How I Almost Became a Furry

By Sarah White

Me with the family’s “kids’ car” 1974. This was the uniform I wore when I left for college that fall.

What’s a furry?  Someone who participates in a fandom subculture focused on anthropomorphic animal characters, with human personalities and characteristics, the Internet will tell you. The mainstream press tends to portray furries as sexual fetishists, but I think that’s over-hyped—how lewdly can you behave in a head-to-toe fur suit? My interest in being furry came from a desire to avoid sexuality, not indulge a kink.

The seed of the idea was planted sometime in junior high, I think, meaning about 1970, when I read an article (probably in Scholastic magazine) about a sociology experiment in which an individual dressed head-to-toe in a paper bag for a time, in order to study how people interacted with them (seems like just the right pronoun) when deprived of any signifier of gender.

Fast-forward to February, 1975. I have just arrived on the campus of tiny Franklin College, shell-shocked from the events of the past month, in which I had:

  • Become convinced by my first semester of French that I needed to move to France as soon as possible;
  • Failed to register for my second semester at Indiana University;
  • Moved back in with my parents intending to stay just long enough to amass a grubstake for the move;
  • Did not unpack, as I discovered immediately that I couldn’t bear living with my parents for even a few weeks, much less as long as it would take to execute the France maneuver.

I was fortunate that my parents somehow had prepared for this eventuality. Without my knowledge, they had registered me at Franklin College. Franklin happened to be on the 4-1-4 semester program, with a “Winterim” term in January, meaning there was still time to arrive for the spring semester. My parents and I agreed that I should abandon the France plan and go to Franklin. I could, after all, keep taking French classes there. Maybe a small campus—total enrollment roughly 1000—would prove steadying to this disoriented flower child.

And so I arrived, a novelty where arrivals outside the traditional Fall campus move-in were unheard-of. A small group of friendly hippy-ish types (“freaks” is the term they would have used) waved me over to join them in the dining hall, a kindness I am grateful for to this day. But still, I was the most alone I had ever been in my 18 years of life. I finagled a single dorm room and began thinking about the sociology experiment with the person going about life hidden in a paper bag. During that wild ride at Indiana University, drugs and sex trumped class attendance and I saw Planned Parenthood staff many more times than I ever saw my freshman advisor. Now, something in me knew I needed to put the brakes on all that. Even if I dressed unisex, I would still be a girl here. And as the new girl, any boy who hadn’t paired up in the Fall or Winterim semesters would be looking me over.  The paper bag sounded like a safe retreat.

But lame. Dull. In a word, baggy. Could I perhaps become a squirrel? On that leafy campus, a common-enough sight. With a furry squirrel suit, I could make a space for myself without sex or gender. If anyone had come along with a catalog from which such a suit could be ordered, or if I had worked out a pattern I could make for myself, I would have done so. I would just explain to questioners that I was a sociology experiment in their midst. This felt absolutely as real and achievable to me as the dream of moving to France.

https://www.halloweencostumes.co.uk/

This disordered state of mind persisted for some number of weeks. I went to classes in my unisex jeans, work shirts, and gray wool overcoat, lonely.  At mealtimes, I joined the freaks’ table in the dining hall after finishing my daily work-study shift as a Salad Girl (gendered even in the cafeteria line) but still, I was lonely.

Then I saw an announcement: the school drama club was preparing to put on the play “Winnie the Pooh.” Actors needed, including animal extras. I tried out. I was offered the role of Raccoon, one of a pack of furry animals whose main role was to run across the stage in front of the curtain during scene changes. No lines to memorize and a costume with a big furry tail. My dream come true! A brown tunic, black leggings, long black gloves, a black half-mask, and hanging from my waist in the rear–a gorgeous big black-and-white ringed tail.

Even though our role was simple, my pack and I showed up for rehearsals. Soon, we were hanging out on campus in our fur suits, well—me maybe more than most.

Soon, with friendships growing among Franklin’s freaks and actors, I found I no longer needed a fur suit. I was ready to face my new life as me.

© 2022 Sarah White

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Desperately Seeking Stories

Okay, I’m not desperate, just having fun with a play on words about that rom-com with Madonna and Rosanna Arquette, “Desperately Seeking Susan.” The film premiered in 1985. It was Madonna’s first major screen role. It is one of my favorite movies of all time, because it captures an era and area–1980s New York punk scene–so well.

Think 1985… where were you at in your life? What story could you tell that would capture that era and area?

Here’s a previous post of mine set in that very year: I hope it sparks ’80s memories for you, too. “I Loved My ’65 Valiant Like Family”.

I’m eager to feature the work of other writers on this blog. Let me hear from you! Send your story to sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com. You’ll find guidelines for guest submissions here.

  • Sarah White
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10 Minutes to Death

By Marg Sumner

VectorStock-2364775

A friend and I have a pact. At 10 minutes before dementia strikes, we’re each going to take two hits of fentanyl and ride off into the dawn, dusk, rainbow, whatever. There are two problems with this: (1) How will we find the fentanyl and (2) How will we know when it’s 10 minutes to dementia?

I’m not obsessing over the details of this plan; I’m getting on with my life. My undiagnosed Cushing’s Syndrome in 2018 interfered with my life for the next two and a half years. While it severely restricted my life and forced me to the sidelines, it left me with hours of unasked-for “me time.” I hate that phrase, but what else would you call resting in bed, resting in a chair, resting in the hammock, resting on the toilet, with lots of time to think through my junk drawer of thoughts.

Thought #3,679: Death is a fact of life. 

I toyed with the idea that I might be that one person who lives forever, but Donald Trump said he was that person. I concluded that what’s more important than fussing about how the inevitable was going to grab me, is how I make it to the end. I want to die in peace and I want to die happy.

My first 45 years were fueled by rage, alcohol, sex and pills. Also a lot of good stuff, but I wasn’t who I wanted to be. The next 20 years I spent unwinding from all the bad behavior and figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I think I’ve figured it out. Two years of enforced inaction followed by two years of covid will do that to a person.

I’m struggling to put in clear English exactly what my goal is for myself. Here are a couple lines I read the other day about a low-level bank clerk fleeing Paris with his wife ahead of the invading German army in 1940.

[He] was not really unhappy. He had a unique way of thinking: he didn’t consider himself that important; in his own eyes, he was not that rare and irreplaceable creature most people imagine when they think about themselves.*

The many blessings of being born who I am, where I am, what advantages I have … all that led me to a higher opinion of myself than deserved or necessary. This sounds awkward because I haven’t worked out my thoughts exactly, but my goal is to become more humble. Not saintly, just humble.

There’s a to-do list (what would a Protestant work ethic be without a to-do list?): Give away what I can to family and friends; donate what I can; pare things down; reduce and simplify. Also a mental paring down and a physical paring down. Figure out what a moral, essential life means for me.

None of this serious shit means I have to become a sourpuss. I’m going to plant flowers on my deck and nap in my hammock with Rosie DeDog. Read books between naps and manic bouts of dishwashing and do-gooding. I’m going to terrorize the buckthorn trees in the woods next to my apartment. I’m going to be merciless with the garlic mustard. I’m going to annoy politicians with un-asked-for opinions.

I’m not a follower of any religion, but I do believe in redemption. That it’s important to be a better person at the end than you were at the beginning. And when I check out 10 minutes before dementia, I’ll be wearing a dress of red, orange and purple flowers – with matching underwear.

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

© 2022 Marg Sumner

Marg Sumner is retired from 40+ years of copyediting and proofreading other people’s words. The tables have turned, and she now writes and suffers the slings and arrows of copyeditors.

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Dear Blue Creek Village

By Sarah White

This was inspired by a prompt: “Write an apology to a place.” Try it and see what comes to you!

Dear Blue Creek Village, I’m sorry I haven’t been back to see you. It has been almost twenty years. I loved so much about you—your people, your landscape, the effort it took to get to you, high in the mountains. I wished I could know the story behind everything I saw. And yet, I never got back to ask you.

Me, showing girls their portraits on my camera’s little screen

The little girl I interviewed for the story about “Life in a Mayan Village”? She is all grown up, probably a mother with children of her own. Her older sister, who was 19 when I visited in 2004, already had a number of children. That’s the custom among the Mayan villagers, we were told.

The people who ran the guest-house coop where we stayed—I apologize. I haven’t been back to bring more tourist dollars to your pockets. I will never be able to find out why some of your neighbors didn’t want to join the coop. Did they not want to put on traditional costumes for us? Did serving us meals in their homes embarrass them, asking us to sit on the plastic buckets that were chairs in their one-room homes, eating under their hammocks, hooked high out of the way?

Did they feel like zoo animals, having us pay to see them in their native habitat? But we provided jobs to the guides who came to take us to see the howler monkeys, or guide us on a rainforest medicine walk, or take us to swim in the caves. You gave us visitors a card like a menu in a sushi restaurant and we checked off what we wanted to do. We never knew who would appear when, to take us to do what, but it was always fascinating. And each experience we checked cost about $2, just like sushi. Have the villagers who joined the coop kept that business going?

The guest house where we stayed

Blue Creek Village, I’m sorry I made up so much of that article I was commissioned to write. You see, my tape recorder was stolen out of my bag on the way out of Belize. I didn’t have the source interviews. Then my editor told me the story should have been about teenagers, not a little girl. So I pretended as if I had interviewed her sister. That was the closest I’ve ever come to a breach of journalistic ethics. (Let’s admit it, I crossed the line.) That story appeared on a credit union website for kids. I hope no one in Blue Creek ever found it, after the Internet came to your village.

The Internet came with the electricity, after Hurricane Iris hit so hard in 2001. The international relief dollars flowed in and that’s what brought electricity. When I visited in 2004, you were still getting to know what electricity could be used for. You had streetlights now, that kept the roosters crowing all night. Your school and your little health clinic had electricity. But mostly, electricity brought power for boomboxes, so the men could listen to Mexican radio all day while they worked their milpas, and power for your little store so that it could sell ice-cold Cokes. No electricity reached the homes; your women and girls still did their chores by hand, cooking over gas cylinders and washing laundry on stones in the creek.

Blue Creek, I’m sorriest of all about the missionaries. They were probably there before the electricity, but on my visit, it seemed the greatest use in Blue Creek for electricity was to amplify their message. Their rock band powered up every night after dinner. The bass booming through the dark attracted the villagers like moths to a porch lamp.

Blue Creek, I am sorry I haven’t been back to see you, but unfortunately, I came home with five different skin ailments that required an emergency trip to a dermatologist. Sunburn, blisters, I’d expected. But not the poisonwood rash, nor the angry-looking bite from the night my hand strayed out from under the mosquito net as I slept. I can’t even remember now what the fifth thing was. I do remember the dermatologist’s words: “You are medically advised never to go south of the 20th parallel again.”

Dear Blue Creek Village, I won’t be back. But I’ll see you in my dreams.

© 2022 Sarah White

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The Small Thing That Mattered Big

By Marlene Samuels

“She wants a photo of the two of you together.” Richard, our adoption counselor tells us. Concern is spreading across his already serious-looking face. “It’s the one thing of true importance still missing from your file.” My husband Larry and I are sitting in Richard’s office at Family Resource Center reviewing our application folder.

“Gee, I’m not even sure we have such a thing. I’m always the one taking the photos so we’re never in them together that is, unless I manage to rope someone else into snapping one of us.” I explain. “Anyhow, why is this so important?”

“Birth-mom wants proof that you’re an established couple and feels that a photo of the two of you together will put her at ease.”

“You know what, now that I’m thinking about it, I do have one. There is a problem, though. It’s kind of small and at least seven years old but if you think that’ll work, I’ll try to find it as soon as I get home.”

“Of course it’ll work. In fact, it’s perfect. Besides, I’ll bet anything that you haven’t changed a bit and look exactly the way you did then!” Richard says, winking.

Throughout our adoption process, my husband and I are concerned about our anonymity but we’re more concerned that without that photo, birth-mom will reject us. After the baby is born, birth-mom Vicki asks Richard to arrange a conference-call among the four of us. It’s an unanticipated hurdle that increases my anxiety.

Richard tries to comfort me. “Don’t worry about it, it’s pretty standard. Besides, I’ll be monitoring the call.”

“If I do place my baby for adoption,” she says, “You’re my first choice to become his parents. I know you’ll raise him up right and he’ll even be getting a brother!”  Later that night, Richard calls to tell us that she’s decided on us to be Michael’s adoptive parents. Our ecstasy is short-lived because two minutes after we all hang up, Richard calls right back.

“She wants all of us to meet tomorrow, early in the evening.” He announces. “How about I arrange something, say six p.m.? We’ll go to her favorite Mexican restaurant. Call you back in a few to work out the details, okay?”

“Well, it’s not exactly what we expected.” I say, trying not to sound uncooperative.  Another unanticipated hurdle, and one that’s increasing my anxiety way more than did the idea of a conference call with birth-mom. Worries about meeting her overwhelm me; what if we seem ancient to her? Could our ages cause her to change her mind? What if our four-year old son blurts out personal information to her, like our address or phone number which we’ve drilled into him from the moment he could speak?

The phone rings and I’m startled out of my worry. I grab for it. The moment I  say hello, I hear a very excited Vicki. “Richard just told me the good news that you’ve agreed to meet. It’s so excellent!” She says. “I’m super excited and you’ll be sure to bring David, okay? Of course I want to meet my baby’s new parents but I definitely want to meet the new big brother!”

The following night, the six of us gather around a table at Vicki’s favorite spot.  Amidst tears, hugs and kisses, she signs legal documents. “We’re so lucky we found each other! I’m so happy my baby will grow up having you for his parents and in the kind of family I can’t give him now, maybe never!” She says, tears fill her eyes. “There’s no way I’m ever going to have a harder decision to make in my whole life! I know I’ll think about him forever.”

Dinner is over and we head toward the door. All of us but David are shedding tears. She gives each of us a big hug then bends down to kiss David on each of his cheeks. “You’re going to be a wonderful big brother, I just know it!” And then she turns to Larry and me, “By the way, your home — it’s so, so beautiful, really amazing! It looks big enough so that the baby can even get his own room, too” 

Larry, David, and I walk back to our car. I glance at Larry and notice a look of deep worry on his face. His eyebrows are scrunched together, his lips have become a tight slit below his nose, and his shoulders droop forward. We’re in the quiet of our car and David is in back buckled into his booster-seat. I turn to my husband. “Wanna tell me what’s going on with you?” I ask, trying to control my irritation. “You’re acting weirder than weird!”

He mumbles, making me feel more irritated. “Nothing really except that I’ve been thinking about Birth-mom’s last remarks.”

“Okay, what about them? She had many in case you don’t remember.” I snap.

“Yes she did and I have to tell you there was one in particular that’s really bothering me.” I say nothing and wait for him to elaborate. “Didn’t we agreed that we’d maintain total anonymity? I mean, like no information about where we live, our last names, or anything else that might make it possible for her to find us while Michael’s still a baby, right?”

“Of course we did and I did maintain total anonymity. You don’t know what you’re talking about!” I’m feeling intense agitation with my husband. “So just what’s the problem?” I ask in a voice testier than I’d intended.

“Alright, then if we agreed on anonymity, may I ask why in the world you would have given her a photo of our house? Are you nuts? And in case you forgot, our address is right there in the leaded glass window above the front door?” He’s ready for an argument but so am I.

 “Duh, it’s not our house, Genius!” I say, now resisting the urge to really say something I’m sure to regret. He looks at me quizzically, awaiting my explanation. I provide it.

“You goof! It’s the picture of us from seven years ago. It’s from the time we stayed at the Greenway Manor in the British Cotswolds. Don’t you remember that? Jack McKinney, the owner, insisted on taking a photo of us on the manor’s front patio?”

Greenway Manor

Postscript:  

Was it the English manor house that helped close the deal with Birth-mom Vicki? Was it the fact that the baby she birthed — who became our son Michael, would gain an older brother? We never can know but, in the big scheme of life, all that really matters is that we definitely were privileged to have become his parents.  

© 2022 Marlene Samuels

Marlene holds a Ph.D., from University of Chicago. A research sociologist by training, she writes creative non-fiction by preference. Currently, she is completing her book entitled, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story.


 She is coauthor of The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival and author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers. Her essays and stories have been published widely in anthologies, journals and online.  (www.marlenesamuels.com)

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The Blue Bicycle: Travels with an Adopted Air Force Girl (Part 3 of 3)

By Mary Ellen Gambutti

Click here to read the first two posts in this three-part story.

I rode my bike around the roots and boulders of the wooded terrain behind our quarters at Washington Heights, adjacent to the stone wall of Meiji Park and Shrine. We moved to Johnson Air Force Base before our military dependent “suburbia” was razed for the 1964 Summer Olympics. Years later, the grounds would be transformed to Yoyogi Park, this tree could have been there when I was.

Tokyo, June 1961-1964

Mom, Dad, two-year-old Julie, and I have flown to Japan in a Pan American jet to begin the three-year tour in an American military housing complex called Washington Heights, in downtown Tokyo. Grassy courts are surrounded by beige, ordinary-looking double, and single-story houses. Mom and Dad make our two-story quarters comfortable with a few pieces of familiar furniture, and some from “supply” left by departing American families.

As service people, all we need is here: offices, schools, a movie theatre, a non-denominational chapel, a Base Exchange, clubs, swimming pools, wide streets, and sidewalks lined with flowering cherry trees, and park-like grounds that stretch along a wide slope below our court. I’m free to roam on foot or ride my bicycle. The stone wall that runs along the back of the forest-like grounds where we play separates Washington Heights from many acres of evergreens of the Meiji Shrine gardens. I ride my bike up and down the deep forested gully, around the roots, and over the lawns, finding every path.

Our front porch at Washington Heights with our bikes. My little sister was adopted in Louisiana


We have to move to Johnson Air Force Base because Washington Heights will be torn down for the 1964 Summer Olympics. It’s a big shock to me because my Tokyo International school has become an important part of my life. Still, this is how it is in a military family. But as an adoptee, it feels like a bigger loss, it’s just that I don’t yet comprehend what that loss is.

One spring Saturday, at the end of our three years, Dad says, “I’m going to paint your bike to get rid of these scratches. I’ll clean it up before it goes on the boat.”

He lifts it from the side of the house where I lean it and puts the kick-stand down on the grass. He uses masking tape to cover the seat with newspaper. I sit on the top step of our front stoop, a safe distance from the coming spray. He shakes the aerosol can and aims a fan of blue at my six-year-old bike. He shakes again, the beads clacking in the can, and sprays an even coat over my bike’s body. One stab, a brief pang of regret, and I’m resigned to the new light blue finish; and my bike’s original white markings deleted along with the scratches and scrapes. He stands back, pleased. “What do you think?” he asks. “Nice. Thank you, Dad.” But it will never be the same.

He takes off the protective newspaper and walks my bike to the street. I feel sure he’s never ridden my bicycle, but he takes it for a spin in the sun to dry it, making a few tight turns. I grin back at his grin, and at his plaid shorts, calf-length white socks, and his old black oxfords. Did he have a bike growing up in New York City? He hasn’t told me, and I don’t ask.

New Jersey, again

My girlfriends and I walk a few miles back and forth to shop for records at Two-Guys, or we take the bus to E.J. Korvettes and the Bergen Mall. At thirteen and fourteen, we prefer to hoof it, exercising new freedom, alert for boys. Little kids, like my sister, Julie, ride little bikes with banana seats. Some older kids have three-speeds or ten-speeds. I’d rather avoid the teasing I’m sure I’ll get for riding a cruiser with manual brakes.

One summer day in 1966, I check on it–consider riding it–but it’s not on its kick-stand at the back of the garage. My heart sinks, and I call out, “Mom! Where’s my bike? My bike’s gone!” She says, “Your father brought it over to Cousin Johnny’s for his kids.”

“Why? Why didn’t he tell me?” I’m pleading. “You weren’t using it anymore,” she replies without apology.

He gave my bicycle to my mom’s cousins without talking to me about it. Behind my back! Dad had given our trusty 1953 Buick Special to them, too, without warning me. The car Mom and Dad drove us north and south, shipped it to Japan, and drove on the narrow streets of Tokyo. Now it was theirs, and they replaced it with an ugly Buick Wildcat. I was angry, and a bit surprised at my jealousy and resentment. Like dolls I’d nurtured and toys and books that were part of my childhood, they now belonged to this large family. Taken from my room without warning me. It occurs to me that nothing is really mine. Neither the car, nor the bike, nor any of my possessions. As we move, my parents shed things. All of it is theirs to do with as they please. All I have–all I am–is because of them. They chose to keep me. I hide my adolescent tears in the garage.

© 2022 Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine.

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The Blue Bicycle: Travels with an Adopted Air Force Girl (Part 2 of 3)

By Mary Ellen Gambutti

Click here to read the first post in this three-part story.

Louisiana, summer, 1958, continued

Mom tells me Dad’s work is hard when I ask her about the migraines that have become frequent. He shows me his white pills, “Cafergot.” He goes to bed early with a washcloth on his forehead, or he keeps their door closed and rests in bed on Saturday. It troubles me that he’s sick and in pain. I’m fearful and worried that I’ll get sick.

I sometimes tremble at night and make myself sick, but Mom doesn’t know how to console me when I can’t calm down. She just lets it pass, without a hug. She never hugs me like her mother, my Nana, does in our New Jersey home–our permanent home.

Dad is impatient with me and is angry more often. When I back-talk Mom or let the screen door slam, he yells, or threatens, “Don’t make me take my belt off!” But it’s too late, and it flies; buckle and strap. At recess, I show the raised welts on my left arm and shoulder to a few curious classmates.

“See what my dad did?” They ask why a girl who looks well-cared-for is treated mean. “What did you do?”

“They’re not my real parents, you know. I’m adopted.”

They might ask, “What’s that?” I explain to the third graders what Dad told me at six: “I had nobody. They picked me out in an orphanage in South Carolina.”

My wound opens with each re-telling. I want their pity. I want to tell them about my difference, my frailty. And I want to get back at my dad for hurting me.

Still, I have the freedom to ride away on my blue bicycle. I wear my yellow leather boots and a cowgirl hat. I wear my leather holster and two six-guns and carry a good supply of caps to boost my power.

New Jersey, 1960-’61

I didn’t understand we’d be living in New Jersey again. More likely, I thought it was only another visit to Nana and Granddaddy’s house as we drove north again for the last time with my baby sister, who was adopted the previous year in Louisiana. I later learned that Dad was transferred to the New York City Federal offices to prepare for three years in Tokyo and that he was an intelligence officer.

I’m in the second half of fourth grade in January at the church school of the Ascension. I wear a blue serge jumper dress, beanie with gold AS letters, a white short-sleeved shirt, and a blue clamp on bow-tie. I recognize kids from my kindergarten days. The van brings furniture, boxes, and on the driveway “My bike is here!” For the first time in New Jersey, I’m ready to ride on our familiar neighborhood streets and sidewalks. When the ice melts, I can ride it a mile to school from Asbury Street, up the little hill, and a right turn at the corner onto Hoffman Avenue, then a left onto Berkeley Street, down to Faller Circle, and around to Ridge Avenue, then right onto the short block of Carnation Drive to my school. I’m proud to stand my handsome blue bike with the other kids’ bikes on the rack.

I had a sense of agency and control, free of anxiety when I rode my bike. 

I have no bicycle basket, so I clutch the grown-up-looking cordovan leather briefcase Dad gave me for Christmas in my left hand, and it swings forward and back as I steer with my right hand. The crossing guard at Hoffman and Berkeley, whose name I never learn–but I know he’s a retired policeman says, “I’m worried about you only using one hand to steer. You might lose your balance holding your bag that way. I’d like to make a hanger to hold it against the handlebars. I have something I can use in my garage.” He lives down the block on Hoffman. “Okay, yes, thanks. That will be good.” I say to my new friend, and we walk together across Berkeley with my bike.

The next morning, he holds it up to me. “Let’s see how it works.” He explains how he bent and shaped the thick, pliant metal into a double hook, and attaches it between the handlebars in the same place Dad hung the safety lamp and buzzer in Louisiana. My friend the crossing guard hangs my book bag from the hook by its handles and stands back, smiling. “That looks good!” he says, and I smile, too, and thank him.

I put my bike away in the garage after school, as usual. I think it’s just as well that no one at home notices my new bike fixture. I think it’s a secret, and don’t want to make my dad angry at me and the crossing guard. Braids bounce against the back of my shoulders and the spring breeze streams me back and forth to school. When school closes for summer, I never see the hook again, exploring our town with new bike-riding girlfriends. At the end of six months in our warm New Jersey home, it’s time for another change.

Click here to read the final part of Mary Ellen’s story.

© 2022 Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine.

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The Blue Bicycle: Travels with an Adopted Air Force Girl (Part 1 of 3)

By Mary Ellen Gambutti

My bicycle in a Sears ad

Texas, September 1957

In the bicycle department at Sears Roebuck in Victoria, Dad points out a blue 26-inch J.C. Higgins cruiser he’d seen in the catalog. “Here’s the one we’ll get. What do you think?” Wouldn’t any six-year-old be impressed with such a beautiful bicycle? The purple, steel-framed tricycle I’d pedaled up and down the sidewalk at our New Jersey family home couldn’t compare to this grown-up’s bike, and anyway, the trike had been passed on to cousins. I nod and clap with glee. “Yes! I like it! I can ride it!”

My thirty-six-year-old adoptive dad, a U.S. Air Force Captain stationed at Foster Air Force Base, hoists my new bike into the ample trunk of our green Buick Special with a set of training wheels. My mother had said, “I stay away from bicycles ever since I fell off when a dog chased me on the dirt road when I was your age,” and she was true to her word. Mom would have nothing to do with my bicycle.

Texas with Mom and our Buick Special. I sport my Texas pixie; my long ringlets left behind in NJ

On the driveway of our brick duplex rental, I stand astride my birthday present, while Dad adjusts the seat, handlebars, pedals, and training wheels. “OK, go ahead–start pedaling—go slow.” I feel strong. My legs push down—right, then left. My slender fingers are wrapped around the white handlebar grips. My arms are flexed to steer forward on the sidewalk. The tall pecan tree on the next lawn looks far away. Beyond the neighbor’s driveway lies unfamiliar terrain.

“Stop here.” He helps me off and reverses my bicycle to point toward our house. Back on board, the training wheels frustrate me. “I don’t want them on. I can’t turn, I can only go straight!” They wobble and restrict my movement. Dad concedes it’s safe to take them off after two more passes to and from the Pecan tree. “Ok, push off! Pedal!” With his hand flat on the rear rack, I start out slowly, then pick up speed and confidence. He guides me into momentum, advancing me through my first imbalance.

He’s slow-trotting beside me. I laugh in the breeze, fearless. I trust he won’t let me go until the right time. I hear him coaching through my cycling stream. “Hold the grips tight, keep the handlebars straight! Turn a little to the left–to the right! Steer! Keep pedaling!” I have it. I’m ready to fly. The moment he lets go is imprinted on me.

With my bike and my friend

Louisiana, summer, 1958

I’m heartbroken when we have to move from our second rented brick duplex on Dennis Street when I’m seven and have to say goodbye to Saint Frances Cabrini’s second-grade schoolmates and my Brownie troop. I’d been free to ride my bike for a year with wildling neighbor boys and girls. Wearing cowboy clothes, and carrying metal cap-shooters, we explored and breached the chain-link backyard boundary.

I am learning I must adapt or be lost, so through my tears, I see adventure on Schilling Drive in the officer’s housing complex of England Air Force Base, in Alexandria. I step into the expanse of tall, cool grass behind our tan duplex, 4009A, with the fragrant clover, and pink poppy mallows. I soon join the neighborhood boys and girls. Across the backfield is a swale and drainage ditch where tadpoles appear after rain, and where I tromp in rubber boots. I venture across this verge into a wide-open, scrubby field, once part of the cattle ranch that became the airbase and is now a jet flight path. I startle when, out of nowhere, sonic booms envelop me.

Now eight, I’m a cowgirl with a bike for a horse, riding the range of the wide asphalt roads like a ruffian. I crash when I cut a curve too quickly or hit a curb. But the smart and sting of screaming scrapes can’t keep me from my beloved blue bike. Hands, knees, and elbows take the brunt. The ouches of abrasions bring my mom’s iridescent Mercurochrome in her innocent-looking brown bottle; gauze and adhesive tape when the Band-Aids don’t hold. Scabs last weeks, since I torture and pick around the raw, raised edges. But I’m back aboard in the breeze that dries my tears.

No hands!

Dad fastens a bulky lamp with a battery pack and a rude-sounding buzzer to my bike’s handlebars to keep me safe in the evening. The loose wires distress me, and I quickly lose my balance. I howl, more from frustration and fury than from pain, and fiercely kick the wobbly lamp as it lies loosely against the sidewalk. Dad comes out the kitchen door through the carport when he hears my wail. He chides me and releases the clumsy apparatus. I never see it again.

Click here to read the next part of Mary Ellen’s three-part story.

© 2022 Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine.

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Big news regarding “First ___day, First Person”, my salon for memoir writers

You may wonder where the stories you read on “True Stories, Well Told,” come from. The answer is–many of them, I hear read by fellow reminiscence writers, at the monthly salon I offer. “First Monday, First Person” has been an institution since 2013, convening at the Goodman South Madison Library Branch on the first Monday of every month.

This event means a lot to me! It is my sanctuary, my happy place, where like-minded folks meet in story-space to honor each other’s life paths and lessons learned. I think Jill Ker Conway said it best, in her book When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography:

“We experience life from a single point of view. We want to know how the world looks from inside another person’s experience. When that craving is met by a convincing narrative, we find it deeply satisfying…. We like to try on new identities because our own crave the confirmation of like experience, or the enlargement or transformation which can come from viewing a similar experience from a different perspective. When we read about totally disparate experience (as in the life of a Catholic priest) it is as though the set designer and the lighting specialist had provided us with a totally different scene and pattern of light and shadows to illuminate the stage on which we live our lives.” Amen!

When the panDAMNic (as our friend Sariah calls it) hit in Spring 2022, we pivoted to using Zoom for our story shares. I loved that the Zoom option makes it possible for faraway friends to be part of our community. And yet, I craved the communion of our in-person meetings.

Lately I have been trying out hybrid options, but the experience suffered both in the room and on the Zoom. At our host library’s request, I’m pivoting again. We will now offer two options–one in person, one online.

Here are the details:

First Monday, First Person, IN PERSON
When: First Monday of every month, except holidays, 6-7:45 pm
Where: Goodman South Madison Library Branch, 2222 South Park Street, Madison.
COVID note: attendees in person must be fully vaccinated.

First Tuesday, First (Zoom) Person
When: First Tuesday of every month, 3-4:45 pm
Where: Online via Zoom: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83146852755
If Zoom asks to download an app, allow it.
You can also join by phone: dial  312-626-6799.

No advance registration is required for either event.

No matter which you attend, we’ll share and critique writing in the first person with like-minded people. If you have a piece you’d like to read, just let me know in the check-in round. Listeners welcome as well as readers, as always. Free, as always.

Join us in the first week of every month–in person or by Zoom.

If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact me! sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com or 608-347-7329.

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Passport #6: Edrisi 2006

By Marg Sumner

Edrisi and I had a relationship that was going nowhere, except into the Sahara Desert, which is not too far from nowhere. I didn’t care for him from the get-go, and he was indifferent to me. He was homely; he was bored; he was tolerant in the way that one waits in the grocery line while the buyer ahead of you digs through her purse for exact change. In other words, he rolled his eyes when he saw me; I gave him the stink eye.

Edrisi was a camel. I don’t like camels; I never have. I associate their sour odor with my father’s feet and his camel-skin slippers. His feet smelled from the jungle rot he acquired during World War II, riding camels while fighting Romel’s army in the North African desert. My camel dislike was compounded when a camel spit at me on a children’s camel ride at the Vilas Zoo. There was an uncomfortable, but tolerable ride into the desert in Morocco in 1997. The next year a camel in Egypt carrying a friend and me to the pyramids at Giza tried to dislodge us, and then three camel guides cornered my friend with their camels and shook him down for money.

Now here I was in Timbuktu, Mali, headed into the Sahara on Edrisi’s back for a long ride in, inevitably followed by a long ride out.

Camels are big. Seated (and I use that word loosely), you’re about 7 or 8 feet off the ground. Their feet are about the size of dinner plates and are a serious threat, given that a camel can weigh more than a half-ton. One is perched precariously on a wooden saddle about 4 inches wide, with an equally narrow “backrest” that ends at the approximate location of one’s bra and an ever-growing bruise. The “frontrest” is for gripping with all your might. Your legs are outstretched and crossed at the ankle where they meet the camel’s neck. Once you’re seated, you’re stuck, even though the skin between your legs is pinched and being rubbed raw. By the way, you climb on the camel when he’s seated, legs folded beneath his bulk. He stands by straightening his back legs first, throwing you violently forward with only your crossed ankles for stability. The ride goes downhill from there.

A tourist’s camel ride is nothing like you see in the movies. When the camel’s right foot plants itself in the sand, you lurch forward. When he plants the left foot, you lurch back, stopped from tumbling backward by the so-called backrest. In between lurches, you attempt to resettle yourself on the saddle by wiggling yourself into a more comfortable — I take that back — a less uncomfortable position. 

I survived the day’s ride into the Sahara only because my mind was laser-focused on remaining atop this plodding behemoth.

That night — in what could have been a romantic shelter open to the air and stars — I slept fitfully, dreaming of camels, sand, burnt goat (our dinner that night) and earwigs. We were warned about the earwigs, but were assured they’d crawl out of our ears before daylight.

Morning came; the earwigs departed. I’d early on earned extra attention from our Malian tour guide. Not only did we share a love of West African literature, but I’d proven to him that I needed careful monitoring. A few days earlier, I tripped on a nearly flat surface and almost launched myself over a cliff. I was assigned a long-suffering minder whose job it was to encourage, push, prod and hoist me onto Edrisi and reverse the process that night. With the new day, the poor bugger had to do it all over again. Harder to say who was more pissy, me, the minder or Edrisi.

Marg learns a few travel tips from Edrisi the camel in Mali.
A climb while caravanning in Mali

I brought up the rear of the caravan with my minder. Our guide was in front with more lively company. When he dropped back to check on our progress, against the advice of both guide and minder, I called a halt and declared I’d rather walk back than ride another step on that rotting-foot-smelling creature. Edrisi threw himself to the ground (a little too cheerfully, if you ask me), front first, nearly launching me into the sand. I was damn grateful to be in control of my trek, but not for long.

Travel lesson #209: The only thing worse than riding a camel in the desert is walking in the desert. It’s okay if you have giant paddles for feet, but a size 8 hiking book isn’t remotely up to the task. Not even close. Desert sand has less in common with coarse beach sand and more in common with talcum powder. With every stride forward, your heel slips back a half-stride. It was soon obvious, even to me, that this was not a sustainable mode of self-transport.

I was rapidly approaching the point at which I was willing to admit defeat and beg my way back onto Edrisi’s back when my lifeboat came roaring into view. Four guys in a Range Rover, doing wheelies and tight turns in the desert, stopped by to see the Saharan version of an American dude astride her first horse on a dude ranch. If I was putting myself in harm’s way getting into a car with four strange men, I didn’t give a rat’s ass. Fortunately, my guide gave an ok. I pushed myself into the back seat of that Rover and half-ordered, half-pleaded with them to take me back to Timbuktu.

The next day was Thanksgiving. Even though the temperature was close to 115 degrees and I had raw skin and a large bruise, I was never more thankful.

© 2022 Marg Sumner

Marg Sumner is retired from 40+ years of copyediting and proofreading other people’s words. The tables have turned, and she now writes and suffers the slings and arrows of copyeditors. This is her second piece in what she hopes will be a series of travel vignettes organized by passport. Timbuktu was top of her bucket list and so deeply touched her soul that it satisfied her longing to travel for several years.

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