Virgo Descending

The rewards of blogging continue. I wrote my first post about Thomas Duncan, author of Gus the Great, over six years ago. Then about 2014 Robert Barron contacted me – he had read “The Sky and Tomorrow” and never forgot it. Read his story here. Last year a reader who liked circuses wrote to me about “Gus the Great” – a fine circus novel. Recently I heard from Mike, a man in the UK who just found my blog. He told me he bought another Duncan book, “Virgo Descending,” in the 1960s and had just re-read it. Still found it to be powerful.
I had not read Virgo Descending so I ordered a collectible copy online. It was nice to see Duncan’s inscription to a woman at 20th Century Fox. I like seeing someone’s handwriting and signature.
The story’s main characters are Pete McCabe, a writer, and Solveig Skovgaard, an ambitious young woman. Part of it takes place in Santa Fe, New Mexico – I like that. In the author’s notes he specifically says he is not McCabe. But I have to think some of his attitudes show through. If so, I think I would like to have know Thomas Duncan. In this story, he writes about literary integrity and romantic integrity. His male, female, white, and brown characters are well developed, not stereotypes.

I can imagine a gathering of Thomas Duncan with Robert to discuss “The Sky and Tomorrow” and the circus historian to discuss “Gus the Great” and Mike to talk with him about “Virgo Descending.” And I get to be there too. Want to join us?


Vista Camino Neighbors

Our neighborhood in Lakeside on the lower part of Vista Camino was brand new in 1960.  Since everyone had moved there about the same time, the neighbors were close.  And Mom was a central figure.  She loved all the kids on these two blocks.  Within the first year of being there, they sent her a get-well card.  It’s a great record of those children.Heidi
Andy Enzmann
Diana B.
Debbie Bacinett
Debbie McNamara
Jeffrey Brophy
Jimmy Brophy
John LaBelle
Bobby Robinson
Jean Robinson
Des Scott
Mike Scott
Steve Schumaker
Vicki Schumaker
Terri Schumaker
Tommy Schumaker
Eddie Griffin

Organ Recital

One of Mom’s phrases was ‘organ recital’ and it has nothing to do with music.  It refers to a group of usually older people who talk about their health issues – ‘my liver this and my gall bladder that.”  I see it often now that I’m older, that health is a major topic when my friends gather.

Forgive me, I do not choose to join the organ recital.

619 DeKalb Avenue

Mom (Harriet Duncan Claycomb) tried to write to her sister, Barb, every day when Barb was not feeling well.  From two of those letters I found this description of their childhood home, 619 DeKalb Ave, DeKalb, Illinois.  

“…Let’s go back to 619 DeKalb Avenue for a drop in.  The entrance to the open porch used to be on the front but when they glassed it in, they moved the steps to the driveway side.  Inside the front door was a cold register where we put wet boots and galoshes.  Was that register to just let in fresh air?  Next to it was the Victrola.  My favorite records were Stars and Stripes Forever, Beautiful Ohio, and Saxaphobia.  Next was the stairway with a bannister I loved to slide down.  Below that was the chest seat where we sat to put on boots—open the lid and there were rubbers, galoshes, and roller skates.  Next was that gloomy dark closet under the stairs.  Inside were card tables, carom board, golf clubs and tennis racquets.  Across from the closet door were originally coat hooks like the ones in cloak rooms at school.  They were removed when the phone was moved from the wall facing the kitchen to the hall wall opposite the closet.

619 DeKalb Avenue, DeKalb, Illinois.

619 DeKalb Avenue, DeKalb, Illinois.

I loved the sliding doors into the living room.  Sometimes the music case stood just inside on the left—it held all the Sherwood Music course they bought for Helen to become a concert pianist I think.  She did pretty well at that.

Around the wall were built-in benches on two sides.   They were oak and pretty and next to the bookcase.  Kind of handy to take out a book and sit right there to see if it was readable.  Then the big window facing Judd’s and then the piano.  Mother had all the new songs and kept most of them in the bench along with a hymnal and 101 Best Songs.  I remember Yes Sir That’s My Baby, The Song is Ended but the Melody Lingers On, Barney Google with his Goo Goo Googley Eyes, Dream Kisses, My Buddy, Just a Memory, Among My Souvenirs, and on and on.  When we had company, sometimes Mother would play and Helen would sing Alice Blue Gown and she was darling.  The sofa was opposite the piano and had a hot register between it and the dining room where we stood to dress many a chilly morning.

Inside the dining room on the left was the Morris chair, the radio with headphones and a window facing the street.  There was a buffet under the high window, the sewing machine next and then the china closet.  Why did we say ‘closet’?  Or was it cupboard?  Then the door to the pantry.  When we had adult company, we three would make blanket beds on the floor by the door going to the kitchen—it was a lark.  Our old dining room table was round like everybody’s but Florence got a bigger maple oblong one when she came.

Nothing unusual in the kitchen—stove, kitchen cabinet, wooden table and the sink.  Outside on the landing to the basement was the icebox with the dishpan underneath.  Then about four steps down to the back door.

How about going upstairs?  We’ll take the back stairway and stop at the landing to look out the window.  Who lives in Gunn’s house now?  Is there still a big garden in back with asparagus and much more?  On up to the hall and the linen closets facing us.  Big drawers.  I used to send for samples of anything there were coupons for in the magazines—had miniatures of everything from tea to mascara.  Then I started sending for movie stars’ pictures.  They always sent 9×12 glossies autographed.  So I took up one of those big drawers in the hall.  Don’t know what was in the other drawers but in the cupboards above were towels and sheets.  Turning left was the big bedroom with the knotty pine furniture and the little alcove bedroom beside, and a tiny closet.  It seems to me we changed room arrangements often so the only room with a name on it for me was across the hall “Grandma’s room.”  I know I had a turn in each of the others.  The closets in the two rooms on the attic door side had slant roofs and you couldn’t stand up where the slope went down.

Well, that was all very boring—let’s try the attic.  Narrow stairs with the light switch on the left.  Hot in summer, but nice in winter.  On nasty days we often played up there.  Boxes of books always fascinated me—I remember poring through “Everything a Man of 40 Should Know.”  I doubt if I was much better informed after reading that.  The front windows had flies in them.  Boxes of treasure like a photo album with dozens of beautiful lacy valentines glued in.  There was a black knit dress form, rather shapely.  Over center towards Judd’s side were the chests of clothes.  Fantastic old fashioned dress and hats and even a corset.  We dressed up many a day in those clothes.  Some days we planned plays that we would put on and charge 3 pins to get in.  Guess there weren’t any stage stars among us because we fell flat.  In the next corner towards the garage were “Grandma Oakland’s things”—hands off.  The last corner had junk like an old fan, pans, and a chipped enamel table.

Well, my dears, that was a fizzle, so I’ll go outside.  Across the front of the house was Bridal Wreath with Lilies of the Valley below.  Remember the skinny strips of cement back to the garage for the wheels to try to stay on?  There were lush peony bushes under the

Harriet, Helen, and Barbara Duncan on those "skinny strips of cement."

Harriet, Helen, and Barbara Duncan on those “skinny strips of cement.”

window where the sewing machine was inside.  The peonies were beautiful but usually were crawling with little black ants.  From the front porch to the sidewalk was a hedge that had tiny tart leaves—I always put a leaf on my town and nibbled it.

Behind the garage were currant bushes against the fence, then two cherry trees, then garden bordered by rhubarb.  We had a martin birdhouse in the center of the yard on a pole but I don’t remember any tenants for it.  Sometimes we played croquet in the back yard.

619 DeKalb Avenue in 1999.

619 DeKalb Avenue in 1999.

Pepper Trees

pepper tree leavesI could identify a lot of different trees as a child because we had so many varieties of fruit trees.  Easy to know their names.  But there was one tree that bore no edible fruit – and it was still my favorite.  The California Pepper Tree (Schinus molle).

backyard w pepper treesWe had two huge old pepper trees in the large chicken pens.  Their branches hung to the ground providing a fine play area and hiding place in the shade.  The big kids built tree houses in them which we younger folks eventually inherited – as soon as we could finally climb the thick branches.

We were mean to those trees – pounding nails into them to secure the boards or hang some trinket.  And the tree bled – a  thick, sticky white sap.  The smell of the sap and the leaves today takes me back 60 years to those tree forts.  Regrettably there are no photos of the structures but I can picture every detail in my mind.

Mom planted pepper trees along the driveway up to the house about 1950.  They are still there.
driveway pepper treespepper tree 5

In town, in Lindo Park there were big pepper trees in the 1950s – old then and some are still there.  Many times we played in those trees while the big boys played Little League.

Pepper trees, Lindo Park, Lakeside, California

Pepper trees, Lindo Park, Lakeside, California

Pepper trees are old, welcoming friends.


Mom & The Neighborhood Kids

get well cardWhen we moved to a new neighborhood in 1960, Mom got acquainted with all the neighbors, especially the children.  I was in high school, about to join my older siblings in leaving town, so Mom expanded her attentions to the young children still there.  When she was ill  once, the kids signed a card which she kept forever.

get well card int
get well card revThe names are familiar to me, but I don’t know where most of them are. Andy Enzmann died as a young boy – a huge tragedy on our street. John LaBelle now owns the home that he grew up in – probably a grandfather by now.

If Mom were still alive, she would probably still be in touch with them.  She had a big heart.

Mrs Hanson’s 3rd Grade Class 1954

Mrs. Vivian Hanson June 2014

Mrs. Vivian Hanson
June 2014

I had a most wonderful, unexpected encounter this last weekend.  I had gone to my hometown of Lakeside, California to celebrate Edna Kouns’ 100th birthday.  Hundreds of people there – lots of folks from my childhood.  Great party, but the special part was seeing my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Hanson.  She’s 94 now, healthy and sharp.  I know a few of my high school teachers are still alive, but it never occurred to me that some of the elementary teachers could also be.

She’s the only one of my early teachers that I’ve had a chance to thank.

This is our class photo – Lindo Park School, 1954.  I’ve put first names where I could, but I’m missing a few.  If you are in this photo or know someone who is, please contact me.

3rd grade Hanson 1Thanks, Mrs. Hanson.

First Jobs

My first real job was at Sears Roebuck.  I’m not counting those earlier babysitting jobs.  Although they paid well – 25¢ an hour.  First of all, the only requirements to be a babysitter were to be a girl and older than the ‘babies.’  So I was hired.  I was the youngest child in my family – I had absolutely no experience with babies or young children.  What were they thinking?!

I babysat for the Prices, our next door neighbors, and for the Humphreys’ – can’t remember any others.  It was after a tragedy at Humphreys’ that I retired from babysitting.  Several days after I had stayed with their newborn, the baby died.  SIDS.  But this was the 1950s and not much was known about these deaths.  But even at my young age I knew it could have happened on my shift.  And I would have carried that responsibility forever.  I never babysat again.

So to that real job at Sears.  I was hired as a Personnel Clerk just before the Christmas season.  I took applications and sent off requests to the references.  The application asked for all jobs held in the last five years – dates, contacts, full addresses, job description, and reason for leaving.  And if for any reason someone was unemployed for more than a month or two:  dates, reasons why and references who could vouch for the gap.  I sent out requests to every employer and personal reference (three, please).

Well, some folks couldn’t remember the exact date they were hired at or left a job.  Some couldn’t even remember the year.  I was amazed.  I could remember the day I applied, the day I interviewed, the date hired.  After all, this was my first job!

Now I’m not sure what year that was.  And I certainly don’t know how long I worked there.  I could no more account for every job and non-job period in my life than fly.  But I do remember that indignation I felt as a teenager with my first job.