Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Guanaco

Guanaco: Guanaco is the name of a small European city located near the famous Phosphatorium caves. Originally “settled” by itinerant fertilizer salesmen, the city took off when the Guanaco Company moved in and began mining a millennium’s worth of bat guano. Boom went bust when scientist Ignatio Mausoleum created synthetic fertilizer which was cheaper, although the very idea insulted every right-minded bat, plus its explosive qualities made it much more dangerous, if lots of fun in the backyard. The city dwindled to town size and then village size and then hamlet size and then…..a member of a new breed of scientists, Kyle Kintematsu (an African-Japanese-American), began on-site experimenting. If all went well, it would be boom-time for Guanaco once again.

Kyle had a PhD in ethical polynomial bio-fuel (a new degree), and had produced a widely discussed thesis, Computational and Analytical Parameter Estimation of Discontinuous Connectivity in Marginalized Bifurcating Tropes. The budding genius’s evil thesis adviser arranged for the shadowy, high-tech employer, “Stochastic Algorithms and Co.” to send him to Guanaco, which by that time seemed more Western-style ghost town than haven for aristocratic guano magnates. He booked a room at the decrepit “Batwing Hotel,” quaffed milkshakes at the earthquake ravaged “Quantum Shake Cafe,” and spent his remaining free time playing billiards by himself at the “Echolating Cue Ball.”

One day, while chalking his cue stick, wondering how on earth he ever ended up in small town nowhere deep in the heart of the backwater wasteland of some godforsaken spot in an obscure corner of the world, when he – Kyle Kintematsu – had been so sure of his post-graduate projection-based prediction of his future Nobel Prize-winning success, he lost track of his sentence and had an absolutely brilliant idea. He snapped the stick in two and immediately left for one of the famous caves, which twisted and turned until it became lost, deep in the ice-topped mountains. Kyle, too, found himself utterly lost, but fortunately still had his sticks and was able to beat off the indignant bats who were attempting to catch up on centuries of lost sleep due to incessant mining. The bats were in for a rude awakening, however, since Kyle’s idea might potentially bring a new boom to tranquil and inactive Guanaco.

After collecting a quantity of guano and fighting his way out of the maze, Kyle spent long hours in his grant-funded laboratory, creating a new kind of bio fuel. He was confident that his results would ensure a new frontier where engines no longer need guzzle oil or gas or ethanol. Farmers would no longer need to grow endless fields of corn or sugarcane or switchgrass or lima beans (not only poor for fuel, but with the gag-producing consistency and flavor of mildewed blanket). Fuel meticulously extracted from properly aged guano, however, not only ran cars and airplanes and other motorized vehicles (such as electric shavers) but actually grew those vehicles! People would no longer drive tiny compact models, Kyle thought, because the models would grow and grow…and grow. A tiny VW Beetle might expand to the size of a monster SUV. His only fear was that there was no cutoff point, that cars would grow so large they would begin to inflict too great a weight on the planet. Instead of fears of global warming, everyone would worry about global obesity.

While pondering these and other matters one day, Kyle found himself deep in one of the caves, lost in thought and lost in the cave, far from town, far from anyone hearing his desperate shouts for help as his thesis adviser, hanging upside down along with rows and rows of similarly inclined bats, caught Kyle in a carefully wrought trap.

Next thing Kyle knew, he was living the life of a laundromat accountant for a chain of dry cleaners in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, thousands and thousands of miles from Guanaco, in a place where no one had ever heard of bifurcation and even old bats slept soundly and dreamed sweetly.

Actual meaning: South American mammal with a soft thick fawn-colored coat. Although related to the camel, the guanaco lacks a dorsal hump.

Prairie Hill – Free on Amazon 6/21-6/22

My novel, Prairie Hill, is available for free on Amazon.com Thursday and Friday, June 21 and June 22.

Prairie Hill

Click on the cover photo or the link above to find reviews, further information, and to purchase the book. Amazon Prime members may also borrow the book for free even after the two-day promotion.

The excellent website Free Kindle Books and Tips featured this week’s promotion of Prairie Hill:

Free Kindle Books and Tips

Prairie Hill description:

In 1980, a troubled young stranger arrives in Prairie Hill, a small Wisconsin city. Jimmy Lathrop would like nothing better than to go about his business washing dishes at the popular local eatery, the Pullet Surprize. A fresh start. No questions asked. Then he begins moonlighting as the feathered mascot of the local minor league baseball team and meets someone who will change his life.

Jenny Diggles bides her time serving the locals at the Pullet Surprize, struggling to come to terms with her lonely, eccentric mother, Lila. Should she chuck it all and marry Lance Kilgore, the ambitious general manager of the Cobb Kernels baseball team? Jenny’s passion for prairies and heirloom plants as well as her deepening friendship with Jimmy Lathrop lead to self-discovery.

With its atmospheric backdrop of threatened tall grass prairie and a soon to be abandoned historic baseball stadium and through its cast of colorful, quirky characters, Prairie Hill explores themes of redemption and love.

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Falciform

Falciform: A falciform was briefly in vogue during the 1420’s in Europe during an unexpected shortage of falcons used for hunting. Any captive bird, from hummingbird to great auk was a candidate for the falciform, a cast-iron contraption designed to convert them into fierce hunting falcons. Falcon masters in on the secret process boasted that the scientific discovery was a miracle of avian alchemy. Kings, Queens, Jacks and Knaves, all vied for the finest in falciformic creations, only to find that the newly created falcons lacked something essential, namely, feathers. We know that a bald eagle proudly, vehemently accepts its baldness as a badge of honor. Not so a bald falcon. The poor monstrosities shivered in the cold and burrowed under tapestries and chain mail and cautiously inched into the depths of seemingly available holes. Burrowing owls resented the intrusion and cast the falcons out. Eventually lone and lorn bald falcons flapped away to tropical climes and disappeared, never seen again except as figments of their own imaginations.

On April 1st 1421, the European stock of usable hunting falcons suddenly plummeted, victim to an unexpected plague which sent the birds into dreamlike euphoria. The happy birds were completely useless as hunters and only good for breeding euphoric offspring. Hunters everywhere cried into their mugs of ale and then turned to priests and monks, sages and philosophers (basically, any old coot wearing a robe) for solutions. None of them had the slightest idea what to do about the dilemma aside from a Franciscan named Don Pedro Cinco de Mayo, who agreed to present his answer by May 5th. What he came up with, however, failed to satisfy the hunters, who angrily swung heavy maces and beat on the feathered effigies the dotty monk created, spilling their contents, which proved to be a lot of hard sweets wrapped in waxed paper – thus the piñata, but not a viable falcon.

Finally, in despair, King Rufous Sided Towhee of Tarragon (a tiny speck of a kingdom located somewhere or other in Central Europe), turned (in desperation) desperately to the resident mad scientist, who lived in a remote mountainous district covered in haunted woods and topped by a perpetually mist-wreathed castle. King Towhee had great faith in this particular wizardly scientist, Hawkston Falcone, a renowned specialist in the enigmatic thaumaturgy of name changing. For decades King Towhee had suffered under the unpronounceable weight of his given name, Pipilo Erythrophthalmus, and then one day Falcone concocted the feathery light and mellifluous “Rufous Sided Towhee,” and all was well. Falcone was of mixed Transylvanian and Persian heritage but preferred himself not to go by his original name, Count Lazlo Daavoooodi-Zaaadeeeh, because of constant run-ins with the vowel constabulary.

Hawkston took to Towhee’s falciformic challenge immediately, as hawks and falcons were his favorite birds, although naturally he hoarded a stock of the requisite midnight black ravens and wise-looking owls about the castle as a matter of course. He set to work in his combination laboratory and smithy, welding this piece of rare metal to that piece of even rarer metal, steeping them in various experimental chemical concoctions, one of which turned the metal into plastic which he immediately threw out, not recognizing its value. Finally, after many tries, he succeeded in transforming a sparrow into a crow and a crow into something not even a pterodactyl would eat.

He tried again.

At once he succeeded in turning a crow into a sea gull, which consequently pooped all over the laboratory and on Hawkston Falcone’s head. He kept trying, anyway – he was mad after all. At last he succeeded in creating a falcon, but like so many before him, could not see his way around the lack of feathers. Since he had a lot of gold as well as his mad scientist reputation riding on this, he raided the storage bin in his third sub-basement for his stash of thousands of feathers (useful in all kinds of deranged experiments), climbed up the dank stairwell to his seventh floor lab and artfully glued the feathers onto a flock of bald falcons. In the dead of night he stole to King Towhee’s palace, crossed the moat, and left them at the barred gateway, where the poor creatures clustered together for warmth.

Alas, King Towhee also needed to maintain his reputation as a double-dealer. He peddled the falciformed birds throughout Europe at outrageous prices. Monarchs and falconers alike pretended that everything was hunky-dory since they too needed to prop up their prestige, even in the Middle Ages, just a few years before Gallup Polls.

Meanwhile, Hawkston Falcone, high in his mist-wreathed castle, continued his diabolical experiments, wreaking havoc while cultivating an even madder expression on his face, later transferred to one of his most famous and monstrous creations…..

Actual meaning: curved, sickle-shaped

Prairie Hill – the Prairie Blooms – novel excerpt with photos

A Prairie In Bloom

A few months ago I featured several beautiful wildflower photographs taken by naturalist Rob Baller. Now, as flowers begin to carpet the Wisconsin prairie, I thought I would share some further gems, alongside an excerpt from my novel, Prairie Hill.

Prairie Hill unfolds from multiple viewpoints, but its two main characters, Jimmy Lathrop and Jenny Diggles, relate much of the tale. Nineteen-year-old Jenny, who works as a waitress at popular local inn, the Pullet Surprize, is passionate about wildflowers and heirloom gardening. Jimmy, a loner and a stranger in town, works at the Pullet as a dishwasher, while also serving as Cock-a-doodle-do, the feathered mascot of the local minor league baseball team. The following scenes take place at the remnant prairie they’ve discovered. The undisturbed virgin prairie faces destruction as part of the expansion of the local Prairie Hill Industrial Park.

For those interested in reading more, Prairie Hill is available as an eBook at Amazon.com. See Prairie Hill tab above for further information.

Purple Coneflowers and Wisconsin Farmland

Jenny

…Where to find Jimmy? I knew he liked to walk, but there could be a hundred places he’d go. I wandered the neighborhood nearby, since I remembered he’d explored it once before. No luck. I practically galloped down the railroad tracks, every minute thinking I’d spot his tall form loping along up ahead, or maybe hear the clanging sound of a far-tossed rock nicking the rails. I walked at least two miles and saw nothing livelier than a stalking cat on the hunt. So I mulled it over, tried to calm myself down, and backtracked all the way home, where I pulled out my bike and rolled away to try some country routes. If I hadn’t been in such a darned hurry I might have enjoyed the beautiful May afternoon, with baby corn plants pushing up in the fields, red-winged blackbirds calling and swallows darting after insects. But I kept my eye peeled for pedestrians and bikers and only chanced on a lone, puffing, sweaty middle-aged jogger. I crossed the creek and realized that I was nearing Hulda’s house. I felt my pulse quicken, knowing I’d see that awful sign in a couple of minutes. Would I feel the rumble and hear the roar of big diggers churning up unplowed earth? Would the hill and sloping field still be there?

Gentian

Jimmy

I wound my way through woods and fields and found myself on the hill overlooking Jenny’s prairie, where I sat down. I call it Jenny’s prairie because when I’m there I think of her excitement and joy at finding untouched land with its rare plants and flowers. It’s a peaceful spot if you keep your eyes on the view straight ahead. Beyond the prairie and the road below, you see old farm fields cut through by lines of trees and a meandering creek. But I couldn’t avoid the constant whine and drone from the interstate a mile to my left and the noise of trucks stopping, starting, loading and unloading at one of the warehouses nearby. Nothing’s changed since workmen installed the sign way down below. The song sparrows and indigo buntings and monarch butterflies have no idea that their field of tall grass and sunflowers and milkweed is about to disappear forever. I told myself not to feel anything. Land grabs happen everywhere and the second you get emotionally involved, you’re thinking about it all the time and then it gnaws at your heart. I’ve had enough of that pushing and pulling of emotions over the last few years, maybe enough to last a lifetime. But there I sat anyway. Apparently, my feet didn’t agree with my mind. I watched the occasional truck or car zip by and finally a jogger who ran slower than he could probably walk it. Even that was more civilization than I wanted today. Just soak in a little more sun and then in a minute I’d look for an even remoter spot.

Prairie Grasses, including Big Bluestem

Jenny

I forced myself to pass the thin stand of trees and looked left at the prairie, up the slope to the hill. There was a man up there sitting in the grass and I could tell it was Jimmy by his red checkered flannel shirt. It didn’t take him long to spot me. He stood up and turned as if he was about to head away, but he changed his mind and stood his ground. I dumped my bike and followed an animal trail up the hill. I couldn’t help noticing the long-stemmed blooming Shooting Stars and felt a quick flash of delight when I spied coneflowers and sunflowers and Black-eyed Susans coming up, though it would be awhile before they’d bloom. I wish I knew the names of the grasses – those at the prairie don’t look like anything you’d see on your standard lawn or baseball field, not even crabgrass.

Purple Coneflower

When I reached Jimmy he stood with his hands in his pockets, looking tight and uncomfortable and with an unreadable expression on his face. “You’re a hard man to find,” I said. “I’ve searched all over town, every spot I think a Jimmy Lathrop might hang out.”

“You thought wrong about a lot of places, then,” he said, voice low and thick.

“I should have realized you’d be here.”

“Why?”

“It’s where I’d want to be.”

I sat down and he joined me, sitting about two feet away. “Jimmy, you said you’d found something out about the Extru-ThermaTec Corporation.”

It took him a long minute to say anything. “I was concerned for Hulda,” he said and I only half believed him. “She’s lived near here for a long time and it seems as if one by one the surrounding fields are going and she’ll have prefab on all sides.”

“Hemmed in,” I said. “She doesn’t want to sell her land, but the offers keep getting more and more attractive.”

“At some point, she may have no choice. Somebody might persuade the city to try eminent domain.” His hands tore at a stem of grass. “Anyway, I looked through about six months worth of papers at the public library, searching for anything to do with this property. All I found was a lot of hype about the industrial park and how pleased the city fathers are that the park’s stimulated new growth, including sale of property to the extrusion company. They gave them a whole lot of incentives to build here, too. Tax breaks, that kind of stuff. Buried way deep in the article they announce plans to break ground by mid summer with their facility opening by early December. Other than that, not a word. The paper obviously boosts this sort of thing – growth and expansion is necessary, they say. I thought there might at least be a letter to the editor from some concerned resident or other.”

“Not too surprising. Most of the farms are gone and the few country people around here are old.”

Shooting Star

We sat in silence for awhile. I kept expecting him to say more but he didn’t or wouldn’t. I blocked out the man-made sounds and tried to concentrate on the sounds of a prairie in May, imagining myself back in time to when there were fields and fields for miles, no sounds from cars or airplanes or lawn mowers, no industrial hum or roar. A flash of blue startled me, and a bird settled on a bit of brush off to our left. Jimmy swore softly. “Bluebird,” he said. “See that reddish orange on its breast, a little bit like a robin. Same family. My father said he used to see them all the time when he was a kid and then they became incredibly rare. Supposedly they’re on their way back now.”

“I’ve never seen one. I guess they don’t visit backyards.”

“No, they’re field birds. They like open spaces. They used to nest in old wooden fence poles as well as tree hollows.”

“But now the fences are metal and everyone cuts down trees that aren’t perfectly healthy.”

“You got it.”

“So how come they’re reviving?”

“Well, they may not be coming back everywhere. I don’t know. But a lot of birders have set up bluebird houses, mostly wooden boxes, along fences out in the country. My dad liked to build them and I liked helping him set them up. We had boxes all around the perimeter of our property. Tree swallows liked nesting in them, too, but we’d see one or two bluebirds every year when I was younger.”

“You lived in the country?”

“Yeah.”

I waited, but he didn’t say anything else.

Spiderwort

A few more cars had passed below. Now a brown car with county sheriff insignia on its door crept by, pulled to the side of the road and stopped. A man in uniform stepped out and peered up at us. He must not have had anything pressing to do because he hitched up his pants and began to trudge up the trail toward us. I stood up and after a moment Jimmy did too. “We could make a run for it,” I joked, but glancing at him, I was surprised by how serious Jimmy looked, concerned and troubled. He took a few steps toward the officer and I followed.

He was middle-aged and pudgy around the middle and the climb had broken him out in a sweat and he was breathing heavily. “Folks,” he said, though he addressed Jimmy. “Are you aware this is private property?”

“We’re just admiring the view,” said Jimmy.

“Well, we’ve got parks for that, you know. You don’t have permission to be here, you got to go. Sorry.”

“Isn’t it a lovely place, though?” I said.

The officer looked back down the hill and across the flowering and grassy field and nodded. “My wife would call this one big hellacious patch of weeds, but I see what you mean.” He pulled out a pad from his pocket, stared at it a moment and then put it back. “I should take down your ID’s, but we’ll let it ride for now. Just scram and don’t let me catch you up here again. There’s been vandalism in the industrial park, graffiti and so on.” He eyed Jimmy again. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”

“No sir,” he replied. “Alright, we’re out of here.”

We followed the officer down to the road. I picked up my bike and we headed back to town…

Common Milkweed Seeding – make a wish

Prairie Hill – pondering the sources of fiction

Prairie Hill cover

Now and again people ask me whether my novel, Prairie Hill, is autobiographical. I answer “no” but it’s not strictly true. Looking over the novel I find all sorts of odds and ends of details which come from my life – a dingy, cobwebby basement I once explored, pigeons flapping from rafter to rafter inside an abandoned building, a ruby-crowned kinglet taking me for a walk along the railroad tracks, and a man dressed in an oversized rooster costume waving to passersby, advertising the best chicken in town.

I like to think about the sources of fiction. These tidbits from “reality,” close observations of friends and family and strangers, overheard conversations and glimpses through the windows of daily life, combine with an author’s perceptions and imagination to create setting, characters and story. None of the characters in Prairie Hill are exact replicas of people I know or have known. However, even when a writer describes a real person as accurately as possible, the filter of his or her own sensibilities moves the writing a step or two toward fiction.

I’ve kept a journal since the summer I turned ten. It evolved from an account of my activities from breakfast to bedtime, to seemingly endless declarations of teenage angst, to a more conscious attempt at capturing life around me – people I encountered, places I spent time in, daily life lived through. The many thousands of pages made me a more thoughtful observer and a better writer. The journals also provided me with a huge amount of useful material. Have I used any of it in my fiction? Not directly, but I have a good example of how what I absorbed long ago proved useful when writing a novel many years later.

In my 20’s I knew an old woman named Franny who spent much of her day pushing a mop across what seemed like acres of linoleum floor. Her feet hurt her and she’d need to rest and so she often came by where I was working and talked with me, or “chewed the fat” as she liked to call it. She was bitter and given to scowling, but the lines would soften on her face when she reminisced. We became friends and she’d bring me little presents such as apples from a local orchard. I liked her colorful way of speaking and I began to write down what I recalled. Her voice stayed with me for many years and it is Franny’s voice and a touch of her appearance and personality that I gave to Hulda Bjorklund, the old farm woman who becomes friends with and even a mentor of young Jenny Diggles and Jimmy Lathrop in Prairie Hill.

Here, for comparison, is some of Franny’s dialogue, taken from my journal, followed by an excerpt from Prairie Hill told from the perspective of Hulda Bjorklund.

A journal from the late 1980’s

11/21/88

“I still miss that of my mom, her bread. Every Sunday at noon she’d fry some bread dough before puttin’ the bread in. My girlfriends, they all knew when she’d be makin’ bread. They could smell it outside the house.

“My dad gave me a licking I’ll never forget. They gave me a brand new snow suit, and we went to the hill for sleighing. I tore a hole in that snow suit and my sister went and told my dad before I ever got home. He was waitin’ at that back door for me with a razor strop. He took my snow pants off and whipped me till my mom told him to stop. They said ‘money don’t grow on bushes around here,’ that’s what they says back then. It was the Depression. I was young then, maybe that’s why I didn’t like him. My mom said he and me we’re too much alike.

“One time up at our cabin he showed us where he went huntin’, way down in what they called a hog’s head. We girls got bored and walked back and got lost in the marsh, and we had to call him when it was dark to find us.”

“He had enough guns ta buy a house. He wouldn’t clean them guns once a year. He’d just take ‘em out of them three gun cabinets and rub ‘em down with a rag. There weren’t ever no fingerprints on them guns. That son of a bitch up at Taco John’s, he got most of my dad’s guns. My nephew chased him home once and told him never to come to his door again. He wasn’t gonna get no more guns.

“Before he passed away I had to drive him around. He liked to drive fast, too. But the doctor said he couldn’t drive no more. He had cataracts in both eyes. But did he like the way I drove?

“He was stubborn, and I ain’t saying I’m not.”

From Prairie Hill:

Hulda Bjorklund

I’ve lived a long time in this house, seventy-three years from the day I was born. In them days there weren’t too many farmer kids born in the hospital and I was no exception. I had a real good childhood, better than them kids today. Daddy was tough on me, no doubt about that. I weren’t good enough to suit him, he said, but I could tell deep down I was. They said I wasn’t that all fired good looking, but I coulda married. There were a couple fellers hanging around, even after Daddy gave them the third degree, but they didn’t hang around long enough to catch me. I grew older and lost what looks I had and the folks needed me more and I just stayed on, working the place until I was the only one left. Every now and again I wonder what will happen to this old house and barn and what’s left of the acreage. My brother’s family don’t want nothing to do with it. They’ll just sell it. “Hulda,” they say, “nobody vacations in Prairie Hill. Nothin’ there.” But that just makes me mad. You don’t hear the whippoorwills like you did when I was a little girl and the foxes are gone – good riddance if you ask me – but I still feel awful good on a spring morning listening to them birds, eyeing them pretty flowers and knowing I got food on the table I grew on my own land. It hits me sometimes that they’ll tear my home place down and pave it over like all the rest. You know, I couldn’t believe it when they put up that shopping center, Fox Hollow (ain’t been no foxes there for thirty years!) on the edge of town where the Nilsson farm used to be and they kept the silo right there sticking up like a big corncob at the end of the parking lot, with a bed of petunias planted all around it. Looked damn silly. I asked Norman Cobb about that silo and he said the shopping center people wanted it for atmosphere. I craned my neck to look way up at that silo and remembered how tickled the Nilsson’s were when they got it ‘cause it stored a sight more corn than the old cement kind. I wondered if there was a single kernel left in that big old thing. The pigeons found the silo before the shopping center came and they never left.

Jimmy rapped on my door and I opened up, old Ollie bursting past me and jumping up on the poor fellow. “Get back you crazy fool,” I says, “get back.”

Jimmy don’t care none. He gives Ollie a big ole hug and pats him all over and I can’t remember the last time I saw Ollie’s tail tick so fast, back and forth, back and forth. Anybody Ollie likes is alright by me. “You know dogs, Jimmy, dontya.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I had a Labrador retriever named Shadow, the sweetest-tempered dog you could ever meet. She was alive last I knew, but old. Her muzzle was turning gray, but she still couldn’t wait to go out for long walks.”

“You ain’t been home in awhile,” I said, knowing it was true.

He nodded.

“Your folks must miss you.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, Hulda.”

“Ain’t you in touch with them?”

“No.”

“Ain’t they in touch with you?”

Again he said no.

I gave him my best scowl. The Lord’s blessed me with a face that’s good at ‘em.

A Writing Family Pt.4 – My Great Aunt, Florence Beckett Bennett

Florence Beckett


Although I never knew my great aunt Florence Beckett, who died before I was born, over the years I heard intriguing tales about her career as a professional musician and about her mouth-watering New England-style cooking skills. After my father died in 1997, I began the process of sifting through the mountainous heaps of manuscripts and papers. One day while rummaging, I pulled out a creased and tattered manila folder labeled “Auntie Flo Memoir.” The folder revealed a stack of brittle yellow pages filled from top to bottom with her neat, flowing script, which had the look of a schoolgirl’s, even though Florence wrote it in her 70’s. Sometime later I turned up a typescript entitled The Sharp, the Flat and the Natural (An Autobiography) by Florence Beckett as told to Basil Burwell. The typescript sample, stamped with the imprint of my father’s literary agent, Bertha Klausner, must have made the rounds of publishers, only to reside for the next 60 years in its decrepit folder.

Florence Emeline Beckett was born on August 24, 1876, in Portland, Maine. Her mother, Antoinette Schnare, hailed from St. Margaret’s Bay, in Nova Scotia, while her professional musician father, Edward Parry Beckett, emigrated from Cambridge England to Canada, where according to legend he worked as “bandmaster to the Queen’s Own.” After the eldest, my grandmother Amelia, was born, Edward took his young family to the United States, where eventually he and “Annie” had three more children, all of whom performed as professional musicians, although other than Florence, only the youngest, Alice, persevered in show business. Alice worked for years with Allen’s Western Minstrels. The Beckett family traveled, but spent much of their time at Crescent Beach (now Revere), Massachusetts. The children grew up in a colorful world of performers and met famous people like General Tom Thumb, Peter Tchaikovsky, John Philip Sousa, and their father’s friend and mentor, composer and conductor, Victor Herbert.

Florence fell in love with the flute, her father’s primary instrument. She became proficient at an early age and then far more than proficient. At 14 she joined the Marietta Sherman Orchestra, played in smaller units at society functions and that winter debuted as a soloist with a full orchestra. Over the course of the following 15 years she worked with numerous women’s orchestras and played in concerts all over the United States, performing alongside opera stars, famous orchestra conductors, and theatrical luminaries such as Lillie Langtry. She also toiled in summer resorts, vaudeville theaters, and honky-tonk music halls. The locations ranged from cosmopolitan cities to small town America, from the World’s Columbian Exposition to rowdy frontier towns and isolated Indian reservations. Newspaper publicity sometimes billed Florence as the “leading lady flute player of the world.” Although she sometimes played in mixed orchestras, there were clearly fewer opportunities for fame and fortune if you were a woman musician at the turn of the century.

Florence [top, second from left] with the Boston Ladies Orchestra at Mt. McGregor, 1893

Florence met Myron Bennett in Sanford, Maine. They married in 1903 and had one child, Dorice, and for a time lived on a houseboat, but the marriage did not work out. To be closer to her mother and sister Amelia, Florence moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where as Florence Bennett, she lived in the 1920’s and 1930’s, playing flute in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and to make ends meet, she also gave private lessons and led orchestras in moving picture theaters during the heyday of silent films.

Accolades from a Madison newspaper, 1930

She must have retired by the 1940’s, but much of her life after leaving Madison remains a mystery, even the date of her death.

Florence Beckett Bennett in 1941

In oral history interviews, my parents recalled her visits during the 1940’s and 50’s. Dad remembered details of her phenomenal cooking: “In her later years, she would travel about from one branch of the family to another, taking her special cooking tools, her pie crinkler, her cake tester, and so on. She always had to have the right tools as well as the right ingredients. She would make her delectable potato starch – kind of sponge cake and turn it into a Washington cream pie or Boston cream pie, as the case might be, and make fabulous pies of all descriptions. Of course I’m particularly fond of apple pie and this was a fantastic thing to watch her make. The tender loving care with which she would lay apple slice upon apple slice in a really geometric way was something I’ll never forget.”

My mother reminisced about a visit from sisters Florence and Alice when she was just a “shy young thing,” not long after she’d met my father: “Florence had a loud voice. She was very jolly…I met them at a restaurant in New York City and I’m sitting in the middle and here’s Alice and here’s Auntie Flo and they’re talking over my head – ‘Oh! You remember that time? Oh yes…ha ha ha ha!’ Oh God was I embarrassed, but it was very funny. They were theatrical. Extrovert. Dear people. But oh my, was I embarrassed. I’m in the middle and the whole restaurant is hearing wild conversation with loud, loud voices. But they were delightful.”

I wish I’d known Great Aunt Florence, yet another member of my “writing family.” Her passion for music continues to run through the family veins. Perhaps one quiet night, if I close my eyes and think about her and listen as hard as I can, I’ll hear the sweet notes of her flute.

Excerpt from Florence Beckett’s memoir, as edited by my father, Basil Beckett Burwell. From the first chapter, entitled “The Magic Flute.”

“Girls should learn to be ladies; and no lady every plays a flute,” said Father, glowering at me across the music stand in the parlor and tapping his foot. The foot gave him away. He wasn’t as angry as he was pretending. The foot tapping was a trick he had learned from some actor at the Boston Museum. Now he raised his eyebrows as if he was reaching for a high note. “No, Fodie. The flute is the noblest of instruments and the most ancient; it is to be found in every land where man has dwelt; the Greeks played it on the slopes of Olympus and the Indians before their council fires; but to my certain knowledge it was not played by women.”

“But Father, I love the flute and I can’t stand the violin. I want to play the flute like you.”

“If only you had been a boy,” he said with a sigh. He had just finished his finger-limbering exercises and in a few minutes he would be on his way to Boston to play a matinee at the Boston Museum. It was the best time to speak to him. I watched him now as he stood his flute up in a corner to drain out the moisture. He straightened up and stood looking at me meditatively as he stroked the tuft of hair that grew Louis Napoleon fashion from his nether lip. “Fodie,” he said, “the violin is also a noble instrument. With the tail-hairs of a horse tones of incredible beauty can be drawn from the stretched gut of cats. What is more miraculous? My father used to talk to me by the hour about Paganini, the great virtuoso. He had heard him once in London between voyages. The man was a magician; he could play anything. Sometimes he would be annoyed at the audience and he would stop playing and make the instrument baa at them like a sheep or grunt like a pig. But when the audience was right and the spirit was on him he could outplay an angel. Hearing about him made me determine to play the violin. Unfortunately, circumstances caused me to enter the army and become a bandsman. In the British army, at least, one cannot march and play the violin. I chose the flute. I have, perhaps, a shade of regret. That is why I should like you to learn the violin.”

“But Father, you never even heard Paganini, but I have heard you. I want to play the flute.”

“No, Fodie. You cannot flatter yourself into a flute,” said Father, rolling up his music and preparing to go. “You will obey me and continue with the violin.” He looked at me hard. He had brilliant blue eyes and sometimes they could be very cold, but they were not cold now. There was something queer about them as if he was secretly laughing. He called goodbye to Mother and to my sister, Millie, who were in the kitchen, and then hurried off. I watched him go past the front of the house with his chin in the air and his lips puckered as he whistled a snatch of the overture he had been practicing. There was something dashing and military about him with his turned up waxed moustache and I was proud to have such a handsome father. I was only fourteen in 1890 and, as yet, had not been attracted by other men. I adored my father but I was not in awe of him the way my mother and my sister, Millie, were. I had a temper which I had demonstrated more than once in the past two years since Father had insisted that I learn the violin. Millie had to study the viola and she didn’t like it any more than I did the violin. She wanted to play the cornet. But while she obeyed orders philosophically, I had tantrums which could be heard all over Crescent Beach, Revere. The tantrums hadn’t accomplished anything so now I was trying “sweetness and light.”

When Father passed out of sight down Garfield Avenue I turned around and saw his flute standing in the corner. He had never left a flute at home before. He always took both his flutes with him. I went over and picked it up, holding it as I had watched him hold it, putting my fingers in the same places, and pressing it against my lower lip just as he did. I blew and it made a sound.

“I can do it,” I thought. “I can do it.” I blew hard. A sound like that of a factory whistle at noon shrilled through the house. For a moment I froze, half fearing that that tone might penetrate as far as the narrow-gauge railway station and bring Father hurrying back to reclaim his flute. Then, delighted with myself, I blew again, pressing a different key. A new sound, fuzzy and blurred and less loud presented itself. I began with many false notes and new beginnings to pick out the scale. At first, not all of the notes were in the same octave, and I discovered that the firmness of the mouth and the pressure of the lip against the flute seemed to affect the pitch. A somewhat slack mouth made a low note and a tense mouth a high note. That was the trick. The fingering scarcely troubled me at all. I had watched Father often, even sitting with him in the pit at the theater. How thrilled I had been when he played a solo! It was this experience, I think, which was at the bottom of my longing to play the flute. Now, with the instrument in my hands, I felt happier than I had ever felt in my life before. Time did not exist, nor place, nor family, only the flute and my swiftly growing knowledge.

No doubt the sounds I made at first must have sounded outlandish to Mother and Millie in the kitchen. They must have wondered what had brought Father back to the house and what was causing him, the master of the flute, to bring forth such incredible and discordant sounds. The door opened behind me and Millie looked in at me. “It’s Fodie!” she called back to the kitchen. Mother came at once, wiping her hands on her apron. “Land sakes,” she said, “so you’ve got a flute in your hands at last. I thought someone had stepped on a cat’s tail.”

“Father left it behind,” I said, defensively. “I couldn’t help myself.”

“Well, you did help yourself,” said Millie, “and Father isn’t going to like it.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Mother, her eyes bright with humor. “I have an idea he left the flute on purpose. It’s his way of giving in. Men are just too stubborn to give in without pretending that they’re not. Fodie, if you can’t play something for him by the time he comes home after the matinee, you are not the girl I think you are.”

“I will, Mother, I promise.”

“That’s my girl. Millie, you come with me. If Florence is allowed to give up the violin for the flute there’s no doubt you’ll be allowed to give up the viola for the cornet. Meanwhile we’ll make apple-dumplings. They always put your father in a good mood.”

After supper, as Father scraped up the last of the lemon sauce that had covered his dumpling, I excused myself from the table and went into the parlor. Picking up the flute, I stood nervously, listening for a pause in the conversation in the dining room. When it came I blew a wobbling note on the flute and, gathering courage, continued to play a fairly acceptable version of “Yankee Doodle.”

As the last note dwindled, Father came into the parlor. “Is that how you practice the violin?” he asked, his face blank and non-committal.

I didn’t know what to say. Tears came into my eyes. “I do so want to play the flute,” I said.

He came over to me and put his arms around me. “Then you shall,” he said and kissed me. I looked up and there were Mother and Millie smiling in the doorway.

Florence Beckett in 1894

[Postscript: Florence practiced the flute nine hours a day. After three months, Edward brought home a difficult flute part from an overture and told Florence that once she mastered it, she’d be ready to join an orchestra. She played it right through perfectly, auditioned for Marietta Sherman and then joined her Beacon Orchestral Club. My grandmother Amelia (“Millie”) became a prize pupil at the Boston Cornet Conservatory.]

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Desoxy

Desoxy: The state (or art) of being desoxed [see also desoxcombobulated]

Giorgio had a problem with sox. His sock drawer was not only full of sox (among them, Bostonian Redsox and Chicagoan Whitesox, but alas, no Philadelphian Pucesox) they constantly seemed to multiply and spill out onto the floor. Every day he’d cart armloads of sox down to the Salvation Army Store, but by the time he came home they were back again, multiplying to the point that they entirely filled his bedroom and he had to sleep on the living room couch. After a week of soxiness, his entire house was bursting with sox. He was desperate to desoxify his house. He called in exterminators, but they knew nothing about desoxing. He put an ad in the paper and all sorts of crackpots called or wrote or showed up at the door with absolutely ridiculous ideas.

“Feed them bubblegum toothpaste,” said one old crone. The idea!

“Read plumbing manuals to them. They hate that,” said a man who kept tripping over his beard.

Finally, one sunny day, just as a gang of sweat-stained athletic sox forced him out of his front door, a tiny voice spoke in his ear. He rummaged around with a finger but there didn’t seem to be anyone hiding there. However, the voice was quite clear. “To desoxify your house you, yourself, must be desoxy.”

“Dagnabbit, how in tarnation does a feller do that?” Giorgio asked – lately he’d been reading Western novels as an escape from sox – “They say you can lead a horse to water, but there ain’t a cactus in hell can make these here newfangled hosiery drink.”

“Trust me,” the voice said. “Take one bicarbonate of desoxycorticosterone and mix it with two teaspoons of desoxyriboncucleic acid, mix it in some prune juice and pour it in your sock drawer – that is, if you can fight your way into the bedroom.”

Giorgio sighed, plunged through a drift of ever-clamoring argyles and managed to clear a path into the kitchen where naturally he had the ingredients on hand – he always kept desoxycorticosterone and desoxyriboncucleic acid handy for an emergency and prune juice because it reminded him of his birthplace in Sicily.

By the time he reached his bedroom, Giorgio looked more sock than human and the formerly bubbling vibrant green liquid had thickened with sock lint. He found the sock drawer writhing with formal dress sox, poured in the gunk, and then fainted. When he woke up there wasn’t a sock in the place, not even on his feet. His girlfriend Pandora arrived for the first time in days, gazed at the curiously empty house and said, “Giorgio my dear, you may not be very sexy, but you sure are desoxy.”

Actual meaning: earlier form of “deoxy” which means something that has less oxygen than its original compound, also used as a chemical prefix.

New Publication: Baseball Pioneers 1850-1870

Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870


I have a chapter entitled, “Olympians of Beloit College,” in Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870, a lovely oversized paperback recently published by McFarland Books. While the history of baseball after 1870 has proven fertile ground for exhaustive scholarship, we know much less about its earliest period, as teams sprang up and popularized the sport across the nation. Founder of the “Pioneer Project,” Peter Morris, asked me to write about the Olympian Base Ball Club of Beloit College, a highly successful but short-lived congregation of battle-toughened Civil War veterans and fresh-faced youngsters. I delved deep into the Beloit College Archives, uncovered vivid accounts in diaries, letters and newspapers, and pieced together the story of a dynamic club from a tiny Wisconsin school on a bluff above the Rock River. The scholars of Greek and Latin somehow lived up to their Olympian name by becoming the champion base ball team of Wisconsin in 1867 before fading away. Along with coverage of their activities on the diamond, I included biographies of each player. It was a time when baseball had not only become a national pastime, but a national passion, as one Beloit College student noted in the college newspaper: “The Base Ball mania has prevailed quite extensively during the year, but has proved fatal to none except visitors. The Olympians have met all of the principal clubs in the State the past year, and not suffered a single defeat. This would not seem to indicate that the students of Beloit are a puny race. No, we develop muscle as well as brains.”

Olympian Club of Beloit College. Courtesy Beloit College Archives

For those interested in baseball’s pioneering days, I highly recommend dipping into Base Ball Pioneers, which features detailed and colorful accounts about teams from all over the country. The book is available at bookstores and online. Here is a link to the McFarland Press page for the book:
Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870

Prairie Hill – Find me on Goodreads, Librarything, Facebook and more


Hello everyone,

I’ve set up author pages at a few popular book oriented sites. Please feel free to connect with me at your favorite sites and help spread the word about Prairie Hill – and future books! I look forward to sharing books and talking about writing and reading with you. Thank you!

Here is a link to my author page at Goodreads:

Fred Burwell at Goodreads

At Librarything:

Fred Burwell at Librarything

At Facebook:

Fred Burwell at Facebook

At Shelfari:

Fred Burwell at Shelfari

Amazon’s author page:

Fred Burwell’s author page at Amazon.com

Rain Dance – Celebrating Baseball

Roy Smalley letter, June 1975


Although my novel, Prairie Hill, is not about baseball, it includes scenes at a vintage minor league baseball stadium. I’ve always loved the game, from playing typical sandlot contests in my childhood, to playing catch with my brother Jeremy and countless friends over the years, to keeping my ears glued to Phillies games on the radio when I should have been doing my homework, to rooting for the Beloit Snappers here in Wisconsin. Back in the early 1990’s I wrote a piece about a rather special game I attended with some friends in June 1975, between the Baltimore Orioles and the Texas Rangers. “Rain Dance” first appeared in slightly different form in Fan: A Baseball Magazine #15 Spring 1994.

The rain spattered the empty seats and the concrete steps. When thunder cracked louder than a broken bat, the crowd, the vendors, and the players all moved back to shelter. The grounds crew spread the tarp and the umpires watched the sky. Pete, Mark, and I reluctantly stood near one of the ramps, along with dozens of others, feeling steamy in the stifling air. When the rain let up a little, we walked down to the fence near the visitors’ dugout where a few Texas Rangers emerged. They were beating the Baltimore Orioles and seemed pretty happy about that, joking with each other, laughing. The PA system blasted an Elton John song and then “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” by John Denver. One Texas player, a shaggy-haired young guy, began to dance a jig as he played catch. His name was Roy Smalley, a recent call-up from Triple A Spokane. We watched the rookie shortstop knock off second baseman Lenny Randle’s cap and then run away at top speed. Randle, one of the game’s speedsters, kept a poker face, plopped down next to his cap, and stretched.

A few of us kids hanging over the fence tried to call some of the players over. A couple of older players, Cesar Tovar and Jim Fregosi, nodded and smiled. Others ignored us, but Roy came over with a big grin. “How you guys doin’?”

“Can we have your autograph?” Arms stretched out. Scorecards riffling in the wind.

He snapped a ball into the pocket of his glove. “Sorry guys. The rules say we can’t do it while the game’s in progress. But stick around. I’ll sign when the game’s over.”

I got up my courage and leaned over the fence. “Nice hit,” I called out.

“Thanks. It felt good.” Roy took a mighty pretend swing and we all shouted, “BAM!”

“How do you like the majors?” asked Pete.

“Hey, I’m getting paid to do something that’s fun. How can you beat that?”

He jogged off and we watched as he horsed around with some others, imitating their fielder’s crouches and batting stances. He had as much energy as a little leaguer at his first game.

The bright, artificial light poured down on the glistening grass as men unfurled the tarps. The Public Address announcer reported that the game would resume, so we hiked up the aisle and slid back into our seats. A light drizzle fell, almost a mist, but the players warmed up in earnest, pitcher toeing the dirt around the mound, infielders whipping the ball back and forth across the field. Then it began to rain harder. Rumbling thunder. Zigzagging lightning. Those still huddled in the stands held scorecards and yearbooks over their heads and raced for the exits. The retreating umpires called the game after only four innings, wiping it from the official records. Too bad Roy Smalley’s hit wouldn’t count, I thought.

We stared at the empty Oriole dugout. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s go down to the Texas dugout. Just for a minute.”

By the time we got there we were as soaked as the grounds crew pulling the tarps over the sodden infield. We gripped the fence, leaned in and peered around the side of the dugout. The rain danced amidst the litter of paper cups, sunflower seeds and tobacco. Then a door creaked open and a player burst out. I watched the rain turn his blue cap nearly black. It was Roy Smalley. “Sorry about the game,” he said. “Let me sign those for you.”

As Roy stepped back toward the dugout, he turned again, smiling, faked a hit, and waved.

Roy Smalley autograph on scorecard

Postscript: Nearly thirty-seven years later, I still have his scrawled pencil signature on a scorecard page crinkled from rain. I was so impressed by Roy Smalley’s generosity to a few bedraggled teenage fans, that I wrote a letter, thanking him. A short time later I received a personal response on Texas Rangers stationery. From then on, I followed Roy as he played for the Twins, Yankees and White Sox through 1987 when he retired after playing in the World Series, topping off a fine career featuring 1,454 base hits and 163 home runs.

Roy Smalley's 1976 Topps baseball card

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