If we were having coffee today I’d say welcome back. Well, I’m the tardy one I guess. Sorry about that. Things always get a bit hectic during the holidays and I had other things going on as well. I’m working deep revisions on my next novel and that is taking up most of my writing time.
I hope your holidays were good. For the second year in a row, we hosted our family at a rental on the NC coast. I know, I know, holidays are for home and hearth, but after our previous year’s experiment, we found that Christmas at the beach is really quite laid back and enjoyable. Let me start off with this: I don’t really like the beach during the “normal” beach-going season. Crowds, hype, salt, and sand are just not my bag. I like my downtime to be a period of relaxation. During the off-season, lower rates are in effect so one can upscale a bit. And it is so quiet!
It is not totally deserted, a lot of people live down there year round and there are those who use their own vacation homes for much the same thing. But let me put it this way: there were only perhaps three of twenty beach houses nearby that showed any signs of life. The beaches had scant handfuls of people strolling every now and then. The soothing sounds of the ocean and seagulls were unspoiled by loud music and shouting. The traffic was light. The weather was absolutely fantastic.
My Christmas morning had something else pretty special. I keep track of International Space Station viewings and I found out it would be passing over just after six A.M. that morning. It was crisply cold and the sky was incredibly clear. I bundled up and went outside and here it came, right on time. It was one of the best viewings I have experienced, horizon to horizon, a bright Star gliding across the heavens sending its silent glorious message: Merry Christmas.
It was one of the most relaxing holiday celebrations I’ve ever had. Every morning I got up before everyone else and thoroughly enjoyed my solitary cup of coffee taking in the morning view.
Then back to writing. The latest novel is shaping up. I finished the rough draft some time ago, then I dropped the ball a bit. Both my unplanned retirement and, of course, my wife’s cancer battle, were huge diversions. So I worked on my first deep revision in November during National Novel Writing Month. Yeah, I cheated. But it was a good opportunity for me to get back in the swing of things, using the structure of NaNoWriMo to apply myself. I completed the revision and turned it back around in December and did a second deep revision. Those two revisions resulted in about fourteen thousand words of fresh material. After Christmas, I followed up with a quick polishing pass. I have beta readers looking at it now. Still waiting on a couple but they’ve been identifying a few tweaks here and there. I’m excited about this story and hope one more good revision pass will add the finishing touches.
So here I am on a Friday with a little time to write something besides fiction. I’ll keep you posted. Okay, let’s have a scone and a refill and we can dream of wonderful winter beach sunrises.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. It’s a good time to catch up on his first two novels. You’ll be glad you did when the third one comes out.
If we were having coffee today I’d be in a confessional mood. Yes, I’d admit, I’ve been feeding the neighbor’s chickens. There is a hole in the fence and for quite a while a few chickens and guinea fowl have been getting out. They wander into our yard all the time.
I’ve never had much experience with chickens. A couple of them had been lurking really close to the house and a couple of months ago I decided to haphazardly throw out some birdseed. Big mistake. The primary culprit is a big Rhode Island Red rooster we call Pepe. If I go outside or if I talk to somebody outside or if I return in the car, I can expect Pepe to come running; really, he RUNS. He knows ME. He usually has a couple of his girlfriends in tow, we call them Beatrice and Henrietta.
For quite a while it was just Pepe and Beatrice. Then Henrietta started hanging around. I ran out of birdseed. I went to a local feed store and inquired about buying some chicken feed. The conversation went like this:
“What kind?” I was asked.
“I have no idea,” I answered.
“You don’t know what kind of chicken feed you need?”
The clerk looked at me like I was insane. Maybe I am. I bought the smallest bag of feed I could, twenty-five pounds. It’s filled in pretty good. Some days we have had as many as four or five chickens and maybe a stray guinea.
Okay, yesterday, Pepe was outside when we left for a doctor appointment. We were running late. He flapped his wings and crowed. “No dice, Pepe,” I told him, “we’re in a hurry.”
I could see him in my rear-view mirror, standing in the driveway and plotting.
When we returned a couple of hours later we could see them. Yes, them. Pepe had been talking and the word was obviously out. My neighbor’s side yard was full of ducks. They were lounging near his carport, some were roosting on his carport roof and even the roof of the house. Now understand, we see his ducks from time to time. Mother ducks often come waddling through our yard, cute ducklings in tow on some sort of field trip. Never have we seen anything like this. And the second I pulled up the driveway they started moving into our yard.
When I first saw them all in total and saw them begin to move, the opening bars of the Ride of the Valkyries started rolling through my mind. I wish I had a video of it because the music would have been a perfect backdrop, especially when the ducks started soaring off the roofs. And yes, from some unseen corner, here came Pepe and the girls too, sprinting over as usual. When all of them finally made the long waddle I counted twenty-two ducks, plus the chickens.
Obviously, we have bitten off more than we can chew. I mean, we don’t feed them a lot. It’s not a meal by any means, more of a snack. My neighbor doesn’t care. They eat bugs in our yard too. I usually pick up a tick or two every month but I haven’t had a tick all summer.
I guess this isn’t the worst of it. Others are waiting in the wings …
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in NC. Kindle versions of his novels THE FEVER and A CURSE THAT BITES DEEP are ON SALE 9/28 and 9/29. http://thefensk.com/spec.html
There are no birds in the novels.
If we were having coffee today I’d no doubt go out of my way to tell you I’m going to work on Monday.
“Yay, big news,” you’d probably say.
Then I’d lay the bombshell on you. “It’s my last day.”
Yep, after much consternation and worry, I’ve decided to take the leap to retirement. Actually, my plan was to retire at the end of the year anyway. but a well-timed employer early retirement offer popped up so it seemed a good time to rush everything. And I do mean rush. I spent two weeks of agonizing over this decision, writing numbers on the back of envelopes as one friend put it. Finally, I made up my mind and sent in the form. Two days later I got an acknowledgment and was also informed it would be another ten days before the final determination would be sent. So, it wasn’t a done deal … yet.
In this hurried configuration, I could research but I couldn’t take any final steps until I had “the word.” When I finally got the word that it was really happening, I had two weeks to get all the details taken care of to back away from almost twenty years of employment.
Things are moving quickly now. Monday is my last day.
My darling bride is already making lists of things for me to fix around the house. I also plan to dig in and write a LOT. I can’t say that I’ll do a lot of sleeping in … a multitude of cats and a needy dog will generally take care of that. But even if I do have to get up early, I can take a nap, right?
So come Tuesday I’ll wake up to a new world: Forever Saturday.
If we were having coffee today I’d again be waxing all nostalgic on you. I saw this picture in the Spring 2018 University of Houston Magazine. Wow, what a flash from the past. I see from the banner that this dates from the campaign days of 1976. I could so easily be in this picture as during those years I went up and down those stairs countless times. I was even grabbed by a Secret Service agent on the bottom of the stair case on the left when I attempted the go up the stairs while President Ford’s son was getting ready to speak on the upper landing during the 1976 campaign.
I got nostalgic seeing this picture because I have very deep roots to this building and most of my experiences there went way beyond just being a student. For over two years I was employed there with two different jobs. At that time the building comprised of two sections, the three story primary structure (well, basement and two upper levels) and an adjacent one story underground structure. Just behind and below those stairs is where the entrance tunnel to the underground section was. My first job was in an office down there and I was heading to class from work when the Secret Service grabbed me.
I worked for what was then called the “Campus Activities Department” and they provided support and advisors for all on-campus organizations like clubs, honor societies, student government, campus programming, fraternities, and sororities. This service center took up the major portion of the underground portion of the building. One of the services was called the Organization’s Bank, and it allowed qualified groups from all aspects of campus life to have an “account” for their treasuries, all managed through a central Campus Activites bank account. I first encountered this when I volunteered in the campus programming board, then called Program Council. The woman who ran this bank was very friendly and pleasant so I’d drop by and visit from time to time just to say “Hi.”
In early 1975 she needed a new assistant and offered me the part-time office job. It was convenient working on-campus and it helped draw me into the mainstream of virtually all of campus life. This was long before mass computerization so all the transactions were handled manually via an even-then ancient Burroughs automatic posting machine with individual ledger cards for each account. Young people are always amazed that we were able to use tools such as this in those pre-computer days but the machines and the procedures worked quite well. I worked there for over a year and quite enjoyed my time there. The office was down a back hallway and I was working once when a fire occurred in one of the maintenance closets on the far edge of the building. They evacuated both buildings as a precaution and that office was so out of the way, I was found happily working away by someone making a last pass through the building. It was news to me. Of course, they had suppressed the alarms. So much for fire drills, right?
I could have worked in that office for another year until graduation, but through contacts in the building I became aware of a job in the maintenance department of the same building, as a student assistant to the building mechanics. Office work was okay, but this job provided the opportunity for more hours and an even more flexible schedule. My hours were quite limited in the office job but in this role, I could work evenings and even weekends and pretty much set my own schedule. There was *always* something to do. Some weeks I could almost work full-time if the evening mechanic was sick. On a student economy, more hours was always a plus.
This job was great, and because of it I eventually came to know almost every inch of the building complex. I’m talking every office, every mechanical room, every deep dark cranny, even disgusting places you don’t want to know exist. Those steps in the picture? I painted those once, with a non-skid coating. I regularly had to go onto the roof of the building too. One of the main duties was to go on rounds and make sure there were no problems like squeaky belts or grinding motor bearings (remember that fire I mentioned). Once, while working over the holidays, I found a large amount of water pooling in the corridor between the main building and the underground offices and checked outside on the ground above that corridor. It was obviously a major water main leak. University repair crews had to be called in for an emergency repair even though it was Christmas Day.
The building was extensively renovated a few years ago and I’m sure when they were doing that, they found my scrawl on any of the older breaker boxes that had survived 35+ years in the building. Once, some electricians were working in the ceiling above a dining room of what was called the old Cougar Den on the bottom level. The workers found they needed to flip an unmarked breaker and this unfortunately cut power to the cash registers in the main dining area one floor above. This happened in the middle of the lunch rush. Nobody realized that during some past construction work power had been tapped below the floor to a circuit in the Cougar Den to facilitate installation of new outlets for a cash register station that had no other access to power. It took a frustratingly long time to locate the problem because no one thought to relate the work on the lower floor to this problem. After that, another student worker and I spent a weekend mapping all the breakers in the building.
That particular work came in handy too because not long afterwards, we had been called in to help the short-staffed custodial group to do a rather large banquet reset in the third level ballroom late one Saturday night. When we were almost done I was in the hallway outside the ballroom and detected a faint whiff of burned tar, which I knew was most likely the tell-tale odor of a fluorescent light ballast shorting out.
Sure enough, a quick survey discovered a nearby display case just beginning to fill with smoke. We immediately ran to shut off power at one of the recently audited breaker-boxes down the hall. My boss found a key to the case, which was thankfully almost empty and I removed the bulbs which rendered that fixture totally inoperative. I replaced the ballast the next Monday morning and found it had suffered primary short that had already burned a hole in the ballast case (sometimes they just get hot and stop working) — this would have definitely continued into a bad fire and would have caused a lot of damage. It was just pure luck we were there (hey, it was a chance to grab a couple of extra hours pay, right?) and we knew the smell and immediately went hunting for the source. A hot ballast can not be ignored.
Ah the anonymous life of the Unsung Heroes.
I checked every maintenance closet and machine room every day I worked, mostly for just that sort of thing. Problems were always cropping up on equipment that ran 24/7 (I return again to the fire, even though that pre-dated my maintenance work). I had other regular duties too, for instance I changed all the air filters in the building every month or so. I also changed uncounted numbers of light bulbs in every section of that building. To this day I still find myself instinctively scanning ceilings in big buildings and secretly noting the lights that are burned out. I worked on plumbing repairs, helped with repair work on the food service equipment, and was involved in really unusual stuff too.
Once, one of the sewage sump pumps (one of those disgusting areas I mentioned earlier) jammed and bent the long drive shaft. It needed to be machined but most machine shops around the area could not handle a shaft that long; it was at least ten feet. Somehow my boss heard about a super machine shop in the Physics Department, which even back in 1977 was an amazing facility. We both carried this disgusting, mumblemumble-encrusted hunk of metal by hand far across campus to that shop in one of the science buildings and they machined it. It barely fit in the service elevator, which opened directly into the machine shop floor.
The curious thing about working in that building was that, as it turned out, both jobs were unplanned extensions to my education. The office and bookkeeping skills I learned in the Organization’s Bank were a huge help in every job I held later. Note: computer business processes were all built on the models of the tried and true manual process. In he next job, by doing the varied maintenance work I gained invaluable on the job experience in electrical, plumbing, and carpentry repair. These are things I still use to this day.
The other great part about the maintenance job was that it was a blast most of the time. The two senior mechanics were WWII veterans, one was a marine in the pacific and the other one had been with the Flying Tigers and was later a B29 mechanic in India, working on the bombers that flew over the Himalayas, so the stories I heard were personal and insightful. Truly they were part of the greatest generation. Once that B29 mechanic and I had to make a long excursion across campus in the underground tunnels that snake under most campuses. (Maybe I’ll share that story another time.)
I had other duties too. I served as projectionist for campus-run movies and there were times I ran the sound and lights in the ballroom for dances and other events held there. As I previously said, there were also times we helped out the custodial staff for banquet setups.
Neither one of these jobs were college “work-study” positions, they were considered regular employment; part-time jobs that added to my seniority when I later held a position at another state institution. But just like any work-study job, it was a great convenience to work on campus.
Heck, I even had a master key to the building, something I needed to use while doing my general rounds. Even custodial staff with many years employment there didn’t have a master key. If I had to work on Saturday/Sunday mornings, I had to be on-time because I was the guy with the key!
Who knew what a flood of memories would come from that simple picture.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. He’d like to say he was a product of the famed writing program at the University of Houston but sadly, that program came into existence the year after he graduated. Missed it by *that* much.
If we were having coffee today I’d tell you a little something about pining for the fjords. You’ve probably heard that expression before. It’s from one of my favorite Monty Python routines … The Parrot. I think of that every time I catch sight of a pet gazing off into space, I say they are pining for the fjords.
I happened to catch this photo the other day. It’s our dog, Daisy, pining for the fjords. It was a hard picture to capture because every time she did this and I grabbed my phone and tried to get up and get into position her attention was diverted and I lost the moment. Danged beagle in her, I guess.
Ah, but not long after I got this shot (at high magnification) I had to go out to the car and … well, I saw the rest of the story. She wasn’t pining for the fjords at all.
She was thinking “let’s have chicken tonight!”
This was what was going on directly outside that window. The neighbors have a lot of chickens and they can’t seem to contain them. Not just chickens. Guinea Fowl too. Every trip outside is a new adventure for both of us. I’m sure she aspires to embrace these birds but let me tell you, that is ONE BIG ROOSTER. You don’t want to go there, Daisy. Believe me.
If we were having coffee today I’d hope I didn’t gross you out but I want to talk about spiders. Well, to be honest, I just want to tell you about finding spiders. It’s really no big deal. One of the coolest things I learned in the Girl Scouts was finding spiders. (Yeah, that’s right, Girl Scouts, I was a Girl Scout, but that’s another story).
I was reminded of this recently when I found one of those clip-on-the-brim-of-your-hat flashlights. It’s great for taking out the dog at night. As she was sniffing around trying to find that one, special, ideal little spot for, well, you know … I was looking around. I saw these little lights shining back at me. Tiny little lights. One here, two there, another one over yonder. And I thought back to learning this trick in the Girl Scouts. [Okay, when my daughter was a Brownie I was a troop leader for camping trips and we had to attend troop leader camp training. If you are a troop leader, you are a Girl Scout, okay?]
Anyway, if you hold a bright flashlight right between your eyes and shine it out six to fifteen feet away, slowly sweeping the beam, you will soon be aware of these tiny little bright lights peering back at you. Sometimes you might hit a dewdrop reflection but the brighter more distinctive lights are spiders. Or to be more accurate spider eyes. These spiders are actually saying, “here’s looking at you, kid.”
Their retinas reflect light like a cat’s eye, but they’re a little different in that they direct it directly back at the source. During the Apollo missions, they deployed laser reflectors on the surface of the moon that do the same thing. If a laser is pointed at the right coordinates, the light will bounce back right to the source (moon landing hoaxers forget about this simple proof we were there).
Anyway, the hat brim light is in the perfect place to do this same trick. Actually, it’s ideal because it is stable and very bright. The little lights can quickly disappear if the spider turns away but the coolest thing is when they are on the move and you see that little light dancing over the uneven ground of the backyard as they make their way through the grass. It’s a fun trick to show kids (which is why they showed us this in Scout camp training). If for some reason you don’t believe me, you can hone in and get close and you’ll see it. Even a very tiny spider causes a profound reflection.
WARNING: If you are deathly afraid of spiders never do this! You will never go outside again! Ever!
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. Find info about him and his books at http://thefensk.com
If we were having coffee today I think I’d have to fess up about a recent case of attempted murder. No, not by me, silly. It was Siri.
You see, Siri tried to kill me a couple of months ago.
My daughter lives about three hours north of us, very near the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had gone up for Thanksgiving with one of our grandsons and decided to try a different route south, mostly because the grandson lives west of us and I wanted to see if there was a more direct route, so I asked Siri. She is generally quite attentive to such requests.
Indeed, Siri took us a different way, down a very unfamiliar path. But we were headed south so it seemed fine until we got to our second major turnoff. She spoke up
There were in fact what looked like two rights. We took the first. Siri didn’t like that. I have often thought any GPS with a voice should use an exasperated sigh when one misses a turn. Instead, she said,
“Turn around, when possible.”
GPS programmers take note: this would be an ideal spot to program something like “No, No, No, the other right.”
There wasn’t any place to turn around. She repeated her request several times until we had gone more than half a mile.
At this point I guess I should mention a few pertinent facts:
I was in a rental.
I hadn’t purchased the extra insurance.
It was packed to the rafters.
I wasn’t inclined to do potential damage-inducing maneuvers.
I glanced at the map my phone and realized we were actually on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a particularly narrow portion of it at that. At this point, I expected one of the famous overlooks you see about every half mile along some stretches of the Parkway. Nothing. Just narrow road framed by dense foliage.
Siri finally decided to recalculate a new route and soon instructed us to turn left.
We took a left on what we were assured was a state road, State Road 814.
I remember thinking at the time, “How could this one lane graded road be a state highway.”
Yes, indeed, I really could have turned around here and yes, I should have. It was only about five miles back to the turn-around.
But I had faith in Siri. I knew she was going to get us out of this, so we proceeded down “state road 814”. It was reasonable to assume that we would soon intersect with that other road. So I drove on and on.
The problem was, there was no place to turn around on this road.
And what a road it was … we went up and down and around, and up and down and around. We traversed a couple of mountains with long stretches of steep drop-offs with no rail. This was ear-popping, white-knuckle driving.
It was the kind of road that has periodic gates somebody closes in bad weather but it was so narrow, I don’t know how anybody could turn around if the gates were closed. I don’t know how anybody would or even could try to drive up there in a snowstorm to close those gates. Talk about “worst jobs in the world.”
My darling bride kept saying what a fun drive it was. She wasn’t driving. Thankfully we encountered no vehicles going the other way. I have no idea what we would have done if that had happened. There was literally no room for two cars to pass … not in my rental car, anyway.
Finally, after about an hour or so, the road started to level out and we began to see signs of civilization again. Eventually, we emerged onto some pavement. Yes, I saw a street sign, it WAS still state road 814 but we also found out it was called Campbell Mountain Road. We eventually hit another real, honest-to-goodness, highway, with pavement and stores and gas stations. It was salvation.
Siri kept plugging away with myriad directions and eventually got us to … the same highway we would have taken if we had gone our “normal” route. I stuck to it like glue the rest of the way home.
Okay, I guess she didn’t intentionally try to kill me.
But then again, she’s smarter than all of us and has the entire internet at her disposal. Consider this: I did some simple searches for this highway for this post and I found the following warning in some directions to a nearby campground (The phrase I boldfaced below particularly caught my attention):
“WARNING: Please use the directions we have provided below for safe and pleasant driving. If you choose to use another source for your directions, please be wary if they include Route 814; this winding, gravel mountain road is not for the faint of heart. DO NOT take 814 if you have a camper or RV.”
This is just another fine-tuning of my Amazon blurb … I think it’s getting there.
“The Mossback” made it’s first appearance in the pages of Thomas Fenske’s debut novel, THE FEVER, when owner Smidgeon Toll delivered a massive serving of Huevos Rancheros Especial to Sam, that book’s hero, and proudly exclaimed:
“There, what do you think of that?”
The description of gooey, spicy, goodness that followed spurred several readers to ask the author, “Is that a real dish?” Now you can see for yourself!
Fiction has become kitchen.
Smidgeon will entertain you with her quirky, homespun wisdom as she shares a mini-history of the cafe along with some insight into what helps to make The Mossback a unique and delightful locale in the world of fictional eateries.
Along the way you’ll learn how to make her awesome square biscuits. She also reveals details about the full-sized heap of bacon they serve on “THAT BLT, ” and introduces readers to other local favorites like the “Double Trouble Dog” and what has to be the “Best-Danged Buttermilk Pie” you’ve ever tasted. As an added bonus, she has agreed to share her famous Potato Salad Secret, something surprising and simple that will take even the best potato salad recipe and crank it up a notch, maybe two!
Simply put, these are all part of what would have made The Mossback Cafe famous, well, if it actually existed.
So hop out of your pickup truck and mosey on in … there just might be some breakfast tacos or enchiladas lurking in your future.
The Mossback Cafe Cookbook is still mostly FREE … check out my website for the free venues as well as the link to Amazon where it is 99 cents. Feel free to share one of the other sites to them using the report a lower price option. Or if you insist, buy it but be aware that there is a kindle version available at the Smashwords link.
Just to be clear … The Mossback Cafe Cookbook is more than a cookbook. It is a true companion book to my novels. They introduce the backdrop of the place and they intoduce owner Smidgeon Toll. The books are basically stories set in Texas and so, the cookbook has a strong Southwestern influence.
The cookbook takes that base and gives Smidgeon a chance to tell us all a little more about her background and the cafe.
The recipes are real and the information she shares is a valuable resource that will enhance your enjoyment of the existing novels and subsequent stories in the series.
So, when you see the word “cookbook” — look beyond it, and consider this to be a stepping off point. But don’t get me wrong, the recipes are easy and accessible to even fledgling cooks. And delicious.
Check it out … it is only in ebook form and it is only 99 cents.