Philadelphia Alley

Philadelphia Alley, Charleston South Carolina. The steeple of St. Philip’s Church rises above the wall to the right. The setting for my story

This week’s prompt for the Sturgis Library Writing group was to write a story/memoir/poem using the photo of the alley shown above. My tale of mayhem follows.

Philadelphia Alley

Sergeant-Major Poe stood at  the parapet of Fort Moultrie, jotting down his observations of Sullivan’s Island in a notebook.  Shortly after his arrival at the Fort, the local inhabitants told tales that the pirate, Captain Kidd, had buried a substantial treasure somewhere along its shores.  The tales had given Poe an idea for a short story and he had begun to create a plot line.  To help potential readers develop an image in their minds of the story’s setting, he wanted to provide a description of Sullivan’s Island.   Poe stopped writing for a moment and gazed off to the west across the wide expanse of Charleston Harbor at the city of Charleston itself.  In the setting sun, he could just make out the stately homes on Battery Street and the tall spire of St. Philip’s Church.  His line of concentration was interrupted by the approach of one of the post’s orderlies.   He snapped Poe a crisp salute and pulled a folded piece of paper, sealed with wax, from his leather messenger bag.  “Lieutenant Griswold’s compliments Sergeant Poe, he asked me to pass this order to you.”   Poe thanked and saluted the orderly.  Breaking the seal and folding open the note, he read that he was being ordered to Charleston the following morning to oversee the unloading of munitions from a supply ship and to ensure their delivery to Fort Moultrie.  He would be met at the docks by Monsieur Paul Douxsaint and would be a guest at his house.  Poe signed the log book acknowledging receipt of the order and proceeded to his quarters to prepare for the trip.

The unloading of the supply ship began mid-afternoon and ceased at dusk.  As Poe stepped from the gangplank on to the dock, a rather well dressed man in top hat and carrying a bejeweled cane approached and introduced himself as Monsieur Douxsaint.   Gregarious and possessing a delightful French accent, he invited the sergeant to dine with him at a private club called the Vendue.  By the time they completed their dinner, darkness had fallen and the streets were illuminated by flickering gaslights.  Walking along Queen Street on the way to the Douxsaint house they had reached the intersection of Philadelphia Alley when their conversation was cut short by a horrible scream that made the hairs on the back of their necks stand up.  It was a woman’s scream and it came from somewhere in the Alley.  As they stared into the darkness, a second scream made them jump.  Poe started to make his way into the Alley but Douxsaint grabbed his arm.  

“Sergeant Poe, please, do not enter they Alley, it is dangerous.”

“But it sounds like a woman is in trouble Monsieur, she needs our help.”

“It could be a ruse to lure us in, Sergeant Poe.  We will be discovered in the morning with our skulls bashed in, our money and valuables taken.”

Women’s screams and the hoarse shouts of men disrupted the darkness of the Alley.

Poe retrieved a pistol from his valise and drew his sword.  “Tell me what’s down this Alley, Monsieur.  Someone is in desperate need of help.”

“A few apartments, the entry to the church cemetery on the left.  The Barnwell Mortuary on the right.”

Poe disappeared into the darkness.  Douxsaint uttered a curse, and began to shout for the police.  He gave the jeweled head of his cane a twist and pulled it, extracting a short sword from its hollow body.  “Wait for me Sergeant!”  

The two of them crept slowly along Philadelphia Alley, listening.  The shrieks and shouts had stopped for the moment.   A door swing open and slammed against the wall, making them retreat a few steps.  A shaft of light from the other side of the door broke through the darkness in the Alley.  They gasped as a man staggered from the door, the handle of a knife protruding from his neck.  Falling to the ground, blood from his severed jugular sprayed the Alley.  Poe and Douxsaint ran to the fallen man, but they saw he was beyond help.  Douxsaint stood and began to shout as loudly as he could for the police, anyone, “Murder! Murder!” he yelled.

Readying his sword and pistol, Sergeant Poe went through the open door.  What he saw revolted him, his dinner gave a huge roll in his stomach.  On the floor lay the body of another man, mouth open, empty eyes facing the ceiling.  It appeared he had been stabbed in the heart.  On a table was the body of a third man, but it was clear he was being prepared for burial.  “The morgue,” thought Poe.

“Oh Mother of God!”  exclaimed Douxsaint when he came through the door.

Shouts and screams from two women came from somewhere else in the building.  They pushed through a set of doors into a wide hallway.  To their left was a staircase leading to an upper floor.  The sounds seemed to be coming from there.  Bolting up the stairs they stopped to listen.  A struggle could be heard from a balcony behind them, in the front of the building.  Racing out to the balcony, they saw a woman gripping another woman by the throat with one hand, while trying to plunge a knife into her chest with her other hand.  The second woman was using both of her hands to keep that from happening.  Poe could hear the sounds of police whistles from the street below.

“Madame, please, put down the knife,” Douxsaint said softly.

The quiet French accent had an effect on the knife wielding woman.  She looked at Poe and Douxsaint, blinked and dropped the knife.  “They killed my husband,” she sobbed, “they cut him open down in that room.” Looking at her blood stained hands and clothing, she gasped, “What have I done?”

Police officers boiled out on to the balcony.  Quickly assessing the situation they escorted the knife wielding woman away.  From the woman who had been attacked they learned the knife wielder’s husband had died of consumption the previous day.  The morticians were in the process of preparing his body for burial when the distraught wife burst in.  Seeing her dead husband displayed on the table made her go berserk.  She grabbed a dissecting knife and stabbed one of the morticians in the heart then jammed the knife into the neck of the second mortician.  Then she grabbed another dissecting knife and came after her.  Gesturing at Poe and Douxsaint, she said, “The gentlemen arrived in time to save me.” 

Before giving their version of what they witnessed to the police, the gentlemen were asked to provide their full names and occupations.

“Monsieur Paul Douxsaint, shipping merchant.”

“Edgar Allan Poe, Sergeant-Major, Company H, 3rd United States Artillery.”

The police completed their questioning and allowed Poe and Douxsaint to leave.  Sipping brandy in the parlor of his home, Douxsaint shuddered.  Looking at Sergeant Poe he said, “My dear Edgar, this has been a truly horrific night.  I don’t know if I will ever see another restful night of sleep.  God, I will forever rue the night we came upon the murders at the morgue.”

Edgar Allan Poe looked at the brandy in his glass and swirled it once.  “Murders? Rue? Morgue? Hmmm…” he thought.

A drawing of Edgar Allen Poe in his uniform at the time he was at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. The stripes on his sleeve are not those of a Sergeant-Major, he didn’t achieve that rank until later in 1828.
The house of Paul Douxsaint on Church Street in Charleston, S.C., built in 1725, still standing today. My story ends in the parlor of this home.
Saint Phillip’s Church. Philadelphia Alley runs behind the Church, the Douxsaint home is a block away.

I took some creative license in writing this story, what is factual follows:

  1. Edgar Allan Poe was a member of Battery H, 3rd U.S. Artillery at Fort Moultrie S.C. from 1827 to 1828.  He wasn’t promoted to Sergeant-Major until after his transfer to Fort Monroe in Virginia in December, 1828.
  2. For some some reason, Poe enlisted in the army using the name Edgar A. Perry, perhaps to disguise his age?  He said he was 22, but was really 18 when he enlisted.  He resigned from the service near the end of 1828, at which time he revealed his real name and age.
  3. Poe did use the setting of Sullivan’s Island and the rumors of Captain Kidd’s treasure as the inspiration for his short story, “The Gold Bug”.
  4. St. Philip’s Church was built in 1836, 9 years after the time line of my story.
  5. Paul Douxsaint was a real person, his home still stands, two blocks from St. Philip’s Church & Philadelphia Alley.  He built his home in 1725, so he would never had met Poe.
  6. The Vendue is a boutique hotel on Queen Street in Charleston, but didn’t exist at the time my story takes place.  I thought it was a cool name to use.

Ernie Stricsek, The Sturgis Library Writers Group, March 15, 2023

The Whistleblower

Cobalt Strip – the root of all evil in my story

I am getting behind on my story posts! The prompt for the Sturgis Library Writing Group last week was to write about a piece of mail you received, in any genre. A couple of years ago, I began writing writing a series of fiction stories, based on true events, using a young reporter working for a fictitious Pittsburgh newspaper (The Manchester Press & Journal). This young reporter hopes to someday become a sports writer covering his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. But in the mean time, because he is relatively new, he keeps getting assigned to a hodgepodge of stories. The only “sports” type story he wrote about was a pigeon race held at a place called “World of Pigeons”, located in a small town in the north central Pennsylvania coal region. My story is sprinkled with Pittsburghese, a language I became fluent in. At the end of my story, I will reveal the real events this story is based on.

The Whistleblower

Sly from the mailroom interrupted my line of concentration in crafting a brilliant story about the cow patty bingo tournament I had witnessed at the Washington County Fair.

“Yo Rookie!  Looks like yinz got a fan.  There’s a real letter, addressed to you personally, mixed in with this stack of junk mail.”

Even though I have been with the Manchester Press & Journal for almost three years now, Sly still referred to me as “Rookie”.  

“Thanks Sly.  Even junk mail is typically addressed to me, though.”  I called the mailroom guy Sly because he was anything but Sly.  He liked me calling him Sly, but he wasn’t sly enough to note it was a slight.

Stuck in the fold of an ad telling me if I could draw the pictured lumberjack I would be eligible for a scholarship to some obscure art school, was a plain white envelope.  The address was from someone named Hamilton in Strabane Township, about 20 miles SW of Pittsburgh.  It seemed to me that most people from the Strabane area called Pittsburgh “Picksburg”, and I wondered if they spelled it that way.  Seeing Pittsburgh spelled correctly on the envelope dispelled any doubts I had.

I debated opening the letter, was it hate mail?  I wasn’t in the mood for hate mail.  But my curiosity got the better of me so I slit the envelope, pulled the contents out and began to read.  Astounded by what I read, I had to read it a second time and went from astonished to mystified.  The letter was sent by a fellow named Steve Hamilton.  He said he’d met me when I wrote a story about an industrial accident that occurred in the factory he worked at.  I vaguely remembered him.  In the body of his letter, he was essentially blowing the whistle on his company, specifically on a co-worker and a few people on its management team.  He was accusing them of stealing raw material and scrap and selling it for personal gain.  He referenced an incident where 10 tons of cobalt strip shipped to a company in Ireland for conversion into industrial diamonds never arrived.  When the crates were opened, they were full of sand.  That story did jog my memory, but I didn’t realize it involved the company Steve worked for.  He said about two months after that disappearance, two managers bought up-scale homes in Canonsburg and his co-worker was tooling around in a Datsun 280Z.  He said he would like to meet to show me some Polaroid photos he took as evidence and gave me a phone number to call, and a specific time to call, which made me believe I’d be calling a pay phone.  Making the call at the requested time,  the traffic noise in the background confirmed the pay phone guess.  Steve asked if we could meet in “Picksburg” he didn’t want anyone he worked with seeing him talking to a stranger, much less a reporter.  I suggested we meet at my favorite dive bar, The Three Deuces at 222 Federal Street.  They had great kielbasa sandwiches and Wednesday was pierogi night.  I asked him if he wanted to talk to the police, I was good friends with a couple of Pittsburgh’s finest and assured Steve they would be discreet.  He hedged a bit, then agreed.  It being Monday, we would meet in two days on Pierogi Wednesday.

The Three Deuces, 222 Federal Street on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. A favorite meeting place for my characters. Sadly, the Three Deuces was torn down several years ago.

A visit to Three Deuces is an experience that ends in sensory overload.  Directions to it were easy, cross the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the bouquet of kraut and kolacz will draw you to its doors.  The air in the bar was so dense with smoke from the grill and cigarettes, it would have resisted a chain saw.  I found the bar by bumping into it and was greeted by Eddie Stanko, the owner of Three Deuces and now a good friend.  

“There’s a guy with a big rent in his head askin’ for yah.  He’s in the booth you reserved.  I don’t mean to be nebby, but will the detectives be joinin’ yinz?”

“Yes,” was all I said. 

Eddie jammed an ice cold Iron City in my hand and said, “Try not to stare at the gash in his head, it might make him self conscious.”

“Thanks, like that’s all I’m going to see now.” 

Sure enough, Steve had a big cut on his head and a black eye.  Asking if the thieves were on to him and roughed him up, he said, “Nah.  My wife and I were at dinner celebrating our anniversary.  I said I wanted a divorce and she hit me with an ash tray.”

“Nobody will ever accuse you of being a romantic Steve.  That’s for certain.”

“My crook co-worker is her brother-in-law.  She knows what he’s up to and has dished up huge quantities of grief on me for not getting involved.  It’s gotten really bad.  I am not a crook, so I wanted out.  This is my reward.” He pointed at the cut on his head.

My Pittsburgh PD friends, detectives Pat Martin and Jack Rowan, joined us.  Their eyes flew wide when they saw Steve’s horrible head wound, but they said nothing.

We listened intently to Steve’s tale.  He laid out a dozen Polaroids he secretly snapped of his co-worker sneaking Cobalt scrap out to his car.  He had another batch of photos showing the two managers overseeing the loading of coils into a curiously unmarked truck.  When asked why he didn’t go to the higher authorities within the company, Steve said he thought they may be involved as well.  His wife had let something slip about the plant manager buying a summer home in the Outer Banks.  Suspicious of everyone, he felled compelled to reach out to me.

After hearing Steve’s story, Pat & Jack sat back, deep in thought.  Jack leaned forward and said he and Pat were going to have to run this past the Chief of Police.  Federal laws were violated, this was under the purview of the FBI.  Pat looked at me and said, “We can’t say anymore, your involvement ends for now.  If a story breaks, we will do our best to make sure you get the scoop.”  Thanking Steve for his bravery and me for involving them, they disappeared into the smoke.  

Out of the fog appeared Eddie holding a tray with a plate of pierogies and two frosty Iron City beers.

The FBI did conduct an undercover operation and sure enough, the corruption not only involved the plant manager, but also the regional sales manager and group vice-president.  True to their word, Jack and Pat did pull strings for me to scoop the story and I made the short drive to the factory to interview other management and hourly personnel.

While hammering the plant controller as to how he could have missed the large quantity of unaccounted materials and revenue, a motion outside the picture window in his office made me pause my line of questioning.  It was Steve Hamilton sprinting past.  A woman was chasing after him, but her high heeled sandals hampered her pursuit.  Picking up a rock, she screamed “You bastard!” And threw the rock at Steve, catching him between the shoulder blades. Roberto Clemente would have been proud. 

The controller turned to look back at me.  His eyes were bulging and his mouth agape.  He was trying to form words.

“They’re getting a divorce,” I said.

*Notes*: this story is based on true events. Forty two years ago, a work colleague was terminated for stealing and selling cobalt scrap for personal gain. The majority of the earth’s cobalt is mined in the Republic of Congo. Civil War erupted there in 1980 and the price of cobalt skyrocketed, almost quadrupling in price. The guy I worked with tried to cash in on the boon. Although he was never caught red handed with the goods, there were strong eyewitness accounts that led to his dismissal.

The story of the guy Steve (not his real name) getting brained with an ashtray after telling his wife he wanted a divorce is true. I was the first one to see him when he arrived at work and he told me his story. A short time later I saw him sprint past my office window, his wife chasing after him pelting him with rocks. Those decorative, white landscape type. She had a good arm!

Ernie Stricsek

The Sturgis Library Writing Group

February 20, 2023

Reunion Doubts

The prompt for this week’s writers group was to write about something you had doubts about, but went ahead and did it anyway, and what was the outcome. My story follows.

Yet another citizen of Brainards, New Jersey, meets an untimely end.

Reunion Doubts

To hear my grandmother tell it, half the townsfolk of Brainards perished in the Delaware River.  Those who didn’t get swept away by the swift currents, or swallowed by whirlpools came to an untimely end in the quicksand bogs on the trails that bisected the thickets along the banks of the river. 

Each summer my father’s side of the family held a reunion at my grandmother’s childhood home, which sat on the edge of town, atop a bluff  overlooking the Delaware River.  In the week leading up to the reunion, my grandmother would relate a story each day to my siblings and I, about the lives claimed by the treacherous waters of the river and the quicksand bogs.  Then there was the railroad bridge that many a careless soul toppled off of.  Those that didn’t die in the fall fell victim to the whirlpools swirling around the abutments.  If, by some stroke of luck people managed to survive and reach the Pennsylvania side of the river, there was an abandoned quarry, now a deep pond, that presented a menu of pitfalls to claim the unwary.

For some reason, I was fascinated by the quicksand and  peppered my grandmother, who we called Mamie or Mame, with questions.  “Where was the quicksand?”

“It could be anywhere,” replied Mamie, “on any dirt road or path in the woods after it rains.”

“In one spot?”

“It comes and goes.”

“How does someone know that a person died in the quicksand?  Is there a hat floating on the surface?”

The answers got snippier, “I don’t know, you just didn’t see them anymore.”

“Does the quicksand look like oatmeal?  You know, like in those Tarzan movies?  I think we would notice it then.”

“I don’t know!” Mamie would snap, “You, your brothers and sister need to just stay in the yard so we can see you all the time!”  That was the signal my grandmother was no longer taking any questions from the press,  interview over.

So it is understandable why we harbored doubts about going to the family reunion.  Mamie’s childhood home, now inhabited by her brother and his family, sounded like an oasis in a sea teeming with peril.  It would appear the most prudent course of action would be to stay home.  Our parents could go to the reunion, I trusted them to be safe.  After all, my father had visited Brainards many time, had survived unscathed and, thus, should know where all of the hazards were.  Except for the mysterious peripatetic quicksand.  My brothers and sister would be safe.  With all of the Sunday morning kids programs, afternoon movies and toys to play with, we wouldn’t even have to leave the house.  But, because we ranged in ages from six years old to 4 months old, we had no choice in the matter, our doubts carried no weight so we were piled into the car and off we went to meet our fate.

The trip always seemed to take forever.  There was not yet a major highway traversing that region of New Jersey so our drive took us through a network of backroads winding through forests and pastures, past picturesque lakes, farms and Burma Shave signs.  Cruising down the Main Street of Brainards I was always struck by how deserted the town looked, but recalled my grandmother’s tales of carnage.  Arriving at our destination, the second thing that I always struck by was the number of people at the reunion.  There would be almost 50 people there.  How many more would’ve been there if not for whirlpools or quicksand? 

As we pile out of the car and stretch our legs after the long trip the words of caution begin to flow in a steady stream:

My mother, “Now be careful, don’t get your clothes dirty.”

My grandmother, in a panic, “Butchie!  (my nickname) Where are your brothers?  Jezis Kristus! Are they down by the river?  There’s quicksand!”

“I thought the quicksand was in the woods?”  I asked. 

My brothers come around from behind the car, my grandmother is relieved, “Jezis Kristus!  Don’t go down by the river!”

“Don’t leave the yard now.” Don’t go in the garage.” “Don’t go down by the river.” “Go sit at the picnic table.”  “Don’t let your brothers out of your sight.”

There was absolutely nothing to do for anyone under the age of 13.  Keeping a close eye on my brothers, we went into the house and drifted in the direction of the den where the TV was.  The antenna pulled in three channels, two of which displayed test patterns.  A couple of my second cousins were watching the grainy 3rd channel.  There was some nature show on and, ironically, two guys in jungle fatigues were pulling a gazelle out a quicksand bog!  We didn’t linger in the den though, my father’s Uncle John stormed in, turned off the TV and growled, “What are you doing? Watching TV on such a nice day.  Go out and play!”  We went outside to watch the older kids play.

My brothers and I decided we would creep stealthily around the perimeter of the yard, peering into the woods, and pretended to be scouts looking out for river pirates.  We saw a small clearing about 10 feet into the woods and debated investigating it.  My grandmother saw us and yelled,  “Don’t go in the woods Butchie!  The quicksand!  Cline Huff’s family lost a cow in the quicksand!”  So we wandered back to the middle of the yard and decided to do something safer, like playing with the Lawn Darts game, back when lawn darts had tips like spears.  I tossed a couple of darts and it became obvious the safest place for anyone to stand was around the target ring.  Someone yelled at us to put the lawn darts down, they’re for the older kids to play with.   My brothers and I wandered around the yard some more and spotted another path leading into some tall grass.  I saw my grandfather and asked him if rattlesnakes would be hiding there.  “Yeah, of course. You better stay outta there.” he said with a mouth full of fried chicken.

I had my doubts about the reunion, we went, this was how it turned out.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group

February 11, 2023

The Tart

The prompt for the Monday Chatham Writers Group was to write about things in your refrigerator. Everyone in the group had a lot of fun with this prompt and the stories that were read were entertaining and funny.

A well stocked refrigerator, the setting of my story. Note: this is not my fridge!

The Tart

Resentment. Envy. Jealousy.  No undercurrents, all exposed, laid bare, making the already cool atmosphere even chillier.  Voices in the darkness, a hissed “Temptress”, made her laugh.  However, laughing further infuriated her detractors. “Harlot”,  “Shameless Hussy”.  These cut a little deeper, her almond eyes flashed in the direction of the voices.  The darkness was a blessing, those hurling the insults couldn’t see they had gotten under her crust.  

“Tart,” spat another voice.  

She really laughed at that one, “Finally, one of you hit the nail on the head!”

Life in the refrigerator was not all peaches and cream.  She knew the insults were coming from the crisper drawer, the fruits and vegetables hangout.  The celery sticks and snap peas were green with envy, strawberries and raspberries red with resentment.  The blueberries were always, well, blue.  Depressed about one thing or another.  The carrots were the worst though, bright orange with jealousy, they felt they were superior to everything else in the fridge because of the wide range of menu items they could be used for.  Soups, cakes, salads, snacks.  In your eye cilantro!  She didn’t mind the Narragansett Beer guys on the top floor.  They played cards and, when in their cups, would reminisce.

“I remember the good old days, when we were the Kings of Fenway Park, the official brew of the Red Sox,” one would start.

Another 16 ouncer would chime in, “Yeah, that was the life.  But when Quint chugged a ‘Gansett and crushed the can, that was the best scene in Jaws.  The highlight of our history!”  

Quint crushing it.

“Crush it like Quint!” They would shout in unison.  The only time there was any friction was the first visit the guys from Nantucket made to the top shelf.  The  ‘Gansett’s called the blue cans Whale’s Butt Pale Ale, instead of by their real name, Whales Tail Pale Ale.  But after awhile they developed a respect for each other.  No, she didn’t mind the beers at all, they were decent folk.

Then there were the smells!  Fish!  She could never figure out why the people in the house liked fish.  The forgotten cucumber or pepper would begin to rot, but she would smile inwardly with glee knowing  that another arrogant vegetable got its comeuppance.  

It grew silent inside the fridge.  There were noises on the other side of the door.  The voices were muffled but snippets could be discerned.  Words like hungry, picky, could be heard. The vegetables groaned because a male voice on the other side of the door said they wanted something sweet.

The fridge door flew open, the light came on, temporarily blinding its inhabitants. As their eyes adjusted to the light, they saw the Mom & Dad of the house searching the shelves.

 The jar of martini olives shouted, “You guys look like you could use a drink!”

“Crush it like Quint, bro!” Called the ’Gansett guys.

The Mom and Dad began to push things around in the fridge, searching.  A wizened baby carrot, brown and wrinkled, rolled out from behind the cocktail olives.  In an ancient voice, it croaked, “Now you find me.  I laid behind this jar of olives for weeks, beseeching you to take pity and make me useful.  Now I am only good for the trash.”  His words were for naught and he was rolled behind a container of hummus.

Bookbinder was next to cry out for mercy, “Good God man!  It is January, 2023!  Look at my expiration date! June of 2020!  Alas, I am but a mere jar of horseradish, not a Twinkie. Please. I beg you.  Please!   Just throw me away.”  Bookbinder began to weep.

While all this was going on, the one called the temptress, the tart, sat biding her time.  She heard the Dad say he wanted something sweet.  As Dad’s gaze fell on her plastic package, she flirtatiously blinked her almond eyes, completely beguiling him.  Dreamily, the Dad asked, “Hey honey, how about we share this almond tart.”

The shouts and screams from the crisper drawer went unheard.  The olive jar sighed, “A martini doesn’t go well with an almond tart.  Another day for us lads.”

The ‘Gansett and Whales Tale guys just shrugged and returned to their game of whist.

As the almond tart was being lifted from the refrigerator shelf, she cast her eyes on the arrogant carrots,  “Ahhh… what’s up Doc?”  Then she laughed like Cruella DeVille.  Their curses were cut off by the closing of the door.

From the top shelf, one of the Narragansett’s called to the carrots, “Hi Neighbor, lights out, pipe down now.”

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Writers Group

January 30, 2023

My First Real Bicycle

1957 Roadmaster Luxury Liner

The prompt for the Chatham Memoir Group was to write about bicycles, or your first bike. Mine was similar to the one pictured above. My memoir follows.

My First Real Bicycle

I was astonished when I realized I have no memory of my first bicycle.  I am assuming I had one with training wheels, but maybe I didn’t.  I know I had a tricycle, only because I’ve seen a few black & white Polaroids of me sitting on it or standing next to it.  At the time, we lived in an apartment on a busy street and I may have ridden it in the driveway of that place.  The photos of me on the trike were taken in my grandparent’s back yard, so I suspect that is where I spent most of my time riding it.  There are also a couple of photos of my brother, Ken, sitting on the trike. Also in my grandparent’s back yard.  I guess that was his first wheeled vehicle as well.  But I don’t remember my beginners two wheeler. There are no photos of me on a bike with training wheels.  I was growing so fast at that time, I may have been too tall for a starter bike.

I do, however, remember my first real bike, an official big kids bike.  My uncle’s good friend Ronnie didn’t ride his bike much anymore.  They were in high school, they were cool. Ronnie, very flashy and charismatic, was the coolest of the cool and was the type of person who would transition from a bike to a Pontiac GTO.  At any rate, through a series of transactions involving Ronnie, his parents, my uncle and my parents, I became the second owner of Ronnie’s bike. 

I may have been a big kid for my age, but this bike was huge!  It stood about 16 hands high, about the size of a Clydesdale, or so it appeared to me.  After all, I was just entering first grade and Ronnie was in high school.  The bike I was gifted was a Roadmaster.  Red and white, the bike boasted chrome fenders, a big chrome and red striped tank which coursed along the frame from handlebars to just under the white seat.  Chrome traps to carry things rested above wide white-wall front and rear tires and a chrome bell with an American flag affixed to the chrome handlebars were the options the bike dealer must have thrown in when it was purchased.  Oh, I am forgetting the red and white streamers that flowed out of the white vinyl handlebar grips.  That was odd, Ronnie didn’t appear to be a “streamers” kind of guy.

As I mentioned earlier, this bike was huge.  So huge, in fact, my feet didn’t reach the pedals.  My dad corrected that by affixing an adapter kit to them.  The adapter kits consisted of blocks of wood of varying sizes that would get clamped to the pedals to close the distance between them and your feet.  I think my dad had to double them up so I could reach the Roadmaster’s pedals.  I had not inserted the word “proud” before owner.  For their first bikes, most of my friends had gotten the sleek and stylish Schwinn models which were the rage at the time.  I had this bright, shiny relic of the most recent past as my first ride. The Roadmaster was the Duesenberg of bicycles.  Did I say there was a lot of chrome?  At any rate, this was my first real bike, the one on which I learned to ride.

Pedal extender blocks

Before learning to ride, I learned how to fall.  And I fell a lot.  I got to be really good at it.  The bike was so big, so heavy, and with a lumber yard for pedal extenders, it proved to be unwieldy.  With the knowledge that I had to keep some degree of forward momentum to not fall while making a turn, the bike was so heavy, I needed to pedal faster than normal to make a turn.  As one might guess, most of my falls occurred while in mid-turn.  I had to ride with friends because took 2 or 3 kids to lift the Roadmaster from my scraped and bloody body.  If I had to ride alone, I carried a small scissors Jack in the rear trap and used it to lift the bike high enough for me to crawl out from under it.

I remember how proud I was the first time I made a turn without falling.  A crowd had gathered to watch my inaugural cruise.  My parents, my uncle, my grandparents my Godparents, all bade me well.  They watched me climb the slight incline of Echo Place, make the turn – not a smooth turn – but I didn’t fall.  I had a big smile, everyone was waving.  As I started to roll down the hill and gain speed, I tried to brake and slow my momentum.  This bike didn’t have hand brakes, I had to push back on the pedals to slow and stop.  I began to brake, but one of my feet rolled of the stack lumber affixed to the pedal.  It threw my balance off and my front wheel began to wobble.  I was able to stop by crashing into the side of a car and falling to the ground.  I don’t remember how I got out from under the Roadmaster, maybe a passing crane driver took pity and lowered his hook to lift it off, my memory of that is vague.  

This is the guy that lifted my heavy bike from my scuffed up body (😁 not really).

I went through a growth spurt which allowed the stacks of wood to be removed from my pedals.  As I began to grow into the Roadmaster, I removed the streamers from the grips.  To make my battleship of a bike cooler, I clamped baseball cards to the front and rear forks with a clothespin so the spokes would hit the cards.  It made my bike sound like a Harley.  The Pittsburgh Pirates had beaten the New York Yankees in the World Series, so I exacted revenge by using the cards of Pirate players as my noise source.  I mastered the road on a tank of a bike, with streamers and lots of shiny chrome, the Roadmaster, my first real bicycle.

One of the cards that made my bike sound like a Harley.

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Memoir Group

January 27, 2023

The Perfect Day

Young Robert Smalls

This is third blog entry I have made about Robert Smalls. His story is so truly remarkable, so inspiring, I can’t write enough about him. I recently joined another writing group, meeting at the Sturgis Library in Barnstable Village. The prompt for the meeting this week was “The Perfect Day”. I chose to write about the exhilarating day Robert Smalls, his family, and 13 other brave individuals had. The story itself is 100% true, no names have been changed to protect the innocent. With the exception of one sentence, the dialogue in my story is fabricated. I did this to keep the story moving along and to present factual information in a more interesting manner.

The battered facade of Fort Sumter, shortly after the opening shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861

The Perfect Day

Charleston, South Carolina. April, 1861

Robert and Hannah Smalls gazed out into Charleston Harbor at the battered ramparts of Fort Sumter.  In the place where the Stars and Stripes of the United States flag once billowed over the fort, was now the new flag of the Confederate States of America.

“Hannah, what is your idea of the perfect day?”

“That’s easy Robert, Christmas Eve 1856, our wedding day.  Nothing tops that.”

Robert laughed softly, “I agree, I agree.  That has been my most perfect day.  Although the arrival of Lizzie and Robert, Jr. were pretty close too.” Then he grew silent, his gaze returning to Fort Sumter and its new flag.

“What’s troubling you, my love?”

Robert turned to face Hannah, “Today I asked Mr. Kingsman if I could purchase yours and the children’s freedom.  He said yes, but it would cost $800.”

All Hannah could say was, “Oh my, oh my.”

Robert said, “Right. Oh my.” Taking Hannah’s hand, they walked slowly home.  As the nation careened towards Civil War, Robert Smalls had grown increasingly anxious that Hannah’s master, Samuel Kingsman, would tear his family apart by selling his wife and children to other plantation owners in the South.  The price of freedom was high.  He and Hannah had managed to save $100.  Raising another $700 was near impossible.  Robert made $16 a month as a wheelman, or pilot, of a steamship delivering goods to ports along the South Carolina and Georgia coastlines.  He had to send $15 a month to his master, Henry McKeein Beaufort, SC.  Hannah made only $5 a month as a hotel maid and had to give three of those dollars to Kingsman each month.  Within a few days, Robert would begin working as a wheelman on a new ship named the Planter.  He planned on asking for extra duties in the hopes of earning more money to purchase his family’s freedom.

As Robert approached his new vessel, moored in Charleston Harbor, he was greeted by a man wearing a wide brimmed hat and a linen coat that hung to his ankles.

The C.S.S. Planter.

“Good morning Mr. Smalls!  Welcome aboard the Planter. I’m Captain Relyea.  I must say, your reputation as an outstanding wheelman and your knowledge of these inter coastal waterways will be highly valued.”

Over the next 12 months, Smalls and Relyea would learn a great deal about each other.  Shortly after the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln had ordered a blockade of all seaports in the newly created Confederate states.  Floating just outside of Charleston’s harbor were huge warships and fast gunboats of the United States Navy, waiting to pounce on any ships attempting to move cargo and supplies into the port.  Captain Relyea watched Robert Smalls closely and admired how he seemed to know every inch of coastline, every shoal, and to know which tidal creek to use to avoid detection by the blockading ships.  For his part, Robert watched everything Captain Relyea did.  From the donning of his big hat and long coat each day, to the signals he used to permit the Planter to safely pass the Confederate occupied forts in Charleston Harbor and along the coast. Robert also noted that Relyea, and the other two ship’s officers, trusted he and the 6 enslaved crew members enough to occasionally spend the night ashore.  This was a direct violation of Confederate Navy regulations specifying at least one white officer remain aboard a vessel with a black crew.  On the evening of May 12, 1862, Captain Relyea and the two officers decide they are going to spend the night ashore with their families.  Robert Smalls offers to remain aboard with the other crew members to prepare the Planter for the next day’s activities.

St. Phillip’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina. From a photo I took while visiting in early 2020.

The bell in St. Phillip’s Church chimes twice.  It is 2:00 AM  and most of the inhabitants of Charleston, South Carolina are sound asleep.  Most, but not all.  At Northern Wharf, the crew of the steamer Planter are making final preparations to cast off.  The ship’s cargo of 4 cannons and 200 missiles for those cannons, are to be delivered to the Confederate garrison on Morris Island.  Casting off, the Planter makes one stop at the West Atlantic Wharf to pick up 11 passengers.  By 3:25 AM, the steamer is slowly maneuvering its way past the 5 forts that protect the harbor from Yankee invaders.  As each fort is approached, the steamer sounds it’s whistle 3 times.  The occupants of each fort wait to verify the Planter’s markings & note the shipping schedule to confirm it’s destination then signals the ship to continue on.  At 4:15 AM, the Planter looms from the early morning mist and approaches the last of the 5 forts, Fort Sumter.  The guards on Sumter’s parapet wave a signal lantern, the Planter responds with the 3 snorts from its whistle.  As the it draws closer to the fort, the guards observe the familiar form of Captain Relyea, leaning against the pilot house, arms folded, his signature wide brimmed straw hat on his head and his long linen coat almost dragging on the deck.  With the ship’s identity and destination verified, Sumter’s guards wave to Relyea.  Relyea waves back and disappears into the pilot house.  The last of the forts being passed, the steamer chugs faster in the direction of Morris Island.

The site in Charleston Harbor where Robert Smalls picked up his passengers before steaming past the forts. My photo from visit in early 2020.

However, something is amiss!  As the earliest blush of dawn appears on the horizon, the guards notice that the Planter has changed course!  Rather than Morris Island, it is heading towards the open sea!  Steaming directly for the Union ships that blockade the harbor!  The Planter is now out of range of Sumter’s cannon and cannot be stopped.  Things are definitely not as they seem.  Upon entering the pilot house, Captain Relyea discards the broad hat and linen cloak to reveal that he is instead, 22 year old Robert Smalls himself, now a runaway slave.  His six crew members are also now runaway slaves.  The 11 passengers include Hannah, their two children, the wives and children of four crew members and 3 additional men – all runaway slaves.  It has been a harrowing trip past the forts.  Smalls, of similar height and stature to Relyea, also spent the past year studying his movements and gestures while planning this escape.  He hoped and prayed that the dim light and early morning mists would help shield his true identity.  As the Planter steams towards the Union naval vessels stalking the harbor entrance, Smalls has the Confederate flag & South Carolina state flag pulled down from its mast.  In their place he runs up the largest white bed sheet his wife has, to indicate his desire to surrender the Planter to the blockading Yankees.  However in the misty morning, the white flag is almost invisible.  As the mystery ship steams through the mists, Union officers on the U.S.S. Onward order the gun ports opened and cannons run out stop the rapidly approaching steamer..  At virtually the last moment, a breeze flips the white sheet sideways, a gunner on the Onward sees it and shouts to his mates that the approaching ship is flying a white flag.  The Onward stands down.  The Captain and the officers of the Onward crowd the deck to observe the approaching ship.  As the Planter pulls alongside and cuts its engines, Robert Smalls steps forward from the pilot house.  He calls up to the Captain of the Onward, “Good morning sir!  I have brought you some of the United State’s guns sir!”  More importantly, Robert Smalls has ferried himself and 17 others from slavery to freedom.

The passengers scurry up the ladder from below the Planter’s deck, tears cascading down their cheeks.

Robert reaches for Hannah, she collapses against him, her pent up tension releasing like the steam from the ship’s whistle.  Looking into her husband’s eyes, Hannah whispers, “We are free.  All of us, and we are together.  What a perfect day.”

Ernie Stricsek

Sturgis Library Writing Group

January 17, 2023

Congressman Robert Smalls, United States House of Representatives.

Robert Smalls house on Prince Street in Beaufort, SC. Photo I took in February, 2022.
Burial site of Robert Smalls & his family in Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery, Beaufort, SC. Photo taken by me in February 2022.
Burial site of the McKee Family in the Baptist Church of Beaufort, SC, cemetery. The McKee’s were slave owners and owned Roberts Smalls and his mother. Photo taken by me from visit in February 2022.
Bust of Robert Smalls in Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery, Beaufort, SC. Photo taken by me during visit in February, 2022.

Robert Smalls was, truly, a remarkable man. The sources for my story are from several of my books and periodicals.


The photo of this tattoo, or body art, displayed above was the prompt for today’s Chatham Writers Group. Inspired by the series of Bernie Gunther novels, and Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin novels, I wrote this fictional story.

My story opens in the Cologne, Germany freight yard – on a drizzly, misty night


Cologne, Germany, 1939

The light, misty rain was falling that evening and it lent an eerie glow to the lights of the freight yard.  Inspectors Guido Mara and Freddie Schubert of the Cologne Krimininalpolezei (criminal police), or Kripo, walked slowly along, straddling a line of box cars, training their flashlight on the doors.  If the doors did not exhibit a padlock,  the detectives were required to slide them open and scan the inside of the car.  Randomly selecting a locked car, Guido hunched over and swept his light from left to right to inspect the undercarriage.  

Reaching a break in the line of cars, Guido said, “Bullshit.  This is bullshit Freddie.”

“Keep your voice down Guido.  You don’t want to anger our esteemed colleagues.” 

Guido lowered his voice, “Sorry Freddie.  But I have spent the last 10 years catching criminals, and some really bad ones at that.  Now here I am, on a crappy night in a rail yard, searching for runaway Jews.  This isn’t right.”

“The Gestapo believe they are criminals.”

“In the eyes of the Gestapo, Freddie, their only crime is that they are Jewish.”

“Go back to being a circus strongman,” teased Freddie, “or hauling freight along the Rhine in your barge.”

“I am going back to the river trade Freddie.  I have to anyway.  To remain a cop, I have to become a Nazi, and I will not.  I am done in seven days.”

A voice, chillier than the night air, spoke from the gloom, “Do you Kripo lads solve crimes by standing around? Get back to searching those cars.”  

“Shithead,” muttered Guido.  Freddie was too stunned to speak.

Most of the cars on the section of track assigned to them were locked, so they gained some distance on their Gestapo counterparts.  With just a few cars remaining in their section, Freddie’s light beam fell on an unlocked door.  It was not completely closed.  He asked Guido if the doors on his side of the car were locked.  They weren’t.  Sliding open the doors, they directed their flashlight on opposite corners of the car.  Startled, Guido almost dropped his light.  “Bloody hell!”, he whispered.  Huddled in one corner, trying to hide behind some potato sacks and shielding their faces from the light beam, were two children.  

Freddie now moved his beam to where the children were.  “Who are you?” he asked.  He and Guido shifted their lights so not to blind the children.  They dropped their hands to reveal the faces of a girl and a boy.  Freddie said, “I know you!  Rachel and Paul Edelman, the baker’s children!  What are you doing here?”

Rachel said, “Police came, Herr Schubert.  Poppa saw them get out of their cars.  He pushed us out into the back alley and told us to run to the rail yard.  He told us to climb into a car on track two.  The train would take us to Rotterdam and our Uncle Rudy.  What does that mean, sir?  Can you tell us where Momma & Poppa are?”  

The same cold voice called from the dark, “Did you Kripo boys find something?”

“Potatoes, some sacks of potatoes sir”, replied Guido, “D’ya want some sir?”

“What? No!  Take them if you want.  Check those last two cars and let’s get out of here.”

Freddie removed his hat and ran his hand through his hair.  “What do we do Guido?”

Guido looked at the children, who were shivering, eyes wide in fright.  “Rachel, Paul, I am Inspector Guido Mara, not of the Gestapo.  Each of you need to crawl into a potato sack.  I’m going to take you to a safe place. My apologies for any discomfort, but think of it as playing hide and seek.”  Freddie was gaping at Guido as though he were insane.

“Mara,” said Paul, “Mara, the demon who sits on people’s chests while they sleep and makes them dream nightmares.”

Guido looked at Freddie with raised eyebrows, then replied to Paul, “Well, I may have caused some people to have sleepless nights, but ,no, I am not the dream demon Mara.  We have to go, NOW!”  

In Germanic lore, the “Mara” or “Mare”, was a gremlin that would sit on a persons chest at night and cause them to have nightmares. A special prayer before bedtime was supposed to ward them off. Young Paul Edelman thought Guido Mara was the gremlin that caused nightmares.

In the dimly lit control room atop the freight yard control tower, the night shift yard attendant took a bite from his bierwurst sandwich, looked up from his newspaper and glanced out into the night.  Through the mist in the distance, he saw a group of six men converge, exchange some words and salutes, then separate.  Four men stalked off towards town, two towards the wharves along the Rhine.  They appeared to have sacks slung over their shoulders.  One of them, a giant of a man, carried two sacks.  “Coppers are potato thieves now, go figure,” he muttered to himself.  He turned his eyes back to the rugby scores.

After leaving their Gestapo counterparts, and again apologizing to Rachel and Paul, Guido outlined his plan to Freddie.  He was taking the children to his small freighter and they would hide in the crew cabin.  In preparation for his departure from the police force, he had moved his personal items from his apartment to the skipper’s cabin already.  In 8 days, he would be taking a cargo of Cologne’s finest Kolsch beer to ports along the Rhine, final stop in Rotterdam.  Freddie had recovered from the shock of his partner leaving the police and finding the Edelman children hiding in the rail car.  “We will talk more tomorrow Guido,” was all he said.

Once safely aboard his freighter, “The Lisa”, Guido washed the dust from the children and ushered them to the crew bunks.  Having rolled up his sleeves while washing them, Rachel noticed the large anchor tattoo on his left forearm.  “Are you a policeman? Or a sailor?  What does the “L” mean, Herr Mara?”

Guido smiled, then a look of sadness clouded his eyes.  “In the Great War, I was in the navy.  Like every sailor, I decided to get an anchor tattoo.  I was newly marriedmissed my wife, so I had the letter “L”, her name was Lisa, put in the middle of the anchor, then our last name across the bottom.”

“You said her name was Lisa.  Where is Lisa, Herr Mara?”

“Please, call me Guido.  Lisa, and my infant son, died in a great influenza pandemic that circled the globe. That was 20 years ago.”

Rachel noticed tears forming in the big man’s eyes.  But he smiled again, “Time to get you to bed, we have some big days ahead of us.”  Looking at Paul he said, “And don’t worry, this “Mara” won’t be giving you nightmares.”  Before tucking them in, Guido implored them not to leave the cabin if he was not around.  And showed them a hiding place should any strangers come aboard.  He then went to his cabin, where he spent a sleepless night.

The morning sun burned away the evening mists.  Guido made sure all was secure on his boat and spoke to the children again about what to do if they heard strange voices.  As he walked off the pier, two men in leather overcoats and grey fedora’s approached.  Behind them loomed the great Cologne Cathedral.  “Gestapo! Bloody hell,” muttered Guido.

 “Good Morning Inspector Mara.  You were observed carrying some large sacks onto your boat last night.  Might we have a look?”

The Cologne, Germany, Rhine River waterfront. The massive Cologne Cathedral looms in the background. In my story, Guido Mara’s small freight craft was docked here.

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Writers Group

January 9, 2023

Puzzling to Me

I settle into my chair at the dining room table and reach for the box.  I take a moment to admire its cover, a magnificent panorama painted by noted Civil War artist Mort Kunstler.  The cover and all four sides of the box draws attention to even the most casual observer, that this epic work of art is in 1,000 pieces.  Removing the box cover, I extract the plastic bag holding the minced pieces of Mr. Kunstler’s work. The bag shifts from my right hand to my left, then I gently squeeze it, kind of like Mr. Whipple from those old Charmin toilet paper TV commercials.  Feeling I am up to the challenge, I tear the bag open and dump the pieces onto the table. Exhibiting the eye/hand coordination of a hockey player, I fly as I begin fixing matching pieces together.  Two hours later, I lean back in my chair and admire my handy work.  I am overwhelmed with a great sense of achievement.  However, this euphoric feeling has a half life significantly shorter than the element Francium.  Alas, all I have accomplished is the assembly of the outer framework of the puzzle.  All of those pieces with one flat end.  The puzzler is now puzzled.  Where does this plumed-hat piece go now?  Is this globular shape shape a cloud? Or smoke?  Wait, if I use just enough pressure, I may be able to squeeze this anvil-looking piece into the middle of what appears to be a horse, or maybe a wagon – I don’t know, they’re the same color. Dang, now the horse looks like a boat, that piece doesn’t go where I thought it might.  Elbows on the table,  head resting in my folded hands, my eyes scan the remaining amorphous pieces of cardboard, and there are a lot of them.  To a passerby, I probably resemble statue, because it is now almost an hour since I last moved a muscle, or even blinked.  My son holds a mirror under my nose and announces – “He’s still alive.”

The cavalry has arrived.  In a matter of moments, my wife, my son and his wife have joined me.  Things begin to happen very quickly now.  Smaller, then gradually larger sections of assembled puzzle pieces, are making the dining table to disappear.  The four of us are now pondering and debating placement of the puzzle pieces.  Snacks and drinks appear, despite maintaining focus on the task at hand, we talk about things other than the puzzle.  Discussion sounds like this:

“So what are you binging on Netflix? Oh hey, here’s part of the barn!”

“Ozark, gotta love that Ruth character.  Haystacks!  I found the rest of the haystacks!”

This was great and this is the beauty of puzzles.  They bring people together, working towards achieving a common goal.  Family and friends, of all ages, are engaged with each other, trying to solve a puzzle.  Nobody is texting, or checking social media posts.  They are having a good time, enjoying each other’s company.  

In the early days of the coronavirus, when we were encouraged to avoid intermingling with large crowds, my mother began assembling puzzles.  It helped relieved some of the anxiety of dealing with a previously unknown disease and to avoid feeling isolated.  As things became more relaxed with the advance of vaccines, my mother continues to work on puzzles and as of today she has completed 102 of them since March of 2020.  Social media has played a small role over this time, but only when my sister texts me photos of my mother and siblings, occasionally nieces and nephews, huddled next to her trying to find pieces to fit.  I especially love to see my mother’s beaming smile with a freshly completed puzzle resting in front of her.

I feel word puzzles are part of this mix of bringing people together to achieve an enjoyable goal. We first played Wordle last week, December 26th, while visiting our older son and his family for Christmas.  I know the point of the game is to test your personal skills, but it was fun working together to solve the word.  You can’t totally escape the role of texting in our lives because now there is a daily exchange of messages between Chicago and the Cape with screenshots of solved Wordles.  Puzzles, bringing us together.

Ernie Stricsek

Barnstable Library Writing Group

January 3, 2022

My sister Barb, my Mom, my sister Nancy after completing puzzle #55 in the series.

Fishing Adventures – Dahnert’s Lake

Dahnert’s Lake, Garfield, New Jersey. The wall to the right is the one Robert Swiller catapulted into the lake from.

Fishing Adventures – Dahnert’s Lake, A Memoir

It was via the rumor mill which circulates around young boys that we learned of a potential “hot” fishing spot called Dahnert’s Lake.  This rumor mill spun a story of the lake being stocked with trout, and with large and small mouth bass thriving beneath the Water Lilies in the far corner of the pond. One might even reel in a good sized perch.  Now, to the mind of a more seasoned fisherman, none of this would make any sense.  Dahnert’s Lake was not one of those lakes in the northwestern New Jersey hills noted for containing such desirable sporting fish.  No, Dahnert’s Lake was located in a park in the neighboring town of Garfield, New Jersey.  I admit I have no insight to the system used for classifying standing bodies of water, but someone apparently mis-read their slide rule, or ignored the basic principles of geometry.  Dahnert’s Lake was far from being a lake, rather it was, a small murky pond with tiny island in the center of it, on which stood a single weeping willow tree.  Picnic tables and hibachi style grills dotted its shoreline, however nobody dared swim in the lake.  Dahnert’s was notable for being a prime place to ice skate if the winter’s chill was sufficient to make it freeze over.  People did fish here though, and the rumors of real fish that you could actually boast about catching being present in the lake, filled our young minds with such fantastical thoughts, we had to go there before all the good fish were caught!  Our enthusiasm was so great, our band of anglers grew to a party of eight.  The number being to great to fit in any parent’s car, we decided to hoof the 1.3 miles to Dahnert’s Lake.

Because we wanted to get the jump on the prize fish beneath the surface, we set off early with our fishing rods in one hand, tackle boxes in the other.  Arriving at the lake with the sun sitting low in the morning sky, we were astounded with the view that confronted us.  In the shallows surrounding the lakeshore were what appeared to be thousands of fish. The eight of us had never seen anything like it, I have never seen anything like it since.  However, all of the fish were carp!  In various shades ranging from brown to gold, their sucking mouths were gathering in tiny flying insects that had lit on the lake’s surface.  Remembering the rumor of bass being in the corner of the lake with the Water Lilies, several of us took off on a sprint.  Two of members of this group of runners were the Swiller brothers, whom I’ve referenced in a previous fishing memoir.  In what was becoming his trademark move, Robert Swiller began to lose his balance while running along a retaining wall and basically leapt into the pond.  His brother Cliff, ever so sympathetic, just shouted, “Get outta there now!”   It took him a couple of attempts, but Robert eventually climbed out.  Covered in muck and pond detritus from knees to feet, he sloshed off after us.  He fished in that condition for the balance of the morning.

Braking to a halt at the lilies, we saw the same phenomena we first observed, hundreds of carp scarfing down bugs.  Deciding the real fish were out in the deeper water near the small island at the lake’s center, I strung a heavy one ounce sinker to my line.  Stretching my fishing pole back almost to the ground, I swung my arm forward for a mighty cast.  I released the line and it shot out from the tip of my rod for about 3 feet, further progress stopped by a knot in my reel.  The sinker struck a goldfish near the shore right in its forehead.  A glazed look came to the carp’s eyes and, stunned, it rolled partially on its side and swam slowly in a wide circle.  Clearing the knot, I finally was able to cast my line to a spot where I was certain the prize fish were.  In a few moments, the tip of my rod quivered ever so slightly and I felt a series of light tugs on my line.  I had a hit!  I set the hook and began reeling in my prize.  I was disappointed to see my catch was a small sunfish, I think weighing only slightly more than my sinker.  Carefully extracting my hook, I tossed the little fish back and cast out to the deeper water again.  I noticed the goldfish I brained earlier had regained its composure and resumed sucking insects.  My subsequent casts resulted in catching more sunfish.  The carp began to abandon the shallows, but with bellies full of bugs, showed no interest in our earthworm baited hooks.  One of our party, who had been fishing at another spot on the lake, came trudging dejectedly to where we sat, equally discouraged by the low quality and quantity of fish we caught.  He had asked another fisherman where the trout and bass were.  The guy laughed and said something to the effect of any other lake but this one.  We came to the realization we had fully swallowed; hook, line and sinker, someone’s bait about prize fish swimming in Dahnert’s Lake.

A vintage, Shakespeare push button fishing reel, the reel I was using when I brained a goldfish. Mine was the same model & color as the one in the photo.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Memoir Writers Group

November 18, 2022

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