Uncommon Bond – Uncommon Scents

The prompt for the Chatham Writers Group this week was to focus on the importance of aromas in your character’s life. The story I wrote involves the character, Ezra Bond, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in the story titled “Uncommon Bond”. This story focuses on the events that led Ezra Bond to his situation at the naval stores camp near Vicksburg, MS.

The First Baptist Church of Jackson, MS, on Farish Street, the site of my story.

Uncommon Bond – Uncommon Scents

Jackson, Mississippi. Summer 1938

“Just follow your senses,” his parents always told him.  Ezra Bond always felt that two or more of his senses  worked in partner with each other, but felt his sense of smell dominated all other senses.  As a child, his sense of smell detected the fire that started in his aunt’s summer kitchen.  The first hints of smoke he smelled aroused his sense of danger, because there were no food smells in the smoke, it had a combination of paper and cloth.  He alerted the adults and sure enough, a spark from the bread oven had ignited a curtain.  The fire was extinguished before any real damage was done.  There were other instances Ezra could remember where his sense of smell helped him avoid danger, or led him to discover more pleasant situations.  So, on this particular morning,  it was his sense of smell that led Ezra Bond down from his bedroom to the kitchen where his mother was bent over the oven, poking a couple of pecan pies with a butter knife to see if they were done.  The aroma was intoxicating.  He definitely didn’t smell anything this good during his undergrad years at Tuskegee University.

“Oh, my.  The smell of those pies woke me up, Mama.  I believe I was drooling in my sleep!”  Ezra hugged his mother, Mavis, and kissed her on the forehead.

“Good morning to you Ezra, you just missed your papa.  He has a load of patients to see today.”

“In four years time, I’ll be able to help lighten his burden.”

In less than a month, Ezra would be off to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee,  to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a family practice physician.  The few white doctors willing to treat black patients did so grudgingly and sparingly, and there were too few black physicians to tend to the needs of the nearly 20,000 black residents of Jackson.  He hoped to provide some small amount of relief to that situation by joining his father’s practice.  

“How soon will those pies be done?” asked Ezra.

Mavis squinted and pointed the butter knife at him, “It don’t matter how soon, they are for the pot luck supper after tonight’s chorale concert!”

“If you’re going to stab me with a butter knife then, I’ll opt for one of your biscuits then.”  

Ezra took his biscuit and a glass of cool milk into the parlor and sat down in front of the piano to rehearse. He would be part of the orchestra accompanying the singers in the chorale concert that evening at the Baptist Church.  His sister, Josephine, or Jo, would be performing the Flower Duet with her friend Bettina.  Jo had applied to The Juilliard School in New York City.  In a chorale group of excellent voices, Jo stood out.  Two representatives of the school would be in attendance that evening, at the insistence and invite of the chorale director.  The Bond’s were excited and nervous, apparently this concert would essentially be Jo’s audition for the conservatory.

The concert, as anticipated, was hugely successful.  Munching on a piece of his Mom’s pecan pie, Ezra saw his sister and parents huddled in a deep discussion with the Juilliard contingent.  Suddenly, Jo spun around to look at Ezra, a huge smile on her face.  His father leaned his head forward into the palm of his right hand, his eyes were squeezed tight, his shoulders shaking.  Was he sobbing?  His mother’s hands flew to cover her mouth, tears streaming down her cheeks.  Jo sprinted over to Ezra.

“The Juilliard people want to come to our house to talk about admissions and a scholarship!  They want to hear me sing some more!

Ezra picked Jo up in his arms and spun her around.  “You’re gonna be a big city girl!  Look at you!”  Full of pride, he beamed at his sister.

“Momma and Poppa said we should scoot home and bring a couple more chairs into the parlor,” said Jo, breathlessly, “they want to hear Bettina and me sing again, I’m going to round her up.”

Ezra walked down the front steps of the Baptist Church, Jo and Bettina each with an arm looped through his.  Turning in the direction of the Bond house, all three were in the middle of a song when Ezra slowed their pace.  He stopped singing.  He smelled cigarette smoke, specifically Camel cigarette smoke.  There was only one person he knew who smoked Camels.  His sense of danger spiked.

“Ezra, what’s wrong?” asked Jo.

“Let’s cross the street, ladies,” was all Ezra said.

Out of shadows of an alley appeared a group of four white men.  When they reached the yellow light of the street lamp, they stopped, one man slightly ahead of the other three.  A trail of smoke drifted up from a Camel cigarette in his left hand.  The neck of a bottle protruded from a brown paper bag gripped tightly in his right hand.  He took a swig, and pointed his cigarette at Ezra’s group.  

“Yo! Boy!”he slurred, “You peddlin’ them whores?”  He pronounced the word “hooers”.

Ezra’s fears were confirmed, the man talking to him was Tate Jeffords oldest son of Doc Jeffords, head of the largest whites only hospital in Jackson.  Tate was a know bully and treated black people with a malicious malevolence .  Several of Ezra’s acquaintances had fallen victim to Tate’s fists, boots, and belt buckle.  The drunker he was, the more sadistic he became.

“I as’t you a question, boy!  You peddlin’ them bitches?”

“No,” Ezra replied, not making eye contact.  “I am escorting my sister and her friend back home from the chorale concert at the church.”

“Oh! They’s sophisticated bitches then,” slurred Tate.  The three other men giggled.  “Oh, wait!  They’s those singers that them Yankees is fussing about!  My sister sings a far sight better than any colored girl.  She’s the one they should be talking too.”

Ezra attempted to rush his sister and her friend ahead, but the drunk men moved surprisingly fast and blocked their path.  Tate pitched his cigarette in the gutter and a pulled a knife from behind his back.  The women screamed, Ezra gasped.

“They won’t sing worth a shit with no tongue,” Tate spat and he stepped towards Jo.

Ezra screamed “No!” And instinctively shoved Tate away.  The drunk Tate stumbled backward and tripped over the curb.  He came down hard on the back of his head and didn’t move.  His three friends rushed to help Tate, but in their drunken state, tripped over each other and ended up in a heap next to Tate.  One looked up and snarled, “You’re dead boy!”

Ezra raced his sister & Bettina to his house.  Jamming a few things into a satchel; he kissed his sister goodbye.  

“Wait! Where..?” She cried.

His voice breaking with emotion, Ezra said, “I can’t stay here.  I’ll write as soon as I can.  Then he was gone.

Staying in the shadows, Ezra jogged to the railroad tracks.  Running along side a westbound freight train, he spotted a car with its doors open.  Hands reached from the open door and pulled him up and in.

Camel Cigarettes ad, circa 1930. The brand favored by the antagonist in my story – Tate Jeffords.

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Writers Group


A day on The Green, a night at Rudy’s – A Memoir

The New Haven Green

The prompt for the Chatham Writers Group today was to write about “a favorite third place”. I did some research into the origin of the phrase created by Professor Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg is an urban sociologist who has written about the concept of “third places” as being informal gathering places where the general public conduct civic engagement, debating thoughts and ideas. After reading about Oldenberg’s concept, and discussing it with my wife, we both hit on a couple of “third places” when we lived in Connecticut. My memoir follows.

A Day on the Green/A Night At Rudy’s

I sat on a park bench, a 35mm camera with its zoom lens held at the ready in my hands.  Spotting a few possible subjects for my  Psych class project on body language, I began snapping away.  Strangers would greet strangers, sit and talk for a few moments then one or the other would smile and go about their business. A busy bus stop discharged passengers who dispersed to the four winds; to work, to school, to shop.  A few people nodded and greeted me with smiles.  Noticing my camera with the big lens they asked if I worked for the local newspaper.  A guy sat down next to me, lit a cigarette and asked what my thoughts were about the recent capture of the U.S. Embassy in Iran,  and the diplomats being held hostage.  We had differing opinions about what should be done, but he listened thoughtfully to my reasons, agreed with some of my viewpoints, and he had some valid points.  He closed the discussion by asking me if I wanted to buy some weed.  I politely declined.  He smiled, shook my hand and said, “nice talking to you bud.”  This was mid-November 1979, and it’s my first favorite 3rd place, the Green in downtown New Haven, Ct.

The 16 acres that grace the center of downtown district are actually privately owned by descendants of the people who first established the common in 1638.  Since that time, the New Haven Green had been the cultural, spiritual and political hub of the city.  Three historic churches line the Upper Green, while the Green itself is bracketed by Yale University, law offices and the New Haven Public Library, city hall and other government offices, shops, restaurants and trendy bars.  Busses transporting passengers from the New Haven suburbs discharge their fares at the Green bus stop.  My wife enthusiastically still refers to the New Haven Green as having been the gateway to the city.

During the time we lived near New Haven, on any given day, one would encounter peaceful protesters on opposite ends of the Green, buskers playing a variety of instruments, or people just enjoying playing an instrument in a pleasant setting,  political and cultural discussions being conducted respectfully between complete strangers.  In the summer months, the Brian Alden Jazz Festival brought big name jazz musicians to perform on the Green.  Thousands of people would attend, spreading out blankets and lawn chairs on the lush grass.  There would be a great camaraderie felt by those at the jazz fest and, again, strangers would strike up conversations with each other about the performers and sometimes debate the style of play between Maynard Ferguson and Dizzy Gillespie.

One of my visits to the New Haven Library happened to coincide with the birthday of the U.S . Marine Corps.  A city vehicle displaying the American flag and the Marine Corps flag circled the Green playing the Marine Corps hymn over a PA system.  Numerous men and women stopped what they were doing and saluted the flags as the vehicle drove by, several groups formed and sang the hymn, some people wept with pride.  I felt I had to do something to honor the occasion, so I did as I do at baseball games when the National Anthem is played, I removed my hat and placed it over my heart.  A man standing behind me on the library steps asked if I was a jarhead too.  I said I wasn’t, but felt compelled to honor the event.  He patted my shoulder and said “thanks”.  In those years, there was something mystical, or magical, about a 16 acre park in the middle of a city, that inspires complete strangers to greet each other with friendliness and respect. 

Ironically, with all of the activities conducted above ground, beneath the verdant surface lie the remains of between 4,000 – 5,000 late New Haven residents.  Until 1821, the Green had also served as the city’s cemetery.  Although all headstones were moved to the historic Grove Street Cemetery, the remains of Benedict Arnold’s first wife and members President Rutherford B. Hayes family still inhabit the Green.

My second favorite 3rd place was a few blocks northwest of the Green. Located on the corner of Elm & Howe Streets, Rudy’s Bar was a place where scholars and students from Yale, cops and lawyers, postal workers and average Joe’s would gather to enjoy adult beverages and discuss the hot topics of the day.  My friend Kevin and I would pop in for a few ales after Friday night tennis matches, or on a night before a Yale home game.  We would sometimes join the vigorous debates about local and National politics, speculate to the outcome of big court trials, the thoughtful analyses of movies, music and bands.  Perhaps more vigorously debated than politics was which was the better team, the Yankees or the Red Sox?  Rudy’s was always a busy place, but was packed to the rafters on nights tvhe Red Sox were playing the Yankees.  Loud and raucous, the crowd behaved as though they were at the stadiums.

During football season, students from the visiting Ivy teams would go to Rudy’s.  Two outstanding incidents, that Kevin and I witnessed, stand out in my memory.  When Brown University came to play at the Yale Bowl, Rudy’s became the venue for an impromptu barber shop quartet challenge between the two schools.  It was a truly fabulous evening as several different groups of students treated us non-singers to a song list that I did not believe existed.  I thought Lazy River was the only barber shop quartet song.  I believe the challenge ended in a draw as the contestants consumed copious quantities of Ballentine Ale and began to forget or slur words, then giggle.  Some started to hiccup.  The second incident began as a debate between Yale and Dartmouth students about the economic policies of the newly elected Ronald Reagan.  Things really started to roll as an economics professor from each university joined in.  The debate held Rudy’s patrons spellbound.  Each school presented their arguments so passionately and so eloquently, it was truly astounding.  Full disclosure, I had no idea of what they were saying, but it was eloquent.  And it wasn’t baseball.  Patrons applauded when the debate ended, someone bought the debaters a round of drinks.

The original Rudy’s on the corner of Elm & Howe Streets, just after the business moved a few blocks to Chapel Street.
Inside the old Rudy’s. Sixty-four years of Yale students carved or scribbled their names into the table tops and walls.

Sadly, New Haven has had more than its share of urban challenges, but I still have fond memories of the allure of its Green.  Equally sad, Rudy’s moved to a more gentrified location a few blocks away about 12 years ago.  It is still in business, but now caters to diners, which stifles lively debate among friends and strangers.

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Writers Group

November 6, 2022

A Special Boy, A Special Halloween

There were two prompts for us to choose from for today’s Chatham Writers Group. I chose to write a horror story for Halloween. The setting is Pittsburgh, the time frame is within the last decade. My story follows.

Kaufmann’s Department Store, downtown Pittsburgh. Where my story opens. (Sadly, Kaufmann’s closed several years ago).

A Special Boy, A Special Halloween

KDKA, Channel 2 Pittsburgh, opened with a breaking news story:

“The nine year old son of philanthropists, Peggy and Bill Whitlock, was kidnapped while at Kaufmann’s Department Store.  The Whitlocks had taken their son, Samuel, to have his picture taken at the portrait gallery.  A man claiming to be the photographer’s assistant is the person suspected of taking Samuel, the photographer noted she had no assistant.  A ransom note was discovered in the portrait gallery seeking $5 million dollars for the safe return of the Whitlock’s son.”

The station then shifted to a press conference where the anxious parents indicated they were making every effort to meet the kidnapper’s demands.  But there was no mention in the note of how to transfer the money for the release.  Both Peggy and Bill Whitlock became emotional and begged the kidnapper’s to let their son go.  He was a “very special child” and today, Halloween Day, was his  10th birthday and “He really needed to be home for his birthday.”  Peggy Whitlock recovered her composure, glared coldly glared at the cameras and said, “We don’t want anything bad to happen.”  There was a harsh emphasis on the word “bad”.  The press conference ended.

Frick Park in Pittsburgh, location of kidnapper’s hideout.

In the living room of the caretaker’s cottage in Frick Park, , a man who went by the name of Mr. Gray switched off the TV.   A second man in the living room, known as Mr. Red, was completing the next ransom note by using individual letters cut from different magazines.  Looking up from his task, he said, “Sounds like that Whitlock woman was threatening us, Gray.”

“Nah, she’s just worried about the kid.”

“Come up with the five mil and nothing bad will happen.”

“Mr. Black is outside the county jail now, calling on a burner phone with instructions for the transaction.  Things should move faster.”

“How’s the kid doing?” asked a man named Bud, the Frick Park caretaker.  After three men broke into his cottage, carrying a kicking child with a hood pulled over his head, Bud was clubbed and had his hands zip tied.  The men were each named after a color, like in the movie “Reservoir Dogs”.  Bud sat hunched over on a kitchen chair.

“What do you care?” snapped Mr. Red.

“I saw the news, it’s his birthday, he’s probably upset.”

Mr. Red, menacingly pointing a pair of scissors at Bud barked, “It’s none of your business.  We’re just using this dump of yours until we get our dough, then we’ll be on our way.”  Turning to Mr. Gray he said, “I hope Black is back soon with our food, my stomach’s growling.”

“ Did he get something for the kid?  He’s probably hungry.  Can I check on him?”

Mr. Red leapt out of his chair and gripping the scissors like a knife snarled, “You shut your mouth…”

Mr. Gray spoke sharply, “Sit down Red.  Leave Bud alone.”

Mr. Red sat back down, “Go check on him.  I heard the kid talking.  Just make sure it’s to himself and he doesn’t have a cell phone.”

Bud stood, grabbed a couple of packages of chocolate covered pretzels from his cupboard and walked back to the bedroom where the kid was held.  Mr. Gray accompanied him, unlocked the bedroom door and shoved Bud into the room.  He followed close behind.

The boy looked at Bud and said, “Hello.”

Handing the pretzels to Samuel, Bud said, “Happy Birthday, and Trick or Treat.”

“Thank you,” replied Samuel, “But I only say treat on Halloween, bad stuff happens if somebody says trick.”

“Who you talking to kid,” snapped Mr. Gray.

“There is a monster under my bed.  I was trying to keep him calm.  There’s one in the closet too.”

Mr. Gray’s eyes widened in surprise and he took a couple of steps closer to the bed Samuel was sitting on.  He began to chuckle, “Monsters, eh?  Under the bed and in the closet?  You gotta cell phone kid?  Is this some kind of trick?”

At the word trick, tentacles snaked out from under Samuel’s bed and curled around Mr. Gray’s legs.  A tentacle shot into his open mouth and cut his scream short.  The tentacles dragged his struggling body under the bed.  A loud crunching noise, similar to the sound of a person biting into an apple, came from under the bed.  A slurping sound and a burp followed.

A Boris Karloff voice came from the closet, “Bad manners Octoman, excuse yourself.”  

From beneath the bed, a phlegmy voice replied, “Sorry Mum.  Excuse me.”

Bud stood motionless in shock at what he just witnessed.  From out of the closet shuffled The Mummy.  Bud passed out.

The thud of Bud hitting the floor roused Mr. Red from his ransom note work.  Gripping the scissors in his left hand and a pistol in his right hand he strode down the hall to the bedroom.  “You alright in there Gray?  What’s all that banging?”  

Barging into the room, he saw Bud‘s limp body sprawled on the floor and Samuel sitting on the bed.  A movement to his right caught his eye and he turned to see a dude who looked like he was wrapped in masking tape shuffling towards him with his hand extended.  The dude’s eyes glowed.  Mr. Red suddenly felt sluggish.  The masking tape guy grabbed him by the throat and effortlessly threw his body toward the bed.  

“Open wide Octoman, got you another,” said the Boris Karloff voice.  The Apple crunching and slurping sounds followed.  No burp this time.

Hearing the jingle of keys in the cottage door lock, the Mummy shuffled and hid behind the open bedroom door.  From the living room, Mr. Black called out his associates names.  There was no reply.  Glancing down the hall, he noticed the open bedroom door and called Mr. Gray and Mr. Red again.  Still no reply.  He crept stealthily down the hall towards the bedroom, now gripping his pistol.  Entering the room, the same scenario caught his eyes.  The passed out Bud and the kid sitting on the bed.  

Black’s last words were “What the..” as the Mummy grabbed him by the throat and threw him down next to the bed.

“Last morsel Octoman!”  More crunches and slurps.

The daylight was fading when Bud the caretaker came to.  Shaking the cobwebs from his head, he heard a child’s voice ask, “Are you okay Mr. Bud?”

He saw young Samuel Whitlock sitting on the bed, holding his backpack.  “I think so, Sammy.  Where is everybody.”  

“They went away.  Can you call my Dad & Mom to come get me?  Thank you for rescuing me from those bad men.”  Samuel got up and cut the zip ties from Bud’s hands.  He had no memory of chasing bad men away, his last memory was of them watching the news of the kidnapping in his living room.

“Yeah, sure, Sammy, I’ll call them right now.”

As Bud left the bedroom to get his cell phone, Samuel Whitlock slid two small action figures into his backpack, a mummy and one with tentacles called Octoman.  “Thank you he whispered, Happy Halloween.”

Samuel Whitlock’s Mummy action figure.
Samuel Whitlock’s Octoman action figure.

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Writers Group

October 31, 2022

The Best Halloween

The Chatham Memoir Writing Group prompt for today was “My Favorite/Best Halloween”. It was real easy to write to. My story follows.

My Best Halloween – A Memoir

I remember so many fun Halloween’s from when I was a kid.  Parties in school, parties at either my house or my friend’s houses, costume parades, followed by Trick or Treating itself on Halloween night.  We lived in one of those densely populated boroughs in northeastern New Jersey and given that it was also the era of the post-war baby boom, it always seemed there hundreds of kids scrambling about on Halloween night.   There were so many houses to visit in our immediate area, we would sometimes stop back at home two or three times to empty our sacks.  It was more like Freight Night than Fright Night.  I remember the caramel apples we would get when we stopped at the home of the town‘s police chief.  At Mr. & Mrs. Georgi’s house, we would be asked to  sing a song before receiving our treats.  Mr. Janus was a department manager at Wonder Bread, so we would get a small bag of popcorn as well as a small loaf of white bread – helps build strong bodies 12 ways – Wonder Bread.  The last stop on my Halloween night of largesse, the turning point for me to head home was my classmate Billy Stewart’s house.  I could have gone one more house, but after an unfortunate incident rocketing through the front yard of that house at breakneck speed while a passenger on my brother’s bicycle, leaving the homeowners swearing and shaking their fists in our wake, I was fearful of being recognized. So I wouldn’t go there.  But I digress. From Billy Stewart’s house, I would trudge up the hill know to the locals as Cherry Hill.  From the crest of Cherry Hill, I would always pause for a moment to gaze in awe of the clear view I would have of the New York City skyline, all those sparkling lights less than 20 miles away.  The Empire State Building standing the tallest, pre World Trade Center.  I also remember, just before Halloween, our school teachers handing out these pint size milk cartons with a UNICEF label.  Taking the with us in Halloween night, we would shout “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” when we knocked on a door.  In addition to a treat, the family would drop a few pennies into the milk carton.  Then there was the Halloween I missed because I was laid low with mono.  Those were all fun times, but the best was yet to come.

Pint milk container used to collect for UNICEF
New York City Skyline – Circa 1961

Halloween Day, 1984, was a beautiful fall day.  The morning air was crisp with only a few clouds in the sky.  My wife and I were up and out of the house early, we had had an appointment with destiny.  Our son was displaying a reluctance to being born so now, two weeks late, the good doctors at Yale-New Haven Hospital were going to invite him out into this world.  Once we were settled into the birthing room, the drugs were administered and we began to count down the time until delivery.  The bright sun filled the room and we passed that the time playing Trivial Pursuit.  This activity drew the attention of the nurses and doctors working on the floor and several joined us to play while they were on break.  It being Halloween, our game playing was interrupted from time to time by howling and other spooky sounds coming from the rooms that surrounded us.  These were not sounds coming from trick or treaters mind you, no they were the sounds of women giving birth.  However, with all the babies being born around us, their first cries didn’t seem to resound with our son as he still was displaying a reluctance to meet us.

That reluctance continued through what would prove to be a really long day for my wife.  As the sunlight faded to gray and darkness descended on the day, I would take occasional glances out the window of the birthing room and see kids in their costumes, visiting houses outside the perimeter of the hospital.  With our son still displaying great reticence to meet his parents, the decision was made to perform a C-section, and we were soon being transported to the OR.  It had been my great desir ge that our son arrive in the world to the comforting accompaniment of classical music, so I made a tape of favorite pieces.  My wife’s doctor popped the tape into a player that was in an observation room looking into the OR.  During the procedure, I sat behind my wife’s head and could see a steady progression of medical people stepping into the observation room to listen to the music.  Despite the fact a surgery was underway, there was an almost party-like atmosphere.

At approximately 7:45 PM on October 31, 1984, Dr. Mary Jane Minkin announced we had a little cone head, we named him Geoff.  Coincidentally, the at the moment Geoff was delivered, the “The Ode To Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from my tape was playing over the ER speakers. It was the best treat anyone could ever hope to get.  It was the best Halloween ever.  At this point in my story, I need to circle back to the series of Trivial Pursuit games that were played that day.  My wife was in labor while we played, I did the unkind thing of winning every game.  The medical staff looked upon me with a raised eyebrow.  On each of the subsequent Halloween’s since 1984, my miscreant behavior is recalled.

Ode To Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Memoir Group


Uncommon Bond

The photo used for the Writers Group 10/24/22 writing prompt

The prompt for the today’s Chatham Writers group meeting was the photo shown above. There was no caption to the photo, no background information, just create a story in about 1,000 words. To me, the photo appeared to be taken sometime around the Great Depression. Earlier this year I read a novel that my wife had recommended and written by Donna Everhart called “The Saints of Swallow Hill”. The setting for the story is a turpentine camp near Valdosta, Georgia and the time frame is during the Depression. I had never heard of turpentine camps before reading the book. The prompt photo brought that novel to my mind and I began to research turpentine camps. There is a wealth of information available on-line about turpentine camps, which were also called “Naval Stores” because the end use of most of the products derived from pine trees were used to protect and preserve wooden ships and all accoutrements associated with sailing vessels. The information available about these camps provides enough detail about the horrible conditions the workers at these camps endured to craft several Naval Stores novels. My story touches only on a couple of the occupational hazards these workers faced. I have added photographs to illustrate my story. The name of the camp and all characters are fictional. The working conditions, the behavior of the camp managers, etc. are things I extracted from my research.

An Uncommon Bond

The snap of the whip against the tree trunk just above his head made Ezra Bond flinch.

“Y’all best keep up with them chippers boy!  Them drains ain’t gonna nail themseve’s to the trees!”

Careful not to make eye contact, Ezra replied, “Yes sir, Cap’n Brown.”

“He is keeping up with us Cap’n.  We ain’t finished chippin’ this tree yet,” said Louie, Ezra’s co-worker and friend.

Brown’s eyes flashed, he jabbed his whip handle at Louie and snarled, “Don’t you dare sass me, you lousy white trash tramp!  I’ll throw you in the sweat box if’n you sass me again!”

Louie mumbled, “Sorry boss,” and went back to making slashes on the pine tree to get its resin flowing.

Cap Brown kneed his horse and moved on to harass the next team of men collecting pine resin.  Ezra glanced at his two co-workers, and friends, Louie and Karl.  Louie smiled, “You’re keeping up Ez, don’t let him get to you.”  Karl also flashed a smile and gave a slight nod before turning to slash at his tree.  

“I really don’t belong here,” Ezra thought to himself.  Here was the Chickasaw Creek Turpentine Camp.  Ezra was here because he had shoved a white man who called the female members of his choir, whores.  He eluded his pursuers by jumping a freight train that took him to Vicksburg, MS.  With only the clothes on his back and $3 in his pocket, he was arrested for vagrancy after being caught sleeping in an alley behind a bakery.  To avoid jail time, he accepted the option of going to work at the turpentine camp to pay off his $10 fine.  As Ezra was being hustled in to the registrar’s office, he looked back in time to see the camp manager hand the sheriff a crisp $10 bill.  His heart sunk. 

After registration, Ezra was given a key to his living quarters and a sheet of paper with a list of essential items he would need to perform his job, along with a few food staples.  He was told he could obtain all the items from the company store.  The store clerk took the list and collected the items in a cardboard box.  Pushing the box across the counter he handed Ezra a bill for $11.  Seeing the great look of consternation on Ezra‘s face, the clerk said not to worry, the money owed would be deducted from his pay at the end of the month.  This made Ezra’s heart sink even further, he now owed the company store more than he owed the sheriff.

He was engaged in shoveling the filth out of his cabin when he heard the clop of horses hooves and the jangling of harness links.  Ezra stepped out of his cabin and saw a wagon full of men approaching.  On horseback next to the wagon was a slightly built man with a long nose and the semblance of a mustache on his upper lip.  His sweat stained fedora was tilted back on his head to reveal a pair beady eyes.  To Ezra, he had the appearance of a rat.  The wagon stopped and the men on board began to pile out.  The rat faced man sauntered his horse over to Ezra and gave him the once over.

“Everyone calls me Cap’n Brown, I’m your boss.  Y’all will jump when I says so or it’ll be the bite of my whip on y’all’s back.  Sass me and it’s the hot box. Got it?  We work six AM to 6 PM.  Be on that wagon by 5:30.”  Brown rode away. 

Housing at a turpentine, or Naval Stores Camp
Living conditions in turpentine camps were almost as deplorable as the working conditions

Including Ezra, there were 18 men in Brown’s work crew, 16 were black.  Ezra was assigned to work with the only two white men in the group, Louie and Karl.  The Depression had forced both men to come to the camp seeking employment.   At work in the woods, Louie and Karl would cut chevron marks, called chipping, in the trunks of the pine trees from which resin would flow.  Ezra would tack sections of tin to the tree which guided the flowing sap into a bucket.  The team had to chip 100 pines a day.  The punishment was severe if they fell short of the goal.  At the slightest infraction, Cap’n Brown gleefully doled out lashes with his whip.  He only whipped the black workers.  If Louie & Karl disappointed, he would club them with the whip handle.  The work in the pine forest was dangerous.  The high heat and humidity sapped the workers strength. Many collapsed with heat stroke.  Several workers had fallen victim to poisonous copperhead snakes.  Some men broke completely from the heat and the beatings.  It was almost impossible to leave the camp.  A barbed wire fence surrounded the living area, its perimeter patrolled by armed guards.  In the woods, armed men on horseback made sure no one slipped away.  Ezra realized the system of the camp was a form of peonage.  The management of the camp deducted all expenses from the workers pay, and everything in the camp store was outrageously priced.  Foremen, like Brown, forced their work teams to gamble on Saturday nights.  If a worker lost all of their money at cards, the foremen would loan them cash and deduct it from their pay.  Anyone trying to leave the gambling hall was beaten.  It was believed several men had been beaten to death.  

Men collecting sap for pine tar or to be distilled for turpentine. The man on horseback is the Forman, also called a Tree Rider. The men who scored the trees were called “chippers”, the men who attached the drains and buckets were “tin tappers”, the men who emptied the sap buckets were called “dippers”. Working conditions were deplorable. Heat, insects, snakes and sadistic tree riders made for an unbearable, almost inhuman experience.
“Cat faces” chevrons made by the chippers, gutters & buckets attached by the tin tapper.

One morning a sour looking Cap’n Brown trotted up to Ezra and his friends.  “The manager wants the three of y’all to head back to camp and clean up.  They’s a group of folks from the WPA coming to talk to workers about camp life. They’s posed to take some pitchers too.  If they talk to y’all, dummy up.  Say things are great.  If I hear of any complaints, the’ll be hell to pay!  Y’all got it? Now git!”  

The WPA team did meet with Ezra, Louis & Karl.  The camp managers watched, with great intensity, while the three of them provided short, polite answers as to the “favorable” conditions in the camp.  Someone asked to take their photo so they mugged it up for the camera.  The camp managers all had big grins.  Ezra walked over to the WPA person who had interviewed them.  Shaking her hand, he smiled and said, “Thank you for caring Ma’am.”  And he walked away.  She stuck her right hand in her pocket after the hand shake.  She hoped no one noticed the piece of paper Ezra had squeezed into her palm.

Zora Neale Hurston visited turpentine camps and wrote about the people who worked on them

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Writers Group 

October 24, 2022

My Most Unfortunate Expense

After writing a story for the Chatham Memoir Writers group two weeks ago, I was unable to attend the meeting to read it. The prompt was “My Most Unfortunate Expense”. My tale of that follows.

1981 Buick Skylark. I don’t remember ours looking as nice as this one in the photo.

My Most Unfortunate Expense

To the casual observer, it would appear my most unfortunate expense was the time I used our lottery winnings to purchase lifetime supplies of elderberry wine and silk boxer shorts, and whatever money was left over, I spent foolishly.  Nah, that is all made up, we never won more than $2 on a scratch off.  My most unfortunate expense was the purchase of a 1981 Buick Skylark.  

We were in the market for a new, more fuel efficient car.  As much as we liked the Honda Accord, in 1981 it was a bit beyond what we could afford and due to its popularity, there was no wiggle room for dealing.  My father-in-law had purchased a Buick Skylark in 1980 and seemed to love it, espousing it’s handling, fuel efficiency, comfort, etc.  He let me drive it while he sat next to me in the passenger seat, talking up the car as though he were the Buick salesman.  It did drive like he described. It was less expensive than a Honda Accord and after looking at a couple of other car models, we ended up choosing the Skylark.  My father-in-law beamed.  All of the cars on the lot had a number of bells & whistles we felt we didn’t need and we wanted one with a standard transmission so we had to wait for our bare bones, special order car to be delivered.

After taking delivery, I noticed immediately leaving the dealership, that the car did not handle as crisply as my father-in-law’s Skylark, it felt a little sluggish.  My father-in-law said, “Oh, mine felt that way too at first, but as the car breaks in, it will handle better, you will see big differences after a thousand miles or so.”  Fifteen hundred miles later, the car still seemed sluggish to me.  It was about 8 months after getting the car that I did begin to notice changes, but not for the better.  Running errands one day, we noticed a line of fog on the inside of the windshield close to the dashboard.  Going to work a couple of days later, the windshield really began to fog up.  I discovered the car’s thermostat had ceased to function, an easy fix, but this kind of stuff should not happen to a car less than a year old.  This incident served as the inspiration for me to purchase a Chilton’s Manual for troubleshooting and repairing a Buick Skylark, the internet and Google were more than a decade away from being created.  

About a year after buying the car, we were driving back from visiting my wife’s family in Vermont when my wife suddenly declared, “My feet are wet!”.  I had no idea what the cause could be, and we were still an hour from home so I couldn’t consult the book that became my bible – The Chilton’s Manual for Buick autos.  Within a few minutes after the foot bath, the windshield began to fog up.  I suspected the thermostat again.  My hopes for a simple fix were dashed when my research disclosed the cause to be a corroded heater core.  The Chilton’s provided step by step instructions how to change the heater core, but the cover was not easy to access.  However, I should not be doing this type of stuff to a 13 month old car.  

My Bible

Our decision to go with a bare-bones vehicle bit us on the rump the time we visited Colonial Williamsburg and Richmond, Virginia.  We made our trip in mid-June because it was not supposed to be quite as warm as later in the summer.  As luck would have it, an early heat wave invaded the area.  The banks with digital displays broadcast, along with the time, temperatures as high as 102 degrees!  Bare-bones car meant no AC.  With air vent fan on full blast and windows wide open, the atmosphere inside the car was comparable to that of a steel mill melt shop.  Oh, I forgot to mention that, due to a minor fender bender that had not yet been repaired, the passenger door couldn’t open.  To exit the car, my wife had to crawl over the center console then out through the driver’s door.  Oh, I also forgot to mention my wife was five months pregnant, which somewhat hindered her ability to exit the car.

The Skylark evolved into an albatross.  One small thing after another would crap out.  Nothing was easy to fix or perform routine maintenance on,  largely because of things being difficult to access.  To me it seemed this car was designed to vex those that tried to fix it.     

By the time our son was two, we had owned this Skylark for 5 years.  My car repair skills had advanced over this time.  With the Chilton Manual resting on the engine, I was able to fix most of the things that crapped out on this car.  I became very adept at this, so much so our neighbors thought fixing cars was a hobby.  Another skill that had strengthened over this time was my ability curse.  It was not long after I opened the hood of the car, or laid on my back to change the oil, that I would begin to swear.  I had to tone it down so the neighbors could stop gasping at my fluency as I “enjoyed my hobby”.  Worse yet, our son would watch me fix the car.  We had gotten him a battery operated Jeep and he would drive it around in the backyard.  It became apparent that he paid attention to closely to me working on the car because, while driving his jeep, he would stop frequently, lift the hood where the batteries were, shake his head and with his sweet three year old voice say, “Son of a bitch.”  I guess he thought, because of the Skylark, that cars needed to be worked on every 10 feet.

Another scene in the play called “The Horror of the Skylark”,  occurred while on my way to work.  I was less than a mile from my office when the car bucked, lurched and belched a cloud of steam from the exhaust.  I immediately scrunched my nose at the smell of anti freeze.  I had the car towed to a repair shop near our home and was told that a gasket had blown and the valve cover cracked, it would be a week to 10 days before the car could be repaired.  Six weeks later, the car was still at the repair shop.  I stopped there on my way home to see what the deal was.  A very nervous repair shop owner told me that someone had tried to steal the Skylark, the thieves had broken the steering wheel cover trying to start a car which couldn’t start.  He would replace the cover at his cost – gee, thanks.  I looked at him, now I was shaking with anger, and said, “I don’t know what makes me angrier, the fact that my car is still not fixed, or the fact that if it had been fixed, these jerks could have stolen it and I would be rid of the biggest piece of junk ever.”  He just gaped.  A week later the Buick was repaired.  Great.  

There is an epilogue to this play.  When I first began to experience issues with the Buick, my wife’s parents were slated to visit us for a weekend.  A car that I didn’t recognize pulled into our driveway, a red station wagon.  You could imagine my surprise when I noticed the guy behind the wheel was my father-in-law!  “What happened to your Skylark?” I exclaimed.  

“Ah, it was junk,” said the guy who, a little over a year earlier, told me it was the best car ever, “How about making us some coffee.”

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Memoir Group

September 30, 2022

Cigarettes Vignettes

The prompt for today’s Chatham Writers Group was “Cigarettes”. I never smoked cigarettes, but I cobbled together a memoir of my experiences with others who smoked.

Cigarettes Vignettes 

I never smoked a cigarette.  I smoked a cigar once, handed to me by a co-worker back in the day when that was the method of celebrating the arrival of a baby.  It was a White Owl with a blue “It’s A Boy” label.  It gave me a headache and I was nauseous for awhile afterwards.  I smoked a pipe for about 3 days once, a corncob model that I won at one of those Jersey shore boardwalk game of chance entities.  I tried a chaw of tobacco for 20 seconds, I can’t say anymore about it without gagging.  I have no personal first hand smoking experiences to call on, but there are plenty of second hand smoke stories for me to relate.   These are from a time before work places and restaurants became smoke free.

Pencil Shavings

My boss, whose name was Roy, poked his head into the office I shared with my colleague Jeff and extended his hand towards us, gripping two quarters between his thumb and forefinger.  “Hi guys,” he said, “grab yourselves a couple of drinks and meet me in my office in five, I’d like to run a couple of ideas past you.”  

Roy was dumping pencil shavings into his waste basket when Jeff and I shuffled into his office, cups of Coke sweating condensation in our hands.  Motioning for us to sit down, he seated himself behind his desk, took a sip from his coffee cup and lit up a Benson & Hedges 100.  He began to about his project ideas.  With a freshly sharpened pencil in his right hand, he scratched out a couple of formulas for alloying additions.  In his left hand he gripped both his cigarette and coffee, occasionally putting his cup down and leaning to flick ash into the waste basket.  Roy had a habit of tilting back in his chair to gaze at the ceiling while trying to flesh out his theories.  Deep in thought, appearing to be counting the holes in the ceiling tiles, he failed to notice the thin tendril of smoke that began to drift from his waste basket.  Jeff and I spotted it and tried to get Roy’s attention.  He held up a palm and said, “Hear me out on this..” and started to talk while concentrating on the ceiling tile.  The smoke from the waste basket grew in density, and started to smell like burning wood – the pencil shavings.  

Roy was still talking when Jeff and I, with great urgency, declared, “Roy, smoke is coming from your waste basket.”  

Roy tilted his chair forward and looked at us with furrowed brow and simply asked, “What?”  In answer to his query, a flame shot up from the center of the basket.  Roy did see that.  His eyes got big and he uttered “hmmm.”  He tossed the remainder of his coffee into the basket.  His effort did not adequately extinguish the flames, and in short order, Jeff and I added our Cokes to the wild fire.  Disaster was averted.  Roy excused himself while he carried the waste basket, which still had some wisps of smoking trailing from it, to some undisclosed location outside of the office area.  He returned, sat down behind his desk, lit another cigarette and said, “Now, we were discussing adding more carbon to see if we can improve the material toughness.” Roy never spoke of The Great Pencil Shaving Conflagration of 1975.  Nor did he offer to refresh our fire suppressing Cokes.

What toppings would you like…

I had begun new job in Rockford, IL.  Trying to be helpful, my new co-workers talked, at great length, about the many restaurants in the area that offered the legendary Chicago style, deep dish and stuffed crust pizza.  These pizzas were too huge, even the 4 slice size, for just me to consume.  However, I was in the mood for a good meatball sub and was provided the name of Gerry’s Pizza, right next to the hotel I was staying in.  Just across the parking lot, you couldn’t beat it for convenience.  My co-workers had talked it up so much, I spent most of my day at work salivating about the meatball sub.  Quitting time came and I made a quick stop at the grocery store to get a 6 pack of beer, then to my hotel to put the beer in the fridge.  I hustled across the parking lot to Gerry’s to order a meatball sub.  I was a little put off when I entered the pizza place, the smell of cigarettes hung heavy in the air and there was even a thin cloud of smoke, clinging to the ceiling of the hall that led to the dining room and order counter.  But my sandwich was takeout, I wasn’t eating there.  Putting aside my initial misgiving, I boldly strode down the hall, turned  to where orders were placed and skidded to a halt.  Gerry and Mrs. Gerry were working on a pizza, adding toppings – which is not unusual.  But it was the cigarette dangling from the corner of Mrs. Gerry’s mouth, as she hovered over the pizza, that gave me pause.  Smoke drifted up from a long ash that curved perilously in the direction of the pizza.  When Mrs. Gerry noticed I was at the counter, she lifted her head to look at me.  Her right eye was red, and runny from attracting the line of smoke from her thin cigarette.  Mrs. Gerry deftly removed the cigarette from her mouth just before the ash tumbled to the floor.  It made me ponder how many pizzas and sandwiches were made with that one special topping.

“What can I get ya?” Croaked Mrs. Gerry.

“Ummm, do you have a pay phone?” I asked.

“In the hall,” she pointed the direction with the remainder of her cigarette, “you walked right past it.”

“Thank you,” was all I said.  I went back the way I came, past the pay phone and left Gerry’s Pizza quicker than  I had entered.

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Writers Group

September 18, 2022


It has been a busy summer. Friends and family visits, the arrival of a grandson, the first birthday of a granddaughter, there did not seem to be enough time to write. After a summer break, The Chatham Writers Group resumed activities with a flourish this past Monday. The prompt was to write about a scar, or scars, in any genre. I chose a work of fiction. This is the 3rd story I have written about slavery and the Underground Railroad with Alexandria, Virginia and Fairfax County, Virginia as the backdrop. The central character is the enslaved young man, Galileo Washburn, who first appeared in my post “Freedom”. For clarification, I added a few more lines to my story.

Alexandria, Virginia waterfront in the 1850’s. The backdrop of my story.


Alexandria, Virginia. April, 1855

“Your skills at handling mule teams never ceases to amaze me Galileo,” drawled Philo Washburn, “this wagon weighs nearly a ton and yet these mules are pulling as though it weighs two pounds, there’s no struggle a’tall.”

“Thank you sir,” replied Galileo Washburn. 

“Come on Galileo, you can drop the formality.  It’s just us, you can call me Philo.  I would like that.  We’re practically brothers.”

“Just the same sir, it don’t feel right, I am sorry.”

“Alright, suit yourself, maybe one of these days you’ll feel comfortable enough to say my name in general conversation.”

Galileo lapsed into silence as he thought, “We are brothers, Philo, or half-brothers.  Your Daddy, Asa, is my Daddy too.   You know it, but won’t fully accept it.”  And Galileo was anything but comfortable.  Asa Washburn was supposed to accompany him on the trip to Alexandria, but he was so hungover after a night of bourbon swilling and card playing, he directed Philo to go in his place.  The Harvard educated Philo was the real brains and drive to the Washburn & Sons business endeavors, the polar opposite of his father & brother, both foolhardy winesops.  Galileo was in a heightened state of anxiety because the tobacco laden wagon had a false bottom, where two men, two women and four children lay, seeking freedom from the bonds of slavery. He hoped & prayed the keen Philo would not detect anything amiss and that the human cargo would maintain their silence.

Galileo entered Alexandria and guided the wagon down Prince Street toward the docks lining the Potomac River.  Once at the wharf, conductors from the Underground Railroad were to assist with the escape of the 8 fugitives in the false bottom.  He didn’t now the identity of the conductors, nor their plan.  The only thing he knew was someone would tell him which wharf to bring his wagon.  He also knew Philo Washburn had to jump off at the junction with Pitt Street to conduct business at a nearby bank.  

After Philo disembarked, the wagon continued on to the wharf.  Galileo had just begun to breathe a little easier when a voice barked, “You, boy! Stop!”

Yanking gently on the reins, Galileo turned to the source of the voice and saw four rough looking characters sauntering to the wagon.  They were garbed in the unofficial uniform of the slave catcher; jackets hanging to their ankles, a whip coiled on one hip and a Colt’s Dragoon revolver on the other.  He knew there was a Bowie knife concealed somewhere as well.  The leader of the group was the most striking in appearance.  Unblinking, hard eyes as blue as crystal burned beneath the shade of his hat brim.  His most distinctive feature was a scar on the left side of his cheek, coursing from the corner of his lip to his ear lobe.  

“What you got in the wagon, boy.”  The scarred man’s voice was a hoarse rasp.

“A hogshead of tobacco sir.  I have to deliver it to the wharf.” 

“What ship?” Asked the scarred one.

“Don’t yet know sir, someone’s supposed to direct me when they see the Washburn name on the wagon.”

Those blue eyes stared with such intensity, Galileo had the sensation the man could read every thought swirling in his mind.

The other three men had been slowly walking around the wagon, banging on the tobacco barrel, checking the wagon gate.  One spoke to the scarred man, “Let ‘em go Slash, ain’t nothin’ out a sorts here.”

The man named Slash gave Galileo one more long, intense stare, then spun around and walked away. Watching the men vdisappear into a tavern, he let out a big sigh, uttered, “Sweet Jesus,” snapped the reins and led the team to the river.  Whispering to his passengers in their native Krio, he said, “Almost there folks, almost there.  Be steady now.”

Slave catchers searching for fugitive slaves

Arriving at the row of wharves, he turned the team to  where the tobacco freighters were moored.  Galileo moved slowly along the row of ships, allowing time for the unknown parties to spot the Washburn name on the wagon side.  Because he was looking to his left, he was startled enough to nearly leap from his seat when he heard the now familiar rasp of the scarred man’s voice coming to him from his right, “Yo, boy, stop!”

Galileo’s heart pounded hard, his throat so tight the words “Yes sir” sounded like a frog croak.  The man appeared from the side of a sail repair shop and stalked towards him, the intense blue eyes burning holes in his soul. Pulling the coiled whip from his hip, the man called Slash pointed the handle at Galileo.  But his voice got softer.

“Are you the one they call Galileo?” He asked.

“Yes sir.” 

“I apologize for my harshness, I have to maintain a certain persona. I hope you understand. Take your cargo to The Schuyler, four wharves down.  Don’t wait on your wagon, dismount and go to the shipping office. Stay there until someone hands you your documents.  Your wagon will be empty and you can be on your way.”

The scarred man began to walk away, but stopped, turned and said, “You are a very brave man, young Galileo.  Godspeed.” Then he was gone.

Reining in at The Schuyler, Galileo jumped down from the wagon and went to the shipping office as instructed.  In a matter of minutes, a man wearing the uniform of a ship’s captain entered the office with a packet of documents.  As he handed them over, Galileo was startled to see the deep outline of a scar in the shape of the letter “S” on the man’s palm.  Was there a second “S” on his palm?  The packet of documents covered half of the hand.  Galileo looked up at The Schuyler’s Captain, eyes wide and brow furrowed with surprise.  Could this man be carrying the brand of a slave stealer?  Galileo had heard rumors of some people caught transporting fugutive slaves had the double S brand burned into the palm of our hand. 

The Captain smiled and reached to grasp Galileo’s shoulder.  “Your cargo was delivered in good order and is safely stored below.  I hope we meet again, young man.”  

The Double “S” Slave Stealer Brand. Note: Palm of Captain Jonathan Walker of Harwich, MA. Was imprisoned and branded after being caught transporting fugitive slaves to freedom.

Guiding the mule team back up Prince Street, Galileo stopped at the junction with Pitt Street to let Philo Washburn climb onto the empty wagon.  As he passed the packet of shipping documents over, Philo asked how the transfer of cargo went.

“Uneventful sir, as easy as pie,” answered Galileo.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group

September 12, 2022

Lime & Scurvy

One of the things I have discovered since I began writing for fun three years ago, was the diamond mine of story ideas originating from my work experiences.  The number of characters I have encountered over the years, from my paperboy job at 9 years old until now, are worthy of a series of Dickens’ novels.  Experiences with champions and chumps, saints and scalawags, have provided the basis for several fiction stories and for some of the tales I have related to the memoir group.  This story is of an incident that occurred in the late 1970’s.

The company I worked for had devised a new technology for improving the quality of steels used for pipe and tubing applications.  Word of its benefits spread quickly throughout the steel industry and soon demand was exceeding the capacity to make the material, a wire product with a calcium metal core.  To keep up, extra work shifts were necessary and people to staff these shifts were needed.  Help wanted ads were put in the paper and within a week, candidates were being interviewed.  Now, sometimes, well many times, the image a candidate presents during the interview belies the real nature of the individual.  Such was the case of one of the people hired.  I just happened to see this person sitting in the lobby, awaiting his turn with the hiring team.  Thinking I was one of his interviewers, he stood up eagerly and said “Hi”.  I nodded and said “Hi” and noted he was wearing a button down casual shirt and crisp new blue jeans.  I sensed he was expecting me to take him somewhere, but I just said someone would be with him shortly and went on my way. 

I saw this person again about a week later.  Now an employee, he presented an entirely different appearance than the one at his interview.  His oxford shirt and new jeans were replaced by a leather jacket with the colors of his motorcycle “club” on its back, a black Harley Davidson t-shirt and not so blue jeans.  Within a few days, stories began to filter through the factory of the new guy being a “real piece of work”, and a “scurvy dog”.   A quick inventory of his personality revealed a surliness and arrogance, and a propensity to intimidate people.  His frequent mention of his affiliation in the motorcycle “club”, a well known one of notorious repute, would cow some of his co-workers.  If an associate called him out for his unsavory behavior, he would invade the personal space of his antagonist, glare in their face, and roll back his upper lip to reveal the words “f*** you” tattooed across his gum line.  He was shrewd enough to display congeniality when his supervisor was present, however be as scurvy a dog as ever was when nobody of authority was around.  I believe his name was Steve.

Steve’s gum tattoo was far more outrageous than this one

After a probationary period, Steve was assigned to a material handling position because he was familiar with driving a forklift – albeit recklessly when his bosses were away.  One of his tasks was to perform a “calcium reclamation” process.  It involved placing sections of scrapped calcium metal wire and calcium metal pellets into 55 gallon drums of water.  Within a few seconds of being placed in water, calcium metal reacts violently.  The water bubbles as though boiling and a steam cloud develops over the open top of the drum.  The calcium reduces to lime, which settles to the bottom of the drum and can be used to make more calcium metal. The 2nd byproduct is hydrogen gas present in the steam cloud which makes it explosive, and flammable – think of The Hindenburg.  To prevent a violent reaction, the calcium metal had to be placed in the drum of water in very measured, small quantities.  There were scales and measuring devices that were to be used to ensure that an overload of calcium metal was not applied.  And absolutely, positively no smoking or open flames were allowed near this reclamation process.  I apologize for the brief chemistry lecture, but it makes what happened a bit clearer..  

Lab experiment with Calcium metal in water. Hydrogen gas is present in the steam.

About a month after Steve was hired, my boss and I were in the company cafeteria drinking cups of coffee.  The cafeteria was on the second floor of the factory and had windows offering a panoramic view of the facility.  Sipping our coffees, gazing out the windows, we noticed Steve performing his calcium reclamation task.  It became readily apparent that he was not following protocol because he was bypassing the weighing scale and just dumping large amounts of calcium metal scrap in the 55 gallon drums.  A fairly sizable steam cloud was billowing above one of the drums.  Becoming very concerned about what we were witnessing, my boss hastily left the break room to call Steve’s supervisor to alert him to the potential hazard.  Leaving the cafeteria and going outdoors, I began the walk to my office which was in another building.  I looked over at the reclamation station and noticed the steam cloud had grown considerably.  I was shocked when I saw Steve pop a cigarette into his mouth and pull his zippo lighter out of his pocket.  I shouted “NO!”, but it was too late.  A quick flame, followed by a loud WHOOMP, and a geyser of white, foamy water shot skyward.  The explosion made Steve stagger back a few steps. Fortunately, for him, the energy of the explosion was directed upwards toward the sky and not sideways.  Stunned, he was staring wide eyed at the geyser, his cigarette dangling from his mouth, his lighter had fallen to the ground.  Still looking up in disbelief, a the geyser of water and lime now came back to earth and landed squarely on him.  I had been running over to see if he was okay and shouted his name.  He turned to look at me and I had to stop.  He resembled the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.  Steve was coated in white slime from head to toe, with the exception of his eyes which had been shielded by safety glasses, lime slime even dripped from the bent cigarette still in his mouth.  I again asked if he was ok.  Others now arrived on the scene, I heard some snickering as people saw how he looked.  Spitting out his cigarette, the only words Steve uttered were, “I quit”, and he squished off to the locker room, refusing any offers of help.  Back in my office, I heard the loud roar of a Harley and caught a glimpse of Surly Steve as he sped past my window.  Lime had tamed the Scurvy Dog.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Memoir Group


Family Reunions

Norfolk Southern Railroad Bridge crossing the Delaware River near my Grandmother’s childhood home. The Pennsylvania shore is on right side of photo, the quarry I mention in my memoir is just past the trees at the end of the bridge.

There was an open prompt for the Memoir Group this week. I had been reminiscing about my grandmother’s family reunions when I was growing up and decided on a memoir about them. I believe the last one I attended was almost 50 years ago. Although there were photos of the town on the internet, they are copyrighted so I did not include them in my story.

Family Reunions

I remember when I was a kid how much my grandmother, my Dad’s mother, looked forward to her family reunions.  To accommodate the vacation schedules of most of the attendees, the reunions were held every August at her childhood home in Harmony Township, New Jersey.  Well, they were actually held in an unincorporated part of Harmony Township called Brainards.  A name that, for me anyway, conjured images of gothic horror or of zombies feasting on the craniums of those unsuspecting travelers who happened to stop to fill their gas tank or quench their thirst with a Coke or orange soda from a vending machine.

Preparing for these reunions was quite the task for my grandmother, but it was one she embraced with love and enthusiasm.  Her contribution to the reunion menu was fried chicken – wings, drumsticks and breasts – and she would make enough to feed a small village. But her signature contributions were her pastries – Hungarian Kifle cookies filled with either Lekvar or apricot pastry fillings, or ground walnuts and the light as a feather forgacsfank, fried dough ribbons dusted with powdered sugar.  These were also produced in a quantity that would fill the shelves of a pastry shop.  Her childhood home was perched on a high bluff overlooking the Delaware River.  But as a testament to the power of Mother Nature, it was not high enough to avoid raging floodwaters on several occasions.  So with those experiences ever present in her mind, the preparation for a trip to Brainards also included admonitions to my sister, my brothers and I to not stray too far from the house because there was quicksand that would swallow us up, or a passing train could crush us under its wheels, or the currents and whirlpools in the Delaware River would sweep us away without a sound. When pressed about the location of the quicksand, the replies were vague, it could be in the woods in the middle of a path, or near the railroad tracks, and any number of locations along the shore of the Delaware River.  Apparently quicksand cropped up anywhere she thought kids didn’t belong.  The admonishments would be presented each year.

Traveling to Brainards was interesting in itself.  We would typically make the journey in two cars.  My grandparents, uncle and food in one car.  My parents, brothers – later sisters – me, and more food in the second car.  Our home was in a highly populated, congested area only a stone’s throw from Manhattan.  As we drove West to Brainards, the populated areas would get thinner, we would drive past lakes and forests and finally into rural farm country. The Interstate highway was not completed yet so our backroads threaded through cornfields, dairy and poultry farms.  Sprouting along the roadside in farm country were the famous Burma Shave signs entertaining us with little ditties like:

If you

Don’t know

Whose signs

These are

You couldn’t have 

Driven very far

Burma Shave 


No lady likes

To snuggle 

Or dine

Accompanied by

A porcupine

Burma Shave

Burma Shave signs along highway
Another set of Burma Shave signs. There were approximately 600 different verses.

Soon, our two cars would trundle into town, population about 200.  It still is 200 to this day.  I was always surprised to see the town’s residents out and about.  My grandmother’s harrowing tales about those she personally knew who had run afoul of quicksand, freight trains and whirlpools had given me the impression that Brainards was a ghost town.

Arriving at the reunion site was always chaotic.  The town’s population would significantly increase on reunion day because there would typically be 70 family and extended family members in attendance, so emerging from our cars would result in us facing an onslaught of hugs, kisses, handshakes, back slaps, warnings to kids to watch out for quicksand… you know the drill.  I would initially feel a bit anxious at the start of these reunions.  I was from east New Jersey, my cousins from the western part of the state.  I dressed differently and talked differently, they dressed and talked differently than I did.  However, these differences would soon be overlooked as we immersed ourselves in a day of fun and games.  The activities ranged from horseshoes, quoits, beanbag toss, badminton, baseball, croquet, all of these events highly competitive.  Oh and lawn darts – but watch out for quicksand, freight trains…. If the Delaware River was slow and sluggish and posed no threat of sucking us down in a whirlpool, we went swimming.  Sometimes my Dad’s uncle took us for a ride on the river in his boat.  Playing baseball was fun, my cousin Barry always reminded me of Mickey Mantle and he could hit a ball a country mile.  Occasionally we would hike across the railroad bridge spanning the Delaware to visit a limestone quarry on the Pennsylvania side.  In the crystal clear water you could see huge fish floating just below the surface.  They appeared to be looking back at us.  

The most magnificent sight at these reunions were how the picnic tables bowed from the mounds of food heaped on them.  The quantity and variety was astounding.  Tense moments would ensue as people would compare my grandmother’s kiffles to those of her sister and sister-in-law.  Her sister claimed her forgacsfank were lighter, but her husband declared my grandmother’s were so light, they could float away like bubbles.  One of the cousins would bring kegs of root beer.  I was not a big fan of root beer, but jeez, right out of the keg was like no root beer I ever tasted before.  Stories would be told, jokes would be told, in my early years some I didn’t understand.  We would eat, then play, then eat some more – but be careful not to swim until our food was fully digested.  

As the light of day began to dim, those of us who had a long ride home would soon have to load our overstuffed bodies back into our cars to make the return journey to civilization.  There would be parting hugs, kisses, backslaps and handshakes and declarations of “see you next year”.  In the descending darkness, we would read the Burma Shave signs going in the opposite direction, farmland to forest to houses and businesses and more lights.  We knew we were home when my mother woke us up to get out of the car.  Thinking about these reunions, I wistfully wondered if my grandmother were alive today, and I was to tell her that I was thinking of taking a trip to see how much Brainards has changed through the years, would she tell me to be careful of the quicksand?

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Memoir Writers Group

July 7, 2022