Almost Pioneers

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Contributed by Karen Wills

My mother, Evelyn Wills, wrote the following true account of her family’s move from their farm in North Dakota to Montana during the Great Depression. I’m so glad she left this memory, and I’m so proud of my grandparents. They exemplified Hemingway’s definition of  courage as “grace under pressure.”  

This first appeared in The Montana Journal January-February 1997.

Almost Pioneers 

Our western North Dakota farm family was hard hit by the Great Depression. Dad could repair any kind of machinery, but neighbors who needed him couldn’t pay. When my ten-year-old sister fell ill with appendicitis, my parents sold the kitchen table and chairs to pay doctor bills.

Then, in 1928 when I was nine, my oldest uncle left Tolley, North Dakota, in desperation. Miraculously, he found work with the Big West Oil Company on the high plains near Shelby, Montana. He sent word of the oil boom, and my parents decided to follow him west.

Dad cut down the sides of our Model T so the front seat could be folded back into a bed for the four of us on the 400-mile journey. He had $11.00. Of course, this was long before credit cards, and our bank had closed its doors.

My mother suffered from a fierce migraine during every mile on the dusty, rutted road to the unknown West. But my sister and I, dressed in knickers sewn by a neighboring farm woman as a good-bye gift, loved the adventure.montana here we come  We had crayons and paper and considered signs fair game for additional coloring. At night we camped with other displaced travelers, cooking suppers over little fires whose colors matched the blazing sunsets reflected in the broad Missouri River.

Unfortunately, when the time came to sleep, the curtains lowered over the Model T’s windows did a poor job of keeping away thirsty mosquitoes.

Our faithful auto did succeed at a tortoise-and-hare act as we were passed several times on the trip by a man in a shiny new touring car. He’d race ahead, stop for unknown reasons, then hurry on, passing us again. When we arrived in time to share the same campground for the third night in a row, the frustrated driver finally walked over, kicked our tire and sputtered, “What the hell kind of car is this?”

At the Big West Camp, a line of buildings on the vast prairie, the Company provided our own place—a former cook house. I remember the big stove. 

By the time blooming cactus and other wild flowers softened the fields next spring, we had moved to a normal house, but drilling for oil was so close that my mother didn’t hang out the wash for fear it would be splattered from a gusher. kitties in a basket

On hot days, we took needlework outside to the shade of the company coal house, where a cool breeze always seemed to rise from the foundation.

The Company promoted Dad, and the strain of poverty vanished. Pictures of Mama taken then show a sort of time reversal. She appears younger in each new photograph.

By having the faith and courage to pack their children into a Model T and venture west from one sort of country to another during the drought-ridden depression, my parents achieved a secure living. However, for the rest of his life, Dad kept his savings under the mattress.

 

The Magic Bullet and The Ant: A Brief Exposé

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By Rose Ottosen

You might be thinking to yourself as you read the title to this little essay, “What in the world does a magic bullet have in common with an ant?!

My answer: absolutely nothing. That is both the bad news and the good news. Let’s start with the bad news first, and explore the phenomenon of magic bullets. Then we will examine the ant and give ourselves the option to end on a positive note.

Magic bullets intrigue me. Though they remain illusionary, they seem real. I have been looking for them since I was a young girl. However, though my searching has not ever turned up one, some days I continue my quest, undaunted, just hoping I will be the person, at last, to discover this fast track to success. What is a magic bullet, you might ask?

For me, a “magic bullet” is the one thing that instantly will bring some longed-for reality into my life—the one thing that will usher in a sudden turn in my life’s journey that will then hand me the fulfillment of my deepest wants, needs, and greeds—my personal Aladdin’s lamp, you might say. A magic bullet is the precise incident, person or possession that will appear and guarantee me a “happily-ever-after” phenomenon and forever remove the humdrum effort required from me. 

For example, I recently was quite embarrassed to admit that I ever thought there could be a magic secret potion that would provide physical fitness. I have abandoned that unreal quest and finally started to take more responsibility for my health and to get fit to my absolute core, slowly, one grinding day at a time. Also, I have given up my search to find a formula—perchance once known and now hidden, that could make me an overnight concert pianist, or better yet—a world famous harpist. On a simpler plane, I even have wondered if, perhaps, there is some kind of magic wand that I can invent and then wave as I walk through the house and make all my dust bunnies disappear, a wand that would also do laundry and even wash windows. I have even dreamed of being a published author, just waking up one day and being on the New York Times Bestseller List. Have you had that dream, too? Wouldn’t that be amazing?!

From my experience, though, I must admit that a life of sudden and ongoing success, of effortless voila, isn’t for this world, apparently. This is especially true when it comes to becoming and remaining an accomplished writer. Here is the reality: Good writing takes consistent effort. No, Virginia, magic bullets do not exist.

However, here is the good news: ants do exist, and they will help guide our way.

Across the world, scientists have discovered ants, millions of them, in the wettest tropics, the driest deserts—and even in the arctic climes. Over five thousand different kinds of these insects have been cataloged. However, I do not want to digress and turn this commentary into a scientific analysis, but rather a word map, using ants as mentors to help point us in the direction of our goals as writers: starting, completing, and publishing our voice, ultimately adding something meaningful to life’s printed conversations. 

Ants, like committed writers, are tangible, real beings. Their lives are anything but magical. Their days are filled with tedium and routine—just boring repetition to those who watch them. Day in and day out, season after season, they are determined to fulfill their heart songs, many of them carrying a single grain of sand over hill and dale to deposit in a small heap that will one day become a big anthill. To us humans, they often look like they don’t know what they are doing or know where they are going, as they plod back and forth, back and forth. 

Unlike writers, however, ants are not tempted to ask, “How much l-o-n-g-e-r do I have to do this? I am getting bored. I am tired. I wonder what all my other friends are doing? I want to have a cup of coffee now. I want to sleep in. I have been doing this so long, and it isn’t amounting to anything significant—is it?!” 

I picture ant conversations as being very different from the way we, as writers, talk to ourselves. How do I know this is true? Simply, as stated before, ants continue their mundane tasks, century after century, across the world, working faithfully in the hidden places, to build those anthills, no matter what. No excuses. No procrastination. No compromise. Just watch them. Look at the results.

As a wanna-be published author, I suddenly “saw the light” recently while I was watching an ant tussle with a stubborn grain of sand in our yard. I followed him and discovered a monolithic ant hill, burgeoning with life, in the forest. After musing on this simple yet profound scene, I learned a great lesson. I discovered the undeniable difference between a magic bullet and an ant. I am inspired and ready to put my hand to pen and paper again, content to produce one letter at a time, like the ants’ grains of sand, which, added to over time, will become words, words that will grow into sentences. These sentences will then give birth to paragraphs. These paragraphs will evolve into chapters, and the chapters will blossom into books. 

Yes, indeed, ants are determined. In addition to their innate tenacity, all ants are also social. I look forward to seeing you at the writing conference in Kalispell in September—and also at the Montana Women Authors monthly meetings, starting again in the fall. We need each other! Write on!

Pick a Holiday

By Claudette Young

Everyday is a holiday. Pick one. Now, write about it.Simple task, right? Well, maybe not. Here’s a fun way, though, to pull out of a writing slump and perhaps earn some greenbacks in the process.

Many magazines need and want short pieces written about holidays. Those celebratory days don’t have to match major/national ones. Find something unique, perhaps even about your own town or state, and march words across your page.

Hop over to the Holiday Insights website. Scroll down to whatever month seems promising to you and click on it. How much easier can it get?

Find something fun. For example: Feast of Fabulous Wild Men Day—January 12.

Know any wild men? Now’s your chance to go out and interview a few. Think about it. Get their take on such a holiday (one they probably didn’t know existed).

Invite a few of these men to a pizza joint and watch them celebrate. Ask about why they might think of themselves as wild men. Hey, it’s just a suggestion.

What about April? This month has special month status, honored weekly status, and daily holidays. You could keep writing for a year on this collection if you wanted to spend the time.

Here are a few selected possibilities for April.

  • National Humor Month
  • International Guitar Month
  • National Kite Month
  • National Poetry Month
  • National Pecan Month
  • National Welding Month
  • Stress Awareness Month
  • Sexual Assault Awareness Month

These give a writer both fun and serious possible subjects.

For weekly honors, we have:

  • Week 1 Read a Road Map Week.
  • Week 2 Garden Week
  • Week 3 Organize Your Files Week
  • Week 4 National Karaoke Week

There are a few others, but not nearly as fun.

Daily celebrations run a gamut of subjects and attitudes. But, you get the drift. Every month has a plethora of options fully blossomed and ready for plucking.

So, when you find yourself feeling especially stagnant as a writer or just out of sorts and stuck, pull up this holiday calendar and start arranging a bouquet of short pieces for publication. Heck, you could base an entire blog on this fanciful possibility.

And remember, new holidays are created all the time by someone and that someone could be you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Tis the Season to Stock Up on Writing Supplies

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By Deborah Epperson

 

You can’t turn on the television at this time of the year without seeing a glut of advertising for back to school sales. If you’re like me and your kids are grown, you may be tempted to tune the ads out, but don’t! If you’re a writer, a crafter, an artist, or work from home in any capacity, this is the time to shop smarter for yourself. 

There’s no better time than now to restock your home office. Back to school sales provide the perfect opportunity to save money on computer paper, pens, notepads, and almost anything you need (or want) for your office. Been thinking of getting a chalkboard for the kitchen to write down those grocery items as they pop up? Hoping your laptop can last until the Black Friday sales?

Now is the time to check out prices. It’s also a great time for artist and crafters to stock up too. Scissors, glue, colored pencils, tape, and chalk are priced right.

While you’re tracking down bargains for your office and home, you might consider picking up a few extra basic school supplies like pencils, paper, and folders to donate to your local school. About 94% of teachers end up buying some classroom supplies out of their own pockets.

Call your local school and ask them what supplies their teachers need and donate a few to them in honor of that special teacher you or your children had. Mine was Miss Alice Cashen, honors English, grades 10-12. Great teacher and great humanitarian. Without her years of preaching about the power and the importance of books, I’d have never dared think I might be a writer.  

Remember Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who advocated for a girl’s right to an education and defied the Taliban who in 2012 shot her in the head for doing so? After surviving her attack, Malala continued her activism for women’s educational rights, and received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala said, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

As writers, we know the truth and the power of those words.

Thanks for stopping by,

Deborah Epperson

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A Necessary Inspiration

By Marsha Nash Sultz

Sometimes inspiration sneaks up behind you and whispers in your ear. Sometimes it knocks you over the head with great vigor. In my case, frustration once drove me to create a solution for the unknowable.

Years ago, I was interested in family genealogy to the point of obsession. Where did I come from? Whose genetic oomph propelled me to become me? I was hip-deep in Ancestry.com when I discovered that my great-grandfather’s information ended abruptly. He was born during the Civil War in a small town in Tennessee and raised as an orphan. The courthouse records, and the courthouse, were destroyed by the townspeople to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Yankees. 

What? Who destroys their own records? 

After searching to no avail for another month I sat back, dumbfounded and upset. I wanted to know the beginning of Great-Grandpa Sam’s life. The only thing I knew from my Aunt Margie was that he was a sweet man, an orphan who was raised by neighbors. That wasn’t enough for me.

What does a writer do when confronted with a bad ending? She writes a new one.

I took the bare bones of setting, time period and characters and created my own small town, Benson’s Furnace, Tennessee. I led with a skirmish set during the Civil War in which a wounded Confederate captain is forced to remain behind, in secret. What ensues is forbidden love, betrayal and misunderstanding between certain female citizens of the town and our Captain. Twenty-five years later, he decides to return to Benson’s Furnace to atone for his past behavior.

My story becomes a saga of Southern post-war life in a small town where no one wants to talk about the past. Unfortunately, the captain’s appearance brings up memories of southern defeat and shame and the unthought-of parentage of Sam, an unintended result of the captain’s liaison with the wrong woman.

This story is wildly different from Sam’s real life. He married a local girl, fathered three children and moved to West Tennessee to become a cotton farmer. 

Do I owe Sam the truth? Did my imagination bend reality to the point of denying the existence of an authentic life? 

I can’t help but think that I’ve improved the story while paying tribute to a relative whose history remains a blank in the record book. As they say in bad detective movies, names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Besides, everyone needs a satisfying ending – to a story, to a novel or to a life.