Great Subject Equals Great Art Equals Great Gift

Everyone should have a hobby. It not only keeps you off the streets, it makes it easier for the rest of us to get you a gift. For example, you can always give a golfer a dozen more golf balls. So what if your golfer friend takes those golf balls and puts them with the other 18 dozen he’s accumulated out in his garage? The point is that those golf balls say, “I pay attention to you and to what you like.” The gift is personal and not a mere marking of an occasion.

If you know my wife, Martha, then you know that she has taken up a new hobby, namely anything to do with our granddaughter, Riley. As a result, I managed to score the perfect gift, namely a framed, poster-sized photo on tiles, of the bald little joy-ball herself. I hung it in the bedroom and just let Martha find it.

Nana finds her birthday gift.

Adding to the photo itself is the story behind it. When I showed Becky the photo that I had selected, she told me that Riley’s smile had been produced by a specific incident. It seems that they had been caught in the rain between the car and the house and once inside, Becky dried Riley with a rabbit-ear towel. Becky then dried herself and put the towel on her own head, which elicited this great big smile.

The creator of this wonderful gift is Ms. Stacy Mirabella of Inwood, West Virginia, which is just north of where we are in Stephenson, Virginia. I met Stacy at her home office and had a chance to view some of her wonderful pieces, and she was able to create a wonderful piece for us. Stacy is in the process of launching her business, Image43, the website for which is here. I highly recommend, not only the finished product, but the business itself as Stacy is both quite personable and professional.

Now, Riley Dice, who on that day was 6 months/27 days, will smile at us for years to come, and I am looking forward to the moment when say, five-year old Riley stands before that masterpiece-in-tile and contemplates just who that baby is. I won’t be around when 50-year old Riley stands before it, but if she is like her grandpa, I know that it will fill her full of wonder and awe and her sense of time will be acute. What is the distance from 6 months to 50 years but a series of moments and this photo captures one link in that long chain when she and her mom were caught in the rain.

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My Cousin, My Grandpa, and Chief Pontiac

My post from August 11th of this year concerning the news of 1943 generated a very interesting response from my older cousin Chuck who lives in Cincinnati. In that post, I discussed the need to be accurate when writing historical fiction and wondered if I had assigned Reverend Hall, my minister in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears, the correct automobile. I opined that he would certainly not be driving the ’41 Nash that I saw in Winchester on the street one day. Chuck, however, wrote a wonderful email explaining that our Methodist minister grandfather, Edward Gisriel, actually had something even better in the years immediately following the war. I’ll let Chuck take it from here:

Maybe Rev. Hall didn’t have a flashy car, but Rev. Gisriel did.  He owned a 1947 Pontiac Chieftain—black with all of the bells and whistles, including a lighted acrylic Indian-head hood ornament.  As in the photo, the Reverend’s car was loaded with REAL chrome and a

1947 Pontiac Chieftan

driver’s side search light.  We would frequently drive to Seat Pleasant to one of his churches for evening activities:  movie night, minstrel shows and evening services.  The drive always began in the early afternoon and we would always stop by a running stream about half way there, eat our lunch, and spend some time skipping stones on the water.  

 After the evening event, sometimes very late at night (at least for me at 4 or 5 years of age) we would be driving back to Howard Street, where we both lived with my parents, and I clearly remember asking “Are you sure we are going the right way?”  This was well before Interstates and major road lighting, so it was always extremely dark and we’d be the only car on the back roads.  I must have asked the question thousands of times. It became a joke between us and the answer was always the same, always accompanied by his Methodist Evangelical hearty laugh: “Don’t worry.  Chief Pontiac is leading the way.”  Then I was assigned the task of finding a radio station by pushing the ivory buttons on the dash.  

 I will always remember these moments and the tremendous bond that grew between us.  He always encouraged my questions and always patiently answered.  This was something my father never did.  Granddad Gisriel and I shared a bedroom on Howard St. and we always listened to the Orioles game on the radio at bed time.  When he was away at night I would turn on the game and try to stay awake, listening for the Pontiac to pull into a garage, and then report the score as he got ready for bed.  On gameless nights, we would always play “Bet I can beat you to sleep”. That was probably to shut me up—and I never could tell who won.

Thanks, Chuck for sharing this beautiful story­. Don’t be surprised if I steal it and put it in a work of my own some time.

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Trailer for The Secret of Their Midnight Tears

Hope you enjoy this trailer for The Secret of Their Midnight Tears. I thought this work of fiction was best illustrated by real people and mementos taken from my mom’s scrapbooks.

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Boots Poffenberger: Still Bringing People Together

As rivulets of water streamed across the parking lot of Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium Saturday night, fans streamed into the ballpark  to receive their Boots Poffenberger bobble head, handed to them by members of Boots’ family. I had been invited to attend and sign copies of Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser, which I did, and I had a great time doing so. I met a couple of Boots’ relatives, reconnected with a friend who also happened to be one of Boots’ old drinking buddies, and even met a gentleman–younger than I am–from Detroit who knew all about Boots. It seems that his legend is still very much alive in the Motor City.

From L-R, Laco Anderson, some writer guy, and Donna Weimer

I also got to talk to my friend Laco Anderson, who I interviewed extensively for the book. Laco was one of the kids that Boots would gather up when home on leave from the Marine Corps, and play baseball with them all day, “until it was time to go to Murray’s Tavern in the evenings,” according to Laco. Laco’s daughter, Donna Weimer, was there as well, and she, along with Pam Gouker, formed the first grade teaching team at Fountain Rock Elementary school where both Becky and Sarah attended. Now, of course, Donna and her dad can watch Sarah on WDVM, the local television station at which she is a reporter, and Becky teaches first and second grades.

The most striking thing that I learned about Boots Poffenberger when I was researching the book was how beloved he was and how, in spite of his eccentricities (or irresponsibilities, depending on your perspective) people gravitated towards him. He became the focal point around which new friendships and connections were formed and he continues to perform this role even 18 years after his death.

Thanks to the Washington County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for sponsoring the bobble head and to the Hagerstown Suns in putting on the event. Oh, and as for the game? After feverishly working on the field for over an hour, the game had to be postponed because of wet grounds. Any fans who headed to a tavern to spend the time that they otherwise would have spent at the ballpark, were no doubt saluted by Boots with a frosty mug raised on high Somewhere Out There where there are no rainouts.

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What’s In the News: June, 1943

Recently, I wrote about the necessity to include only accurate details when writing fiction. That post detailed my quest for accurate information regarding tomato varieties that might have been planted during World War II. Even after publishing The Secret of Their Midnight Tears, I continue to concern myself with the details that it contains. On the streets of Winchester recently, I came across a 1941 Nash in beautiful condition, and the first thing that came to mind was wondering if my preacher-character, Reverend Hall, would have really driven a Buick, as I had written. I think I remain safe in that assumption—he sure wouldn’t have driven anything as flashy as this

1941 Nash

Nash—but it’s something that I never even thought about when I included that automotive detail.

In any case, what brought me to downtown Winchester was the pursuit of more details for the sequel to The Secret of Their Midnight Tears, specifically June 1-8, 1943. I ventured to the Stewart Bell Archives Room at Handley Library and found the microfilm that I needed from the Winchester Star.

Combing old newspapers is fascinating for several reasons. The ads are always fun. Tomatoes were $.22 per pound and there were ads for Marvels cigarettes and Spur, “The Cola Drink.” I have never heard of these last two products.

The copy for the movie ads are either dramatic or hilarious, at least to me. The June 5th ad for The More The Merrier starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrae, and Charles Coburn, read, “Can they put a ceiling on ‘that old feeling’? Don’t give it another thought . . . They’ll never ration romance!” The movie, which plays on TCM is about the housing shortage in Washington, DC. The Andrews Sisters were starring in How’s About It, which not even I knew was ever produced, and virtually every star at Paramount appeared in Star Spangled Rhythm including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Veronica Lake, Paulette Goddard, Dorothy Lamour, and about 20 other very big names of the day. Featured songs include “That Old Black Magic,” “Hit the Road to Dreamland,” and “I’m Doing It For Defense.” This last is sung by Betty Hutton who is fast becoming one of my favorite performers from that era and probably deserves a post of her own.

Of course, there were the news stories, many of which were grim then and now. Striking coal miners were threatening the war effort and bringing threats upon themselves from President Roosevelt, while black ordnance workers in St. Louis were refusing to work under white foremen.

The Allies were close to invading Italy (which would begin on September 3rd). Another war-related headline proclaimed, “Warsaw Ghetto Nearly Wiped Out By Germans.” The sub-headings noted that 2,000 had been shot, 3,000 had died in the flames, and 14,000 had been “deported.” We now know what being “deported” from the Warsaw ghetto truly meant.

The Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles were covered, one headline proclaiming, “Sailors, Soldiers Strip Zooters of Bizarre Clothing.” Yes, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ song details a real event.

Perhaps most interesting was a small, page-two article by the Associated Press that was no more than 5 column inches long. Headlined, “Axis Warns of Invasion Costs” the article led with the fact that “German Army experts, taking a long and careful look at the chances of [an] Anglo-American invasion of Europe, acknowledged today that such landings might be carried out successfully, but only at heavy cost to the invaders.” Those experts felt that a Mediterranean invasion point, or certain points in Norway would most likely be the target. The date was June 3, 1943. One year and three days later, the German Army experts were proven correct in at least their first assertion, and the story would be front-page news all over America.

To purchase a copy of The Secret of Their Midnight Tears, please click here. Thank you!

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Now Announcing the Boots Poffenberger Bobble Head

My old friend, Boots Poffenberger is back in the news, as the Washington County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has announced that its “mystery bobble head,” to be given away at the August 12th Hagerstown Suns game against the West Virginia Power, is none other than Cletus Elwood himself.

I was privileged to attend the grand reveal on Friday at the Welcome Center in Hagerstown. Also in attendance were Jerry and Joan Knode, Boots’ son and daughter-in-law. I expect that half of Williamsport will be in attendance on giveaway night and I predict that the Third Base Tavern will be emptier than it has been on any Saturday night since Prohibition.

Woolie B., the Suns mascot, Joan Knode, CVB Director Dan Spedden, and Jerry Knode

I can only imagine that Boots would be puzzled over this bobble head business, and it would be more appropriate to honor him by handing out beer mugs. In any case, I’ll be there on the 12th, answering questions and selling books and no doubt, more than anything else, listening to folks tell their Boots stories. That’s one of the privileges of being a writer: People carry around precious memories and and decide to share them with me.

If you are interested in going, I suggest buying tickets in advance. The gates will open at 4:30 that night, which is a Saturday, and the game begins at 6:05. Get there early, for the bobble head will be given to the first 1,000 fans only. For you Nationals fans who might not know, the Hagerstown Suns are a Washington Class A affiliate. I’d love to see you there and believe me, you’ll receive a one-of-a-kind souvenir of a truly one-of-a-kind person.

Click here for WDVM’s segment on the reveal.

Click here for the Herald-Mail’s story on the reveal.

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Victory Seeds to the Rescue!

“Fiction” is a story that didn’t happen, but must be written as though it could have. This is especially true for historical fiction, and sometimes insuring the accuracy of one scene or even one sentence can take more time than it does to write the rest of the chapter in which that scene or sentence appears. All of which leads me to Victory Seeds of Molalla, Oregon and Mike Dunton.

I am working on the sequel to The Secret of Their Midnight Tears (I couldn’t just leave my characters in the middle of World War II!) and Tom Marsh decides to plant 10 acres worth of tomatoes for a local cannery that has just been built. I wondered, exactly what kind of varieties would have been grown for commercial canning in the Piedmont area of the Mid-Atlantic in 1943? Most of today’s hybrids were developed after World War II—that much I readily found out, but discovering which ones would have been planted during the war proved difficult. Then, in searching the Internet, I came upon Victory Seeds. The name held promise, but one look at the logo told me that whoever runs this outfit has a great deal of respect for the World War II generation. Therefore, I sent Victory Seeds an email containing my inquiry and received an immediate response from Mike Dunton, the owner, who was more than happy to answer my questions. Not only that, but he has continued to send information about which tomatoes might have been grown in 1943. As it turns out, a seed company in Norfolk offered “Tait’s Trucker’s Delight,” and T. W. Woods and Sons in Richmond offered several other varieties including “Bonnie Best”, all of which we now refer to as “heirlooms.”

What happened to tomato production as a result of World War II is fascinating. Mike wrote,

As you guessed, the WWII-era is of deep interest to me and yes, most definitely was an influence when I founded the company about twenty years ago. The end of the war ushered in the industrial age of commercial agriculture and along with adoption of using chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, the seed companies that grew with this new era of ag began promoting the more profitable (for them) hybrid seeds. (As an aside, this corporate mentality is what influenced their decisions to develop and promote genetically engineered varieties some 25 years later.)

As with so much of our culture, World War II even had an effect on the breeding of tomatoes.

Mike also offered this concerning the Victory Gardens:

The “Victory Gardening” movement was equally important to the war effort. Home food production freed up agriculture for canning which fed the allied forces. Since canned foods were rationed items, nearly 20 million Americans gardened, producing up to 40% of all that was consumed during the war. Wood’s ‘Brimmer’ tomato, for example, was a popular variety as a fresh market / slicing variety.

Heretofore, I have always bought my 4-pack of tomatoes from a local store, and then stuck them in the garden without any thought, but next year, I intend to get seeds from Mike and, come summer, dine on the fresh taste of history.

I know many of you are gardeners and I strongly encourage you to visit www.victoryseeds.com Peruse this on-line catalog: You’ll enjoy it and you’ll learn something and you can contact me next spring so that those of us with small gardens can trade some seeds!

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Thanks to Al Smith and Buffy Cooper who posted the first two reviews (and very nice ones!) for The Secret of Their Midnight Tears. Keep ‘em coming folks.

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