Taken By Surprise, by Polly Smrcka [guest post]

(From Hatch Hollow Tomboy. Used by permission.)

Life on the stony, rolling acres of the family farm was never dull. There were always new and interesting, sometimes frightening, experiences to add to the daily humdrum of endless work. Never were two days alike.

One particular day from early childhood never dims in my memory with the passage of many years since its happening. Let me tell you about it.

It was my turn to help Martin drive the cows home from the pasture for the evening milking. It was one chore that I always enjoyed. It seemed more like play than work. There were all sorts of things to explore on the way to the farthest corner of the pasture where we usually found the cows.

The family dog, Peggy, was our daily companion. The mere presence of the shaggy, sable collie made us feel safe even in the darkest part of the woods that we had to cross to find the cattle. I was also her duty to heel any ornery cow into line with the rest of the herd. It was a duty that Peggy performed instinctively and well.

Although my extravagant imagination often convinced me that there were all kinds of scary things hiding behind every grassy hummock or perching on branches in the shadows of the hemlock thicket that we had to pass along the cowpath, waiting to jump out and scare the wits out of us, I was sure that Peggy would not let anything hurt us.

Dad always reminded us to “be sure you take Peggy along. She will protect you on the way.” Secure in this knowledge, Martin and I took our time to get to the back forty where the cows lay content, chewing their cuds. We took time to check out every bird nest along the way. We stopped at every rabbit hole and dropped in small stones to see if a bunny might scamper out of another hole a few feet away. We poked sharp sticks into every anthill and watched the ants race crazily in all directions, bumping into one another and backing off and heading in another direction.

“Let’s pick some wildflowers for Mom,” I suggested to Martin. “There aren’t any flowers in the garden yet, that Mom will let us pick, so we can pick some here in the pasture. The cows won’t care.”

“Aw, Polly,” scoffed Martin, “You’re such a silly kid. You know that Mom doesn’t like wild buttercups. They make her sneeze too much. C’mon, let’s git the cows home before someone comes lookin’ fer us.”

Martin was right. Mom never let us bring buttercups into the house. But there was still time to stop and pick a handful of ripe, juicy blackberries from a clump of tall brambles near the cowpath. A tomboy’s tummy always had room for a few succulent berries.

The old butternut tree on the bank of the small creek near the back of the pasture was always a favorite place to explore. There were three or four large holes in the trunk. Bushytailed squirrels lived in the biggest hole up in the crotch were several limbs branched toward the blue sky. Martin was a good tree climber and he never missed a chance to check the comings and goings of the squirrel family.

Girls in our family were not allowed to climb trees. My mother lived by strict European ideas. Those ideas held that no decent girl or woman would be caught dead climbing a tree. Think of the shame of it! Some man or boy might come along and see an inch or two beyond your long skirts. How would you ever manage to live down such a scandalous sight? Never mind that feminine legs were fully encased in heavy cotton stockings that usually sagged and bunched around your ankles.

It didn’t seem fair that only boys could do things that were the most fun. But there was no use in trying to change my mother’s views on the way her daughters ought to behave. So I had to be satisfied with poking into the holes closer to the ground. A redheaded woodpecker lived in one and I saw a skunk come out of the hole that went down under the roots of the butternut tree. I could never work up enough courage to poke a stick into the place where the stinky animal lived.

Martin often tried to goad me into disturbing the skunk. “I dare ya t’ even drop a little bitty rock inta his hole,” he taunted wickedly, “jes’ t’ see what the ol’ skunk’il do.”

“If ya wanna know so bad what he’ll do, smarty,” I retorted, “why’n’cha try it yerself. I’m not gonna do it an’ git myself all stunk up!”

Martin knew when his tomboy sister had bested him. He guessed that we’d better be getting the cows home. He walked away from the butternut tree and I followed after I made sure that Peggy trotted ahead of us.

I couldn’t swat fast enough to kill all the pesky deer flies that were out to get their dinner from my bare arms and legs. Martin at least had long sleeves on his blue chambray shirt and he wore long denim overalls to cover his legs. The flies did not bother him too much. But I was soon scratching at least a dozen places.

When we came to a shrubby place at the edge of the bog we walked into a cloud of midges and we knew that a thunderstorm was brewing not too far away. Otherwise the midges would have stayed in the shady bog instead of crawling into our eyes and hair and driving us wild.

By and by the herd came into view. There was a brand new calf trying out its wobbly legs while it looked for the right end of its mother to have its first meal. The cow, a large black and white Holstein, stood patiently while her baby searched and butted her belly. She kept nudging the calf in the right direction but it didn’t seem to understand.

Martin laughed and pointed to the bumbling calf. “Lookit that dumb calf. You’d think it couldn’t help but see where to go to suck for milk. That ol’ cow’s bag is as big as a washtub.”

“Well, how do you expect a new calf to know that? It was just born a little while ago,” I scolded my brother. “You didn’t know how to eat as soon as you were born, either.”

Peggy knew her job, and she lost no time in rounding up the cows and moving them toward home. Martin and I quickly counted heads to be sure that none stayed behind. Martin said we had one too many. I counted again. Sure enough. One cow too many. Where did it come from?

What we didn’t know was that a neighbor’s young bull had jumped over the fence into our pasture for an amorous interlude with one of our bossies.

I will never know why that angry bull chose to chase me instead of my brother. Maybe he simply hated towheaded tomboys, but he showed this one how quickly she could climb a tree.

It was a good thing that the gnarled wild apple tree was close by or I might not be here to tell this tale. I cannot tell how I climbed the tree. But climb I did, faster than you could say Aunt Fannie’s bustle. And there I stayed, precariously perched in the highest branches, my heart pounding a mile a minute. It was a close call.

I guess the bull realized that he could not reach me. But do you think he would admit defeat and go away so I could come down from the treetop? Not on your life! He stayed under the tree and snorted and pawed the dirt and made rumbling noises that sounded like distant thunder. I hoped that he really felt frustrated. Served him right! Maybe he would break off one of those long, sharp horns, too, if he kept on butting the apple tree.

Martin thought my predicament was the most hilarious thing that had happened on the farm all summer. “Ho, ho, ho, Polly,” he laughed, rolling on the ground and clutching his belly with his arms. “Ya better be careful so ya don’t fall outta the tree! It’s gonna be a long, long night up there cuz ya don’t know how ta climb back down.”

I held tightly to the sturdy branch and watched Martin and Peggy drive the cows home. It was the most forlorn feeling I had ever known. I shivered violently in the summer heat and turned my attention back to the ugly bull.

Martin may have looked forward to the prospect of his tomboy sister spending the night up a tree. But it was not to be. As soon as Dad saw that Martin was coming alone with the cows and Peggy, he wanted to know where Martin left me. What could Martin do? He had to tell.

Dad soon came to my rescue. Peggy came with him. The bull left before they came. Dad coaxed me to come down. I sat fast until Dad reassured me that he fixed the broken fence that the bull tore up when he jumped over into our pasture. Dad even pointed at the diminishing form of the bull in the distance in his own pasture, heading for his own barn.

I knew that fright made me climb the apple tree. Now it was fright that kept me from climbing down. But Dad was patient and slowly guided my trembling hands and feet until I felt the solid ground under me and Dad’s strong arms around me.

It was a long, long time until I got over the surprise in the pasture. Martin drove the cows home alone for the rest of the summer.

Copyright © 2000, Polly Smrcka


About Polly

polPolly Smrcka is the author of Hatch Hollow Tomboy and The Way It Was, and wrote the column “Farm Grandma” in the Sunday edition of the Erie (PA) Times-News.

It was the beef boycott of the 1970s that started Polly’s writing career. “Suddenly beef prices at the grocery stores went sky-high,” she recalls. “Everybody blamed the farmers. As a farmer’s daughter and a farmer’s wife, I knew the farmers were not getting all that money. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Erie newspaper about it. The managing editor, Larie Pintea, liked my writing style and asked me to write more about my life growing up. I didn’t think I could do it. I graduated from an eight grade one-room school in seven years, but never considered myself a writer! What could I write about?

“Larie said, ‘Polly, write about your life. Your memory tank will never run dry,’ he said. And it never has. As the newspaper columns about life on the farm in the 1920s and 30s began to pile up, I did think of putting them in a book. But I didn’t do anything about it until someone suggested I contact the Erie County Historical Society. They agreed to publish Hatch Hollow Tomboy in 1999.” Its companion The Way It Was soon followed.

Polly’s books can be purchased by mail from the Erie County Historical Society, 417 State Street, Erie, PA 16501, phone (814) 454-1813, or at The Erie Book Store, or any Barnes & Noble, Borders, and WaldenBooks stores.

Sending Out a Finished Manuscript, by Beverley Bittner [guest post]

From the Help Desk of Beverley Bittner.

PJ has been working a long time on a mystery novel. She is finishing it and wants to know if she should send the whole thing to a publisher.

First, congratulations on actually finishing your story, PJ. That’s the first big step of writing. Marketing is the second (and some say the hardest) part. Here are some ideas that may help you:

Study the markets. You probably read a lot of the kind of story you have written. Make a list of the publishers of some of your favorites. Most are in the annual book, Writer’s Market, available at your public library.

Follow the publisher’s instructions. Many publishers will ask for a cover letter and two or three chapters. If you don’t understand what they want, ask. Always send return postage with any mailing.

Don’t think it will be easy. Expect rejections. John Grisham, in an interview in The Christian Communicator, Sept. 1999, said, “When (my) first novel was finished, the response was one rejection slip after another.” Finally he found an editor willing to take a chance on him. 5,000 copies of “A Time to Kill” were printed. Grisham bought 1,000 of them himself and sold them out of the trunk of his old blue Volvo. His second novel “The Firm” captured the attention of Doubleday and the rest is history. By the way, those first edition copies of “A Time to Kill” are now worth about $4,000 each.

We welcome everyone of like interests to be part of our world of reading, writing, and lifelong learning. E-mail us your questions, comments, or ideas.

—Beverley Bittner
Copyright © 2000


About Beverley

bevBeverley Bittner (1930–2006) was born in Dunkirk, NY, a daughter of Paul and Doris Blakeslee. She was raised and educated in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania where she graduated from Spartansburg High School in 1948. She moved to Corry, Pennsylvania in 1960, and resided there until 1979 when she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for several years. She was the Associate Editor for the Union Gospel Press in Cleveland, and was a free-lance writer for various religious publications. She had a special interest in history, wrote about veterans of World War II, and wrote and published a series of five novels about the history of western Pennsylvania and the origins of the local oil industry. She founded the Writer’s Block in 1999 after moving back to Corry and served as a mentor to other writers until her death in 2006.

Power That Counts, by Pauline Vaow [guest post]

In our rural area, it is not unusual for the electric power to go out during a thunder and lightning storm. Sometimes the lights will be out for hours and when they come back on, they may still be dim for a while.

Our Lord Jesus tells us to let our lights shine brightly out in the open. He said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:15).

A dim light from under a bushel is not good enough. Just as a candle lights up a dark room and a flashlight shines upon a path at night, so our light of faith must shine in our little corner of the world. It will brighten our surroundings and give us and others cheer.

If we put a lighted candle under a container where it will not get oxygen, the flame will go out. When the electric power goes out, we put our candle on top of the table in a holder so it will shine brightly. So our love for Jesus should shine forth for all to see.

Copyright © 2000, Pauline Vaow


About Pauline

If the Writer’s Block had had an official membership list when it started, Pauline Vaow would have been first on it.

Born Pauline Fenton, she is a Corry native and Corry Area High School graduate of 1968. She married Robert Vaow on June 14, 1975. She has the distinction of still living in the house where she grew up.

Pauline also grew up in the Salvation Army. She has attended church there most all her life. You can find her somewhere in the building almost every day, helping out in the soup kitchen, the clothing room, dusting the sanctuary, teaching Sunday school, or even preaching the sermon when the officers in charge are away.

She tells this story, “One day I was cleaning in the sanctuary and I said to myself, ‘Why am I doing this? No one will even notice.’ It seemed to me the Lord said, ‘I will notice. I have chosen you for this work.’ It showed me that all work is important when it is done for God.”

Pauline enjoys Bible study, crocheting, and writing stories about animals, especially dogs. She wants to learn to illustrate her stories herself.

Mittens Writes a Letter, by Lorraine Dahl [guest post]

KENNY!

WHERE are you? All of a sudden your ex-girlfriend shows up and me and all my belongings are HISTORY from our house. I’m scared Where are you? I miss you!

She took me to her daughter’s house in Columbus. I hate it in Columbus! They have a mean cat that chewed off a piece of my right ear when I was a kitten, remember? I don’t know WHY I have no brow over my right eye. Do you? I am so beautiful, why would anyone want to harm me? My grey coat and the white mittens on my front feet (hence the name Mittens) and the white knee socks on my back legs are so unique. I only want to love and purr and be stroked. (Hey, isn’t that what a cat’s life is all about?)

It was HORRIBLE in Columbus. I usually hid behind the warm dryer in the basement. I’m lucky they put the essentials down there. Then two NEW LADIES came to get me. Linda (the daughter) and Lorraine (the Mom) put all my stuff in their truck. I sure was hiding! They found me and tried to stuff me into the plastic box they brought. They got me in there once and (ha! hat) I escaped! But they caught me again.

WHAT was to become of me? WHO were these women? WHERE were they taking me? I was so frightened all I could do was mew like when I was a kitten. I made myself as small as possible. We arrived at their house and they made two trips in. They didn’t like making the trips in the rain as Linda’s natural curly hair frizzes in the wet and Lorraine’s goes straight, but they got the job done and took me in at last! And WHERE were you? Not there. I was so frightened. I was afraid that I was going to be killed! Is this the last trip to the Vet that many animals talk about? If so, I was going to MY death with as much dignity as I could possible manage. I stopped making noise and curled into a tiny ball.

WHAT a surprise! In this small room (they call it a cedar closet) was my food and water dish all filled and my hooded box with fresh litter. My scratching box was in the laundry room (they need to get catnip). Then they took me into MY VERY OWN ROOM! (They call it a library.)

On the single bed they had made me a nest of blankets. It is SO cozy! They had salmon for dinner and brought me some bones and juice and skin. It was wonderful! It was 50000 good I ate real fast and most of it ended up on the carpet in MY room but it was OK. Linda cleaned it up and never even yelled at me.

They finally told me that you were in JAIL and I could stay with them until you got out. They called me their “loaner cat.” It sure could be worse. I could still be in Columbus.

I will wait for you and write to you. I miss you!

Your beloved cat,

Mittens

Copyright © 1999, Lorraine Dahl


About Lorraine

Lorraine Dahl is a charter member of Writer’s Block, and an enthusiastic booster of the club.

Affectionately known as “Grandma Fred” to her many friends, Lorraine is the writer of the popular “Mittens Writes a Letter” stories on our website.

Lorraine acquired her nickname at her workplace. She was one of the first women to take on a “man’s job” in the shop at Associated Springs in Corry. Lorraine earned the respect of her male co-workers and stayed at the job for many years.

For several years, as a United Auto Workers representative, she wrote a monthly column for the shop newsletter, the Springboard. Now retired from the shop, she still participates in union and shop retirees’ activities.

Never idle, Lorraine enjoys crafts and has many ribbons from fairs for her work. Like many writers, she is a voracious reader. Some favorite authors are Dean Koontz, Robin Cook and John Jakes.

Inheritance, by Carolyn Cox [guest post]

We sit on Mother Earth,
Her watchful eye and furrowed brow creased in worry
As she watches over us with feet of prosperity.

Pollution and decay all around us;
We who snatch the grain from her warm, soft soil,
Always taking, never giving
While birds of the field scatter seed to replenish her storehouse.

We who had everything now have nothing;
Our wretched selves have robbed us of our inheritance
For we squandered the plenty of the land.

Copyright © 1999, Carolyn Cox


About Carolyn

Carolyn Cox isn’t yet sure where her writing will take her. Her interests in writing range from poetry, to fiction, to history, to interviews, to a projected novel “based on my life.” Add her enjoyment in reading historical romances and mysteries and you have a writer with many possibilities.

Carolyn has written for Steppin’ Out magazine, the Erie Times-News newspaper, the Corry Journal newspaper, and the local Cancer Society newsletter. Some of her favorite articles were about cats, games of the Crow Indians, and historical sites, such as Howard’s Tannery and Moore’s Little Store.

“The Writer’s Block gives me ideas, motivation and support,” she says. “Plus we’ve developed a deep rapport among members.”

“My husband Charlie is very supportive of all I do,” she adds.

Getting Started, by Beverley Bittner [guest post]

From the Corry Writer’s Block Help Desk of Beverley Bittner.

Most of us have read a poem, a story or an article that caused us to exclaim, “I could write like that, maybe even better, if only I knew how to get started.

Kathy has a book of fiction in the works. She has a plot, she knows her characters, but (in my opinion) is trying to tell too much of the story in her first chapter. Here are a few suggestions that might help Kathy and you and I get started right.

The first chapter has only two basic purposes.

  1. To introduce the main character (or two of the main characters). That means a physical description, hint at the problem he/she faces that will be the basis of conflict in the book. When and where the story is taking place can be shown by a few words. “Action”, “show”, “don’t tell” are words to keep you on track. (Introducing characters, one by one, each in a separate chapter is a good way to get your novel moving along.)
  2. You must HOOK the reader in your first paragraphs and certainly in the first chapter. Don’t overload the reader with background and facts that can be brought out later. By promising lots of action, dialogue, backstory in small doses, you can make the reader WANT to read your book. If you don’t hook him in the first pages, you have lost your reader.

The first scene of the first chapter must tell:

WHO is the story about?
WHERE and WHEN is the story taking place?
WHY is the main character there?
WHAT problems is the character facing?

This may seem like a lot of information to get in the first scene, but remember you don’t want to give away your story or tell too much. Be a tease, hint at events to come.

Now that all-important first sentence

It should tell something about the main character. It should tell something about or hint at the character’s problem, and the theme of the book. Is it a mystery? Love story? Inspirational? Is a historical event itself the focus of the story?

If you have a work in progress, look at it and see if your opening sentence, scene and first chapter measure up to these guidelines. If it is a first, second, or third draft, probably not. Only by rereading, rewriting, and finally working as your own editor, will your first chapter pass the eagle eye of an admissions editor.


Here at Writer’s Block we have two goals: (1) to help people of all ages learn to share their ideas and experiences through the written word, and (2) to promote reading for pleasure and learning.

For our Corry, Pennsylvania area friends, we have several appearances scheduled during the year where we can meet you in person. We look forward to seeing you, so please stop and say hello.

We are aware that some of our readers are far away from our small, rural community in Northwestern Pennsylvania. It is thrilling to read our weekly stats and find that we have had “hits” from Australia, Canada, Ireland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Our fine and knowledgeable Webmaster told us, “You have got to start thinking globally.” As always, he was right!

It is indeed a small world, thanks to the worldwide web. We welcome everyone of like interests to be part of our world of reading, writing, and lifelong learning. E-mail us your questions, comments, or ideas.

That’s all from the Editor’s Desk for this month…

—Beverley Bittner
Copyright © 1999


About Beverley:

bevBeverley Bittner (1930–2006) was born in Dunkirk, NY, a daughter of Paul and Doris Blakeslee. She was raised and educated in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania where she graduated from Spartansburg High School in 1948. She moved to Corry, Pennsylvania in 1960, and resided there until 1979 when she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for several years. She was the Associate Editor for the Union Gospel Press in Cleveland, and was a free-lance writer for various religious publications. She had a special interest in history, wrote about veterans of World War II, and wrote and published a series of five novels about the history of western Pennsylvania and the origins of the local oil industry. She founded the Writer’s Block in 1999 after moving back to Corry and served as a mentor to other writers until her death in 2006.