A House in the Country

A Reminiscence

Whenever we went for a drive on Sunday afternoons and on long trips, too, back in the 50’s, Dad stamped white horses. If he spotted a white horse in a field by the side of the road, he’d lift his right hand from the steering wheel, lick the end of his index finger, punch it against the palm of his left hand still on the wheel, and slam his right fist against his palm to seal the deal.

On our rides, Dad and I competed to see who stamped the most white horses. So he liked to wait until we’d almost passed the horse and it was almost out of sight to stamp it, so I’d miss it and he’d win. He’d chuckle like crazy as I’d turn my head to look for the white horse and say, “Where is it? Where is it? I missed it. Oh darn it, Daddy.”

(Two can play that game.)

I don’t imagine we stamped too many white horses on a drive in Clarion County PA that we took close to the Fourth of July in 1955.

My dad’s mother, Grandmother Willman, wearing a faded, short-sleeved house dress, but as stiff-necked as usual, came with us. She wanted to find the house her husband grew up in. Though the area hadn’t changed as much as it would in the next decade with the building of the interstates and the subsequent development along them, it had been a very long time, sixty years or more, since she visited that house. You forget lots in sixty years, something I understand much more now than I did when I was fourteen going on fifteen, a supple young thing who didn’t understand how age stiffens necks.

Our usual seating arrangement in the car was Dad at the wheel. Mom rode shotgun. Our dog, a short-legged beagle mix with a big brown spot in the middle of her white back, sat in Mom’s lap. I rode in the back.

On that particular ride, Grandmother Willman sat in front, so she could give Dad directions. Mom, Dotty, and I rode in back.

Mom was obviously pissed off about the seating arrangements. She glared through her glasses with her snapping black eyes at the back of her mother-in-law’s head, covered with silky white hair pinned in two braided crescents that crisscrossed each other just above her seamed neck.

Mom always said Grandmother Willman was a bitch because before Dad married Mom, Dad sent most of the money he made working for the CCC home to his mother to save for him.

Or so he thought until his wedding to Mom on 7/11/37, he asked his mother for his money, and Grandmother Willman said, “Money? What money? I don’t have any of your money.” Whenever Mom told this story, she bellowed those exact same words in the exact same way. And so my dad had to take out a loan of $200, a substantial sum back then during the Depression, to start his married life with my mom.

I’m certain Grandmother Willman disapproved of my mom just as much. They were so different, the one a stern, church-going, teetotal countrywoman and the other a city girl with a New Jersey accent who didn’t attend church much, not even on Easter and Christmas, except for the social stuff like the annual picnic. Also Mom used words like “bitch” and “shit” and didn’t mind the occasional beer or cocktail.

Grandmother Willman’s disapproval of the girl Dad married the second time around passed down to me. Though my mom was a world-class housekeeper and kept a far tidier house than any of my dad’s sisters and his mom, she wasn’t teaching me crucial womanly kitchen skills. (She didn’t want me underfoot when she was in the kitchen fixing supper.) Also my mom earned her living as a nurse before she and Dad got married.

I was headed down the same wrong path of wanting to go to college and to earn my living instead of getting married, making babies, and keeping house.

But that day, given a choice between staying back at the family farm with Dad’s relatives that she barely knew and going somewhere, anywhere, in the car, Mom shut her mouth and glowered at her mother-in-law from the back seat. She was probably just waiting for Grandmother Willman to say something or do something Mom could bitch to my dad about for days, weeks, months, and years to come. (“And that’s another thing that burns my ass off about your mother, Homer,” she’d say.

The drive, maybe punctuated by Dad and me stamping a white horse or two, took a while because Grandmother Willman was unsure of the directions. It must have been a point of pride that in the end she did remember where the house was and finally the car bumped along a lane past a new farmhouse, white with bright blue shutters, till we came to an old house inside a square of dirt with a rickety barbed wire fence around it. Even I who’d never seen the house before was shocked by its condition.

“This must be it, Mother,” Dad said as he pulled the car close to the fence. He turned off the engine, opened his door and got out without closing the door on that side. He stared across the top of the car.

Mom squeezed against me as she looked out the window on my side of the car. “Is that really it?” she said. “I can’t say much for it.”

Staring at the old house, I tried to figure out what was wrong with it. Well, for one thing, it was the gray of weathered wood without any paint at all. There wasn’t anything green around it. Unlike my father’s mother’s family farmhouse, it didn’t have a pond sitting in front of it. And then I realized what I didn’t see, too. It sat alone inside that fence without a single outbuilding, spring house, outhouse or corn crib, shed or barn.

After a while, Grandmother Willman said, “I believe the people that own the place now are using the old house as a barn.”

“I think you’re right, Mother,” Dad said, his voice a little distant from outside the car. He turned and poked his head back in. “I tell you what. Why don’t we look around? The cows aren’t in the barnyard and I’m sure the new owners won’t mind.”

“Yes, let’s,” Mom said. “I hate to think we came all this way for nothing.”

Mom opened the door. The floppy-eared Dottie spilled out. My mom slammed the door and I jumped out my side. Grandmother Willman was the last out, helped by my dad though I don’t think she stopped looking at that falling-down house the whole time.

Dad went ahead and unlatched the wide gate, shut by a loop of wire, held the gate open while we trooped through, then closed it. A little closer, I saw that the windows didn’t have a bit of glass anymore though a rag of a curtain blew through a window on the second floor.

Glad to be out of the car, I ran ahead of the others, up the narrow stone steps and through the doorway (no door left) straight into the house. Momentum carried me through what must have been the kitchen and parlor, up narrow steps to a hall and into a bedroom. Finally, the sight of faded wallpaper shredded down the walls, straw littering the floor, mouse droppings, and the stink of must and decay stopped me. This is horrible, I thought. Finding the house in this condition was worse than not finding it at all. It was like walking inside a corpse.

I heard my mom and dad marching around downstairs, as they tried to figure out the layout of the house, but I couldn’t stand breathing the close, rotten air of that house anymore. By the time I got back outside, Grandmother Willman was there, too, gazing at the house through wire-rimmed glasses that reflected the sunlight so I couldn’t see her eyes.

I heard her voice shake, though, as she pointed toward a nearly leafless, thorny plant growing by the steps. “That’s a blackberry bush,” she said. “My mother-in-law made the best pies with the berries from that bush.”

Suddenly, I felt sorry for Grandmother Willman, in her faded house dress, stiffly corseted underneath, in her black granny shoes and stockings, as she remembered all the people she’d known and loved who’d lived in that now dead house, alone and solitary in a barren field.

 

My Father, the Story Thief

With stories, my dad was like a magpie. Anything flashy he took. Often he polished them to his own particular shine, too.

For example, if you climb up our family tree on Daddy’s side far enough, way back to the 1760’s and then hop over to a stubby branch that started in 1763 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and ended in 1808 in Natchez, Mississippi, you’ve found Lewis Wetzel.

My dad freely made his own the stories about Wetzel that author Zane Grey told in his novel Betty Zane, first published in 1903, the year of my father’s birth. (Dad’s mustache looked like a white caterpillar wiggled whenever he bragged that he “was born in the year of Kitty Hawk, but I lived to see men on the moon.”) Grey based his book on family stories about his ancestor—the brave, young Betty Zane. She saved the day for settlers sheltered at Fort Henry, close to present-day Wheeling, West Virginia, when she slipped through the enemy forces, ran home and fetched gunpowder and ammunition back in her apron. Both Grey and my dad described Wetzel as the heroic Indian fighter who helped turn the tide against the British armies and their Indian allies. Thus, he won the gratitude of American settlers near the Ohio River.

In my dad’s version of the biography, Wetzel became an Indian fighter after some Indians ambushed and murdered all of his family but him. According to other sources, real events didn’t fall out quite that way. Indians did indeed kill Lew Wetzel’s father, but Wetzel had become an Indian fighter several years before that. When he was just thirteen, some Indian scouts wounded and then captured him along with his younger brother near the family farm. The boys escaped, but this event turned Wetzel into a stone-cold Indian killer.

Events of my life have brought me close to Lewis Wetzel twice. For a few weeks in the autumn of 1971, with my husband and my infant daughter, I lived in the Western Panhandle of West Virginia a mile or two from Big Wheeling Creek. Two hundred years, before the Wetzel family farmed land along the same creek. The man who rented us half a nineteenth-century farmhouse ten miles east of Wheeling let us store David’s bicycle in the original house on the property, a long, low, stone building with a dirt-floored room on either side of a fireplace.

Lew Wetzel might have visited that very house, backed into a narrow valley with a clearing in front of it. So, primed by my father’s stories, I created a mental picture of him there. Wetzel wore buckskins and hid his long, blond braids out of sight under his hat, so “the Indians wouldn’t see his hair and go after him,” Dad said. (Indians longed to take that fair-haired scalp in revenge for his taking so many of their black-haired scalps, but none of them ever managed it.) My dad said Lewis Wetzel never learned to speak English well, but spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. Probably Wetzel didn’t say much at all as he leaned in a corner of that crude house. He squinted his eyes against the smoke from the fireplace and relished the hard cider the settler’s wife handed him in a pewter mug. Dogs lay at ease at his feet and the children stared at him, open-mouthed in awe from all the stories their fathers had told them about the legendary Lewis Wetzel. Maybe a brave lad sneaked up to touch the long rifle he reloaded and used with deadly accuracy, even while he ran, or his tomahawk that had killed countless Indians, or his scalping knife. The women in the house mostly stayed away from him at least until someone thought to loan him a violin. He was a famous fiddler, his reels and jigs speaking to pioneer folk in ways he couldn’t through words.

Regardless, he wouldn’t stay long in that low, two-roomed house before he took off running east through Big Wheeling Creek, that rushed then, as it did when I lived near it two hundred years later, clear and cold over rounded stones.

The other time I came close to Lewis Wetzel was downright eerie. Some friends of mine threw a costume party with instructions to come as “our favorite Revolutionary.” Naturally, because of Dad’s stories, I instantly thought of Lewis Wetzel. So I made myself some fake buckskins, bought a black felt hat and a blond wig for a few bucks at a local five and dime (gone now). I also donned moccasin-style bedroom slippers and a rabbit fur vest I happened to own. I stuck a rubber tomahawk in a hand-woven belt and went off to my party. Later, as I danced in that costume with that blond hair swinging over my face, I felt as if Lewis Wetzel was inside me looking out through my eyes, searching for Indians to scalp. It creeped me so much I broke into a cold sweat and I ripped the hat and wig off my head fast.

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As I said, Dad mostly stole his stories of Lewis Wetzel from Zane Grey, but some of his tales Dad acquired honestly. One of my favorites comes from the 1930’s when Dad was a surveyor up in the mountains of West Virginia. Dad is the short guy in the middle.

(From those days living in a two-story wooden dormitory at the camp, Dad got his insistence that the only proper surface for cards and poker chips was an army blanket, on a cot or on the kitchen table, depending on the circumstance.)

One time as Dad’s crew surveyed the routes for fire roads in the national parks up in those steep West Virginian hills, they found some old stone markers, leaning every which way, set by a surveyor who came through there in the 1760’s, back along those ancient pathways through the river gaps in the Allegheny Mountains, first laid down by deer. The Indians followed these tracks. Settlers in their lumbering wagons, pulled by oxen, called one of them the National Road. (Dad said that some of our ancestors–the Wetzels? I sometimes wonder–made the arduous journey from Long Swamp, Pennsylvania, across those mountains, probably on one of those roads, to settle in Clarion County near the western border of the state.) Nowadays eighteen-wheelers and automobiles hurtle east and west along the interstates built on these ancient routes.

Looking at those old stone mile markers, one of Dad’s buddies said, “This fellow sure was a lousy surveyor. Look how crooked these markers are. And they don’t line up at all.”

“Well, sir, you’re wrong about that,” my dad said. “He was a great surveyor. You’ve got to take into account the way creeks have eroded the land hereabouts and the hills have slumped in the past hundred and fifty years. When you do, you’ll see that surveyor had a true eye and did wonderful work, especially considering the equipment he used.”

Then Dad would briefly pause for effect before he delivered the kicker to this story. “That surveyor was George Washington, you know.” (Chill bumps would rise all up and down my arms whenever Dad told me this story.)

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But I know for a fact that Dad stole one of his best stories. Before I tell it, though, I have to lay in some background.

In 1936, Dad was still a surveyor, only for the water company instead of the CCC, when a pretty young nurse and her friend came down from New Jersey to the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia for a vacation. An old snapshot labeled “July 19, 1936, Mingo Mountain” in my mother’s small, neat handwriting shows Mom and Dad leaning against a waist-high tree stump.

They married almost exactly a year later on “Seven Eleven Thirty-seven,” which Dad, into numerology in his seventies, always declared his lucky day and a truly lucky number.

Sometime in the fifties, perhaps after a visit to a museum in New Jersey, Dad stole the story of Miles Smith and Sir Digby Legard’s two beautiful daughters from Mom’s side of the family tree. Of course, he proceeded to make this story so thoroughly his own that my daughter grew up thinking it came from his side of the family instead of her grandmother’s.

My cousin, Sarah Faye Meurer, our mothers’ family genealogist, and I have speculated about this yarn back and forth by e-mail and I’ve decided that the way my dad tells the story and the way it happened were quite different. My cousin discovered information about Miles Smith, Esquire, in a book called Journal of the Tour in the United States of America 1794-1795 by William Strickland who traveled with Miles Smith and his family from Britain to America aboard The Fair American in 1794. The Smith family’s departure from England seems motivated partly by Miles’ troubled relationship with his father-in-law, Sir Digby Legard. (The spelling of the last name, sometimes with two d’s and sometimes with only one, varies from place to place on the family tree.) Miles’ family included his wife Jane Legard, who’d recently given birth to a baby boy that died and was buried at sea on August 24, 1794, and five or six other children. (The records are unclear on that score.) In the fall of 1794, soon after their arrival, Miles traveled with Strickland who described him as “an interesting companion, whose good humour alleviated the fatigues of a journey.” But Smith had to return to his family “who under the new circumstances of a new country, might want his assistance,” a bit of an understatement, I think.

In fact, Jane died on September 11, 1795, a little over a year after coming to America. (Quite possibly, life here or caring for her kids that Strickland described as “Savages” was too much for her.) After Jane’s death, Strickland arranged Miles’ marriage to Sir Digby’s younger daughter, Henrietta Charlotte. Though she was thirty-eight, she and Miles had a daughter and a son together. Henrietta died before Miles, who didn’t marry a third time, maybe because Sir Digby was fresh out of daughters.

Of course, the way my dad told this story was a lot different. His Miles Smith, far from being a lawyer, family man, and gentleman sheep farmer, greatly resembled Sir Walter Scott’s young Lochinvar, come riding out of the West. As my dad told the tale (and I pictured it), Miles Smith, dashingly dressed, drop-dead handsome, his hair long and blond and flowing, sailed to Britain from a savage new world where single-handedly he’d fought off hordes of Indians and hacked a homestead from the wilderness. After Miles landed in England, he laid eyes on Sir Digby Legard’s beautiful older daughter, in a virginally white gown with a Juliet cap on her dark tresses, as she stood on a moonlit balcony of a grand mansion. Instantly he fell in love with her. Once he’d climbed up the rose vines to her, she fell in love with him. So he swept her up in his arms, carried her down the vines and set her in front of him on his horse. Embracing her with his brawny arms, he galloped away with her to the ship that sailed off into the sunset. When Jane died tragically (with no mention of the five or six savage children), Miles Smith sailed back to England to make off with Jane’s equally beautiful younger sister Henrietta (replay of virginally white gown, Juliet cap, moonlit balcony, etc.) much to Sir Digby Legard’s anger and dismay.

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Not at all surprisingly, my father and parts of his stories appear in my stories and novels. For example, Cinderella’s dad in my Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mysteries for grown-up is a civil engineer like my father and physically greatly resembles my father. Ambrose Gibbs, a Kansas City police officer who appears in January Jinx, the first novel in my calendar historical mystery series, and Mischief in March, the third, looks like my daddy, too. It’s not at all by accident that the garment factory in Fatal February, the second book of the calendar mysteries, is named Digby, Ledgard, and Smith. In“The Barn Door,” a forthcoming prequel short story to the calendar mysteries, a character has a wiggly white mustache like my dad’s. Finally, and in a very real way, almost every time I write dialogue for the characters in my calendar mysteries, I hear the story-telling voice of my father, Homer Dale Willman, Sr., who was  born on November 27, 1903, and who died on June 19, 1991.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy

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The Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mystery novels and story collections and calendar historical mystery novels are available as eBooks and trade paperbacks from Amazon.com. Here’s the link to my Amazon Author Central page:

https://www.amazon.com/Juliet-Kincaid/e/B00DB4HWRG/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1

 

A Magnificent Mystery

Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent Memoirs

Starting with A Natural History of Dragons and ending with the recently published Within the Sanctuary of Wings, Marie Brennan’s five-book series, the imagined memoirs of a woman naturalist in an imagined alternate world, offers a lot to the reader.

1) For one thing, from their stunning covers to their lovely interior drawings, they are physically beautiful books. See for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2) For another, they’re fun.

Lots of this comes from Lady Trent’s starchy voice as she retells the major events of her long life in which she doesn’t behave properly.

More fun comes from figuring out what the places and peoples of our world are equivalent to in hers. For instance, she comes from Scirland that much resembles our own Scotland. I’ll let you have the fun of figuring out what other place names in her books parallel those in ours.

Though she comes from a society that severely limits the lives of its women, she goes on lots of adventures.

3) The science is sound and interesting. Though the series is classified as fantasy, because of the dragons, I suppose, in several ways the books are more like science fiction. For instance, the dragons are real biological creatures. And over their evolution, they’ve adapted, like mammals, to many of the ecological niches of their world including the air, the seas, jungles, deserts, and mountains.

4) Throughout the five books, Lady Trent plants clues that lead to solving the great mystery of her world.

But you’ll get no spoilers from me.

The Gardener

Recently, while working on a prequel story for my calendar mystery series called “The Barn Door” that takes place on the 4th of July weekend in 1898, I decided to give one of the characters a vegetable garden. And that led me to think about my dad and his gardens. Here’s my piece on that subject, originally published on my website in 2011 as “My Father’s Gardens.”

My father, Homer Dale Willman, Sr., used to say, “When the Corps hired me, they took a great farmer and made him into a half-assed engineer.”

Still, though he worked over twenty years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, my father always had a garden if only three strips around the patio. Until his last summer, he grew at least a little something, maybe vibrant begonias, a geranium in a big pot, a climbing rose, possibly hollyhocks, usually mint so he could watch the telecast of the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May with an icy julep in hand. And always, always, he had a tomato plant or two.

Back in the fifties and sixties, the prime years of his backyard gardens, he put lots of effort into his tomatoes. We lived in the tri-state region of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia where winters were mild (though Dad always hoped for some snow to put nitrogen into the dirt). After the ground warmed and softened along about Easter, Dad took his shovel out to his garden patch to prepare the soil.

My mom used to kid my dad about “digging to China” because to him preparation meant digging a pit eighteen inches across and three feet deep for each tomato plant. He partially refilled each hole with compost, manure and other nourishing substances mixed with loose dirt.

The newly planted tomato plants–named Big Boy, Better Boy, Early Boy and Rutgers–looked scrawny so far apart, their sparse leaves insufficient to fuel growth. They did grow though. Usually by the Fourth of July, Dad would push aside those leaves, releasing the acrid odor that set our stomachs to growling, and with a gentle tug, pick the first tomato of the season. Mom, Dad, my brother Dale, and I fought over that first tomato, so ripe the skin peeled off clean and biting the tongue with its acidity. By late summer, the plants, lovingly tied to their stakes with strips of old sheet, stood eight feet high and loaded with tomatoes Mom canned, made juice with or begged neighbors to haul away.

Maybe the secret of Dad’s tomatoes lay in his compost pile that he researched, built and maintained like a true engineer. The compost pile I remember best was a four-foot cube of vegetable peels and melon rinds, musty grass clippings, twigs, lime, and goat manure he got as partial payment for a ship model he built for a friend who owned a herd of goats.

Dad made a hole in the center of the compost pile so air got inside and furthered the controlled decay. Once, out of curiosity, he tied some string to a thermometer and lowered it into the hole. In less than a minute, the thermometer broke. Later, with Mom’s candy thermometer, Dad discovered that the compost pile had reached 135 degrees.

Usually, Dad scaled his gardens small, but back in the late forties when we lived in the aptly named Garden Court, he almost filled the back yard with his vegetable plot. Forty by sixty feet, it ran from the house back almost to the tree-lined creek. Pieces of string stretched between sticks defined the plot so meticulously it looked like Dad had laid the garden out with a surveyor’s transit.

Dad bragged about that garden having fifty different varieties of plants. They included tomatoes of course, potatoes, corn, green peppers, red peppers, scallions, onions, cucumbers, and Black-seeded Simpson leaf lettuce. Instead of cantaloupe, that Dad said didn’t prosper in our climate, he grew muskmelons. Radishes started the growing season and beets finished it. Many of the vegetables I’ve forgotten now, but I still love to recite exotic names like zucchini, kohlrabi, and cocazelle.

We all got involved in Dad’s gardens. One year we had so much cabbage that Mom canned it. Dad paid Dale a penny a hundred head to pick bugs and beetles out of the garden. Dad never let me forget that those pretty yellow hollyhocks I picked one year were actually squash blossoms. Once, we tried to shell tough-hulled soybeans by putting them through Mom’s washer wringer. The beans popped out the other side and Dale and I chased them as they bounced around the kitchen floor.

My father’s gardens . . . Whenever I think of them, I see a picture of him in my mind.

Small-boned, with a mustache, my father wears a billed cap to keep his scalp from burning, a tan shirt dark with sweat under the arms, tan pants cut off and neatly hemmed above his knobby knees, and muddy shoes too worn to wear to work anymore. He leans against a shovel stuck into a pile of dirt. And dreaming of fresh tomatoes by the Fourth of July, he grins.

I don’t have a picture of my dad in his gardening togs, but here’s one of him, taken around 1973 when he was 70, that shows his wonderful grin.

January Jinx, Fatal February, and Mischief in March, the first three calendar mysteries set in Kansas City a hundred years or so ago, are available as eBooks and trade paperbacks from Amazon.com. Look for “The Barn Door,” a calendar mystery prequel short story, coming soon as a Kindle eBook.