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Silver Dollar Day©Averyell A. KesslerI wrote this several years ago and post it before every Fourth of July.For me, the Fourth of July is a silver dollar day. My grandfather, WG Avery, started this tradition and it goes way back. When he opened his business in Jackson, he celebrated the Fourth by giving each of his employees a silver dollar for good luck. He did not reveal that he needed good luck more than most. He’d lost his business twice during the depression, one from fire, the second time from a vicious tornado combined with economic loss. Mississippi was his last chance to make a go of it. Thankfully, our state was hungry for industry and welcomed him with enthusiasm. WG knew the ropes of manufacturing having learned the art of the assembly line from a master teacher in Detroit. His name was Henry Ford. Mississippi possessed timber and men seeking better paying jobs in the automobile industry. It was a good match.After the first tenuous year, his business took off like a downhill locomotive and he added a second silver dollar to the good luck pot. The next year three, then four. He was up to seventeen when I joined him for silver dollar day. Late on the afternoon of July 3, he blew the quitting time whistle and gathered his men on a loading dock fronting on the Illinois Central’s Mill Street train track. The day was blisteringly hot, but no one cared.My grandfather gave the same speech every year. “No work tomorrow. It’s the Fourth of July! My men need spending money in their pockets and a new shirt on their backs.” (In today’s money, seventeen dollars equals about $160.00). Behind him were envelopes of silver dollars and stacks of shirts, all large or extra-large. No one wanted a medium or a small, and if they did, they wouldn’t admit it. I watched as each man’s name was called and he stepped forward to shake hands with WG and select a shirt. Once done, my grandfather ripped open a money envelope and poured a shower of silver dollars into his hands. I stood beside him as it happened again and again, until all 103 men had a new shirt and celebration money. When it was over and the men drifted away, he handed me a silver dollar and said “Remember, girl, you can do anything you want to do.”It was a casual comment, tossed off like a high pop fly straight into center field. An odd one also. He was a 19th century man, born, raised and working long before women had the right to vote. I was a shy nine-year-old still negotiating my way through the intricacies of Power School, swimming lessons, neighborhood boys with cap-guns, and the perils of being an only child. At first, I didn’t understand. Me? Anything? Unusual advice for a young female in the 1950’s south. Not the traditional life plan offered up during those years. But his words stuck with me, and I still think about them.I don’t focus on “you can do anything,” because I certainly wouldn’t be a coloratura soprano, a hot shot investment advisor or win an Olympic gold medal. I hear the words “anything you want to do.” I call it chasing dreams. The Declaration of Independence calls it the pursuit of happiness.Independent thought and authentic dreams are a rare commodity these days, especially in a cut and paste society. If thoughts are clear and dreams are strong, they’ll blaze like a torch in the midnight sky. That’s the gift of July Fourth. The right to dream, imagine, try, fail, stand up and try again. Dreams are the basis of all creative endeavor. Age is not a diminishing factor, neither is youth, race, sex, or any other factor. The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right, as important as the right to life and liberty. What a blessing!WG continued his silver dollar event adding one each year until his bank complained about locating so many silver dollars. All the fun dribbled away when he handed out cash instead of a handful of sparkling silver. But he kept at it. Shirts too.I’ve still got my silver dollar. It’s called a Morgan dollar and features a radiant lady liberty and the words E Pluribis Unum. If anyone tries to pry it out of my hands, take care! Lady liberty rules the day, and we are still out of many, one. Happy Fourth of July.Blest with victory and peace may the heav’n rescued land,Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!from verse four of the Star-Spangled Banner
Demands©Averyell A. KesslerWords, it seems, are in trouble. For a writer, this is especially painful. Words are the tools of my trade. They inhabit my daily work and whisper to me at night. I’ve had a lifelong romance with books of all sorts, the classics, of course, some edgy, some boring, and a few without merit except as a momentary diversion. Words are essential for life and learning. Hello law books moldering on the bottom shelf in my writing room. Now words, both written and spoken, are under suspicion, lying naked under the microscope of timid modern thought and seemingly able to produce as much pain as a swift kick in the britches. Surprise, this is not new. It’s been that way since Socrates drank hemlock.Although the word police have not yet invaded my writing room or erased my thoughts, they are circling and ready to pounce. I see them at work every day, cobbling together a vacillating list of unacceptable words and dissecting a fresh batch of no-nos. (Poor pronouns, they must be really suffering, adverbs have already bitten the dust). Recently, one of my least favorites is gaining popularity- demand. It’s the new mantra of The Society for the Protection of Green Beans, as well as National Carbuncle Association and Sutaso, a short form for Snuggle up to a Screech Owl. The green bean people, aka beanie’s, have presented a list of demands to a group of random six-year-olds as well as Vegetarians United. The Carbuncles demand official recognition from the CDC. The screech owl people are still figuring out how to snuggle up to owls without scaring the living daylights out of the poor creatures.Seems like I’ll have to make peace with ‘demand’ because it’s everywhere. Anyone who’s grown up in the south is familiar with this word and all its possibilities. For me, demand was a Mama rule that must not be broken, ever, under any circumstances. First and foremost was thou shall not talk, giggle, or fidget in church. Fidget wasn’t precisely defined, but I understood. I learned the church rule early in life. I also learned that sometimes rules must be broken. It happened on an ordinary Sunday in April in a densely populated Presbyterian church on North State Street.According to the hands on my Mickey Mouse watch, it’s 11:52 and Dr. Miller is still holding forth. He’s wound up tighter that the mainspring of a double bell alarm clock and shows no signs of stopping. I see my father sitting in the last row of the choir loft, his head bobbing like a fishing pole cork at high tide. His eye lashes flutter against his cheeks. A lady in front of my pew, shifts and adjusts a purple dawn camelia pinned to her sweater in hopes that the sermon will zoom to a rapid conclusion. Her husband is catatonic. Mama, however, is statue still. I tap her hand and point to my watch. She shakes her head slowly and fires a warning shot with her eyes. Sit still or else. I lose the battle when I see my friend sitting nearby. Our eyes lock. She stifles a giggle and sticks out her tongue. I become a howler monkey, my shoulders shiver as I fight for self-control. Mama captures my arm in a vice grip. Quiet, she hisses. Sit still.Dr. Miller is still strapped into a prime seat on the yakery-yak express. His words are velvet to his ears, bouncing off the ceiling as he booms out, “There are three main points here. The first is……………..” Mickey is now displaying 12: 10. I am becoming desperate. Surely Daddy’s stomach is rumbling too.I stop laughing as soon as I see it, a single wasp circling the camelia lady’s stout neck. It is silent and lethal; no one except me seems to hear the whirr of its tiny wings. I press myself against the back in the pew and watch as it settles on the camelia and burrows into its golden center.“The second point is………….” Dr. Miller rattles on, covering the congregation in a heavy blanket of thick fog. Camelia lady is desperate also. She fingers the flower on her shoulder then stretches her neck and fluffs her hair. The wasp abandons his home in the camelia and crawls onto a wide expanse of her raw flesh. I am entranced as it teeters on six spindly legs inspecting the territory before it disappears below her collar. Suddenly, she senses something amiss. She leans forward and tugs at her shoulder pads. Nothing. She whispers to her husband. He unzips her collar and looks inside. More whispering. Camelia lady is now in a hurricane of panic.“Do something!” she whispers. She bares her teeth, her eyes flame. When he reaches inside her dress, it’s a step too far. The wasp attacks. Her chin rises to the ceiling. “Owwww! It’s a wasp!” she shouts, yowling like a solitary wolf on a snowy night. She leaps from her pew and runs down a side aisle. A doctor rouses himself from oblivion and follows her. I hear shouting and scuffling in the entrance foyer. A soft murmur rises in the congregation. Is this wasp one of many? An entire nest, perhaps? An outbreak of feverish scratching follows as folks preen and inspect their clothing. Dr. Miller has the good sense to hop off his glory train and dismiss the congregation. As he flees through a side door, the organist launches into a robust run for your life tune. Every door in the sanctuary is wide open. Families gather their children and rush outside to safety. It’s over at last.“That poor lady,” Mama says as we leave the church. “I hope she’s alright.“I saw it on her neck,” I say. “But she didn’t know it was there.”“Why didn’t you say something?” Mama asks.“I’m not supposed to talk in church,” I explain.“Sometimes rules don’t apply and you must speak up,” Mama says. “especially if something bad is happening.”“I will from now on,” I answer. “Especially if it’s bad.”Good advice Mama. So, must we all. It’s important.
Crisis on Laurel Street©Averyell A. KesslerMama’s story opened with a dramatic organ glissando and a vivid shot of a revolving globe against a dark background dotted with twinkling stars. Dramatic to be sure. We hadn’t made it to the moon yet, and it was the best the tv folks could do. Then a deep, intense voice boomed, “And now for the next thirty minutes……………….AS THE WORLD TURNS……brought to you by Instant Niagara and new Niagara Spray Starch.” Although it was a soap opera, Mama and Ella, our housekeeper, called it “the story.” It was a mandatory Monday through Friday noontime event. No matter that it crept along at a glacial pace, the plot took at least one plodding step forward each day and couldn’t be overlooked. The Edge of Night was a close second.The seductive Alexis Carrington and Sue Ellen Ewing had not yet appeared on the tv scene, and the daytime antics of the Hughes Family as well as the perceived normality of Oakdale Illinois were as far from ordinary as 1950’s TV would allow. Then an unexpected twist occurred that shook the foundations of soapdom at our house on Laurel Street.I was a rising fourth grader at Power School and Mama had decided the ‘’the story” was bland enough for me to watch during the summer months, especially during the blistering noon hours of July when I was forced to rest. In short order, I became familiar with all the characters as they trudged through one blighted romance after another, took calm advice from Nancy, the straight arrow matriarch of the family, and watched as carefully coiffed women competed for the attention of a handsome physician. Then it happened, a vaulting leap into the future as the story mentioned the unmentionable.Dressed fit to kill, my mother was on her way to Maids and Matrons, one of her many lady’s clubs that gathered at the Municipal Art Gallery on North State Street. It was an organization which published a cookbook called Pots and Pans and included only one maid. After she left, Ella and I were sitting the den, inches away from our console tv and shelling our way through a bushel of crowder peas. “Ya’ll be sure to watch the story today.” Mama said as she closed the back door. “I think something big is gonna happen.” We had no intention of doing anything else. The story opened with the following exchange:“What to do mean? You accepted an engagement ring from Bert!” Nancy yelled. (Bert was a stray Englishman who arrived in Oakdale for some obscure reason)“We’re going to get married,” her saccharin sweet daughter, Penny replied.“Have you told him about the baby?” Nancy asked, her eyes narrowing into searchlights.Ella sat us straight in her chair, dropping a handful of unshelled peas back into the basket. She lowered the volume, but I kept listening.“Not yet,” Penny answered quietly. “Maybe I won’t tell him at all.”“But your baby was born out of wedlock,” Nancy continued. “You have to tell him!”Sharp, ear shattering chords erupted from the show’s organ and Niagara interrupted with a jaunty starch commercial.“What baby, Ella? Penny doesn’t have a baby.”“The story hasn’t said anything about Penny having a baby.” Ella whispered. “Don’t worry about that mess. It’s nothing – bound to be.”“What does wedlock mean?” I asked innocently. “Mama said a big deal was coming!”“Ask your Mama when she gets home.”“Tell me, now, before I miss anything!”“I said, ask your Mama,” she replied, and changed the channel to The Edge of Night.I tore into my room, found my Webster’s Elementary Dictionary, and thumbed through the W’s. I found a simple definition on page 712. I also flipped past “voluptuous,” “weasel”, and “warlock, but I ignored them.“It means marriage,” I told Ella as the commercials ended.“Yes, it does,” she sighed.“How can Penny have a baby if she’s not married?” I whined.“Not my business to tell you. Ask your Mama.”Ella was waiting in our driveway when Mama returned from her club meeting. I watched from my bedroom window as they had an animated conversation in front of our garage. As a result, we left the distraught Penny moldering in Oakdale for a complete conversion to The Edge of Night, a crime drama also featuring a mysterious piano introduction, smoky trumpet solo, and Mike Karr, a hero lawyer and criminologist. It was Perry Mason during the daylight hours. There was another midwestern city, Monticello, and a cast of entrancing and disreputable characters. As a result, I learned an array of new words – grand jury, indictment, and testimony. I also became familiar with Proctor and Gamble’s many products. Luckily, The Edge of Night did not include unexpected announcements of surprise babies. It was a soap opera, advertising soap, with an occasional murder and a bit of blackmail tossed in. What could go wrong?When school began in September, summertime soaps and I parted ways. Their snail like pace and gordian knot difficulties couldn’t compete with cartoons, Lash LeRue or the Lone Ranger. I was more concerned with Sky King’s Penny, who flew in her uncle’s Cessna, hung out with Clipper, and help rescue the endangered. Lucy and Ethel were my new best pals because they allowed me to stay up for an extra half hour a school night. Mama, now fully aware that television wasn’t always benign, kept a careful eye on was flowing into our home. As a result, I almost missed Elvis’ Ready Teddy performance before an astonished audience on The Ed Sullivan Show. Almost, but not quite!
Daddy’s Hero Hat©
Averyell A. Kessler Saturday was apple pie day at our house on Laurel Street. It was an essential part of my parents’ weekend traditions that welcomed little variation. On Friday night they played bridge with our neighbors, passing around bowls of mixed nuts, nibbling multicolored mints, and sipping Jack Daniels and coke in tall glassesContinue reading “Daddy’s Hero Hat©”