Category Archives: Life reflections

Per Ardua ad Astra et Pictorum

Jack just makes it again – – –

A few weeks ago, I blogged about house painters and decorators and briefly mentioned my dad.

Dad - RAF

Early in the RAF.

So, here’s a fuller story about him as an artist-craftsman –

William Beck (usually known as Bill or Willy) was born in Govan, in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of a ship’s painter. Govan was the center of Shipbuilding on the Clyde and the Clyde was the center of shipbuilding in the world then. Painting ships was fairly rough industrial painting, but Bill was destined for much higher-class stuff.

He moved to Fife at a fairly young age and entered apprenticeship as a decorative painter. In these days (the early 1900s) an apprenticeship lasted at least seven years. Once he’d finished his time he was employed by Henry Hoggan and Son, the most prestigious and high class painting and decorating company in Dunfermline. He quickly progressed to be their expert in interior design – color coordination, mural drawing, Church decoration, marbling, wood-graining, sign-lettering etc, etc – – –

His training had included time at Edinburgh art college where he’d studied color theory, Greek and Roman design, calligraphy, water color painting and much more. A true renaissance man and a student of the marriage between art and craft!

When WW2 came along he volunteered for the RAF and spent most of the war in Egypt where his skills were employed painting the identification numbers and letters on planes and lettering maps.

After demobilization he set up a decorating business in partnership with another ex-employee of Hoggan’s – Tom Anderson. Tom was the expert in painting and wallpapering, while Bill was the artistic one.

During all this time and even while he was in Egypt he was doing excellent water color paintings – mostly portraits but later on a good many landscapes too.

Around the time that I left school and started my apprenticeship, Tom Anderson retired and Bill continued as the sole partner. In these days before DIY took hold around half the work was in private houses and half was contracts to paint government offices, hospitals and schools. The firm usually employed around five or six time-served craftsmen and two or three apprentices (of which I was one). Because the work ranged from ‘high end’ domestic to fairly basic industrial my apprenticeship gave me a good grounding. Bill built up a successful sideline in lettering shop signs and vehicle lettering and often took me along, so that added another string to my bow.

He continued to work very actively right up until he retired and I remember many occasions when he clambered up a ladder and over roofs while the rest of us looked on in amazement.

One of his proudest moments, though, was after I started teaching painting and decorating in the local college. He had always wanted to do that but had never had the opportunity, so I brought him in as a guest to demonstrate his marbling and wood graining skills. By that time he was quite sick, but he put on a great display to an appreciative audience (and boosted my reputation no end!).

In the last few years of his life he kept himself occupied by continuing to paint water colors and did all his own mounting and framing. We’re delighted to have a number hanging on our walls!

Now my mother – – –  There’s a story for a future post!

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, crafting, home improvements, Life reflections, Scotland, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Another Day – Another – – –

Wendy is tied up preparing for her big annual medical conference, so Jack gets an extra turn –

I thought a description of a typical day in the Beck/Welch house might amuse y’all –

Wendy feeds the cats and the dog, including one cat recovering from surgery and another that intimidates all the rest. We have a discussion about how to handle the intimidatory one and decide she has to live outside and in our log cabin jail out back (the cat – not Wendy). That meant checking on possible heating and cat flap arrangements.

Then it was bringing all our instruments in from the car after our gig at the local bookstore last night.

IMG_8252

On with the first of three loads of washing in between cracking walnuts. (We don’t use a dryer so sunny days are prime time for laundry.) Five mature black walnut trees came with this house and while Wendy does the collecting and hulling, I do the cracking and meat extraction.

Wendy leaves for work – –

Our friend Randy who runs the aforementioned bookstore comes over to look at three of our walnut trees which will shortly be felled and agrees to take some of the wood.

I crack more walnuts, put on the second wash and start the dishwasher.

Time for my customary soft boiled egg for lunch and then a break for a smoke in the front porch (aka ‘the catio’). As I’m relaxing I hear an explosive BANG!  At the crossing just down from our house I see a white pick-up careening over the cross street on its side with smoke pouring out while a black SUV shudders to a halt behind it. The truck rights itself and stops off the street. Silence – then raised voices while the SUV driver starts picking up various pieces of his vehicle. After ten minutes the fire engine, ambulance and various police cars arrive. I wander down and see the ambulance folk walking two women from the truck into the ambulance. Another ten minutes and everything’s cleared and gone. Small town America – – –

I crack more walnuts.

Wendy gets home, empties the dishwasher and worries that the recovering cat may have leaked cat pee on a blanket. (I have no sense of smell). We do one unexpected load of laundry for the cats, because recovering kitty needs her blankie tonight.

I crack more walnuts.

The mailman arrives and we exchange pleasantries – he has brought a forwarded bank statement for the Big Stone Celtic festival. So I know what I’ll be doing this evening after we go out for supper.

More walnuts – – – –

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Monday Book – The Rituals of Dinner – Margaret Visser

Jack gets to review the Monday book this week –

dinner

This book is both fascinating and frustrating.

Visser chose a strange way to progress her story, not chronologically as might be expected, but by topics. This results in a good deal of repetition – revisiting the Greeks, Romans, medieval Europeans etc in every chapter. Other reviewers have suggested the book could have been a good deal shorter and more readable and I’m inclined to agree.

On the other hand I found it hard to put down because of all the really interesting stuff scattered throughout. Although her specialty is literature, she is clearly a fine anthropologist as well. There are a good few references to folk motifs that I’m familiar with and was a bit surprised to find in a book about table manners. In fact, although the title suggests a fairly narrow focus, Visser ranges pretty widely around the central subject.

You could be forgiven for expecting this book to be about table manners and how to behave at the dinner table. It actually starts with cannibalism, goes through the development of tables and chairs, covers the invention of forks and spoons, deals with social attitudes in different cultures and a host of other loosely food related matters.

I think what was perhaps a bit startling for me was recognizing familiar dinner table and restaurant situations and for the first time understanding what lay behind them – everything from the placing of a knife (blade towards you and not your neighbor) to signaling the time to change courses.

The final chapter examines present day mores including the fast food culture – reflecting another book – ‘The MacDonaldization of Society’ by George Ritzer, but that’s another story – –

I have some reservations about Visser’s book, but if you don’t mind skimming here and there, it’s still fascinating stuff!

 

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Why I didn’t Dye my Shorts

Several of you have been following the Black Walnut saga. We have five trees dropping what might by now be a literal metric ton of walnuts onto our lawn and over our fence onto the garden of the polite but annoyed lady next door. (Jack spoke with her; we have a plan.)

Black walnuts are almost completely usable for good things (hulls: hog feed and herbicide on plants you don’t like; part between hulls and shells, a rich brown-to-purple dye; shells for abrasive cleaning of brass and other high-end products, also make great mulch; nuts for eating or making oil). How could we pass up this opportunity? So Jack and I gathered four great buckets of them, and I sat down last week to start the hulling.

Jack took one look at the maggots and cut a deal; I hull, he shells. He likes working with a hammer and a vise. Creepy white worms don’t bother me; I’ve picked my share out of cat wounds.

My friends Elissa and Kathy sent advice: wait for the hulls to dry and crack open on their own, and life got simpler. Yes, it did. So this weekend I did almost twice as many hulls just by leaving them out to dry. After the simple hulling, I had this huge pot of rich brown liquid….

IMG_8263… so I ran and grabbed some cotton and synthetic yarn, and did a little experimenting. It was fun. My friend Fiona gave me some pointers on how different yarns should be prepped, and that worked well.

IMG_8248The thing you have to know about black walnuts is, they’re mis-named. Everything they touch is going to turn brown: your fingers, your yarns, the storage baskets, the clothes you work in.

In fact, I was highly tempted to throw my white shorts in the pot along with the yarn, but….

…you know how sometimes people see religious figures in burn spots or fridge mold and such?

Well, how do you explain this? IMG_5722

That’s right, PUSHEEN himself!!!!

So I couldn’t throw my shorts in.  But I did grab a Sharpie, so all my doubting friends could share this special moment.

BEHOLD!

IMG_8267 You’re welcome.

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Filed under crafting, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Great Walnut Massacre of 2019

When we moved to Wytheville, we inherited an inordinately large yard, raised garden beds and herbal paths and mature fruit tress and all. Everything looked really cool but we had no idea how to take care of them.

Jack and I like plants that have to be contained rather than cultivated, like mint; it beats up other sprouts and takes their lunch money. You don’t have to do anything except go out every six months after a hard rain and pull it up until you can find the wheelbarrow you left there last time.

My former student Erin agreed to give us her expertise (she is a gardening consultant) which resulted in a good news/bad news scenario.

“You have five black walnut trees in excellent condition. You won’t be able to grow tomatoes or peppers back there, but you will never lack for Christmas flavoring.” Erin also pointed out that black walnuts fetch a hefty price at farmer’s markets and sustainable living swaps – mostly because they’re such hard work.

IMG_8252“I’m not gonna lie to you; they stink while curing and they stain your hands, and the best way to crack them is to line your driveway and back an SUV over them. I’m not sure your Prius is heavy enough.”

Thank you, Erin. You had me at “hefty price.” Free money falling from trees sounded like “cat spays from heaven.” I duly read up (ok, watched several youtube videos) on how to harvest black walnuts.

The green-to-brown outer shell of the walnut is the easy part; you just rip it off, as much as you can, and then you wash the inner hard shell (very similar to what people see when they buy whole English walnuts) and hang them up to cure for a couple of weeks. Then you back the car over them and harvest the nutmeat.

Yesterday, armed with rubber gloves, a steel pot, three buckets of nuts, and six layers of bug spray, I initiated part one of Project Pioneer Woman Goes Nuts. IMG_8251

The websites suggested not getting too ambitious first time out. “This is a lot of work.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Twelve minutes in (equaling about four walnuts with their outer hulls removed) the fingertips of my gloves were gone, my nailbeds were a deep rich brown, and I had discovered the maggots.

Here’s the conundrum: if the outer nut is too green, it’s so hard to get into, you give up. After all, there are about 100 nuts per square foot in the yard; toss the troublesome ones “someplace where you don’t want plants to grow” advise the harvesting videos. Turns out, the stuff between the outer and inner shell is an excellent herbicide.

Pondering how a plant could produce a herbicide kept my mind occupied those first twelve minutes, but never mind. Making a midden pile of shells atop a troublesome Pokeweed patch made me feel bio-savvy. Kill two plants with one shell.

The brown hulls, the ones you can actually rip open with your fingers, are soft because of the maggots. They get between the two shells and go to town. Whole towns of them, all living together making roads and ditches and other maggot infrastructure. On the one hand, hulling their nut towns is easier, but on the other, you are literally brushing maggots off your fingers.

The videos of those nice green sustainable living people never showed maggots…

About an hour in, having made peace with the white crawly things and killed at least one pokeweed plant from the sheer weight of 40 walnut hulls, my left forefinger began to hurt. Badly. As though I had jammed a nail or something.

By then the gloves were a distant memory, so I soldiered on for a wee while before realizing something was seriously wrong. My finger was wafting waves of hot, sharp pain up my arm.

Imagination filled in: one of the smaller creepy white things had gotten up under the nailbed and was even now burrowing toward my heart. Death was imminent–and likely to be not only gross and painful, but the kind that gets written up at conferences in ways that make doctors laugh. “Here’s another Darwin award winner, this one with the old black walnut routine.”

Headed in to see if I could either flush out the creature, rip off my nail, or write a will before it got into the left ventricle, I informed Jack he was about to be a widower.

He looked at my finger. “Are you sure this isn’t a sting? Because, see that little thing there?”

Turns out, there are many critters that love walnuts. I am still alive, and can type. Jack has promised to process the rest of the nuts. He isn’t allergic to bee stings. I am sitting quietly, typing my will. The walnuts will be for sale in mid-October. IMG_8250

 

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Filed under crafting, humor, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: The Last Days of the Sioux Nation.

Jack gets to do the book review this week –

The Last Days of the Sioux Nation – Robert M. Utley

sioux nation

My interest in this subject was sparked by a song. My old singing friend John Watt and I, both from the same small town in Scotland, knew that Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show had played there during its final European tour. He was intrigued enough to do a lot of research and wrote the song.

He discovered that among the performers was a group of Sioux who had been ‘paroled’ from a South Dakota reservation by Cody. I started singing the song a few years ago and when Wendy and I decided to plan a road trip we wanted to include the Black Hills and the Badlands. On that trip we also took in Wounded Knee and the Crazy Horse monument.

More recently we repeated the journey with a couple of Scottish friends and this time added in a visit to Little Big Horn. Along the way, on both trips, we naturally picked up a good few books that filled out our knowledge. In addition, I found an excellent book by the Scottish writer James Hunter called Glencoe and the Indians that added another layer of fascinating hidden history.

Utley’s book is probably the best I’ve come across covering this whole sad period. The period he covers is about ten years around 1890 and takes us from Little Big Horn to after Wounded Knee. His excellent research describes the tensions within the different Sioux sub-divisions as well as the rivalries between the US army and the Department of the Interior. The Sioux were reeling from the many broken promises, particularly around their sacred Black Hills and Badlands. Their final attempt to revive their lost way of life was to embrace the ‘Ghost Dance’ and this was grossly misunderstood by the Federal authorities and particularly the army.

Utley includes a collection of photographs from the period including the main actors as well as notable places such as Wounded Knee creek.

In Hunter’s book he points up the similarities between the experiences of the Sioux and those of the Highlanders who were cleared off their Scottish land. The real irony is that some of those Scots ended up in America and took a leading part in the Sioux clearances!

There’s a well known story that a few of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Sioux left his show in Glasgow and settled there. What we do know is that a popular Glasgow museum recently returned a ghost shirt to the US that they had had in their collection for over one hundred years.

I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in this dreadfully sorry period in US history – five stars!

 

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Running Amok is Underrated

new river gorgeMy friend Beth (no the other one) is having a birthday this weekend. Both husbands are busy with guy things, so she and I are taking off for a girl trip with great scenery.

Er, no, not that kind of scenery.

We are headed back to Fayetteville, scene of last year’s January-March writing residency for me. (It’s the place where I wrote the manuscript currently in the lap of the NYC publishing gurus; word is there are edits coming soon. Yes it’s Beth’s birthday, but I still get to be elated.)

Also coming soon: food and fun, although with any luck, no arrests. Both husbands have made clear that no bail money will be forthcoming. “Perhaps you should just walk amok,” as Jack put it.

Still, even within bounds, there’s boundless energy around two professional women who spend a lot of time NOT saying things going off into the woods and letting the trees hear it all. Knowing that a nice vegetarian pizza on cauliflower crust will follow.  Letting it all go, but not quite. We can break the rules without breaking our healthy regimens.pies and pints

We’re going to hike Endless Wall with Karen, which is fun for two reasons: I couldn’t do in residence because ice makes this gorge-hugging trail a bad idea; and Karen and Beth don’t know each other but are a lot alike. We’re going to drink craft cocktails at The Station with flat owners Shawn and Amy, and shop Maura’s camping store. We’re renting rooms in Lafayette Flats (not my beloved Eddy, but the bathtub-magnificent Nutall).

Beth isn’t the crafty type, but since it’s her 50th she wanted to try something new, so I am packing materials to make bath bombs. This is my idea of something new. She made reservations for us at the Bridge Walk, 700 feet in the air on a narrow plank with a safety harness inching (me) or running (go on Beth, see you later) across the infamous Gorge. This is her idea of something new.

We all move through the world at our own pace, and that’s just fine.

It’s good to have friends that broaden your horizons, even if one of them thinks 700 feet is too broad. Getting away from it all doesn’t HAVE to include one’s safety zone, but it might be more fun if it does.

Right….?

And there’s one more part to this weekend: since her hubster Jon was concerned I would be a bad influence on Beth, we had to convince him she was kidnapped. I think we did a very good job of it, per below. Don’t you?

KIDNAP NOTE:

70659619_2788439951167051_7588227276588711936_nDeer Mr Prawdlee

Yeer wif is goings 2 B kidnappered. Do not atemp 2 find her. She is ben taked by fairies so do not blaim the dog. He had nothing 2 do with it.

If U tri to reskew her I I meen we. Do not tri 2 reskew her. She will be reternered when we are done sellebracing her burtday. We can smell U from way far away so dunt try sneeking up on us. We will 2 B hidden far away in Wesver Ginia so U wont find us.

But sins this is a kidnappering, U need 2 giv us sumting in ret—back 4 her. Bonez is good. Lots of boneZ. Fairies luvs bonez.

Thank you.

Sinseerlee.

The Fairies.

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Filed under humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch