Where Do I Fit In?


By Suzy Beal

This is the sixth episode of a memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.

 

Each morning my brothers, sister and I walk the dusty road to the Quay with our swimsuits on and our beach towels over our shoulders. The Quay is a huge rock jetty built out into the bay to protect the harbor with a walkway to the lighthouse on the end. We spread out our towels next to the other tourists from France, Germany, Italy, England, Sweden, and Norway. Everyone lying along the Quay has his or her own version of suntan lotion. I smell sweet lotions made with honey and olive oil mixed with lemon juice. We are baking ourselves to perfection, rotating at intervals to keep the tan uniform. When we get too hot, we dive into the blue Mediterranean. I begin to recognize the young people arriving each day. I’d taken French with Mr. Blivens in the sixth and seventh grades, but I‘m not prepared for this “rapid fire” French. The differences between French and Italian or Spanish are difficult for me to grasp. I make a game of guessing which country someone is from before we introduce ourselves. Gesturing with our hands is our only form of communication.

Daily we walk the other direction to Puerto, full of hope, for the correo (mail.) Sweat soaks the back of my shirt as we walk the mile and a half to Puerto in the afternoon sun. My white espadrillas (canvas loafers) are dirty and filling with dust as we walk along the gravel road. My brother Hank comes along with me because Mom won’t let me walk to town alone. Sometimes, Dad drives us if he has any errands to do in Puerto, but today he is on the other side of the Island working out the details for building our sailing boat. When summer is over, we will have to move to Puerto Pollensa. None of this matters now; I just want a letter from home.

Puerto Andraitx from our terrace – by Jan Chamberlin

As Hank and I walk along, I can sense Mom watching us with her binoculars from the terrace of our house. She likes to sit on the veranda and watch the world go by. Heading to Puerto Andraitx, the bay is on our right and the rental homes and pensions for the foreign vacationers on our left. Suzie Wong, the movie star lives, just ahead. I remember Mom saying that Miss Wong’s latest movie was way too risqué for us kids, so I try to look in to figure out what makes her risqué. Then we pass the road to Bobby Summerset’s house. He is a world-famous sailor from England and a new friend of Dad’s. Mr. Summerset will soon sail back to England and my brother Hank will go with him. Hank is excited and Dad thinks it will be helpful if one of my brothers has sailing experience before we move onto our boat.

The post mistress brings the mail to the café each day and sets up on a table. As we approach town the ka chunk, ka chunk of the old man working on paving the main street in town reaches our ears. His bones stick out he is so skinny. He must be in his sixties or seventies. On his head he wears an old straw hat he takes off, slapping the side of his leg with it. The dust cloud it creates makes him almost disappear. He moves along the pile breaking the stones with his sledge hammer ka chunk, ka chunk, he stops for a drink, and then he returns to his work. We have grown accustomed to hearing this steady, rhythmic sound while we wait for the mail. Today, it reminds me of just how foreign my new life has become.

The post mistress arrives with the day’s mail in a bag. She doesn’t smile or greet us as she lays out the mail on a table. Forbidden to approach the table, we wait until she calls out our names. The extranjeros (foreigners) including us, sit at other tables waiting for her to sort the mail. Today we order Cokes while we wait, and I hope. She calls out the names on the envelopes. “Familia Chamberlin.” I race to pick up our mail, but she hands me only letters for my parents, another day of disappointment and tears. Why won’t just one of them write? Then the post mistress says something, “Hay un paqete para ustedes.” What? What does she mean? She sees my confusion and points to the back of the table. A package for ME catches my eyes! I see my name printed on it. It is from my girlfriend Pat. I’m overjoyed and excited, but I want to savor the moment and open it in private.

Mom asked us to pick up bread at the bakery, so we head for the panaderiaand ask for two loaves, “dos panes por favor.” The baker takes our basket over to the counter. He puts paper in the basket’s bottom then puts in the two loaves with more paper over them. We pay with the Pesetas we are learning to use.

Sweaty and dusty, on our way home, my mind is on my package. Back home at Villa Coleta, Mom takes out the bread and reaches under the paper in the bottom. I can’t believe my eyes as she pulls out a carton of American cigarettes. We carried contraband cigarettes all the way home! This is another custom I’m trying to adjust to, purchasing contraband items scares me. The Spanish government taxes any products not made in Spain, but some locals deal in contraband to please the tourists by selling products from other countries without taxing them, such as American cigarettes. We see the Guardia Civil (civil guard) everywhere. There are two who patrol around Puerto with their pistols in holsters. I’m terrified of them since Pat told us they can shoot to kill without questioning.

I race downstairs to my bedroom tearing open my package as I go. My high school annual! I can see my friends in the photos of dances and football games. My friend Pat took the book around and my friends signed it. “Sue, Have fun in Spain, but not too much. Bob L.” “Sue, to a real sweet girl, I have enjoyed knowing very much and hope you have loads of fun over there in Spain. Steve E.” “Sue, Hope you’ve met that dream-boat you were counting on. Miss you terribly in Latin. Lots of love, Linda.” The photos and notes from everyone fill a hole I’ve been carrying around since we arrived in Spain two months ago. On page 33 is a message from John. “Sue, to a real nice kid who I have liked and always will. We have had fun together and if you come back, I hope we will still be friends and maybe we can start where we left off. P.S. Watch out for the Spanish boys. Love John.”

“Maybe we can we can start where we left off? We left off with you dating Sandy at the same time you were dating me!” I scream into my pillow. With tears running down my face I hit my pillow in anger and disappointment. I pick up my annual and finish reading the notes from other friends. “Sue, Have lots of fun with the European boys and if you stay as you are, you will. Ray.” “Sue, I wish you could come back here, cause everyone misses you something fierce. Cindy.” I smile through the tears knowing I do have friends who care about me.

The betrayal by John gives way before a growing urgency to move forward, turning on the radio I discover I recognize a song I’d heard for the past several days, even though it is in Spanish. I promise myself, I will learn to speak and understand this new language and I will accept the customs of this country. I will make new friends. Perhaps living in a house with a name might help me become a part of this new place. When anyone asks where I live I answer “Villa Coleta” with pride.

Suzy (me) on the porch at Villa Coleta – photo Jan Chamberlin

 

© 2019 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.

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Flash memoir: Characters and their desires

Two months ago I began a series of “writing workshop” posts here on Flash Memoir. Today that series continues with a look at Characters and their desires.

How will you bring the diverse cast of characters in your stories to life on the page? First, consider which roles they play.

  • Protagonists–in memoir, that’s usually you, writing in the first person voice, becoming both “I” and “eye” through which readers perceive the dramatic action of the story;
  • Allies and supporting characters–the people who have your back and help you achieve your goals and desires; and
  • Antagonists and adversaries–the people who bring conflict into the story, by thwarting your goals and desires, for good or ill.

And then, there’s that fourth, complicated, category–the Beloved Adversary.

Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, gave this name to the characters who love us and wish us well, but have a different desire line than we do. Parents are perhaps the most pervasive of these character types. Note the interplay of adversarial parent/child relationships in this example by Seth Kahan:

Got thoughts on bringing out characters and their desires in our writing? Post to the comments section! And stay tuned for Part 4 of this four-part series on Flash Memoir.

© Sarah White 2018

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How I found Jesus

January 6th in the Episcopal liturgical calendary is the feast day Epiphany–important  for me as a young Episcopalian in Carmel, Indiana in the 1960s, because our parish celebrated with “The Burning of the Greens.” It put the final bookend to the season of festivity that started with Advent. We’d all gather in the church parking lot around a pyre made of the greenery removed from the sanctuary, augmented by Christmas trees brought from our homes. The sparks flew into the night sky carrying our prayers for the year ahead. Faith submitted another kind of Epiphany memory for your reading pleasure.

 

By Faith Ellestad

I was the third of four children born into a seriously Catholic family, and like most Catholic families, we had our special traditions to accompany various feast days, holy days and holidays.  Our favorites, of course, revolved around Christmas. We especially loved the day we decorated our tree and set up our Nativity tableau, always on a high shelf, hopefully out of reach of our dog.  Curly was a very limber dog, a spaniel-terrier mix with a remarkable talent for scoping out and sneaking off with forbidden objects. His go-to burial plot was next to the garage, but occasionally he would chew through his rope, and permit himself a nice dig in our neighbors’ garden. We were friends with the Van Daams, but they were not dog lovers. Mr. V would periodically weary of Curly’s transgressions and appear at our door angrily waving whatever half-eaten dirt covered object or tangled string of Christmas lights he had discovered in his yard. He always forgave us, though.

Christmastime was especially hazardous for poor Curly, owing to the availability of tree decorations, lights, figurines, and unusual foods, all so tempting to a curious canine.  He so enjoyed surreptitiously munching on the occasional fallen ornament, or forbidden hors d’oeuvre or strand of tinsel, and had required at least one festive holiday visit to the vet for a tinselectomy. He was particularly alert for any opportunity to raid the Nativity scene.

What made our creche unique among the doubtless millions of crèches displayed worldwide during the Christmas season was the eclectic collection of mostly papier mache figures. We had, of course, the Holy Parents: Mary, dressed in a blue veil and pink gown, and Joseph in a brown tunic, grasping a straightened paper clip, someone’s solution for a replacement of his lost staff. They were flanked by a devout shepherd, a donkey, and an ox who was absent one horn. Because of his deformity the ox always faced left to highlight his good side.

According to the Bible, the Three Wise Men did not arrive in Bethlehem until January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, so we placed them on the shelf a short distance from the Family group, and moved them a little closer each day. Balthazar and Melchior were made of papier mache and stood upright; Casper, puzzlingly, was plaster of paris and was molded in a semi-kneeling position, creating the impression that he may have crab-walked all the way from Egypt to the stable. In the middle of one Christmas season the original Baby Jesus, manger, and shepherd’s flock had gone missing–courtesy, we assumed, of Curly. This was not a situation we could leave unaddressed.

To repair the damage and save Curly from a harsh reprimand, our artistically talented and bossy big sister, Ann, took charge. She painstakingly constructed a manger out of a tiny matchbox with toothpicks for legs, and a mattress of evergreen needles. My brothers and I were dispatched to Cherry’s Dime Store to see if we could come up with a replacement baby Jesus and other accessories for the crèche.  My older brother dug through the farm animal display and discovered a 4 pack of little plaster sheep, perfect for the flockless shepherd back home, while I searched the girl toy section for a Jesus doll small enough to fit in a little matchbox manger and not overpower its 3 inch parents.  Eventually, I found the perfect thing- a thin plastic rod holding five tiny pink naked baby dolls attached to it by plastic tabs.  It was like a tree branch of babies.  You could snap one doll off, and have four in reserve.  Our little brother, not showing any religious inclination at all, selected a miniature metal airplane and we hurried home with our finds. Ann snapped one of the babies off the rod, wrapped it in a minute strip of cloth from someone’s old undershirt, the best we could do for swaddling clothes, placed it in the matchbox manger and arranged the sheep at the feet of the shepherd. Finally, the manger scene was once again complete.  We were delighted to the point of smugness with our innovative additions.

This mismatched group of figures served as the family crèche for years. Eventually, as we grew up and started our own traditions, our parents acquired a very elegant Lennox nativity set and the old one was packed away. But I had always had great affection for the shabby old set, and some years later, when my first child was a baby, I retrieved it from my parents’ basement in the hope that it was still usable. As I unpacked the box, I discovered that each figure had been carefully wrapped in numerous Kleenexes that over time, had become quite friable and disintegrated at my touch, covering the figures and me with a fine patina of years-old dust.  Once I ceased coughing and cleaned off the debris, I could see the set was intact; even the matchbox manger had survived. Baby Jesus was extremely grimy, and tooth marks suggested that he had been rescued from Curly at some point, but still recognizable in his yellowed swaddling clothes. As I washed him tenderly, I thought about the branch of baby Jesuses and wondered what had ever become of them.

I queried the family, but way too much time had passed and no one could remember. Likely the dog had buried them or chewed them to pieces, or they were lost during some move or another.  Well, the original was clean, if a bit dented.  I could have gone on a replacement mission, but by then I was busy with my own real baby.

Some years later, after my dad died, Mom wanted to distribute a few of his favorite belongings to us kids.  I already had the old Nativity set which I loved, but only I considered that a prize. These antiques were special to him. There was a beautiful set of cranberry colored cut glass vases with covers, a ceramic Mettlach stein, a little pewter dachshund with a hollowed out back for holding a pipe, and a silver plate tea service.  As we examined these artifacts, we shared stories about them.  We reminisced about the day our house was moved from one lot to another.  All the breakables had been packed, but no one had noticed the cranberry glasses still sitting on the mantle. Amazingly, they had survived the move intact. Mom gave them to my sister, who had coveted them since early childhood. I got the tea set which I had admired for its delicate etched flower pattern when I hosted tea parties for my dolls, My younger brother, who smoked a pipe took the dachshund with its comforting, smooth concave back, and my older brother received Great Grandfather’s mug with the pewter lid that we all remembered flipping up and down as kids, just to hear the satisfying thunk it made when it closed, even though we were forbidden to touch it. I wanted to give it a last flip for old times sake before it went to live with my brother, so I placed my thumb on the little flange, flicked up the lid, and glanced inside. Unbelievable! There, in the bottom of the stein, were the four missing baby Jesuses! Wordlessly, I handed the mug to my sister. “Oh, wow!” she exclaimed, looking in, “so that’s where babies come from!”

And that’s how I found Jesus – in a beer stein.

 

(c) Faith Ellestad

Faith describes herself as a serial under-achiever, now retired after many years as a hospital scheduling specialist.  When her plan to cultivate a gardening hobby resulted only in hives, she decided to get real and explore her long-time interest in creative writing. She’s so happy she did. Faith and her husband live in Madison, WI . They have two grown sons of whom they are very proud, and a wonderful daughter-in-law.

 

This story is dedicated to the memory of Ivy, our beloved Belgian Tervuren who died in November. Although not particularly a dog story, it reminds me of how pets insert themselves into every aspect of our lives and why we let them.

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Jello Girls

By Sarah White

When I saw Jell-O Girls: A Family History on a “new nonfiction” list recently, it caught my eye, since I’m researching and writing about another 20th century company with the intent to produce a social history/memoir. I can always use more examples of how others approach this hybrid, rather niche genre.

This book weaves together several stories: an intergenerational memoir about motherhood and loss is the dominant thread, which features grandmother Midge, mother Mary, and Allie, author of this memoir. Other threads include the social history of Jell-O as a cultural object and an investigation into the mysterious LeRoy Girls, a connection I’ll explain in a moment.

As heirs to the Jell-O fortune, the three generations of women grew up with wealth the author barely mentions, and which the family achieved through a shrewd business deal rather than old-fashioned values like innovation and hard work. Orator Francis Woodward (owner of Genesee Pure Food Company and great-uncle-in-law to Midge) acquired the brand from its inventor, a cough syrup manufacturer, in 1899.

Author Allie Rowbottom has written a decent feminist take-down of Jell-O and the femininity it enshrined. Women and girls in Jell-O advertisements are just like the gelatinous dessert they shill—dainty, sweet, malleable, and transparent. “So easy even a child can do it” was the product’s first claim to fame, and its first advertisements featured a Kewpie-like girl-child preparing her dish to please adults. That girl became the role model for generations of women in the Woodward family, and the silent servitude expected of women is a recurring motif in the book. Like the cheerful women smoothly managing their households in the Jell-O ad campaigns who don’t hunger for a role outside that household, this book speaks to the sweet smothering of female ambition and desire that was endemic in 20th-century America.

It can be troubling to read the woes of the rich—a certain “poor me” note wafts up from some pages—but the fact is, rich or poor, women live in a man’s world and patriarchy can spell trouble in every income bracket. Generations of Woodward women tried to conform to the “Jell-O mold.” Grandmother Midge loses her sense of self in motherhood she finds unrewarding. Mother Mary strives for a more creative life, but becomes increasingly obsessive about researching what she believes to be the “Jell-O curse.” Both die while their daughters are young—Midge when Mary is 14, Mary when Allie is still in her 20s.

I really enjoyed the corporate history threaded through the book, as the brand tried to keep up with women’s changing roles through second- and third-wave feminism—its reinvention as a child’s treat promoted by Bill Cosby is one memorable example.

Meanwhile, Rowbottom explores her mother’s obsession with “the Jell-O curse,” a family legend that was said to affect men, but which Mary began to believe was actually afflicted on the family’s women, and which she fought by turning to Seventies ideas of women’s power, embodied by witchcraft and goddesses. As Mary became progressively more ill with cancer, her art gave way to writing a memoir and researching the possible toxicity of being raised in a Jell-O town. Mary’s research and writing became source materials for Rowbottom’s own memoir.

Rowbottom writes about the entrapping conservative nature of Le Roy, New York–the small town where Jell-O was made—where trucks arrived with remnants from animal processing to be transformed into colorful boxes of flavored powder and a rainbow in the river, the color determined by each day’s factory production.

The Le Roy Girls storyline is the most perplexing in the book. The author became fascinated with a twitching condition that beset a group of high school girls in Le Roy in early 2012. Some likened it to the Salem witch trials; others linked their affliction to environmental toxins, still others to group psychosis, probably conversion disorder. Rowbottom tried to investigate the story, but was unable to make contact with any of the girls or their family. Her curiosity (obsession?) lies stillborn on the page.

Allie Rowbottom received an MFA from California Institute of the Arts and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. It’s my guess that she set out to write about the Le Roy girls for her MFA project, but it didn’t pan out, and advisors encouraged her to write her family story instead. I just made that up, but doesn’t it sound believable?

I found this book a compelling read, in spite of some flaws that are well-noted on GoodReads and Amazon reviews. As I got to the final chapters, the creepy closeness between Allie and her mother began to bother me, as the mother’s cancer worsened and surgeries led to wound care that frankly, if I had the Jell-O fortune behind me, I’d hire a nurse to manage.

If you want to study how an earnest wordsmith with a talent for the well-turned phrase takes so many divergent parts and weaves a book, get yourself a copy of Jell-O Girls.

© 2018 Sarah White

 

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Puerto Andraitx, Our New Home

By Suzy Beal

This is the fifth episode of a memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.

 

Not another boat ride!  We took the night boat to Palma, Mallorca the next evening.  Upon boarding, we discovered Mom, with the little ones, had a cabin, but the rest of us had to sleep in hard wooden chairs on deck.  We accepted being uncomfortable for a few hours because to object to anything Dad said was useless.  We learned later Dad hadn’t realized he needed to make reservations for cabins, so was lucky to get a cabin for Mom, Conrad, and Frank.

After a long uncomfortable night, morning brought us to our new home.  As dawn approached, Dad pointed out the island of Mallorca just coming into view. I looked on the horizon.  The sun was shining on the island.  The buildings shown white in the morning sunlight just like the buildings we’d seen in Casablanca.  A castle came into view on the hill above the city of Palma and a huge cathedral on a smaller hill in the city.  When we tied up at the dock, I searched for something familiar.  I spotted my brother Tommy with “La Cucaracha” and a sense of relief came over me.  The van, a part of the family now, meant security and home, in its own familiar way.

We headed for the town of Puerto De Andraitx where a villa waited for us.  On the narrow, busy corners drivers honked at each other.  La Cucarachafilled the entire road.  When the van slowed on the corners, we opened the top.  The warm air rushed in, I closed my eyes and listened to the crickets.   The blue sky against the pine trees was a shade of a blue I’d never seen in Oregon, here a limitless sky with no clouds. Things didn’t seem real.  The houses made of stone and tile had terraces and archways.  Windmills dotted the landscape.   I remembered from the National Geographic the farmers used them for irrigation.

We approached Puerto de Andraitx after passing through Andraitx.  Dad explained that “Puerto de”meant the “Port of” and we headed for the port.  As we passed through town, I noticed that the older women wore black.  I learned later they wore black because they’d lost a loved one and dressed in mourning and since the older women always had someone in their families dying, they wore black most of the time.

My senses heightened by the vivid contrasts of light and dark, bright and dim, warm sun, and cool sea breezes, I’d never imagined these bright, distinct images.  Dad drove us to our villa on the opposite side of the bay from the town and we saw that the harbor lay between hills on either side of the bay.  He’d arranged on his prior trip to have an English woman named Pat rent a villa for us and arrange for a cook and maid.  Pat rented, in addition, a room in a neighboring villa for Tom and Hank because our house didn’t have enough rooms for everyone.

“You boys will eat your meals here with the whole family, because the kitchen and the other rooms in your house are off limits to you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mom.”   Excited to be living independent from the rest of the family, they agreed immediately.

Notes to Harbor Light

(The editor of our high school newspaper had asked me to write to him about our travel experiences.)

 I’m so glad to be on solid ground after the boat trips.  It makes me wonder what life aboard a sailboat might be like and if I will be seasick.

 The house we are living in has a name “Villa Coleta.  It sounds so European.  It’s made entirely of rock and the interior walls are stucco and whitewashed.  Two stairways made of rock lead up to the main floors.  The terrace that runs the entire length of the house faces the harbor and the village of Puerto Andraitx.  We are walking distance from the harbor and quay where we can swim in the warm, blue Mediterranean.

Conrad and Frank with their stuffed animals – photo by Jan Chamberlin

 I can’t understand anyone yet and don’t know how long it will take to speak Spanish.  I will keep you updated with my progress.

 

On our first day, we discovered we didn’t have a washing machine or dryer, but we had a cook and washerwoman.  Carmen, the cook was a young woman in her early 20s.  Manuella, a small lady, sixty years old, dressed in black who walked six miles each day to our house was to be our washerwoman.  I wanted Dad to offer to pick her up and bring her to our house in the mornings because I remembered six miles was the same distance from our home on the river to Newport.  She had to walk this distance twice each day after doing laundry for nine people.

When Pat explained to Mom how the maid’s salaries worked, Mom didn’t think it was fair that Carmen, the cook, made more money than Manuela, who did the laundry for nine people. So, Mom decided (without telling Pat) to raise the pay for Manuellato match that of Carmen.

Carmen arrived each day on the back of her boyfriend’s Vespa. She sat with both legs on the same side as if she were riding a horse sidesaddle.  I watched the romantic scene each time they drove up in the mornings. They visited, teased and kissed goodbye. They went through the same ceremony when Carmen finished her work.  Although the thought of having my own Vespa thrilled me, I missed and yearned to be with my friends back in Oregon.  I wanted to be having a romantic moment, too.  Even though I was mad at John for being with Sandy, I still missed him.

One morning, we heard screeching and yelling coming from the kitchen.  We rushed in and found Carmen and Manuella fighting and hitting each other.  Mom stepped in and separated them and sent me to bring Pat to help us.  She wasn’t home, but I convinced her little girl to come translate for us.  Her daughter was only five, but could speak Spanish and English.  She told us that Carmen was mad because Manuella had bragged to her that Mom had given her a raise and now Manuella made as much money as Carmen.  To solve the dilemma, Mom gave Carmen a raise; not knowing if she’d done the right thing.  Dad offered to drive Manuella sometimes to help compensate.

One day Dad took me out of town into the countryside with his camera and spent the afternoon trying to teach me how to use it.  Tired of my lack of enthusiasm and my long face, Dad tried to engage me in learning something new, but I wanted no distraction. I was in mourning for my friends back home.  I wasn’t ready to forgive my parents for bringing me to this place, so I showed little interest in learning how to take pictures.

. . .

“Why are you crying?”  my sister asks.

“Because I can’t find any tunes on the radio I can understand, these songs are in a foreign language. I wish I could hear the top -10 songs from the States again.”

 Everything is so different here in Spain. Our parents impose the Spanish custom of the afternoon “Siesta.”  They send us to our rooms for the afternoon “rest.”  I share a bedroom with, Jan.  She doesn’t understand my need for hearing songs that connect me to my life in Newport. I hate these new customs they expect us to accept without arguing. Villa Coleta is where we live now.  It irritates me that our house has a name.   I want nothing to be personal, here.  I’m fifteen and I’ve left everything personal and important behind, without knowing if I will ever return.

 

© 2018 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.

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A Test of Mettle

By Robert E. Martin

 

The Texas plant hired several young men at the beginning of the summer. After that first week, they fired all of them and kept me. The lesson I learned from this experience was: It always pays to exceed expectations when working for a new employer—it is the quickest way to job security. Indeed, it is a good idea to make a habit of exceeding expectations. There is a downside, however. This practice will not endear you to your coworkers and you will experience some pushback from them.

A classic problem in the labor market is sorting workers for qualifications and capabilities. This is a problem all companies have, for an application and interview does not always show how the new worker will perform. You don’t want to retain unsatisfactory employees. The steel plant used a clever method to screen labor, immediately giving new employees difficult jobs and observing performance. I saw different varieties of this technique in my career, and learned more about it through readings in economics. I passed the test of mettle.

Bob Martin, college man

The next week, they moved me around to several different stations in the plant process where I worked under journeyman supervisors. After that, I worked with the foreman. He took me under his wing and taught me various jobs. Then, he assigned me to driving a forklift. I spent the rest of the summer on the forklift. I enjoyed working at this plant. Hard work never bothered me. What I would run afoul of was the union shop.

It was a union plant. Being just a summer worker, there was no attempt to recruit me. I did not know the union culture. One day, I heard a lunch conversation about a union meeting to take place the following night. Working with the foreman that afternoon, I mentioned the meeting and asked what it was about. I assumed the foreman was in the union, but he was not. The union was organizing a strike. I had no idea! The foreman immediately went to speak to the union stewards. Naïve, young Bob had stepped into it—now I was a snitch and there was no way to explain what had happened. My life became a living hell.

The union steward especially despised me, razzing me about being a “college boy” in front of others and isolating me. Then it became more than a psychological war, it got dangerous. One of my co-workers was a big fellow but known to be a slacker, shirking his share of the work. He and I were assigned to use a crane to unload coils of steel rod from a freight car. I worked in the car, placing the hook from the crane into these steel coils that weighed a couple of thousand pounds and were about five feet in diameter. The other fellow ran the crane, lowering the hook for me to attach, which would then lift the roll and move it out onto the floor for the fork lift to deliver. But the hook would come crashing down into that car. The job of hooking up these coils was not random; they could come rolling on top of you if not removed in order.

On another occasion I was running the fork lift, which could carry two of the coils of rod back to the bull block loading area where they were kept. It should have been a smooth operation, but the crane operator did his best to make it more difficult since he dumped the coils on the ground. I didn’t comment, just did my best.

The foreman came into view and saw what was happening. He got Pissed Off!He chewed the guy out, and I learned that my coworker should “…know this works best by lowering those coils right onto the fork lift!” The crane operator said that I took too long to get the coils hooked up, and he was wasting time waiting for me. He tried to make me look bad. But I learned that normally it was a three-person job.

There was another incident at the rail head. I was in the car, working, which meant a lot of bending over. The safety procedure was to holler, “Ready to pull that!” when you were standing up, ready to observe and catch the big steel hook as it descended from overhead, swinging, guided by another worker. But several times as I stood up the hook was swinging into the car, and I could have been severely hurt. It was a deliberate attempt by the man to put me in jeopardy. I realized I was in danger and stood up and leaned over the edge of the car. There was a worker bragging to the crane operator about what he had done to me! I just looked at him. The men stopped laughing and then they became uncomfortable. I had no more trouble from that kid.

The summer was a living hell, not from the hard work, which I enjoyed, but because my co-workers would put me in harm’s way if they could. I had learned that in addition to the job itself, it was important to learn the workplace culture as fast as possible.

When I left at the end of the summer, the plant manager made a point of telling me I could work for them “anytime you want to!” I thanked him and said I was off to graduate school.

 

© Robert E. Marin, PhD 2018, all rights reserved. Used by permission.

Robert E. Martin, PhD, is the author of several books about economics, including The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality. The story “Test of Mettle” is excerpted from his forthcoming memoir, My American Life: Minimizing Regrets, privately published by Perfect Memoirs. Bob is Emeritus Boles Professor of Economics, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky.

 

 

 

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Flash Memoir: Obey the pull of “concrete” or “object” writing

Last month I began a series of “writing workshop” posts here on Flash Memoir. Today that series continues with a look at “concrete” or “object” writing.

Most of the stories presented as examples of Flash Memoir in that post were based on an image. That’s a particular style of writing. Some people term it “concrete writing.” Others call it “object writing.” (Neither label is more correct than the other.)

The idea is that this style of writing is about concrete, specific, observable, things, as opposed to abstractions and concepts. Object or Concrete writing avoids subjects that are more “think-y”—more in the brain, less in the heart and gut.

When I teach this, I invoke the “Ladder of Abstraction,” explained in this 2015 post on True Stories Well Told. In a nutshell, stay down that ladder at the level of specifics, not high on the rungs of abstraction. If you’re reminiscing about a sweet potato pie, don’t say “I loved Momma’s desserts.” Name it. Claim it. Expound on it in specific detail.  “I loved Momma’s sticky, sweet, orange-fleshed, rimmed-with-caramelized-juice SWEET POTATO PIE.”

Here are two examples of Object Writing in Flash Memoir essays: Notice how your mind’s eye can see specific, tangible objects that keep you oriented to what is happening in these stories.

In writing, the concrete will always have more power than the abstract. Our brains are wired to hear words in our head as we read; with those words come images. “Desserts” leaves you with an imaginary buffet but can you zoom in  to see which tasty treat I loved most? No. SWEET POTATO PIE puts an image in focus. You can zoom in and see that the blisters of yam juice bubbling on its dark orange surface. From there you can begin to engage your senses–smell, taste, texture. When you obey the pull of concrete writing, you get your ideas across to your reader most powerfully.

 

Got thoughts on object writing? Post to the comments section! And stay tuned for Part 3 of this four-part series on Flash Memoir.

© Sarah White 2018

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