Tuesday, April 29, 2008
This pot of flowers sat at the entrance to our hotel on a recent trip to Santa Fe. I just like it and thought I'd share.
Monday. The beginning of a new work week. A good time to take stock of the past before looking ahead to the future. Drumroll please....ta da! Here is my first published piece of writing. The article appeared in the May 6, 1988 issue of The Ranger, Amarillo Community College's newspaper. (I sincerely hope my writing skills have improved since then!)Some of you who know me might be surprised to know that the woman profiled in this story is my mom, and that I am the "one-year-old little girl."
Which leads to my question of the day: Is there some element of your past (or your present) that doesn't often come up that might surprise your friends and/or acquaintances?
RAILROAD LIVING ON THE RIGHT TRACK
“One day as I stood in the check-out line at a grocery store in Cleburne, Texas, a woman whose husband was in a railroad track gang was also in line. She was telling someone where she lived – a small boxcar standing on some nearby railroad tracks. She had small children with her. I remember feeling sorry for her.”
So said Joan, Amarillo homemaker. But that was Joan before her life changed almost 30years ago. Observing her today, at ease and relaxing in her ordinary, middle-class suburban home, it is not easy to imagine that she also once lived that very different railroad lifestyle.
In February of 1958, Joan, a stenographer, and her husband Charles, a machinist in the Santa Fe Railway Shops, were a typical young married couple. They and their two small daughters had just bought and moved into a brand new 1,600 square foot brick home in Cleburne. Their six-year-old daughter attended first grade at the school nearby while Joan’s mother stayed with their one-year-old little girl. Six months later things changed. In September of 1958, Charles was laid off from his job. Unable to find work in the area, he began to consider a job offer with a new Santa Fe welding plant.
Because of the expense, time and facilities that would be needed to ship the rail to its destination, the Santa Fe Railway made the new plant a “mobile” facility. Set up inside train cars, the facility could be relocated at different times to the different areas that needed the rail. Of course, this meant that the employees and their families also would have to be moved. Living quarters would be provided, along with free rent and utilities for employed men and their families.
The Santa Fe redesigned old passenger cars for living quarters for the employees, converting them into homes comparable to trailer houses. The “coaches,” as they were called, sat directly on the railroad tracks. Families learned they were to move two to four times yearly, usually to small towns. Explaining the need for the mobile housing, Santa Fe officials said it would be difficult and expensive for the families to find housing after each move. “The coaches seemed to be the best alternative,” Joan recalls. When a move was to take place, the families would secure their furniture inside the coach, then an engine would hook onto the train of coach cars and pull them to their new location.
After a lot of discussion, the couple decided that Charles should take the job and move by himself to San Bernadino, CA. where the facility was located at the time. He would live and work there for a while before they would decide whether they should sell their home in Cleburne and move the entire family.
Three months later, Joan made a trip to see the living arrangements for herself and to meet some of the families who had already made the move. She remembers seeing her future “home” for the first time.
“It was 81 feet long by 9 feet wide and included a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and a bath. The walls were unfinished steel and were mustard yellow throughout. There was no carpet or curtains, only brown linoleum and brown window shades.”
Then she met a couple who had lived in a coach for three months. The two couples had a lot in common and got along well from the start. “I saw their coach and I realized that it might not be so bad,” she recalls. “Our main concern was how moving around so much would affect our kids in school and in other ways,” she says. She was also concerned about leaving her lifelong hometown, her new house and her job to enter into a situation with so many uncertainties. “We just weren’t too sure about how it would affect the family,” she remembers.
Nevertheless, her husband had not been able to find a good job elsewhere and there seemed to be hope for advancement if he stayed with the new job. “It seemed to be a way for him to better himself down the line,” she says. There was also rumor that the facility would settle permanently somewhere soon.
With a lot of anxieties and hopes, Joan and Charles decided to make the move and live with the hope they would be able to have a permanent home soon. Unfortunately, permanence did not happen as quickly as they had thought. Joan and her family lived in the coaches for 10 years and moved 22 times in that time span. During those years, they rearranged walls in their home, put up sheetrock and paneling, painted, installed a regular ceiling with storage, put down carpeting and put up drapes and curtains. The couple also added two more daughters to their family. Of course, two more little people created a space problem in the already cramped quarters, so Charles built doublewide bunk beds in the children’s bedroom to help solve the space problem.
“Approximately 15 other families lived and worked under similar circumstances,” Joan recalls. “When you’ve got a number of people in the same boat as you’re in, you always feel you can make it.” She said there was a lot of closeness between the families who lived in the coaches. While at times that closeness presented inevitable problems and there were arguments and differences of opinion, she misses it and the helpfulness of the families. “We had a lot of fun together,” she remembers. “We took care of each other.”
Joan recalls both good and difficult times with smiles and laughter. She recounts one difficult incident when a problem occurred with one of the two diesel-oil heaters used to heat their home. “I remember one year in LaJunta, Colorado when the temperature dropped to 25 degrees below 0. The oil going into one of our heaters froze. Charles was up half the night thawing out the heater and keeping us warm. Ice and frost formed on the walls,” she remembers. Explaining that their third child was only a toddler at the time, she smiles and remembers, “The baby would crawl out of bed over to a wall and scrape the frost off of it.” Joan said her husband used a blowtorch to thaw out the oil lines outside intermittently throughout the night for two nights. “During the day it only got up to 0, but the sun was out and it felt warm,” she laughs, shivering at the memory.
In discussing how the unusual living situation affected her children in school, she states, “The older two made very good grades. Better than the younger children who started school after we returned to Texas to live permanently.”
Their nomadic lifestyle offered some benefits. “The entire family enjoyed traveling and seeing places we might otherwise never have seen.” They also learned some valuable lessons, she said. “Living like that made me realize that you can’t judge people by where they live.”
Does she miss the traveling life? “No, but miss it or not, I found you can make a home anywhere.”
Friday, April 25, 2008
My friend and fellow writer Travis Erwin tagged me to recommend a book in an effort to entice me to blog more. (Thanks for the nudge, Travis!) His friend Patti tagged him -- the Friday book recs are her idea. I hope to make this a regular Friday feature on my blog. To explain how it works, here is Patti in her own words:
"This is the first of what I optimistically hope will become Friday recommendations of books we love but might have forgotten over the years. I have asked several people to help me by also remembering a favorite book. Their blog sites are listed below. I also asked each of them to tag someone to recommend a book for next Friday. I'm worried great books of the recent past are sliding out of print and out of our consciousness. Not the first-tier classics we all can name, but the books that come next."
Okay, Travis and Patti and anyone else out there reading this, I am tagging my friend Candace Havens a fantastic writer herself, to recommend a book on her site. As for me, my recommendation for today is TENDING ROSES by Lisa Wingate. I read this book about six years ago and I've never forgotten it. I had never met or even heard of author Lisa Wingate at the time. I found the book while browsing the fiction aisles at Barnes and Noble. I loved the title, the beautiful cover and the back blurb sounded interesting. I have never contacted an author I've never met after reading a novel, but TENDING ROSES touched a chord in me, and I looked up Lisa Wingate's website, and through it, sent her a note telling her how much the story had meant to me. Ironically, a couple of years later, I was at a writing conference having lunch with a group of ladies--some I knew and others I had not met before. Lisa Wingate sat across from me at the table. She is as lovely as her first mainstream novel.
Here's what Amazon.com had to say about TENDING ROSES:
"First-time author Lisa Wingate drew upon her relationship with her grandmother for inspiration in writing Tending Roses. Her sensitive and able crafting of language, character, and situation pierces through the turmoil and stress of everyday life, illuminating its message with almost painful intensity: "Maybe you should start wanting less." Wingate's words resonate as readers are introduced to Kate Bowman, her architect husband Ben, and their infant son. Kate, on maternity leave from her high-profile Chicago job, has been given the unenviable task of convincing her increasingly frail and forgetful grandmother that she can no longer live alone on the Missouri farm that has been her home for almost half a century. Kate and Ben are struggling to deal with mounting debts and medical bills as they strive to build a lifestyle, rather than a life. Frustrated by dealing with her stubborn, if well-meaning, grandmother, Kate finds solace and clarity in Grandma Rose's handwritten journal. The simple stories of earlier, less complicated times renew Kate's understanding of the truly important things in life. Through the journal, Kate discovers the essence of the remarkable Grandma Rose and is forced to reevaluate her priorities and those of her family. Simply put, Wingate's aim is to exhort readers to "stop and smell the roses." The daily race to achieve and have more, more, more is clearly and all-too-accurately portrayed in these pages. I guarantee readers will stop to think of their own lives and where they are spending their energies. Let's hope Lisa Wingate has other relatives as inspiring as Grandma Rose for future novels." --Alison Trinkle
Hope you'll give it a read!
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
I joined a book club a few months ago. I meet with four other women -- Donna, Cindy, Amy and Renae -- we choose a novel, read it and discuss it at the next meeting. We also eat, drink, laugh and debate. It's interesting and great fun! I am the only writer in the bunch so I also had another motive for joining besides the obvious pleasure of getting together with a diverse group of fun-loving, interesting women. It's an education for me to watch how readers react to plotlines and characters, how they judge the choices a writer makes in building a story.
In February, Renae, who is a high school science teacher, Methodist minister and the only group member who'll drink wine with me :-) chose Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD as our next selection. Mr. McCarthy is also the author of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. After I started the book, I spent a little time cursing Renae under my breath and grumbling to my husband "this piece of x!$% has possibly the worst dialogue I've ever read and very little punctuation and it won the Pulitzer! And the plot is completely depressing and disgusting!" But I COULDN'T QUIT READING. I stayed up until 3 a.m. and finished it in one sitting. I WEPT at the end...literally had to climb out of bed and tiptoe into the bathroom so I wouldn't wake my husband! Since then, I've tried to analyze why it hit me so hard. Yes it was tragic and sad and horrifying, but I'm not sure that's what brought me to tears. It was more the message I came away with, and the beautiful way Cormac McCarthy delivered it on the last page. I can't remember another book that has affected me in the way THE ROAD has. I am haunted by it. Yes, the dialogue is monotonous, but I see a reason for that now. Yes, the world of the story and what happens there is disgusting, depressing, terrifying and sickening beyond belief, but it COULD HAPPEN, and I'm afraid it might some day.
THE ROAD is a hard book to read in many ways, yet every woman in my group finished it. The responses varied. But I think even Donna and Amy, who came to the meeting saying they HATED it, had a different perspective after we discussed the story. It is chock full of symbolism--a lot of it biblical (and I'm sure a lot more of it was present that I missed since I'm no great Bible scholar.) If you're looking for entertainment, you won't find it here. But if you're in the mood for a thought-provoking read, give it a try. I'm not sure I could read it a second time, but I might try, if only to attempt to understand how the author managed to draw me into a world and a style of writing I thought I couldn't stand, and then keep me there until I found the beauty and wisdom in it.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Spring has arrived here in the Texas Panhandle, and that means it is warm one day and cold the next. I have a new definition of 'cold' now, though, after my recent trip to Toronto to attend Harlequin's More Than Words ceremony. It snowed during the time my husband and I were there, but we didn't let it put a chill on our good time. Toronto is a great city and the surrounding area is beautiful. Check out my new "Photo" page at www.jenniferarcher.net to see pictures of the ceremony and of our side trip to Niagra Falls.
I met so many great people at the More Than Words event. It was so fun to get to know Aviva Presser (the woman whose charity, Bears Without Borders, is featured in my story "Hannah's Hugs" in the More Than Words anthology.) Aviva is such an inspiring and amazing young woman. In addition to the devoted work she does for children in the world's most impoverished areas through Bears Without Borders, she is a graduate student at MIT. Her husband, Erez, who is as funny as he is friendly, kept us laughing. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the other 4 women who were awarded and honored, as well, and hearing about their charity work. They are all incredible people! I didn't get a chance to talk to the other 4 authors in the anthology as much as I would've liked during all the activity, but Linda Lael Miller, Curtiss Ann Matlock, Sherryl Woods and Kathleen O'Brien were all there and I loved seeing all of them. Check out my website to find out more about the More Than Words project, and to see the book, MORE THAN WORDS, Volume 4, which is available in bookstores now!