Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Biscuit City Chronicles:The Box Car Boys

Continued from last week:

After our parents had rejected our claim that we were no better than indentured servants, forced to perform odious chores like making our beds and picking up our clothes, my brother and I resolved to run away, this time for certain.  I threatened to run away regularly, generally whenever something displeased me at home, which was about once a week.
“I’m running away,” I would announce.
“Good,” my mother said. “Just don’t be late for supper.” It was hard to be taken seriously around my house.
We had gathered the goods and supplies that I thought we would need, and one sunny Saturday in May, we made our move. We waited until after lunch, and hanging the clothespin bag with our stuff in it on the handlebars of my bicycle, we were ready. I had almost blown our cover by insisting that we take our jackets. Mom looked at us with the look she used when she knew we were up to something.
“Why are you wearing your jackets?” she asked.  “It’s 75 degrees out.”
I knew we would need protection during colder months, which is why I wanted to take the jackets. “Uh, we’re cold,” I answered, and we jumped on out bicycles and pedaled off.
We soon got through our subdivision, and then the one behind ours, which was generally the extent of our travels.  Some older kids had told us about a road that led to a railroad, where we planned to find a boxcar and live the rest of our lives. The road was paved at first, and then went to gravel as the pine trees around it grew thicker and crowded the edges. Finally it turned to two tracks of a dirt road, and then a single narrow path overhung by branches.  We pedaled on.
After what seemed like a long time, we came into a clearing. It was a space about the size of our yard at home, hemmed in by a thick pine forest.  And at the far end there was a set of railroad tracks which stopped at the edge of the forest. This was the place for our boxcar! Now if we could only find one.
We emptied our bag and dragged a couple of fallen logs over for seats. I told Ron we needed to gather firewood.
“Why?” he said. “I’m burning up in this stupid coat you made me wear.”
“We need a fire because that’s what you do when you’re on your own in the wilderness.” I had read perhaps too many Sergeant Preston of the Mounties stories, neglecting the detail that he operated in the Yukon. So, we picked up a few twigs and larger branches, cleared a space in the grass, and lit the fire.  It wasn’t much of a fire, but it made me feel like we had arrived.  The next step was to find a box car to live in.
“We need to find a box car to live in,” I announced, and Ron just looked at me like I had dropped in from another planet.
“How are we going to do that?” he questioned.
“Follow the tracks.  There has to be a boxcar on the tracks somewhere.”
“How are we going to move it when we find it?”
“We’ll work that out when we come to it.”
In truth, both of us were tired from our exertions on our bicycles, so we sat there and watched the fire burn. After a while, I decided it was time to eat and pulled out the can of pork and beans and my Scout knife.  One of the blades was a can opener, but it occurred to me that I didn’t know how to use it.  I pried at the can for a while with no success. Then I banged it on a rock and succeeded only in denting it.
“We’re going to starve,” Ron offered.
“No,” I said.  “We’ll eat pine cones and mushrooms. They’re all around us.” He made a face, and as the sun slipped behind the pines, it occurred to me that I wasn’t as ready to live on my own as I thought I had been. And if we left right then, we’d be home in time to eat. We climbed aboard our bikes and pedaled slowly back home.
My mom was in the kitchen. “We’ll eat in five minutes,” she said. “Wash up good. And please put my clothespin bag back on the line.” Well, I thought, only nine more years of indenture to go. At least we would eat well.

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Hope for the Future

This past Friday evening, Becky and I drove up to the Harrisburg, PA area to stay overnight so she could accompany the Parkside Middle School Concert Choir at the Hershey Park Showcase Music Festival at Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg. We have known the director of the Choir, Debbie Schlechte, for years, and if you ever despaired about the youth of America, you should watch these young people perform. They will gladden your heart.

Debbie co-directs the choirs at Parkside with Larry Stanley, and Becky accompanies them when they go to festival. We got to the high school about half an hour early, in time to see the Show Choir perform “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing.” Our Chorale Ensemble has done this piece, and it’s hard enough just to sing it. The young people did it with choreography and had a bright, energetic sound and featured four couples dancing in front of the group.

They then did a song called “Fireflies” (by Owl City) I wasn’t familiar with (here’s a link: It included some engaging choreography. Debbie said she “mashed up” that song with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which featured the “Jackson Five,”  five hip young dudes in “bad” hats moonwalking across the front of the chorus. (Have you ever tried moonwalking? I have, and it’s impossible for an old guy like me. These cats had it down, I want to tell you!)

The young people looked and sounded great, and Ms. Schlechte and Mr. Stanley directed with precision and great energy.

A while later, the Concert Choir did the difficult Handel piece, “Hallejulah, Amen,” with Mr. Stanley directing. The parts were precisely sung, with a pure vocal quality and a nice balanced sound. I’ve done this piece as well, and it’s not easy for adults, much less for middle school students. Their performances were enthusiastically and deservedly cheered by a gym full of other students and parents.

The next piece, which Debbie directed, was Mark Hayes’ “Shut de Do’,” an a cappella number that we have also done. It seems like a simple song, but is in fact harder than it sounds. The Choir handled the dynamics well and had a beautiful blended sound.

The students were not only impressive musically: Becky and I have talked about how well-behaved they were. They comported themselves in a way that would make any parent or community member proud: they were polite, well-disciplined, respectful of adults and each other and appreciative of anything done for them.

This past week, the Census Bureau released information that we are a majority minority nation. We are moving from a country of white Boomers to a multicultural global population. The choirs at Parkside Middle School show this dramatically. The group is ethnically diverse and the kids treat each other with affection and respect.
After the Festival, the whole group was off to the rest of the day at Hershey Park. The Parkside choirs earned two “Superiors” and missed being Best in Show by one point. I hope they had a great time at the park.They won big, as they have before.

We hear so much about young people and how they fall short in so many areas. I’m here to say that if these young folk are any indication (and I think they are), the future for all of us is very bright indeed.

Congratulations to the students at Parkside for doing so well and for being examples for us all, and to their musicians and teachers Debbie Schlechte and Larry Stanley, and their accompanist for this occasion, Becky Verner. Way to rock out, guys!

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The Continuing No Shame Poem of the Week Series Presents "Sliding Away"

Sliding Away

(with apologies to Paul Simon)

When I took the old carpet out
Of our computer room
The wooden floors
Needed protecting
And so I got one of those
Vinyl chair pads
And put it under my office chair.
Now I know that in a house like ours
There are few level floors
Plumb walls or perpendicular surfaces.
It’s just in the nature of
Older houses to settle and
Be skewed a bit
Or a lot.
I was surprised when
I sat in the chair and
Rolled backwards.

Paul Simon, you were right:
“The nearer your destination,
The more you’re slip slidin’ away!”

–Dan Verner


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Advice to Writers–Helen Dunmore

1. Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.

2. Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices.

3. Read Keats’s letters.

4. Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

5. Learn poems by heart.

6. Join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.

7. A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

8. If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.

9. Don’t worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed “What will survive of us is love.”

Good advice, all of it.–DV

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An Historical Artifact of a Local Merchant

I was over at J.E. Rice’s Hardware store a while back, talking with Steve, one of the Rice brothers (Chase and Jamie are the other two), whose father established the business 75 years ago. I can always count on the Rices to have exactly what I need and to tell me how to  install it if necessary. And they’re always good for an interesting conversation. There’s no such thing as a “quick trip to the hardware store” when I go to Rice’s.

This time, Steve told me about a ledger book he found in his shed for the accounts of C. C. Leachman, his grandfather, who ran a store at Wellington Crossing of the Southern Railway around the turn of the twentieth century. Wellington today is the name of a road and subdivision in Manassas, but the rails still run where they did over 100 years ago. Leachman traded in all kinds of merchandise, took crops and chickens as barter for goods and was a transfer point for milk from the numerous dairy farms in the area at the time.

I contacted the Manassas Museum to see if they would be interested in looking at this unique artifact, but they are tied up with the sesquicentennial observance of the Second Battle of Manassas in July. After that’s all over, I hope they will take time to look at Leachman’s  record and perhaps even display it at the museum.

I appreciate Steve making copies of a couple of pages of the ledger so I can share them with BC readers.

The note below the pictures is hard to make out in this image, but it says, “1906–C.C. Leachman holding Sarah Leachman–later married J.E. Rice–1923     C. C. Leachman ran this store and train mail drop.  
This is a ledger page, with the careful Spenserian script of a bygone era, showing expenses paid to the “Southern Railway Co.” for late 1899 and early 1900.

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The Biscuit City Chronicles: Kingdoms and Servants

When I was in fourth grade, I learned something that I thought would change my life.  As things  turned out, it didn’t but I thought that it might for a while.  There was a lot to learn in fourth grade back then, and from what my older daughter Amy, a fourth grade teacher, tells me, that hasn’t changed much.  
Virginia is closely studied in the fourth grade, both as it is now and as it used to be.  If you’re like me, you probably remember Virginia as having three regions: Tidewater, Piedmont (that’s us) and Mountain. Now there are five: Coastal Plain (formerly and also known as Tidewater), Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Valley and Ridge, and Appalachian Plateau. This makes a great deal of sense to me, much more sense than having five kingdoms of living things.  
Back in the day we had two: plant and animal. A couple of weird organisms didn’t fit either category or fit both, so you could call them what you wanted.  When my girls were in high school, they scoffed at my outdated world view. They said there were five kingdoms: plant, animal, monera, protista and fungi. I think monera and protista are microscopic, but we could make them animals since they move around and eat. They also are capable of photosynthesis, but that’s just an added bonus for them.  And fungi are clearly plants.  They look like plants and grow like plants.  You don’t see them running around the back yard barking like a real animal.  So two kingdoms are enough.  My extensive research into this matter has revealed that biologists now speak of three “domains”: Eukarya, Archaea and Eubacteria. Eukarya includes plants and animals.  Don’t ask me how. Two kingdoms are enough for me.
Anyhow, the fact that I thought would change my life came from Virginia history. Since Virginia had the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the New World in Jamestown, the study of early Virginia history involved early colonial history. I learned enough about it to know that I would not have wanted to have been a colonial since I am not fond of starvation, disease and assorted massacres. I did learn about indentured servants, where someone would bind themselves to a master for a period of years.  At the end of the time, they would be set free from their indenture.  I had been looking for an idea to describe how I felt treated by my parents.  They had the nerve to expect me to keep my room clean and pick up after myself. That was the extent of my responsibilities, but for some reason I felt put upon. So I began to consider myself an indentured servant.
I tried out my new idea at the dinner table one night. “I’m nothing but an indentured servant,” I announced.
“Me, too,” my brother said in a rare display of fraternal solidarity.
“Why are you an indentured servant?” my mother asked.
“Because all I do is work around here. I can hardly wait until the day I’m free.”
My parents did work very hard, and this proclamation from my mouth struck them as funny.  They started laughing and couldn’t stop. I slunk off to my room where I did not clean it up.
Ron and I determined that we would have to run away to gain our freedom. I was taken by The Boxcar Children, a book about some children who lived in a box car in the woods completely free from any adult interference.  I don’t recall the book mentioning how they fed or clothed themselves.  They just existed in an idyllic daydream, doing what they wanted.  The idea among kids we knew was that you ran away to join the circus. Since there didn’t seem to be any circuses around, we would have to settle for a boxcar, if we could find one. We had heard from some older kids that there were some train tracks ‘way back deep in the woods.  If there were train tracks, there might also be a box car.
We equipped ourselves with what we considered necessary supplies. I “borrowed” the clothes pin bag to carry our stash, and managed to pilfer some matches and candles from the kitchen drawer. I also liberated a can of pork and beans, which was pretty much the limit of my culinary skill then. I took my multiblade Scout knife which my parents had bought me when I joined the Scouts.  They made me promise to not cut my fingers off.  I wasn’t sure what most of the blades were for, but the knife seemed like a good idea. We were ready.
Next week: The story continues with “The Box Car Boys.”

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Early one morning last week (about 7:15, to be exact), our daughter Amy called with the news that her car wouldn’t start. Since she lives about two miles away and since she is a teacher and expected to show up at school before her students do, an expectation shared by students, parents, the administrators at her school, the community, the School Board, the Commonwealth of Virginia and who knows who else, I said I would come over post haste and see if we could give her little car a jump start. We had to link our jumper cables together to reach from battery to battery, and after some grumbling and sputtering, the car started.

The battery looked like it was original to the car and Amy said it had not been replaced, so I allowed that she probably needed a new battery. I know that the guys on Car Talk believe that fathers don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to saying what needs to be done to cars, but they weren’t there and I was.

We worked it out that Amy would drive over to our house, leave her car with me and take one of our cars to work. I would have the battery tested and replaced, if necessary.

And so she was off for a day of fun and learning at her school (that’s how they like to think of the day’s goings on at the school and I don’t doubt that it is true), and I drove her car over to Advance Auto where a nice young man tested the battery and said she needed a new one. He installed one and I was back home after 20 minutes.

Trying the radio on the way back I noticed that all the stations were set at 88.5 FM, an unlikely situation since Amy likes a variety of music, most of which I have never heard of. Then it occurred to me that disconnecting the battery had wiped out all her presets and I had no idea of how to reset them. I tried figuring out which stations and music she would like but I had no idea. My knowledge of poplar music dates to about 1985 and goes not further. No wonder I had no idea of what she would like to listen to.

I texted Amy about her lost presets and she wrote back that she didn’t mind. I think she did find the selection of ten or so CD’s I had in my car amusing, quaint, and “old school”–hits of the ’60’s, Simon and Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, the Eagles, some choral music–and I think she also thought it old school that I was still using CD’s.

I saw that Amy had an iPhone cradle on the dashboard of her car and while I do have an iPhone, I have not put any music on it. I have about 400 songs on my computer, but haven’t figured out how to put them on my phone. I know having them on the phone would make it easier to carry my tunes, but there’s also a degradation of sound with mp3 files as opposed to CD’s. I happen to have a Bose sound system in the station wagon (installed by its former owner, my other daughter Alyssa) and it needs a good sound source to take advantage of its capabilities.

So this whole exercise reminded me of the differences in generations and changes in technology, how we adapt to them and how they affect us.

Some things remain the same: daughters still call fathers for help with their cars; fathers still respond gladly and take care of business; and we both enjoy music. And some day–who knows?–I’ll be completely up to date with my personal technology.

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