Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

© 2006-2019 All rights reserved

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Upright Burial & the Fire

The burning bush at the end of my bottom driveway is in full flame now. But this entry isn’t about my red bush. Read on.

Early yesterday afternoon, our doorbell rang. A stranger wondered if we knew the whereabouts of the grave of an ancestor of his—a man who had been buried standing up. My husband went with him down the road to show him where the old cemetery was. Most folks in these parts are familiar with the story of how Burwell Law was buried standing up. In fact, a year ago last May, Rex Bowman, a reporter from the Richmond Times Dispatch, wrote a story about it. Rex also included information about Hainted Holler, which is just down the road from me.

Anyhow, we had a nice visit with the Taylors from Virginia Beach, who were happy to find out that the story Mr. Taylor’s grandmother told him was true. Plus the Taylors like horses and dogs. It’s always nice to visit with folks like this.

Yesterday evening, though, wasn’t so pleasant. The local redneck brothers (hereafter identified as RNB1 and RNB2) decided to have a fire—a big fire!—on their property across the road from my driveway. In late afternoon RNB2 (identified in an earlier post as Mr. RN) mowed the grass that was long overdue for mowing. His buddy (the school bus driver in another earlier post) was there for a while. About dark, they built a fire under some aged oaks and near an old building that’s the most historical place in the neighborhood.

I was inside and missed the beginning, but when I took Maggie out around 7:30 to do what dogs do, the flames lit up all round. The rednecks in attendance had even parked fairly close to the blaze. Well, no one will ever accuse them of being overly intelligent.

Later, when Maggie and I went out again, the trucks were gone but the fire was still visible from my house, 350 feet away. And the wind was coming up. The fire was blowing toward the old building. They couldn’t be so stupid to leave an untended fire, could they? That’s illegal.

I checked with a neighbor on the other side of the fire to see if she saw anyone there. Nope, she didn’t. And this fire was less than 200 feet from her propane tank and less than 250 feet from where her family’s vehicles were parked. I called the sheriff’s department and talked to the dispatcher who said she’d call RNB1.

About 15 minutes later, I saw headlights of a truck backing out of my upper driveway. Then the white truck went to my bottom driveway, pulled in and backed up. I cut on the deck lights. the truck went to my husband’s shop beyond the pines, turned around, and came back. By that time, I was on the deck, so the truck came back to the upper driveway. RNB1 asked, “Are you the one who reported the fire?” His speech was so slurred, I had to ask him to repeat what he said. When I understood his question, I said I was. I mentioned leaving an untended fire was against the law.

He seemed to think the fire would go out and it wasn’t a problem. “I can see the fire from here,” I said, pointing at the plainly visible fire. “I assume you’ll do whatever you have to do to put it out,” I added. I knew the property had no water supply. Then I went in. I wasn’t about to stay in the dark with someone I suspected of being three sheets to the wind—especially someone who has harassed me before.

Because of his slurred speech and his past actions, I figured I’d better report his being on my property. Once again I called the sheriff's department.

Later, I heard the sound of a tractor across the road. Apparently he’d figured out how to extinguish the fire. Still later, I heard the tractor in my driveway; then the beeping of the tractor’s horn. This time I snapped on Maggie’s leash and took her with me.

When she saw RNB1, she emitted a low growl. Then she glared at him in the way that border collies have mastered. She didn’t leave my side. From where I stood, it looked as if the fire was out.

RNB1 wanted me to go over and check that the fire was indeed out. Under the dusk to dawn light at the end of my driveway, I could see RNB2’s truck. I had no intention of getting near him, or being caught in the dark with both of them.

“You once told me to stay away from your property,” I reminded him. “I have no intention of trespassing on it.”

“You can stand in the state road, then,” he said.

Yeah, right. Then I reminded him of a few of his past harassments. He backed his tractor out of the driveway and left. My dog and I went inside.

Around 10 p.m. a deputy called me—the same deputy I’d talked to about the ruts left in my lawn.

“Is this related to the other offense?” the officer asked.

“Probably,” I said.

The next morning, my husband—standing in the state road—checked the fire. “It’s out,” he said. “Looks like they were burning tires. That’s how they got such a big fire.”

The dark area to the left (from the tree and to the left edge of the picture) is where the fire was. The two telephone poles in the background are on my property. The one to the left is 50 feet from my house. The one to the right (just left of the building) is at the entrance to my driveway. The small building closest to the front is indeed an outhouse. After all, this is rural America.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Colors of October

This is the view I saw this morning from my study window. If you look carefully (or if you click to enlarge), you will see the Peaks of Otter in the distance.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Samhain, Shut-Ins & the Resurrection

On Samhaim Eve, I’m told, the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. Having always wanted to see a ghost, I went out at dusk on October 31, 2004, to see if I could find one. I took my digital camera and Abby, my elderly border collie who was still alive at the time—the camera because I’ve managed to capture a few orbs with it in the past and Abby because she had a knack for seeing what isn’t there.

We walked along the gravel road where the temperature changes each few steps, we paused in front of the sinister-looking old Novelty Depot, and we examined the former burial plot across the road where the Taw Atkins family had rested for a century until 2003 when the property owner dug them up with his backhoe, dumped the remains into the bed of his pick-up, and carted them off. The grass grew greener where the family used to lie but, alas, I found no sign of any spiritual remains. The camera found no orbs; Abby didn’t even become agitated. I was, uh, dispirited.

However, two things happened in the week before and the day after Samhain 2004 that, if they didn’t lift the veil, possibly frayed its edge a bit. In mid-October, my mother received, in care of me, a cheery card from a woman she knew slightly—I’ll call her Mrs. R—who had taken it upon herself a decade earlier to round up all the shut-ins for a certain Baptist Church in Roanoke and to raise their spirits two or three times a year by either sending them cards to let them know how much the church cared about them, by calling them, or sometimes by making a home visit.

My mother—who wasn’t a member of that particular church and had never even attended a service at any church for over 30 years—was drafted as a shut-in on a technicality. Seventy years earlier, she had been a member of Jefferson Street Baptist Church, but she’d never attended that church during my lifetime. After Jefferson Street Baptist ceased to exist a few decades ago, its membership roll—still containing my mother’s name—eventually passed to another church where Mrs. R resurrected the list, scanned the names for possible re-recruits, and took it upon herself to make contact with whatever lost souls she could round up. Mama was among the lost that Mrs. R found and, consequently, became the recipient of cards, calls, and the occasional visit—whether she wanted them or not. At any rate, Mrs. R aggressively inflicted good deeds upon my mother, including—but not limited to—phone calls at inopportune times, surprise drop-in visits, fruit baskets at Christmas, and even an uninvited invasion of my mother’s hospital room. Mrs. R. even dragged along the minister on the hospital visit, much to my mother’s embarrasment.

On September 12, 2001, my mother moved to Penhook to live with me and was out of Mrs. R’s clutches, except for the occasional card and the infrequent phone calls. (Mrs. R declared the trip to Penhook too far to travel.)

Anyhow, near the end of October 2004, Mama received a cheery card telling her the church was thinking of her and hoping that she was feeling better. The card was addressed to Mama, but in care of me. My name was misspelled and the zip code was incorrect. I suppose the thought was what counted. However, when the card arrived, Mama had been dead for seven months. Apparently Mrs. R. hadn’t read the obituary in the Roanoke Times. I wrote her a brief note in which I explained the circumstances of mama’s death. I enclosed one of the funeral home hand-outs just in case Mrs. R thought I was lying. I thought that was the end of it.

A few days after I’d written to Mrs. R, another card arrived. This one was from a lady I’d never heard of. I’ll call her Mrs. T. Again it was addressed to Mama, but in care of me. Again, my name was misspelled and the zip code was wrong. However, inside the card was written, “To Mrs. Martin.” Who the heck was she? Mama’s name wasn’t Martin. After the cheery verse, Mrs. T had handwritten a note about how much the church was thinking about Mama. I ignored the note. After all, I figured, Mrs. R would surely tell Mrs. T why cheery thinking-of-you cards were no longer appropriate.

On Samhain Eve, my husband visited a neighbor and didn’t come home until late—well after Abby and I had finished our walk. However, I left the garage door open for him, turned off the lights so we wouldn’t get trick-or-treaters, and herded the three outside cats into the house. (Note: I always shut my outside cats in the garage before dark. We have coyotes in the neighborhood, plus this night was Halloween.) A few hours after dark, I heard his truck pull into the garage, but I didn’t hear the garage door close. My husband came into the house and explained that a possum—no doubt tempted by the treat of left-over cat food and then frightened by the headlights and the Ford F150 bearing down on it—had run across the garage and hidden under a pile of boxes and stuff we have in the opposite corner.

Well, no problem—I’d just trick the possum out with a dish of cat food and close the door when it went in the driveway to eat the new treat. A few hours after I put the food in the driveway, I closed the garage door and let the three cats out of the house and into the garage. Surely the possum had left.

The next day, as Abby and I went to get the morning paper, I found evidence that not only had the possum been shut in all night, but also it wasn’t litter-box trained. However, the garage door would be open all day, so no doubt the critter would wander forth and do whatever possums did during the day, and the garage could air out a bit. Luckily, I had Abby on the leash so she wouldn’t do a search and destroy mission before breakfast. I had papers to grade and my husband had bush-hogging to finish on the Penhook farm before he went to the Union Hall farm. The cats had mouse-patrol work, and Abby had to go back to sleep. Things would be back to normal in no time.

At noon, my husband returned with his tractor. He wanted me to follow him to Union Hall in my truck and bring him back to get his own truck. Then he’d return to the farm and spend the afternoon bush-hogging. While he went down the driveway to get the mail, I decided Abby would like to go in the truck with me.

“Abby!” I yelled into the house. “Ride in truck!”

Hearing her favorite command, the geriatric border collie bounded to the kitchen door. I saw no point in putting a leash on her. My truck was just outside the garage. She wouldn’t go running off across the field in pursuit of anything worth pursuing. She’d run straight through the garage, go to the tailgate, and I’d lift her in.

Except she didn’t.

I opened the kitchen door. Abby ran out, veered left, and dived into the pile of boxes. All I could see was the tip of her tail. About that time, John returned, handed me the mail, and hopped on his tractor. Another envelope addressed to Mama, in care of me, and with my name misspelled and the wrong zip code. I opened it. Another cheery message hoping Mama would soon be well! This time the card was signed by a whole bunch of women.

I didn’t give too much thought to the card because Abby was thrashing around in the corner of the garage. Apparently she was stuck. I called to my husband to get off the tractor and get her out. He moved a chair and a few boxes and Abby managed to wriggle loose. She was still interested in that corner, though. I snapped the leash on her collar, dragged her to the truck, and lifted her into the camper-covered back.

As I closed the tailgate, my husband (still in the garage) said, “There’s a dead possum back here.”

He got a pitchfork and returned with a small limp grey body. Its eyes were still open, albeit glazed. No doubt a fresh kill. At least he hadn’t forked it; he’d reverently scooped the pitchfork under the body.

Now, what to do with a dead possum? He decided he’d put it on top of the bush-hog and dump it in a ditch when he got to the farm. Seemed like a workable plan to me. I stuffed the card into my purse, got into my truck, and followed the tractor down the driveway and three miles to the farm. Abby and I stayed right behind the tractor and the corpse all the way. When my husband turned onto our gravel right-of-way, he had to slow down. I was still right behind him and I had to go slow, too.

That’s how I had a front row seat for the resurrection.

No sooner did the tractor turn onto our right-of-way than the possum stood up, jumped off the bush-hog, and ran up the bank. My husband kept going; I stopped. It’s not often you get to see a genuine resurrection. I had my camera with me and managed to snap a few pictures before the possum disappeared into the underbrush.

When I caught up with my husband, he was unfastening the cable across our farm road.
“Where’s your possum?” I said.

He looked behind the tractor. “Must have fallen off,” he said.

“No,” I said. “He was resurrected.” Then I told him what happened. I’d heard the expression “playing possum” before, but this was the first time I’d actually witnessed it.

After he parked the bush-hog, my husband drove my truck home while I rode in the passenger seat. On the ride home, I looked at the latest card again. A church bulletin was in the envelope. Somehow I’d missed seeing that before. Must have been the excitement of the stuck border collie and the allegedly dead possum.

Reading the bulletin, I noticed that Mama was named “Shut-In of the Week” for October 24. Church members were encouraged to send her get-well cards in care of me. Sure enough, my name was misspelled and the zip code was wrong. Beneath the information about Mama was a listing of Mrs. Martin’s birthday. Hers was the card Mama had gotten from Mrs. T. I could just picture Mrs. Martin’s bewilderment when she got the get-well card with “To Mrs. Smith” at the top.

Further down the bulletin was a note congratulating one of the church groups about how many visits, phone calls, and contacts they’d made to shut-ins. If they counted each person who signed the latest card to Mama as a separate contact, then Mama accounted for over half the total contacts made. Apparently, they used her to run their numbers up. Either the requirements for being the church’s “Shut-in of the Week” were very loose, or else no member of the church had any idea Mama had died. I suspected the latter, though I thought it improbable that not a single church member had read her obituary.

However, on Samhain—with the veil between life and death at its thinnest–perhaps thinking a dead woman still alive and a living possum dead is not so far-fetched after all.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Book promotion scam

Today in my email, I received an offer that I certainly can refuse. A few weeks ago, I received a snail-mail version from the same company, Airleaf. I refused that offer, too. A friend of mine and fellow POD-pubbed author, Nancy F., had gotten the same letter. She brought her copy to the last meeting of Lake Writers. We laughed about how stupid Airleaf's propaganda was. In case, you need a laugh, here’s their email spiel (with my annotations):

Our bookstore clients have asked for a bigger variety of books and we plan to deliver! That's why we're offering our Introductory Bookselling Package at half price until Monday, October 30! You pay just $199 to contact 2000 bookstore owners. (The regular price is $399)
Let’s see, you want me to pay you $199 to spam a bunch of bookstores that aren’t interested in my books in the first place. I could spam them myself for free, but I know that how futile this would be. If you’re offering me such a great deal, it must mean that no one was interested in your original deal. And who are your “bookstore clients” anyway?

Step one is featuring your book on our bookselling websites, and That happens the day you sign up.
So, let’s make sure I understand: I pay you to display my book on several websites that no one knows about and that no one gives a rat’s patootie about, is that correct?

What we do next is write a custom promotion about your book and then send it directly to the owner's of 2000 independent bookstores. You approve the promotion, and can make any changes you want. You also help choose what part of the country and what kind of bookstores to target. We follow up all responses by mail or telephone.
So, essentially you’ll annoy some booksellers and hope for the best? I’ll bet you don’t write a custom promotion at all. That would require you to actually read the book. I’ll bet you just fill in the blanks in a template. Also, are you aware that owner’s should actually be owners? If you write promos, you really ought to use correct grammar. Plus, I notice that you consistently put two spaces instead of one after every period in your email. That’s typing, not word-processing. (I think Blogger will automatically correct this error, so it might not show in this post.) See The Little, Brown Handbook (9th ed.), p. 206, or refer to an earlier posting of mine for how to space correctly.

We will also sell your book in our stores in Harrison, Ohio, Martinsville, and Nashville, Indiana.
Big whoop! No one in those cities knows I exist so why would anyone there be interested in buying my books. ("Duh, I feel like buying a book by someone I've never heard of. Guess I'll rush right out to whatever that store is in Harrison, Ohio!" Yeah, right.) Do those stores have names? Are they even bookstores?

As always, we will sell your book even if you publshed with another company--and we can have your book for sale on our websites TODAY! Just give me a quick call at 1-800-342-6068!
Craig Gustafson
Author Consultant
Well, Craig, I’m posting your phone number here on my blog so anyone who reads this can just give you a “quick call” (or perhaps a lengthy one) to say hello— and maybe tell you how the word published ought to be spelled. And—this might be news to you!—guess what! and also sell books that other companies published.

You want me to pass along your phone number to that nice lady from Nigeria who emailed me the other day? I think you'd get along with her just fine—the two of you might have a lot in common.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


The Holland Dudley house (Union Hall, Virginia)
Built sometime in the 1930s—Demolished Oct. 25, 2006


Power to the People

Another spectacular sunrise this morning!

Momentarily, I basked in the power and beauty of nature—and snapped a picture of it before the sunrise gave way to clouds.

Next year, my view might not be so spectacular. A metal power pole (65–95 feet high) will rise in the brightest spot beside the tree on the right.

Last night the Board of Supervisors approved APCO’s route for the power lines that will carry electricity from the Penhook substation to Westlake, so the upscale shops and fast food places that have overtaken Westlake will have enough power to sell their wares to the increasing populace.

My sunset views will also change. Here’s a shot, taken last year, of the western sky as seen from my pasture. Jack's Mountain is the rise at the right:

Here's a shot of the same area taken today at noon. Just above the treeline to the left, you can just see a thin line of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Floyd County; to the right is Jack's Mountain :

Now, imagine a whole line of power poles, towering above the treeline, as they come straight across the field, then turn, and vanish behind Jack’s Mountain. That’ll be my view next year.

I can't think of a single item in any Westlake shop that I'd rather have than today's view.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Not long ago, the old F & P Depot in Union Hall looked like this:

A few weeks ago, this was Union Hall:
Now, downtown Union Hall no longer exists. When I returned from Roanoke late Monday afternoon, what had been the old depot (gray building, center) and the old post office (left), and and a newer brick building that has last served as an upholstery shop (right), were piles of rubble. The majestic oaks and pines that separated the depot from the Holland Dudley house were destroyed a couple of weeks ago. This is what remained as of this afternoon:

The old house, now gutted, is scheduled for demolition tomorrow:

The Crow’s Nest Antiques (a former grocery store/gas station) and Pete Pasley’s shop still stand, albeit not for long.

The times, they are a’changin’. So is the landscape.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Leaving Their Mark

I’ve mentioned in an earlier entry that one of the downsides of rural living is the attitude—and occasionally the behavior—of some of the local rednecks. When we posted our farms several years ago, we incurred their wrath. How dare a bunch of outsiders with a strange last name tell them they can’t go where they please? Why don’t we go back where we came from?

No matter that my maiden name is Smith (think Smith Mountain) and that my roots run more than 200 years deep into Franklin County. No matter that I descend from Brigadier General Joseph Martin as do many other residents of this county and the next. No matter that I’m the third generation owner of a Union Hall farm. I “ain’t from around here” and I “ought to go back” where I came from. No matter that a goodly percentage of other Franklin County residents “ain’t from around here” either.

These newcomers/lake dwellers are also disparaged (albeit behind their backs) by some of the locals, who have no problem taking their money for goods and services.

But I don’t live on the lake. I live in rural America. And I’m educated and outspoken, qualities that these rednecks despise in their women. Consequently, I sometimes incur the wrath of a couple of the local rednecks. For a while, I kept quiet and hoped things would get better. They haven’t.

When the judge found my husband not guilty of charges brought by one of the locals, one of his buddies took issue with my husband calling me as a witness and fired off an email in which he addressed my husband as “Mushcrapko” and—though he had witnessed neither incident—was sure he knew what happened. Here’s part of his October 12 email that I "grabbed" because I wanted to preserve the original punctuation and lack of spacing. I cut the first part of the sentence of this lengthy and angry email, but you can figure it out:

You’d think that someone who drives an elementary school bus would be a little more—what’s the word I want here?—mature. Yes, he refers to me as “sweet.” Odd, since I've overheard him and his buddies on their walkie-talkies refer to me by a much less flattering term.

Late last night, someone drove on our lawn. Maggie and I walked by this section about 9:30 p.m. It was fine then. This morning, when Maggie and I went out to get the newspaper at 6:50, we saw the damage.

At 8:00 a.m., another one of the locals —the one who tried to intimidate me last March 4 by firing his shotgun three times at the edge of the road when I was getting my mail from the mailbox (and cousin to Mr. School Bus Driver)—drove by slowly, no doubt so he and his passenger could admire the damage.

Yep, like tom-cats marking their territory, those rednecks gotta leave their marks.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Bottoms Up

While walking in the woods the other day, I looked down and saw this:

Was I being mooned by a fairy? Tinkerbelle gone wild, perhaps?

Nah, just a mushroom.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Evil Cats

by Maggie Mae Mushko
(a year-old border collie)
Since Halloween is almost nigh, a black cat entry seems appropriate.

Cats are evil. Especially black cats who live in the house. Especially black house cats named Dylan and Eddie-Puss. That’s Dylan on top of the eMac. He’s always trying to take over. Plus he pees in my crate when he thinks no one is looking. He torments me when Mommy isn’t around. Then he runs to Daddy. He’s Daddy’s cat, even though Mommy bought him.

I don’t understand why Mommy actually paid money to buy Dylan, but I have it on good authority that his price had been substantially reduced at Petland. Obviously no one else would buy Dylan, so they had to run a special to get rid of him. Dylan has a little pointy face which makes him look especially evil.

Eddie-Puss is Mommy’s cat, and he looks sort of like Dylan except he has a face like a Pekinese. Eddie-Puss loves Mommy, so naturally he is very jealous of me because I am Mommy's #1 dog. He’s been known to try to attack me when I was more or less minding my own business. (My business is anything that goes on inside the house or outside.) If I weren’t so well-mannered, I would snap him a good one just to show that evil cat who is boss in this house. But I don’t because Mommy kind of likes Eddie-Puss and I want Mommy to be happy.

I don’t see why Mommy likes Eddie-Puss, though. He is almost as evil as Dylan. He likes to sleep on the desk while Mommy is using the computer, and he plots against me.

At least she didn’t pay anything for Eddie-Puss. He was an off-road adoption like all the other cats and dogs, except for me and Dylan. (Note: I cost a lot more than Dylan—and I’m worth it!)

Camilla, the little brown cat, is OK, even though she popped me hard when I first came here as a puppy. Once I learned not to EVER poke a cat with my nose, we got along OK. She’s a working cat (unlike Dylan and Eddie-Puss who are basically lazy moochers). Sometimes Camilla and I walk around outside together. It is her job to guard near the house so mice don’t get in. She is very good at what she does. I respect her because she works for her keep (unlike a couple of lazy mooching evil house-cats I know)—but still, she’s a cat, and everyone knows cats are evil.

Well, I say they are. Would a border collie lie?

Signs of the Time

Over a year ago, one of the locals (big brother of this guy) destroyed the “Horse Crossing” sign on the gravel road near us. He’d been using his front-end loader to clear his property and apparently decided that he didn’t want the sign so close to him. Consequently, he pushed it over and destroyed it.

The gravel road leads to our Polecat Creek farm about a mile away and continues for a couple more miles until it adjoins the paved road that leads to Penhook. We’ve given the Smith Mountain Hounds permission to cut through our farm, so they sometimes travel the gravel road. Once in a while a cousin or two rides down it. Every so often, a woman driving a pony cart traverses that road. So, there is equine traffic on the road.

Unfortunately, the local road-hunters are fond of cruising that road. At least they go slow, the better to shoot something. However, the road is also used by speeders. After all, why would cops be there? (Answer: Because ever since I was nearly in the line of fire of a guy shooting a turkey in the middle of the road right beside my farm on the Sunday before gobbler season opened, I report illegal activities by the road-hunters—that’s why.)

My husband picked up the mangled sign the day after it was trashed. Eventually, he returned it to the Virginia Department of Transportation. For a while, the road was unmarked, and I worried about the horses and riders on the road. Because the road curves, speeders can’t see what’s ahead.

Two weeks ago, however, VDOT replaced the sign.

So far it hasn’t accumulated any gunshot holes. And it serves as a warning that maybe—just maybe—there might be non-vehicular traffic on the road.

Of course, with the approach of hunting season, a new unblemished sign is going to make an awfully tempting target for some of the road-hunters. . . .


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Against All Odds

Last summer my husband ate a slice of watermelon in the horse pasture where he shared the rind with Cupcake and Melody. My horses think watermelon rinds are an equine gourmet treat.

He spat a seed into a manure-covered spot.

The seed, being well and organically fertilized, took root and grew. The vine produced a single melon that, oddly enough, the horses overlooked. For some reason, they didn’t sample the melon or even step on the vine.

The picture of the melon was taken in mid-October. Just before last week’s frost, my husband harvested the crop and brought it inside. We haven’t cut the melon yet, but the thumping test for ripeness sounds good.

Never underestimate the power of good luck and plenty of manure.

Monday, October 16, 2006

New Day Dawning

This morning’s sky was beautiful—but only for a moment. While surfing the net around 7:00 a.m., I looked out my study window to see a pinkish haze. Grabbing my camera, I hurried outside and snapped a few eastern shots before the sun rose. Only one was any good—and it was the brightest. The beauty faded as fast as it came. At sunrise, the sky was back to gray.

But for just a moment, I saw the brightest spot of the new day.

A new day has dawned for me in a lot of ways. I’m having a ball as writer-in-residence for Roanoke County Schools. Last week at William Byrd renewed my faith in young people. All the kids I met were polite and enthusiastic. The school was clean, teachers were upbeat (albeit overworked), and I got to mentor some kids one-on-one as well as talk to whole classes. The brightest spot was Katie, who loved horses and who completed the first draft of her horse story while I was there.

Another bright spot: Saturday’s bookfest (see previous blog entry)—a roomful of people who love to write!

Another: The group of Franklin County Young Writers that I mentor meet tonight at the library in Rocky Mount. All are supposed to bring in something to read.

And more bright spots: The Franklin County Book Festival members are starting to gather ideas. We won’t officially meet for another month, but we’re already thinking. The Lake Writers decided to hold another writing contest for young people, and again I’m co-chair. My iBook is now Wi-Fi enabled. I recently acquired a new "old" Airport card, and it works! I logged on this morning at my favorite coffee house, The Daily Grind in exciting downtown Rocky Mount.

Take another look at the picture above. Doesn't the lower part of the tree to the left look like a large critter of some sort with a firey smile and a bright eye?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Hanover Bookfest

If you’re gonna have a bookfest,
You gotta have a singer and a band!

That’s what the Hanover Writers did at their bookfest on Saturday, October 14, and it worked.

Hanover Bookfest organizer (and Hearts Afire lead singer) JoAnne Liggan, following the theme “Reading Rocks,” rocked the Mechanicsville VFW hall with 60s music while 40 or so authors (mostly self-pubbed or POD-pubbed) chatted with the public and each other.

A few of the authors participating, including moi and my Lake Writer buddy Jim Morrison, did presentations. Mine was actually done by my alter-ego Ida B. Peevish, who dished out a bit of Rock Bottom literary advice. Jim, much more dignified than I, told how he researched and wrote Bedford Goes to War.

The best presentation, however, was by one of the few commercially published authors in attendance—Linda Goodman, whose Daughters of the Appalachians was published by Overmountain Press in 1999. An accomplished story-teller, Linda held us spellbound while she told the story of “Jessie” and reminded us that we’d better be careful what we wish for.

I didn’t sell any books, but I swapped for several that had caught my eye. A lot of other authors were doing the same. I have a theory: The more authors present at a literary event, the fewer books will be sold by any individual author.

But I didn’t mind not selling any books. I had a great time, enjoyed the band and the presentations, did some serious networking, scarfed down some good coffee and refreshments, made a few new friendships, and rekindled a few old ones.

I hope the Hanover Bookfest becomes an annual event. The VFW building was a perfect place—plenty of space for displays and the band, enough restrooms, food service on premises, and plenty of parking space.

And, at that VFW hall, reading really did rock.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

James River Writers Conference 2006

An Intellectual Road Trip

I returned yesterday from my annual pilgrimage to the James River Writers Conference, the Mecca to which the serious writers in Virginia go. Even those of us who write redneck advice columns—and thus cannot be taken seriously—attend.

Unserious as I am, I still believe that an aspiring writer/novice writer/up-coming writer/writer-wannabe has nothing to lose and much to gain from observing/listening to/networking with knowledgable agents, editors, and successful commercially published authors. So that’s what I did. Over two hundred others did the same, including two Valley Writers I’d know for years—Dick Raymond and Millie Willis. Dick is a poet (Blue and Gray Ballads), short story writer, aspiring novelist, and history buff. Millie, who writes poetry and essays, recently had an article in the September issue of Prime Living.

I left rural Virginia before noon Thursday to stay ahead of the impending rain and to make a pilgrimage to the to Apple Store at the Short Pump Mall. My aging iBook had stopped burning CDs and was close to the end of its warranty. I’d emailed ahead for an appointment that afternoon. I arrived nearly an hour early, but they took a look at my iBook right away, tested it (yep—didn’t burn), sprayed its innards with compressed air, and thus fixed the problem. Plus, they updated all its software. That took an hour, during which I played with—and seriously coveted—a 20 inch iMac. I hadn’t done any updates on that iBook since I got it in February 2004. Now I’m in the market for an old Airport card so I can do the wi-fi thing at my favorite coffee shop, among other places.

Rain was pouring and a flood warning in effect when Millie, Dick, and I made our way to the Library of Virginia early Friday morning. Among the friends I found already there were Nancy Beasley (Izzy’s Fire) and Helen Eano, a member of the Richmond branch of the Virginia Writers Club.

One of the highlights of early Friday morning was meeting and conversing with Dave Kuzminski, whose Preditors and Editors site (“A guide to publishers and writing services for serious writers!”) is the biggest scam-busting site on the web. For the two or three readers of this blog who haven’t heard of Dave, he is one of the prime whistle blowers against PublishAmerica, the scammiest (scummiest?) POD publisher who prints nearly anything submitted, inserts errors, stiffs authors on royalties, and whose weasley-worded contract misleads novice authors into thinking PA is a “traditional” publisher. Among his many accomplishments, Dave is one of the authors who wrote the sting manuscript, Atlanta Nights, which PA accepted until the perpetrators of the hoax revealed that the author, Travis Tea, did not actually exist. Not long ago, PA accepted Dave’s sting manuscript, Channeling Tinkerbelle.

When the conference actually began a bit after 9:30, David Robbins’ witty welcome set the tone for what was to come. Then came what everyone was there to hear—the First Pages Critique by two agents—Cameron Mc Clure and Bryd Leavell—and an editor—Chuck Adams of Algonquin. The writing was better, and thus the agents were kinder in their remarks, than what we’d heard in previous years. After First Pages, I chose Dave’s panel (other panelists were Tony Jones and editorial consultant Marcela Landres): “Publish or Parasite: Whether and When to Self-Publish.” All panelists agreed that, given the problems with distribution and marketing self-pubbed/POD books, finding a commercial publisher was a better choice. Jones handed out some cards with things to do before self-pubbing. My favorite was “Make a list of 5,000 people you know who will buy the book.”

After lunch, I attended “Keep It Moving: An Analysis of Pacing.” Sci-fi and fantasy writer Dennis Danvers moderated a panel consisting of Chuck Adams, C. S. Friedman, and Brian Haig, all of whom gave some really good suggestions and examples. I learned some good stuff here.

I missed most of “You Write Like a Girl: Making Money from a Woman’s Perspective” with a panel moderated by journalist and freelancer Phaedre Hise and consisting of agent Kate Garrick, Marcela Landres, Buffy Morgan, and Richmond Magazine’s editor-in-chief Susan Winecki, because I had an agent interview with Cameron McClure of the Donald Maass agency. McClure didn’t know what to do with the project I pitched, “Ferradiddldumday,” my Appalachian version of “Rumpelstiltskin,” complete with study guide and illustrations. However, after I told her I wrote a redneck advice column, she asked me to send her 10 pages of the book I was planning to POD: More Peevish Advice.

Friday’s last session was “The Journey of Journalism,” in which Dean King (Skeletons of the Zahara) questioned Hampton Sides (Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder). One point Sides made that I (as a teacher) liked: provide documentation of your historical work with foot-notes or end-notes as well as bibliography. Otherwise your work will lack validity.

Saturday morning dawned with more hard rain (including thunder and lightning). The Battery Park section of Richmond had already flooded. Before going to the Library, the three of us stopped at Denny’s on Broad Street, where Luvene the waitress brightened the day considerably by singing as she served our substantial breakfast and by keeping our coffee cups full.

The first Saturday session was “The Book of Your Life: The Difficult and Courageous Art of the Memoir,” in which Jeanette Walls talked about her book, The Glass Castle. After hearing her tell of why she included certain parts, why she cut certain parts, how she found the right voice, etc., I immediately hurried to the book table and bought a copy.

“Boo Hiss: The Role of the Villain in Your Writing” was my choice for a morning panel. David L. Robbins moderated Martin Clark (Plain Heathen Mischief), C. S. Friedman, Brian Haig (legal military thrillers), and Alex Kershaw (The Bedford Boys). Another interesting and helpful session, as was the one I attended after lunch: “Deep Structure: Analysis of Point of View and Structure” with panelists Brian Haig, Dennis McFarland (The Music Room), and Janette Walls, and moderator Dean King. I really liked these nuts-and-bolts sessions that dealt with style and structure (and lots more!).

Because the weather was so bad and I wanted to get home before dark, I left early and missed the afternoon sessions and the question and answer session. Three hours later—with about 45 minutes of daylight left, I pulled into my driveway.

Even though the weather was rotten, the literary experience was wonderful. I think I’ll do it again next year!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Road Trip

I'm off to the James River Writers Conference, so I won't blog for a couple of days.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tribulations & the Trial

One of the downsides of rural living is occasional harassment by the local rednecks. I’ve been harassed since 1999 by a group of locals who apparently think that my posting of my farms interferes with their rights to hunt. Or something.

Anyhow, they don’t have free rein to do as they please on my property, and this galls them. Through the years they’ve tried various harassment tactics—running me off the road, driving slowly back and forth past my property, leaving a deer head in the mailbox/dead deer on the fence/deer parts by the “no hunting” signs, driving across the lawn, tossing beer bottles into the hay fields, shooting holes into my “no hunting” signs, removing my “no hunting" signs, tossing spikes into the farm driveway (March 2003), hanging headless deer less than 50 feet from my mailbox (one hung for six days in 2003), standing across the road and staring in the direction of my house, parking near my driveway and yelling at me when I go get the paper before dawn (November 2005), shooting close to me when I went to get the mail (March 4, 2006), etc. You get the picture. (And often I do, too. Thank goodness for digital cameras!)

At first, I didn’t notify authorities—except for my neighbor, an investigator for the sheriff’s department, who convinced the locals to temporarily behave on a few occasions—because I thought maybe they’d get tired of harassing me and I’d be left alone. I wasn’t. For the last two years, however—since I was surprised at the mailbox before dawn in 2005—I’ve been reporting offenses.

Recently, one harasser, who has been a nuisance since 2002 (this year he often walks the road past my house while he carries a big stick), apparently decided that—since the other tactics weren’t working—he would try a new one: he'd file warrants against my husband.

When Mr. Redneck walked by (with big stick over shoulder) one Sunday morning, my husband was unloading guns from his truck and decided to empty the small pistol into a target we have on our woodpile. I was sitting on the deck grading papers. Mr. Redneck wasn’t close; he didn’t come by until after I’d yelled at my husband for firing three shots that scared the birds. Mr. RN noted in his warrant, which he didn’t file until nearly four months later, that John had fired three shots. In court today, he said he only heard one shot. (Gosh, you think he would at least review his own warrant before going to court.)

His second warrant is the classic, though. (I’ve blacked out his name):

In case you can’t read his writing (click on the warrant to enlarge), this is what it says:
Walking up road got close to John he is push mowing side of road he pats his pocket to let me know he has a gun, he staresat me I stare back, walk to end of road come buck he has Lown mower in middle of road turn up side ways, standing behind Lown mower waiting on me made several cummats then said he would shoot me I stood there for awhile, then turn around gave him the middle finger and walk off.
Now, you don’t have to be much more intelligent than Mr. Redneck to see the holes in his logic:

If Mr. RN is afraid my husband has a gun, why did he “get close” to my husband? Why did he not go back the other way instead of going a few hundred feet and then turning around and walking past again?

My husband actually had a screwdriver in his pocket because he’d been having trouble with the carburetor on the old push mower he was using and figured he’d have to adjust it. Why did Mr. RN assume it was a gun?

As for Mr. RN’s remark “staresat” (sic), my husband did indeed stare at him. We both watch him because he is one of a group that has been harassing me for years. Given his past behavior, we’d be foolish not to keep our eyes on him when he is so close to us or our property.

He neglected to mention that he didn’t just stare back—he mimicked my husband by cupping his hands (thumbs to forefingers) and putting his cupped hands in front of his eyes and moving them back and forth. That’s when my husband, in a lapse of his usual good judgment, returned the rudeness by making an equally rude remark to him. He didn’t, however, tell Mr. RN that he would shoot him. The exact words: “You and your big brother ain’t [insert 4-letter expletive here].”

If Mr. RN misunderstood what was said to him and actually thought my husband was going to shoot him, why did he stand “there for a while” and why would he give my husband “the middle finger”? That doesn’t make sense. (Even for someone who isn’t very bright.)

However, it didn’t make sense either on March 4, 2006, when Mr. RN stood by and watched one of his buddies harass me by approaching me (within 20 feet) and shooting his shotgun three times into the ground by the side of the road as I was getting the mail from our mailbox. Yeah, I did report that incident to the sheriff’s department.

It also doesn’t make sense that my husband would be “waiting” for Mr. RN. My husband had no way of knowing where Mr. RN was going or for how long. Heck, he didn't even know that Mr. RN was coming down the road in the first place. It would not make sense for him to stand in the road where he could be run down. Our road curves so you can’t see what is coming, and many people speed along along that stretch. My husband was on our own property trouble-shooting his lawn mower. He had the lawnmower turned over on the side of the road (on our property!) because he’d just hit a stump while mowing and bent the blade.

If Mr. RN is so intimidated, why does he choose to walk past our property so often?

Anyhow, the trial was today. A couple of my other harassers showed up to give Mr. RN moral support. One even winked at my husband. A game warden was called as witness for the prosecution.

My husband acted as his own lawyer and called me as a witness. Because I was his witness, I was sequestered and couldn’t hear Mr. RN’s testimony. (However, before the trial got underway, my husband asked the judge for permission to tape the proceedings and it was granted, so I got to hear everything later.)

My husband declined to testify in his own behalf. (Why bother? I’d already said what needed to be said and the judge had copies of the strangely worded warrants. Plus he'd looked at my pictures of the alleged crime scene.) So, the game warden didn’t have to testify, and the prosecutor didn’t get to cross-examine.

The whole trial took less than 15 minutes.

The verdict? NOT GUILTY on both counts.

I guess there's some logic to that old saying, "The truth will set you free."


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Maggie in the Woods

Maggie in the Woods with Diamonds
(with apologies to the Beatles)

Picture yourself on a path in the forest
With golden-green trees and setting-sun skies.
Somebody woofs; you snap off a picture—
A dog with kaleidoscope eyes.

Maggie in the woods with diamonds, etc.

Last week, when I snapped this picture of Maggie with the setting sun at her back, I had no idea her eyes would turn out so, er, ghostly. It’s as if she doesn’t have eyes at all.

Anybody remember Little Orphan Annie and her dog Sandy? They didn’t have eyes either.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Dead Skunk Mystery

This morning, the odor of skunk was evident near the dog kennel, but the odor wasn't very strong. Upon inspection, however, my husband noticed a skunk corpse in the kennel. How did it get there?

Could a skunk climb the 5 foot-high chain-link fence that surrounds the kennel? Or did it come through the attached “dog stall” (which has walls over 5 feet high)? Or did it climb the 6-foot wall from the adjoining horse shed?

Can skunks climb high wooden walls? Can they climb chain link fences?

Here are some other observations about the, uh, crime scene:
  • If the skunk had come through the dog-stall last night, the stall should have smelled like skunk. It didn't. Plus four dogs—border collie, catahoula, beagle, and mixed retriever—sleep in that stall. The kill would have been made there and the dogs would have smelled strongly of skunk.
  • If the skunk had climbed in from the horse shed (6-foot climb), the horse shed should have smelled. It didn't. Plus Emma the mixed sheltie, who sleeps in the doghouse beside the shed and who doesn't miss much, should have made the kill inside her small kennel. Long-haired Emma didn't smell of skunk. Plus, the body was in the main kennel.
  • I’ve had dogs kill skunks before while we were out on the farm. I know it takes a large can of tomato juice per dog to lessen the smell. None of the five dogs smelled of skunk this morning.
  • In fact, none of the (usually highly competitive) dogs showed any interest in the skunk whatsoever.
  • I’ve seen a couple of these dogs kill groundhogs, moles and mice before. They always bite the back of the neck. I doubt they’d vary much for a skunk. The wounds on the skunk were not at the back of the neck where they would have been if the dogs had made a kill. There were no puncture wounds on the skunk in evidence.
  • However, two scrape-type wounds (over an inch wide by two inches or more long) were on the skunk's right side—about 6 or 7 inches apart.
  • The wounded side of the skunk was muddy from the wet clay in the kennel. The left side and the tail were clean. The skunk obviously hadn't been dragged around by the dogs.
  • Rigor mortis had already set in. The skunk had been dead for a while.
So—how did the skunk get in the kennel? Might it have been a (gasp!) outside job? Could it have been done by the same local rednecks who in the past have left various mutilated deer parts by our “No Hunting” signs down the road at the farm? who have left deer carcasses hanging on our barbed wire fence before? who once even left a deer head in our farm mailbox over a decade ago?

(Note: Senator George Allen, who has received so much press lately for a deer head he once left in someone’s mailbox, is not among our local rednecks. At least, I don’t think he is.)

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Union Hall: Ground Zero

This is Ground Zero in Union Hall. The fields and woods have been cleared and only the shell of the old house remains. By the end of the coming week, the house will be gone. Way in the distance, to the left of the heavy equipment, are the beige buildings of South Lake Plaza.

All that remains of the barn is a smoldering pile. Last Tuesday, when I was on the lake with my friend Sally, I looked in the direction of Union Hall and saw a cloud of smoke. I knew they'd burned the remains of the barn. The debris pile actually consisted of barn remains and stumps from the logging-out of the surrounding woods. When the wind is right, I can smell the smoke from my house, two miles east.

The smoke smells just like the wood fires I remember from my grandparents' fireplace more than 50 years ago.