From: Celia Hayes AKA Sgt. Mom

To: Producers of Texas Rising Miniseries

Memo: Historical Texas Scenery

On the principle that a picture is worth a thousand words, I hereby post a scattering of pictures taken by me in various locations around San Antonio, Gonzales and Goliad, as well as some representative landscapes of the coastal more-or-less-flatlands.

Countryside with oak tree and wildflower meadow - South of San Antonio. No desert.

Countryside with oak tree and wildflower meadow – South of San Antonio. No desert.

Low rolling hills and a line of trees a little north of San Antonio. No desert here.

Low rolling hills and a line of trees a little north of San Antonio. No desert here.

Historical reenactors outside the Goliad Citadel. Trees and green grass, scattered with flowers. No desert here, either.

Historical reenactors outside the Goliad Citadel. Trees and green grass, scattered with flowers. No desert here, either.

Low hill with cemetery, just outside Gonzales. Note absence of steep desert canyons.

Low hill with cemetery, just outside Gonzales. Note absence of steep desert canyons.

















From the top of the citadel wall at Goliad. No desert.

From the top of the citadel wall at Goliad. No desert.




Countryside, slightly to the north of Goliad. No desert.

Countryside, slightly to the north of Goliad. No desert.










Hoping that you will take this to heart, upon scouting for appropriate outdoor locations for a drama focusing on the events of 1835-1836 in Texas, and that any particularly dry and desert-appearing locations will be crossed off the list.

I remain as always,

Celia Hayes/ Sgt. Mom

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titles(Escaping from a truly dreadful  family situation and under an assumed name, the proper — and yet adventurous young Bostonian lady Sophia Brewer — has landed a job as a Harvey Girl. The year is 1886, and she has landed up in Newton, Kansa, to be trained in the Harvey method. The Newton Harvey house is a refuge for Sophia – and yet, can she do the kind of work which would be seen by kin and friends back in Boston as demeaning?)

Chapter 10 – Chance Met in Newton

Morning – if not precisely dawn – arrived far too early, in Sophia’s groggy estimation. The first harbinger sounded at first like a storm of blows upon the panels of the door to the room in which she and Laura had slept. She swam up out of as deep a state of sleep as she ever had had under the effect of Dr. Cotton’s disgusting potions, and the storm resolved into a polite tapping, and Jenny Maitland’s voice.

“Miss Teague, Miss Nyland? Wake up – there’s a train due into Newton in half an hour – and we must be ready. We’ll have our breakfast in the interval between that and the next, but you must be downstairs and inspection-ready in twenty minutes. Miss Teague…”

“I’m awake,” Sophia found her voice. From the other bed, she could hear Laura grumbling – probably strong oaths, from the level and passion of her voice. “So is Miss Nyland. We’ll be ready directly.”

There was some little starlight seeping into their room through the thin muslin curtains over the window which they had left open for fresh air. The moon was a small mother-of-pearl circle, just hovering over the buildings opposite – it shed just enough pale light to allow Sophia to light the gas fixture, as Laura heaved the bedclothes aside.

“Time to see to the cows,” she said, with remarkable cheer, and Sophia giggled.

“Not cows, Laura,” she replied, searching in her as-yet-unpacked carpet-bag for her cleanest shift. “But hungry travelers on the railway.”

“They wish to be fed, and will eat of what is put in front of them,” Laura replied. “Men … cows. Little difference that I can see.”

“Except that men don’t expect to be milked, as well.” Sophia said, and was disconcerted by Laura’s knowing chuckle.

“They want their service, just as the bull does,” Laura replied, inscrutably. She had found her stockings, and rolled them up around her pale shins as she sat on the bed. Sophia did not know what to say to that. She and Laura dressed in relative silence; combing out their long hair before the single mirror, and pinning it into plain and serviceable buns.

“We look like nuns,” Laura remarked, looking over Sophia’s shoulder as they stood in front of the small square of mirror over the wash-stand. Sophia regarded herself, and Laura – pale rounded faces reflected in the watery glass; Elsie collar buttoned high and close, plain black dress and narrow sleeves, with the white bibbed apron … it did appear positively nun-like. All that they lacked was a coif and a black veil. “I think that may be the idea,” Sophia replied. She had been considering this, ever since Jenny Maitland had outlined the code of appearance and dress, on the previous night. “You know how ordinary people think of a single woman who must work for a living, away from her family and friends … or at least, I know of how they are seen in respectable Boston society – most usually of the servant class and sometimes no better than they ought to be. It’s very hard, Laura, for a woman alone, without friends or family, to have any kind of respectable life … so Mr. Harvey and his strict rules are a defense, a protection, even – against vicious gossip. Like Caesar’s wife – we must be above suspicion.”

“You are likely right about this,” Laura made a brief moue of distaste. “Still – how very dull for us!”

“We may not flirt with customers, and we must not cultivate particular friendships among our fellow employees within the house … but Miss Maitland said that there was nothing in Mr. Harvey’s rules for us forbidding such attachments to gentlemen employed on the railroad. The telegraphists and engineers and such; they are reputed to be daring and clever young men, skilled and prepared to move up in the world. I might like to be courted by an intelligent and ambitious young man of no particular family background … if, that is – I would like to be courted at all…”

Sophia set down the comb with which she had been taming the last rebellious curls of her hair, bidding them forcefully to go along into the modest bun at the back of her head. “The main thing for me, Laura – I think I should like to work in something associated with the railroad – so new and exciting! You have no idea how boring my life in Boston was … there was not a person I knew, or met, save my great-aunt who had never had a thought or said a word that their farthest ancestors had not already said. I suppose that I have never felt quite so …alive. As if I were a new woman.”

“Me, I am tired of chickens and cows and slaving over a wash-tub,” Laura gave one last look at herself in the mirror. Sophia thought that Laura looked like some magnificent ancient Nordic goddess come to life. “Now – we go be new woman, ya?”

“Modern women,” Sophia echoed. They turned off the gaslight as they left their room. Out in the corridor there were already a bevy of girls in black dresses and white aprons, chirping excitedly or yawning. Sophia and Laura followed them down the staircase, through the kitchen – already a hub-bub of activity, redolent with the odor of baking bread and ham, of bacon and apple pies, muffins and sausages and clamorous with the voices of men shouting at each other in several languages besides English, and clanging iron pans on the tops of stoves – a clamor which diminished slightly at the first appearance of the girls in black and white. The girls went around the edge of the kitchen, into that hallway which led to the larders, the ice-room, the locked liquor store, the manager’s office, the telegraphist’s office, and the parlor set aside for the waitresses. This was a comfortable room, if set about with chairs, settees and tables of rather plain and unadorned make, all around the walls.  The parlor was brilliantly and mercilessly lit, the gas-lamps turned up to their highest extent so that it was nearly as bright as daylight. The girls made a circle, as if for a country-dance; Sophia and Laura followed suit – oh, yes, Jenny Maitland had told them the night before that she would inspect them – all of them and in a most stringent manner before they went on duty today.

Now the senior waitress went around the inside of the circle; each woman holding out her hands, first palm-up and then down for inspection. Jenny looked severely at their hands, their aprons and their hair, each in turn. Just as she began this process, a young man appeared in the doorway of the parlor, a piece of paper in his hand.

“Just come over the telegraph from Florence, Miss Maitland,” he said, with the air of someone bearing an important message. “Thirty-five for the lunchroom, twenty-four for the dining room.”

“Thank you, Mr. Boatwright,” Jenny said over her shoulder, “We’ll be ready.” The young man vanished like a mechanical Jack-in-the-box.   “You have a spot on your cuffs,” she said to the girl standing next to Laura. “Run upstairs and change – quick now.” Another girl had a crumpled apron – she also made a swift departure for upstairs, both of them returning, out of breath within a few minutes. Now all of her attention was on Laura and Sophia.  It appeared to Sophia that they both received a particularly exacting examination – for Jenny made them turn around, and to lift the hems of skirt and apron to show that they had on black shoes and stockings, and that their hair was tied with the plain white ribbon. Was this what it might be like to join the Army, she wondered – and found the supposition rather amusing.

“Miss Nyland, Miss Teague? You will start out in the lunchroom – it is sometimes a bit rowdier than the dining room, but the menu and the arrangements are somewhat simpler.”

“And the boys don’t tip like they do in there, either,” remarked one of the girls who had returned at that last minute. She had a gap between her teeth and wildly curly hair, even curlier than Sophia’s, but still firmly contained in a disciplined bun tied with a white ribbon. “But it’s a start. You follow after me, Miss Teague for the first round – watch what I do. I’m Selina Bennett – this’s my sister Frances. New girls always start in the lunchroom. Do you know the cup code yet?”

“Not well enough to be quick about it,” Sophia replied honestly, and Selina Bennett laughed, frank and honest. She and her sister both wore small round pewter brooches on their pinafores, each with an inset numeral 3.

“You’ll learn quick enough – it’s all very tidy and orderly; a systematical method for every motion, a place for everything, and everything in its proper place, just so. It’s like doing counted stitch needlework,” Selena added, as somewhere outside on the station platform, a whistle shrilled over the metallic shriek and clanging of a train coming into the station and applying the steam brakes.   To that symphony of noise was added the ringing notes of a gong.

“Here they come, girls,” Jenny Maitland swiped an invisible soot-fleck from her white apron. “The first train of the day – to work, now.”

Granny Jessie kept chickens during the Depression – quite a lot of them, if my childhood memories of the huge and by then crumbling and disused chicken-wire enclosure, the adjoining hutch and the nesting boxes are anything to go by.  Some of her neighbors went on keeping backyard livestock well into the 1960s – we occasionally sampled goose eggs at Granny Jessie’s house where we could hear a donkey braying now and again. Mom had to help care for the chickens, as child and teenager – and wound up detesting them so much that this was the one back-yard DIY farm element that we never ventured into when we were growing up. Mom hated chickens, profoundly.


But my daughter and I were considering it over the last couple of years, along with all of our other ventures into suburban self-efficiency – the garden, the cheese-making, the home-brewing and canning, the deep-freeze stocked full, the pantry likewise. It seems to be an on-going thing, especially in periods of economic distress and unrest.  I put off doing anything about chickens until two things happened: we finally encountered the woman in our neighborhood who keeps a small flock of backyard chickens, and she took us to see her flock. She told us that it was not much trouble, really, and the eggs were amazingly flavorful. In comparison, supermarket eggs – even the expensive organic and supposedly free-range kind were insipid and tasteless.

Henhouse - finished

The Henhouse end, entirely finished

The second thing was spotting a ready-made coop at Sam’s Club a good few months ago. We kept going back and looking at it, whenever we made our monthly stock-up. It had a hutch, an attached roofed run with open sides secured with hardware cloth, and an appended nesting box accessed through a removable roof. But still … the price for it was what I considered excessive. Then, at the beginning of the month, the coop was marked down by half. Seeing this, we transferred some money from the household savings account, and with the aid of a husky Sam’s Club box-boy, stuffed all 150 pounds of the box which contained all the necessary flat-packed panels into my daughter’s Montero.

I put it together over Mother’s Day weekend, painting it the same colors as the house: sort of a primrose-peach color with cream trim. The coop and run was constructed of rather soft pine, with some kind of greenish wood-stain slathered over it all, which took two coats of paint to cover entirely. I wish that I had gotten out the electric drill with the screwdriver attachment a little earlier in the game; the side and roof panels were all attached together with 67 2-in and 2 ½ inch Phillips-head screws. Yes, I counted; I did about the first forty by hand … sigh. The remains of half a can of polyurethane spar varnish went on the roof to make it entirely waterproof. We topped it with a wind vane ornamented with a chicken, and it all went together on a bedding of concrete pavers set in decomposed granite, wedged underneath the major shade tree in the back yard. By municipal guidelines we are permitted up to three chickens and two of any other kind of farmyard animal: goat, cow, horse, llama, whatever – as long as their enclosure is at least a hundred feet from your neighbors house. The chicken coop may not, strictly speaking, be 100 feet from the next door neighbor’s house on the near side, but he is the one with the basset hounds, one of whom can hear a mouse fart in a high wind, and can be heard about a block away when he really puts his back into his bark.

The lucky winners in the chicken lottery of life - Loreena, Maureen and Carly.

The lucky winners in the chicken lottery of life – Loreena, Maureen and Carly.

We went out to a feed store in Bracken for feed pellets, bedding chips, a feeder and a water dispenser.  The feed store also had artificial eggs made from heavy plastic, but so cunningly textured they looked very real. The feed store manager said that what they are also used for is as a means of dealing with local snakes that prey on chicken eggs … they slither into the nesting boxes, swallow an egg whole and slither away. If you suspect your nest is being raided in that fashion, you bait the nest with a plastic egg. Snake swallows it, but can’t digest, pass or vomit up the egg and so dies, in the words of one of Blackadder’s foes – “horribly-horribly.”  (Ick-making to consider, but then I’ve gotten quite testy about critters predating on my vegetables, and set out traps for rats and dispose of dead rats without any qualms.) From many different places; Sam’s, our local HEB which now offers stacks of chicken feed in the pet food aisle,  and now the semi-rural feed store – we are getting the notion that keeping back-yard chickens is getting to be a wide-spread thing. I wonder how much Martha Stewart is responsible for this development.

The magnificent coop with chicken windvane

The magnificent coop with chicken windvane

Saturday morning we were off to the south of town, to a small enterprise in Von Ormy for three pullets. We had wanted Orpingtons, but they weren’t available at any of the close-in providers, and the owner recommended Barred Rocks – those are those pretty black and white chickens with bright red combs. My daughter wants to name them Lorena, Maureen and Carly – Larry, Moe and Curly, feminized. They are supposed to start laying when they are mature, in about late summer, according to the owner of the bird-providing enterprise. Our three pullets are about ten weeks old, and somewhat timid yet – little knowing that they have won the grand prize in the chicken lottery of life. Eventually, they will have the run of the garden; we are assured they will brutally diminish bugs of every sort, gratefully fall upon green vegetable scraps, and come to be quite friendly with us. Early days, yet. And that was my week. Yours?


The chicken run end of the coop.

The chicken run end of the coop.

One of the things that my daughter and I have considered – now and then, and in a desultory manner – is the matter of keeping a handful of chickens. For the fresh eggs, mostly; I suppose this is a natural development to having a vegetable garden, and to experiment with home-canning, home cheese-making and home brewing. Likely it is all of a part with keeping the deep-freezer fully-stocked, and having a larder full to the brim with non-perishable food supplies; beans, rice, flour, sugar, bottled sauces, milk powder and the like. In the event of an event which keeps the local HEB/Sam’s Club/Trader Joe’s from being stocked … we will have our own food-banked resources to rely on.

But having only a sliver of suburban paradise acreage and an 1,100 square foot house taking up at least three-quarters of it, means that mini-farming can’t go much farther than chickens. No, not even a goat; which one of our neighbors did have, back when I was growing up in a very rural southern California suburb. They had chickens, too … and the people across the road kept domestic pigeons – but these suburbs also featured half-acre to acre-sized lots and the biggest of them corrals for horses.

And then, three things happened: several weeks ago, we made the acquaintance of a neighbor who does have a small flock of chickens – and a rooster, too – which is how we knew they kept chickens for months before we actually met up with them. They showed off their flock, and the morning harvest of fresh eggs … and we began to think of it as a possibility for ourselves. The fact that the local HEB is now carrying sacks of chicken feed in the pet-food section is an indication that other people are keeping chickens. If anything, I imagine that the great brains at HEB who decide what local demand is and stock the outlets have twigged the popularity for keeping backyard chickens, and that our neighbors with the flock are not the only ones.

Behind a screen of Jerusalem artichokes and a small fence

Behind a screen of Jerusalem artichokes and a small fence

This very spring, Sam’s Club added a chicken coop to the aisles with the seasonal merchandise; the tents, barbeque grills, camping gear and gardening supplies. My daughter looked upon it wistfully, whenever we went into Sam’s: it was an attractive thing, with a gabled roof, and a lower gable-roofed enclosure with hardware cloth sides, so that chickens could be somewhat sheltered. We talked about it, each time – but the price of it always put us off the notion. Until the first of May, when we noticed that the coop had been marked half-off. Yes – that was doable. We bought the coop, and a sturdy box-boy helped us stuff all 150 pounds of the box that it was in into the back of my daughter’s Montero. (We had a hand-truck at home, so it wasn’t necessary to beg for any help in getting the box around to the back of the house.)

It was in my mind to site the coop under the mulberry tree, where the soil is so intermixed with roots it is difficult to plant anything there in the first place. It’s also so shaded in the summer that anything sun-loving which can be planted has a tough time. It was also my notion to paint the coop the same color as the house: a sort of primrose-orange with cream trim. That was what took the most time – painting twelve out of the sixteen panels that made up the coop and run and letting them dry. The wood was lightly stained a dusty green, and it took two coats to really cover adequately. Well – that and setting out the concrete pavers to set the whole thing upon, and filling the interstices with decomposed granite. I really should have unleashed the screw-driver attachment for my electric drill earlier on: that would have saved some time and sweat. (The whole thing is held together by more than 70 Phillips-head screws of various lengths.)  I did the touch-up paint work this morning, and re-sited some plants – and all but finished. The roof will have to be painted with waterproof varnish, but I have half a gallon left from doing the front door, and tomorrow is another day.  And doesn’t it look simply palatial, as chicken coops go?


The door side of the coop

The door side of the coop

Next week – the chickens: the Daughter Unit has pretty much decided on Orpingtons, since they are good layers, friendly and fairly mellow.

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titlesChapter 9 – The Harvey Way

            Her feet were feather-light, as Sophia sped down the stairway to the street, the load from her shoulders similarly light. Exuberant with joy and relief, she felt as if she should dance along the sidewalk, sing and shout. She was not tired, she was not a desperate and near to penniless fugitive. She had a pass for travel without charge on the next train … to Newton, which Mr. Benjamin had explained – with some amusement – was some six or seven hours journey farther west. She had just missed the most recent train west, and had some hours wait for the next. Her feet slowed … yes; there was one thing she ought to do, now that she was truly in the west. If she was a woman inclined to making careless, symbolic gestures, she might have dropped the gold Armitage engagement ring into the Missouri River, but the Brewers – and also the Teagues – were not given to indulge in such wastefulness.

The Union Depot in Kansas City seemed to be at the core of a district very like old North Town in Boston, which was a pity in Sophia’s eyes, for it was a magnificent building. It took her no little time, or distance from the ornamented red-brick façade and towers, to find a pawnbroker and get a hundred dollars for the gold, diamond, and pearl ring. She might have bargained for better, in accordance with the advice of Mendelson the Jew, but in truth she cared little enough, now that she was assured of employment by Harvey contract, and truly in the west … although so far, it did seem to be too much on the respectable side to be considered wild. She walked away from the pawnbroker’s establishment, feeling an odd sense of being unburdened. The last significant physical link to her old life was cut and she was free … or mostly free. She swung the carpet-bag as if it were a light thing. The railroad pass and the vouchers in her reticule crackled; the stiff paper they were written on a talisman and an assurance.

She found the proper platform for the next train, after assuring herself of the correct time. It was early yet, only mid-morning. There was only one other passenger waiting, a Junoesque young woman about her own age, in a plain dark traveling dress and jacket. She was a striking figure, with white-blond braids pinned in a coronet around her head, underneath the brim of her hat.   She also had a small trunk at her feet. Sophia wondered if she were also traveling to Newton – just as the young woman glanced in her direction and said,

“’ello – are you also for Newton? The train does not leave for another hour and a half. So Mr. Harvey told me.” The young woman had a faint, but pleasing accent; foreign-born, but fluent enough in English. Sophia rapidly made connections, from overheard mention.

“Are you Miss Nyland – Yes, I am also bound for Newton … to work in Mr. Harvey’s establishment. I am Sophie Teague– from Boston. I am an orphan, with no living family.”

“Oh!” the woman replied, instant sympathy in her face, and wide blue eyes. “How sad for you, Sophie! I am Laura Nyland, from Minnesota … and I have six brothers and five sisters, all older. My old papa; he cried when I said I would answer Mr. Harvey’s newspaper thing. But he gave me his blessing … I did not want to work on the farm any longer. You have not worked on a farm, Sophia? A very fine farm, but … oh, the muck! And the milking of cows, the laundry and the cooking … eh! To work in a fine restaurant! I like! And save for a dowry! I want to be married, some day – but to have a dowry. My papa could not afford a dowry for any past my third sister Kristin. My brothers, they find their own way – so why not I?”

“Indeed,” Sophia agreed, and settled onto the bench beside Laura Nyland. In the space of time spent waiting for the train and in spite of the considerable differences between them, she and Laura became fast friends, not least because Laura possessed a sharp eye and an even sharper wit … and a robust confidence in expressing it, which convulsed Sophia with laughter many times while they waited for the train, and during the hours to Newton. Laura had also been presented with a selection of sheets of paper, all printed in different typefaces, and not a few written out by hand.

“They want everything to be just so,” Laura pronounced, as they read them together, the fair head and the sandy-haired one bent together, as the midday train to Newton and points farther west rolled through Kansas. “There is a rule for everything.”

“But it is logical,” Sophia agreed. “This … it is nothing more than setting a proper table for a formal dinner party … haven’t you ever done such a thing, Laura?”

“On the farm!” Laura hooted with laughter. “With my brothers and the hired men hungry from a day of work? As if the forks and knives would even rest on the table next to the plate! And what is this … about cups and saucers?”

“A signaling code,” Sophia had already gone to the next page. “For what the guest has ordered to drink, so that it may be provided within seconds.”

“It is required to be efficient,” Laura nodded. “For the train stops for half an hour exactly for water and coal. In that time, they must order their meal, it must be served promptly and they must eat …”

“Did they say anything about where we shall live?” Sophia asked, regretting that she had either not pressed Mr. Benjamin for this intelligence, or if he had provided it, she did not recall.

“Above the restaurant,” Laura answered. “All the ladies live in rooms … two sharing. This is provided, as are all of our meals. But they are very strict with us. We must be home before a curfew at 11:00 every night, and if a gentleman wishes to pay court, he must ask permission, first. As if we were living with our very watchful papa and mama – but on one day a week, we are free to do what we wish. Is very good, Sophie – much better than the farm. And seventeen dollars a month! My papa paid the hired men only two dollars a month; my brother Sven is a carpenter in town, and he earns twenty dollars a month, when there is building in the summer. We will be earning almost as much as a man with a skilled trade, more than a woman teaching school! Think on that, Sophie!”

“We will have to earn it first,” Sophia warned, somberly. “And prove our worth in the first month.”

“Pooh! It is only work! I am not afraid of work!” Laura exclaimed; her confidence in herself was an infectious tonic. “Kansas now … the western territory – I do not know of this place, Sophie. Do you?”

Silently, they looked out of the train window, at the endless waves of grassland stretching as far as the eye could see; a sea of grass, with a faultlessly blue sky arching over it, an endless dome, unmarred by a single cloud. They had long left the river behind, and it seemed a long way between those small towns with names which suggested high civic hopes  – Osage City, Emphoria, Strong City … each a tiny island in the ocean of grasslands.

“It used to be called the Great American Desert, in the books of geography in my grandfather’s house,” Sophia said at last. “There was nothing but herds of buffalo, and wild Indians, and it was perilous beyond belief to venture into it, even on the established trail … but now it is becoming settled. The soil is very rich, they say.”

“No trees to clear away!” Laura giggled. For the first time since Lucius Armitage had fumbled with his hat and his calling card in the parlor of the Brewer house, all those weeks ago, Sophia felt a return to her usual good spirits. She was in the west, which was sufficiently far enough away from Boston, on the verge of an adventure, and had a place and purpose to go.


They reached Newton as dusk fell, sweeping down on the prairie like the wings of a vast dark bird. Stars had begun to spangle the night sky, as cold, pale and distant as the lanterns which lit the platform and the station were warm, golden and close. Sophia and Laura stepped down from the train.

“Where are we supposed to go?” Sophia asked. “Was there someone we should speak to? I suppose that we can ask for them.”

The other passengers alighting at Newton seemed to be making in a group toward the nearest doorway; a double door with large glass panes in the center of each. The doors allowed hints of the activity within to spill out onto the platform, and Laura sniffed appreciatively.

“Good food cooking!” she exclaimed. “This must be Mr. Harvey’s place.”

“I suppose we should go inside,” Sophia ventured, but before they could follow after the other passengers, a young woman emerged from between the doors – a young woman clad in a black dress with a narrow white collar and a starched white bibbed apron.

“Miss Teague and Miss Brewer?” she asked, with a smile. “Welcome to the Newton Harvey House – I am Miss Maitland – Jenny for short. Mr. Benjamin sent me a telegram this morning, telling me to expect you. You must be tired … and hungry, too. Come inside – but this will be the last time you will ever sit down when a train stops here.” Jenny Maitland added with a twinkle in her eye. “May as well eat first, and have some notion of what to expect – then I will show you upstairs when the rush is over.”

Sophia gasped involuntarily, on beholding the dining room; never in the world would she have expected such splendor in such a place as this – out beyond the frontier of the Missouri River; spotless white table linen, silverware that shone as splendidly as if it had just come from the hands of the silversmith, monogrammed china, all lade out with superhuman precision on each table. The room was presided over by a pair of enormous silver urns on a table of their own – a table also dressed with a faultlessly white cloth. Jenny showed them to a table in the farthest corner, saying,

“What would like to drink?”

“Milk for me,” replied Laura, and Sophia ventured,

“Tea – orange pekoe, if you …”

“Of course,” Jenny twinkled at them again, arranging one cup off the saucer, and the other – with the handle pointed in a specific direction. “You both look so hungry – let me bring you that which we have done the best with, today … and take your time in savoring it, for at least you do not have to get onto the train again in twenty-eight minutes.”

She swirled away, her skirts and apron rustling, to be replaced in seconds with another girl in a black dress and starched pinafore apron, bearing a tray laden with carafes. Milk for Laura, orange pekoe tea for Sophia, appeared as if by magic from the carafes – the girl grinned at them both and whispered,

“I’m Emily Adams – you must be the new girls!” She also swirled away, a black-and-white clad sprite in constant motion, before either of them could reply.

“It’s … marvelous,” Sophia ventured. “It’s like a dance – like a ballet. Look at them, Laura!”

The lamp-lit dining room presented a picture of constant purposeful motion – the dozen or so women in nun-like black dresses and white pinafores moving between the tables. Not a minute or two had passed since the passengers had come from the station platform;  now the women in black and white danced between the tables bearing plates – of soup, and salads, then bread and savory entrees, emerging from a farther door.

For once, Laura seemed to have lost some of her previous easy assurance.

“Oh, Sophie … do you suppose we will ever learn this?”

“We’d better do so,” Sophia pointed out. “If we want to earn that generous living, and you your dowry. Besides – they all have. Every one of these girls had to learn the system, and so can we.”





Taking refugees aboard - this AP pic was taken after the fall of Da Nang, but it was pretty much the same thing, off-shore when Saigon fell.

Taking refugees aboard – this AP pic was taken after the fall of Da Nang, on the USS Pioneer Contender, but it was pretty much the same thing on the same boat,  off-shore when Saigon fell.

Never been there, never particularly wanted to: to someone of my age, it is Bad Place, a haunted place, where ugly things happened. It gave nightmares to friends, co-workers, and lovers for years after it dropped out of the headlines and the six-o-clock news. Today in light of the current war, it seems as far away in time and nearly as pointless as the Western Front. You look, and remember, and wonder, knowing that yes, it really happened, but really, what was the point of it all? Platoon seems as much of a relic as the post-WWI  play Journey’s End, the image of a helicopter hovering over jungle with “All Along the Watchtower” on the soundtrack an image as archaic as doughboys with puttees and soup-plate helmets, marching along and singing “Mademoiselle from Armentieres.”

But it was a beautiful place. My friends Xuan-An and Hai brought away pictures of where they lived in Dalat, in the highlands, where they married and lived with their three older children, snaps of cool, misty green pines and gardens of rhododendrons, and a horizon of mountains. Eventually, they had to flee Dalat for Saigon, where their youngest daughter was born, and Xuan-An’s mother came to live with them. Hai had left Hanoi as a teenager when the Communists took over there, his family being well to do, part Chinese, and immensely scholarly. He worked as a librarian for the USIS, and Xuan-An as a teacher of English and sciences, so they were on the Embassy list of Vietnamese citizens to be evacuated in the spring of 1975, with their four children, aged 12 to 2 years old. They were waiting at their home, for someone to come fetch them, on that last day. Perhaps someone from the Embassy might have come for them eventually, but Xuan-An’s brother who was the captain of a Vietnamese coastal patrol vessel came to their house after dark, instead. He had sent his crewmen all to fetch their families, they were going to make a run for safety out to sea, and he came to get his and Xuan-Ans’ mother. He was appalled to find his sister and brother-in-law and the children still there, and urged them to come with him straight away, and not wait any longer for rescue. They brought away no more luggage than what the adults could carry, in small packs the size of student’s book-bags, and the youngest daughter was a toddler and had to be carried herself. Xuan-An’s brother’s motor launch was a hundred feet long, and there were a hundred people crammed onto it, carrying them out to an American cargo ship, the Pioneer Contender, which waited with other American rescuers, just beyond the horizon.

“Always take the family pictures,” Xuan-An said, when she showed me the pictures, “Anything else in the world you can get back again or something like it, but not family pictures. And jewelry. You can always sell jewelry.”

It was a an article of faith among the South Vietnamese fleeing Saigon in 1975 that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong would treat anyone with the barest connection to the Americans and the Saigon government as they had treated the civilians in Hue, when they overran that city during the 1968 Tet offensive. Those on the losing side of a vicious civil war were not inclined to trust in the magnanimity of the victors, since none had ever been demonstrated heretofore. They took their chances and whatever they could carry and fled, by boat, and by aircraft. Xuan-An, Tran and the children, and her mother, who was always called Grandmother eventually wound up in a tent city at Camp Chafee, Arkansas, with thousands and thousands of other Vietnamese. Grandmother had made a vow, that if all of her family escaped, and were safe, she would shave her head, and so she did: when I first met her, her hair was coming back, an inch or so long. One of Xuan-Ans’ pictures was of Grandmother in her youth; she was gorgeous, and looked like the Dragon Lady of Terry & The Pirates fame. In the vast mess-tent one day, according to one of Xuan-An’s accounts,  a young Vietnamese man began complaining loudly about the spaghetti and meatballs being served, and a little, elderly Vietnamese woman in line behind him asked him what his name was. The young man turned out to be the son a of a high-ranking South Vietnamese officer, whereupon the elderly woman dumped her bowl of spaghetti and meatballs on his head and told them that if his father had only done his job better, then none of them would have had to be eating food like that. Xuan-an still giggled when she told me that story, and I wonder if Grandmother might have been the dumper of spaghetti.

I met them all when our church began working with some other local churches and associations to sponsor and resettle refugees. They were the first of the families to be sent to us. We had spent a weekend cleaning out the tiny rental house we had found for them, and fitting it up with donated furniture, linens and kitchenware. As we were raking up and bagging desiccated dog-poop from the dusty little side yard, the owner of the house across the road came over and asked what we were doing. When we explained that we were setting up the house for refugees, he asked if we needed a refrigerator, and brought it across the road on a dolly when we said yes. The town was quietly, undemonstratively supportive: like the little elderly Vietnamese woman in the camp, I think a lot of local people felt that we had not done a good job, we had left a lot of good people in the lurch, and now we owed them. (Sunland-Tujunga at this time was a working-class, blue-collar sort of town.)

Xuan-An and Grandmother practically cried when they first walked in, as plain and minimal as the house was. Grandmother immediately took over the housekeeping and taking care of My, who was grave and scholarly and her father’s pride, Liem and Tien, who were a year apart and for whom the phrase “irrepressible scamps” was specifically invented, and little Tao, who at the age of three became Grandmother’s translator when school began in the fall for her sister and brothers. They made an interesting pair, in the local Ralph’s’ grocery, a tiny elderly Vietnamese woman in black loose trousers and white blouse, earnestly picking over the fresh fruits and vegetables, and Tao, barely up to Grandmother’s elbow, translating from English to Vietnamese and back again. I am not sure that Grandmother really needed a translator, after a while: she had the most elegantly expressive face and hands, and the gift of communication without language. Somehow we always knew what she was on about, and she instantly divined whatever it was we were trying to get across. Without ever learning any other English other than the word “Hello”, Grandmother also become quite fond of the soap opera <em>General Hospital</em>. She did all the cooking, putting the cutting board on the floor of the kitchen and dismembering a whole chicken with a cleaver the size of a machete.

Occasionally, Grandmother gifted us with a jar of homemade pickled vegetables, beautifully carved slices of carrot and daikon radish, and whole tiny onions, in a brine slightly spiked with fish sauce.
Xuan-An and Hai meanwhile worked two jobs each, for a while. Like many of the 1975 Vietnamese refugees, they spoke English well, although the children did not at first. All summer, we gave them lessons, and they started in the fall at grade level. My would eventually go on to college, while Xuan-An and Hai bought first a car, then a house of their own, in the neighborhood where they had lived as refugees. Later, Liem and Tien would serve in the Army. In the early days, Xuan-An sometimes talked of going back to Vietnam, that it would be important for the children to remember their original language, in that case. I would look at Tao, and know that Tao would not remember anything but growing up in America.

In a strange way and looking back on it now, perhaps in one way we did win that war. We skimmed off the cream of the middle class, the city folk, any of them with any ambition, any restlessness, any desire for more than what they had. It’s a third-world backwater, of fields of rice, and jungle, and rather lovely beaches, where they are trying to grow coffee, and induce the more adventurous tourists to come back. Failing that, maybe a factory for export shoes and clothing. You can buy a Coke in Ho Chi Minh City, so they tell me, and perhaps they hope for the Diaspora of Vietnamese, who came away in 1975 to return.

27. April 2015 · Comments Off · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titles(Proper but desperate young Boston belle, Sophia Brewer is escaping from a number of demons, including her brutal and sociopathic brother, Richard. In her journey, she has been met with unexpected kindness, on her way to Kansas City to possible employment as a Harvey Girl.)

Chapter 8 – Away Into the West

            If Heaven were not as blissfully comfortable as a soft berth made up with crisp white sheets, Sophia thought as she slid between those sheets, then she would prefer spending eternity in a Pullman berth, rather than the glorious hereafter. She ached with weariness in every limb that did not ache already with barely-healed bruises, and to lie down in comfort was such bliss that she nearly wept with gratitude all over again. The noise of the train clattering over the rails, the sound of the engine was muffled to a considerable degree, and the motion rocked her gently, as in a cradle. Other passengers in the Pullman car had already retired, a few still awake, moving in the corridor between heavy curtains drawn for the night, but the small noise of their footsteps, conversation or snoring did not perturb Sophia in the least, or disturb her own slumber, which she fell into almost the moment she rested her head on the pillow. If at some moments she wakened during the night – startled awake by the motion of the train stopping, or starting again, she returned to sleep almost at once.

“I shall always be grateful for the invention of the steam engine,” she told herself, during one of those brief wakeful moments, feeling oddly cheerful. “And to the men who built the railways and Mr. Burton, and George … and to all of them. It will be the train which made an escape from Richard possible, and to get as far away from him as I can be.”

Awakening the following morning was nearly as blissful. For the first time in weeks, she felt quite well. The avuncular porter, George, tactfully guided her those few steps towards the tiny ladies’ sitting room compartment, where she was able to wash thoroughly as was possible and change into fresh clothes – since he thoughtfully had produced her carpetbag from the baggage car. Revived and rested, she felt restored to her own self – the proper and confident Miss Brewer of Beacon Street once again. When she emerged from the sitting room, it was to find the curtains all drawn back, the upper berths tidily folded away, and the lower transformed back into the comfortable settees which they were for the day of travel. Two ladies and a small boy dressed in a rumpled Knickerbocker suit shared the seats: a Mrs. Murray, her son Bertie and her mother, Mrs. Kempton. They greeted Sophia cheerily, obviously seeing her as an agreeable companion for the remainder of the journey. Mrs. Murray was journeying out to Kansas, to join her husband at an Army post there.

“I am Sophie Teague; on my way to Kansas City,” She vouchsafed nothing more than that, always recalling Declan’s warning to not make herself memorable. To her relief, Mrs. Murray and her mother were most incurious about her reasons for traveling, and more inclined to tell her about themselves, and of Colonel Albert Murray’s letters regarding what they might find at Fort Leavenworth.

“We will – if the train runs to schedule – be in Chicago tomorrow morning,” the elder lady assured her. “And then another long day and night to Kansas … Tell me, dear, will you be traveling on from there?”

“I might,” Sophia answered. “It all depends.”

Conductor Burton beamed on her with particular satisfaction, when he passed through on his rounds in mid-morning, and inquired of there were anything he could do for them.

“Better traveling with the other ladies than by your lonesome,” he murmured to her, when she thanked him again. “You never know what might happen, and I’d never forgive myself if it happened on my train, or to you, Miss Teague.” It also occurred to her that anyone observing her with Mrs. Murray and Mrs. Kempton would think they were all of one party.

Another day – this day not weighted with fear and misery – and another night passed, as the train steamed inexorably west, every minute and mile carrying her farther and farther from Boston. She dined with Mrs. Murray and Mrs. Kempton in the railway dining car, as they insisted most emphatically that she share their table. She felt obliged to repay them by amusing little Alfred – who was only six and rather bored with the limited amusements afforded for long stretches of the journey. He reminded her of Richie; frank, fearless and affectionate. Amusing him was a pleasure rather than a duty.

“The countryside is so lovely!” exclaimed Mrs. Murray, as a long vista of lake and meadow opened before them. “A perfect picture! Mama, doesn’t it remind you of some of those panoramic paintings displayed at the Philadelphia Exposition?”

“Store it up in your memory, dear,” Mrs. Kempton advised, “I fear that Kansas will be nothing like this.”

“What is Kansas like?” Sophia’s ears pricked up. If it worked out that she would be hired by Mr. Harvey for work in his railway restaurants, then she might very well be going even farther west than Kansas.  Working in some capacity for a railway concessionaire was looking more and more appealing by the moment.

“Flat and full of dust and flies, to hear dear Albert tell it,” Mrs. Kempton replied. “Or at least – that is what he complains of in his letters.”

If true, Sophia thought; Kansas was still a long way from Boston and from a vengeful Richard, who would never – even if he suspected that she were still alive – think to search for her on the wild frontier. And the farther she was from Boston – the safer she would be.


“My dear Miss Teague, have you ever seen such a city?” Mrs. Murray exclaimed in awe, the following morning, as they passed through Chicago. Conductor Barton had assured them, on his most recent perambulation through the car that they would be arriving there very shortly. “And it was burned to the ground not … how many years ago, Mama? And look – now, how splendid the buildings! Such a marvelous hive of industry and commerce; now, if Albert’s duties only kept him here, I would be quite content … save for the smells of the stockyard!” They all coughed, as a sudden throat-closing miasma made itself known on the spring breeze. Mrs. Kempton raised a handkerchief to her nose, and continued, somewhat muffled. “Oh, dear … they say that millions of western cattle are brought here daily to the slaughterhouses of Chicago.”

“Albert wrote about seeing such droves of cattle, being brought north from Texas – so many that the hills were entirely darkened … and the drovers who brought them! As wild as their cattle … just boys, most of them, without a soldierly discipline.”

“They do seem such romantic figures,” Sophia murmured, for young Seamus Teague’s exploration of the wild west had contained many such personages contained within the pages of his dime novels.

“Those are books,” Mrs. Murray tittered. “And there are many such accounts of soldiers, too – and I can assure you – that those tales are just as exaggerated. The realities of life are often romanticized beyond all recognition.”

“I expect that I will see for myself, very soon,” Sophia ventured.


Another night, another day – the country unfolding slowly before them, like the marvelous panorama paintings that Mrs. Murray described. Only this was real rather than the painted simulacrum; meadows blowing with spring wildflowers, the trees adorned with fresh green. The land seemed somehow flatter than what she had been familiar with for so long – as if some giant had pulled the wrinkles out of a counterpane so that it all lay smooth. On the third day since leaving Boston, the train rumbled across a very long iron bridge. The river lay, smooth as silk and seemingly as wide as an ocean.

“That is the Missouri River down there,” Mrs. Kempton said, “We can now say that we are in the west. We’ll be arriving very soon now.  Dear Miss Teague; are you being met by friends? You have been such a boon companion; I do not like to think of you, alone and adrift, so far away from home.”

“I have an appointment,” Sophia assured her. “It was for such that I came to Kansas City – an offer of employment.”

“Oh?” It seemed to Sophia that Mrs. Murray’s attitude towards her had chilled a degree or two, and she hastened to reply, feeling a sense of regret. She had been in her proper company for two days and two nights, and now it appeared that she was about to fall from it once more. “I had been as a housekeeper and governess to a distant relation; a situation which did not please me. My cousin’s wife took liberties with my situation, presuming on family loyalties which she would not have dared ask of a hired employee. I thought that I might seek a paid position in a similar capacity. At least – such would be more honest in the exchange of work for pay, rather than no pay and a tenuous social position as an object of charity. ”

“Quite right, my dear,” Mrs. Kempton assured her – most unexpectedly. “Being the object of charity is never comfortable for a young woman of spirit. It would have been seen as scandalous, when I was a girl – but times have changed, and I am assured that it is often quite respectable to expect a wage. Women have talents – interests and abilities outside of marriage – that condition which most assume is all that we have the capability for. I have often thought that a woman ought to have more … choices in the world, and thereby turn to our most natural role as wife and mother with a most willing heart.  Have you read the writings of Mrs. Elizabeth Stanton – she is a most particularly outspoken champion of the natural rights of women…”

“Oh, Mama…” Mrs. Murray exclaimed, with a touch of exasperated embarrassment.

“I know of Mrs. Stanton,” Sophia answered, with a feeling of having come all unexpected upon a spring of fresh water in a barren land. “She was a particular friend of my great-aunt Minnie – who also lectured unceasingly on the cause of abolition …”

“It has never ceased to amaze me,” Mrs. Kempton swept over her daughter’s rebuke with a magnificent display of indifference, which reminded Sophia most piercingly of Great-aunt Minnie, “How the full rights of citizens could be invested upon Negro males of suitable years, and yet be withheld from those females of every color and station, who campaigned tirelessly for those same rights. It is as if – the labor of females of every station is only regarded as worthy when it is expended in the cause of every other than our own. To the advantage of men … naturally.”

“Mama!” Mrs. Murray protested once again, but there was no time for further discussion, for the train was slowing as it approached the station; here the reverse of departing from Boston, in a tangle of shining steel rails which reminded Sophia of strands of hair, all arranged by the strokes of a comb. The came the metallic shriek of the engine wheels sliding against the rails as the brakes took hold, steam escaping everywhere.

There was a tall man in Army blue waiting on the platform; small Bertie shouted,

“Papa!” as he ran ahead of his mother and grandmother. In a moment, Sophia stood by herself, with her carpetbag in her hand, watching the joyous reunion with wistful eyes. She turned, hearing a respectful cough at her side, to see George, the porter.

“I never get tired of watching folk,” he confessed. “Happy, or sad, eager to travel on, grateful to be home … is there anyone meeting you today, Miss Teague?”

“No,” Sophia replied. “But I do have an appointment, at the office of Mr. Fred Harvey. Can you direct me to it?”

“Mr. Harvey? I don’t know that Mr. Fred Harvey is in town at this moment – he been feeling poorly of late – but Mr. Benjamin most certainly is. The office is in the Annex – I’ll have one of the newsboys show you.” George shook his head, sadly. “This Union Depot is the largest train station outside of New York, they tell me … and one of the most confusing. They call it the Insane Asylum … here, did I say something wrong?” he added, for Sophia had flinched. “They call it that, for the grand muddle that it is – towers on towers and domes on domes, and ornament stuck on every which way. But it’s in the West Bottoms – right handy for freight, but not such a genteel neighborhood, especially not after dark.”

“It is enormous,” Sophie recovered sufficiently to admire the station itself. “And very modern, I think.” What was even more entrancing to her was the sheer purposeful energy of the place, like a kind of lightening which never stopped; constant motion, the near to incessant noise of trains, of barrows of luggage shouldered past by large sweating men in rough clothing, while the newsboys shouted their wares. Steam whistles, the rumble of wheels, half-heard conversations

“It’s the busiest station on this stretch of the river.” George’s uniformed chest appeared to expand with pride. “They say that if you sat in the main hall watching long enough, you’d see anyone of renown in this whole United States. Here now, Miss Teague – if you go out this door, and go along to the telegraph office, you’ll see the sign for the Harvey offices. Are you interviewing to work in one of Mr. Harvey’s places?”

“I am …” Sophia nodded, and to her vague surprise, George looked as though he approved. “I hope …”

“Oh, you’ll be taken on, Miss Teague,” he assured her. “I seen a lot of those Harvey girls at work, and even more who come to interview with Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Harvey. You be just the kind they hire … proper ladies, but willing to work. You’ll do fine. It’s a good job – bed and board, passes to travel for free on the railway – and fine folk to work for, if a mite persnickety. But so’s working for Mr. Pullman. You work for them – well, that’s something to take pride in; you know you are somebody!”

“Thank you, George,” Sophia shifted her carpetbag to her other hand. “For your encouragement and not least for what you have done for me on this journey. I think that I can see where the telegraph office is.”

“You take care now, Miss Teague,” And a broad and merry grin split his face. “See you out on the railway sometime, you hear?”


25. April 2015 · Comments Off · Categories: Memoir, Uncategorized

My slightly younger brother, JP and I have always counted ourselves fortunate that we got through primary school in the happy baby-boom years of the very early 1960ies, before a hitherto solid and well-established education system suddenly lost all confidence in itself and began whoring after strange gods, fads and theories. We both were taught the old phonics way, carefully sounding out the letters and the sounds, until… oh! There was that flash of understanding, at unraveling a new word, and another and another. We read confidently and omnivorously from the second grade on, and were only a little scarred from the infliction of the “New Math” on our otherwise happy little souls. It seemed like one semester I was memorizing the times tables and the “gozintas” (two gozinta four two times) and wrestling with very, very long division, and suddenly it was all about prime numbers and sectors and points on a line, and what was all that in aid of?

I really would have rather gone on with word problems, thank you very much, rather than calculus for the elementary school set. It was at least useful, working out how much paint or carpet to cover an area, or how what time a train going so fast would get to the next city. Thanks to the “New Math” I wound up working out how to figure what was 70% off of $15,000 when I was forty-three. Got to love those educational fads. You spend the rest of your life making up for having them inflicted on you. Pippy’s elementary education was far more adversely affected; she caught the “whole word” reading thing in the neck. While she did successfully negotiate the second grade and learned to read on schedule, she never enjoyed it as much, or read as much as JP and I did routinely.

Our baby brother, Sander had the worst time of all. Mom racked up conference after conference with his second grade-teacher over his failure to advance, and generally unsatisfactory class behavior. Mom was a pretty experienced and hard-bitten Mom by the time she rotated four children through the same set of public schools. She had cured many of our teachers of their initial habit of carving off great dripping slabs of condescension to parents in a nominally blue-collar working class suburb by tactfully making it clear that both she and Dad were college graduates also. Sander’s second-grade teacher remained pretty much a burr under Mom’s parental saddle, especially since he was struggling desperately and unhappily in her classroom. It never got so bad that he was wetting the bed, or developing convenient illnesses, but he was adamant about not enjoying school… or at least the second-grade class.

We began to wonder if the difference was in the teacher; she seemed to be very cold, and judgmental. He had done very well the year before, an active, charming seven-year old, the youngest child in a family of mostly adults, who were devoted to books and education. Later on, JP would suggest that Sander was thought to be so bright by his teachers because he would constantly uncork four-syllable words that he picked up from us. It really wasn’t the way, then, to blame a teacher entirely for a problem, but this was our baby brother, our real doll-baby and pet, but everything his teacher tagged on him was always his fault. First his teacher adamantly insisted he was a discipline problem, then that he was hyper-active and out to be in a special class… and then took the cake by suggesting that he was mentally retarded. Mom had gone to a great deal of trouble to get him after-school tutoring, and she blew her stack at that. Whatever was his problem, he was not retarded, and she was shocked that an experienced teacher would even make that unsupported diagnosis.

About halfway through the semester, Mom noticed that Sander rubbed his eyes a lot, and they always looked a bit reddened and crusty at the end of the school day. Eye problems? I was nearsighted, as blind as a bat without glasses, which was about the first thing that all my teachers knew about me, and I had never had that sort of trouble. Mom took him to the ophthalmologist; it turned out he was quite the opposite from me— he was far-sighted, to the point where it was acutely uncomfortable to concentrate for long on the written word. Once he was fitted with glasses, all the problems— except for the basic personality clash with the unsympathetic teacher— melted away.

Mom added her scalp, metaphorically speaking, to her collection, right next to the scalp of my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Range, who was only called Mrs. De-Range out of her hearing. Her students all knew very well that she was a nutcase almost immediately, beating the school administration to that knowledge by several years. Late middle age had not been kind to Mrs. De-Range; in fact it had been quite brutally unkind. She was a tall, gawky Olive Oyle figure of a woman, with faded reddish hair scraped back in a meager old-fashioned bun, long, yellowish teeth like a horses’ and a figure like a lumpy and half-empty sack suspended from narrow, coat-hanger shoulders. As a teacher she was fairly competent in the old-fashioned way; a strict grammarian and exacting with punctuation, wielding a slashing red pen with little regard for our delicate self-esteem. She expected us to keep a special folder of all our classroom and homework assignments, to methodically log them in by their assignment number, make a note of the grade received, and keep them when she returned them to us, all splattered over with red ink corrections. This was eccentric, but bearable; as teacher requirements went, not much variance from the normal.

What wasn’t normal were the sudden rages. In the middle of a pleasant fall day, doors and windows open for air, and the distant pleasant sound of a ball game going on, and maybe the drill team counting cadence drifting in from the athletic fields, when we were engaged in a classroom assignment, nothing but the occasional rustle of a turning page, the scritch of pencil on paper, someone sniffing or shifting in their chair… Mrs. Range would suddenly slam a book on her desk and go into a screeching tirade about how noisy we were, and how she wouldn’t put up with this for a minute, and what badly-behaved, unteachable little horrors we all were. We would sit, cowering under the unprovoked blast of irrational anger, our eyes sliding a little to the right or left, wondering just what had set her off this time. What noise was it she was hearing? Her classroom was always quiet. Even the bad kids were afraid, spooked by her sudden spirals of irrational fury.

I have no idea how much of this was communicated to our parents, or if any of them would have believed it. But I am pretty sure that Mom had Mrs. Range’s number, especially after the legendary teacher’s conference— called at the request of Mrs. Range. I had too many missing or incomplete assignments, and it seemed that she took a vicious pleasure in showing Mom and I all the empty boxes in the grade-book against my name, at the after-school conference in the empty classroom. This was almost as baffling as the sudden rages, because I was fairly conscientious—a little absentminded, sometimes, a little too prone to daydream— but to miss nearly a third of the assignments so far? “Show your mother your class-work folder,” commanded Mrs. Range, and I brought it out, and opened it on the desk; my own list of the assignments, logged in as they were returned to me, the corrected and graded assignments all filed neatly in order.

All of them were there, every one of the ones that were blanks in Mrs. Range’s book, corrected and graded in her own hand, all checked off on my list. Mom looked at my folder, at Mrs. Range’s own assignment record, and said in a voice of velvet gentleness “I believe we have solved the problem of the missing assignments. Thank you for your time, Mrs. Range— will there be anything more?” Mrs. Range’s face was unreadable. There was the faintest gleam from the steel gauntlet, the tiniest clink audible, when Mom threw it down, adding “Of course, we will pay… special attention… to the completing of all Celia’s class and homework assignments after today. Good grades are very important to us.” Mom took up her car keys, “Coming, Celia?” Out in the parking lot, she fumed. “Horrible woman… and such a snob. She went to a perfectly good teacher’s school in Texas, but she groveled so when I told her that your father and I went to Occidental… it was embarrassing. And so strange to have missed so many of your assignments… good thing she had you keep them.” “Yes,” I said, “A very good thing.” I was still trying to puzzle the look of Mrs. Range’s face; bafflement, fury frustrated of an intended target.

What on earth had she been thinking, what sort of mental lapse was this? I would never know, but two years later, after I had moved on to High School, JP came home with the intelligence that Mrs. Range had truly and ultimately lost it, melting down in the middle of a tirade to a class of terrified students, from which— according to JP—she had been removed by men in nice white coats armed with a strait-jacket, drugs and a large net. The school administration may have been shocked, but I am confident that none of her former students were surprised in the least.

22. April 2015 · Comments Off · Categories: Memoir

In an upscale neighborhood halfway between Redwood House, and Granny Jessie and Grandpa Jim’s tiny white house on South Lotus, there was a magical place tucked into a dell of huge native California live oak trees. Looking back, we— my brother JP, my sister Pippy and I— seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time there, in those lovely leisurely days when mothers were expected to stay at home with children, but not to spend every waking minute ferrying them frenetically from scheduled amusements, playdates and lessons, with barely time for a snatched meal from drive-through or take-out.

Compared to our peers in the 1960ies, Mom may have been a bit of an overachiever, with Cotillion on alternate Tuesdays, Girl Scouts on Wednesday, and Confirmation on Thursdays. That was during the school year, though… in the summers, we three had swimming lessons at the house of a woman in La Crescenta who had, like her mother before her— been on the American Olympic swim team in their respective days. Mom sat with half a dozen other mothers on the deck in back of the house, while the two women dragooned a dozen tadpole children through their paces: diving, back-stroking, holding our breath and diving down to the bottom of the nearly Olympic-sized pool, treading water. It must have been rather boring for her, I imagine. Mom must have enjoyed the time during our lessons in nature appreciation at Descanso Gardens more, because she could walk around the acres of Manchester Boddy’s landscaped estate.

He was a newspaper publisher in the 1920ies and 1930ies, an aesthete with a mad passion for camellias, and a lovely chunk of property, close against the hillside and thickly grown with huge native oak trees. His house was still there, back against the first rise of the hillside, a large, graceful white house with the hollow and institutional feel common to a mansion that has once been a great home, but now full of empty, or nearly empty rooms, given over to official enterprise. Owing to a number of business reversals, the estate and garden wound up being in the public domain, but unlike the house, the gardens were burgeoning, enchantingly full of life… and flowers.

As children, we loved the camellia woods, but Mom loved the rose garden, two acres of roses, Grandpa Jim’s tiny formal garden expanded exponentially. Like his garden, it was for roses and roses alone, bare thorny stems rising up out of carefully tended weedless ground, planted in curving beds, and straight disciplined lines, trained over arbors and pergolas, every selected bush lovingly tended and encouraged to bloom, bloom and bloom again, encouraged with every atom of the gardeners’ art and skill with water, and application of clippers and fertilizer. Under the hot spring sun, the scent of acres of roses in bloom was intoxicating… but the rose garden was baked and bleached by sun, shimmering off the gravel paths, and we preferred the cool green shades of the camellia grove and the pond with the ducks. The gardens seem to have been much improved upon, since we were there so often, and even since I took my daughter in the early 1980ies, perhaps the large artificial pond, just inside the old main entrance is no longer there, or in the same form, but the gardens that I remember was threaded with artificial, but skillfully built watercourses, and the main catch-pond was the home of a flock of tame ducks. There was a coin-op dispenser that for a nickel, administered a handful of cracked corn— so very clever of the garden administrators to charge the public for expense of feeding the tame resident waterfowl. By afternoon, the ducks would be lethargic, sleeping off their orgies of gobbling corn from the hands of small children, but in the morning hours, when the garden had just opened, they would throng hopefully towards anyone approaching the main pond, and the ever-bountiful coin-op dispenser.

On the other side of the pond there was an oval lawn, shaded by towering oak trees, and groves of shrub camellias, acres of cool and misty green paths planted with Manchester Boddy’s pride and joy, all dark glossy green leaves and pale pink and white or magenta flowers. We loved the camellia groves, and the tangle of green paths threading the dell: we knew the chaparral hillsides, and the open, sun-blasted acres of rose garden— it was what we lived our lives amongst— but acres of cool green woods, and stone-trimmed water-courses, that was something rare and exotic and special.

Bearing to the left of the duck pond was another bit of exoticism; along about in the late 1960ies, they built a Japanese tea-house, a lovely little tile-roofed pavilion, led to by a series of bridges, walkways and a carefully clipped landscape of bamboo and azaleas. The watercourse was extended into a lagoon around the tea-house foundations, and stocked with fat golden carp. The teahouse served tea, of course, courtesy of a concessionaire who was in the good graces of the Japanese-American organization who had funded construction. The tea was clear greenish-golden liquid, served in handle-less cups and accompanied with fine-grained, soy-salt tasting crackers. We sipped it, looking out into the serene green depths of the camellias and the sheltering oaks, and thought there was nothing more restful, nothing more peaceful in all of the world, than Manchester Boddys’ wonderful gardens.

20. April 2015 · Comments Off · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titles(Another half chapter of the work in progress. Sophia Brewer has escaped from her sociopathic brother, who has coldly contrived to drive her — if not insane — then to confinement in the local asylum. She is being helped by the family of Agnes Teague, the Brewer household maid of all work … and the Teagues have a plan.)

Walk Away and Never Look Back

Of course, the nightmare came that night – the horrific dream where Richard struck her and she cowered under the blows, relieving the feeling of suffocation under the weight of something heavy pressing her down, down, down, until she couldn’t breathe, the pain of that weight forcing her legs apart, a new stabbing and intimate pain that spun away as the opium took her down even further…
“Miss Sophia,” a tremulous voice breathed in her ear, and there was a hand on her shoulder, which she batted away until she realized it was only Agnes, and that she lay on a pallet on the floor of the tenement room where the Teagues lived. “Miss Sophia … y’r crying out… is it the nightmare again? O’ course it is. Wake up no – ye are safe with us, and soon to be far away, where he can no’ harm ye again…”
“I know,” Sophia gulped, still half-paralyzed by the ragged shadows of the dream. Her heart pounded so hard, she feared it would burst in her chest, and her shift seemed to be drenched in her own clammy sweat. “I am awake, Agnes. I am sorry that I have disturbed your own rest…”
“No,” Agnes demurred, “I sleep light, Miss Sophia – and easily. Dinna regret … an’ I am accustomed to being around folk with night terrors. Da an’ Declan, they both awake shouting, still. Go back to sleep, Miss Sophia.” Agnes’s voice sounded ever more musical, with the Irish lilt to it. “I can sing a lully-bye to ye, as Ma once did, if ye think that it would help.”
“Do not threaten me, Agnes,” Sophia was recovered enough to be humorous. “I have heard you try to sing – you cannot carry a tune in a bucket.”
“I know,” And at her side in the darkness, Agnes giggled. “I canno sing – it will be a cross to bear when I take the veil…”
“Agnes!” Sophia was diverted from contemplating her own miseries. “You are thinking of becoming a nun?”
“Aye,” Agnes replied, in tranquil confidence. “’Tis a thing I have felt a calling for … oh, the last year or so. Da an’ the boys, they think it a girlish thing, an’ a matter for teasing. But I take no mind. It will be so, an’ I will be guided. Just so are you guided, Miss Sophia – I have a sense of such things, y’see. But a bad dream as you had just now – there was something that Mrs. Garrett said to me. You cried out Mr. Richard’s name, crying no, no! just now, and it reminded me of what she said.”
“What did she say, Agnes?” Sophia now felt cold, the sweat-damp shift clammy against her skin. “And when?”
“When you had been carried upstairs, the evening of the day when Mr. Richard locked you in the strong-room.” Agnes ventured. “Mrs. Garrett and I – we came running from the back o’ the house. Miss Vining an’ Miss Phelps, they were there, too. When Mr. Richard went for Dr. Cotton, Miss Vining and Mrs. Garrett and I took off your clothing … soaked in blood, they were. Oh, Miss Sophia…” and Agnes’ arm tightened around Sophia in a comforting embrace. “I thought it so fortunate that you were not aware. Miss Phelps went quite faint, she were that distressed, but Miss Vining, she were very brave, an’ sent for Miss Phelps to bring hot water and cloths… bruised from head to toe ye were. We took off your dress an’ underthings … an’ that was when Mrs. Garrett said, straight out – that it looked as if you had been …” and Agnes’ voice dropped, hushed with embarrassment, “Interfered with … bruises, y’see. An’ bloody matter on your under-drawers an’ Miss Vining, she turned white an’ then red, an’ said that Mrs. Garrett should shut her mouth before speaking such vileness. Mrs. Garrett, she said straight out, she may ha’ been born at night, but it wasn’t last night, neither, an’ there were no man in the house save Mr. Richard. That were when Miss Vining said that such an evil-speaking woman ought to be sacked, an’ Mrs. Garrett said that she wouldn’t stay a minute longer in a house where such goings on were countenanced. That were when Mrs. Garrett gave her notice.” After a long moment, Agnes said, “I were not certain of what they meant, Miss Sophia. But when I asked Miss Vining later, she were angry. So I said nothing more. Was that the right thing, Miss Sophia?”
“Yes,” Sophia answered; sunk in misery and doubt, for she could not truly remember anything past a certain moment in that dreadful evening. But … something awful had happened to her, which her mind quailed from contemplating, even acknowledging. “I truly cannot recall anything, after my brother forced the syrup of opium down my throat. My brother beat me savagely, all but murdered me. That is enough for me to know, Agnes. I had always assumed that he loved and wished the best for me … just as your brothers do for you. It is a hard burden to bear – knowing that his actions demonstrated otherwise. You are fortunate in your family, Agnes – if not in those worldly and material things. I shall try to go to sleep now.”
“You do that, Miss Sophia,” Agnes embraced her again, which Sophia found comfort in; but why were her true friends now revealed as the humble and down-trodden, when everyone else had turned away? How very complicated her life had become; perhaps it was a good thing to go away from Boston and start on it again, free from familial connections and interference.

Still, she could not sleep, for the tumult in her mind and heart: So much to consider and worry over – would she journey safely to Chicago? What refuge would she find there? If this slightly mysterious Mr. Harvey would not hire her, what would she do then? At her shoulder, Agnes breathed slow and regular, deep in slumber. At last, Sophia slithered out from under the blankets on the pallet, and from Agnes’s light embrace. The girl obviously slept sounder than she had said, or else she was tired. There was a faint light in the room, on the other side of the makeshift curtain which sheltered the pallet. By that light, Sophia rose, changed her shift for a clean one and resumed the dress that she had worn that day – and which she would wear when Declan came for her – and that, by the distant sound of the bells from the old North Church – would not be very much longer. She wrapped the coarse countrywoman’s woolen shawl around her, for the night was still chill, from the wind blowing off the harbor, and the windows of the Teague tenement apartment leaked all the way around. She may as well sit by the fire which warmed the small place. She stepped around the edge of the curtain, and saw that Tim Teague had installed himself in his armchair – or perhaps he had never abandoned it, after allowing it to Sophia for a short while.
“Ye canna sleep, I see,” he said, as she stepped around the curtain. He was awake, his old eyes gleaming in the slight firelight. What an odd conversation; she may as well indulge him, for he was kindly and his daughter was comforting, and after all – he remembered her father.
“No, I cannot,” She replied, settling on the little three-legged stool which Agnes had sat upon the night before. The fire had had burned down very low – there was very little warmth in it at all. “I am setting out on a long journey, Mr. Teague, and there are things which I cannot stop thinking of …”
“Tim … call me Old Tim,” he answered readily, grinning as she answered,
“I cannot be so familiar, Mr. Teague. You are very much my senior in age, and it is just not proper … even if you were a servant. My mother was always very particular about courtesy and respect.”
“So was your father, if I remember,” Tim Teague acknowledged. “He had such a way with him to all.”
“I did not know him, and you did,” Sophia asked, on impulse and felt suddenly shy. “He was killed about the time that I was born, so I never knew him at all. All I know is what my mother and Great-aunt Minnie said of him … and they knew him only as family. Not as a man – a soldier – would.”
“The Major,” Tim Teague settled with a reminiscent sigh deeper into his battered armchair. Sophia hugged her knees to her chest, like a small child and listened hungry for every word.
“He was not what you would think of when you think of a hero,” Tim Teague began. “No’ at first. He was a quiet man, soft-spoken … sometimes I think he held his sword in leading a charge as if he were surprised to find such a thing in his hand. He did not give orders as if he were giving orders. He spoke as if asking a favor, but such was his manner an’ intent that … men obeyed on th’ instant. He were never familiar, as if he were seeking to ingratiate wi’ us, but always courteous … an’ he had a notion always of when someone told him a lie. Which was a recommendation if you came up before him on charges.”
“He had trained early in law,” Sophia said, and Tim Teague grinned again, obviously relishing the memory.
“An’ that was my good fortune, I tell ye, Miss Sophia. It was some small matter … th’ provost-sergeant – an evil man! – he told a lie about me. An’ so I were brought up before the Major. He, bless the man, saw how it were a lie wi’ a shrewd question ‘r two, an’ I had my liberty at once. He was always,” and Tim Teague’s eyes were remote, as if looking into the far distance beyond the tiny room in an upper-floor tenement in North Town, back to a world of blue uniforms, banners floating above and before them, and grey clouds of rebel gun powder smoke over a hard-held position, “an officer we could trust, y’ see. He were a good ‘un …”
Sophia rested her chin on her knees, and listened intent, as old Tim recalled her father in memory, a well that she could only dip into this once. She thought that she had a better picture of him than she had ever gleaned from her mother, whose memories of Richard Brewer were hazed by a veil of bridal silk.
After a time, Tim Teague’s reminiscences went wandering – as Great-Aunt Minnie’s were also wont to do; Sophia listened, lulled by the musical bent of his speech – why was it that it sounded to her almost like poetry? He talked of how he had departed starving Ireland as a young man, the misery of an immigrant ship – how he had finished up in Boston, working as a laborer on the docks, how he had met and married the mother of his children. That was before the war came, and he had enlisted … Sophia wondered if she had at least dozed a little, for she wakened with a bit of a start. Tim Teague was patting her shoulder, under the woolen shawl.
“Close the door and walk away. Walk away, niver looking back. Do ye no good, cailín daor. There’s nothing good for you, remaining. Na deamhain – demons will haunt ye anyway, so don’t give them a chance to get their claws into you any deeper. Faugh a Ballagh! – That was our battle shout. ‘Clear the Way!’ for the 28th … We marched in the Grand Review, ye know. But for me, there were a stone in m’ heart an’ demons haunting m’ soul for a’ that I had seen. The Major was no’ with us. He should ha’ been, but f’r a damn dirty sniper at Petersburg …”
There came a quiet tap on the door to the room in which they sat, and a mumble of a voice whose words Sophia could not quite catch. Tim Teague lifted his head, alert as an elderly hound. “Ah … ‘tis Mendelson. Ye had best ready yourself, cailín daor. Declan will be by wi’ the wagon, any moment now. Remember what I said – close the door, an’ walk away, niver look back.”