The Sharpshooter

By Joan T. Zeier

When I was growing up on our Columbia County farm, changes came slowly, if at all. Same landscape, same cycle of seasons, same activities, year after year. Even inside our farmhouse I can visualize the placement of furniture, the exact spot in the pantry where Papa kept the family’s refillable wine bottle, the closet hook where Mama hung her purse—actually everything, always in the same place.

In 1980, sixteen years after Papa died, Mama moved to a nursing home. The farmhouse was unoccupied, but the contents remained in place for at least another fifteen years. During all that time I visited my old homestead often, wandering through the rooms, re-living episodes from my past, some of which now fuel my memoirs. I always entered through the familiar back door, through the shabby lean-to we called the summer kitchen. In spite of its humble construction, the summer kitchen was a well-used room, with its own inventory of artifacts.

Among the most prominent were the guns. Two of them—a .22 rifle standing on its butt behind the door, and Papa’s ancient 12 gauge shotgun, hanging horizontal near the ceiling.

Our farm included woodlands teeming with wildlife, but there were no hunters in our family. Yet the guns were a necessity. There was the occasional varmint digging up the garden or raiding the chicken coop, an animal to be butchered, or even a dog grown old and sick, in need of quick, merciful death. So I remember the guns being there at the ready, although seldom used, from my first childish memory until the house was sold.

We four siblings, far apart in age, were properly taught never to play with them. As a young man my brother Peter perfected his skill with the .22 to the point where he brought home a few plump squirrels one season—but then he was gone, working somewhere. Later, my sister Frances took her turn practicing on tin cans, until she considered herself quite an Annie Oakley.

Another age gap gave the trusty rifle a rest. Edna wasn’t even interested, until she was home on break at the age of twenty, and I, an impetuous 14-year-old, persuaded her to ask the parents to allow the two of us to use the rifle for target practice. (Without Edna’s responsible guidance they would never have consented.) For a while, at least, the tin cans were safe, but as is the way with practice, our aims became more frequently perfect.

courtesy of

courtesy of sweetcapturephotography

Edna went back to college, but I continued to practice.. I loved bringing my “town friends” out for an overnight or weekend and amazing them with my skill with the rifle. Some of them were terrified; others experienced their own personal thrill of the first time with a firearm. And I never failed to follow the rules.

Not even that memorable day in early spring. I had not ventured out with the rifle since fall. I was a year older and more trustworthy now. I had learned all the rules, and kept them. Could I prove myself? Had I retained the learning of the past season? I took the rifle from its place behind the summer kitchen door, fingered a handful of bullets, and slipped one in the chamber. Then, feeling the exhilaration of the season, I walked around the back side of the house, coming out at the east edge of our front yard. It was quiet, except for the annoying chatter of sparrows in the lilac bush next to the driveway.

Annoying pests. No good for anything! Without thinking, I raised the rifle. The lilac bush was just across the lawn—maybe forty feet—a clear shot. This was better than a tin can. I peered down the barrel, adjusted the sight onto the small, round bird and pulled the trigger.

Crack!! The sound surprised me, but even more startling was the sudden flurry of feathers from the lilac branch where the sparrow had perched. The bird had simply disintegrated—and I had done it! I had killed a living creature. I had pulled the trigger thoughtlessly, not really believing that death could happen. My hands shook on the rifle, and I realized I was trembling all over. Although it was only a sparrow, I had no reason to kill it, and this was a feeling I did not want to experience again. I slunk back around the house and into the summer kitchen, put the unused cartridges in their box , and replaced the rifle on its butt behind the door.

I still indulged in target practice with my friends from time to time, but it was with a newfound sense of responsibility. Although I do not criticize my relatives who teach their young teenagers to shoot deer and turkeys—I’m usually happy enough to share in the eating—my own youthful experience has given me an insight that nags me whenever I hear of a teenager shooting another person, often “accidentally.” What thoughts went through that kid’s mind? Was it similar to sticking out a finger and saying “bang?” It was all pretend. Nothing would happen.

Certainly nothing so final as death.

Joan Zeier is a Madison writer, author of two middle-grade novels, numerous published children’s stories, a member of Society of Children’s Book Writers; also a member of Wisconsin Writers Association where she is a four-time winner of the
prestigious Jade Ring Award.

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Scattered Drops of Rain

By Doug Elwell

The little village of Pinhook is a speck almost lost in the boundless patchwork quilt of corn and bean fields that covers the east central Illinois prairie.

In the mid-fifties there was Ike. The boys were back from Korea and the crops looked good—all was right with the world in Pinhook and no one thought it would ever change. It was a thriving village in those days. Saturdays the square was swollen with cars and pick-up trucks. Old men on benches in the park—smoked and chewed—gestured with their hands. Younger men congregated in the barber shop or hardware store or café—some drifted into the pool hall. Women flitted about the square doing their weekly trading. At night, outside bedroom windows soft rustling leaves in the evening breeze lullabied folks into peaceful dreamless sleep—all was right in Pinhook and no one thought it would ever change. But change was afoot. It came in the form of an old Ford sedan with a flat tire and only a handful of Pinhook’s young boys witnessed it.

It was a hot summer morning and the porch swing Harry was lying on was scribing a slow back and forth arc. Its chains creaked in the rusty eyebolts in the ceiling—could barely be heard above the singing of cicadas in the trees. With a pillow propped under his head, he rested binoculars across his chest to watch one shed its skin on the trunk of a silver maple in the yard. Its hands busy trying to drag itself from it. Miss Cora Mae trundled up the steps with her groceries, saw Harry and looked in the direction he was pointing the binoculars, “What you lookin’ at boy?”


Miss Cora Mae shook her head—muttered something and went in. She was in the house when Harry’s family moved in a few years earlier and his folks said Miss Cora Mae just sorta came with it. Poor and widowed, she had no place to go so they kept her on. She was a big part of Harry’s earlier years. When his parents went out, she sat with him. He looked forward to those times when he went to her rooms to play Chinese checkers, page through her old photo albums and usually end with a rousing, stand up and holler songfest of their favorites from the Methodist hymnal. But the highlight of the evening though was her stories. When he was still small enough to sit on her lap, she spun yarns that fired his imagination. His favorites were the ones she told of “darkies” and life in the south. He never tired of Uncle Remus and Little Black Sambo and others that she made up. He wasn’t sure how he knew it, but her stories were just that. He knew they weren’t real. But he loved the tall tales that always ended with a stern warning, “Don’t get too close to them darkies. Ifn you touch one of ‘em, the black will rub off onto you and you’ll never git it off.” She mystified black people for him. Darkies were exotic, of another world he could only see from the outside. Darkies for him were Stepin Fetchit and Butterflly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel and Amos ‘n Andy and Rochester on the radio—just black characters in his white world.

Tanner Clapp streaked down the street on his bike at full speed, jumped the curb in front of the house, dismounted without braking, skittered across the front yard at a dead run and let go of his bike at the same time. It was still tumbling wildly across the yard as he ran up the porch steps—eyes as big as pie pans. Winded from pedaling as hard as he could across town in the July heat, he could barely speak. He pointed frantically toward town and gasped, “Come quick! They’s some darkies in a car out by the Sinclair station.”

“Yeah? You sure they’re darkies?”

“Course I’m sure. I think I know a darkie when I see one—you don’t believe me, come have a looksee for your own self.”

Harry thought about if for a minute and decided he could watch cicadas do their dance of life and death once every seventeen years, but it might be a longer time than that before he would see any darkies in Pinhook, “Let’s go.” They flew off the porch and onto their bikes, mounting them on the run Hopalong Cassidy style. A few minutes later they pulled up next to the Nickel Plate tracks that ran parallel to the highway about fifty yards away. They joined an already assembled gallery of five or six who were perched on the rail like a flock of grackles on a phone line. They figured it to be a safe distance because you never knew what darkies might do if they took a notion. Harry thought at least they would have a pretty fair head start. He and Tanner grabbed a couple pieces of torn cardboard lying near the tracks and put them on the hot rail so they wouldn’t burn their behinds. With elbows on knees and chins resting in cupped palms, they sat there—motionless—stared.

Sure enough, an old Ford sedan with a flat tire sat on the shoulder shimmering in the heat. It was right there next to the Sinclair. A huge darkie in a white, short sleeved dress shirt, un-tucked, and a pair of dark suit pants was leaned into the trunk, rooting around for the spare and a jack. He wore a black straw fedora with a purple band. Harry saw him glance their way as he pulled the spare tire out of the trunk.

There were others in the car. A woman in the front seat fanned herself with a folded up newspaper. Her profile was framed in the open passenger side window. She looked like one of those silhouettes cut from paper by artists at the county fair. Her neck was long and slender. When she turned to look at them, Harry saw her high cheekbones. Her nose was long and straight—slightly flared. Her hair was swept up off the back of her neck—piled on top of her head in fuzzy curls. At eleven, Harry was hardly a reliable arbiter of feminine beauty, yet he could tell even from a distance that she was a pretty woman. A boy about his age stared at them through the back window. He didn’t move during the entire time it took the man to change the tire. He just stared.

Tanner whispered, “What you reckon he’s thinkin’?”

“I dunno.”

“—wonder if he’s lookin’ at us wonderin’ what we’re thinkin’?”


When Harry thought about it, he couldn’t tell whether the show was in the Ford with the flat tire next to the Sinclair or on the Nickel Plate tracks, “—reckon he’s ever seen white folks before?”

“I dunno.” Tanner said.

Harry was fixed on the boy in the car whose stare seemed to be fixed on him. He wondered if he and his friends looked as strange and exotic to him as he did to them. Protected by the interior of that old Ford he didn’t move, just kept staring.

Harry had seen Louie Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Lionel Hampton on the Ed Sullivan Show. But on that summer day those were the first in the flesh darkies he had ever seen. For the first time in his life he had to think about the real people who lived in a world that was unknowable to him. And his world grew that day—would never be as small again.

On the way home he passed Miss Mertie sitting in the shaded recess of her porch fanning herself with a folded newspaper, “Hey Miss Mertie.”

“Mornin’ Harry.”

“Hot one today.”

“I spect you’re right ‘bout that. C’mon up hear and set a spell. I’ll fetch a glass of fresh iced tea and set a piece of pie in front of you if you wish.”


He sat on a metal lawn chair with a pillow for a cushion. Air from the inside of her house wafted through the screen door had the comforting smell of old woman. With a glass of tea in his hand and Miss Mertie settled back in her wicker rocker he told her about the darkies out on the highway by the Sinclair.

“Well I declare—bet that’ll make the Ledger Messenger come Thursday.” They sat quiet except for the clank of Harry’s fork on the dish as he ate his pie. Then Miss Mertie leaned toward him—rested her hand on his forearm, “I’ve knowed Miss Cora Mae all my life and I love her like a sister, but first thing you need to know ‘bout such things Harry is to pay no mind to what she tells you about Negroes. She dismissed Miss Cora Mae on that subject, “—lot of hooey.”

They didn’t know it at the time, but that old Ford sedan with the flat tire out by the Sinclair station was the first few scattered drops of rain from a coming storm that tinked against bedroom window panes while the villagers slept their dreamless sleeps and didn’t hear.

Scattered Drops of Rain



© Doug Elwell, 2009. This is a work of creative non-fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or not, is entirely coincidental.


Click here to read other essays by Doug Elwell published on True Stories Well Told.


Doug Elwell writes short stories and memoir that feature characters, lore and culture of the rural Midwest. His work has occasionally appeared in his home town newspaper, The Oakland Independent, two editions of Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource and Midwestern Gothic. He can be contacted via email at:

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First Monday, First Person salon meets Nov 3rd.

71559675-croppedWhat day is November 3rd? A Monday.

Which Monday is it? The first in the month.

What does that mean? It’s time for the “First Monday, First Person” salon to meet!

Join us from  6pm – 7:45pm, at the Goodman South Madison Branch Library, 2222 S Park St, Madison. Enjoy light refreshments, then share and critique writing in the first person with like-minded people. Readers and listeners equally welcome. Free, thanks to the Friends of the Goodman South Madison Library. Questions? Contact me at or 347-7329.

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It’s a small thing

“It’s open, Mamaw! Halloween Express is open. We have to stop and buy my costume,” exclaimed my five-year old grandson as I navigated the rush hour traffic on Verona Road.

“Stop, Mamaw, stop!” implored my grandson as we drove right past the store and made our way home.

“Gavin, it’s only September 2nd and much too early to buy a costume. Besides, why don’t we make your costume this year?”

“Make one? Nobody makes Halloween costumes!”

“Well I did when I was a kid and so did my sisters and all my friends. Making a costume was half the fun of Halloween.”

“Is this another family story, Mamaw?”

“Yes, Gavin, it is…..

“Here’s an old shirt! With a pair of Mike’s old pants, this will make a great hobo costume”, Maureen announced as she dug through the latest box of old clothes that had been donated to our family.

“Ooh-look at this cool vest. I can be a beatnik”, added Brenda as the rest of us converged on the boxes of outgrown clothes crammed into the corners of the closet in our bedroom.

Those boxes of gently and not-so-gently used clothes, outgrown by our older sisters or donated to our family by cousins and distant relatives, were the main source of our Halloween costumes Each year we carefully planned our costumes convinced that this was the year we would disguise ourselves so well that none of our neighbors would recognize us.

Trick or treating was not just a mad dash from front porch to front porch to collect copious amounts of candy.  Instead our motley gang of costumed revelers was invited into each home where the occupants carefully observed and commented upon our clever disguises as they guessed who was hidden behind the wild assortment of oversized shirts and gowns, baggy pants and frilly skirts, and hats and scarves. To add to the challenge, our faces were hidden by simple black masquerade masks, homemade masks (a Dixie cup makes an excellent pig nose) and intricate makeup from the stash that had been carefully purchased from Goff’s Five and Dime. Our older sisters, Mary and Sue, had perfected the art of teasing hair for beehive hairdos and helped us create interesting new hairstyles as part of our new personas.

Our plan to fool the neighbors involved not only designing our costumes, but also careful strategizing about whom to invite to join us as we went trick or treating. Traveling in our usual cluster of the four middle Daly girls would be a dead give-a-way as the neighbors would recognize our stair-step configuration from our daily walk to school past their homes.

So each year, we would recruit carefully selected classmates to join us in our quest to costume ourselves so cunningly that even Mrs. Crosby, the lay teacher at St. Joseph school, would fail to recognize us. Her ability to quickly identify each and every member of each and every costumed gang who came to her door year after year after year was the stuff of legend.

You might think that four classes of potential undercover agents to aid in our yearly crusade would provide us with a vast army of recruits. Alas, our potential army was quite limited. St. Joseph’s was part of a rather small parish in a rather small town. With nine students in my grade, I was a member of one of the largest classes to attend the three-room elementary/junior high school. If Halloween fell on a school night, our draftees were limited to the ‘town kids’. A sleepover on a school night was unheard of and we knew we could never convince our mom to drive the ‘country kids’ home when she had “All you kids to put to bed, the baby to feed,, and a late supper to make for your dad when he gets home from work.”

As Halloween approached, I spent much of the school day torn between paying careful attention to my work and considering the best person to ask to join us on Halloween night. Each school day began with morning Mass, said in Latin of course, and I confess that I grew quite skilled at appearing to be devoutly lost in prayer while surreptiously studying my schoolmates. As we knelt for the Consecration, the most solemn part of the ceremony where the miracle of transubstantiation takes place, I would pretend to raise my eyes to the Host. In reality, I was surveying the rows of students in front of me to consider the best persons to recruit as we created new squadrons for Halloween night. I continued my quest as we stood beside our desks reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, as we marched to the front of the room for our oral book reports, and during recess as we scuffed our feet on the dusty playground.

Finally, I decided to invite Kathy  to join us on Halloween night. Kathy was the only child of the owners of the local drug store that was just two doors down from dad’s grocery store. It would be easy for her parents to come get her when their store closed so her presence would not complicate the nightly chaos that was bedtime in the Daly household.

As an only child, Kathy’s life was much different from mine. On my visits to her house, I envied her room with two bunk beds just for Kathy. I admired her closet where her many pairs of shoes lined the floor and her clothes hung neatly in a row and not jumbled in with clothes for three other girls. Kathy’s mom took her to the salon downtown to get her hair styled while my sisters and I went to Mrs. Ratcliffe’s shop in a converted garage to get our hair cut and endured Tonette home perms in our kitchen.  On the other hand, Kathy longed for sisters to play with and jumped at the chance to plunge into our boxes of ‘costumes’ and let our older sisters transform her hair with careful teasing and lots of hairspray, and disguise her face with makeup and one of mom’s old hats with a veil.

Certain that we had developed costumes guaranteed to fool Mrs. Crosby, we confidently marched to her home and rang the bell. As she opened the door, she greeted us with “It’s the Daly girls….but who do you have with you? After a few moments of studying us from head to toe, she exclaimed, “Why it’s Kathy!”

Defeated we asked Mrs. Crosby how she knew who we were.

“It’s a small thing, really. I just look at your shoes.”

Gavin had spent most of the story time gazing out the window, but at its conclusion he announced, “Mamaw, let’s make a robot costume this year!”

Then he added, “But we’ll have to buy me robot shoes so no one recognizes me.”

Jo Ann Carr is a beginning storyteller who has dreamed of being a writer since childhood and who hopes to attain that dream so that her children and grand-children will inherit a multitude of family stories.

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“Writing Through Grief” with Jessica Handler

One of the workshops at the APH Conference (#aph2014) was presented by Jessica Handler, to whom I was introduced by mutual friend Audrey Galex earlier this year. I suggested Jessica submit a workshop proposal based on her teaching and book,  Braving the Fire. She did, it was accepted, and yesterday I attended it. She gave an in-class writing exercise, based on this prompt:

Dear ________

You would be happy to know that I ….

One of the things I like about Handler’s approach is that she recognizes loss comes in many forms; loss of people, yes, but also loss of places and cultures. For the exercise, I took on loss of place… with a twist.



Dear House,

I never liked you. Your smell of cigarettes offended me. The rough texture of your redwood paneling gave me splinters. Your plaster walls were grainy, and the paint felt like chalk. I never liked you.

You would be happy to know that you gave up your quarter acre so the high school could expand. You are the ground floor of the Freshman Welcome Center now.

Your basement was the only place I liked. It was cool in the humid Indiana summers, and it had hiding places where I could escape in my imagination. It’s gone now. When I picture you, House, what was above ground vanishes like a puff of dust.

But where does a basement go when the bulldozers come?


Read previous post about Jessica Handler’s work here

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Scenes from Association of Personal Historians Annual Conference

Dateline St. Louis – I’m at the Association of Personal Historians annual conference this week, and as president, it is a busy and exciting event for me! I’ve been too busy to post the next “true story well told” I had queued up for your enjoyment. In its place–here are some scenes from  #aph2014.

obligatory food shot from great restaurant Canyon Cafe w/ colleagues after board meeting: mix ‘n’ match tacos.

IMG_0036 Obligatory selfie from opening breakfast:


And now to the good stuff. Panel of former residents at our screening of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth:

p-i panel


From left: Edward Blair, Quincie (Humphries) Blair, Michael Blair, producer Brian Woodman, historian Jody Sowell, and me.

People from St. Louis came–because they were curious about the history of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, because they had lived there or knew people who did, or because they were educators who wanted their students to know about it. I am delighted that youth in the College Bound program came en masse. And asked questions. Good questions!

youth questionsI’m sorry I didn’t get this young woman’s name. And here, our panelists respond…


The screening and Q&A after was a stunning reminder that we must keep our promises to each other, and hold others accountable to do the same. Every human being deserves respect; accept nothing less.

And on with the conference… from that serious note to a lighter one. The next evening, I learned from Jeff Phillips about found photos and the remarkable story of a mystery solved by a social media experiment. Who WERE Harry and Edna?

lost and found photos

Today: more workshops, then off to relax and sight-see with my people.


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The Light of Cancer

By Mary Joan Nastri

MaryJI ran a red light, late one August evening. Couldn’t sleep, so I took myself for a ride. I felt as singular on the road as I felt sitting in the doctor’s office, with my family, as the doctor broke the news. I had cancer. My reaction–this can’t be happening to me; older people get cancer. But no, it happens to young adults too. I leaned more toward a mature adult at the age of 40, but was still considered young to have cancer.

I never went against the rules of the road, but that night seemed much easier to run a red light, get hit by a car, and end it all, instead of imagining all the pain that lay ahead. I sneaked a peak anyway to make sure no one was approaching.

The idea of pain left me confused and panicked; where would I purchase marijuana if I really needed it. I didn’t know anyone who could get me the stuff. I knew deep down, if I really needed it I’d find a way.

Most survivors say that some heavenly being, deep faith, or other outside force helped them through it. I was driven entirely by fear and curiosity. This can’t be the way it ends. What does someone do if they have cancer? I longed for something to leave behind that told others, especially my nieces and nephews, who their aunt was. I wanted to be at their weddings.

Slowly, I realized I would face whatever came. I asked questions of every person I came in contact with. One day in the chemo area I heard voices of other patients and their visitors. Some chatter was light with some humor and another was cursing and miserable. This brought up a good question. I asked the nurse what did she think; which kind of people were affected by cancer, good people or bad? Her slightly reverent but regretful answer was good people. I asked by how much–I need percentages! She replied, “most of them.”

Our society does not prepare someone for such news. We all rally next to someone, who lost his job, a spouse, or other calamity. But, we never learn how to cope with cancer. You learn as you go, but there are some things you should know:

  • Create or find a safe place where you can express your fears, hopes, and failings. Find a support group or go to a local Gilda’s Club. The actress, Gilda Radner, never went to an actual club bearing her name, but she belonged to a cancer support community in California, and Gilda’s club is modeled after that experience.
  • You’ll be learning a whole new vocabulary, look-up words you don’t know.
  • Collect and read some of the available free literature and informational kits on cancer support websites or your doctor’s office.
  • Your cancer support nurses will be the best, kindest, most knowledgeable people you’re ever going to meet. When you’re well, you will regret leaving this small community.
  • Limit your time looking on the web about your disease and the stats on survival, cancers are so specific and so varied, the web can never know your situation. One patient asked her doctor, “I heard there is only a 25% chance of survival,” his answer, “you can be in that 25%.”
  • Have, at least, one individual you can share your thoughts and feelings with, someone who does not try to make things better, but just sits with you.

And lastly…

  • Think about what your life/legacy means to you and others. Share your gifts with people you know, or would like to get to know better. Reach out and continue reaching out to survival, hope, and life.

Mary Joan Nastri is a foodie, a writer, a Desktop Support Tech intern
State of Wisconsin, and a lifelong learner. 



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