The Imperfect Storm

Can’t say I’d want to redo any of my lives. You probably figured that out already. The very fact I’m not living them any more is the first clue.

The sailboat life, albeit short – about a year – is the one I wouldn’t like to revisit the most. You’d think people who took to the high seas as a way of life would be inherently interesting as the teller of fascinating tales. If you think that, you would be wrong. In ports from Canada to Florida, I’ve listened to the hotly debated issue of whether Softscrub with or without bleach is the better product for scrubbing the decks. I bought both to indicate I was on the fence about that one and didn’t have an opinion either way.

Sometimes the conversational gambit switched to the only other issue our dockside companions were interested in. It was called “Storms I have known,” and a few of those were fairly provocative, but most were confined to, “All of a sudden this storm blew up, and we had to skedaddle out of there.” Not much better than the Softscrub debate. Having now dissed all my former dock mates for telling storm stories that were boring at best and stultifyingly boring at worst, I will proceed to tell you about a storm I knew.

But first, I’ll tell you about one aspect of our homeport, Sackett’s Harbor, NY, that I found very interesting. A big battle of the War of 1812 happened there. Right across the dock where our sailboat was tied up was a sunken 1812 warship. When the sun was at just the right angle, we could see the barnacle–covered bones of the wreck below the surface. Photographers from “National Geographic,” were on the dock, under the water, and all over the place in the summer we were there. They did a huge spread on the town and the sunken ship the next year.

There were 50 or so unsunk sailboats at our marina, but we were the only people who were there every day. The rest of the sailors showed up mostly on weekends. John had a great bit of sailing experience, and I had none at all.

We sold our house and moved onboard in May, planning to spend the summer practicing in preparation for sailing to Florida in August via the Intercoastal Waterway. Our practice field was Lake Ontario, the contrariest body of water outside the Bermuda Triangle on the planet. Many mornings we set out under sunny skies and calm winds only to run into an unpredicted and vicious gale five miles out. I guess it was good practice, but believe me, sometimes it was scary as “all git-out.” (That’s a down home Southernism.)

Down the dock from us was a 36-foot sloop owned by a retired engineer. He raced his boat in many weekend regattas and often came down during the week to take her out for a spin. Last Husband crewed for him for several races. Sometimes he invited us to come along to crew for a mid-week outing. We went gladly as the excursions offered valuable sailing experience. He always wanted me to take the helm while he and John hoisted the sail. I hated that part because the boat had a tiller rather than the more civilized wheel, with which our boat was equipped. Because of my right/left disability, I was always pushing or pulling the tiller the wrong way.

The retired engineer’s nickname was “Skip,” of course. He was in his late 70s, and fit as a man half his age. He was proud of this fitness and strutted about like a banty rooster when it was remarked upon by his fellow sailors.

One morning Skip showed up as we were eating breakfast in our boat’s cockpit. He bounced down the rattling planks of the deck to our boat. Following nowhere nearly close to him was an old guy who looked as though he may be on his last legs.

“How’d you like to go sailing this fine morning?” shouted Skip.

“Well,” I said, hesitating, “I don’t like the looks of those puffy clouds on the horizon.” I pointed toward Canada. Lake Ontario was bad enough under blue skies, but no one went out if there were even the tiniest clouds in sight.

“We’ll be just fine,” said Skip.

By this time the old guy had caught up with him and was humped over standing beside him on the narrower strip of planks separating the boats. He peered into the water behind him and inched his toes closer to the front edge.

“This is my old school buddy, Raymond Shelby,” said Skip, slapping the frail old guy on the back, causing him to lurch dangerously forward. “Actually, I should have said the Reverend Shelby,” he went on. “He’s a retired minister.” It was then I noticed the clerical collar underneath Rev. Shelby’s jacket. I couldn’t believe the two were contemporaries. There was Skip, as robust and “hail fellow well met,” as you’d ever want to see, and there was the reverend, bent and sallow, looking as though he’d rather be anywhere else as long as it was indoors.

“He’s never sailed before, and I’d like to take him out. I thought we’d have a picnic lunch on the island,” said Skip, holding up a picnic basket. “Come along and crew for me .”The island to which he referred was a good three hours out in medium winds. It was also situated directly under those puffy clouds on the distant horizon. Not wishing to be taken for wooses, we said we would come along.

“Great,” shouted Skip, as he dragged Rev. Shelby down the dock to “Black Pearl,” his sleek racing sloop. Before we followed them, we went below and gathered up our yellow storm gear, just in case.

“If it were anybody but Skip, I wouldn’t leave the dock today,” I said to John. He agreed. We wouldn’t have tried it on our own, but we felt confident a sailor with Skip’s experience could get us out of any trouble in which we might find ourselves.

We locked the cabin door on our boat and scooted down to Skip’s boat. The engine was already idling and Rev. Shelby sat in the cockpit, his hands clasped on his knees. He looked as though he were about to be fed to the lions.

We stowed our storm gear below deck and Skip backed Black Pearl out of her slip. The waters were calm under blue skies as we moved into the bay, the engine purring contentedly.The Rev. Raymond Shelby sat on the cockpit bench still looking uncomfortable.
The bay gave way to the open waters of Lake Ontario. I steered into the wind as Last Husband and Skip pulled the lines that raised first the mainsail and then the jib (the smaller sail).

“Cut the engine, Millie, and fall off to starboard,” shouted Skip. I turned the boat to starboard as the sails filled and the boat immediately heeled over, its portside raised slightly out of the water.
In case you aren’t familiar with sailing jargon, when a sailboat “heels,” it turns on its side. That’s what makes it go.
Passengers usually sit on the high side of the boat to help balance things out.
Skip had neglected to inform Rev. Shelby of this phenomenon. Seated on the port side, he was immediately dumped forward to the other side. I grabbed for him and apologized for not warning him as Skip laughed and told him he’d get used to it.
“Better hold on to the rail,” I said. We’ll tell you when we change tacks.”

“What?” asked Rev. Shelby, weakly.

Very soon after our first near-calamity, the water took on a definite chop. There were tiny whitecaps all around us. I didn’t like the look of it. We tacked several times. Skip yelled, “ready about,” before we did so, but poor old Raymond hadn’t got his sea legs yet, and he flopped about the cockpit piteously.

“This is the life, eh, Ray?” yelled Skip as robustly as he could. Rev. Shelby didn’t answer. Before long, the waves got bigger, the winds grew stronger and I had to keep heading into the wind to keep from heeling over too far. Next to splitting in two or being dismasted, the worst thing that can happen to a sailboat is to suffer a knockdown. The dreaded knockdown occurs when one has too much sail up for the prevailing wind conditions. The boat flops over on its side and the sail goes flat against the water. It’s not something you want to experience, believe me. Conditions were becoming way too severe for my comfort level, but Skip was loving it.

“If you don’t mind, Chester — er Skip — I think I’ll go downstairs for a bit. I have a nervous stomach, you know.” began Rev. Shelby.

“Sure,” said Skip, “go below and have one of those sandwiches in the picnic basket. It’ll make you feel better.”
It was a suggestion we were all to regret. Poor Raymond lurched from side to side as he made his way to the cabin ladder.
He was no sooner “downstairs,” than the skies opened up and dumped on us. Jagged lightning shot from the once puffy white clouds. They were now black and ominous; the thunder was deafening.

“I’m going below to get our storm gear,” I yelled as I began the trek toward the ladder. I reached the hatch and looked down. What I saw caused me to change my mind about going below. The Rev. Mr. Shelby was lying on his back on the cabin floor. Under him, around him, and over him was the undeniable evidence of mal de mer in the extreme. The man had managed to barf on every square inch of the cabin, including our storm gear.

“Never mind,” I said, “I’m already wet.”

“What’s going on?” asked Skip. “I think you’d better see to your friend,” I answered. “He’s pretty sick.”

Skip went below and I grabbed John by his shirt collar. “We’ve got to get out of here,” I said. “We’re way over our skill limit and poor Raymond is so seasick he’s going to die!”

Skip returned on deck. “He’s okay,” he reported jovially. “He’ll feel better now that he’s thrown up.”
Indeed, before long Raymond returned to the cockpit. But he definitely didn’t feel better. At least he didn’t look better. You know the thing about someone being so sick he or she is green? Well, I’m here to tell you it really happens. The Rev. Mr. Shelby was the color of split pea soup.
He joined me on the high side of the boat. I had a port rail in the crook of each elbow and I was hanging on for dear life. The starboard rails were not visible, being by now way under water.
“Maybe we’ll trim the sail a bit,” said Skip.
Last Husband wedged himself between the cockpit sides to help with the sail trimming. His ear was near enough to my mouth for me to speak into it without the others hearing.
“Tell that maniac to take those sails totally down, turn on the engine and get us the hell out of here,” I stage whispered.
“I can’t,” he answered back. “It’s his boat. He. . .”
I have no idea what else he was going to say. At that instant, a mighty gust of wind hit us and we went over. I watched in horror as the sail skimmed through the vicious waves. Even the mast rode on and under the water for what seemed like an eternity.
I got some kind of toe-hold around Rev. Shelby. My arms were clasped together around the rail. I knew if I let go, both of us would go into the water. Skip later told our dockmates the whole knockdown lasted for only a matter of seconds, but even today I would swear it was more like a couple of minutes.

At last the boat righted itself and by some miracle all of us were still aboard. While I was waiting to breathe again and while still hanging onto the rail, I realized that if we were to survive this disaster, it was I who was going to have to speak up.
Poor Ray was about as rational as a half-drowned rat, and the other two men sailors were as full of ego as they were full of water.

“Now, hear this,” I said, sailor-like. “Skip, take that sail down right now, turn on the engine, and get us out of here.”

“It’s just a little storm. We’ll be okay. Just. . .”

“No, we’re not okay,” I shouted. “You’re going to kill us just so you can show your old school chum what a big man you are. ”I let myself fall in the direction of the stern, and I switched on the engine. “Get that sail down. Now!”

“Really, Millie, I don’t think. . .” began Last Husband.

“Shut up!” I screamed. “Help Skip get that sail down. We’re going back.”

Raymond whimpered softly and gazed up at me gratefully. If Jesus had saved his soul, I had saved his body. “We motored back to Sackett’s Harbor in silence. I turned the tiller over to Skip, who never spoke to me again after that but once.
After we docked and we were leaving the boat, he said, “Don’t forget your storm gear.”
“No thanks,” I said, smiling. “Keep it as a souvenir, so you’ll have something to remember this wonderful day of sailing and picnicking.”

“Millie!” whispered John.

“Shut up!” I snarled back.

I climbed onto the dock and headed for the safety of our own boat. It sat bobbing gently in the water. “I could have told you so. But did you ask me? No-o-o-o.”

Who said that? Was that a grin on Bosky Dell’s stern? Was she giving me attitude? Maybe so. Worse things than that had already happened that day.

Hurricanes I Have Known

The autumn of 1988 brought with it hurricanes that literally tore up Florida, where we were headed in our maiden voyage aboard our 32-foot Freedom Sailboat, Bosky Dell. I have great personal knowledge of hurricanes, but they are nonetheless frightening. Charley 2004 is tied for scariest with Donna 1960. Hurricane Keith 1988, although potentially the most dangerous, turned out to be a pussycat as we rode it out in the boat.

I can’t help but think of all the Sunday sailors heading south whose boats are being blown into plate glass windows on the main streets of coastal towns.
When we spent our time on the bounding main, we learned a great deal about anchoring and tying up. We had to take tides into consideration, figure out the prevailing winds, and calculate which anchor (we had a choice of four) to use given the conditions.

Many an hour was spent leaning against a docked boat discussing ground tackle (that’s “anchors” to you landlubbers).

Last Husband spent weeks learning how to sail safely in treacherous waters, and the proper procedure to follow during a hurricane. Though he had his faults as a husband, John was a wonderful sailor who believed in safety first no matter what.

Much to our surprise most of our fellow sailors didn’t worry themselves with such boring book-learning. Many didn’t even own a tides directory. How they dared tie up or anchor without one was a mystery to us.

The tides near New Jersey can reach 12 feet every 12 hours. That means if you throw a short line over a dock post at high tide and go to your bunk, by morning your boat will be on its side and so will you.

Even more alarming, many first-time live-aboards didn’t even own a set of charts. They had no idea how much water was under them until it was too late.

“We’re hard aground,” we would hear them frantically shout to the Coast Guard over the radio. Really? Imagine that. That’s what usually happens if you run your boat with a five-foot rudder through water that is only three feet deep. Of course, not having a chart, you don’t know that.

As for hurricanes, the method was pretty straightforward. If you had time, you were supposed to find a protected creek narrow enough to securely tie the boat to large trees on either side. You were then to drop an appropriate anchor taking the bottom of the creek into consideration. Here again, without a chart you had no idea what was on the bottom. The anchor should be heavy enough to hold the boat in strong winds.

Our biggest anchor was called a “Luke.” We would only use that if the hurricane expected was a level three. This was a big trade-off. There was no problem getting the Luke over the side. Getting it back on board was something else again. It had to be hauled out hand-over-hand; it was much too big to be stored in the bow anchor compartment with the other three.

Fortunately, by the time Hurricane Keith reached us it was a tropical storm, so we didn’t think it was necessary to throw over the Luke.

We did use the third heaviest, the name of which I have long since forgotten. To be on the safe side, we lugged the Luke to the cockpit and had it ready just in case Keith grew stronger.

We were anchored between a row of condominiums and a mangrove mound at New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Having prepared for the hurricane most of the day we were dead tired when darkness fell. Feeling fairly safe, we decided to turn in.

There were three or four sailboats in our anchorage and just as we were about to go below we discovered that one of them was floating aimlessly in the freshening wind. Its owner had abandoned it earlier in the day without leaving it properly anchored.

One of us had to stay up and fend it off when it came too close to our boat. Mother Nature didn’t pose much of a problem with her hurricane that night, but a careless sailor certainly did.

I couldn’t wait to give him an earful the next morning, but we pulled out before he arrived. Too bad. I had developed and practiced a really expressive salty vocabulary. I never got to use it.

I do have a funny story about anchoring. It wasn’t funny to me when it happened, but in the fullness of time it gave me a bit of a chuckle.

The first night we anchored was our fourth night away from our homeport in Sackett’s Harbor, New York. John studied the books for hours before we approached a rather large stream feeding into the Erie Canal. It was to be our anchorage.

Carefully maneuvering the boat into position, we dropped the correct anchor and fell exhausted into our bunks. Somewhere in the books I read that when anchoring, one should pick an easily visible spot on the shore and line it up with a spot on the boat. Reason being if one happened to look out one’s porthole during the night, one could easily ascertain whether or not the anchor was holding. If the two spots lined up, all was well. My shore spot was a V-shaped tree. It being my first night at anchor, I put enough pillows around me to be in a position to just open my eyes and peer out the porthole. I hardly slept at all.

Just before dawn after 7,000 position checks I fell sound asleep. As the sun rose directly into my eyes, I suddenly woke up. Horrified, I immediately looked out the porthole to line up my two points. The V-shaped tree was gone. In fact, the shore was changed completely. The horizon was different, the water’s edge was in a different place; everything was out of place.

I screamed into John’s ear, “Wake up, we drifted, we’re probably back out in the canal, we’re going to be run over by a barge, get up!” He jumped up and dashed into the cockpit where he immediately sat down and buried his head in his hands.

“What? What?” I shouted.

“I forgot to tell you the boat turns completely around when the tide runs the other way. I thought you knew that. We’re just fine.”

And we were. The V-shaped tree, formerly on the port side of the boat was now on the starboard side. I figure that experience took a few months off my normal lifespan, but that’s nothing compared to the years the entire boating life took away from me.

So, with Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jean, et al, beating up on all the boats headed south right then, I’m happy to be here on dry land. Our ornery midwestern weather is a light breeze compared to winds with names.

Thank Goodness for that.


As the calendar creeps through March I try to prepare myself for the inevitable onset of Cabin Fever.

Here in Ohio, the snowdrops poke out of the ground, and the willow branches take on their amber hue. But that’s about it for tried and true harbingers of spring.

Back home in Tennessee, daffodils are already up and running. Of course, they’re not called daffodils there. We Southerners prefer to call them “buttercups.” Never mind there is a waxy little yellow wildflower properly called buttercups. We are set in our ways about lots of things and referring to daffodils as buttercups is one about which we are devout.

Considering my long sojourn here in the “Nawth,” it seems I would be more accepting of its weather patterns. But it has never been so. March should take seriously the vernal equinox instead of continuing to languish in the winter doldrums. I can remember the first winter I spent in Upstate New York. It just kept on snowing. The “survivors,” as the natives liked to call themselves, had already warned me about the snow starting in November or earlier and continuing for an indefinite time. I was then prepared for a thick blanket of snow from Thanksgiving through February, but March and part of April came and went and it was still snowing.

I very nearly lost my mind. Some say I did lose it. Some say it’s still lost. It’s just that it seems somehow immoral that winter clings on so long. I have to admit it makes me a little crazy. Not as crazy as my family thinks I’m crazy, but enough to make me occasionally wonder why I do what I do. I mean, sometimes I surprise myself.

During one especially worrisome episode of Cabin Fever a while back, I decided to build a solarium on the back of the house and move the kitchen into it; I ordered books on glass painting, commodity trading, polymer clay, and Zen; I made a commitment to learn “Pancho & Lefty” on the guitar, mainly because I only recently discovered its composer, Townes Van Zandt; I bought a 12-piece setting of gold-plated silverware in a faux mahogany box; and I toured the craggy hills of Central Ohio looking for a place to build a log cabin.

I resolved to exercise and train for the U.S. Open Senior Tennis championship. Martina was thereby served notice. It is I who would be kissing the trophy while she must be contented to hold the runner-up’s silver platter.

My daughter wanted to know if I had bought a book on “How to Perform Your Own Tummy Tuck with Hedge Clippers and Super Glue.” Well, perhaps an instrument less cumbersome than hedge clippers but. . .

It was during one of the Cabin Fever episodes that I went to Nashville to visit Best Friend Robert. We went out to see our buddies, Don and Jimmy, in the country. The boys raise those cute little Shih Tzu dogs. I had decided I wanted a dog. Mind you, I don’t even like dogs, but I had to have one.

As we watched the puppies romp and play in Jimmy’s and Don’s living room, I once again surprised myself when I withdrew my checkbook and wrote a check for $500. I bought two! I named them Shotzi and Maxi.

Daughter and family were shocked, but not nearly as much as I was. When this mood strikes me, it’s as though I step out of my body and fly around near the ceiling watching myself do the most outrageous things. As soon as I had the puppies in the house, there I was up there again watching in wonder.

“What the. . .she’s really done it this time,” I said to me. I always refer to myself in the third person when in shock mode, and sometimes I pretend I don’t know me at all.

The cute little dogs got right to work making me even crazier. They chewed, ripped, and tore up everything they could reach. They pooped on every floor in every room. They barked at me by dawn’s early light every morning. They wanted to go out, though God knows why; they always waited to come back in the house to do their business.

The crazy woman had made a big mistake.

The day I came home and found they had unraveled a two-inch strip of my brand new Berber carpet pushed me over the edge. As I stood looking at the ruined carpet I realized I liked the carpet more than I liked the little dogs. When I found in the bedroom my Italian leather boots in shreds, that did it. I gave the cute little dogs away.

John’s friend, Larry, said after the first forsythia blooms, there would be only three more snows. He had seen its yellow blossoms that very day. At this point, March 29, there have been two snows since Larry spied a blooming forsythia. Neither snow amounted to much. The first was about an inch and the second barely covered the hopeful green grass.

I will leave my snow boots at the bottom of the steps just inside the front door, where they have been since Thanksgiving.

After the next (third) snow, I will take the boots upstairs and put them in the back of the closet. Should there be another (No. 4) snow, I will go upstairs to retrieve the boots. I will put them on and wear them to Larry’s house. When I see Larry, I will take off one of the boots and use it to beat him severely about the head and shoulders until he begs for mercy.

Should Larry think I am kidding, I can direct him to several erstwhile friends who can attest to my sincerity when speaking about the duress under which I place people who play fast and loose with snow prognostications.

One must be careful about weather predictions. Don’t go looking up at the sky and saying it looks like it may be clearing. Don’t, under any circumstances, put away the snow shovel. Don’t even think winter has done its worst.

Oh, yes, there is one other thing. If you see my neighbor, Richard, bring out his golf clubs, rush to the IGA and buy every loaf of bread and bottle of milk you can find. Run home and batten down the hatches. Believe me when I tell you:  we’re in for a real nor’easter!



As it is for most people, the time comes when one has to make a living all by one’s self. Mine came when I was first a grass widow. That’s a very old-fashioned term meaning a divorcee.  I did so for the most part “working for the man,” as it was called back in the day. When First Husband took off to build his love nest in another tree, my only skill was typing. Given a typing test as part of the application, I almost always secured the job by typing so fast my fingers were a blur. My average speed was 100 words per minute, no errors. Needless to say the job for which I was applying was mine for the asking. The problem was the job never paid a living wage and First Husband only paid child support when it suited him to do so. It never occurred to me he would not pay the amount we agreed upon: $150/month).

When my lawyer suggested I set the agreement up so that the child support would be paid to me through the court, I refused. First Husband adored his sweet little girls, and he was gainfully employed, as was his new wife. I did not wish to insult him by forcing him to pay support through the courts. Ha! What an idiot I was. The ink wasn’t dry on the divorce decree before he just couldn’t make it this month, and he would get caught up next month, and on and on. The answer was obvious: I had to get married again. And thereby hangs a tale for another telling.

The most money I made was working in my own business: court reporting. It was also the most fun I had while making a living at the time. John and I had married, and we moved back to his hometown, Watertown, New York. I had become interested in court reporting after typing transcripts for the Grand Jury reporter in Nashville. After researching court reporting I found, to my surprise, there was no license needed. There was no skill required except an ability to quickly take down every word uttered and then transcribe the testimony neatly and efficiently. Most reporters who worked in actual trial cases used a transcription machine, which took at least three years to learn in a special school. There was only one requirement to become a court reporter: one had to be a Notary Public. The testimony was not acceptable unless the witness had been sworn in by a genuine Notary Public. The testimony had to be signed and stamped by the N.P., before it was legal. That’s all it took to become a court reporter. Easy Peasy.

Among my possessions was a tape recorder operated by a foot pedal or a button on top of the machine. I also had two high-quality microphones on stands that my electronic genius buddy hooked up to my fancy recorder. To be on the safe side I had a plain-Jane tape recorder to use as a back-up. I could also write faster than the speed of light using my own bastardized version of shorthand. I applied for a Notary Public stamp, which soon arrived in the mail, and I was in business.

No one had ever seen all this paraphernalia spread out in a courtroom. I therefore opted to make myself available only for private depositions. It had never been seen in those proceedings either, but I felt it would be easier to pull off among less legal surroundings. I did trial runs casting friends and family as attorneys and defendants and plaintiffs. My only stumbling block was reading back testimony, as was often required. Most of the time, I could do it from my short hand, but sometimes if it were long, I had to run the tape back and hope I guessed correctly where it was. Most of the time I hit it with no problem.

There were still a couple things I absolutely had to have to be able to pull it off. I had used them before, and found them to be reliable and in good working order, but I had never called on them to see me through anything as bodacious as this. I don’t know how to put it delicately, so I will only tell you it takes a pair of them, if you get my meaning.

I had done some legal typing for a court reporter in Watertown, New York. She mentioned to me she had so much actual trial work she was swamped. I had typed some testimony for the grand jury stenographer in Nashville. I told her I felt confident I could handle some easy court reporting. I didn’t tell her how I planned to go about it, but I don’t think it would have mattered. She was eager to unload it.

In a few days, she called me and asked if I could go down to the jail and take testimony on a parole violation hearing. Sure. No Problem. I would be glad to help her out.

On the appointed day, I found my way to the jail and told the policeman on duty I was there to take testimony for a parole hearing. I was a half hour early, but I was hoping I would have time to scope out the landscape and set up my equipment well ahead of schedule. The cop led me down a hallway and unlocked a door for me. I went in and he locked the door behind me. There was a long table at one end of the room. At the other end was a closed metal door with a barred window in the top. On the other side of the door there were sounds the like of which I had never heard. I’m no babe in the woods, mind you, but I heard some phrases the definition of which was and still is a mystery to me.

I set up my equipment and before long a man came in. On his hip was a holster and a large pistol.

“Damn, I forgot,” he said, as he smiled at me. “Take this for me,” he said to the cop who had let him in, as he drew the gun and handed it to him. “I’m not supposed to be armed for the hearings,” he said to me, apologetically. He introduced himself to me and asked where the usual court reporter was. I told him I was standing in for her. I said she was not feeling well. I didn’t see any reason to tell him she was eager to unload this particular job, because her actual court work paid more money, and she didn’t want to give any more of it up in order to run down to the jail to preside over parole hearings.

He insisted I call him by his first name, which was fine with me. We talked a bit, and he asked about all the microphones. I told him about my system, and asked about where everyone was to be seated. I wanted to place my microphones to best pick up the various voices. He gave me the information I sought, and said he had never seen a system such as mine, but it looked okay to him.

So far so good.

In a few minutes, another man came into the room. He was very tall, quite distinguished, and impeccably dressed. Tom, the parole officer, introduced me and told Mr. Tolino, who turned out to be a representative of the New York State Board of Parole in Albany about my recording system. It was okay with Mr. Tolino as well. Great!

“Well, let’s get started,” said Mr. Tolino. “Let’s have the first parolee.” Tom went to the door through which all the noise had been heard and yelled a name. In a few minutes, a young man came in accompanied by an older guy whom I knew to be a Watertown attorney.

I swore in Tom, the parolee, and the attorney. It seemed the young man had violated his parolee by fighting in a bar after drinking copious amounts of vodka. Tom told the story, and the attorney asked for leniency, given the fact that it was the youngster’s first parole violation. Mr. Tolino asked the parolee if the story Tom told was true, and the young man said yes, but he didn’t start the fight, and this other guy pissed him off, and…”

Mr. Tolino interrupted him. “I asked you if what your parole officer said is true.”

“Yes, sir, but…” he started.

“Thank you,” said Mr. Tolino. I will present the evidence in the form of this young lady’s transcript (with a nod toward me – making him my hero forever and ever) to the parole board, and you will receive their decision by mail. Next, please.”

The scene was repeated almost word-for-word with the next parolee, who had been involved in a drunken brawl, but he didn’t start it, and so on.

This time when Mr. Tolino said, “Next, please,” Tom told him that was it. There were no more parole violators.

“Do you mean I drove all the way up here from Albany for only two cases,” asked Mr. Tolino, incredulously.

“Well, yes,” said Tom. I thought there would be more by now, but if I had delayed these two hearings, those guys could have walked. The deadline for their hearings was this week.”

Mr. Tolino packed up his belongings and left, with the long trek back to Albany ahead of him. Tom explained to me that when a parolee is arrested for violating the terms of his parole, his hearing before a rep from the board has to take place within six weeks. If it happen in that time period, the parolee must be released. As I came to know Tom better in the four years I took testimony for the Board of Parole, I found he preferred to have his parolees in jail or better yet, prison. They were a lot less trouble to him. If he caught one of his guys so much as spitting on the sidewalk, out came the cuff links, and Tom fetched the nearest cop to accompany the miscreant to jail.

I had one or two interesting cases, but they were mostly arrested for drunk and disorderly, neither one of which was the guy’s fault, of course. I remember on one occasion after we had heard four or five of the same tired old stories, Mr. Tolino said, “I swear if one of them walked in here and said, ‘Yes, I did it myself with no help or instigation from anybody. It was all my fault,’ I’d let him go right then and there.” But no one ever said anything even close to it. It was never their fault.

Ant that’s how I became the official stenographer for the New York State Board of Parole. John always got such a kick when my check came in the mail. He loved it when one of the neighbors was nearby. He’d take the envelope plainly marked with our address and the Parole Board’s return address out of the mailbox and say, “Oh, oh, Millie has another letter from her parole board. I hope they’re not going to send her back to jail.”

There were big yuks all around. Everybody in town knew what I was doing, but they laughed anyway. It was a very small town.

I suppose if you’ve stuck with me this long, I should give you a story. The story I shall tell you has another part, which I’ll leave for another time, or maybe it will just be in the book.

After I had worked for the Parole Board for about a year, Tom called and asked if I might be available for a certain date. I was, and as I wrote it down on my calendar, he said, “This one is not your garden variety parole violation. The guy is nuts, and has violated his parole three times before. He’s violent, and, as you know, we’re not allowed to have a guard or a weapon in the hearing room.” I noticed an evil chuckle in Tom’s voice. “You’re likely to have an experience you won’t forget.”

“All right, Tom, if you’re trying to scare me, it’s not working,” I told him, with a chuckle of my own.”

“Fine,” he answered. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” and he rang off.

On the appointed day, I arrived at the jail, just as Tom was disarming himself. As I spoke to the cop on duty at the dispatcher’s desk, I saw Tom take out his gun and put it in a locker.

“You sure you won’t need that this time?” asked the dispatcher with a laugh. Tom turned to respond and saw me.

“Hey, don’t scare Millie like that,” he said, still chuckling. “Let her draw her own conclusions.” I hadn’t the slightest notion what they were talking about.

The dispatcher took me to the hearing room as usual and unlocked the door. I thanked him and entered the room. There, much to my surprise, was a state trooper with the biggest German Shepherd dog I ever saw. Now, I don’t like everybody to know this, but I’m scared of big dogs. It goes back to my childhood and is explained fully elsewhere in the book.  Mr. Tolino was also already there and we were soon joined by an unarmed Tom and yet another policeman.

Tom explained to the hearing officer that the parolee we were to hear today was Greg Compland. He went on to say the guy was a wild man. The prison psychiatrist diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic. He was violent and spent long hours misreading the law books in the prison library. Always serving as his own attorney, he had violated his parole numerous times and after each violation hearing he sued most everyone present. Compland had already told Tom if things didn’t go well for him, he was going to sue everyone this time, including the dog.

I didn’t know what to expect, but when he was finally led in I realized the dog was a mere pussycat next to this guy. He was huge. Not fat huge but tall, powerful huge. His eyes were wild, and he was gritting his teeth. In the past, the parole violators simply entered the room from the cellblock door and sat down at the table. Compland, however, was handcuffed and escorted by a guard. The guard uncuffed him and Compland sat down at the conference table. Because the rules stated that no guard could remain in the hearing room, this one went back into the cellblock. Tom walked back to the door with him and I heard him whisper, “Stay close.”

“Before we get started,” Compland said suddenly, “I want a copy of this transcript.” He glared at me.

“Well, I don’t know,” I mumbled. “The parole board pays for one transcript.”

His fist crashed down on the table. “And they’ll pay for mine, too,” he yelled at me. The hearing officer held up a calming hand. “We’ll pay for your copy, Mr. Compland, and it will be delivered to you at the jail.” And then turning to me, “Bill us for two transcripts, Mrs. Entrekin, and deliver Mr. Compland’s copy to him at the jail.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, thinking to myself if Compland waited for the transcript to be delivered personally to his cell, he’d better learn a little patience. I’d take it as far as the dispatcher, but that was it.

Mr. Tolino, the hearing officer told Compland he was entitled to an attorney, and if he could not afford. . .

“I’m my own attorney,” Compland thundered.

“Fine,” said Mr. Tolino. How do you plead?

“Not guilty,” the furious Mr. Compland answered.

“Proceed,” said Mr. Tolino.

“I call to the stand this K-9 officer here and his dog,” said Compland.

“We really can’t put the dog on the stand, Mr. Compland,” said the hearing officer.

“It’s necessary for my defense,” said Compland, glaring at all of us around the table.

“Very well,” was the answer, “but I’m sure you know I can’t swear it in.”

Tom muffled a giggle and I kept my eyes glued to my notebook, writing frantically as I did so. As soon as the K-9 officer was sworn in, Compland suddenly stood up and leapt at him. The dog sprang into action and threw a flying wedge between his master and Compland.

It took awhile to settle things down again. The dog responded immediately to an order from Norton (the K-9 officer) to cease and desist. The rest of us were considerably more ruffled.

“I rest my case,” said Compland, smugly. And then to Tom, “your witness.”

“Uh, what just happened here?” asked Tom to no one in particular.

“The dog is trained to defend me if I am threatened,” said Norton in an official-sounding voice. “It requires no voice command from me. All K-9 dogs are schooled in this manner.”

“Aha!” shouted Compland. “See, he admits it. That’s what he did that night!”

“What did he do that night”? asked Mr. Tolino. “I don’t think I understand.”

“Well, take a look at this, and then you’ll understand,” said Compland, taking from his lap a scuffed and beat-up leather jacket he had brought into the room with him. One sleeve was ripped at the elbow. And then to me, “This is Defendant’s Exhibit A.”

I dutifully took a sticker from my notebook, marked it “Exhibit A,” and handed it to Mr. Tolino. The court reporter is supposed to personally mark the exhibits, but I was reluctant to get close enough to Compland to stick anything on his precious jacket.

“That (expletive deleted) dog tore my new jacket,” continued the wild man, “because he thought I was going to attack this guy.” He indicated Norton.

“If I could explain, sir,” said Tom. “Mr Compland caused a disturbance outside a bar in Watertown. The bartender called the police. Two officers tried to subdue Mr. Compland. They called for backup and two more officers arrived on the scene. They were unable to reason with the parolee. The K-9 officer was on routine patrol. He saw the disturbance and stopped. The other policemen had succeeded in wrestling Mr. Compland to the ground.

“When he saw the dog and the K-9 officer, he freed himself from the officers’ grasp and went for Officer Norton. The dog intervened.”

“Do you have other witnesses?” Mr. Tolino asked Tom.

“Yes, sir,” said Tom. “Shall I bring them in?”

“Yes, one at a time, pl. . .”

“Oh, sure, you’re going to gang up on me with all these lies,” said Compland, jumping from his seat at the table. “Maybe you don’t know it, but I’m a paranoid schizophrenic, and there’s no telling what I’ll do!” He clenched one fist and grabbed Tom by his shirt front with the other hand. The dog pricked up his ears, but since it wasn’t Norton who was being menaced, he didn’t seem to care.

“Sit down, Mr. Compland,” ordered the hearing officer. In the meantime Tom reached for his gun and then remembered he took it off before he entered the hearing room. Compland continued to rant and rave and bounce off the walls.

I was frozen with fright. Suddenly, I heard myself asking quietly, “Is all this on the record?” Mr. Tolino looked at me with what I can only describe as a desperate expression.

“No, I don’t think so,” he whispered. I turned the machine off and put my hands in my lap.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” screamed Compland. “I want every single word of this in the transcript.” He was suddenly all over me, fumbling with the recorder trying to find the on/off switch. All reason having left me by this time, I tried to protect the recorder. It did, after all, cost me an arm and a leg. And now it seemed there was a clear and present danger I would lose an arm and/or a leg and the machine.

I leaned forward and covered it with my body. Compland continued to fight me. By now, everyone in the room was shouting and pulling at Compland. He was so strong he had no trouble fending them off. I was stiff as a board. If he managed to get the machine away from me, he would have to pick me up bodily and then pry it loose. I’ve never been so scared.

Over the melee, I heard Mr. Tolino shout, “The dog!” I guess Officer Norton gave the dog a command, but I didn’t hear it. The next thing I knew, Compland was on the floor and the dog was on top of him. Tom ran to the cellblock door and yelled for the guards. A dozen or so of them came and carried Compland, kicking and screaming, back into the jail.

It was over. We all sat and stared at each other for a long time. Mr. Tolino asked me if I was hurt and did I want to see the doctor. I told him I was ok. He then said to me, “Let’s go back on the record.” I turned on the machine and the hearing officer said a few well-chosen words about Mr. Compland indeed being guilty of violating his parole by his actions in the hearing room, and he would be sent back to prison forthwith. I was shaking so badly, one of the guards helped me gather up my equipment, and he carried it to my car. I assured him I was recovered enough to drive myself home, although I didn’t believe a word of it.

About a year later, Tom called and asked if I were available to serve as stenographer for a parole violation.

“Sure,” I said and began to write “parole hearing” in my daybook. “It’s an old friend of yours,” said Tom, with a wicked laugh. “His name is Greg Compland.”

“Oh, no, what must I be thinking,” I said, erasing the words from my book, “Here’s an entry I overlooked. I have a deposition that day. Rats!”

“Too bad,” said Tom. “I guess we’ll have to get somebody else.”

“Looks that way,” I said. “Sorry.”

By the way, Greg Compland is not this guy’s real name, and you can quote me. The next time I was at the jail taking testimony, Tom told me that I had missed a high ol’ time in the hearing room. Compland was even more violent and threatening. After that hearing, which also included the same K-9 unit, Compland sued the hearing officer, Tom, the county jail, the New York Board of Parole, and, best of all, Norton as the K-9 Officer and–wait for it–the DOG!







I mentioned earlier that I was really into crochet. Here’s my grandest accomplishment. His name is Tommy Turkey, and I made him for our Thanksgiving Day centerpiece. He is a larger version of a Teri Crews Design, and I love him. Tommy is sitting in a crocheted ring decorated with autumnal decorations. This ring served double duty. It was our wreath for the autumn season.
I’m so busy making Christmas presents for my family, I haven’t had time to make our Christmas wreath. It is to be “Roses in the Snow.”
Maybe I’ll have it finished by Christmas 2015.
Hope yours is merry.
The pattern for the original Tommy if here:
Teri has tons of really cute animals and other softies. Her web site is Take a look at it. You’ll be amazed!


When the leaves begin to fall and the weather turns a bit nippy, I always think about the experience I’ll tell you about below. It is one of many from this particular “life,” not all of which were pleasant, but unforgettable nonetheless.

During the early 70s there was a great movement in this country to “go back to the land.” Much to the dismay of my two daughters, my husband and I decided to join it. We spent the summer building a cabin on 13 scruffy acres in Upstate New York, and prepared to settle in for the winter. We would study and learn self-sufficiency.

Come spring, we looked forward to tapping our Maple trees and making our own syrup. Consulting my homesteaders’ handbook, I was surprised to learn there are several varieties of Maple trees, but only the Sugar Maple’s sap has a high-enough sugar concentration to make the process worthwhile. Silver and Red Maples, which grew cheek by jowl with the Sugar Maples in our woods were never tapped for syrup-making purposes.

Although the pictured leaves indicated only subtle differences I was confident I could tell them apart when the time came. However, further reading indicated the leaves would not be on the trees when it came time to pound in the taps sometime in early March. Now, what was I going to do?

I took my tree-identification book to the woods to examine the tree trunks. Inspecting the tree bark by holding the book against each tree I suspected might be a Sugar Maple was disappointing. The results were inconclusive.

Finally, inspiration struck. I would simply take a spray can of neon paint and mark the Sugar Maples while I could still identify them by their leaves.

In the woods down a hill from the cabin, I peered high in the treetops to identify the Sugar Maples. To double-check I carefully examined the leaves under the tree. Thus assured, I spray-painted a large “X” on the side of the tree trunk facing the cabin, reckoning I would be lugging my sap collection apparatus (a minor detail not yet figured out) from that direction.

After marking 20 trees, I started back to the cabin and turned to admire my handiwork. I discovered, much to my horror, I had misidentified the first tree. From the angle I now approached it, I discovered it was a Red Maple. Fearful I couldn’t remember which tree was mistakenly marked six months later, I had to do something to stop me from tapping that tree.

Taking the spray can in hand, I drew a straight line through the “X” and underneath wrote in huge letters the word, “NO!” I could now welcome winter with no fear of the leaves falling too soon, knowing we would enjoy the fruits of my labor on our pancakes next spring.

The leaves indeed fell, the brush disappeared on the 100 yards or so down the hill where the woods began,  and there in full view of our cabin were now revealed 19 trees marked with huge reflective “Xs” and one tree shouting from the forest, “NO!”

The kids laughed, their friends laughed, my friends and neighbors laughed and then their friends and neighbors came to see and stayed to laugh. When the snow fell, the sight was even more impressive. All those brilliant red letters contrasting with the white snow made for a striking visual experience.

One day a hunter came to the door. He wanted to know why all those trees were marked in the forest. He had, he said, hunted in those woods all his life, and he had no idea anyone lived here. I assured him that yes, someone did live here, and if he didn’t get off my land, I’d set the dogs on him.

The opportunity to say that comes along but once in a lifetime if that, and I seized on it. We only had one dog, but it sounded more threatening to imply the plural.

Yes, he said he would go, but first would I tell him about the markings. No, I most certainly would not I said as I turned to whistle for the dog. The hunter skedaddled, but not before he, too, laughed.

As it turned out, the maple syrup experience didn’t go as smoothly as the homesteader handbook indicated. We tapped the trees in March and boiled down the sap over an outside fire. When the liquid started to thicken, we were instructed to pour it off into a saucepan, and finish it inside on the stove. Each time this crucial point was reached, something invariably happened to divert my attention, and the syrup proceeded from golden amber to black tar before I could say “Mrs. Butterworth.”

We tried tapping the red Xed trees the next year, and this time we managed to produce less than a pint of dark Grade C syrup that any self-respecting maple syrup maker would have thrown out before it even reached the bottle. We called it quits after that.  In time we left the cabin in the woods; the “Xs” and “NO!” were still there bright and glowing as ever. I suppose they’re there to this day.

All of which brings me to the moral of this story: never spray iridescent paint on anything you don’t plan to live with for the rest of your life. Believe me. The only way to hide it from your constant view is to move away from it.


When my best friend, Robert, retired several years ago, his niece prepared a scrapbook for him. She asked me and some of his other friends to write a memory of Robert to be included in the book. Here is mine.

When people have known one another for more than 60 years, said people accumulate many memories. Some of us have zip for long-term memories; others have trouble with short-term memories. Some have no memory at all, but I’m not naming names.

Since Robert and I met in the 6th grade (he says the 7th grade) and we’ve spent much time with one another starting way back then, I thought I would plod through my recollections, knowing it would be difficult to select the best one for his scrapbook. As it turned out, it wasn’t hard at all. One memory so stands out from the rest, it was easy to choose.

The event I shall relate landed us in the soup, to say the least. Today it would be a minor misdemeanor, but in the 50s it was a felony punishable by death or at least being sentenced to a year of dish washing.

Here’s what happened:

Once upon a time around 1953-1954, Robert invited me to go with him on a hayride and cookout. He attended the Nazarene Church, which sponsored the event. I can’t remember who thought of it, but the idea appealed to both of us.

We would find some way to obtain a bottle of vodka, with which we would spike the chaperones’ Big Orange drinks when we arrived at our cookout destination. Nehi orange soda pop was stuck with the “Big Orange” appellation in those days because of a popular Andy Griffith monolog in which he referred to the drinks as Big Orange. At least that’s where I think it started.

One of our best friends was Joyce Schurman, who was the minister’s daughter. We ran the idea by Joyce, to test the waters, so to speak, to find out what she thought about it and how much trouble she thought we’d be in if we got caught. To our surprise and delight, Joyce thought it a splendid idea and asked if she could join us. So, there were now four of us, counting Joyce’s unsuspecting date, Charles, who would go along, but didn’t wish to take an active part. Never mind; more was better if it became necessary to spread the blame around.

Having no earthly way to find vodka, it seems to me we really thought we wouldn’t be able to secure it, making the caper impossible to actually fulfill, but fun to talk about. Little did we know just how easily it would fall into our hands and make our daring escapade doable.

My sister’s best friend was from a big drinking family. When my sister told her friend about our plan, she immediately took us to her mother, who obliged by filling a small bottle with vodka and sending us on our way.

That night when we gathered at the church, I had the bottle secreted in a blanket. Robert, Joyce and I referred to the blanketed vodka as “the baby.”

“Let me hold the baby.” “Would you take care of the baby for a while?” “Be sure to keep the baby covered up.” And so on.

Riding in the hay wagon, we giggled all the way to our cookout destination. When we arrived the chaperones (of which there were many, in an abundance of Nazarene caution) they began to set out fixings for a wiener roast, et al. To our giddy delight, we saw the Big Orange drinks opened and lined up on a table very near the edge of the dark woods.

It was the work of only a second to figure out how we were going to do the deed. We crouched behind the table, hidden by the trees and the darkness. One of us served as lookout while the other two grabbed a drink and poured some of it on the ground, replacing it with vodka. No one saw us, and after a while, we were able to give the drinks yet another shot of the booze. By the time the Big Oranges were to be drunk, we had completed our mission.

We stayed where we were in order to gauge the chaperones’ reaction. To our surprise and amusement, one of the drinkers said, “I think this orange drink is the best I’ve ever had.” The revelation caused us so much mirth, we had to clap our hands over our mouths for fear of being discovered.

We were very pleased with ourselves for pulling off the practical joke of the century. I think the hayride was on a Friday night, but I’m not sure about that. It was Sunday afternoon when Robert called me.

“The whole church knows about the baby,” he said feverishly.
“They’re going to make me apologize to the congregation.”

“How did they know it was you?” I asked, terrified. “How did they know it was booze?”

“I guess they tasted it. We put a lot in those Big Orange bottles. But I don’t know. Joyce said one of the girls told on us. She’s grounded for a week for her punishment. And listen to this. They know I had another girl accomplice. They also know she’s a Baptist, and they want me to tell them your name, so they can tell your church and your mother about it.”

“You didn’t tell them, did you?”

“I think it’s going to go worse for me if I don’t tell them,” he said. “If they know you go to the Baptist Church, they’ll find out it was you, so I might as well tell them.”

“No-o-o-o,” I stage-whispered into the phone. My mother was in the other room, and I tried to drag the phone into my room and close the door. The cord wouldn’t stretch that far.

“Please, please don’t tell them,” I begged. He desperately tried to convince me we would get off easier if he told them who I was, on the condition they wouldn’t tell my church and my mother. “Even if they do go for that, you will have to come to my church and apologize to the whole congregation.”

So, there it was. Damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I pleaded with him. Some of Mother’s friends went to the Nazarene Church, and she would surely get wind of it. And after she heard about it, she would kill me.

There were many whispered conversations on the phone that Sunday. I was able to talk Robert out of telling them my name, and I didn’t want to even whisper about it further. That sucker had to be buried alive or dead. I don’t remember how it turned out, but I think he was forced to apologize. I escaped with my “good girl” reputation intact.

But the episode wasn’t over. I was not discovered, but I wound up confessing it to Mother anyway.

Mother had a mental list of “Boys Who May Not Be Dated.” At the top of the list was — I’ll call him –- Bob. Patricia, my sister, had been explicitly forbidden to go out with him for some reason now forgotten. But Patricia had subterfuge in her soul as well. Bob would send a friend to our house to pick up my sister. She would then be delivered to Bob, and when they came home, he would let her off at the corner, and she always said whomever he was had a deadline to get home, and he was running late.

I worried about her telling those lies, and I thought I had to let Mother know what was going on. I knew if I told on her, my sister would tell Mother about that damned “baby.” There was nothing for it but to tell Mother myself what I did, so I could then reveal my sister’s deception freely, and she would have no such power over me.

Mother, of course, had a conniption fit! She and her family were world-class criers. This time, I thought she was never going to stop crying. She wept buckets and paced the floor while I just stood there totally taciturn.

“No wonder Mrs. Young won’t speak to me,” she wailed. Mrs. Young, a Nazarene, was our next-door neighbor. “I’ll never be able to hold my head up again. I’m ruined. You’ve disgraced the whole family.”

When the tears slacked a little, I broke the news to her about my sister.

More tears. More anguish. More consternation. But what was this? She wasn’t upset about the Bob lies. She was still furious with me.

“You should be so ashamed of yourself to say those awful things about your sister. Don’t you tell your daddy that, and don’t confess your own sin to him. It would kill him. Oh, where did I go wrong?”

A deluge. More tears. More threats. More accusations. More everything.

On further reflection, perhaps I should have fessed up to the Nazarenes with Robert. It might have gone down better, and by then I would have come out smelling like a rose.

But it was not to be, thanks to my postponing my just desserts; it was my lying, no-account sister who was smelling like a rose. I was stinking to the high heaven, into which my mother said I would never see.

Sinners of my ilk were drop-shipped directly to the devil himself.


Sorry, Dear Friends, for staying away so long. I have spent the past  seven weeks enjoying four frenetic ambulance rides up and down the Interstate scattering less attention-craving vehicles thither and yon. After as many hospital incarcerations, it was decided to dose me with a new med, and now all is cool at least for the time being. Thanks for your concern and your patience. 


Being a female teenager in the 50s, it was expected I should “learn to cook and to sew; what’s more, you’ll love it, I know.” (From a popular song of the period.) I think classes in Home Economics, as they were called in the 50s, no longer exist. It’s a good thing, too. I have a strong suspicion I am partially responsible for the demise of what I nicknamed “Hoe Mek.” If that is true I’m not ashamed to admit it. It is one of my proudest accomplishments. And believe me when I tell you, it wasn’t easy. I barely escaped Hoe Mek with my life, but not without bruises and spilled blood.

My first sortie into the heady atmosphere of classroom domesticity scarred me for life, but I had no choice in the matter. Back in those unenlightened days, at least in Nashville, Tennessee, 7th grade boys took “Shop.” Girls took Hoe Mek, which was considered too sissified for boys just as Shop was too dangerous for girls.  My father and I had worked together on small building projects for years. I knew my way around a coping saw and a tack hammer with the best of them, but Bailey Junior High’s curriculum was sexually explicit. No exceptions

The Hoe Mek teacher’s name was Mrs. Wray. She was an acquaintance of my mother’s. Mother told me I must be very attentive in class, and I was to take care to not give Mrs. Wray any trouble. It seemed she had a “nervous condition.”

But try as I might, I managed to give her grief practically from the first day of classes. I never knew the answers to the simplest questions: “How does one starch a shirt?” “Why is the tip of an iron hotter than the rest of the iron?” “How do you boil an egg without breaking the shell?” I hadn’t the slightest idea. Still don’t.

The first hands-on activity was sewing. We were told to buy two yards of a nice cotton print, and bring it to the next class. We were going to make a skirt. I announced the coming purchase to Mother, and she said we would go to town and pick out my fabric on Saturday. I was not in the least interested in sewing, and even less in owning a cotton print skirt. But Mother was excited about it, and promised to answer any questions I might have at home. She would even introduce me to her own sainted sewing machine. I didn’t even try to appear interested.

I took my fabric to school as instructed, and followed Mrs. Wray’s direction. We did some cutting, none of which I remember, and set about basting the seams. I was happy to discover I understood the directions, and “with a song in my heart” (another popular song of the period) I proceeded to take long hand-stitches.

I soon noticed Mrs. Wray hanging out near my seat at the sewing table. At one time, I managed to glance unnoticed up at her, and she had a quizzical look on her face as she studied my stitching.

Suddenly, she yelled, “Mildred, you’re stitching backwards.” I nearly jumped out of my skin. “You’re sewing backwards. You’re using your right hand, but you’re sewing in a left-handed direction. Stop it this instant!” I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was on about. I asked her, but she was becoming more and more distraught.

Oh no! I had activated Mrs. Wray’s nervous condition!

She quickly wrote a note and told me to take it home to Mother just as the bell rang releasing me from her frenetic note-writing and material- gathering. She literally shoved me out the door.

This incident was the first in a long series of similar occurrences that continue to this day, which seems to indicate there is a wire crossed in my brain. I use my right hand, but somehow I do things in a left-hander’s direction. It’s caused no small amount of consternation, mostly among those from whom I have taken instruction, such as square dancing, pottery making and horseback riding. The first two caused amazement, but the horse didn’t seem to notice.

It soon became obvious to me Mrs. Wray thought I had some evil intent to send her over the edge by sewing backwards. Little did she know what lay ahead. When the skirts finally reached the sewing machines, I was terrified. My machine looked to me as though it was the one with evil intent.

My first day at the machine began surrounded by an aura of unaccustomed calm. Mrs. Wray took her usual position standing over me. My confidence built slowly and before I knew it, I was busily  pushing my skirt gathers underneath the presser foot. I may even have been humming a little ditty, as I happily ignored the sinister watchfulness of Mrs. Wray.

“No, Mildred!” she suddenly shouted, successfully destroying the mood. “You’re doing it again! You’re sewing back…”

I looked up at her while the sewing machine continued to gobble up gathers. Mrs. Wray screamed again just as I felt a jab of pain. I looked down to see a logjam of gathers under the needle. The fabric was rapidly turning red, and I realized underneath the fabric my finger was impaled on the needle.

Mrs. Wray’s hands flew to either side of her head as she quickly backed away from me. Some of the girls helped her to a chair; some ran for the school nurse; and some helped me get my finger out of the sewing machine. Blood was everywhere. Mrs. Wray, whose nervous condition had her in its grip, continued to scream.

I’m not sure about the order of events after that. I do know Mother came to pick me up. She took me to the doctor, who told me how lucky I was. The needle had only grazed the outside of my index finger. It looked, he said, a lot worse than it actually was. He added I should be more careful when operating a sewing machine.

The photograph you see below was taken the following Monday. During the ensuing weekend, Mother called Mrs. Wray to ask after her health and to apologize for my behavior, after which she went to the fabric shop and bought another two yards of a “nice cotton print.” She sewed it up into a gathered skirt, put a clean band-aid on my finger and sent me off to school. She suggested I might want to avoid Mrs. Wray, if at all possible.

The picture was taken for Bailey Junior High’s annual. Its purpose was to show off the 7th Grade Girls’ sewing skills. I showed off my mother’s sewing skills. The photographer showed off his people-arranging skills by placing the Giant Girl (me) in the center of the shot and placing the cute, short girls in descending order by my sides, making me appear even taller, but what the hey! Given the indisputable fact I was already the star of the show, like it or not, I guess it was appropriate. Oh, by the way, that was the first and LAST time I wore that skirt.



If you become a regular reader of my posts, you will soon learn of my love for Mexico. This is the story of my ignominious introduction to my favorite place to visit.


It was our first visit to Mexico. My husband John and I love trains, and we had decided to drive to Laredo, Texas, walk across the border and take a train into the Mexican interior. The three o’clock train rumbled into the Laredo station, only two hours late. Having read all the guidebooks, I was aware the Mexican people paid little attention to time and schedules, one of the country’s most endearing qualities to my way of thinking.

Boarding the sleeper car in which we had reserved a bedroom for the 12-hour trip to Mexico City, I found it wasn’t the bedroom at all. It was a tiny, one-person roomette.

“There must be some mistake, I said to the young porter, who spoke a little English. “We reserved a bedroom.”

“This is a bedroom, Senora,” The porter smiled and nodded toward the other roomettes lining the narrow aisle of the sleeper, all of which were being quickly occupied by Mexican families.

John, who was less than enthusiastic about this particular adventure, spoke: “Stop arguing and sit down. There’s no mistake. This is what they’re obviously referring to as a bedroom.” He was right. I gave up. If five Mexicans could sleep on one narrow cot, the two of us could manage as well. After all, we wanted to experience the true essence of the country, and believe me, the essence on that hot, humid, sleeper was overpowering.

Pretty soon, I heard band music. Not wishing to miss one Mexican moment, I ran to the little platform on the sleeper to see a student band arranged across the track playing its heart out. I seemed to be the only one impressed by it. Our fellow travelers paid them no mind at all.

As I listened to the music, the train suddenly came alive and lurched forward. There being no rail to hang onto, I very nearly fell off the platform. It was the first of many such experiences in my travels There are no safety rules or warning signs anywhere in Mexico. You are totally responsible for the safety of your person. If you fall off the back end of a train, you shouldn’t have been out there in the first place.

I bounded from side to side back down the aisle of the swaying train and sat down on the bench in our “bedroom.” It was covered in patched plastic, the stuffing long gone. The journey was to be non-stop to Leon and then an express to Mexico City. We were no sooner off than the train groaned to a stop.

“Great! It’s broken down already,” John wailed. But no. After a few seconds it started up. I breathed a sigh of relief just as the train stopped again. After the fifth stop, which occurred in a curve, I discovered the reason. Peering out the grimy window, I saw a man alight from a car up ahead in the curve. His family was waiting for him, standing beside a campfire and an adobe hut. I was amazed to find that our express train stopped to take on and let off individual passengers.

We had now experienced at least three surprises. We’re still being surprised by this magical country even after 26 years.

We ate our picnic supper, and decided to turn in. There was nothing to see anyway. We soon discovered that was no easy feat. By standing in the aisle and with much tugging and pulling, the berth fell down from its overhead compartment completely covering our other accommodations.

Peering down into the toilet before the berth covered it gave me a quick view of the railroad ties as they sped by underneath the train. There was no need for a flushing mechanism.

By now it was at least 110 degrees in the sleeper. We clamored into the berth from the aisle. There was no sheet. Back in the aisle we shoved the bunk into its receptacle, pulled our luggage from under the bench and found our largest towel. At least it would be absorbent. The way we were now perspiring, the towel would be soaked in no time.

Back on the bunk, we found if we both lay facing the train wall and not bending our knees we wouldn’t touch one another. The bed was about 30 inches wide and about eye level to anyone passing by in the aisle. Fortunately, there was a zippered canvas curtain hiding us from the view of passers-by.

I lay there for an hour, unable to sleep and very nearly suffocating in the stifling heat and the dank air.

“I’ve got to get these clothes off!” I hissed. I was barely able to peel them off. Although better than sticky clothing, it was precious little relief to wear only my skin. I then found if I bent my body slightly, just enough to poke my posterior over the side of the bunk, I was treated to the merest whisper of air under the canvas curtain.

I was just settling in when suddenly I felt the zipper being unzipped up my backside. A voice in the aisle said, “Pardon, Senor and Senora, I have come to make up…”

There was a brief pause and then a blood-curdling scream. “Dios Mio!” cried the voice. I flopped over and peered out the curtain just in time to see the young porter dashing up the aisle. Heads began popping out of curtains up and down the sleeper car. Pandemonium reigned as the other passengers tried to identify the source of the pandemonium.

I quickly zipped the curtain up again. John still lay with his face to the wall. He hadn’t moved. Finally he spoke quietly: “I hope that boy’s reached his full growth. If not, it’s stunted now.”

“Dios Mio,” I replied.