A Writing Family Pt.3 – My Uncle, Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr.

Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr.


My uncle never wrote a book. If you’d asked him whether he was a writer, he would have said no. And yet he was.

Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr. was born in 1895, 16 years before my father. Dad always said that “Lang,” as they called him, was more father than brother to him, especially since their elderly father was often away on business. Lang grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where in 1908 he fled the famous Chelsea fire along with the rest of the family.

Marjorie Burwell and Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr. circa 1898

The Burwells lost their house and belongings and started over again in nearby Winchester, where Lang attended high school and played on the baseball team. Around 1913, the family moved again, this time to Madison, Wisconsin. Father Burwell had become traveling agent of the Midwest territory for the La France Textile Company and he chose Madison for its physical beauty and for its university, since the oldest children were ready for college. They settled in a large frame house at 30 Lathrop Street not far from Camp Randall and the football stadium. Lang entered UW-Madison, interested in studying horticulture. He loved gardening, taking long walks and bicycle rides and snapping photographs with his camera. At the university, he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps, quickly ascended its ranks to captain and spent a lot of his time at the armory, training. He was a member of the Beta Sigma Alpha fraternity and of the Scabbard and Blade military honor society. Dad remembered Lang wearing a beanie hat and having to combat the usual freshman hazing. “He would come home a long way around, not the short way,” Dad told me once. “He would go way down to the railroad tracks and circle around because if he was caught by a sophomore, they might make him push a peanut up the street with his nose.” Lang took Dad to his first circus and liked to entertain the family with his ragtime piano playing, especially his favorite, “Kitten on the Keys.”

My father, who always called Lang, “Brother,” remembered him as a very kind and gentle man, with a soft-spoken voice, blue-eyed and pink-cheeked. And yet he must have had something of a commanding demeanor, as his military career later showed. He liked his work with the cadets of the ROTC and so it wasn’t surprising that his thoughts turned toward what he would do if the United States entered World War One. On February 4, 1917, he wrote to his father, “What are your wishes in regard to my conduct when war is declared?” We do not have the reply, but in his next letter Langworthy wrote, “The protection of the country is the first duty, and as you said, I am fitted to aid in training others.” He decided to seek out a commission in the Marine Corps. He passed the examinations only to find out that he was underweight, so he ate his way into the job. My father watched, enviously, as Lang wolfed down bananas and eggnog and other treats. Madison’s Daily Cardinal issue of June 1, 1917, ran the banner headline “Student Gains 14 Pounds and Gets Marine Corps Job.”

Later that month, the Burwells watched the newly minted second lieutenant march down to the railroad station behind a local band. He trained at Quantico, Virginia, and by August he was in France, an officer of a machine gun battalion in the American Expeditionary Forces. He spent a year in Chaumont where he served as military censor and prepared for action that didn’t arrive for him until the final stages of the war in 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Basil Burwell and Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr. at 30 Lathrop Street, Madison, 1919

Dad remembered the family eagerly crowding round when one of Lang’s letters arrived, usually addressed to “My Darling Mother,” but meant for everyone. He was a prolific letter writer and hundreds remain in tattered envelopes, awaiting exploration. His vivid, graphic descriptions of the Meuse-Argonne battle in which he took part are a testament to his skill as a writer. Below, I include three extended excerpts. The first describes Lang’s impressions as he reaches the war zone while in a supporting role. In the second, Lang experiences battle at firsthand, while in the third, weary soldiers up and down the Meuse River celebrate the armistice that October. Following the armistice, Lang joined forces in occupied Germany, where he lived until the middle of 1919. He continued his career as a Marine officer with many further adventures and also married and had a family. He passed away in 1935.

Basil Burwell and Edward Langworthy Burwell, Jr. at 30 Lathrop Street, Madison, 1919. Basil wears captured German helmet.

My uncle never wrote a book, but then again, perhaps he wrote one after all. With the centennial of World War One only a few years away, I hope to edit a collection of Edward Langworthy Burwell’s letters as both a tribute to my father’s beloved brother and an opportunity to share with others this talented writer’s words which still seem fresh and alive today.

Autumn 1918

Excerpt One Lang Reaches the War Zone

That day I saw for the first time what devastation war can bring about. We passed through territory, in the Champagne sector, where a mighty battle had been fought. First we came to the old trench area, where the line had remained stationary for a year or over. The system of trenches was easily discernable, zig zagging across the whole country, dug-outs bomb-proof and otherwise, machine gun emplacements or positions, observation posts and advance listening posts, firing steps, loop-holes, – all these things and many more were there, but in such a terrible state of repair. The shells and high explosives had torn everything to pieces. Some trenches were nearly filled in with the caved in dirt, the posts and barbed wire in front of them were thrown up and cut to pieces, and the ground everywhere within sight was a mass of holes, big and little, where shells had landed. Down in a ravine were a couple of tanks which had been destroyed by shell fire probably, and on the slope was the remains of an aeroplane. Scattered everywhere over the territory was equipment of all kinds, rifles, belts, bayonets, canteens, haversacks, empty cartridge boxes, machine gun strips and belts, some loaded and some empty, shells which had failed to explode, grenades, clothing, and all manner of rubbish of every description. For it was newly conquered ground, just a week or so before, and the salvage and clean up outfits were still at work. And in all this vast area where the trees were like those of Chelsea after the fire, and the ground was heaved and torn up beyond seeming repair, no life was visible but a few parties of French-Indo China natives and German prisoners who were working on the roads so that we could get through. Such an expanse of waste you can never imagine unless you see it yourself. Pictures and stories about it can never do it.

In two places we had to make detours on newly constructed road-beds around mine craters, where the Boche in their departure had blown up the road. These craters were round and symmetrical like shell holes, but for size compare as an ostrich egg with a pin head. Just imagine a hole as wide as an ordinary road and then 10-15 feet more on each side of the road and as deep as from the second story window of a house to the ground, and then imagine what happened when the mine went off. And if anyone or anything happened to be on top when it happened, no one afterwards would know it, for there wouldn’t be a piece large enough to give evidence.

We passed on through this country and then came to the German back areas, what had been before the offensive, comparatively safe regions where the German troops could rest. This was now our territory. There was still much evidence of the recent struggle, but the ground was not so torn up as it had been further back. It was quite plain that the struggle had been to dislodge the Boche from his trenches, and that it had taken considerable artillery to do this, but that as soon as the shelter of the dugouts and trench systems had been left behind, the Boche had made a speedy retreat. As we went further into his old back area, this became even more evident, for the damage became less and less as we proceeded.
Enormous piles of empty shell cases showed what a part the artillery had played, and the many newly built grave yards neatly arranged with a wooden cross at the head of each mound, and perhaps a French flag or two, showed what it had cost to regain this ground.
That night I kept off the damp ground by crawling inside of a couple of ammunition cans. I turned them end to end, stuck my feet in one and head in the other, then manouvered around until the openings were quite close together. I used my gas mask for a pillow, in fact, did so right along. My shoes I set outside and covered the tops with my helmet to keep the rain out, if it happened to rain in the night.

The Boche began to shell the artillery near us and that with the noise of our own guns, made quite a commotion. I wondered what would happen if a shell hit nearby and some pieces went through my tin cans, and wondered if I hadn’t better sleep out in the open. But I figured if I was to be hit, it would hit me anyway, so decided to stay where it was most comfortable.

About 11:00 P.M. I was startled and awakened by shouts of, “Gas!” I extricated myself from the cans in a second and began reaching around madly for my gas mask. I was still so much asleep that I couldn’t think straight and it was some time before I finally remembered that I had been using the mask for a pillow. I thought it must be gas all right, too, for I heard some shells that sounded like gas, but I guess they were duds. I couldn’t smell any gas, so went back to sleep. The following night the same thing happened. In both cases the alarm came from the artillery, but no gas came near the Marines.

Excerpt Two Lang Experiences “Zero Hour”

In my last letter I left off with the company arriving about 1:30 A.M. at its appointed position along the road near Sommerance. We were supposed to find machine gun positions all prepared, but they were full of water. So we dug some new ones and then the men dug holes for themselves. Captain Hale and I, and the company runners found shelter in a ditch along the road in rear of the company a short distance. We had to be careful in walking about, because every few minutes the Boche would send up star shells which would illuminate everything in great shape. When one goes up you have to stand still until the light dies out. Behind us, our artillery was quite active, sending shell after shell into Bocheland and keeping them from sending too many back at us. On our right and left were other machine gun companies, and the infantry was rapidly taking up its positions.

It was cold sitting by the road in our “dug-out” waiting for zero hour to come. I unrolled my blankets and spread them over my legs, but still I was frozen. I was awake at 3 A.M. but must have dozed off for a while for I next found it to be 3:25 by my watch. The artillery behind us was still banging away. A column of fifteen tanks rumbled by us.

At 3:30 everything suddenly quieted down for a second, but only
for a second. And then there burst forth a roaring and a banging the intensity of which was never before equalled. To the right, left and rear, everywhere there seemed to be a big gun planted, and in advance of them in all directions were hundreds of smaller guns. Then in front of all were machine guns, all sending a constant stream of lead towards the Dutchmen. The whole sky and the hills were ablaze with the flashes of the guns which roared their terrific bombardment, sending shells shrieking and whistling over our heads. And then the Boche began his little counter barrage, which added to the uproar, and also made life uncertain. Star shells and colored lights of all kinds were continually sent up by both sides to enable each to see what the other was doing. It seemed like the end of the world, with lightning, thunder, earthquakes, volcanoes and everything thrown in. I stood up in the road and gazed at it all as if in a trance.

For two hours without a let-up this barrage continued. Five thirty came, and it was zero hour. The machine guns ceased firing, and the infantry went over the top. The barrage kept up, but it was not stationary now as it had been. It was now a rolling barrage, timed to move forward just ahead of the infantry, serving not only to hasten the flight of the enemy, but to prevent him from counter attacking or making a very considerable resistance.

Our battalion was in reserve, which means that there were two battalions directly in advance of us as we went forward. One battalion is attacking, one is in support and one in reserve in each regiment. But during the action the positions are switched around for equal distances so that each battalion has its turn at all three positions. To the ordinary person it would appear to be safer in reserve than forward, but there is not much difference. You draw all the artillery fire, most of which misses those in the first waves.

Daylight came at just about the time we jumped-off, so I was able, as we waited for our time to go forward, to see the whole thing unfold,, as the companies spread out over the fields and advanced in waves with the men well apart, or (as in the reserve) in small columns of twos. And it was so big, so unreal, and so different from what I had pictured.

But just then a big shell landed about twenty yards away at the edge of the wood, and then another, and another. It suddenly became quite real. Up to this time there hadn’t been any shelling near me, but the Dutch had evidently got their guns in place and had our range. They were bouncing them all around us, and big ones, too. One landed in the midst of a group just ahead, and up they went.

Usually when a shell is coming it whistles and you can judge about which direction it is going, and you will frequently be able to avoid being hit by the humming shell fragments by ducking to right or left or falling down. Sometimes you will duck when you hear one whistling towards you to prevent it making a direct hit, only to find that it was some distance away after all. It is said that the one that gets you you do not hear, but instinct tells you to duck when they come close, and you do so. Nor is it a sign of fear. Everybody is supposed to protect himself in every possible way, and this is one of them. They all do it.

Excerpt Three Armistice at the Front

We had seen the newspaper which stated that Germany had until 11 A.M. on Monday to sign or not sign the armistice. And it was supposed to be straight dope that they were to sign it this night of our attack. But we had been ordered forward, and were suffering with cold at 4 A.M. on the 11th ready to cross the Meuse. It didn’t look much like an armistice to us. Bets were even made that it had fallen through.

About 4:00 o’clock word was passed to fall in. We didn’t know which way we were going, forward or to the rear. We knew, though, that something would have to be done soon, for it would be daybreak in an hour or so, and we were absolutely out in the open, with the nearest cover 3 to 4 kilometers away. It would have been fini Marine Brigade if we had been caught out there.

We went to the rear, for the Engineers had been unable to get out other bridge across. And we certainly hustled back. Instead of zigzagging, we followed the railroad track and then the main road. Tired though we were from a night without sleep and a forced march followed by the terrible cold, we came back a-stepping, for we had to reach the sheltering woods.

When we finally came to the woods we had left the night before, our exhaustion was so complete that the fact that they started shelling us meant nothing. We trudged right along and paid no attention to them at all.

We found a likely spot in the woods, spread our blankets on the ground, and went to sleep. A big battle was fought that morning, when some of our Marines and others of the 2nd Division crossed the Meuse and occupied those heights, down stream from where we were to have crossed. But we didn’t hear a shot fired. It took more than that to wake us up.

A runner came at 10 A.M. and gave us an order stating that an armistice effective at 11 A.M. had been signed. And we all woke up: you should have heard the cheering. It echoed and re-echoed all over the woods.

Our chow wagon came up at noon and we all felt better by that time. It seemed strange not to hear the guns roar. Everything was very quiet. The last shot was fired about 10:55.

About 2 P.M. I received orders to proceed with some other officers and men across the Meuse and to reconnoiter positions then being held by the 1st battalion of the 9th Infantry, in support of the Marines on the heights.

We went across the field where we had been shelled the night before, wearing our overseas caps instead of helmets. It was strangely quiet, and it seemed as if something was wrong. And then we saw the shell holes, the wreckage of equipment and other stuff, and above all the dead men, all of which had come about that morning while we slept, a few hours before and right up until the last minute of the armistice. And I thought, what a terrible fate it is, to be killed on the last day of the war. It seems worse than if it happened in the regular course of the war.

We came to the Meuse, which is not wider than a stone’s throw, and crossed on one of the pontoon bridges that had been used in the morning’s attack. We climbed a slope and came to a road which skirts the woods at the base of a high hill. Along this road the infantry was dug in, and we were to relieve them.

After we had selected positions for the company, I found a good place for my tent in the woods, and put it up. I then searched around and salvaged about six blankets and four or five shelter halves. These I placed on the ground in my tent, and the next few nights I enjoyed a soft bed and also a dry bed.

In a German officer’s dug-out in this woods (Bois des Flaviers, on the east bank of the Meuse opposite Villemontry) I found among other things a bag of Dutch hard tack. It comes in small cubes and has a sweet taste. It is not very hard either, and I found it very good. I carried the bag in my overcoat pocket and gradually used it up. I also found a pair of new knit socks and seized them at once, for I carried only one extra pair and the many days of wet and mud had put both pairs out of business.

The company didn’t get across until about 10 P.M. So I had quite a wait. But we had some big bon fires to stand around. All up and down the Meuse, every hillside was lit up with bon fires, and the Dutchmen were sending up flares and rockets of all kinds, even sending up first a red, then white, then blue. This was done repeatedly. I guess they were pretty happy. It was strange to see all these fires, because before you couldn’t even light a match for fear someone would see it.

The next day we remained in our positions, and had a good chance to rest, the first for many days. Our galley and other wagons came right down to the west bank, and the chow was carried across the pontoon bridge each meal. And we had some good ones. Then that night we had more fires and beaucoup songs. All the popular and old time songs were sung over and the valley resounded with it. The hills were lit up and the Germans sent up more rockets and colored flares. It was a scene to be remembered a long time, and could only have happened like that at the front. This day also was a red letter day for we could wash our hands and face in the Meuse, a rare treat. I also managed to wash some socks and handkerchiefs.

Basil Burwell in miniature World War One uniform and Belgian cap sent by his brother, 1918

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Retrolingual

Retrolingual: Retrolingual was a short lived academic fad of the mid 21st century. Students, tiring of traditional modern language studies (i.e.: French, Spanish, Chinese and Gezhundian) and traditional ancient language studies (i.e.: Latin, Greek, Olde English and Really Really Olde Gezhundian), took up faintly obscure, mostly forgotten extinct languages, such as “Modern Gutnish,” “Russenorsk,” “Kw’adza,” “Yugh,” and the easy to pronounce, “Ngarinyeric-Yithayithic.” The fad, although extremely popular for a few weeks, went the way of “pet rocks” since no one understood what anyone else was saying, and so, “Nixtifalacchio ifiniccionali Phaxtomiswopp,” which clearly meant “I would like a rutabaga to go, please,” became misinterpreted by many scholars as, “Your nostril drips like the ever flowing fountain of Phaxtom’s Mountain.”

Theodore Saurus took a lot of guff for his odd name. When shortened to Theo Saurus and said quickly with marbles in mouth, it sounded like the word “dictionary.” As it turned out, Theodore adored words, not just words you could look up in an ordinary dictionary or even in one of those massive, multi-volume lexicons, but words found in all corners of the world and a few dusty closets, too. As a child he passionately studied foreign language dictionaries, eventually opening them up to see what was inside. In his teens he progressed to ancient languages such as Vulgar Latin, Sanskrit, Sumerian, and Egyptian, and became conversant in all of them, although none of his schoolmates understood his jokes and his would-be girlfriends slammed the door on his amorous proclamations in exotic foreign tongues because they preferred red blooded American tongues. By the time he entered college he’d memorized Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People, in forty-two languages and thought it might be working when a cat befriended him because he seemed able to interpret its desire for a bowl of milk. However, he felt determined to win friends and influence his college class as well as his professors.

It took time, but then all at once he succeeded. On November 28, 2051, he invented the term “retrolingual” and immediately began speaking in languages no one else on campus knew a single word of, including fragments of Thracian, Etruscan and his personal favorite, Philistine. Envious of his multilingual facility, other would-be language artists took note and began their own campaigns of linguistic obscurity. Soon dorm rooms were abuzz with words like, “oophrizrastic” and “quixxicoxxinixxitwat.” One wise pundit commented that the fad spread from campus to campus like “vrinoslippicoth,” a cliché in Vrinthlon, the language of an obscure European sect known as the Vrinthligoths. Actual translation: “like wildfire,” but naturally no one knew that. The fad lasted just over three weeks when students left for the winter holidays and forgot all about it. Theodore Saurus abandoned languages for the study of dinosaurs and at long last achieved popularity – suddenly his name was cool.

Actual meaning: situated behind or near the base of the tongue (salivary glands)

A Writing Family Pt.2 – My Grandmother, Eda Hoode Sadler (aka: Ida Fingerhut)

Ida Fingerhut, skating at Central Park in New York, circa 1910.

“Grandma, tell me a story.” I was six years old. My mother’s mother, Eda Hoode Sadler, sat in her comfy chair, reading. She looked up, distracted for a moment and then smiled. She placed her book on the coffee table, took her glasses off and then gave the familiar pat on her lap. I climbed up and heard her groan as I settled in. How many times had I asked her for a story? How many times have I wished I could go back and hear her words that are lost forever? Within a year and a half, she was gone.

Eda Hoode Sadler with grandson, Fred Burwell. Note pad on grass and pencil in hand, ready for a writing session.

My grandmother’s life included more twists and turns than most plot-driven novels, but she didn’t talk about her eventful childhood. She told tales of magic and mystery. I remember an underwater world visited by two children – my age, of course – and populated by clever porpoises and other wild creatures. As much as I craved her stories, Grandma always made a deal. “I’ll tell you a story and then you tell me one,” she’d say. And so, from early on, I had the notion that you could pluck a story from the air.

At first glance, Grandma’s early life seems hidden behind an impenetrable bank of fog and yet there are tantalizing scraps, half-remembered stories from my mother, confusingly inconsistent “facts” from census records and naturalization documents, and autobiographical accounts in her unpublished novel, Jessica Brown, and in short stories. Ida Fingerhut was born in Poland in 1888 and traveled with her family to the United States just a few years later. Her father Abraham was a rabbinical student who contracted consumption while selling Christmas tree ornaments on the streets of New York and died soon after. In a letter to my mother, Grandma described him as “the quietest man imaginable,” and yet he, too, told stories. “My mother just absolutely adored him,” my mother Nancy told me during an oral history session. “One of the things she used to tell about him was, she had this fantastic doll, well, the only doll she ever had. And it was given to her, and the doll fell and broke and it didn’t seem reparable, so her father gave the doll a really grand funeral and told her all about the imaginary, wonderful place the doll was going to, and he consoled her.”

Her mother Mary, with five children in tow, went to work as a milliner. In order to make ends meet, she placed Ida and her brother Herman in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, a place that included many “half-orphans” of poor Jewish immigrants. My mother recalled Grandma’s tales of the orphanage: “She got the nickname of ‘Princess’ because she wouldn’t eat the thick yellow gruel…She remembered they had a fence around the orphanage and the parents had to be on the other side of the fence to see their children. There was a playground of sorts. My mother remembered seeing her mother outside the fence, watching the children at play.”

Eventually, after her mother had opened her own establishment, Ida returned home. She loved learning, but like so many others of that era, her schooling ended after eighth grade graduation, when she received a prize, a two volume set of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass that she kept all of her life. She had no feeling for the millinery business and after a year working in a factory, she got a job at Brentano’s, a famous bookstore. “She used to spend an awful lot of her time in Brentano’s, when she wasn’t busy, curled up with a good book, a Brentano’s book, and she read up a storm,” my mother told me, also noting something true of more than one member of my family: “In fact, her mother really got very annoyed with her because she always had a book at every meal, open at the table, whatever the meal was, and Mother was reading and paying no attention to anything that went on.”

Ida Fingerhut 8th grade graduation, circa 1902

Even in her mid teens she knew that to get ahead in the world, to get out of the tenements of the lower east side of New York, she would have to hide her background, even change her identity. While at Brentano’s, she learned to type, and she learned the old-fashioned Pitman method of shorthand. She became a topnotch stenographer, working her way up through jobs at banks to a position with New York City Chamberlain, Henry Bruere, a charismatic man who helped mold the new Ida, teaching her proper deportment and even helping her shave off all traces of a New York accent. She became involved in some of the issues of the day, helped found a stenographers union and hosted a suffragist tea.

Ida Fingerhut plans a union for stenographers, 1915

She also married Dr. Herman Seidler, a troubled man with a voracious passion for the arts – music, theater and books. Their marriage ended in separation and divorce and Grandma brought up my mother on her own, making a good living as a career woman. She also changed her name. From Ida Fingerhut to Eda Hoode to Eda Seidler, to Eda Hoode Sadler. She followed no religion and rarely if ever brought up the fact that she was Jewish, although she had Jewish friends. “See, Mother went a whole different way,” my mother commented. “She became something else completely than what she might have, because she didn’t follow any of her background.” She claimed that she didn’t know any Yiddish and yet in unguarded moments she’d drop a Yiddish word or phrase into conversation. Tucking my mother into bed at night, she’d sing songs from the old country, remembered from childhood.

And she’d tell my mother stories: “Mother was wonderful at storytelling. I never could tell a damn story in my life. You know, you have to make it up? But I used to love my dolls and she’d make the most wonderful stories up about my dolls. She was really full of all kinds of imagination and used it. There were two fairies that she made up, Peeps and Conundrum who took my doll Annabelle-Lee around the world. Imagination, yes, tremendous. Her stories were delightful.”

Eda Hoode Sadler with her daughter Nancy, mid-1920's

At some point Grandma began to write. Perhaps her success writing advertising copy spurred her on. Or perhaps Peeps and Conundrum had something to do with it. She took courses on the short story and attempted to tailor her pieces for the slick women’s magazines of the day, without success. By the 1950’s she was working on Jessica Brown, a long novel based on her own life. She entitled a shorter version, Lamplighter Days, which focused on rich details of her childhood. Her literary agent and friend, Bertha Klausner, sent them out and they received “positive rejections.” Publishers found them “charming” and “delightful” but too old-fashioned for changing times and so the aging manuscripts sat for decades in a desk drawer and then in cartons. They moved whenever we moved and today they reside in my Wisconsin study, awaiting rediscovery.

In loving tribute to a spirited member of my “writing family,” I post the following excerpt from Jessica Brown, a work by Eda Hoode Sadler which shows that Ida Fingerhut, an identity so long discarded, wasn’t so far below the surface after all.

Ida Fingerhut in 1911, age 23

Jessica Brown

The employment office was crowded with men and women whose faces showed worry, hope or resignation – anything but expectancy. For the older ones, with their firmly pressed lips that had thinned and puckered with the rancid taste of their lives, Jessie felt pity rise in her and a vague sense of guilt for her own advantage of youth.

The printed application blank appalled her. So many questions, so many vacant lines like hungry mouths that she must fill with bits of herself. The print swam in a jumble before her apprehensive eyes, and to steady herself she looked around, then back to the shabby long oak table at which she sat. A girl opposite her was writing industriously, with no hesitation, as if it were all a familiar process, her dark hair neatly coiffed under a small-brimmed blue hat that matched the color of her short tightly buttoned jacket out of which billowed a white frilled jabot. She saw the girl suddenly hesitate, lift the paper in well-kept square-tipped fingers as if to tear it, her dark face taking on an angry frown.

What made her angry? Jessie wondered, and glanced over the form before her.

“Why did you leave your last place of employment?” caught her eye. Because – stop it, Jessie, she warned herself. Stop it or you’ll cry. Get to work. Begin at the beginning.

“Name.” Jessie (No, Jessica is more dignified) Brown. Fill in the easy things first.”

“Age.” She hesitated and glanced up. The girl opposite her was at least twenty-five. Everybody seemed older. If she said seventeen they would think she was a beginner. Nineteen, she decided.

“Experience.” Think of the experience and see how it adds up. Four jobs in the first six months. No, that would give an impression of instability. Just the last job would be better. Two and a half years on the last job. She could be truthful about the job.

Her eyes followed the girl as she rose and went over to the clerk. What a lovely suit she wore, how trim and business-like she looked.

“Mmm.” Jessie saw the clerk appraise the girl, her smooth black hair, the sloe eyes and highbridged nose. “You’ve had nice experience, but the only job I have I’m afraid wouldn’t suit you…”

“I’ll take anything,” the girl interrupted.

“No,” the clerk shook her head. “The bank won’t take Jews. You’re the kind of girl they want, but – your name, and – well,” she shrugged, “there’s no use sending you.”

Jessie averted her eyes from the girl’s bitter face as if she had been caught peeping into the privacy of her room.

Surprise and fear, like a sudden spasm, cramped her stomach. Names made a difference! She looked down at the application blank. Jessica Brown. The name she had been given in school by some indifferent clerk suddenly seemed fraudulent. But lots of foreign names were changed in school, were accepted as the first step in Americanization. That’s the way even mama had taken and used the name. Now Jessie felt a sense of disloyalty to her father, a sense of shame as if she were being dishonest. And yet she felt grateful for its anonymity, as if it were a shield against an enemy.

“Religion?” The question leaped up at her challengingly. Religion…Once she had answered that question she would be discarded like the girl before her. She remembered her father’s words on that long ago Christmas Eve. “In America you are free…to be what you want to be…to take your place anywhere…Freedom and opportunity – they are your birthright.”

Saul’s voice echoed in her ears while she stared at the word “Religion” until each letter formed iron bars closing her in, imprisoning her. Saul’s words beat at her with hammer strokes. “Be what you want to be!” He had believed in the freedom of America. “Freedom and opportunity are your birthright!” He had been willing to starve for that belief. If she let herself become a prisoner of prejudice, she would betray all his hopes for her, his faith in the country of his adoption.

And mama. Mama’s eyes were afraid. Remembering the fear in mama’s eyes, desperation filled Jessie. Shutting her eyes for a moment as if she felt the impact of the word as a blow, she wrote “Protestant,” then sat frozen and grieved.

“Are you ready?” The clerk’s voice cut sharply into the fog of her distress.

Jessie nodded.

“Let me have it,” the clerk said. “There are others waiting, you know.”

Others waiting…Mama waiting, frightened, remembering the early days after papa died. Mama must never know such need again. Stiffly, Jessie handled over the application blank, and waited. It seemed to her that the clerk glanced at one item only.

“Don’t be so nervous,” the clerk said. “You’re just the type of girl they want. And it’s a large bank, lots of room for advancement…You didn’t put down any salary.”

“I…”

“They’ll pay seventy-five a month to start.”

Jessie nodded. It was more than she had hoped for. It would take care of mama and herself. Mama would not have to draw on her last few dollars. She would no longer be haunted by fear. But Jessie found no satisfaction in the thought. Her throat was parched. She felt empty of all emotion save a sense of shame for herself and for the country she grew up in.

“All right. Here, take this card. You’ll like the people, and you’re just the kind of girl they want,” the clerk repeated.

I’ll hate the people, Jessie thought savagely. I’ll hate them. I’ll never be happy with them. And I’ll never forgive them.

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Lithomarge


Lithomarge: [see also, lithobutter] a print produced by lithomargraphy, a process in which one renders an image or word via rendered margarine on non-absorbent pastry which repels the ink, allowing it to rappel onto an appropriate surface or external locus, ostensibly providing a subcutaneous veneer, although a few (jealous – or zealous? I can’t read my own handwriting) scientists in Monaco doubt its plausibility.

You’ve heard of butter sculpture? This is similar. Read on:

Long, long ago an itinerant Italian artist and printer named Graphias Litho sat down at the breakfast table with a hefty chunk of Tuscan flatbread and a pot of well-congealed butter. He was an absent minded fellow, given to flights of fancy and flights of forgetfulness. That day, knife in hand, he was about to slice into the flat, smooth crust, when without thinking a thought, he carved a word in his native language, “buffone” or “buffoon” as we call it today. He then pressed the bread against the creamy butter, while simultaneously spilling a quantity of ink which he’d mistaken for wine. When he lifted the bread, he cried, “Voila!” Or, rather, “Ecco!” There was “buffone” spelled out in lovely burgundy-colored letters. Sadly, the newly invented “lithobutter” had a very short life span once the Tuscan sun – and Graphias’s wife Petra – heated up. Petra was quite upset to find ink mixed into her butter and threatened to use Graphias’s printing press as kindling. But the germ of an idea grasped Graphias and spun him around. Once he stopped spinning, he began the art of lithography in earnest.

Flash forward two centuries and an Armenian avant-garde scholar/artiste named Plebiscite Philagorean spent two hundred days in the Litho room of the Benedetto Archives of Siena, Italy, pouring over Graphias Litho’s papers, which included original lithographs, baffling treatises on befuddled subjects (unless it was the other way around), and mysterious ink-stained notes, as well as assorted crumbs from long ago meals. One day he stumbled upon a still slightly greasy jotting about Litho’s initial discovery of the lithobutter process. A light bulb lit above Philagorean’s head, although that was not unusual. Lights were always flickering on and off at the Benedetto Archives, which along with its fabulous collections, featured faulty electrical wiring.

Plebiscite Philagorean raced back to his hotel room on the Rue de la Champagne (for some reason he was commuting daily from Lac Dumas aux Flambeau, France, 750 miles away), not forgetting to pick up the flattest, hardest, three-day old bread he could find. He rummaged in the refrigerator for a plastic tub of margarine and then set to work. To honor the Italian Graphias Litho, Philagorean carved the word “vermicelli,” a type of pasta also known as “little worms.” He pressed the bread word into the margarine and stared in disbelief at the faint, spectacularly unspectacular imprint. He’d forgotten the ink! Hurriedly he pulled apart a BIC pen and squirted it all over himself. Fortunately, enough ink dripped onto the bread that he was able to try again and this time the word stood out a vibrant blue. The art of the lithomarge, created by way of lithomargraphy, was born and the world was never the same, although the world didn’t know it.

Actual definition: smooth, compact kaolin, a type of clay used to manufacture porcelain.

Prairie Hill – Disturbed Ground

Along the Tracks - Turtle Creek in Autumn

My novel Prairie Hill takes place in 1980. A plot thread deals with the threat to one of the few remaining remnants of tallgrass prairie. I wish I could say we’re all enlightened now, thirty-two years later.

The other day I took one of my favorite walks. I slipped down the hill behind our house, crossed the flood plain and then climbed the short rise to the railroad tracks which follow the meandering course of Turtle Creek. A few warm days had melted the heavy blanket of snow and the sun tickled the old cap on my head and warmed the tiny insects out for a stroll on their version of a superhighway – the rust-tinged rails of a seldom used freight track. I heard a cardinal singing, the caw of a crow high up in a cottonwood across the creek, and the scolding quacks of mallards fighting their way upstream in a creek churning with snow melt. The gravel crunched as I ambled alongside the tracks. I looked to my right and then noticed something different. Someone or some thing had rudely hacked down the tree where the cedar waxwings like to congregate, calling out there ethereal whistling notes, socializing. It looked as if a giant had reached its hand down and snapped the tree in two.

Goodbye Cedar Waxwings

I glanced down the track and saw further destruction – brush, grasses, small trees, all mowed down, discarded on the creek bank or half in, half out of the water. Worse, nearly every larger tree displayed hack marks or great gouges meant to kill. At first, as I walked along, I wondered if we’d somehow had an invasion of beavers – I could forgive the beavers – but it had been years since I’d seen evidence of beaver and even longer since I’d seen the industrious animals swimming in the creek.

Damaged Trees

I remember when I first walked the rails, thick clusters of prairie plants on either side, a variety of golden sunflowers, the startling deep, rich, blue of spiderwort, pale pink-petal coneflowers bobbing in a stiff breeze. Best of all, there was a great variety of birds. In early spring you’d hear song sparrows and goldfinches, thrushes and thrashers, and a catbird trying out his best cardinal. One year, as I followed the creek, I suddenly felt as if I had a companion alongside me. I looked over and spotted a ruby crowned kinglet, flitting in the brush. It seemed as curious about me as I was of it and I felt that I’d made a friend. There were also the water birds, shy, skittish wood ducks I could never quite get close enough to before they exploded from the water in a mix of spray and beating wings, and the kingfishers speeding along the creek as if it was a raceway, making their clattering raucous call. Within a few years, I noticed this seemingly forgotten habitat under threat. The railroad people came through and sprayed chemicals on the vegetation, turning it into a wasteland which grew up again until further spraying. The wilder plants disappeared, replaced by opportunistic invasive species such as garlic mustard. Now they’re hacking it all down. I haven’t seen a kinglet in years.

I finished my creek walk and headed down Colley Road where I turned onto a fire lane/access path, headed for Leeson Park. This once peaceful, tranquil haven is another favorite walk under threat. So far the privately owned woods to the left remain undisturbed, a refuge for deer, fox, wild turkey and owl. Five years ago you could look to the right and enjoy mixed pasture and remnant prairie. Then the bulldozers tore up the ground, followed by the builders. What appeared? Not a country estate, not an “attractive” subdivision, but prefab warehouses. More than half the field survived initial construction, though its disturbed ground housed rough grasses and the beautiful but diabolical bull thistle. The new retention pond grew smelly, vividly hued algae but also attracted mallards, Canada geese, killdeer and singing frogs I can hear from my house. Now they’re building another round of prefabs and the field is down to a tenth of its former size.

Prefab with Wisconsin Clouds

Off in one corner someone had a bright idea. Why not plant a few evergreens on top of an artificial berm to hide unsightly cement pipes? As Hulda would say in Prairie Hill, “It looks downright silly.” Sadly, there’s nothing they could plant to hide the bigger mess they made.

Happy Concrete Pipes Taking a Dip

The Path to Leeson Park, 1993

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Prestidigitator and Croquette

Prestidigitator: An instant finger-making machine, not to be confused with a prestoagitator, which is an instant annoying person, not to be confused with a depressedagitator which is an unhappy annoying person. The prestidigitator is useful for creating fingers for things that don’t have them such as televisions and glasses of orange juice.

Juan cried, “¡Ay caramba!” when the prestidigitated finger rose like Excalibur from his bowl of steaming burrito soup. Guacamole splattering, corn chips clattering, Juan burst through the nearest mosaic-covered mud brick wall as if it was one of those swinging doors in a fabled western saloon. No one ever returned to El Gordo Sombrero, considered until that tragic day the finest Mexican restaurant in Uzbekistan.

Actual meaning: an expert at prestidigitation, which means sleight of hand.

Croquette: A psychological condition in which the subject is only capable of flirting while playing croquet.

From the age of two, Helga cried foul over the name her parents chose for her. Why oh why couldn’t they have named her something pleasanter, like Babette or better yet, Bala Cynwd? She tried everything in her power to destroy the grim image her name evoked. Instead of dark, practical clothing, she wore frilly dresses. Instead of short, practical straight hair, she wore her hair in artfully arranged ringlets. Instead of a stern, uncompromising expression, she wore something decidedly inane and vacuous. Her attempts at base flirting, at the normal coquetry of feminine youth, failed utterly and completely until one day while visiting her fourth cousin’s mother in law’s best friend’s neighbor twice removed (no one knew why), she took up the ancient and esteemed game of croquet. The men who played that day, the Italian count, Garibaldi Garbanzo and his sycophantic associate, Garlic Gorgonzola, found themselves fascinated, charmed and captivated. Helga, who despaired of ever marrying, used her new-found croquetry to land both, living happily ever after at the conjoined Garbanzo-Gorgonzola estates until one day a prestidigitated thumb appeared in her linguini. The unfortunate result was the sudden disappearance of her remarkable abilities as the world’s most famous croquette, thus ending a chapter in Heinz Uberburgerschnitzel’s classic tome, Psychotomimetical Psychosomatics.

Actual meaning: a croquette is a cake or pastry filled with diced meat and vegetables, coated with breadcrumbs and fried in deep fat.

A Writing Family Pt.1 – My Father, Basil Burwell

Basil and Fred Burwell and Friend

Where did my passion for words come from? I think back to my childhood and find many sources, from the intriguing typeface and old-paper smell of a 1920’s hardback book to a dog-eared copy of the mysterious Dr. Strange Marvel comic left around by my brother Jeremy, to the fresh ink glow of a Dell paperback bought at the local department store. As much as I loved reading words, I also loved the sounds of words and so I became a listener. Every night my father read to me as I slurped up Cheerios and scraped sugar from the bottom of the bowl. When I pull The Phantom Tollbooth off the shelf today, I half hear the echo of my father’s booming voice merging with the bell-like clink of spoon on ceramic bowl.

Basil Burwell reading to Fred and Jeremy

Or we’d be out driving, my father at the wheel, my mother beside him, me in the back, gazing through the window at the passing scenes, then –

“Flug!” my father would say.

My mother would wake out of her reverie. “What?” And then she’d look out the window as we rolled past a busy Gulf station. “Oh, Basil!”

A block later he’d intone, “Deeps Timil,” in his rich actor’s baritone.

My mother would present him with one of her patented scowls. “Oh don’t be ridiculous!”

I’d pinch myself, trying not to burst out laughing when I realized that “Deeps Timil” was “Speed Limit” backwards. My father adored backwards words. A father in one of his novels – probably an alter ego – named his daughter, “Devorppa Klim,” which of course was “Approved Milk.” Magical backward words appeared everywhere, even in our own names. Sometimes, his blue eyes twinkling but with a straight face, he’d introduce himself to strangers as “Lisab Llewrub.” I learned that if I ever felt bored with plain old Fred Burwell, I could always switch it around to Derf Llewrub and pretend I was Welsh.

If you wonder where my Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary comes from, it’s the spirit of Basil Burwell perched on my shoulder, whispering into my ear.

My father once confessed to me that he thought of himself as an unsuccessful man. That surprised me. How many fathers did I know who could say they’d acted professionally for more than a decade and appeared in films with such oddball names as Park Avenue Logger and I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany? But in the 1940’s he left the world of Hollywood and summer stock and became a master teacher, both of the theater and of English literature and creative writing.

He’d always loved to write and he couldn’t resist telling stories. How many times had I bugged him for the further adventures of “Georgie Kleenex?” Especially after the beloved, flimsy character had somehow floated all the way to the moon? He liked to point out that one of his first published stories, “The Flag that Set Us Free, published in the famous Story magazine in 1944, was based on one of his schoolboy stories that had received a C+, possibly due to his incorrigibly bad handwriting. Story editor Whit Burnett urged him to “think long” and in 1954, the historical epic, Our Brother the Sun, became his first published novel.
A Fool in the Forest
, which appeared in 1963, was his personal favorite. It was an autobiographical novel about a young man fresh out of high school in 1929, experiencing a wild summer with a troupe of actors at a summer theater set in an old fashioned amusement park.

When I first became interested in writing, Dad would take my penciled rough draft and cover it with red pen corrections, comments, and suggestions. Then we’d sit down and talk about it. I knew I was getting somewhere when less and less red marked up my work.

Perhaps Dad had so many strong passions he couldn’t simply hue to one path. To my mind he was an extremely successful man – a fine actor and director, brilliant teacher, published author, delightful storyteller, and a warm and generous father and mentor.

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Kloof

Kloof: A mechanical attachment used to provide dexterity to sentient ungulates.

Urko visited the Kloofeteria, where an assistant helped him try on four varicolored neon kloofs, which fit front and back hoofs perfectly. At last, instead of kicking away unwanted tennis balls, he was able to pick them up and eat them. Instead of leaving angry hoof-marks on books, he could actually turn pages and read the stories. The kloofs were an utter delight – he never had to trim them and he never had to coat them with hoof cream in winter, unlike his hoofs, which became brittle and cracked. There was no such thing as “kloof cream.” You didn’t need it.

One day, while perusing his favorite volume of encyclopedia (the “U” volume of course), Urko discovered that somehow, without consulting them, dinosaur-obsessed scientists had deviously replaced the name of his type of mammal, once euphoniously known as “ungulata” with either “perissodactyla” or “artiodactyla.” – they couldn’t seem to make up their minds which. As a proto-beatnik type of ungulate, Urko naturally preferred “artiodactyla” which got him pondering about art, a subject he often pondered his deepest ponders about. Urko had noticed the unusual mosaic of tracks that kloofs left in the mud he liked to cool off in. After experimenting with a variety of patterns and creating his own personal style, Urko invented an entirely new art form, at first known as “Art Urko,” but after it caught on with other artist-ungulates, as “Art Kloof.” Unfortunately, within days, Kloof manufacturers underwent major nuisance lawsuits from several individuals named “Art Kloof.” Tied up in litigation for years, “kloofmania,” as the media referred to it, underwent severe decline until now no one is sure if kloofs ever truly existed.

Its actual meaning: “a deep glen: ravine”

Prairie Hill – Rob Baller wildflower Photographs

One early spring day many years ago, I visited a remnant prairie not far from where I live in Beloit, Wisconsin. It was a sunny day, but there was a stiff wind blowing and the nip in the air made me think that winter had its claws dug in and wasn’t in any hurry to scoot off to wherever it likes to hang out over the next eight or nine months. I climbed down a steep hill into a gully and then up another hill, tromping on crackling grass. I looked ahead and glimpsed toward the top, buffeted by the breeze but stretching their pale lavender blooms toward the warming sun, dozens of hairy-stemmed pasque flowers scattered here and there on the slope. The uplifting sight of spring’s first flowers stayed with me and eventually became the setting for an early scene in Prairie Hill.

When I began to think about a cover for Prairie Hill I knew that I wanted, if possible, something tied to that scene. Enter Rob Baller, local ecologist extraordinaire. I’ve known Rob for many years. He is a passionate advocate for native landscapes, from prairies to oak openings and wetlands and is a keen student of their ecology, history and lore. Take a walk with Rob and he’ll identify every plant, every insect, every bird. He’ll tell you what remains today and what used to be here a century or two ago. Rob has been instrumental in saving and protecting several natural areas. Although exacting and scientific, Rob is not immune to the aesthetic beauty of native plants, something reflected in the warmth of his conversation about them and in the loving attention he pays to documenting them in their natural setting. I had a hunch he might have something available and so I asked. A couple of days later he brought a flash drive filled with dozens of images of landscapes and native flora and fauna. “Take your pick,” he said.

As I looked through photo after photo of prairie scenes and prairie plants, I saw some wonderful possibilities, and then there it was, a gorgeous photograph of pasque flowers looking much as they did that sunny morning long ago. There was the perfect cover for Prairie Hill.

I thought it would be nice to share some more of Rob’s wonderful photographs here. There are so many that I love, perhaps this will be part one. Here is another view of pasque flowers:

And with its vibrant halo, the purple prairie clover:

One of the cheeriest – butterfly weed:

The sunflower-like Prairie Dock, I’m sure well loved by Hulda Bjorklund, a character in Prairie Hill:

And finally, the long-haired “hippy” flower, prairie smoke, also delightfully known as “old man’s whiskers”:

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Biramous and Whaup

Biramous: an unusually intelligent, two-whiskered mouse. Several whisker strands fuse together into horn-like projections from each side of the mouse’s mouth. Because of their tensile, metallic-like strength and conductivity, the fused whiskers act like radio antennae, drawing broadcasts from around the world directly into the mouse. Because of their keen minds and sponge-like absorptive abilities, the average biramous quickly becomes conversant in a multitude of languages, especially that of advertising. The enlarged biramous speech box provides startling resonance, allowing many biramouses successful careers as radio announcers, deejays, and voice over artists. No doubt you’ve heard them advertising cheese.

Legend has it that Amos was the most famous biramous of them all, although cantankerous cranks groused that he was a louse, except when most sonorous, which brought down the house. Vain and snooty (but never snouty), Amos always wore a sunny yellow mouse-blouse featuring glamorous photographs of himself posing at the microphone. Some say that only a blasphemous ignoramus would frown at such a vainglorious biramous as Amos.

Actual definition of biramous: having two branches, as those on the appendages of crustaceans.

Whaup: A particular sound produced by members of the obscure religious sect known as “Burpers” at the exact second they reach their daily moment of enlightenment.

Franklin was a recent convert to the Burpers, swayed by their promise of enlightenment – deep and soulful riches beyond imagination. However, try as he would, meditating for hours on end by himself and in large groups, he’d never emitted more than a tiny “uhp” which reminded his fellow Burpers of the sound one makes after swallowing an under ripe grape. Castigated for his failure, reviled for his undeniably weak belching ability, thrown out on his own devices, (etc. etc.), Franklin dragged himself to the nearest mountain (some ten thousand miles away), planning to end it all. He sat in an old shepherd’s hut, high above a darkling plain and gave it one last try. He’d consumed a cucumber steak with watermelon gravy and found it too rare for his liking. His stomach, however, seemed to be speaking to him and he felt insistent, mystical words rising up, clamoring to get out. He opened his mouth and felt the “whaup” coming, but only a stray “wherefore” slipped out. Steeling himself, he tried yet again and this time, at long last (he thought), the whaup tumbled down his chin, only to turn into a “wherewithal.” In despair, he rose swiftly, stepped forward to pitch himself down the steep slope…and then that most lovely and rare of words, “whaup” slithered out of his mouth and swirled in the mists of the canyon below, echoingly brightly (or was it damply?) from peak to peak, wall to wall, finally settling on a radio tower where it became part of an international broadcast listened to with delight by every biramous near and far.

Actual definition of whaup: “a European curlew.” A curlew is a species of bird.

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