Come Back, Margaret Chase Smith

Kate Flora: Back when I was in high school, there was a day when we staged mock political debates. I was pretty apolitical back then, but I was thrilled to be chosen to play Margaret Chase Smith. I only have a vague memory of trying to find something to wear that was appropriately “senatorial” and borrowing my mother’s twinset and her pearls. I’m pretty sure I lost the debate. I remember thinking that she was a woman of great integrity and presence, and that Maine was lucky to have a woman of her courage and stature.

I am drawn back to Senator Smith these days for two reasons. First, I recently watched theScreen Shot 2016-02-10 at 6.38.32 AM movie, “Trumbo,” about McCarthy and blacklisting, about a writer having to make a living by selling his scripts under other people’s names, unable even to claim the credit when movies that he’d written won Academy Awards. We writers are often called on to reinvent ourselves, though fortunately not usually for such appalling reasons. Second, because however much I may try to avoid the ugliness of the current political season, it is impossible to avoid the awful rhetoric that passes for political discourse these days.

For those of you who haven’t read it, the speech that Margaret Chase Smith gave on the Senate floor on June 1, 1950, entitled: A Declaration of Conscience, http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/SmithDeclaration.pdf is an excellent reminder of some of our most cherished American values. Speaking in response to Senator McCarthy and his attacks on people he labeled “communists,” she reminded us of the “Basic Principles of Americanism:”

The right to criticize

The right to hold unpopular beliefs

The right to protest

The right of independent thought

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 11.48.23 AMSpeaking of the contest between Republicans and Democrats, she urges that her Republican party has enough genuine issues to win on that it does not need to resort to what she labels “The Four Horsemen of Calumny,” which are: fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear. She expresses the hope that the American people will not uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. She reminds her Republican colleagues that they have the responsibility of rendering constructive criticism, clarifying issues, and allaying fears by acting as responsible citizens.

The Declaration of Conscience, joined by other senators, declares, in its final paragraph:

It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.

It is comforting, at a time when the rhetoric is about closing our borders, and hating our immigrants or people of different religions, and stifling open-minded debate for fear that it hurts people’s feelings or doesn’t conform to one particular set of values, to remember that Maine has sent clear and courageous messages (Smith was, after all, the only woman in the Senate and was punished for her courage) onto the national stage.

 

I didn’t win my debate. She didn’t win her bid for the presidency. But more than sixty years later, her wisdom survives. If only we could send her out on the political circuit today.

 

 

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Emotional Geography-Looking back at 50 years on Sennebec Hill Farm.

John Clark remembering some of the visual and emotional memories I have from growing up on East Sennebec Road. As a cataloger, I’ve come to be intrigued by some of the more esoteric subject headings used in bibliographic records.

One that intrigues me, particularly in relation to this piece, is Homes and haunts. It’s one of a very few things I’ve Googled and came up empty, but the Library of Congress describes it thusly: “Use as a topical subdivision under names of individual persons, families, and performing groups, classes of persons, and ethnic groups for works on the homes of individual persons, families, or members of the group from an architectural or historical point of view. Also use for works about the favorite places of individual persons or group members or places they habitually frequent or with which they are associated. For works on residential buildings for the group from the standpoint of architecture, construction, ethnology, etc., use the subdivision [Dwellings.] For works on social or economic aspects of the provision of housing for the group, use the subdivision [Housing.]”

I have a simpler definition. It describes a place that sticks with you and has a strong emotional quality. We’ve all read books with settings that have stayed with us. I can’t, for instance, look at a map of the Southwest without thinking of Joe Leaphorn or Jim Chee.

My parents bought the 189 acre farm from Jacob Bootsman in 1949. Dad wanted to use the place as a nursery, but my grandfather Clark, who I guess was pretty authoritarian and had kicked in part of the $4900 purchase price said to Dad. “you bought a poultry farm and therefore you’re going to be a poultry farmer.” Pop did put in a small apple orchard, several of which produce apples to this day, but for most of my growing up years, we had laying hens—one hell of a lot of laying hens, especially after we built a new two story henhouse that was a hundred feet long by thirty or so wide.

Mom's well-composted garden in full bloom.

Mom’s well-composted garden in full bloom.

There were gardens as well, rhubarb across the road, asparagus and a big vegetable garden on the flat area halfway to the lake and Mom’s uber-rich one behind the house. In addition to the apple orchard, we had several acres of blueberries, two sour cherry trees (I used to park our Farmall Cub tractor under them, stand on the seat and eat them until my mouth was sore), three different varieties of pears, a Macintosh tree and a Wolf River. This last one, when it was bearing, produced apples bigger than softballs that made great pies.

I have memories of events as well as specific parts of the property. I think I was six when we were hit with a huge blizzard. Snow piled up so high the plows couldn’t break through. When we ran out of milk, my father skied the five mile round trip to the Union Common and bought some. Growing up, we experienced hard times because the poultry business was a money suck. Grain prices rose while egg and meat prices dropped, so we spent a scary stretch as kids knowing the farm might be in jeopardy, but not feeling like we could bring up our fears.

Sennebec Hill Farm from across the lake

Sennebec Hill Farm from across the lake

The house overlooks Sennebec Lake which the Georges River runs through before going through Round and Seven Tree Ponds on its way to the ocean near Thomaston. When we were first in school, Kate and I rode to school in a 1947 Woodie station wagon driven by Wilbur Abbott. After picking us, the ‘bus’ crossed the remains of a canal built in part by General Henry Knox in the 1700’s, and the Hills Mills Bridge before picking up kids on the opposite side of the lake. I got kicked off the ‘bus’ early on for using the word pregnant. Censorship was stricter and more prevalent in the 1950s.

I discovered real early in life that I didn’t fit in and living on a big farm with plenty of places to hide was a lifesaver. Over time, I pretty much memorized every bit of our property as well as everything to the top of the ridge and north into Appleton. Dad started taking me hunting when I was nine and I remember looking up into what seemed like monster trees to locate porcupines.

My favorite part of the farm was and probably still is the small hill opposite the house. There was a huge hollow tree on its back side, probably the biggest beech tree I’ve ever seen. Over the years, that tree was home to hundreds of porcupines. One of the more interesting aspects of the hill is the absolute impossibility of getting to the top and surprising the deer who call it home. Even when the wind is blowing steadily at chilling speeds from a particular direction, the topography is such that swirling currents move your scent around so they know you’re there. It’s also a grand place for partridge and rabbits. Even when hunting season isn’t open, it’s a neat place to explore because you never know what you’ll discover. During hunting season of my freshman year in high school, I was walking the woods road on the back side and two mountain lions walked across my path. I was so surprised, the thought of shooting them never entered my mind. Later that winter, one of them returned and spent some time early one morning leaping through the orchard. I attempted to make a plaster cast of its track, but failed. In hindsight, I should have cut it free and kept it frozen. I did measure the track span and the distance between leaps was 16 feet. While the local game warden downplayed the possibility it was a mountain lion, they have been seen over the years by several other hunters along the stretch between Appleton and Union.

When we were involved with youth groups, it was an annual tradition to do treasure hunts on the hill. Three trails, red, white and blue, were blazed through the forest with cans of candy buried near the last mark on each one. For all I know, there may be one still buried that was never found.

Perhaps the most magical time to be on that hill is during a heavy snowfall. Despite my familiarity with it, the moment big flakes descend, my sense of direction vanishes, leaving me bemused and delighted. There’s a unique magic to the hissing silence of snow filtering through thick evergreens.

The apple orchard in winter.

The apple orchard in winter.

One year, Kate and I became fascinated with the clay deposits along the banks of a small rivulet that starts below an old well behind an abandoned pump house in the orchard. Swampy woodland soon turns into a trench which gradually widens and deepens as it follows a small gully behind mixed oak, fir and beech trees bordering the back edge of the orchard. Years of snow melt and rainstorms have further eroded the banks, leaving large expanses of blue and gray clay, perfect for firing the imaginations of kids as well as making crude pottery. We got it into our heads that there might be gold or some exotic metal in the rust colored bands striping the deposits. Mom, a former lab person at Hoffman LaRoche, sent a sample to Dr. Rudolf Koster, her boss at the drug company and a couple weeks later, we got a genuine chemical analysis. It was a perfect way to fuel already curious minds.

berry bowl

Finished product

After our father got out of the poultry business, he went to work at Merry Gardens in Camden. It was, I’m sure, a more satisfying work experience than cussing chickens all day. One of the projects he took on and liked a lot was the making of partridge berry bowls at Christmas, These miniature terrariums sat in a glass bowl and contained moss, partridge berries and downy rattlesnake plantain. We used to hike across the swamp behind the orchard and collect them while hunting, the berries by the swamp, the plantain halfway up the hill under tall evergreens.

Safest snake in the woods

Safest snake in the woods

One of my defining moments happened along the edge of the swamp one October evening just before dusk. I had been on the hill hunting partridge and kept hearing whistling overhead. Ducks in flocks from two to twenty were passing above me before wheeling and dropping toward the small stream flowing through the swamp area. I hadn’t been down there for quite some time and was amazed to find the area was completely flooded thanks to a new beaver dam. The water was several feet deep and duckweed floated in large rafts. It was this green carpet that attracted the Teal, Mallards, Wood Ducks and Black Ducks, along with an occasional Canvasback. The best way to describe it is to liken it to an auditory fireworks display. Birds were swooping in for a landing so rapidly I couldn’t keep up. That evening I caught duck hunting fever, a passion I shared with my friend Jon Marks for the next twenty or so years.

We had a hunter’s double delight when the beavers moved upstream and built another pond bordering the field leading to an abandoned house we called the Teal Place. It became an annual ritual for the two of us to start before sunrise in Jon’s duck boat on Merrymeeting Bay and after a mid morning break for breakfast, we’d hit the beaver ponds as well as a couple spots in Appleton.

The Teal place is memorable for a couple other reasons. Another boyhood friend, Sandy Smith and I were exploring the area one September Saturday when I spotted something shiny in a tree by the old cellar hole. It turned out to be a radiosonde from a weather balloon launched in Illinois several weeks earlier. Instructions in an attached plastic bag identified it and included an address label to use when sending back the transmitter. I got to keep the rest and it made for a neat show and tell item at school. That old cellar hole also had Concord grape vines growing around it that in good years, were loaded with ripe fruit. They sparked an interest I still have, culminating in six vines on trellises down back of our house.

There are enough memories connected to Sennebec Hill Farm to fill ten more pages, but they can wait for another time. I’m curious about YOUR emotional geography.

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LOVE AND CHOCOLATE

Susan Vaughan here. Saturday was indeed “Love and Chocolate.” Librarian Sue McClintock, of the Vose Library in Union, Maine, invited me to be the first romance author to do a book talk. The month of Valentine’s Day seemed to be the logical time for a romance author. Vose

The Vose Library has occupied a modern building with up-to-date services that go way beyond books since 2011, but it began small in 1931 with a bequest of books and money from Helen Ayer Vose, a teacher who was born in the town of Union. As a former teacher, I found this dear to my heart. Sue arranged a table and folding chairs in the sunny and cheerful children’s area, furnished with the best clock for readers and writers.

Read Clock

Guaranteed to draw in library patrons who didn’t know me as an author were yummy refreshments—hot chocolate and chocolate tarts prepared by Sue. My contribution was a Valentine collection of decadent chocolates from Safe Harbor Confections .

Chocolate Table

The nice-size group collected refreshments and then settled in chairs for my presentation. After Sue’s brief introduction, I shared some of my background as a teacher and what led me to writing romantic suspense. I’ve always read mysteries, and when I discovered that genre folded into romance, I was sold.

Granted, suspense is slightly different from a straight mystery. Usually a mystery is about solving a crime, typically a murder, that has already happened. In a suspense novel, with or without a romance as a large part of the plot, often the reader knows up front the villain’s identity; the plot focuses on stopping his nefarious plot. Most of my romantic suspense books incorporate both suspense and mystery.

I shared some of the background on my newest book Always a Suspect, which is a revised and updated release of my very first book, published in 2001 by Harlequin as Dangerous Attraction.

dacover

Although during most of my teaching career I taught in other areas, my college major was French literature, so the French-Canadian heritage in Maine fascinates me. Briefly, here’s how I used that background. I needed a strong internal conflict for Claire and hit on the idea of a curse. Because of tragedy in her childhood, the superstitious French-Canadian aunts who raised her led her to believe her beauty was a curse and that anyone close to her would die. When two husbands and a fiancé are killed under mysterious circumstances, belief in the curse causes her to shut herself off from the world. But an anonymous caller and persecution by the police force her to hire a PI to clear her name.

Susan_AlwaysASuspect300dpi360x540

When I received the publishing rights back, I suspected to do a lot of revision because (I believe) I’m a better writer than I was back when I wrote the original on my huge Gateway computer. In addition to tightening the prose, I needed to update the technology. My audience chuckled as I described those. Land lines became cell phones, an answering machine became voice mail, hand-held police radios became cell phones, and a mini-tape recorder became a digital recorder.

I then read three excerpts from the beginning of the book, to give the audience a sense of the characters and to set up the plot. When I finished, people had lots of questions about research, promotion, and publishing in general. I had a wonderful time chatting with this group and sharing my story with them. I did sell a few books as well.

We authors love our librarians, who not only promote reading and authors, but offer opportunities like this one for particular authors to share snippets of our books and insights into our writing processes. So thank you, Sue and the Union residents who joined me for “Love and Chocolate.” I’m feeling the love!

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Weekend Update: February 6-7, 2016

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Susan Vaughan (Monday), John Clark (Tuesday), Kate Flora (Wednesday), Dorothy Cannell (Thursday), and Chris Holm (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

From Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: In keeping with my blog last month on Jigsaw Puzzle Therapy I’ve finished another jigsaw puzzle.

IMG_0659 (600x600)

And I’m almost finished with the rough (very very rough) draft of the third Mistress Jaffrey Mystery. Then all I’ll have to do is make sense of the plot, fix all the continuity problems, make sure my characters are behaving in a rational manner, correct the thirty gazillion typos and misspellings, and delete all the repetitious and unnecessary words. And, oh yes, think up a title. Wish me luck.

 

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora: mailto: kateflora@gmail.com

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HAVE YOU HEARD OF THE ALCATRAZ EEL?

Vaughn Hardacker here: In my last post I wrote about Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia. I’d like once again to cover a true crime case, this one much closer to home. I’d like to introduce you to The Alcatraz Eel.

Who was the ALCATRAZ EEL ?

John Millage Stadig – a young man from northern Maine – who, through his own genius and daring, became a folk hero and legend in a decade of criminals comprising the likes of Al Capone, John Dillinger, Ma Barker, Bonnie and Clyde, Roy Gardner and Machine Gun Kelly.

John Stadig was born in Jemptland (about two miles from where I live) near Caribou in northern Maine in December 1908, Stadig moved to St. Francis with his family and later across the St. John River to St. Francis, New Brunswick. In his rather short life, he had also taken up residence in Bradbury and Bangor, Maine as well as Boston, Massachusetts; Indianapolis, Indiana; Las Vegas, Nevada; Washington state, and Kansas.

Stadig came from a long line of mechanically inclined people. He also worked on log drives, keeping motors going on boats, and worked the shore, where his name is carved in a rock at “The Ledge” along the St. John River. He tinkered with electricity and was a store clerk, but never stayed at one job too long. Dead at 28, he spent many years in prison.

Criminal History

John Stadig’s early life was calm. From an affluent family, he could have been educated or gone on to do anything he wanted but during the Depression years he found his own way to make money, using plates and printing presses to print counterfeit money. That part of his life brought him to several federal prisons, including McNeil Island in Washington, Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, and Leavenworth, Kansas.

His early crimes included motor vehicle crimes, petty larceny, larceny and violation of the Dyer Act, the national motor vehicle act that made interstate transportation of stolen vehicles a federal crime. His first prison term began in Boston in June 1927 when he was 19 years old.

It was in New Brunswick that he was first arrested for making counterfeit money. That was June 1930. He served some time in Canadian jails, but his notoriety increased when he was arrested in Las Vegas, Nevada in November 1931 and he began his first term in a federal prison.

John Stadig: The Alcatraz Eel

John Stadig: The Alcatraz Eel

He and four other men were arrested for making $100,000 in $5, $10 and $20 bills. He testified against the others and was sentenced to 18 months in the Nevada State Prison.

Within 10 months, he was arrested again for counterfeiting, this time in Chicago. He escaped from federal marshals on his way to court, only to be arrested again two months later for counterfeiting in San Francisco.

Prison Life

Stadig did time in several federal prisons, including McNeil Island in Washington, Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, and Leavenworth, Kansas, where he ended his life by cutting his jugular vein. Sentenced to six years in prison, he was sent to McNeil Island, from which he escaped within one month. Recaptured, he was sentenced to two more years in prison.

Alcatraz Dungeon Cell

Alcatraz Dungeon Cell

Stadig was among the first 50 civilians jailed at Alcatraz, which was built as a military fortress in 1853 and used as a Civil War prison in 1861. Closed by the military in 1934, it became a notorious jail. He was taken to Alcatraz in August 1934. Two months later, he was taken to Oregon to be tried on counterfeiting charges. Convicted again, he escaped from federal marshals by jumping from a moving train while en route to Alcatraz. Having slipped by his guards on two different occasions, he was given his nickname: The Alcatraz Eel.

Henri Young spent a total of three years in the dungeon at Alcatraz

Henri Young spent a total of three years in the dungeon at Alcatraz

Recaptured seven days later, he was returned to Alcatraz where he was confined in the dungeon cells below the prison’s main cell blocks, where problem prisoners were kept in darkness and solitary confinement. Dungeon prisoners have described their time there: “There’s no light. It’s wet. You’re in shackles. You’re naked. It’s horribly cold. There are rats and bugs.” One prisoner, Henri Young, (portrayed by Kevin Bacon in the movie: Murder in the First) whose original arrest was stealing $5.00‡ from a store that was also a post office–which made it a federal offense–spent three years in the dungeons. Standig spent nowhere near that much time in the dungeon, but still went mad. During the ensuing two years he attempted suicide four times. In September 1936 he was transferred to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, where three days later, on Sept. 24, 1936, he slashed his throat, killing himself.

His body was returned by train to Fort Kent. He was buried in the Congregational Cemetery in St. Francis.

‡ A March 16, 1994 letter to The New York Times from the Federal Bureau of Prisons points out that Henri Young went to Alcatraz after serving time in two state prisons for burglary and robbery. His subsequent Federal crime was bank robbery, not theft from a post office. He did not commit suicide at Alcatraz in the 1940’s; he completed his sentence there in 1954, then served a term in Washington State Penitentiary for murder. He was paroled there in 1972, and it is not known where he is or whether he is alive. This correction was delayed by checking at The Times.

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