During the Cold War era following World War II, I was busy growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee—a “secret city” constructed by the federal government wholly and specifically to help develop and produce the world’s first atomic weapon. But as a five-year-old boy in 1957, my duties consisted only of attending school during the week and otherwise staying out of the house whenever my father was off shift from the Y-12 Plant (the nearby facility that made components for modern nuclear weapons). My father’s three rotating shifts meant he slept odd hours, and the thing he needed most in this world was sleep. Staying out of the house so my father could rest undisturbed also meant that my mother and her friends rotated us kids throughout homes in the neighborhood based on the same shifts. I’m sure they were concerned with our after-school enrichment, but perhaps they were as much concerned about keeping the peace at home.
Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi and her mother lived with her Granny and Granddaddy in a comfortable, but small, house on the west end of town. Little Suzi had lived with her grandparents for as long as she could remember and had no reason to think she might one day live anyplace else. But one day, while Suzi was out of school for the summer, her mommy came into the kitchen where Suzi was reading at the table and announced they would be moving.
“Suzi,” the mother told her little girl, “I have something important to tell you.”
“That’s good,” Little Suzi said absentmindedly as she went on reading her new library book, Charlotte’s Web. (She was a very good reader for her age, but Suzi had to concentrate and use Granny’s dictionary to look up the words she didn’t know—hard words like “rummaging” and “spinnerets” and “salutations”!)
“We’ll be moving soon,” Suzi’s mother continued as she sat down at the table next to the girl. “We’ll be moving to a new town not too far from here.”
That got her daughter’s attention, you can bet, and Suzi put down her chapter book and sat straight up in her chair. “But why?!” she asked. Continue reading
Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi lived in a cozy house on Magnolia Avenue with her mommy and daddy. Most days, Little Suzi was happy, but on one particular Saturday in March, while the little girl was reading a book to her dolls and stuffed animals, her mommy stopped by her room to tell her to ‘clean it up’: “Your room is very messy; you need to clean it up.”
It was not unusual at all for her mother to say this. In fact, she said it almost every Saturday, unless they both were busy with Campfire Girls or family bowling.
“You have such a nice room with your own bed, your own closet, and lots of toys and stuffed animals,” Suzi’s mommy often reminded her. “You should keep it nice so that when your friends come over, you can be proud of your room.”
And, normally, Little Suzi would reply to her mommy in the customary way, such as “OK, in a minute,” or “In a little while, when I finish this chapter of my book,” or “As soon as Albert finishes using the potty, so that he can clean up his mess too.”
Albert was Suzi’s invisible friend who sometimes helped her do her chores. With Albert’s help, she found it easier to get started and to finish things like putting her toys and books away, folding sheets and pillow cases for her mommy, and washing and drying dishes at the kitchen sink (while standing on stools so they both could reach).
But on this particular day, Little Suzi surprised her mother!
“I don’t want to clean up my room,” Little Suzi replied with her hands on her hips and in a stinky voice. “And, as you can see, I’m very busy right now reading this book about ‘Alice’ to Albert and these other children.”
Little Suzi immediately knew she had gone too far when her imaginary friend Albert said nothing, suddenly sat up stiffly beside her from where he had been looking at the pictures in the storybook as she read, and stared up at her with eyes wide and mouth open. And at that same moment, the little girl also knew it was too late to take it back now.
Stopping in her tracks, one step beyond her daughter’s door, Little Suzi’s mother wasn’t sure at first if she had heard what she thought she had heard.
“I beg your pardon, miss?” Suzi’s mommy pronounced as she stepped back in front of the open door to the room. Continue reading
Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi learned to play the piano by taking lessons from the very same teacher who taught her mother, Wilma, to play beautifully when she was a little girl. Wilma learned to play piano so skillfully and so beautifully that she and her teacher often played duets during recitals. Sometimes they even played “Rhapsody in Blue” on two different pianos at the same time!
“Don’t forget to use the bathroom here before you leave for Miss Virginia’s house, Suzi,” her mother told her every Tuesday afternoon before her lesson. “Remember, you can’t stop in the middle of a lesson or Miss Virginia will just send you back home!”
As if that weren’t scary enough, Little Suzi had to walk a whole block down Magnolia Avenue along a crooked old sidewalk shaded by giant magnolia and maple trees all the way to Miss Virginia Lee’s tall, dark old house perched on a low hill surrounded by a black wrought iron fence, like the ones you see around graveyards in the city.
To keep her company on the way, Suzi always brought along her imaginary friend Albert. As Little Suzi clutched her thin “Piano for Beginners” book under her little girl arm, she and Albert walked the long block from her house to Miss Virginia Lee’s house. There weren’t many other houses on the block in those days, so Suzi was glad for Albert’s company.
Suzi held Albert’s hand (or was he holding hers?) so that she could be brave and not scared to walk all the way to the tall house on the corner, up the tall steps from the street to the iron fence, and then up four more high stairs to the front porch of the grey and white house. Continue reading
Photo by Phil Nickell
Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi, her mother Wilma, and her grandparents decided to go for a Sunday afternoon picnic in the mountains of East Tennessee. It was late summer in the city near the mountains where Suzi’s grandparents lived in a small, square house with only a noisy electric fan in the window to help them through the hot and humid days.
Suzi’s granny, Eileen, made special-recipe fried chicken and her grandaddy, Manly, packed the car with the picnic basket, picnic blanket, and heavy fold-up wooden chairs. He put all these things in the trunk of the car so that Suzi, her mommy, and her granny had lots of room to sit inside. They needed lots of room because Suzi always brought her ‘friends’ with her on picnics: a tall baby doll with yellow hair, a monkey sewn from old socks, and a boy named Albert, whom no one else could see but who took up the whole middle seat in the rear of the car.
Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi saved a small part of her lunch every day to feed it to her new friend, Tony, the pony who lived in a grassy lot between two tall houses on the city block between her school and her happy little house on Azalea Avenue.
In a lot surrounded completely by a farm fence exactly as tall as Little Suzi was a tiny grey barn. For a long time, Suzi thought it was an empty barn left over from the olden days of the town. She often imagined the pigs, goats, and chickens that must have lived there years ago. Little Suzi wished the animals were there still and that she could feed them and take care of them in the barnyard.
In her mind, Little Suzi saw pigs wallow, baby goats jump up on their mothers’ backs, and sheep dogs herd lambs back to the pen. All these things she had seen in books her mother read to her when she was even more little than now. All these things she saw in her imagination.
While she stood at the fence beside the sidewalk, Little Suzi absent-mindedly took a red apple from her lunch bag and began to take small bites. She hadn’t had time to finish her lunch at school because Albert, her invisible friend, wasted too much time putting up their paints and glue. Of course, Albert never actually ate any food. He kept Little Suzi company while she ate quickly so that she could sit up close in front of the teacher for story time. That’s why she often had an apple left over from her lunch. Apples take a long time to eat.
It was exactly the apple from her lunch on this particular day that Little Suzi was eating when she first met ‘Tony’ the pony. Of course, he did not introduce himself to Suzi and Albert when he came clip-clopping slowly out of the shadow of his small barn. Suzi and Albert waited excitedly by the fence.
“I wonder what his name is?” Little Suzi said to Albert. Continue reading
Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi moved at the end of summer with her mother, Wilma, into a small apartment in a town that was new to them both. At first, Little Suzi didn’t want to move at all, because it meant leaving her grandparent’s house in a city where she had lived all of her seven years so far. And, worse yet, it meant leaving her granny and granddaddy behind.
“You’ll miss me too much,” Suzi told her granddaddy. “You won’t have anyone to play checkers with or watch boxing on TV. And who’ll help you dig dandelions out of the yard before you mow the grass?” And later, Suzi told her granny, “Who’ll lick the big spoon when you make chocolate icing? And who’ll watch the cookies and cakes in the oven so they don’t burn?”
Little Suzi’s mommy didn’t want her daughter to feel sad, but it couldn’t be helped. “I know you don’t want to leave Granny and Granddaddy,” Suzi’s mommy explained. “Neither do I, but we must. The old factory where I work—the one Granny and Granddaddy worked in years ago—well, it’s closing down. I was lucky to find a new job in a town near here. It’s not really very far away. We can visit Granny and Granddaddy on weekends.”
Little Suzi understood, but something else was worrying her now. “How will I get back here to my school after we move?” She liked her school and she liked her teacher at the red brick schoolhouse in the city. And she liked her little friends in her class.
“Will a bus pick me up and bring me there?” she asked her mommy.
“Oh, no, darling!” Suzi’s mommy answered. “It’s much too far away for that.”
“You mean I can’t go to school anymore?”
Little Suzi was nearly in tears at the thought of being alone all day with nothing to do and no grandparents or friends to play with (except, of course, her imaginary, invisible friend Albert).
Suzi’s mommy smiled at her daughter. “I would never move to a town with no schools! You’ll have a new school in our new town and you’ll make new friends.” Then she hugged her daughter close to her skirts and patted her hair to comfort and reassure her.
Little Suzi’s invisible friend Albert had been quiet until now, but he couldn’t hold out any longer: Well, that’s too bad. I could do without any old school. First grade was alright, but now that place takes up a lot of our play time, what with all that useless readin’ and writin’ and ‘rithmatic and such.
Suzi heard what Albert said, but she decided to wait until her mommy left the room to scold him. “I like school,” Suzi told the silly boy. “Besides, you need to go to school. You don’t want to grow up ignorant, do you?!”
But Albert apparently didn’t care about growing up ignorant, because he answered her by crossing his eyes and sticking out his devilish tongue at her.
It was not very long before Little Suzi found herself living in the new town with her mommy and getting ready to start her new school. They did miss Granny and Granddaddy, but Suzi would be very busy in school, so the sunny autumn days would go by quickly. All was well—and even Albert had to admit their new garden apartment in the town was a nice place to live—but there was one big change that Suzi had not expected. Continue reading
I looked forward to retirement more than many, I think, because I longed for a day of leisurely fishing not rushed by weekend chores and family commitments. And it’s not like I don’t live close enough to good fishing holes to make it easy for me to get out there. A number of man-made lakes and outstanding fishing creeks are located less than an hour from my home in East Tennessee.
Crappie run well here in the spring, so one Saturday morning a fishing buddy from across the street and I hooked up my 17-foot skiff just after daybreak and took off for Clear Creek cove on Tellico Lake. The ‘creek’ runs as a current about 30 feet below the surface off the main reservoir built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1979.
After our drive across the Fort Loudon Dam bridge that morning and our arrival at the Clear Creek boat ramp, the boat engine started right up on the second crank after sitting idle through the whole winter. In just a few minutes, we were off the trailer, through the highway overpass, and on our fishing hole for a promising day.
Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi and a little boy named Denny played together behind his house atop Highland Avenue. Suzi’s mother often brought her over for a visit, because her mommy, Wilma, and Denny’s mommy, Nancy, had been best of friends since high school, and they lived only one block away from one another even to this day.
On a particularly nice Tuesday in June, Suzi and her mommy got up early in the morning to have breakfast before getting ready to go to Denny’s house. They decided to have pancakes and maple syrup, which Suzi called maple syrple because it was fun to say. (She learned that from her granddaddy.) When they had finished eating and then scraped their plates into the kitchen garbage can and washed and rinsed them in the sink, Suzi’s mother reminded her to go wash her face and brush her teeth to get ready to go to Denny’s house.
“May I take Albert upstairs with me? Or do you need him to stay here in the kitchen and help you?” Suzi asked her mother that morning.
Albert was Suzi’s imaginary friend. He was a little boy her own age who went with her everywhere—even to school—and sometimes got her in trouble. When she was little, before she grew big enough to go to school, Suzi often talked to Albert out loud. But after she started first grade and some of the kids at school teased her about it, Suzi whispered to Albert, unless she forgot.
“You can take Albert upstairs with you. I won’t miss him,” her mother replied with a slight smile. But then she added, “I don’t want to hear any more sob stories about how you can’t find your hairbrush because Albert used it on the neighbor’s dog or how you can’t clean your teeth because Albert lost your toothbrush…again. I found it between the towels in the linen closet this time, you know.”
“We had better get on upstairs, Albert,” Suzi whispered to her imaginary friend.
Okey dokey, dominokey, Albert replied to Little Suzi. That was one of Albert’s favorite sayings. He also liked ‘easy peazy, lemon squeezy,’ and so did Little Suzi. Continue reading
One day in May, a strange animal swam about in a pond.
He asked every animal he met the same question.
“What are you?” the animal asked a frog.
“I’m a frog, of course. Why do you ask?”
“Am I a frog?” the strange animal asked.
“Well, you have webbed feet like a frog. Do you jump like a frog?”
“No, I do not jump,” the strange animal answered.
“Then you are not a frog,” said the frog.
So, the strange animal swam about in the pond.
He asked every animal he met the same question.
“What are you?” the animal asked a duck.
“I’m a duck, of course. Why do you ask?”
“Am I a duck?” the strange animal asked.
“Well, you have a long flat bill like a duck, and you have webbed feet like a duck.
Do you quack like a duck?”
“No, I do not quack,” the strange animal answered.
“Then you are not a duck,” said the duck.
So, the strange animal swam about in the pond. He asked every animal he met
the same question.
“What are you?” the animal asked a beaver.
“I’m a beaver, of course. Why do you ask?”
“Am I a beaver?” the animal asked the beaver.
“Well, you have a wide flat tail like a beaver, but do you have big sharp teeth
to cut down a tree?”
“No, I do not have big sharp teeth,” the strange animal answered.
“Then you are not a beaver,” said the beaver.
So, the strange animal swam about in the pond. He asked every animal he met
the same question.
“What are you?” the animal asked an otter.
“I’m an otter, of course. Why do you ask?”
“Am I an otter?” the strange animal asked.
“Well, you have a slick furry coat like an otter, but do you have a long tail
to help you swim under water?”
“No, I do not have a long tail,” the strange animal answered.
“Then you are not an otter,” said the otter.
Finally, the strange animal stopped swimming about
and thought to himself:
I am not a frog, but I have webbed feet.
I am not a duck, but I have a long flat bill.
I am not a beaver, but I have a wide flat tail.
I am not an otter, but I have a slick furry coat.
What kind of animal am I?
“Why, you’re a platypus, of course. Why do you ask?”
Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi traveled downtown to see her doctor with her mommy, Wilma. For this visit, they did not travel the several city blocks there on a bus or in a cab, as they usually did. Instead, they rode in a car that Suzi’s mommy borrowed from her friend Nancy (her best friend from high school days who now lived only one block away).
“We’re running a little late for Suzi’s pediatrician appointment,” Wilma had told her friend over the phone at noon on this beautiful but hot summer day. “Suzi isn’t back from helping her granddaddy tie stakes to his tomato plants next to his backyard shed. I need to borrow your car if we are going to make it to the doctor’s office on time.”
“Well, my little Denny is still taking his nap,” Nancy told her friend, “so why don’t you walk over here to my house and get the keys and drive yourself?”
“That’s wonderful of you,” Wilma replied gratefully. “I’ll be there in a jiffy.”
And so Suzi’s mommy put on her red lipstick, picked up her black clutch purse, put on her sunglasses, tied her new sky blue silk scarf around her hair—to block the wind from the rolled down car windows—and walked briskly up the block to Nancy’s house.
“Thanks so much, Nancy,” Wilma said on the front porch as her friend handed over the keys to the four-door Buick parked on the street outside. “You’re a life saver.”
It was just a week before school would start for Little Suzi in the first grade at the red and white brick schoolhouse only two blocks away from their small white frame house on Magnolia Avenue. And so Suzi’s mommy needed to get her child’s inoculation record up to date to show the school nurse on the first day of class.
“What’s a ‘noculation?” Suzi had asked her invisible friend Albert after hearing her mother talk about it to Miss Nancy on the phone earlier in the week.
I don’t know, Albert told his friend, but I think the nurse sticks medicine in your arm and then gives you a lollypop if you’re good. Can I have one too?
No, a lollypop!
“Sure,” Suzi told Albert. “You can have mine if the nurse won’t give you one of your own.”
*** Continue reading
Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi was sitting quietly on the back stairs of her house and reading a favorite book about a brave girl who had great adventures, met many odd people and creatures in strange places, and even fought a dragon once.
“I want to be like Alice when I grow up,” Little Suzi told her imaginary friend Albert who was sitting beside the little girl (hoping that she would read to him out loud, which she very often did).
I want to be like Alice, too! Albert exclaimed to his friend.
“But, she’s a girl,” Little Suzi was careful to explain. “You’re a boy.”
Oh, replied Albert with disappointment. Well, read to me anyway.
Little Suzi had just started a new chapter when Denny, her play pal from up the street, came walking through the alley that ran behind and between their houses atop Highland Avenue. As usual, Denny was proudly wearing his Roy Rogers cowboy hat and shirt and his cowboy boots. The pant legs of his blue jeans were tucked inside the boot tops, the way a real cowboy would do.
Denny often came over to Suzi’s house on Saturdays to play ‘Cowboys and Indians’. Little Suzi would be Pocahontas (she had real Cherokee moccasins of her own) and Albert would be her papoose—whenever she could talk him into it.
But this particular morning, Denny carefully cradled an old shoe box in his arms, and from Suzi’s perch on the back stairs, she could see something furry and small moving about inside it, which interested her very much.
“Want a kitten?” Denny asked cheerfully as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “Mommy says I can’t keep it.” Continue reading
A ‘Kylie Anne’ poem
A little girl turtle swam in the sea
Alongside her mother and father.
They took her on swims in the swirling surf,
And they fed her whatever she wanted.
At night is when they liked to swim most
(like little kayaks, but rounder than boats).
At morning light, when the air was soft,
They would climb out and go about crawling.
All that swimming, you see, was tiring for three
Turtles with tummies empty and gnawing.
Out on the beach, there’s not much to eat
For turtles all weary and hungry.
So what might they like? What might be tasty?
Could it be strawberries and pastry?
If it’s not what the pelicans swoop down and dive for
Or what the seagulls hover and cry for,
What would you think might light up their eyes
When they stop at their ‘seaside diner’?
Like blueberry pancakes for granddaughters like you,
What makes these turtles so happy?
Do you have a guess? Do you have a clue?
If not, let me help you think it through…
If you had a beak, and not your teeth,
You might like things that are crunchy.
Not spaghetti, not cheese,
Not honey from bees,
Not biscuits and blackberry jelly,
Not hot dogs and beans,
Not cake with ice cream,
No, not even cotton candy.
For turtles big and small,
Just so you will know,
Their favorites are…
Seaweed and jellies!
“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”—Benjamin Franklin (attrib.)
If ever you’ve been on a quiet lake in summer, late in the day when the sun is low on the horizon and your body and mind are at peace with the world, you might be privileged to witness the spectacle of thousands of shimmering diamonds of reflected sunlight dancing across ripples of waves on the surface. It’s a soul-mending suspension in time like a liquid dream. But let me stop you right there, because my dream of a trip down the Tennessee River began with a discussion about bologna and beer, not a crock of wimpy poetic stuff.
I had only contemplated the idea—just the possibility, really—of taking a long-range river trip before I got too old or too lazy. I started thinking about it after I discovered through my lovely, dear wife (she may be reading this over my shoulder right now) introduced me to Jack, the spouse of a former teacher colleague of hers. The introduction was well-intended as our wives knew we had a love of boating in common, but they later regretted it, because at every opportunity from that point on, we discussed boats and taking a boating trip ad nauseam. Jack and I had our first serious phone conversation about a trip down river several months after our first meeting. It occurred at the very end of winter at the height of our cabin fever and went something like this:
“How many days would it take to go from here all the way down the Tennessee and back, do you think?” Continue reading
Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a boy named Ken became a Boy Scout because he loved to hike in the mountains among the trees. Before he was old enough for the Scouts, Ken had often imagined himself as a young Daniel Boone in the pioneer days, scouting for deer or bear in the woods and camping by the streams at night. These were great adventures that called on him to use all his bravery and skills to survive. So as soon as he was old enough, Ken joined his friends in sixth grade who were already Scouts. They sometimes hiked all day among the trees and streams, cooked their dinners in the evenings at campfires on the mountain, and pitched their pup tents near streams that ran down over the rocks and into the valley.
In spring and summer, the mountains were cool on hot days. Fog shrouded the creek banks and coves until the mid-morning sun burned off the mists and heated up the trail. Deer ran quietly through the lowlands at dawn and dusk. They were far off and beautiful as they crossed the damp grasses and jumped over old stone or split rail fences in the fields.