Monday, December 27, 2010

Breakfast History

The breakfast one day after Christmas consisted of Maureen’s apple pancakes, bacon, and other goodies. At the conclusion, an unrecorded history lesson occurred.

We have recorded several of these "breakfast history" conversations with Mother and Daddy, but sometimes aren't in a position to record. I attempt to recreate the conversations from memory when this occurs. This morning was one such incident.

In the midst of the conversation, Maureen fetched the coffee pot and refreshed her cup. Now Maureen is one of those folks who likes her multiple condiments and adds a bit of coffee for her breakfast drink. As usual, she poured in some hazelnut creamer, a bit of heavy whipped cream, a bit of honey (I think), and for the coup de gras, she returned from the spice rack and sprinkled cinnamon into the mix, topping it off with a splash of coffee.

My father (Grandpa to all the family; no other grandfather in our family claims that title), who continues to drink his coffee black as does his oldest son, watched incredulously. When she had finished sprinkling the cinnamon, he offered, “We have some black pepper in the shelf if you would like to add that too.”

This was good. It induced one of those fantastic laughs of Maureen, causing everyone else to laugh as well.

Then, we talked about the weather. Daddy observed the weather patterns had changed since his youth. He recalled three or four snows each season dropping at least four to six inches each time. One year during his elementary school years, it snowed 21 inches.

Culley Jewell, my grandfather and in charge of school maintenance, walked to McClain Elementary School on West Main Street to fire the coal heaters to warm the school before the students arrived. My father performed the same job for Highland Heights School on the corner of North Cumberland and East High Street.

After firing the coal heaters in the early morning, they returned from their respective schools to learn that the snow storm had brought about school being cancelled for the day.

This led to the tale of Grandma getting in trouble by helping me, a common occurrence my father pointed out. “She took you on your paper route quite a bit when it was bad weather,” he recalled. I don’t remember it that way, but a) I am sure she did once or twice, and b) I’m sure his memory is better than mine.

This particular incident was recalled when I described the beauty of the drive from the Castle Heights gate up to Main was after a snow fall. The concrete arch of a gate, barely wide enough to allow two cars to pass, was lined with hickory trees (I think) and they hung over the drive, a canopy of snow covered limbs.

But this winter day, it was very cold after a long night of rain. I had guard duty and had to report for duty before 6:00 a.m. My mother decided I should not walk in the weather and took me to the main building.

My father had parked his car (a used car for sale at the Hankins, Byars, and Jewell Pontiac dealership) behind my mother’s in the driveway. So Mother took me in Daddy’s car.

It was just before 6:00 a.m. when she dropped me off. As she started driving back down the entrance hill, the car ran out of gas. Dressed in her nightgown and robe, she walked back to the guard house and asked me to call Daddy. No offices were open yet and the only phone was a pay phone. Neither either of us or the other guard on duty had a dime. So Mother decided to walk home.

When she got to West Main, she hid behind the arched entry until there were no cars on West Main. Then she dashed across. When she saw a car coming north on Castle Heights, she stepped into a roadside ditch attempting to look like she had been outside and was going back into a neighbor’s house. The ditch was full of water from the rains and then she had one soaked foot.

When she got home, as Daddy described it, she was “plenty mad.”

Shortly afterwards, Granny, Mother's mother who was a house mother for Castle Heights Junior School (elementary school boarding students), called as usual. She complained to Mother about some nut leaving their car in the middle of the road, making it difficult to get to the school cafeteria behind Main.

Mother informed Granny that she was the nut.

I always did get her into more trouble than I was worth.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Liver and onions at Sunset

The Sunset Diner is an institution in my hometown of Lebanon, Tennessee. It began in 1967 on what was then the end of the city proper to the south, the last business before the recently completed I-40, which is now chock-a-block fast food franchises, Wal-Mart, used car dealerships, and sundry businesses.

Every trip back home requires at least one, if not multiple meals at Sunset. Their Southern family cooking is award winning. On our first night back for Christmas this year, we went there. The following story is a result of that outing.

On Thursday night (December 16, 2010), Grandpa, Maureen, and I went to Sunset for dinner with Grandma’s order to bring back a hamburger.

She said, “Get the little one.”

Grandpa and I said, almost simultaneously, “They only have one size.”

As usual, Grandma and Grandpa argued. I remained smugly silent, and I thought wisely, sided with Grandpa.

When we were seated, we looked over the menu. On the right hand bottom half of the inside under sandwiches, the hamburger, at one-quarter pound, was listed. Directly underneath, the “Nokes Burger” was described as a seven-ounce hamburger with all of the trimmings. Grandma was right again.

Maureen, my California-born, haute cuisine, healthy-eating San Diego mama, had not been a fan of Sunset until our last stay in Lebanon when she had the cheeseburger (in my parents home and back in the Southwest corner, hamburger is synonymous with cheeseburger). This evening, she ordered the special of pork tenderloin and three sides: fresh tomatoes, lima beans and mashed potatoes with gravy. Grandpa ordered half of a roast beef sandwich with gravy.

As usual, I ordered based on what I was not likely to get often anywhere else, especially back in San Diego. I make a mean okra dish, but it is along the Cajun way with tomatoes and spices. I like to add Tennessee sausage but usually capitulate by replacing it with bacon for Maureen. About once a year, I buy turnip greens at the Navy commissary and cook up a batch. Several times a year, I make cornbread, much like but not as good as my mother’s version.

This night my order was liver and onions, pinto beans, turnip greens, and fried okra with cornbread and sweet tea.

In the course of the meal, I asked Maureen if she would like a taste of my liver and onions. Demurely declining, she finally relented when I, thinking she would be won over again, insisted. After the small taste, mostly onions, she scrunched up her nose, and said, “It tastes like liver.”

My father then started a tale, “When I was a young boy, six or younger, Daddy worked in the hoop mill.”

Note: At the time around 1920, Lebanon had a hoop mill that made the hoops for wood barrels somewhere around where the current high school football field and the baseball and softball fields are located. Close by was a stave factory, where the wooden barrel staves were manufactured.

Daddy continued, “I don’t remember why, but he took me there one day. In a barn area, there were two men dressing a cow they had just slaughtered. One came out, with the fresh liver in his hands. I have never liked to eat liver ever since then.”

I could feel Maureen sort of shudder. I continued to eat my liver and onions.
Shortly after the story, the party of four sitting at the next table collected their tab and departed, but the man in the party returned and leaned over and shook my father’s hand.

“I really liked your story about liver,” he said. “My wife won’t eat liver either."
I wish I had asked for his name.

I will continue to go to Sunset as many times as possible when I come back home, but now I will think about that story and have a hard time ordering liver and onions.

But I will occasionally.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Curious Quest

My part is done, kaput, complete, almost over.

This morning, I pushed the magic button which was labeled “Submit for review.”

I am now in waiting. It is a curious kind of wait.

I have waxed and waned in my attitude about my chances. Realistically, they are poor. I have told my wife rejection will not be depressing. The odds are too long, and the application effort has re-focused me on my passion. That should be enough.

But all of the above isn’t enough.

I got the initial idea a couple of years ago, but it was impractical. I wanted to go back to Vanderbilt from where I ingloriously departed in a slough of D’s previously unknown to human academia – 14 D’s in four semesters, surely a record. I wanted to expiate my expulsion from the school of engineering, civil that is, and gain a degree in literature, which should have been my pursuit originally.

My brother wisely pointed out the illogic in my vanity quest. Acceptance for a second undergraduate degree made no sense.

Within the year, I had modified my quest. I would apply for an MA in literature. My initial probes received obtuse responses or none at all. Then, a year later, the email said something like, “You idiot, we don’t have a masters in literature at Vanderbilt. If you are accepted in English and literature at Vanderbilt, it must be for a doctorate.”

I considered this option for about a nano-second. That’s how long my acutely honed mathematical brain concluded I would be as old as Methuselah when I received my doctorate. But in this process of unachieved quest, I stumbled across the answer: a strange, beautiful culmination of my life, something that made more sense than anything I have ever done before.

I decided to apply for a Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Vanderbilt. I was worried (still am) my age might be a negative factor in the selection process. I was also deathly afraid of taking the GRE. My last one was in 1968 aboard my first ship. I was especially concerned about the quantitative, i.e. math, section.But after being assured the writing submission would be considered first and primarily and all other inputs would be to validate I could handle the coursework.

So in August, I started my quest. Maureen, Blythe, Sarah, Joe, Carla, Kate, Al and Marin Hicks, Dave Young and many others provided guidance and support. Bob Koenigs, Dave Carey, Carla Neggers, Pete Toennies, and Amelia Hipp have kindly supplied letters of recommendations, which made me blush. Many others too numerous to mention have provided encouragement.I filled out the plethora of forms, ordered practice GRE exams, wrote and rewrote my statement of purpose, and reworked the 15 pages of poetry for hours and hours. For over four months, the application was my primary focus.

So relief washed over me when I hit the magic button.

As my brother and I said many times when discussing this over the four months, what will be will be.

Vanderbilt’s Creative Writing MFA is the most selective in the country with over 600 applicants for six positions, three in fiction, three in poetry. I have applied for the poetry. I am hoping the overwhelming majority of applicants are chasing the fiction option. If so, then I have somewhere between a 1/50 to a 1/200 chance of acceptance.

The first practice test I took I was encouraged, finishing in the top 90% in analytical (grammar) and mid 80% in the quantitative (math). I was not worried about the writing section. After all, that is what I’ve been doing, on and off for more than 50 years.

However, I scored worse on each succeeding practice test and plummeted in the actual GRE. My worse score was in the writing portion, which surprised and depressed me. I cannot understand why except my writing is not academic enough, 45 years since my last one created a brain void in test taking, or I am really not as smart as I thought I was.

Regardless, what will be will be.

Whether the reviewers select me or not, my focus is not on my writing. I am working with an incredible company, Pacific Tugboat Service, on training services and products for the military and other agencies. That may lead to more work next year, but it will share my attention with my writing.

If I am accepted, obviously a big change will occur in our lives. We are waiting until we hear the results before leaping to any decisions, but initially, it is likely I will go to Nashville by myself, and Maureen and I will work out a heavy two-way commute system until we decide what is best for the two years.

So I am at peace. I feel good. My quest continues but with a calmness I've not had for a long time. I am even excited about the future, especially with writing and working with Pacific Tug as long as I can.

I wish all of you a wonderful Christmas or other holiday you celebrate in the season, a successful 2011, and peace on earth.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Thank you for visiting my web site.

The site has been rejuvenated with even more emphasis on my writing than before with some vague idea that when people read my posts and my writing in the different sections, they will recommend it to others, creating a ground swell of popularity, and I will land a major book deal, a syndicated column gig, or both…and laugh all the way to the bank, as Liberace famously said.

More importantly, I believe my writing can help you (and me) through our days. I am not, nor ever have been good at self-promotion (a flaw when it comes to selling writing). But there is something in my blood which has always driven me to write. Accompanying that drive is the desire for people to read what I write. I can’t explain it. It just is what it is.

So rather than chasing agents, editors, and publishers by creating some false image of myself, I decided to let you and others you might refer to this site to read my works.

I am serious about this. I learned to be serious about my passion from my youngest daughter, Sarah. She is an aspiring actress and has been working to be successful in theater and drama with no reservation since the fourth grade. I have applied for Vanderbilt’s Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. I will find out if I am selected to this prestigious and extremely selective program in February or March. My chances of selection are slim, really slim, but I consider the effort as a means to refocus my life.

I don’t intend to ever really retire, but I am at the stage where I can redirect my priorities. My top priority now until the end of my days will be writing. I also view this as way to give back, to share my experiences of many varied pursuits over a half-century (damn, I’m old) for others to use in their decisions in their lives.

I don’t claim I can help anyone by telling them what they should do, but I do believe the lessons I learned through my experience, can help people decide what is best for them.

I have narrowed down other work outside of writing, ceasing active work in my leadership coaching, teambuilding, and other organization development pursuits. I am working with Pacific Tug Services and my close friend, Pete Toennies on several projects, which I believe will be beneficial to the Navy, the Coast Guard, and other government agencies in keeping our country safe. There is a section of this site, “Business Office,” which has information on this business enterprise. All else is about writing, writing, writing.

The site will be going through further revision after the turn of the year with the folks who have provide invaluable help for me.

Walker Hicks has been incredible and mostly responsible for this site’s appearance and navigation. He is a splendid talent in multi-media. Dave Zurell has contributed by keeping my computer and associated electronics up to snuff for this electronically-challenged author. Dave also has helped immeasurably by taking care of my wife and daughter’s computer needs.

My oldest daughter, Blythe Jewell Gander has provided astute and on-target advice and counsel on what a blog and website needs to be effective. Blythe is internet whiz who has her own very, very funny and somewhat off-color (a warning for the pristine) blog,

I am rededicated to frequent (read more than once a week) posts and continuing to populate each of the sections with more of my writings. We are also slowly going through each section, cleaning them up, correcting errors, and hopefully making them more attractive for you to visit.
I hope you return many times. I welcome feedback about the site and my writings. I am a tough old seadog and can take negative criticism. Please send me an email, and I will try reply in short order.

Thank you.