June 14, 2023

Our writing club met last night at the Sierra Vista Public Library. We are continuing to work on our Potpourri Project which we plan to publish as an anthology. Members read their short stories and poems that they have submitted or will soon submit. I wrote this memoir about an event which occurred when I was teenager and recently edited it for our project.

A Mystical Disaster

Disaster struck a week before summer vacation in 1969. I’m unsure whose bright idea it was to send us home. Maybe the authority figures were afraid we might be in danger. The voice on the PA system had only announced school was closing early. No one told us why. As I got books from my locker at 1:30, nearby students asked if anyone knew what was happening.

Exiting high school, I turned west. When I reached the stoplight at the third block, this street was barricaded. When I tried to walk around it, a patrolman said, “Stop! You can’t go through here.”

“But home is that way.”

He scowled and raised his voice. “I said you cannot go this way.”

“Why not?”

Exasperated, he said, “Because there are houses exploding.”

I turned south and planned to head west a block later. No dice! Another squad car blocked this pathway. I didn’t bother talking to the officer. I went another block south and encountered more police and barricades. Standing at the corner, I contemplated what to do. This was the edge of the city limits. A farm lay on the southwest corner. If I continued south, it’d be a mile before I could go west, and I wouldn’t be able to head back north for more than another mile. Forget that! If I backtracked, there would be an additional two blocks down a steep hill before reaching a street that went west. I bet they have it barricaded too. I can’t get home. Where do I go? Did our house explode? Where’s my family? Is everyone okay?

A clear thought finally crystalized, and I turned east. Mom should be at work. I could walk a mile and a half to reach her at the grocery store.

It was a typical June day in Northwest Indiana, sweltering like the nearby steel mill blast furnaces. The sidewalk I now traveled lacked shade. Thirsty, I thought about getting something to drink at Uncle Jimmy’s and Aunt Mary Neal’s place. Their home was another four blocks east from where I was, then almost two blocks south.

I looked through the screen as I knocked but didn’t see anyone. “Hello, it’s Diane. May I come in?”

In answer, my younger brother Larry raced through the living room and unlatched the screen door. Bawling, he hugged me. “Thank God you’re safe!”

“What are you doing here? Where’s Martha?”

Aunt Mary Neal entered from the kitchen. “I’m so glad to see you! Your mom called and asked me if there was any way I could get the little ones from St. Mark’s school. My neighbor drove me, and I spotted Larry walking home. He told me your sister had gone home with her friend Cathy.”

“Did my mom call from work?”

“I’m not sure. Why not try calling there? Would you like a drink?”

I nodded then used their kitchen wall phone to call the grocery store. “Hello, may I please speak to Mary Lou?”

The woman said, “I’m sorry she’s not here. She was called home.”

“Really? Thank you.” I put my finger on the hook, then dialed our number. No answer.

Aunt Mary Neal handed me a glass of grape Kool-aid. “What did you find out?”

“The woman said she went home, but I just called, and no one answered. I let it ring ten times. If she’s there, why didn’t she pick up the line?” Frustrated, I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. Larry had calmed down and was watching cartoons with our cousins. At least I knew he and my younger sister were safe.

“Wait a bit then try again. Shouldn’t your father be home from work soon?”

I’m shocked when I glance at the clock because it’s 3:30. Normally, I’d already be home.

Seeing my distress, my aunt wrapped her arms around me and held me for a few moments. “If there’s still no answer when Jimmy gets here from the mill, I’ll have him take you both home.”

She didn’t have a driver’s license, so they only had one car. While we waited for my uncle to come, I kept phoning home. Every five minutes, I dialed, let it ring ten times, then hung up. I kept an eye on their television, but the program ran without an interruption for Chicago breaking news.

When he arrived, she explained that my mom had been called home, but no one was answering our phone. Uncle Jimmy said, “The radio reported it was natural gas explosions and that the danger appears to be over.”

As he drove us home, we listened to local radio but nothing new was broadcast. A patrolman waved us away when Jimmy tried to continue going west, so he turned north. He got out of his car when we reached the stoplight. I’m unsure what my uncle said, but this time the policeman moved the barricade and let us through. We didn’t see any damage while driving along the five blocks west before we reached my street.

My parents’ cars were parked at the curb. Everything appeared normal. My youngest brother Russ was across the street playing with the Lara kids. Mom and Dad sat on our front porch talking with a stranger. I later learned this was a newspaper reporter. Larry rushed into Mom’s arms and hugged her. Over his head, she smiled at me.

I bit my lip. “Is everything all right? Why didn’t you answer the phone?”

Because they were outside, my parents hadn’t heard it ring. From them, I learned that nine houses had indeed exploded—one with the same address as ours—but it was one block west. The house on the southwest corner of our block had been blasted apart. Several houses had caught fire. One of those was ours.

Mom said, “Go inside and see for yourself.”

An acrid smell overwhelmed me when I stepped into the foyer. Damage was apparent everywhere I looked. Gray streaks from water and smoke covered the living room walls. In the kitchen, gas flames from our counter-top stove had soared upwards and caused a subsequent minor explosion. The exhaust fan, which had been mounted to an upper kitchen cabinet, lay in the middle of the room. Scorch marks from the blast marred the kitchen and hallway ceilings. The wall phone receiver had melted and doubled in size. Amazingly, it still worked, but the sound was a slight tinkling noise. Of course, no one could answer calls with it. Thankfully, we had another phone in the basement. From our kitchen sink window, I viewed the blasted remnants of a house.

Back outside, Chicago television crews had arrived on the scene. I watched as the newscaster reported that our neighborhood looked like a war zone. A power and gas company employee had flipped a valve the wrong way causing natural gas explosions to occur within a six-block area.

Sitting on our stoop because of the malodorous reek indoors, I learned more about the day. Mom said, “Russ woke up with a sore throat. I called Mrs. Lara to let her know that he wouldn’t be walking to kindergarten with them. Connie reminded me there was a party today. She convinced me to let him go, instead of getting your grandmother to babysit.”

Mom lit a cigarette and took a puff. “Early this afternoon, Connie was outside watching the kids play. She spotted the smoke and was the first one to call the fire station. Then, she phoned me, and I called your father.” She smiled. “By the way, he’s a hero. I’ll let him tell you.”

Dad inhaled a deep puff then said, “While parking my car, I spotted Mr. Peltry walking toward his house. I yelled at him to stop, but the old man is getting so deaf that he didn’t hear me. I ran to catch up and managed to grab him from behind as he opened his door. His house exploded as I pulled him back. Luckily, he only suffered minor injuries.”

I grinned. “Way to go Dad! No wonder they interviewed you.”

“All in all, we were lucky.” He stubbed out his cigarette butt. “I’m thankful that I installed two air vents in the attic in May. Those kept our house from exploding because they allowed the heated air and smoke to escape.”

Mom said, “Vern, your mother would’ve had a heart attack if she’d been here. Thank God no one was home!”

Reflecting upon the chain of events, I found a mystical aspect to this disastrous day. Maybe divine intervention. Miraculously, no one had died. Though our home was damaged, it could have been so much worse for my family, especially if my 83-year-old grandmother had been babysitting.

May 24, 2023

During our bimonthly meeting, writing club members read stories they have submitted for our Potpourri Project. Club secretary Teresa Pepper asked us to continue sending our work to be included in this anthology. Because I am focused on revising the fourth novel of my family saga, I looked for something I’d written that could be quickly modified and submitted. I hope you enjoy this humorous short story as I poke fun at myself.

Click

I need to make a confession. I have always admitted that I am a “bookaholic.” Oh yes, I know the proper term is bibliophile. But, somehow, I think words with the -phile suffix have a sinister connotation. Maybe it’s because of the word pedophile. Or the fact that some people take their love to an extreme, like an ailurophile who has 30 cats. Anyway, it’s time for me to admit another long addiction. I’m addicted to clicks! Does that make me a clickophile?

My fixation began when I took a typing course in high school during the late 1960s. Like a drill sergeant our teacher conducted us. “Posture is everything. Back straight. Feet level on the floor. Roll a sheet of paper into the machine. Now, put your fingers on the home row. Keep your eyes on your textbook, not your fingers! Each stroke should be brisk and firm. Begin.”

Little did I realize the sound these ancient Underwood typewriters produced would become habitual. Each click was music to my ears. At first it wasn’t words which appeared on the paper. Instead, it was gibberish, such as “asdf” and “jkl semicolon,” repeated over and over. My typing staccato was very brief. Click clack, click clack, click clack. Then a ding! as I used the carriage return.

At first it was difficult to type with brisk and firm taps on the keys as she had directed. I sometimes pressed them too quickly. Click, cluck, crunch! The keys crashed together and stuck in mid-air. Snick, snick as I cleared the jam, then returned my fingers to the home row. Over time I built up strength in a muscle that I didn’t know my little fingers had. I spent weeks clickety-clacking nonsense before I typed my first word.

Our teacher placed a metronome on her desk to assist us with learning the cadence of this instrument. After several weeks of practice, I caught onto the tempo and became adept at typing, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. This had a good beat; my fingers could dance to it!

I encountered an electric typewriter in my second year of typing class. Using a lighter touch allowed it to be played at accelerando speed. My typing skills increased to 80 words per minute as I mastered this piece. While it didn’t clack, each key stroke produced a comforting click as the “golf ball” whirled at break-neck speed.

Learning to run a 10-key adding machine even satisfied my click craving as its allegro joined my repertoire. I could run tapes that were six feet long without making a mistake that marred my tempo. Of course, this was back when this # symbol meant a number sign, not a hash tag.

Working at a water company, a mainframe computer was the next instrument on the scene. The 96-column card, keypunch machine had its own special composition. But I had to first master the numerical keypad. Its numbers were arranged like those on a push-button phone—backwards to an adding machine. At first it had a cacophonic sound as I learned a new rhythm. However, it wasn’t long before my fingers bebopped up and down the keyboard making a different kind of music. Clickety click, clickety clack, clickety click, clickety clack, clickety click. Then psst, tick, psst, tick, whizt, tunk as holes were punched into the card while it whizzed through the rollers and into a hopper.

With the advent of memory typewriters and word processors, the rhythm changed. Ctrl, Alt, and function keys were added to the ensemble. My fingers could still tap dance to a good beat and always return to the home row.

Personal computers of the 1980s brought discord to my harmony. Why did they say the mouse was “point and click”? This sound is too quiet to be called a click! It didn’t satisfy me. Instead, the need to move my right hand to use it annoyed me. But the pressed keys still made a clicking sound, and I learned to feel for the home row indicators as my hand moved back from using the mouse. Over the decades of my life, you could say, I became a maestro of clickety clacking.

As you have probably experienced yourself, it’s not long before a computer becomes outdated or even dies. The newer models do come with added features. Yet, over the years, these keyboards became made more of plastic and much less metal. These have also shrunk in size. For several decades now, I’ve used an old Compaq 386 keyboard with keys that click. It shows years of heavy usage, even though this console has been thoroughly cleaned numerous times. It is past time for it to be retired with honors. Do you think it would appreciate receiving a gold watch?

My recently purchased computer has a USB instead of a pin plug for the keyboard. Its keys are plastic and smushed together. I had to search to find the delete key when I first installed this device. In my opinion its design is flawed because I cannot conduct any musical score on this contraption. So, I splurged on a mechanical keyboard even though I’m not a gamer. Yes, I must confess, I gotta have my click!

 

May 17, 2023

You completed authoring a fantastic novel and want to share it with the world. Your next step may be self-publishing on Amazon. After beta reading a manuscript for another author, I found she made mistakes similar to my own. I’m not an expert, but I encountered several stumbling blocks along the way, so I thought I would share tips about what I learned. My video is about creating both an ebook and a paperback using Microsoft Word. Other programs, such as OpenOffice and LibreOffice, have similar functions available. It is based on a presentation I made to our writing group on May 10th.

Manuscript Formatting using Word

May 1, 2023

As I mentioned in my last post, the fiction writers group is creating a collection of short stories. We should submit ones that are between 1,200 and 1,500 words. Below is a memoir that I originally wrote about five years ago. I revised and submitted it yesterday.

Recognition

Independence festivities kick off with a twilight parade. Since my daughter will perform, I leave work at 12:00 on Wednesday. Another hot, humid day. I’m drenched with sweat before I reach the Chicago parking garage. As soon as my minivan starts, I full-blast the air and check the time. Tessa’s babysitting my seven-year-old son, and she must be at school before 3:00.

Vehicles travel at a turtle-like pace as Chicagoans flee the heat for a long weekend at their Michigan summer homes. Time and traffic conspire against me. It’s 2:45 when I park.

Tessa is watching and opens the front door before I reach the porch. She wrinkles her nose as she hugs. “You’re really late. You need a shower. I’ve got to go!” Dressed in T-shirt and shorts, she slips on flip flops. She’ll change into her heavy purple and gold uniform at school. “Don’t forget I’ll be on the right-hand side.” An impish smile lights her face. “You’ll be surprised by what we play today.”

“Forgetting a water bottle? Need a ride home?”

“You know they always make sure we have enough water. I’ve got my key, so I’ll walk.” She rushes out the door.

“Jase, I’m home. Where are you?”

“In my room. Can Taylor come with us?”

“Sure. I’m going to shower.”

First, I phone my elderly parents. “Hello Mom. Are you sure you and Dad want to be out in this extreme heat? Okay. Tess said she’d be on the right-hand side, so we’ll meet across from the Kennedy Avenue butcher shop around 5:00. Oh, I just got home. She didn’t say she called. Love you.”

I shower then don shorts and a halter top. After applying minimal makeup, I go into the kitchen to add ice-filled water bottles to my tote. I want to get there before barricades block the streets. “Jase, we need to get a move on!” From his dejected look, I know Taylor can’t come with us. “Hurry up. Zorro needs his walk.”

He takes out the dog while I slip on sandals, then pick up his cap and my hat. Jase returns, takes his baseball cap and the tote. Outside, I start the van, blast the air, then glance at the clock.

“We don’t have much time, kiddo. How about Arby’s and then Dunkin Donuts for iced coffee?”

“Can’t we go to McDonald’s?”

“Not today. Want to split a large curly fry?”

“Okay.”

It’s almost 5:00 when we reach Highland. Traffic barriers block Highway Avenue, so I navigate residential streets to reach the butcher shop. Its lot is full. I park three blocks away. Putting our food sack inside my tote, I then hand it to Jase. I make sure that he’s wearing his baseball cap, has drink in hand plus a bag for candy. I don my hat, sling purse over shoulder, place drink on roof, grab our camp chairs from the back, then lock up my van. I retrieve my iced mocha coffee and suck on it. Ah, that hits the spot. It’s too hot out here!

We walk back. At the stoplight, I check to see if any other relatives are there. Finding an open spot across from the shop, I put down my drink, shrug off our chairs, get them out of the carry sacks then set up. Jase drapes the blanket on the curb. We sit down to enjoy our beef and cheddars.

As I slather sun block on both of us, I see some relatives have arrived. I wave, wait for a stray car creeping down the street, then we jaywalk across. My cousins and I chat about the ongoing heat and mounting death toll. It’s now reached over a hundred. Deaths are most prevalent among elderly people living alone. No matter their age, everyone must be concerned about heat exhaustion.

As other relatives arrive, we exchange hugs. I’m shocked when I see my cousin’s daughter Stacy. She and Tessa are the same age. Though they attend different schools, they are usually involved in similar activities. I’m surprised she isn’t playing in her band and cannot believe the amount of makeup she’s wearing. She looks tawdry.

At 6:00, the police brigade appears six blocks south. It’s time to go back across. Jase settles on the blanket. Hand shading my eyes, I search for my parents. The parade’s starting. Why aren’t they here? Relieved, I finally see them.

I rush down the block to retrieve chairs from Dad’s shoulder and take mom’s tote bag. “Where’s Paul?”

“He dropped us and went to find a parking spot. Because of him, we couldn’t get close.”

My oldest brother never gets anywhere on time!

Once they are settled, I give both parents a kiss. Moisture beads Dad’s face. “Would you like the last of my drink?”

He sips, then takes off the lid and grabs a chunk of ice. As he runs the ice across his forehead, I hand him a napkin. Glancing at Mom, she’s wearing a long-sleeve, turtleneck shirt with a blouse over it and has brought a jacket. “Aren’t you hot?”

Mom shakes her head as she waves to her sister’s family and receives answering waves. Paul appears carrying a sack of sandwiches and a carton of drinks. Settled into the chairs, we chat while they eat.

It’s almost twilight. Police motorcycles reach our section of the avenue and make several figure-eight passes. Several top-down convertibles follow, politicians sitting atop the backseat, tossing out candy and gum. I keep an eye on Jase. Making sure he doesn’t run into the street to grab any. I’m proud to see he isn’t greedy; he makes sure younger nearby children get an equal share.

I watch for Gavit’s marching band uniforms but pay more attention to my parents. Both have survived tough surgeries. I worry about them. A closer examination assures me they’re okay. I lean close to mom. “Is Dad putting on weight again?”

“Oh, you know how he is. Monday, he went to Ultra and bought cookies. Before bed, I found the empty sack in the trash.”

Sighing, I shake my head. “Did Tessa invite you to tomorrow morning’s parade?”

“Yes. Your father said he’d like that.”

“Want to meet for an early breakfast and stake out a spot near the restaurant?”

“Sounds good.”

There’s a lull in the parade. I take a long sip from my iced bottle, then ask Mom and Dad if they’d like some. As I pass it to Dad, I notice my son’s flushed face. “Jase, sit down and drink some water now.”

He’s upset for a moment, then up to grab more candy. A parent grins at me as he hands her toddler a sucker.

At last, I spot purple and gold. “She’s coming!”

The parade slows turning the corner onto Highway, nearing the judging stand. This means her band will perform in front of us. I ready my camera.

Are the students overheated? Will Tessa keep in step? Will her notes be off-key?

Marching in rhythm, Gavit’s band approaches, then stops. Tess glances over and smiles for a second before composing her face. The drum major blows his whistle, then the drums thunder. I’m astonished by the cadence of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.

Legs flashing up and down, they march in rhythm. Other instruments chime in as the band weaves in formation. One side moving left, the other right; merging in an exquisite blend of movement and melody.

The day’s worries disappear. Time slows.

Trumpet at her lips, Tess dances in tempo, weaving, dipping, twirling. Her sounds are crisp, clear, sweet. The last rays of sunlight make her auburn hair appear like a copper halo fanning out beneath her plumed hat as she moves. Focused on this girl in front of me, I marvel at her grace. My camera is forgotten.

Dad shouts, “Go Tessa!”

She ignores him, concentrating on her steps and music. I see a confident young woman strutting her stuff.

Amazing! When did she become so poised? Where has my little girl gone?

She’ll turn thirteen next month and will start high school this fall. Like a flower, she has burgeoned, but it wasn’t until now that I realized just how much.

The band finishes. Volunteers now squirt water into each student’s mouth. There’s another smile and a wave from my daughter before the group marches away from us.

The remainder of the parade passes in a blur. I don’t recall saying goodbye to my family or returning home.

My daughter will have memories of other parades, such as performing in Hawaii last spring. There’ll be plenty more before she leaves for college. After all, Tessa has three more parades tomorrow. But, for me, this will always be the memorable one, the one I cherish. The one when I recognized her womanhood.

April 26, 2023

Members, who didn’t do this last meeting,  read their short stories for our Potpourri Project, then we discussed these. Our group members should also submit other stories for our project. We plan to create and publish this as a collection.

After this, our Subject Matter Expert Ron Benedict asked attendees to: Come up with a picture that represents your life. Think of it as a scene’s opening image, and write a paragraph about it. Each one of us read what we’d written to the other members. Here’s mine:

The ’67 Chevy Bel Air hugged the right side of the highway next to a dangerous drop-off as a ’64 red Thunderbird, horn blaring, roared past.

“Be careful Joe.That drop-off is so sheer. You shouldn’t have moved over. That idiot should have waited for a passing zone.”

I heard my best friend Marsha snicker. I glanced over and saw she was imitating her mother. I suppressed a laugh, then returned to my reading. This road terrified me. Concentrating on the book kept me sane.