Saturday, November 13, 2010

In which NaNoWrimo reveals my true thoughts about elections

November 12th, 2010 Skookum Tribune issue number whatever, volume whatever
“It’s all Okay”
Meet the Vitriolic Candidates
By Annabeth Spencer

Senate candidates Jack deKost and Dick Olson have been adversaries for a long time.

deKost was a star football player at Skookum High in 1977. Olson led the Skookum basketball team to the State Championships that year.

In college, they both played baseball: deKost played for the WSU Cougars, and Olson pitched for the arch-rival UW Huskies.

For the last decade, they have opposed each other as County Councilmen, and as local businessmen.

This year, the two adversaries faced each other once again: in an election bid for the Senate.

deKost, a Republican, thinks that incombent Olson spends too much time in “the other Washington” and spends too much money on frivolous projects that local constituents don’t support.

Olson, a Democrat, thinks that deKost wants to supports big business to the detriment of local people, and thinks that people who make a lot of money should pay some taxes on it.

Nation-wide, advertisements and press conferences leading up to the recent election have been full of the worst sort the vitriol and mud-slinging, but in the race between these two longtime local antagonists, the rhetoric has been especially cutthroat. The thick forest of campaign signs dueling out on the main highway indicates the high level of commitment each candidate has to “beat the other guy.”

The struggle between the two candidates has been so intensely personal that many constituents feel that both men sometimes completely ignore both the voters and the political issues that the race really should address.

Now, the election is over, but neither side has gained a clear victory yet. With fewer than 60 votes separating deKost from Olson, the auditor’s office is currently undertaking a mandatory recount, which is proceeding slowly but steadily. The results should be available next week…and in the meantime, the bitter rhetoric between the red and blue camps continues.

High-ranking campaign workers from both sides appear daily on local radio and television, as well as holding forth for hours at a time at various times during the day at the Red Robin Café, accusing the other of trying to rush the elections office in order to “steal” votes.

Local voters are tired of the feuding and fussing, and the letters to this newspaper reflect this weariness. “Find a way to settle your hot tempers while we all wait for the results,” our readers advised the candidates, “because you both make us sorry we have to choose either of you.”

With this in mind, the Skookum Tribune, sKOOK radio’s morning host Dave Owens “Your Buddy Dave”, and the Skookum School District held a unprecedented post-election event last Saturday evening:

A water balloon fight between Jack deKost and Dick Olson.

“Theoretically, this is a fundraiser for the Skookum PTA,” Dave Owens told the capacity crowd at the Skookum High School gymnasium. “But we know what we’re really here to see, don’t we?”

The crowd roared in agreement, waving signs and flags to support their candidate. Negative campaign signs were disallowed from the event—a large banner above the gym door stated the rule clearly: “If you can’t say something nice, you should have run for the office yourself.”

Instead, handmade placards said things like, “Just Go Do the Job” and “The election is over, and the public won.” One sign, which event moderator Owens read aloud to the audience, said “I don’t know either of these guys so I drew a bunny.”

As people entered the gym building, they could stop at a booth in the lobby to purchase water balloons for the candidates to throw. The cost was a dollar per water balloon, or twenty-five balloons for twenty dollars. Special balloons filled with red or blue Jello were available at a cost of fifty bucks each, with every cent of the money going into the district PTA coffers. Officers of the elementary school PTA took the money, and local boy- and girl-scout troops filled and stacked the buckets of wobbly bombs.

At precisely seven o’clock, balloon sales ended, Dave Owens called the crowd to order, and the two candidates, dressed in sober business suits were brought to a center-court platform built especially for the event by school district parents and teachers.

“The rules are simple,” the moderator told deKost and Olson. “You must stay within your own boundary box to throw your balloons, and you may not throw balloons at your opponent when he’s out of his box. You may make a ten-second political statement every time you come out of your box to re-load your buckets, using the microphone in this specially-built protective shower stall. If you talk longer than ten seconds, we will unplug your microphone for the duration of the event. If you are out of the box for more than 30 seconds, you forfeit a bucket of balloons. Volunteers are standing by with stop watches to keep you on task. Do you understand?”

The candidates nodded, shook hands, and waved to the crowd as they took their places on the platform and then for nearly two hours they raced between stage and microphone for light-hearted, messy, fun, more reminiscent of a comedy television show than an election event.

As the organizers had hoped, the balloon bash was a huge success. The voters and the candidates had a good laugh and all for a good cause: the Skookum PTA raised more than five thousand dollars from the sale of water balloons and Jello.

Friday, November 12, 2010

In which I haven't forgotten to ride my horse in the (rare) sunshine

Group ride today!

Physically, Fiddle is acceptably fit. Her training is progressing nicely on trails and in the arena. I can point her at any trail, over any obstacle, and I can trust her to navigate safely through all kinds of terrain.

But her manners in a group still need work, so out we went today.
Dory remembers when Fiddle was a gawky, angry toddler. It's nice to have someone alone who can say, "no really, this horse is greatly improved." Fee still pins her ears at other horses, especially Shine
but she no longer tries to bite them, and she doesn't even try to kick. Well, not very often.
Patty is getting her "baby" horse Shine, plus her other "baby" horse Fly (ridden by Kendall today) ready for the 2011 XP Ride: 2000 miles along the old Pony Express trail. Both horses will be 9 years old in the spring, but Patty starts her horses slowly and with great care. The XP ride will consist of 8 weeks of 5 day (50 mile) rides, starting in Joseph Missouri and tentatively ending in Virginia City, Nevada--a wonderful challenge on some of the coolest historic trail in the United States.

If anybody ever wants to know, XP is my dream ride. As much as I yearn to do the Tevis, if they made me choose between doing Tevis and riding for 8 weeks on the Pony Express trails, I wouldn't blink before choosing the XP. Now, if only I could convince my employer to give me an 8 week sabbatical....

Sigh. Some day, I'll do it. I don't know when, or how. But some day I will do it.
Meantime, the sun is shining (a little) and the sky isn't dripping, which makes it a perfect day to head out on the local trails. We took the steep training trail that Dory calls the Hill of Death and I call the Ice Cream Cone of Doom. It's a mile and a half of steady uphill logging road.
Fiddle and Spot took turns "motivating" each other to keep the pace brisk. When she's by herself, Fee does not enjoy this hill, but with another horse alongside, the competition makes it more fun for her.

Can I just say that this:

is not okay. Okay? For $20, the county landfill will dispose of the vacuum cleaner, the carpet cleaner, the gigantic box fan and whatever else. Grrr.

Sensible Horse says: trash is distasteful, not scary. We all walked past calmly, even the "babies."

Speaking of not-scary things:
A white tarp on the ground is not scary if it's lurking at the top of a steep 1.5 mile hill. All four horses walked on it without turning an ear.

Then, back down the hill
through the woods
past the (not scary) logging equipment
into the sunshine.
Life is good. Even during NaNoWriMo. It's really, really, good.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

In which there's a new NaNoWriMo chapter: meet the pinata guy

November 4th, 2010 Skookum Tribune issue number whatever, volume whatever
Meet the Piñata Guy
By Annabeth Spencer

“I made my very first papier-mâché creation when I was six years old,” Jimmy Jack Johnson explains. “It was a school thing. There were two kids from Mexico in the kindergarten class that year—not migrants, but kids who actually lived in Skookum all year ‘round."

The experience of having two Mexican immigrants enrolled at Skookum Elementary was new. Prior to that time, Skookum had educated the children of local farmers, loggers, and other blue-collar families of northern-European descent, mostly 3rd and 4th generation Swedes and Norwegians, plus a few Gaelic or Germanic mongrels who had wandered away from their families and their homelands in search of a better life as far away from the Old Country as they could manage with just one ticket across the Atlantic Ocean.

Juan and Miguel were different from their classmates, not only because of the color of their skin and the language that they spoke at home, and not even because Juan was in a wheelchair, but most especially because their mother was an artist. Guadalupe Maria Theresa Garcia Hernandez was well-known in Mexico for the brilliantly-colored murals that she painted on the walls of towns and villages, depicting local life and flora and fauna. The closest Skookum had ever had to an artistic citizen before Guadalupe Hernandez moved to town was Chaza Cheveux, owner of the hair salon downtown.

Mrs Baumgartner, the Hernandez boys’ kindergarten teacher at Skookum Elementary, decided that it was time for the little school by the river to get some diversity. The kindergarten class led the rest of the school in an exploratory journey of the Mexican culture. The entire school learned a new Spanish word each day, taught by Juan and Miguel. One day each month, a different class would be visited by a member of the Hernandez family and taught to make a simple, traditional Mexican dish, like tacos or burritos.

In December that year, the second and third-grade classes learned to make piñatas.

Jimmy Jack remembers the day: “I made a gigantic pig piñata, and I painted it blue and orange. I chose blue and orange because those were the two colors of tempura paint in our classroom that didn’t crack and fall apart right away when they dried. I was only six years old, but I was already becoming picky about the quality of my art supplies. My dad probably would have called that a sign of things to come, if he’d known about it. He told my mother that I painted the pig blue and orange so that it would be noticed. He was always on my case about being a show-off, like that was the worst thing he could imagine anybody trying to be; like being different from everybody else was worse than being a thief or a murderer or somebody who cheats on their taxes. I wasn’t more of a show-off than a lot of the other kids. But I wanted my pig piñata to look nice. When Mrs Hernandez told me that the antlers and the two extra legs on my pig piñata gave it extra style, I was proud. I wanted to be an artist, just like her. But my dad said it was a crazy thing I had made, some kind of weird mutant thing, and it’s a good thing that it was meant to be hit with sticks. I don’t think he meant to hurt my feelings. He wanted me to have practical skills, like him. And I do. I can split wood and change an oil filter and wire a house. But I knew early-on that I didn’t want to spend my whole life doing stuff like that.

“In high school I got pretty good grades because I wanted to get into art school. I knew my family didn’t have money to pay for tuition at an art school, so I really hustled to get accepted to a good school that had lots of scholarships and financial aid available. My first week in art school, I thought, “I’ve spent my whole life waiting for this.” I learned a lot about art while I was there, different techniques and stuff that I’d never heard of, back in Skookum. I loved my sculpting classes and oil paintings, and even photography.

“My big break came my senior year when I was home for Christmas break. I met up with the Hernandez family at the Food4Less, and Mrs Hernandez asked me about school. We ended up talking for a long time, there in the produce aisle, and finally she told me about a friend of hers in Seattle who had a booth at the Pike Place Market downtown, selling handmade piñatas to the tourists. She said the guy was doing pretty well, and he was looking to take on an apprentice…she got really excited, talking to me, because Peter Ramirez, that was her friend, was discouraged by the artists who said they wanted to work with him, but really they wanted to have a cushy job at the Market. She called Ramirez and told him that I was a good artist and a good worker. I started working there right after Christmas, and I’m still there, all these years later!”

Peter Ramirez taught Jimmy Jack the ropes of both making the colorful piñatas and selling them at the Market. “At first, he wouldn’t let me talk to the people, because my Spanish was so bad. He thought that nobody would want to buy piñatas from a gringo. I guess he was somehow thinking that if I learned to speak Spanish properly, people wouldn’t notice that I have blonde hair!”

Jimmy Jack eventually built his own clientele of piñata-buyers. “The Mexican people, they still wanted to buy the stuff that Ramirez makes, the traditional stuff. But a lot of the tourists coming to visit Seattle, they didn’t want traditional Mexican crafts. They wanted something edgy, something different. I remembered that six-legged pig piñata, back in second grade, and one day I thought, “why not try it?” I spent an entire weekend making crazy animals: pink and orange porcupines, yellow dogs with wings. Crazy, silly stuff that looked like it came out of, I dunno, like Yellow Submarine in Wonderland. I even did a self-portrait piñata of myself: a big pencil with a beard and wireframed glasses, wearing yellow coveralls and Birkenstocks. I sold out of all those crazy piñatas on the first day—but Ramirez wouldn’t let me sell the pencil. He told me to save it, and use it as my trademark—so now, I paint a little bearded pencil on the bottom of each of my piñatas, so people will not only remember my art, they’ll remember me.”

How does one make a living from piñatas?

Jimmy Jack is now a partner with his former mentor Peter Ramirez. They each work at the market 3 days per week, and spend the remainder of their time creating new piñatas to sell. Each piece needs about two weeks from start-to-finish, to make sure that the layers of papier-mâché are sufficiently dry to accept the tissue-paper, paint, foil, glass, and shiny plastic decorations that cover them completely.

“Dryness is a big issue for this type of art,” Jimmy Jack says, “especially in the wet, winter months.”

His shop at the back side of his father’s car repair business (now run by Jimmy Jack’s younger brother James Jay) is a large, bright cavern with huge windows for natural light to supplement the long florescent shop-lights suspended from the ceiling. The outside of the building is a landmark in town, because on the day the two brothers closed the purchase of the shop from their father, Guadalupe Maria Theresa Garcia Hernandez herself showed up with the entire family, a truck full of paints and brushes and food, and a boombox with a stack of Mexican party music. In a single day, the Hernandez family artists transformed the Johnson Repair Shop by covering it with a colorful, custom-drawn mural depicting the two young men who now owned the building. The car-repair side of the building is decorated with bright-hued cars, trucks, and busses filled with candy and balloons. A life-sized portrait of a grinning James Jay with extends his hand over around to the artist's studio side of the building, to shake with a life-sized grinning portrait of Jimmy Jack, dressed in his trademark yellow coveralls and Birkenstocks, who extends a hand and a paintbrush back to his brother. Behind the painted Jimmy Jack can be seen a wild menagerie of fanciful, many-legged giraffes, monkeys, birds, and insects, painted in the uniquely flowing style made famous by Guadalupe Hernandez.

Inside, the shop is filled with papier-mâché creations in all stages of development. Pallets of newspapers are stacked neatly by the floor-to-ceiling roll-up door. Bookshelves scavenged from garage sales are filled with buckets of paints, jars of beads, rolls of ribbons and crepe papers, and bottles of glitter in a rainbow of colors. Five-gallon buckets of glue are stacked neatly beside an oversized stainless steel double sink.

Four large banquet tables are covered with newspaper-coated balloon heads, legs, tails, and wings, set out to dry under slowly rotating ceiling fans. Partially-built piñatas dance, twirl and jig, suspended by fishing line from racks built especially to allow the artist to assemble his creations in three dimensions. Nearly-finished piñatas hang from the ceiling near the large street-level window, peering out with swirling, googly eyes to the people walking by on other business as the art awaits a last coat of shellac and dusting of glitter.

The odor pervading the shop is a heady scent, a delightful combination reminiscent of spicy tea and elementary-school art projects.

On a large drawing table by the window overlooking the river, sketches for new designs are surrounded by notes and doodles. Random words are stuck to the drawings with post-it notes, words like “BLUE” “ANTENNAE” and “SEQUINS.” Circles and swooping arrows connect drawings to other drawings, connecting cat eyes to dragon heads and lion bodies to bat wings.

The cinderblock wall separating the papier-mâché shop from the adjacent garage is adorned with photographs of customers and their fanciful purchases. A little boy brandishes a pirate piñata nearly as tall as himself. Two short-haired women perch fanciful hat-shaped piñatas on their heads. An elderly couple cradles a grinning, winged kitten. All of the people in the photographs are smiling.

It’s impossible not to smile back at them.

The workshop for Original Piñatas is located in the old Johnson Repair workshop at the Corner of Salmon Avenue and Blackberry Street. The shop is open to the public on Thursdays and Saturdays, and by special appointment. Tours and school groups are encouraged to visit. Groups of children or adults may also reserve a “Creative Friday” workshop day at Original Piñatas. “Creative Fridays” are an outstanding, fun and rewarding activity for birthday parties, visiting relatives, neighborhood groups, and other fun occasions. These events can be catered by special arrangement with the Red Robin Café. For more information, call Jimmy Jack’s Original Piñatas during normal business hours. Jimmy Jack’s artwork is very messy, so he is sometimes unable to answer the phone immediately; please leave a message and he will return calls when his hands are clean again.

In which we honor some veterans, and there is a little milestone

Before Jim became Farmer Jim, he was Computer Geek Jim. But before that, he was Sargeant Jim. 20 years of service in the navy and army.

There's been an interesting discussion on Facebook this week between the members of my family. It all started with this photo of my Uncle Bud Barrett, posted by his daughter Sandi:
As is common on FB, there was a little smattering of comments about the photo and the handsomeness and youth of the sailor in it...and then some stories started to emerge about this young sailor.

Apparently, Bud was too young to join the navy, but my grandmother signed a waiver allowing him to enlist at age 17. Bud's older brother, my Uncle Don, was posted in Hawaii and Bud managed to get a posting there too--they were excited that they'd both be taking it easy in Hawaii for Christmas that year. Unfortunately for the folks in Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they had a very different experience than the beachside holiday they had envisioned.

Bud was on the USS Nevada when it was torpedoed--he swam to safety!

What a story!

I had only known one "family" Pearl Harbor story before Sandi posted this one. My grandfather (not the father of my Uncles Bud and Don--our family is complicated) did not want to be in Hawaii for Christmas. He had a wife and two little sons (my dad and my Uncle Bob) at home in Bremerton, so he traded orders with another guy. That other guy was posted to the USS Arizona.

There, but for the grace.

Does your family have stories like that? I didn't know the story about Uncle Bud until yesterday...maybe, if there are older members of your family who are still around to ask, you could ask them about their lives during WWII. These stories are too good to lose.

On a more contemporary note, I got an envelope in the mail from the AERC yesterday. Inside the envelope:
my 500-mile Limited Distance patch. It's taken me eleven years to get 500 LD miles. (The lower patch in the photo is my endurance patch, for miles accumulated in distances of 50-miles and longer).

I got curious about how I spent those 500 LD miles, so I looked up my record: Story was my mount for 250 of those miles, beginning in 1999. Toad carried me for 3 LD rides; David and Jennifer's kindly horse Laser was loaned to me for a sunny day in 2003, and I borrowed Blaze for a ride in 2007. This year, Fiddle and I completed 5 LD rides, which bumped us over the 500-mile mark.

It's been a long and lovely journey, and we ain't done yet.

Happy Veterans Day, y'all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In which there is yet another NaNoWriMo Chapter: crazy stuff

I'm really having fun with writing this year. Last year was pure torment, and my only joy in the project was when I got to kill off ALL my characters at the end of November 2009.

This year, though, I am enjoying all the silliness that apparently exists in my little town of Skookum.

I'm still looking for more characters, by the way. More girls and women, I think. I've got a chapter in the works, an interview with the fabulous and beloved Lulu Rubidoux, and also a really fun one about the town librarian and her unusual, um, collection. But I want more, more more! Leave your ideas in the comments, okay?

September 17th, 2010 Skookum Tribune issue number whatever, volume whatever

Meet: The Mad Scientists

By Annabeth Spencer

Greg, Reg, Tom, Cyril and Dan didn’t want to be called “The Mad Scientists.”

“It sounds so…you know, so Boris Karloff,” Danny says. “I wanted us to be called something like “Pilchuck Engineering Research and Development Club.” And the other guys had other ideas. But nothing really stuck. And when we were filling out the paperwork to get money from the Associated Student Body, we were in a huge hurry, and we just left that part blank, and figured we’d fill it in later, but then we hit the deadline so we submitted it...and when they asked Lulu Rubidoux in the office which group we were, I guess she just said the name that everybody called us anyhow: Mad Scientists.

“These days, we’ve kind of embraced the name, though,” Cyril says, from his vantage point above the others, who are clanking away on a four-wheeled contraption the size of a draft horse. Cyril is installing lights onto the roof of the gadget, and periodically calls out numbers to Tom, who is operating a bank of switches on the dashboard of the gadget.

The boys were identified by the school as the Mad Scientists Club for two years, until somebody noticed the name of their civilian advisor.

Tom continues the story: “There was a problem with Edsel [Rabin] being on campus to advise us, because of that thing with the pot plants a few years ago. The school board got all crazy, and said that they couldn’t allow us to be advised by a criminal, even though what we were working on had nothing to do with what he was arrested for. Well, it usually didn’t have anything to do with it, anyhow,” he quickly amends, after the boys around him snort quietly. “But by that time, we were deeply involved with a project, getting it ready to go to the state Science Fair. We could still enter the fair if we weren’t a school club, but we couldn’t get school money to pay for the entry fee and transportation costs. So our moms got together and decided to sell brownies outside the Food 4 Less market to help us raise money…yeah, that raised a few eyebrows, you know, brownies, given the circumstances. But people bought those brownies like crazy, and they made enough to send us to State, and then to Regionals when we cleaned up at State. We got cut at the Regional level, though, and then it was back to the drawing board for us for another year.”

Now Danny picks up the narrative again. “We need Edsel because he has all these crazy, insane ideas. Most people at the local science fairs, they make the same old rocket ships and solar stoves and stuff, every year. And then when you get to the State level and beyond, a lot of kids are working with, like, world-class medical labs or something. We don’t have the financial backing to build something really amazingly high-quality, so if we want to do well at the national level, we need to bring something completely new, completely out-of-the-box, something so different that nobody else would ever think of doing it.

“Teachers don’t have those kind of ideas, but Edsel does. This year, we made it to Nationals just because nobody at Regionals could believe that we’d built a photosynthesizing hat.”

A photosynthesizing hat?

The boys grin, and point out a wall covered with paper diagrams and figures that look like a steampunked horticultural exhibit.

“Edsel always wants us to use stuff that we have a lot of and don’t want, to make something we need and don’t have enough of,” explains Danny.

“So, for every project, before we have even a vague idea of what we want to do, we make a gigantic list of stuff that the world has too much of. And then we put all that stuff on notecards, you know: one thing on each card. Like a card might say, “carbon dioxide” and another card might say, “broken glass” and another one says “dog poop.” Then we make another list of stuff we want, like “faster computers” and “clean water” and “pesticide-free food” and “world peace.” And we put all that stuff on notecards, too.

Then we go over to Edsel’s, um, place. And we sit around there for, like, hours, dealing out the cards in random pairs, and brainstorming what we could do with them. Like, how would you make world peace from dog poop, I’m not sure. But the rules are that we have to take every random pair seriously, because it could be the next great, crazy idea. That’s how we came up with the photosynthesizing hat.”

Reg explains the project with great sweeping motions of his arms against the diagrams on the wall. “One of the things my mom always says is that the world is too full of dandelions, so last year we put dandelions on the list. And then we paired up the word “dandelions” with the card that said “warm ears.” Because Edsel is always complaining that he’s cold in winter, even with a million warm coats and stuff. So then we got to thinking about those two things, and how we could use dandelions to make warm ears.

“We spent a lot of time at first thinking about burning dandelions, about crushing the stems and flowers to make a cellulose paste that we could burn, and stuff like that. But that was really a dead end. Dandelions are full of watery sap that doesn’t burn very well, and when you dry out dandelion leaves and flowers, there isn’t much left, mostly just dust. Then we were thinking maybe some kind of fermentation process, because Edsel, um, knows about that stuff. But the Science Fair rules are pretty strict about alcohol production, so we abandoned that. Then one day we were, um, sitting around at Edsel’s place, and then Edsel stood up and hollered “photosynthesis!” which didn’t make sense at the time because we were talking about baseball, but then we figured out that photosynthesis was a way that dandelions make energy to fuel the plant, and if we could tap that energy, maybe we convert the energy to heat.”

The diagrams show a complicated process, involving dandelion plants growing on a snug cap made of corn fibers felted together with sheep wool (“My sister raised two sheep for 4-H, so it was pretty easy to get some wool,” explains Dan). Once the plants sprout, the roots are woven together in a middle layer, which contains more wool and corn fiber. The hat is soaked in water twice per week (unless worn in the rain), and allowed to sit outdoors during any daylight hours that the user isn’t wearing it.

“Combined energy from the active layers of live plant and the insulating layers of the wool creates a hat that creates and retains significantly more heat than an ordinary wool or synthetic hat,” according to the documentation on the posters.

A crazy idea, certainly. But also certainly an idea that shows the trademark out-of-the-box creativity of these Mad Scientists…an idea that took them all the way to the National Science Fair in May of this year. There, the boys saw a lot of science, and talked to a lot of other young scientists. Though they didn’t make it to the final round at Nationals, they consider the trip a success.

“We learned a lot about what the judges are looking for in each category. It’s different at the top levels than it is locally,” Danny explains. “Our project was a potential winner, but our presentation needed to look much more high-tech. The tech projects really catch the eyes of the judges, so that’s where we’ll focus our energies for the 2011 competitions.

And in 2011, the Mad Scientists predict that the judges—and the world—will sit up and notice their project above and beyond any other project at the event. They don’t want to go into too many details yet, they said, because they don’t want to give away their idea to any other competitors.

But they did agree to disclose the words written on the two note cards that inspired the four-wheeled object in their workshop:

“Fat bottoms” and “cheap transportation.”

The Mad Scientists meet at least three times weekly during the school year, in the workshop space donated by Tom Dent’s dad, behind the main office of Dent’s Car Repair. Tom’s parents will accept donations of money and materials for use by the boys in their projects at the car repair office during normal business hours. Edsel Rabin is no longer able to accept cash contributions for his efforts with the boys, following the most recent unfortunate incident involving the IRS and the police dog at the Food 4 Less Market, but he is still able to take donations of materials and personal checks. He has also promised to stay home while the Mad Scientists travel with their invention to the local and larger science fairs.

The 2011 National Science and Engineering Fair will be held in Emporia, Kansas, over the Memorial Day Weekend. If they qualify for this event, the boys intend to fly themselves and their science project, accompanied by at least two chaperones, to Kansas during the week before the event, in order to test the project in a climate unlike the damp sea-level environment where it has been developed. They hope that necessary changes to the design to account for these changes can be made with locally-available materials in Emporia.

We at the Skookum Tribune wish the Mad Scientists the very best of luck with their scientific endeavors at the fair, and elsewhere in the world.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In which there's another NaNoWriMo chapter: a good ghost story

October 12, 2010
Marilou Kent
Gainesville, Florida

Editors, the Skookum Tribune
Attention: Annabeth Spencer
20000 Salmon Avenue
Skookum, WA 98000

Dear Ms Spencer,

I am writing to say how much I’ve enjoyed your recent articles about the people and events in my hometown of Skookum. I live in Chicago now, and rarely make it back to Pilchuck County, but I subscribe to the Skookum Tribune online, and I spend a happy hour each week reading all the news from home.

I am also writing in response to your request (October 7, 2010) for readers to submit ghost stories about Skookum’s Riverview Cemetery. I hope that you enjoy the story I am sending, because it is true, and it happened right in Skookum, too. My friend David’s older brother Sam told me this story when I was a freshman at Skookum High, just before Sam moved away to go to college.

To understand this story, you must first understand that there are some longstanding traditions in Skookum regarding the senior prom. One of the things that everyone understands about prom is that it always rains on prom night. It doesn’t matter what time of year the prom is held, fall, winter, spring, or even early summer: it always rains on prom night. And not just a gentle sprinkling rain, either; rather, the prom night rain is always a heavy, wet, frog-strangling rain. This is so well-known that, when girls buy a pretty dress at The Formal Shoppe in Skookum, or even at one of the malls in a nearby city, the prom dress always comes with a little fold-up clear-plastic poncho. When guys rent a tux, it’s the same thing: a little fold-up clear-plastic poncho comes with the tux (usually it’s tucked into one of the shoes). This has been documented for nearly a hundred years, and nobody has an explanation for it, but we all know it’s true: it always rains on prom night.

The other thing that always happens on prom night is that some long-standing romance breaks up at the prom. Nobody can predict which couple it will be, but everybody knows it will happen that some couple that has been dating for a long time, sometimes since freshman year, will get into a gigantic fight and break up on prom night. Sometimes they fight about…well, it doesn’t really matter, I guess.

The important thing is: everybody knows what will happen on prom night.

So one year some friends of my friend Dave’s older brother Sam decided to take advantage of prom night. These guys were seniors when Sam was a freshman, so he didn’t really know them very well, except of course that Skookum isn’t a very big place so everybody at least recognizes each other. But these guys didn’t hang out together or anything. Anyhow, neither of these senior guys had a date for the prom. And the thing about Skookum is that the really high-status thing to do is to date somebody from another town. It doesn’t matter which other town. Pilchuck, maybe. The thing is that since Skookum is so small, it’s considered cool to date somebody that wasn’t in Mrs Baumgartner’s kindergarten class with you. Especially for prom night, bringing somebody from another town was the thing to do if you could manage it.

But, like I said, neither of these guys had a date for the prom, not even a date with a local girl. So they decided to see if they could get a date by trying to pick up a girl who had just broken up with her boyfriend at the prom. Because, remember, there’s always at least one big break-up. And maybe the girl who had broken up with her boyfriend might go to the prom with one of these other guys, right?

They started the evening at the river park, because college kids were having a keg party down there. They weren’t old enough to go to a kegger, but it was dark and raining, and it’s not like the college kids were checking for ID or anything. So these guys got a little liquid courage into each other before they started their plan. And this was the plan: they’d take the car, and drive slowly around the block of the high school gym, watching. And if they saw a girl out in the rain and crying, they’d do rock/paper/scissors to decide which of them was going to try to pick her up.

It wasn’t a great plan, obviously. I guess senior boys who’ve been drinking down at the river aren’t always the brightest.

Well, the night got darker and wetter and colder, and the guys just kept driving around the block, looking in the parking lot, watching for girls, when finally they saw one: a pretty girl, in a pretty pink party dress—one of those retro vintage dresses, with all the foofy stuff in the skirt, and shoes dyed to match. And there she was: standing in the rain in that pretty dress, crying as if her heart was breaking.

The guy in the passenger seat won the rock/paper/scissors, so he jumped out of the car when they got near the girl. “Hey, honey,” he said in his kindest voice, “What’s wrong?”

“I just broke up with my b – b- b- boyfriend!” wailed the girl, “and everything is horrible now!”

“Well, hey, that’s just a terrible thing,” said the boy. “I can’t imagine anybody breaking up with a pretty girl like you. Hey, I don’t have a tux or anything, but I’ve got my suit jacket in the car. Do you want me to take you back into the dance?”

But the girl didn’t want to go back into the dance. She was crying too hard to make much sense, and her makeup was a mess, but finally the guy got her to allow him to give her a ride home. He wrapped his suit coat around her shoulders and helped her into the back seat. Then he got into the front passenger seat—he didn’t want to rush her, you know?—and away they drove.

The girl was crying and crying, but she was able to give the guy who was driving some directions to her house. She lived way outside of town, out in the farming lands. So they drove for a while, and the guy in the passenger seat, the guy who had won the rock/paper/scissor, he talked to her, real gentle, trying to get her to stop crying. He kept saying things like, “that one couldn’t have been much of a boyfriend, to be so mean to you on prom night,” and “if you were my girlfriend, we’d be back there at the gym having a really nice time together.” After a while she stopped crying, and she even talked back with the guy, maybe even flirting a little as the other guy was driving way way out on one of those old country roads.

The house was set far back from the road, a long, winding gravel drive with big trees on both sides of it. The rain was pounding down on the windshield, and the trees were whipping back and forth in the wind—it was a terrible rainstorm that night.

But when the car pulled up to the house, the boys were surprised to see that the porch light was turned off. You know, you send your girl off to the prom, you leave the porch light on until she comes home, right? So those boys turned around to look at her and ask, maybe they’d come down the wrong driveway? And…

…she was gone.

Had she gotten out? Did the dome light in the car come on if you opened the back door? Neither boy could remember. They got out of the car, and looked around, looked up at that dark house. They opened the back doors of the car, and the dome light came on…but the girl wasn’t in there. Had she crawled into the trunk for a joke? But she wasn’t in there, either.

Finally, the boys ran up to the house and pounded on the door.

It took a few minutes for somebody to answer, but at last the porch light came on, and a tired older man opened the door. He looked at those two boys, who immediately started talking, “Did that girl come in here? We gave her a ride home but when we got here she wasn’t in the back seat? Did she come in already? We wanted to say goodbye but she wasn’t in the car…!”

That man, he looked at those boys. Then he looked up at the sky, and the rain falling. And then he shook his head and said quietly, “It’s prom night again, isn’t it?”

“Sir,” said the boys again. “Your daughter, we gave her a ride home, did she come inside the house already? She needed a ride, she broke up with her boyfriend at the dance and she asked us to give her a ride home. Is she inside?”

And that man, he shook his head. “No,” he told those boys. “No, my daughter isn’t here.

"My daughter…she died. Twenty years ago, she died. On prom night, it was. She had a fight with her boyfriend, she started to walk home by herself in the rain. She was hit by a car that night. My daughter never came home.”

“But, sir!” insisted the boys. “She was in the car! We talked to her! She was wearing my suit jacket!”

And that man, he shook his head again. “No,” he said again. “She never came home. But every year or so, somebody comes to my door, telling me that she tried to get a ride. All these years, and my daughter is still trying to come home.”

The boys didn’t really believe the man, but he told them that they could go look for themselves. She was buried right in Riverview Cemetery, just outside of town.

Well, they weren’t crazy enough to go out to the cemetery in the middle of the dark in the pouring rain, not after what they’d just been through.

But the next morning, the rain had stopped. The sun had come out, warm and golden and glorious. It’s usually a glorious, sunny day on the day after prom night, you know?

So those boys, they went to the cemetery, and they found the stone. There was her name. Her birth date, and her death date. Twenty years prior.

And over the gravestone was the young man’s suit jacket, folded neatly, still wet from the rain.

That’s a true story, told to me by my friend David’s older brother Sam. I didn’t believe him at first, until he took me by the hand, and led me through the cemetery, and showed me the gravestone. I have touched the stone. The story is true.

Very sincerely yours,

Marilou Kent,
class of 1976, Skookum High School

Editor’s note: This story, which folklorists refer to as “The Vanishing Hitchhiker”, is found in many cultures around the world. In Chicago, the girl is known as “Resurrection Mary.” In New Zealand, a young man thumbs his way around the North Island, preaching the gospel to folks who pick him up and then disappearing before they can reach their destination. In Great Britain, the disappearing person shows up at the door of a doctor, pleading for medical assistance for a family member and then vanishing when the sick person is seen. In the Stith-Thompson story motif index, the vanishing hitchhiker is classified as story motif E332.3.3.1. Subcategories include:
E332.3.3.1(a) for vanishing hitchhikers who reappear on anniversaries;
E332.3.3.1(b) for vanishing hitchhikers who leave items in vehicles, unless the item is a pool of water in which case it is E332.3.3.1(c);
E332.3.3.1(d) is for accounts of sinister old ladies who prophesy disasters;
E332.3.3.1(e) contains accounts of phantoms who are sufficiently solid to engage in activities such as eating or drinking during their journey;
E332.3.3.1(f) is for phantom parents who want to be taken to the sickbed of their dying son;
E332.3.3.1(g) is for hitchhikers simply requesting a lift home;
E332.3.3.1(h-j) are a category reserved exclusively for vanishing nuns (a surprisingly common variant), some of whom foretell the future.

We are pleased to know that Skookum is part of the worldwide vanishing hitchhiker community.

Editor’s note, part two: It does, historically, always rain on prom night in the town of Skookum. The exceptions were in 1941, when the scheduled winter prom was cancelled because of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in early 2006, when the entire senior class voted to send money that would have been spent on their prom to the New Orleans survivors of Hurricane Katrina, to help provide food, medical care, and housing for those left homeless by the environmental catastrophe. The 2005-2006 Skookum High School Parent-Teacher-Association raised money to provide an afternoon picnic for the senior class in the spring of that year, to reward them for their kindness to strangers in need.

Records provided by the newspaper archive and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show that the weather on the day of the picnic was sunny and warm.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In which I post another chapter from my NaNoWriMo novel

Luna is helping me with my NaNoWriMo project this month. Mostly, her job is to sleep beside my desk and periodically wake up and suggest that we take a break for a little smackeral of something.
Luna is very good at her job.

September 17th, 2010 Skookum Tribune issue number whatever, volume whatever

Meet William Roberts :the man who is Stinky Jack

By Annabeth Spencer

William Roberts doesn’t look crazy. He looks like a mechanic, which he is, and a farmer, which he also is, and a busy dad with 5 boys, which he also is. But William Roberts told me very seriously, and very happily, that he has at least three guys inside his head. Maybe four guys.

William always loved drama classes in school. He tried out for every school production, every community theatre group, every church pageant. He never got cast in the leading roles, but he was just happy to be on the stage in front of an audience. When he went to college, he took drama classes just for fun. “I knew I was never going to make a living as an actor, but I like to be on the stage,” he says. “Then one day, my mom wrote to me from home, says the Chamber of Commerce back here in Skookum was having a scholarship contest. They would give $1,000 for the best presentation of an aspect of Pilhuck County history. I really needed money for tuition and books, so I thought I’d write a paper and try to win the scholarship.”

William went to the college library and looked up books on Pilchuck County History. “But they were really boring, those books. I wrote down a bunch of the most interesting facts I could find, but even that stuff was boring. I thought, ‘no way would anybody pay a thousand bucks for something this dull’. Then the librarian, she found me one more book, a book of oral histories that were accounts of people remembering stuff from the old days. And some of those old people, they were talking about this guy, Stinky Jack O’Malley, and all the tricks and con-jobs he used to play on people here in the old days. And I thought, that’s what I should do!

William went to the thrift store and found a pair of leather work boots, a ratty long-sleeved shirt, an old pair of Levi jeans, a set of red cotton suspenders and a disreputable old-fashioned bowler hat. Stinky Jack O’Malley had earned his nickname by his infrequent bathing habits, and William wanted to look the part. “I had learned stuff in those theater classes about how to make costumes look right, and with these clothes, I put them all in a burlap sack and dragged it behind my truck up and down my parents’ gravel driveway. That made everything all dusty and crumpled-looking: exactly what I wanted. My parents thought I was nuts, of course.”

Then he went to work on his script: a narration of Stinky Jack O’Malley’s life. Not the dry, boring facts derived from census data and records kept at the county courthouse. Instead, he wrote an account of the man’s life as if Stinky Jack himself were telling the story.

“Stinky Jack was this really oddball guy—sometimes a good guy, sometimes a crook. The town elected him mayor three times in a row, mostly because nobody else wanted the job, and they thought that having a job might keep Jack sober for a while. And it worked, at least at first. Then he got really stinking drunk one night when he was playing cards with another guy, and the other guy was winning like crazy. They’re betting everything they’ve got, and Jack won’t bet his hat, but he bets the piano that’s in the saloon. But when the other guy won that hand, won the piano, Jack didn’t want to give it to him, so he pushed the piano—all by himself, and him so drunk he could barely walk—he pushed that piano all the way down to the end of Main Street and off the bridge into the Pilchuck River. Then he told the other guy that he could have the piano, but he’d have to fish it out of the river by himself!

"Another time he heard about folks back East paying big money for beaver skins. Well, Stinky Jack figures, beavers are just big rats, and it's a helluva lot easier to breed rats than to catch beavers around here. So he decided to start breeding rats for their skins. Yeah, the City Council really had their hands full trying to get that shut down. I guess he really did sell some skins, though. I've always wondered if there are any antique shops back East trying to sell off a "beaver" skin coat that's really made of rat skins?

“I wrote my presentation for the Chamber of Commerce as one half of a conversation, between Stinky Jack and some other fella who is never named or described. Maybe they’re playing cards, or drinking, or maybe they’re even sitting in a jail cell. Jack tells some of the stories about his life,--not just the real stuff, but some of his tall tales, too. Like the time when he first came to Skookum, and started the very first saloon, before he hitched up with Melba Mae, but the saloon wasn’t making very much money because the loggers up in the hills would only come to town once a month to buy supplies and drink and spend their money. And Jack figured that part of the problem was that a lot of those guys were bald , and how they might come to town more often if they had a lot of hair on their heads to impress the ladies. So he bought himself up a big crate of medicine show hair tonic and loaded it up in his canoe to transport it up the river to the logging camp.

“There weren’t a lot of roads in Pilchuck County in the early days, except right in downtown, so folks mostly used the rivers to get around. You could build a canoe pretty easily with all the woods around here, or you could just do what Stinky Jack usually did, which was to “borrow” somebody’s canoe without asking. Rivers pretty much were the roads in those days. They even brought all the logs down from the hills by river—they just rolled ‘em into the water and tied ‘em up into gigantic rafts and then a few guys would ride the rafts down to the mouth of the river where they’d get put on ships going to San Francisco or into the mills to be made into lumber for use in town. That was a dangerous job, let me tell you. Sometimes the guys would be standing on the raft of logs, and the logs would get to rolling. If a guy lost his balance or slipped off a log, even if he didn’t get crushed by the logs he’d probably drown before he could swim out from under the raft to get up to the air again. Lots of guys died that way, but that’s how they did things then.

“Anyhow, Jack loaded up all that hair tonic in his canoe to take up to the lumber camps, and he figured he might as well sell other stuff while he was there, so he put in some whisky bottles too. And that would have been okay, except he started drinking some of the whiskey as he was paddling. And pretty soon he got more interested in drinking than in paddling, and then he got really more interested in drinking and singing…and eventually, he tipped over the canoe with all the contents and the entire thing ended up floating down the creek back into the bay.

“Jack figured all that stuff was lost at the bottom of the bay, all the whiskey he hadn’t been drinking (which wasn’t much, to be honest) and all those bottles of hair tonic. Lost, and gone forever, he thought.

“He found out differently when people started talking about the shellfish they were digging out of the tideflats a few months later—clams so thickly covered with seaweed, they looked like they were wearing wigs and beards! Nobody had ever seen anything like that before, and Stinky Jack, he figured it was a result of all that hair tonic that had gotten dumped in the water.

“Never one to ignore an opportunity to make money—unless it involved actual work, you understand—Stinky Jack took himself down to the tideflats when the tide was out and everyone was out digging clams for dinner. He set up a table with a great big sign:

“Shave and a haircut: TWO CLAMS!”

William roars with laughter at the punchline of his own story, and it’s impossible not to join with him in the merriment.

He won the Chamber of Commerce scholarship, he says, and had a lot of fun with it. But then he got busy with school, and then got busy with being a new husband and then a dad. Years passed before William Roberts thought about Stinky Jack O’Malley again.

Then, one day, he heard that the local museum was looking for people to learn how to give tours of their exhibits of old-time stuff, and he thought it sounded like fun. He went to the trainings, and was disappointed to learn that the standard museum docent narration was just as dry and boring as those old history books he had consulted back in college.

“I went to the museum director, and I told him that what they really needed was Stinky Jack O’Malley giving the tours. The museum board thought it was a great idea, and so I pulled all that old-fashioned costume stuff out of the attic and started dressing up and acting like I was Stinky Jack, back from the dead and ready to talk about my life and how things were in the old days of Skookum. It was a huge hit, and we had a lot of fun.

“My boys got in on the act when they were old enough—they’d dress up in period costume and gather around my knee as I sat in my rocking chair at the museum. Then they’d ask me to tell a story to them and to the museum guests. It was pretty silly, but we had a lot of fun with it, and it gave me a chance to be back on a stage of sorts. I love that. And one of my boys, he’s decided to study local history when he goes to college. That makes me very happy. I think he could just as easily have decided to be a bartender or a con-man, from all those stories I told.”

With the success of his Stinky Jack presentations, William created two other first-person historical narratives to tell different aspects of stories of life in the old days of our county’s pioneers: Henry VanPelt, who was an entrepreneur who came to Skookum in the 1920’s, and the first senator elected from this county, and Harvey Coski, a Polish immigrant who was hired to work on one of the earliest commercial fishing boats in the area. William is currently working with the Pilchuck First Nations Tribe on a presentation centering around one of their historical leaders at the time of European exploration in this area.

William Roberts presents his Stinky Jack stories on the second Saturday of each month at the Skookum Museum of History and Industry, located behind the Skookum Public Library on Main Street. For times and details about these and other programs, check the “events” page of this newspaper.