Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fall Ground

Fall brought a winding down of my reading schedule and a ramp-up of my writing, a welcome return to south central Idaho, and a time to think in our high desert home.

On Labor Day, I journeyed once again with my mother to our ancient family cabin on the lake in McCall, Idaho. We have been spending a week or so there every fall for over ten years–beginning when she was in her 80s and I was in my 50s. She paints and I write. That cabin and our time there are the subjects of one of my writing projects, almost complete, but not quite.

While there, I read at the McCall Public Library, a jewel of a library in so small a town. My cousin Gay helped arrange the event. On a stormy, rainy evening, I talked and read about the people who came to Kellogg to work and live, their families and the community that grew, surviving the closing of the mine. It was a small but attentive audience, except for one person in the front row who fell asleep. Afterwards, a man who looked vaguely familiar came up and introduced himself as Keith, one of the talented trumpet players I knew from the Kellogg band in the 1950s. What a welcome surprise!

My last reading took place at the Community Library in Stanley, Idaho, with the Bowls and Books Book Club. This library once was a house along Ace of Diamonds Street, and now shelves many books near a wood stove, several computers, and a kitchen. Julie and John Rember, another writer and the author of one of the blurbs on the back cover of my book, had invited me to speak to the club months earlier. Members brought soup (including a delicious corn chowder made by Julie from fresh corn), bread, cheese, wine and dessert. How could we not have a good turnout?

I talked about the background of my story, how and why I came to write it, and my process. As many of my audience were already familiar with my book, I read a short story written to help me remember the details of being down in the mine, combined with a story I’d heard about my father amputating a man’s arm in one of the stopes. This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and published in the anthology, Our Working Lives (Bottom Dog Press).

The whole Stanley Basin shimmered with fall–yellow and gold aspens and cottonwoods; crisp, clear air; and always, the Sawtooth Mountains, jagged teeth sun-touched with small patches of snow in shady nooks.

My odyssey with my book slows but I continue to get letters and emails from new readers. This fall, I also learned that I received Honorable Mention in the 2009 Book of the Year Award–exciting news for a first book! Joyful and rewarding are two words that describe this whole year of readings, book signings, events, and of course my all-class reunion. Gerry has been by my side, my AV man, my constant support, my audience of one, smiling, nodding, clapping, photographing.
I am one lucky woman!

Friday, August 13, 2010


Clean air greets me as I drive into the Silver Valley in the Idaho Panhandle for an all-class reunion at Kellogg High School in August. Trees begin at the valley floor and climb up across the foothills to the mountains surrounding the town. Both air and trees contrast sharply with the painting on the cover of my book, The Good Times Are All Gone Now, a work completed by my mother, Marie Whitesel, in 1961, the year I graduated and left Kellogg.

Population decreased over the last forty-nine years from around 10,000 in the valley to less than 3,000. Former students taking part in nostalgic festivities numbered around 1000. The green change from bare hills and smoke-filled air emphasized the numerous For Sale signs on residential streets and empty storefronts downtown.

Never mind. Memories were our stock-in-trade all weekend.

Lines to register and emotional one-on-one reunions filled the Middle School gym all Friday and Saturday morning. Informal bulletins for each decade of classes blossomed with yellow stickies of names and telephone numbers. A quilt with a patchwork of photographs of the various schools attended by all of us who grew up in the valley hung on one wall to be awarded by lottery late in the weekend. We looked at men and women we knew as youngsters, then checked their name tags. All the women spelled out their maiden names in big letters, as did I.

Skies wrapped us with blue; the sun emerged to warm and then heat us. The gym was air-conditioned. With a print of my mother’s painting behind me, along with several of Gerry’s photographs, I settled down to sell books–and sell I did–close to 100. My brother Bill, class of ‘58, arrived to keep me company and attract people from his class to us. Because many people stopped by to say how much they liked my book, which they had already read, or to buy one, I saw lots of older or younger classmates I might not have seen otherwise.

A Friday highlight was the memorial for Glenn Exum, our beloved band instructor, who died in 2000 at the age of 88. His son, Eddie, stood in front of a packed room at the Staff House Museum, and thanked everyone for attending. "My father loved Kellogg. Just before he passed, he said he wouldn’t have changed anything in his life." A few tears appeared. Others stood and told good stories–too late to go in my book–and we all celebrated what a wonderful teacher and man "Mr. Exum" had been. We were fortunate to have him as a demanding and superb teacher and band instructor, a good friend, an example to emulate and respect. Larry added another dimension: Mr. Exum, tall and broad-shouldered, drove a VW Beetle, worried in the ‘50s and ‘60s about the high cost of oil dependence. He helped stop a dam on the North Fork to preserve one of the few free-flowing rivers in the state.

Friday evening, each class met separately. Ours gathered at the Boat, a former drive-in and beloved institution of our teen years. We greeted and hugged, sat outside in the waning daylight, ate cheeseburgers and hot dogs and shared the beer, wine and bourbon we brought with us. A favorite couple from Nevada drove up in a cherry ‘57 Chevrolet, shining and vrooming. Stories of the former brothels in town circulated, again. Jesse, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, grinned, just as he always has. Others who served in Vietnam thanked their stars they survived to be with us that evening. Pat, our hard-working class representative for nearly all our reunions, turned the reins over to another classmate for our 50th–next year. Oh my! I remember my mother attending her 50th in Twin Falls High School twenty-five years ago, and my thinking how old she seemed then–just about my age now.

Saturday, the reunion parade ran from the empty lot of the old high school, down Main, turning the corner at McKinley, down McKinley and turning the corner at Hill Street to the football field. Fire engines and autos with local mayors led the procession. Following them were the "high school" band peopled with former members–not including me this time. I couldn’t bear to march without Alan, my once competitor, who was not able to attend this year, not to mention that my memory no longer held the fingering and will to play. Twirling her baton was a former younger classmate, still looking good. A reconstituted drill team performed several intricate maneuvers. Behind them followed a parade of vehicles, representing the classes in attendance, beginning with the oldest from the class of ‘28! Old cars, new cars, and the cherry ‘57 Chevrolet for our class passed by, one by one.

I watched the parade near Dirty Ernie’s, where beer flowed freely. People lined both sides of the streets, laughing, clapping, smiling. Nostalgia filled all of us. After the last of the parade passed by, I drove to Coeur d’Alene to be with my mother, now 94. I missed the ceremonies and hope others will report on them. I didn’t miss the love and enchantment of old friends, both boys and girls, now men and women, who converged in Kellogg in August to celebrate our school and our town.

Monday, January 18, 2010

On the Road

Late fall was a time to wind down on my reading tour: Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on October 24, Sun Valley Center for the Arts on November 5th, and Willamette University on December 11th.

Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park combines the best aspects of bookstores - a huge collection of books, cozy nooks to sit in, a restaurant, even a stage for large events. I read in one of the corners where chairs could be set up for a small or medium sized audience. We began small to medium and grew to medium and then medium to larger. Cozy became crowded.

While our mining music played and Gerry set up my mother’s painting and the photographs and mining gear, friends, acquaintances and soon-to-be friends wandered in. A couple, whom I hadn’t seen since high school, traveled from Olympia. Several women friends who had come to Elliott Bay Books were back with their friends or co-workers in two. In the front row sat two bikers (as in bicycles) whom I didn’t know, but who viewed the Idaho panhandle as a bike mecca. A colleague and his wife who were hosting a party after the reading, brought their invitees. Autumn, the bookstore employee in charge of me, sold more and more books. Several former high school classmates who lived around Seattle came early to chat.

Here, I read again about the people who arrived in Kellogg from around the world and around the country, about the mining, about the day the smokestacks came down, about our town. When I finished, the questions and comments came. It felt like a mini-reunion of Kellogg students. At the back of the room, one of the visitors who came late and stood the whole time, asked “Do you still play the flute?” It was a fellow band member, a trombone player. I had to admit I didn’t, but I still owned my flute.

Back again, I went to Idaho, this time to a different home ground--Hailey and Ketchum in south-central Idaho. The Sun Valley Center for the Arts was in the midst of an extensive multi-disciplinary exhibition on mining–and I was part of the program in early November. The topic assigned to me was what happened to a mining town when the mining ended.

Mining in the Wood River Valley, where Hailey and Ketchum lie, began in the late 1800s, just as it had in the Silver Valley, home of Kellogg and Wallace and dozens of mines. While most mining ended in south central Idaho in the early 1900s, it continued in the northern panhandle for almost 100 years. Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg closed in 1981/82, reopened in 1990/91 for a brief period when I traveled down into it, and closed again.

Once more, I talked about the people of Kellogg, the mining and what it did to the land, the closing of the mine, the Superfund Site. Around me in the Center gallery were photographs by Sebastio Selgado of miners in Brazil, where the open pit mining conditions made the working conditions in Kellogg and surrounding mines look like a walk in the park.

My audience was full–even a wall had to be moved–and included a respected local historian, a woman who had been born in the Wardner Hospital in Kellogg where my father doctored, a couple who had graduated from Kellogg High School some years before I did, and friends and acquaintances. The questions extended my scheduled time period. Everyone was interested in the mining subject, a heritage of so many Idahoans, largely supplanted in the Wood River Valley by sheep and then by a successful four seasons resort. Perhaps Kellogg will follow in the same vein, without the sheep.

In December, I read at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Mining wasn’t such a hot topic there, but there was a respectable audience at Putnam Hall for a brown-bag presentation. Although mining took place in Oregon, the primary industry in that state was logging. Both depleted the land, but in different ways. I compared the loss of that industry in recent years, and the dying logging towns to my town, the town that keeps on trying. A short review in The Oregonian made the same connection.

For now, we are at rest in Hailey, Idaho. My thoughts once again turn to writing and stray from promoting my book. On Christmas Eve, the power went out and stayed out half of Christmas Day for us and all day for many others. The temperatures outside hovered in the teens and lower. We warmed by the fire, absent-mindedly reached for light switches that didn’t work, read books, watched Bald Mountain through our telescope for signs of life in the chairlifts, and I wrote with pencil in a writing tablet. Power returned. Children and grandchildren arrived. Life returned to normal.

Snow fell outside my window on New Year’s Day. A decade of war, economic disaster and perilous leaders is behind us, although war continues and we wait for good economic news. On New Year’s Eve, a blue moon shone down, a white gold coin with edges blurred by fog, through a sifting of snow. A harbinger of good luck, I’m told, for the next decade. I do hope so.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Yoyo as Home Ground

In October, I found myself back in northern Idaho territory, including Eastern Washington. For the first time, I had scheduled a "signing"--at Hastings Books in Coeur d’Alene through Simone, the resident expert on Northwest history books. Her section rivals any I’ve seen anywhere, including Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. Stop in and take a look! Not incidentally, Hastings and Simone have sold more of my books than any other bookstore–well over 100 at this point. Thanks in part to her and others who have purchased my book, the University of Oklahoma Press has gone into a second printing!

"Today, I’m signing books at Hastings, Mom," I mentioned before I left her house. "Do you want to come? It’s a three hour stint, from two to five."

"You’re not reading?" She frowned. "Well, maybe for a little while."

A table near the front door awaited me, loaded with copies of The Good Times Are All Gone Now. I arrived at 1:30 in the afternoon, with my AV man (Gerry), all our accoutrement (painting, photographs, mining gear) and my mother. We found a chair for her and as soon as the clock hit 2:00, people began arriving at my table. Many I knew already, as did my mother. I usually pointed to her original painting and said, "My mother’s painting is on the cover." She loved to be introduced although, as usual, she knew nearly everyone. Several people asked her to autograph the book too.

Before long, the widow of the lawyer I worked for in Kellogg while in high school, came in. She talked to me and talked to Mother, back and forth. Simone brought her a chair, and my cheering section was established. Penny, from the deep South many years ago, greeted people in her southern accent with "I’m from Alabama" and went from there, usually ending with "Buy this book. It’s so good. Julie worked for my husband and he thought she was the smartest girl he knew." Everyone talked with both of them, including people who had never even been to Kellogg. They stayed with me all afternoon. Books just flew off my table because people bought two, three, five and seven copies. Simone replenished several times. A grand afternoon for all of us!

The next day, I read at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, another classic like Elliott Bay Books and Powell’s. Again, we arrived and set up and again, friends came in early to talk. Two families of sisters I’d known in high school took up a whole row. My mother sat in the front row next to two old friends. A former boyfriend from Kellogg school days arrived with his wife. People I didn’t know also joined the mix. After lots of questions and laughs, I went to the book signing table where a line had formed.

One of the best things about this tour has been seeing old friends and making some new ones. Ken Lonn, the artist who sculpted the Sunshine Memorial, came to my reading in Seattle, and sent me a beautiful mining pendant (see photo). Another new friend was Joe Collins, who attends all readings at Auntie’s and takes photos of every author. He gives one to Eastern Washington University’s library, keeps one for his own collection, and sends one to the author.

Auntie’s ran out of books and I furnished eighteen of my own to fill the gap. Another successful event!

Next: Back to Seattle’s Third Place Books

Friday, October 30, 2009

Home Ground and Family

Members of my family have played an important part in my readings and travels to bookstores and museums in the Northwest, as well as supporting my efforts over the years. In Kellogg, my brother and his wife sat in the front row, along with my mother, whose painting graces the cover of my book. Before I sent in my final manuscript to the University of Oklahoma Press, I asked my mother to read it, which she did over the course of several days when I visited her in April 2008. When I delivered the finished book to her, she exclaimed how beautiful it was and she looked forward to reading it. Again, she read the book over the course of several days in September, 2009. "I’ve never seen this before," she said. I assured her she had, but she didn’t remember. Nevertheless, she pronounced the book "a good one," so we were both pleased.

My daughter Melanie also read parts of my manuscript over the years–as well as other writing pieces I have sent her. I have always valued her input, partly because she tells me exactly what she thinks. I believe this book meant more to her than anything else I’ve written, because it told her the story of her roots as well as mine. When I scheduled my readings in Seattle at the end of September, she re-scheduled her work days and reserved a place on the train to bring her from Oregon to Seattle. Both at Ravenna Third Place Books and Elliott Bay Books, she was there to lend support, love and cheer.

I could not have spent the last two decades writing without the love and support of my husband Gerry, an artist in his own right. His love and photos grace my life. For the readings and presentations, he has been my audio-visual expert: setting up and taking down easels, carrying painting and photographs on location, loading mining gear, downloading music to his iPod–mining songs, dance songs, other music–to play while we get ready to present, taking more photographs. He has listened to me practice my readings, watched me nervously pace a room, smiled when I needed it, hugged me before and after presentations. "You were terrific," he says. And then I glow.

Other members of my family–my stepchildren, my sister, my nieces and nephews–all have encouraged me and supported my writing. Friends are family, too. Without them, my readings might have been fairly quiet affairs–just me, my book, a half dozen bodies and mostly empty chairs. What a difference they have all made!