Heading East

By Suzy Beal

This is the first episode of a memoir that will unfold, 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.

On May 20, 1961 we headed east for New York City, Barcelona, Spain and the Island of Mallorca. The VW packed to capacity with Dad, Mom, and Frank (age 6) in the front, Jan (age 11) Conrad (age 8) and me (age 15) in the middle seat, and Tom (age 17), Carl (age 12) and Hank (age13) in the back. Behind them was the luggage.  The plan was to live in Mallorca, Spain while my Dad built a sailing boat for us to live on in the Mediterranean.

Some people said we were leaving the country because John F. Kennedy was our new president. My father, a staunch Republican, had supported Nixon.  Others said my Dad must be a spy appointed by the State Department.  And others thought my parents must be just plain crazy to take the seven of us out of school and move to Spain.  Mom and Dad didn’t seem bothered by the things they heard and just chalked it up to jealousy.  My experience differed from my folks because telling everyone I was moving to Europe, to live in Spain on the island of Mallorca, attracted lots of positive attention. It impressed my teachers.  Friends wondered what I would be like when I returned even though I didn’t know when that might be.  All this attention was something new for me and I relished it, despite misgivings.  But, now the time to go had arrived, and the glory disappeared.  I’d lived with these same kids my whole life.  How was I going to make any new friends?  I didn’t want new friends.

The last couple of days in Newport we had to move to a motel so the family renting our house could move into it.  Our motel stay was the first time we had all been together in a motel and it was the first of many such nights.  We left Newport the next day.  We stopped at AAA in downtown Portland before heading out of Oregon. Dad picked up our Trip-Tik, a series of maps with descriptions of what we would see along the road mile-by-mile for three thousand miles.  It also listed hotels and restaurants.

Each of us silent and engrossed in our own worlds, we headed east.  Somewhere during that first day on the road, we picked a name for our van, “La Cucaracha.” She became our home away from home, a moving point of reference that made up with familiarity what it lacked in hominess. Each time we stopped for food or the bathrooms, we counted off as we got back in the bus.  Tom called out “one,” me “two,” Hank “three,” Carl “four,” Jan “five,” Conrad “six,” and Frank “seven”.  Dad instigated the “count off” after we once left Carl in a service station bathroom!  Carl, the middle child, always so quiet he got lost in the noise from the rest of us.  The younger ones were on Mom’s radar, but we older ones did whatever possible to stay off our parent’s radar.  Carl went his own way, living in his fertile imagination, always inventing or conjuring something new and clever.

We traveled east through Pendleton, Oregon, then started south towards Salt Lake City.  Dad still had relatives there, so we met them for lunch on our way through the city. We must have been a sight, filing into restaurants and motels–a family of seven children behind their parents.

We crossed the Rocky Mountains up into the May snow.  It had only snowed once in Newport when we were little kids. The Oregon coast was too warm for snow.  Dad stopped the bus to let us out and play for a while.  Wet and shivering, back into the bus, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” we hollered out.  That evening we pulled into Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Mom acted as the navigator and with the help of our TripTik she picked out several motels.  She read aloud the motel specifications, and when she said “swimming pool,” pandemonium broke out from the back of the van.  En masse we were a persuasive bunch and a swimming pool is what we got.

The experience of getting into a hot steaming pool with snow still on the ground at that altitude was dreamlike.  I felt lucky and wealthy at the same time.  Our next motel experience proved to be an adventure of a different kind.  Uneven floors, thin blankets, no privacy from each other with only curtains to separate us. Dad and Mom might have been happy to have saved money on that room, but the look on Mom’s face told a different story. She was mad because she’d wanted to stop much earlier, but Dad pushed on into the dark. The nice motels were behind us.

Sometimes we older ones got to have a turn with the Trip-Tik and Mom sat in one of the back seats for a while.  Dad explained, “The top of the map is always north, so hold the map with the top up and you know the bottom is south.  East will be on your right and West on your left.”  From then on I figured out where we were going with the Trip-Tik and watched our progress across the states, using a map of the whole U.S.  Until then I’d never held a map. The only maps I knew were the world map hanging in front of our classrooms and a globe we had at home.

Somewhere out there on the plains, when we became bored and tired of traveling and seeing the same scenery mile after mile, we got out the playing cards.  Dad hated card games of any kind; he thought cards a waste of time, so we tried to hide what we were playing.  Back home, he always said we should do something useful or learning something instead of playing cards. The hiding worked well until a disagreement broke out and the conflict got out of hand.  We couldn’t keep a lid on it and Dad discovered the cards in the rear-view mirror. He pulled the van off the freeway and stopped.  Wide-eyed, we waited.  He jumped out and came around to the side door.  His face told us trouble brewed.  He grabbed both door handles, swung the doors open and shouted, “We didn’t bring you kids on this trip to hear you fighting the whole way to New York. Get rid of those cards and watch the scenery.”  As he stood there shouting at us, the playing cards flew passed him with the suction the doors caused opening.   I looked over my shoulder as we sped away, and watched the cards fluttering across the highway, flickering red, black, and white flashes of games gone by.

© 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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Time for some true stories well told by Guest Writers–send me yours!

It’s been “me, me, me” here on True Stories Well Told for the last month or more. It’s time for YOUR true stories, well told! What have you been writing this summer, season, lifetime? Share it with your writing community, here.

But wait, you say–you need some inspiration? Okay…

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” ― Flannery O’Connor,

“Any sorrow can be borne if you can turn it into a story.” – Isak Dinesen

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott

Okay, now you’re inspired. Here are the submission guidelines. Let me hear from you!

– Sarah White


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Hello from Halifax, Classroom Edition

“We’ve got your book” the brochure for the U-King’s MFA program promises, and they mean that literally. Everyone studying here is writing one, everyone teaching here has written one (or more), and all we talk about from morning coffee to evening drinks in the Ward Room is books–your book, my book, this book, that book. Upshot: 3 visits to the U-Kings bookstore and counting.

All but the bottom two were written by U-Kings graduates. The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children is an oral history/personal history. The Fruitful City is about urban gleaners who ask the question: Can neglected city-grown fruit address hunger, waste, and food illiteracy? Eating Dirt takes us on the forest road with the tree-planting tribe of Canada’s west coast, while No Place to Go shows us how far we have to go to achieve potty parity–the author’s phrase–for all.

Catfish Dreams I was reading as I came here-it’s a story similar to the one I’m working on (about soul food entrepreneurship) and published by the press that would be my “reach school” if this were college, not publishing I’m trying to get into.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks went on my must-read list after mentor Harry Thurston mentioned it in a workshop. Why? “A privileged white woman writes about an African American working-class woman,” Harry said. I’m trying to achieve a similar cross-cultural acceptance by my subjects, for my book.

What are some takeaways from Week 1 in the classroom?

  • With your narrator, you’re building a persona. How is he/she coming across?
  • Your book proposal is a living document, like your CV/resume. You’ll be pulling from & adapting your master version the rest of your writing life.
  • Vocabulary! Semantics vs. prosody–the meaning of what you say vs. the way you say it, the rhythm and sound of your words. Wait til I work those into a sentence–I’ll sound like a real grad student!!
  • Go where the events you’re writing about happened. There is no substitute, even if the events happened 400 years ago. Place speaks.
  • Ask: How will your reader be changed by this?

Random, but thought-provoking.

Two and a half more days of this, and so to home, to start on MFA Year 2. And reading that stack of books.

The author, looking into her brilliant future.



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Hello from Halifax

“True Stories Well Told” is taking a micro-break while I pursue my Big MFA Adventure at University of King’s College, on the Dalhousie Campus in Halifax, NS, CA.

The relationship between the two institutions has been described as “uneasy siblings” and “it’s complicated.

Dalhousie is celebrating its Bicentennial, while U-King’s is even older–est. 1789, to be exact. It’s marvelous to feel affiliated with such a proud educational heritage.

Here are a few scenes from around campus… Enjoy!

The U-King’s main building, my dorm wing in the left wing, just visible at the center of the picture, 2nd floor.

The Dalhousie main building. The “Dal” campus wraps around the U-King’s quadrangle.

This little alley leads to the classroom building where we meet, center rear. Dorms to either side–that’s “Radical Bay” to the left, and “The North Pole” to the right, where I live. The names are ironic–“Radical” because that’s where the seminary students lived, “North Pole” because it was closest to the boiler room.

View from the library’s plaza toward Alexandra Hall, where I stayed last year. Voted one of Canada’s 10 most beautiful dorms, don’t be fooled by appearances.

And a classroom scene. We’ve moved from the usual theater-style lecture hall to the cafeteria to catch some air conditioning.

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A Pause for Ice Cream –or- “Midwestern Nice”

By Sarah White

I’m preparing to teach “Flash Memoir” in a few weeks. As a result, memories in short flashes have been coming to me recently. Here’s one.

Madison, Wisconsin, summer, 1980 or 1981.

A storefront scoop shop opened on Williamson Street just a few blocks from where my boyfriend and I lived in a coop house with our roommates. (In a few years he would become my husband.)

One night after dinner, we walked down to have a cone. We entered and paused, studying the menu of flavors. Before the bells hanging from the doorknob quit jingling, a woman came in with four or five young children around her. Something about her purposeful movement said “east coast”–or maybe just “harried mom.”

She walked up to the counter and began polling her children about their ice cream choices. Just as she was about to place their order, she noticed us standing to one side.

“Oh, were you in line first?” she said. “Here children, move aside—“

“Don’t worry about it,” Jim replied. “We were letting you go ahead. Seems like you’re in a hurry, and we’re not.”

“You need to learn to be more assertive!” she said, waving her children back.

A brief round of “Midwestern Nice” broke out in which we beckoned each other toward the waiting scoop clerk. The woman went ahead and ordered for her gaggle. Once everyone had been served, they left.

But they stayed with us ever since, a private joke and a punch line.

© 2018 Sarah White

I mean it, enough about me! It’s time to send me your Guest Writers’ posts! Check out the guidelines.

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My Magic Credit Card

By Sarah White

I’m teaching “Write Your Way to a Better Relationship with Money” for personal historians right now, an online workshop I developed using the Guided Autobiography method developed by Dr. James Birren. We uncover old bad stories we’ve told ourselves and replace them with stories that guide us to earn, spend, and save comfortably and in alignment with our values. 


It was about 1972 when I got my first real summer job, working at the Can-Do kiosk at the Glendale Mall. There was a lot I liked about the job, from engraving endearments on mugs (I always loved anything to do with words and type) to baking off rubber stamps in the little toaster oven. But sometimes trade was slow, and I had nothing to do but gaze out at the sale racks in the teen fashion shop across from my kiosk.

My friends were starting to use the money from their summer jobs to purchase clothes, often using layaway and making payments until they could take a garment home. The teen shop offered credit cards. I applied for one. I made my first purchase—a gauzy hippie top, turquoise blue with orange embroidery like a dashiki. I bought another similar top, in cream, that hung in handkerchief-points. A month came and went—no bill arrived in the mail!

I kept shopping. This was the season of the Great Hot Dog Diet, and I was dropping weight with every passing week. Shopping for clothes had never been this fun. I loved the smart knit dress I bought, to celebrate losing the twentieth pound. It had a fitted burgundy bodice and calico-print sleeves and skirt. Two months–still no bill arrived from the teen shop’s credit card.

Could it be true? Had processing my credit card application somehow fallen into a parallel universe, and my card was magically free from payment? I kept shopping.

Three months. The statement arrived. Three hundred dollars! How could that be! And how long would it take me to pay that off!

It’s true what they say—there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And there is certainly no such thing as a magic credit card for a teen girl to use for overpriced, cheaply-made clothes.

I stayed in the Can Do kiosk after that, and asked for more hours. When trade was slow, I faced the shoe store across the mall, not the teen shop so nearby.

© 2018 Sarah White

Now, enough about me! It’s time to see some Guest Writers’ posts here! Check out the guidelines.


Posted in Sarah's memoir | 1 Comment


By Sarah White

The plight of the Thai soccer club trapped in a cave got me thinking about a memory from 1972 or ’73, when I was very nearly trapped in a cave under similar conditions.  I have only limited recall of what actually happened, so I wrote what I remembered and shared it with the friends who were also present. The following is a group reminiscence that explores the unreliability of narrators as much as it does the events of one summer evening.

That spring of 1972 we begin to call ourselves “the family.” In the nucleus were Marty, Donna, Colette, Victor, his brother Ric, and me. Around the edges floated some boys and girls. Don was one of the more regular floaters. His thing was outdoor adventures. He was the one who started us on spelunking.

Don had the gear—helmets with carbide headlamps, ropes, maps, some knowledge of technique, although caving doesn’t really take any technique. It’s just hiking in the dark on irregular surfaces.

You go caving in Indiana in the dead of summer and the dead of winter, because it’s always 50-some degrees in a cave. It’s a great place to escape from unbearable weather. We’d often head south from Indianapolis in mid-afternoon for the hills around Bloomington, where there were many caves in the limestone karst bedrock. We’d eat a picnic supper before climbing in, or pack it with us. When we’d stop to rest, the boys would turn off their headlights and we girls would squeal. There would be giggling and sometimes smooching in the dark. We’d climb back out in the wee hours of the morning, clean up in the bathroom at the Waffle House and refuel, then head back to Indianapolis in time to go to work or school. We were in our late teens. We were invincible superheroes.

We did just this, one summer afternoon in 1973. The family set out from Indianapolis—were we in Marty’s van or  Don’s? No matter—and arrived at a cave around suppertime. A barn stood near the entrance, and a box with a sign-in book.

When we arrived, a group of Eagle Scouts were cooking their dinner and settling in to camp overnight. We nodded coolly at them—we freaks didn’t associate with organization men like them—signed in and proceeded to the cave entrance.

When you enter a cave, you go through a change in relationship to your body, and this is what I loved about spelunking. At first you’re still a biped, adjusting to being a sightless one, the bright beam of the carbide headlamp extinguishing all peripheral vision. But then, kinesthesia takes over. You become aware of every part of your body. You know exactly where the back of your head is. You crawl on all fours as easily as walking. It’s a dance with the infinitely changing surfaces around you. Your hearing adjusts to the silence that blooms into a chorus of echoes and dripping water. It is magical.

That summer evening, unbeknownst to us down in the bowels of Monroe County, a summer thunderstorm passed through. Torrents of rain funneled in the same cave opening through which we had army-crawled down a narrow passage of some 600 feet. Someone noticed a change in the sound—the drip became a purr, then a burble.

“We’d better head back,” Don said. “That’s rising water.” He led us back the way we came. (I never paid any attention to direction underground, trusting my tribe. Don had a technique of turning around to memorize the reverse view, each time we transitioned from a narrow space to a chamber.) We made it back to a wide ledge near the cave’s opening. Between us and the mouth, a little underground creek flowed through the narrow entry passage. It had been a mere trickle when we crawled in. It was now a few inches deep and flowing fast.

“The rum!” Marty exclaimed. “I left the canteen back where we stopped to eat!” The boys looked at each other with concern. We girls looked at the boys. “I’ll go back for it,” Victor said, always the gentleman. “I’ll go with you,” Marty said.

This is the point at which my memory diverges from those of my friends. Marty tells me we were planning to sleep in the cave that night, and we had left more than rum—our sleeping bags and other gear were back in one of the chambers.

Victor and Marty crawled back into the dark behind us. The rest of us waited on the ledge. The little creek rose. And rose. It came close to the ledge on which we perched. The headspace above it, the air we would breathe as we crawled through the narrow passage, diminished. Where were those boys? We waited… and watched that headspace narrow. At first, Don and Ric tried to tease us with scary stories. Then they stopped. We hallooed the boys—no answer. We waited… and contemplated going forward without them. No. Yes? No. Had something happened to delay Marty and Vic’s return? What to do?

Here’s where my memory goes dark. I recreate the following: At the last minute, they reappeared. We crawled through water with our noses up against the rocky roof. We climbed out into the humid summer night, feeling electricity in the air. A major summer storm had clearly unleashed its fury above that cave.

Victor tells me that when he and Marty reached the chamber where our half of the party had been waiting, “Some kind of atmospheric inversion caused smoke to funnel into the cave. It was like Armageddon trying to get out of there.” Donna says “I wasn’t there.” That leaves me to infer that it was Colette, Don, Ric, and me who left our friends behind in the cave—I’d like to think it was because we realized we could be more useful in calling for help if we weren’t also trapped—and somehow managed to light a little fire. But Marty says, “Victor and I left when the creek started rising and swamped the fire,” so maybe we lit the fire inside the mouth of the cave? Or it was the Scouts’ fire, quenched by the downpour, that sent that smoke down the hole? Darkness shrouds the details.

Here our unreliable memories converge again. We all walked up to the barn where the Eagle Scouts had taken shelter. Feeling like Odysseus returning to Penelope, we burst in, expecting—what? That they had noticed we might be in peril?

One of the Scouts was in the middle of telling a long, circuitous, and very lewd joke. Gripped as they were by the storyteller, no one noticed us. We settled in and waited for the story to end, passing our canteen and quieting our shaken nerves. The guffaw at the story’s end was a lightning flash—horribly savage, brutally male. While I’d felt relatively safe all the time in the cave, now I felt bodily danger.

Luckily, Marty remembers the joke. Here it is, the shaggy dog shaved bare: “The god Thor was having sex with some women that lasted throughout the night. In the morning he stood against the rising sun, raised his hammer, and proclaimed, “I am Thor!” One of the women, still lying on the bed, replied, “You think you’re thor, I’m tho thor I can hardly pee.”

We backed out of the barn, stripped off our muddy coveralls, climbed back into the van, and headed toward Indianapolis. We pretended we were fine. We weren’t fine. We had entered that cave young gods. Now we knew we were mortal.

© 2018 Sarah White

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