different, too, from what she was used to, as she believed the land played a role in developing the character of its inhabitants.  She was curious to know how Guy and Marnie were adjusting to living in Barton.  Dan would have been amused to think his citified nephew had actually taken up residence in a rather remote village, commuting to his law practice in Chattanooga.   Unquestionably, this was a very strange sort of place for the both of them!
After passing the mountaintop hamlet of Monteagle, the road straightened out and before her lay the ribbon of highway, rising and sinking here and there but not a curve in sight for miles.  She sped up without thinking, even having to press rather hard on the stiff accelerator to jump the big motor into more revolutions.  It settled into a cruising speed that seemed as easy and comfortable as riding in the gondola of a Ferris wheel.  Then from behind a clump of trees in a lane, she glimpsed from the corner of her eye the distinctive outlines of a patrol car.  The term “crouching” came to mind, but she braked swiftly.  In the rear view mirror a light flashed and she heard the bleep of a siren.

She drove the car onto the narrow shoulder, came to a stop, and turned off the motor.  She began to rummage in her capacious purse for her billfold and then rolled down the window, smiling at the young highway patrolman who seemed to be looking sternly at her from behind his dark glasses.
“Hello, ma’am, did you know you were going eight miles over the speed limit?”
“No, officer, I didn’t.  The road was clear, the day is lovely, and I suppose I felt like flying.  I’m terribly sorry to have gotten carried away.”  She handed him her license.
“Well, even though there’s not much traffic–ah, are you by any chance Judge Godbold?”  He bent toward her and gave her a sharp look.  When she assented, he smiled at her.  “I guess you hadn’t checked your speedometer, and with these big cars and the straightaway, it’s easy to speed a little.”  He handed her back the license.  “Where are you bound for, Judge?”
She told him about going to visit relatives in Barton for the first time, and he nodded.  “You’re only about five miles from the turnoff.  Let me escort you so you won’t miss it.  Watch the speed limit in these parts, y’hear?  We don’t want anything to happen to the famous Judge Godbold.”  He saluted her briefly by touching his cap, turned and went back to his cruiser.  Baby sighed and watched in the rear view mirror until a couple of trucks passed by and then the officer’s car pulled around her.  She followed him as they proceeded down the highway at a stately pace, turning at a well-marked road toward the town of Barton.  The sign invited visitors to the “Historic Barton Restorations.  Houses and Lots For Sale.”  It might prove to be an interesting place to check out, she speculated, but she could only hope she’d not be subjected to yawning boredom.