Tuesday, September 18, 2018

DUCK—CHICKEN SOUP?

I was eating a baked Cornish hen today, and the scent of it caused a Proustian event — the smell tugged at my memory of another poultry event I experienced while sojourning in Iran back when… My reminiscence involved Isabel, a tiny Portuguese woman who lived next door to me in Melli Rah subdivision — a woman who helped me overcome the first stages of culture shock. Her remedy for all forms of culture shock: paint walls. Five layers of white paint appeared over sickly green walls that an Iranian decorator had thought would please U.S. expatriates suffering from culture shock.

Isabel, the Portuguese neighbor, helped me paint away this condition of culture shock, and when I told her I wanted to repay the favor, she just shook her head and said in her enchanting  voice: “By George, just bring me the chicken soup if I ever get sick.”

A few weeks later, Isabel began to suffer from symptoms similar to a flu bug traveling through Melli Rah subdivision and telephoned me: “Go to the Ahwaz Super and bring back a big chicken,” she instructed. 

I hadn’t learned how to drive a shift auto and had to borrow my daughter’s six-speed bicycle to make the necessary trip to the grocery. I had no idea about the speed at which the bike should be set, but it must have been “quick, the chicken soup,” because I didn’t have a chance to pedal. The super speeder flung me down the pock-marked street in 120-degree weather, and I came to an ungraceful halt, over the handlebars, and into the jube near the supermarket. Fortunately, I was unharmed and went in the market to claim a chicken.

I remember that earlier that morning I had gone to my tin desk facing the street and penned a column entitled “Persian Poultry Pretty Paltry” for the Daily Iberian, the newspaper of note in my hometown of New Iberia, Louisiana. I’d been writing an “In A Persian Market” column for several months, and when I looked in the freezer at the market, I knew why I had written the column about Iranian poultry. Chicken Little appeared to be a shriveled version of the chickens raised in America, and worse still, she was frozen solid and would take some thawing before I could cook a pot of soup and bring it to Isabel.


When I returned on the super speeder bike and delivered the bird, Isabel took one look and burst into laughter. “I might have known not to send a Louisiana Cajun to the store for a chicken,” she said. “You Cajuns think that the only kind of fowl is a duck.  That is a duck — an Iranian duck — but still a duck, you rotten neighbor.”

No, I didn’t die of embarrassment. I hired a taxi that took me to the bazaar and found a real chicken, (still a bit undersized), then made soup. By early afternoon I was able to take the requested "cure for all ills" in a large pot to Isabel’s bedside. The following day, Larry, her husband, washed and returned the pot. A week later, I became sick with a flu-like illness, and Larry asked to borrow the pot, “perfect for making chicken soup,” he said. Evidently, Isabel had no trouble finding a chicken and boiling it — she brought me a steaming pot of soup. She also returned my large, American-made vessel. However, after I recouped, Isabel fell ill again, and I made another pot of soup for her. 

In desperation, Larry cleaned and returned the pot and complained. “I know you girls have the greatest intentions to cure one another,” he said, “but I think you’re passing the germ back and forth in the pot of chicken soup. Maybe you all are really cooking sick ducks, but for good health’s sake, please don’t try to doctor one another.” 


So, Isabel and I turned off the stove and, voila, we regained good health. And I haven’t had homemade a la Iranian/Cajun, Chicken/Duck soup since we returned to the States. Maybe we just needed a genuine Louisiana fowl from Gueydan, Louisiana — Duck Capitol of the World. 

Drawings by Diane Moore


Saturday, September 15, 2018

"BENEATH THE SURFACE"*



This morning as I watch the flickering images of flooding in North Carolina and South Carolina on television, I remember the catastrophic storms that have inundated parts of my home town, New Iberia, Louisiana, throughout the years. Two years ago I published a book of poetry entitled A Slow Moving Stream (the Bayou Teche that flows through New Iberia and southwest Louisiana) and included a poem about the great flood of 1927 that inundated Acadiana. Since that time, New Iberia has endured many hurricanes and floods, but this 20th century storm caused incalculable deaths and damage in Teche country.

Karen Bourque, master glass artist in Church Point, Louisiana, captured in glass the cover for A Slow Moving Stream, the Bayou Teche near Arnaudville, Louisiana, which became a torrent of water during the flood of 1927. I acquired the glass piece entitled “Beneath the Surface,” and it now hangs in one of the dining room windows of our home in Sewanee, Tennessee. 

Karen always provides a text to accompany her glasswork, but rather than writing a text about the inundations of the Teche, Karen wrote that the glass piece for A Slow Moving Stream symbolizes Spring, “the dominant seasonal reference in the piece…and is symbolic of the time of renewal. Spring, either as time measure or metaphor, marks that time when the soul awakens inside the crossing of a water barrier, that time when unconscious mind and conscious mind surface and co-exist in the balance of renewed beginnings…”

Karen’s words constitute hope this morning. As I look up at the glass piece, her text helps to dispel my angst about the devastation due to storms and floods now battering the Carolinas, and I pray more fervently for those who are enduring this natural disaster.

In the last verse of “The Flood of 1927,” I describe the responses of those Acadians who migrated from Pisiguit, Nova Scotia, site of my ancestors who survived the great inundation of that century:

“They could not believe a levee had existed,

the land returning to a muddy geography

into which they climbed,

marveling at the ease of light,

declaring they’d never go back to Pisiguit

even if rocking tide caused the land to tilt

and the sky to become an ocean.

What had been green would be green again."

*Title of glass piece rendered by Karen Bourque, Church Point, Louisiana glass artist


Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A “CITY OF EXCELLENCE”

Marquis de La Fayette
When I’m out “vagabonding,” I’m sensitive to the energy of a city and am curious about the economy that has helped develop that energy. This past week-end, we visited our good friend, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, a retired English professor from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who recently moved to LaGrange, Georgia. It was our second visit, and we were again impressed by the energy and diversity in this city of 30,000.

LaGrange is situated in the foothills of the Georgia Piedmont, and in 2000 it gained recognition as “Intelligent Community of the Year” along with larger, bustling cities like Toronto, New York, Singapore, and other large metropoles. It has also been named a Georgia “City of Excellence,” which I think typifies this distinctive city. Once a textile center due to the plethora of King Cotton plantations, it has morphed into an industrial and commercial center housing carpet tile manufacturing and the major assembly plant for the KIA automobile industry.

Taste of Lemon Restaurant
Like other burgeoning cities (e.g., Chattanooga, Tennessee), the investments of wealthy philanthropists have created centers of culture in LaGrange that are largely due to the donations by philanthropic foundations — in the case of LaGrange, the donations of the Callaway family foundation have resulted in outstanding cultural centers: two art galleries, a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, an opera company, a Biblical History Center, and other cultural sites. New Iberians in my home town of New Iberia, Louisiana may be interested to know that LaGrange even has its own Mardi Gras Krewe called the Krewe of Mask, which sponsors a Mardi Gras Parade in February each year.

Mary Ann @ her new house
We missed the International Festival and other activities honoring the Marquis de La Fayette, a Revolutionary War hero who impressed George Washington by crossing the Atlantic and fighting in the War for U.S. Independence. La Fayette left his wife on their country estate near Paris to participate in this war after visiting Georgia in 1825. While visiting, he observed that the topography resembled that of LaGrange, his wife’s estate in France — hence the name of present-day LaGrange, Georgia. We did get a snap of the statue of the Marquis while walking in the beautiful town square. The Marquis penned lines that seemed to have imprinted on its residents and contributed to its recognition as a city of excellence: “The welfare of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the respectable and safe asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and a peaceful liberty.” 

We attended an unusual art show at the LaGrange Art Museum that featured the work of French Symbolist artist Eugène Anatole Carrière. The exhibit contained portraits of Gauguin and the poet Verlaine in monochrome and covered the top floor of the museum. We ascended via an old elevator that the docent asked us to imagine as one that took us to a loft in New York City, but she gripped my arm tightly when she glimpsed my anxiety at boarding the carrier. The artist Carrière is reputed to have influenced Pablo Picasso’s renderings of mother-and-child works, and the exhibit showcases “Kodak Moments” of Carrière's wife, daughter and sons in which the subjects are winding wool, lying down, embracing, praying as depicted through the eyes of a family man.

The Callaway Foundation donated the former Troop County Jail to the LaGrange Art Museum, and when we stood before the Victorian structure, we had difficulty envisioning it as a former prison since the building resembles an old castle. We laughed about the tower being an innovation after the architecture of Brit towers that sequestered those who were to be beheaded. Art Education has become an objective of the Museum, and more than 300 classes of workshops and gallery lectures are conducted in a building called the Center of Creative Learning, a center dedicated to various educational art programs.

Private gardens abound in LaGrange, and Mary Ann keeps pace with gardening enthusiasts in the area; within four months, she has cultivated beds of lantana, Vinca, Ixora, azaleas and other flowering plants skirted by pebbles and growing near a screened porch she had commissioned a carpenter to construct within the few months she has lived in this city. Potted plants line the entry way to her beautiful home near West Point Lake, and we visited two garden centers where she threatened to purchase more flora while we searched for a statue of St. Francis for my herb garden at Sewanee, Tennessee. 

The present mayor of LaGrange has been touting the construction of a walking trail in LaGrange as he feels that the walkway will create greater community connections, but I think that the friendliness and diversity we encountered as we moved about the city indicate that community connections are already well-established in this city committed to excellence.

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan.




Friday, September 7, 2018

THE SCENT OF BREAD

According to a study done by the University of Southern Brittany in France, people who pass a bakery and smell the sweet aroma of fresh baking bread are likely to perform random acts of kindness to strangers who approach the bakery. The claim sounds outlandish, but yesterday when we went over to Tracy City, Tennessee and stood on the sidewalk outside of the Dutch Maid Bakery, the pleasant smell of fresh bread that drifted through the front door gave me a feeling of beneficence and well-being. The scent also aroused my sweet tooth.

The Dutch Maid Bakery is an authentic Swiss bakery that has been operating in Tracy City since 1902, most of the time under the Swiss management of Johann Baggenstoss and his sons. Baggenstoss was among Swiss immigrants who settled in Gruetli-Laager, Tennessee, halfway between Beersheba Springs and Monteagle, Tennessee where only four or five Swiss-built houses and a few people of Swiss descent live presently. 

Baggenstoss left his home in Rafz, Switzerland for America and some time between 1890 and 1895 became ill and traveled to the Cumberland Plateau town of Gruetli-Laager (named after a town in Switzerland) to recuperate. For awhile he worked at the Beersheba Springs Hotel as head chef and in several other area hotels until he and his wife Louise decided to open a bakery and grocery in Tracy City in 1902.

According to The Swiss Colony at Gruetli by Frances Helen Jackson, when Johann’s son John Jacob welcomed the first girl child into the Baggenstoss family, he renamed the Baggenstoss Bakery, the “Dutch Maid Bakery,” the name it bears today. During its early days, the bakery operation served coal miners, and white sandwich bread was sent by train along lines hauling coal out of the mountain.


Front door of Dutch Maid Bakery

Frances Jackson tells of the bakery at Tracy City supplying 10,000-15,000 loaves of bread a day to feed WWII German and Italian prisoners kept at nearby Camp Forest. The bakery operated 24 hours a day and kept the Baggenstoss family working at an exhausting pace for several years. Following WWII, the Dutch Maid Bakery began making specialty items like sour dough breads and fruit cakes. The family added a Decherd, Tennessee plant, but by 1965 the business had declined due to competing large-scale technologies, and this plant closed.

Albert, the last Baggenstoss owner of the Dutch Maid Bakery, sold the business in Tracy City in 1992 after 90 years of Baggenstoss management. However, the name and quality of baked goods has remained constant. Today, customers can walk into a full-scale bakery where cakes, pies, rolls, breads, cookies, and a complete line of “Tennessee Mountain Moonshine Cakes” in boxes are baked fresh daily. Yesterday marked my third visit to this thriving bakery, and, as you can see from the photographs, the Dutch Maid is gearing up for Halloween already.


Display of baked goods

The Swiss Colony at Gruetli-Laager, once the dream of German-speaking Swiss, has vanished, but the  bakery in Tracy City is a testament to some of their successful efforts in the New World, and when customers get a whiff of fresh-baking bread and cakes, they’re liable to develop the kindness to strangers that the French trace back to the sweet aroma of bread.

Photographs of exterior and interior of bakery by Victoria Sullivan 


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

SOUTHERN HOMES & PLAN BOOKS


Yesterday evening, I was reminded that my becoming a resident at Sewanee was strongly influenced by a successful architect whose book signing I attended at the Gailor Cabin here on the campus of the University of the South. I’ve known Sarah Boykin, co-author of Southern Homes & Plan Books, The Architectural Legacy of Leila Ross Wilburn, for over 40 years as she spent her teen-age years in New Iberia, Louisiana, my Louisiana home city where I winter. She graduated early from New Iberia Senior High so that she could work on a degree at the University of the South and has been an unofficial ambassador for Sewanee and the University since her graduation.

Boykin holds a master’s degree in Architecture from the University of Texas at Austin, and has spent two decades researching and writing about the work of Leila Ross Wilburn, an abiding interest that culminated in the handsome volume that features the design and philosophy of this architect. Yesterday’s book signing was a banner event that took place in an authentic log cabin, another of Boykin’s interests in diverse types of architecture, (she lives in a similar cabin near Gudger Road). Interested readers filled the Gailor cabin, porches, and spilled out into the gardens of the cabin.

Sarah Boykin with Diane Moore at book signing

Sarah Boykin has maintained a family presence with us — she discovered our home here at Sewanee and presented us with the idea of living half the year in this cottage here on The Mountain. She also assisted my grandson Martin in preparing a portfolio of his landscape designs and helped him find his first job as a landscape architect in Atlanta, Georgia. 

As a blogger who is an omnivorous reader, I try to read the output of all writers I know personally and review their literature, but I don’t have the space to do a definitive review of Southern Homes & Plan Books. However, I can promise that readers, both professionals and laypersons, will enjoy the text and photographs featuring nine plan books and smaller offprints of house styles, from bungalows to colonial and ranch houses, included in Southern Homes and Plan Books

As a native Louisianan, I was interested to read that the Southern Pine Association, headquartered in New Orleans, once commissioned and published plan books similar to Wilburn’s for distribution to lumber yards. The American South was targeted by Wilburn for her plan books, and Boykin’s and Hunter’s book includes beautiful photographs of homes constructed according to Wilburn’s plans and drawings from the plan books distributed throughout the South.. The authors’ research reveals how Wilburn’s designs helped develop many of Atlanta’s historic neighborhoods: Candler Park, Druid Hills, Morningside, and others, as well as those in the Decatur, Georgia District. 

Of interest to me was Wilburn’s sleeping porches, “a southern adaptation originally built nationally as a preventive measure against tuberculosis in the early twentieth century.” I have published several poems about both my maternal and paternal grandparents’ sleeping porches, which Boykin and Hunter report were accepted as important components of any proper middle-class home in the early 1900’s. Twelve percent of house designs in the 1918 Sears Roebuck catalogue, published in Chicago, included sleeping porches, but in the Southern Pine Association, published in New Orleans, 40 percent of the designs included sleeping porches. These structures were a predominant feature of southern homes, and in the case of my grandparents, both grandfathers slept alone in these enclosures during humid Louisiana nights!

Southern Homes & Plan Books is divided into four chapters with descriptive headings; e.g., Chapter One, “A man’s Profession, a Woman’s Domestic Domain,” which describes Leila Wilburn’s Architectural Practice and Plan Book Business; Chapter Two, “Southern Comfort, American Style: Leila Ross Wilburn’s Early Plan Book Houses;” Chapter Three, “From 1930’s Small to 1950’s Ranch;” Chapter Four, “Learning from Wilburn in the Twenty-First Century.”

An interesting end note: From 1917-1918, Wilburn served in the Army civilian service as a draftsperson for the War Department doing architectural drafting, and during World War II, Wilburn again served as a civilian in the war effort, sometimes working in the development of maps while stationed in Tampa, Florida; and in Washington, D.C., she developed architectural plans and construction drawings for utilitarian structures.

Southern Homes & Plan Books contains an appendix, notes, bibliography, photography credits, and illustration credits. The amount of research work devoted to this project is formidable and showcases the work of two talented architects — Leila Wilburn and Sarah Boykin. Boykin has been recognized for outstanding contributions in the development of arts facilities, preservation of historic sites and cultural landscapes, as well as sustainable design. Susan Hunter has completed doctoral work in art history at Emory University and is a resident of a Wilburn house in the Atlanta area.


Brava Sarah and Susan for showcasing the legacy of Leila Ross Wilburn in this handsome volume published by the University of Georgia Press. May your interest in historic preservation continue to inspire more exceptional writing about architectural traditions.

Photograph of Sarah Boykin and Diane Moore by Victoria Sullivan.


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

DESTINATIONS


“Our life is a constant journey from life to death. The landscape changes, the people change, but the train keeps moving. Life is the train, not the station.” Paulo Coelho

Border Press announces the publication of Destinations, New and Selected Poems by Diane Marquart Moore. Her 50th book features glimpses of train travel throughout the U.S. and one memorable ride over mountain tracks in Persia. Included are portrayals of characters making trips via rail who convey feelings of escapism and nostalgia and record observations from “the platform” during the actual train rides.

Destinations also features Section III. Of “Everyday Journal” that contains ironic observations about ordinary life in both New Iberia, Louisiana and Sewanee, Tennessee. Photography by Victoria I. Sullivan. Available now at Border Press Books and Amazon.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

SEASON OF FRIENDS


Vickie and Anne on porch
This summer has been a season of friends, traveling afar to be with them and staying at home to receive them, and the latest visitor was a long-term friend from New Iberia, Louisiana. Yesterday, Anne Simon, author of mysteries called “The Blood Series” — Blood in the Cane Field, Blood in the Lake, and Blood of Believers — sat a spell with us on the small porch facing our woods here in Sewanee, Tennessee. Presently, Anne, a retired district judge, has turned her attention from writing mysteries to telling the story of an African-American woman named Felicité who nursed yellow fever victims in New Iberia during the 19th century, and we enjoyed a good writers’ chat concerning the extensive research she has been doing regarding Felicité.

We sat on the porch “taking the air,” as we say in south Louisiana, and I was reminded of the essay I wrote for Porch Posts (co-authored with Janet Faulk-Gonzales) a few years ago. This morning, I re-read my last essay in this book entitled “The Ultimate Porch:” 

“It [the porch] would be a place to which people brought peace and conversation, laughter, and their willingness to take time out. For me, the ultimate porch would also be a dual haven, in early morning hours offering me a safe place where I could sit in silence, stilling the storm of some past suffering in my mind, or expressing myself in writing, all my senses effortlessly taking in the scene around me, interrupted only by the squawk of a crow bringing me messages of affirmation.

Mostly, I’d want to bring to it my “belonging”… with friends, family, and community… where, as C.S. Lewis said, we all saw the same truth: love. Evening would be the best time for porch sitting, a time like that of an old memory at early dusk when there was just enough light to read by, and my Grandmother Nell and I sat together in a scaling, green-painted swing, reading from Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse: “The world is so full of a number of things,/I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

In early September, we plan to venture over to LaGrange, Georgia to sit on the new porch of our friend, Mary Ann Wilson, who probably loves porches as much as I do and was laying the foundation for one when we first visited her in June. It’s a screened one overlooking a patch of Georgia woods “in the country,” she says, “a place I’ve never lived.” Every time she writes, she’s on that porch, enjoying a deserved retirement from the English Department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, her “roofed-in observation post where she can sit to get a clear view of what’s in the world outside and that allows for amiable company…”*

Moon in a Bucket
*Introduction to Porch Posts by Diane Marquart Moore and Janet-Faulk Gonzales. Illustration by Paul Schexnayder in Porch Posts.



Saturday, August 18, 2018

BEING BEAT


Yes, that’s a cover illustration of the beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, but it isn’t the work of Ginsberg. Last week’s mail yielded a collection of poetry by Chuck Taylor, Jr. one of my favorite poets who writes in the genre of what he calls “radical rap." Taylor’s authentic voice resonates with high energy and honesty in Being Beat, bringing readers down to earth from the first “Riff on Allen Ginsberg” to the last “Poetry Is Love — For E.M. Forster” where poems will assemble/ and murmur under your bed/like leaves moved by breezes.” Taylor presents as one of the latter-day beat poets with his iconoclastic lyrics, writing tough, a kind of Bukowski (without the vulgarity)/David Kirby/Charles Simic poet. He says he never had a book published by City Lights Press and that the “best minds of his generation went into physics or developed computers” but that he “searches for the beat in the starry dynamo of the evening light,” and tells challenging anti-war and social justice stories with engaging style. 

Being Beat has been divided into sections with headings derived from Walt Whitman whom Taylor calls “the first American beat poet,” e.g., the section entitled “Never More Inception Than There is Now,” and he dedicates his poetry to writers, national and international, who were inspired by the beat movement. He regards Gerald Manley Hopkins as one of these poets and writes passionately about “The Wasted Land.” My interest was stoked by the first two verses: “Why do thoughts of change wear so heavy, wear/so heavy, wear so heavy in the mind,/wear out these times,/in these times, why does earth, the/Heavy earth, sit on our souls, sit on our hearts,/Earth in its heavy minerals, earth in its slowness,/The deep compacted soil, the dry lack of rain,/No running springs of heart, no ideals to sweep/The dust of fractured soil away, where is the sky…” Taylor laments the land laid waste reminiscent of the great Dust Bowl during Depression years and ends his poem with prophetic lines about environmental changes in the U.S., describing the country’s citizens as “the mad conclave ready for dance and change.”

The last lines of a long prose poem entitled “Used Mobile,” further reflect Taylor’s ability to write hopeful and passionate passages about marginalized culture; e.g. when he speaks of showing his daughter “the broad field in the sun by the luminous river not the dark stained room of red wine, she holds my hand past broken boards old tires filled with water no grass the muck of a world she’s not required as yet to know…” Here is a poet who challenges readers with lines that confront climate change, war, addiction, the corrupt politics of our time, and, in the case of this poem — U.S. poverty.

Like many people born into dysfunctional families, Taylor speaks of escaping the father who is a “shade” within himself. In the poem “Shade of Father,” his voice becomes intense as he tries to convince his dad about the passion and power of a beat poet he admires: Jack Kerouac. While they are riding together in a car, the old man’s indifference to Taylor’s passion spurs him on to a greater praise of this poet. Midway in the poem, his father’s voice comes alive as he reminiscences about his own youth: “He tells me how all four/Brothers slept on the back/ Porch and before they went/To bed they stoked the cast/iron pot-bellied stove till it/Glowed orange, but when/They woke before sunrise/In the sea of winter, then/the stove had thin icicles/Hanging down almost to its/Legs…” 

My favorite among Taylor’s poems is “Zensei,” which is Japanese for "a former life." It stands as the most mystical poem in Taylor’s collection, the recording of a dream of a former life, “not a memory of current troubles or/Of childhood tatters…Who am I to thunder out some/Orthodox argument with a cloud…” The Zensei poem reflects Taylor’s love of the Japanese culture as he writes that in the early 1990’s, inspired by Gary Snyder and his poet mentor, Lucien Stryk, he moved to Japan to teach and to become more engaged in Asian aesthetics.

Chuck Taylor has been in correspondence with me since I wrote a review of Magical, Fantastical, Alphabetical Soup published by Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado. His work shows evidence of an earthy philosopher and poet devoted to what he calls “rants.” I admire his challenging poems that show no allegiance to any writing form. He can write rhyming verse, prose poems, and mini-fiction, but in free verse or “radical rap,” readers hear the beat of a different drum that just might challenge Walt Whitman, one of his mentors. He possesses a highly original mind that speaks to the condition of the postmodern world. 

Taylor has worked as a janitor, laundry worker, survey taker, magician, nursery school teacher, bookseller, and publisher. He has worked in the National Endowment’s CETA Artist Program and taught Beat Literature and American Nature Writing at Texas A&M, served as a Poet in the Schools Program. He has also taught at St. Angelo State University, the Universities of Texas at Tyler, El Paso, and Austin, Texas. His latest books include the poetry collection Like Li-Po Laughing at the Lonely Moon. Being Beat is available at Hercules Publishing, Albuquerque, New Mexico and at Amazon. 


Thursday, August 16, 2018

FROM ELECTRA, TEXAS TO POTOMAC, MARYLAND


The photograph above is one that Vickie Sullivan snapped of my long-time friend, Jan Grogan, shown reading material for her new manuscript , which is set in Oklahoma, her birthplace. Jan’s last book, All of My Life With You, is a memoir of her adventures with her husband, Gene, who served at the helm of worldwide oil operations of a major U.S. oil company. Their long journey began in Electra, Texas where “at every turn on this sun-scorched plain, oil well pump jacks peck at the earth like Jurassic birds.”* I and my husband, a petroleum engineer with Texaco, happened to live across the street from the Grogans at the same time Gene launched his successful career in the oil patch.

During our recent visit with Jan in her elegant townhouse in Potomac, Maryland (a residence quite unlike the cracker box the Grogans occupied in Electra), we talked about her new manuscript and her inchoate interest in literature and writing, which began with conversations during morning breaks she and I enjoyed in Electra. “The only problem was that we’d be having an inspiring conversation about literature, and you’d get up and say you had to leave,” Jan said. “You timed our visits from 10 a.m. - 11 a.m. exactly. And you seem to have retained that same sense of urgency about time. A one night visit and you’re already leaving!”

She was spot on because I’m OCD about time. In the case of Electra, Texas, the occasions for significant happenings were scant, so I had to think hard to remember why I compartmentalized my social life into hour-long visits. I‘d had only one article published in the Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and my poetry was still in a box of the bedroom closet, so I wasn’t exactly a literary lion who had to hurry back to my desk to write for a deadline. However, I was revising an article I’d sent to Phoebe Adams at the Atlantic Monthly because she’d written a personal letter of encouragement about its merit after she decided that my prose about defrosting an old refrigerator was a little “contrived.” Thinking back on this rejection, I doubt if Phoebe had ever defrosted an aged refrigerator in a $60 rental located in a small Texas town…but, still, the personal letter had encouraged me. And I was trying to get writing done before the birth of the firstborn daughter I was carrying when Jan and I met. 

Jan moved to Wichita Falls within six months after our meeting when her husband entered the fast track of Cities Service Company, leaving me and my husband to a diminished social life in this West Texas town that had survived the demise of an oil boom involving the Clayco gusher in 1911. I lived on a street named after W.T. Waggoner, one of the oil magnates, whose ranch covered a half million acres in this West Texas area. Water was scarce at the time of the big boom, but W.T. Waggoner’s claim to fame had occurred when he lobbied railroad professionals to build a railroad station at the site then called Beaver Switch and later named Electra after Waggoner’s daughter. Waggoner had actually been dismayed when he drilled for water in his sprawling ranch territory and the sites yielded crude oil that polluted his water wells. He sold part of his land to a developer named Solomon Williams, and in 1911 the Clayco gusher brought in abundant oil, causing the burgeoning of the entire north Texas oil industry.

Years later, Jasper Smith III of Vivian, Louisiana worked in the oil fields of Electra and wrote about this experience as a roustabout in Dinner with Mobutu: A Chronicle of My Life and Times, and I discovered that Suzi Thornton, one of my Fortnightly Literary Club sisters in my hometown of New Iberia, Louisiana, is the sister of this chronicler. By the time Jasper had become an oil field worker in Electra, the town had mushroomed to a population of nearly 5000, and when we lived there in 1959 it had only diminished about four percent. At the time of the boom, citizens had numbered 640, and 10 years later the population had increased to 4700. Today, there are approximately 2700 citizens.

Citizens of Electra say that the town is a place of pump jacks unequaled in number in the world, and its fortunes go up and down like these jacks. Today, the W.T. Waggoner Refinery has become a place of scrap metal, but 14 oil companies still operate in the area. One of the oldest wells drilled in 1911 still pumps oil. From my spare knowledge of oil patch production, I’d say that 80 percent of area wells still producing constitutes a phenomenal record.

In this dry, dusty part of the U.S., Stephanie, my first daughter, was born, and Jan Grogan, my neighbor in Electra, Texas became a lifetime friend who now claims that I sparked her initial interest in the writing craft while we sojourned on the hot plains of the “Pump Jack Capital of Texas.”

*Bernadette Pruitt, Special Contributor to the Dallas Morning News


Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan

Friday, August 10, 2018

TRAVELING EAST


Yesterday, I stood under a blue tent in 80-degree temps at the side of a gravestone in Evergreen Cemetery delivering a homily for Marilyn Blackwell, aka Toni, Victoria Sullivan’s cousin and a good friend of mine. Toni died a few months ago in Lakeland, Florida, and we had traveled from Sewanee, Tennessee to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where I performed a burial ceremony to inter Toni’s ashes.



Toni lived most of her life in Babson Park, a small town in central Florida, but she was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and her two sisters still reside there; her brother, in Philadelphia. Toni left Gettysburg to attend Webber International College in Babson Park, Florida and never lived in the East again. After she retired from her job as an administrative assistant with Florida Power and Light, Toni took up one-stroke painting, and perfected this art within a few years. She painted almost until the last months of her life, and we have many of her floral pictures, trays, pitchers, and flower pots that she decorated with fruit, flowers, and landscape art, including a lovely Florida sunset. Toni loved beautiful things and claimed that her interest originated with Gacky Thomas, her paternal grandmother. Both liked clothes, jewelry, china, and flowers, and Toni had a closet filled with bracelets, necklaces, rings, and earrings —a regular jewelry store in a corner of a bedroom. She wore colorful, flowing clothes and possessed a style that was definitely flamboyant. But Toni was more than decorative art to Vickie and me. She was a beloved confidante and a woman with inclusive views about all people.




Toni had a high IQ and wasn’t showy with it, but if you ever played a word game with her, as we did during a family getaway for women of the family at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and you considered yourself a fair wordsmith, you soon learned that she could out-best you in a heartbeat. She suffered deeply at the end of her life, and I think she knew there wasn’t a supernatural remedy for the cancer that ravaged her body, but she opened her arms to her son, Chad, to her brother Ed, and to her sisters, Bev and Chris, dubbing them 'her angels.' Suffering was there for Toni, but so were strength and light. I was privileged to honor her yesterday, and when I came to the last paragraph of my homily, saying that “no love we ever bestow on those we care about is lost; it goes with them to God’s home, and it stays with us,” a great wave of emotion overcame me. It was a Moment.


Tomorrow, I’ll deliver another homily at a wedding reception for Gettysburg-born Thomas Armstrong and his beautiful Turkish-born Seda, here in Gettysburg, and I plan to quote from Rumi, one of my favorite poets. In two weeks, Thomas and Seda will return to Turkey where they're both employed.

The following morning, we’ll move on to Potomac, Maryland for a visit with Janis Grogan, a close friend of 58 years who befriended me in Electra, Texas just before my first daughter, Stephanie, was born. Jan chronicled and published a book entitled All My Life With You: A Memoir about her life and travels abroad with her husband Gene, who was head of operations in the worldwide oil patch — she and Gene moved 19 times and lived on five continents. After Gene’s death, Border Press also published a book of Gene’s love poems to Jan entitled Upon the Walk We Make Each Day. A copy of this book can be found in the Louisiana State Library, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and purchased online at Amazon.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan