Monday, August 15, 2011

Only in Our Small Towns


I got into a squabble with UPS this week. Not with our local driver, Dale. He’s great and always takes time for a friendly word. No, my squabble was with an anonymous cipher at UPS dispatch headquarters.

It all started with my new job. Several times while he was growing up and later as a young adult, my son Ben worked for me. Now our roles have reversed and I am doing a menial sort of job for his new business. When Ben asked me if I would like to help, he warned me the tasks were ‘mind numbing’. However, I find them somewhat akin to Zen meditation. I told a friend about it and he pointed out that it probably indicates the vacuity of my mind. I argue that it is Zen.

But the point is that the end result of my menial-labor fits into a small box which must be shipped via UPS. The process is quite easy. I punch information into my computer program and my printer spits out a pre-paid label which I attach to the box. I pat myself on the back for a job well done. Then I call UPS.

UPS is huge. They list no local telephone number. They publish an 800 number, which I called. The computer-generated voice ordered me through an endless number of options. I tried several, some twice. None fit my needs. In frustration I found myself arguing with the computer-generated voice. The voice continued undaunted. The voice never changed inflection. The voice carried on. My own voice changed inflection. My own voice got louder and it got faster. Finally the computer-generated voice took pity. Evidently something in my agitation activated their computer’s ‘pity’ chip which shunted me to a real human.

“Ah, ha,” I snapped. “Look, mister. All I want to do is have somebody pick up my pre-paid package.”

“Yes,” the gentleman who I pictured huddled, chained to a desk, surrounded by the latest in computer communications technology in a cubicle buried deep in the back room in the basement of UPS headquarters said. “I have your order up on the screen. That will be fourteen dollars and yadda yadda cents. Do you want to pay by credit card or set up an account?”

“This shipment is pre-paid,” I countered through clenched teeth. “I want you to pick it up. I do not want to pay for it again.”

“Yes,” he said. “I see here that your package is pre-paid for shipment. To have our driver pick up your box will cost fourteen dollars and yadda-yadda cents. How do you wish to pay?”

“I do not wish to pay twice for a pre-paid shipment,” I began. “This is insane.”

“I can see how you might think that,” he said, polishing his mollify-the-customer skills. “As an alternative, you can take the box to the nearest UPS drop station.”

“The UPS place is in Havre. It is a ninety mile round trip. One way is a two hour drive through road construction. I just want to ship my box without paying even more than the shipping charges just to have it picked up.”

“I understand,” he said. His voice dripped oil of sarcasm. “If you don’t want to pay anything, I guess you could try to find your driver and hand him the box. That will not cost you anything. Good luck.” I could hear him cackling loudly as he clicked off. I’m sure he pictured me driving aimlessly around a city for hours, vainly searching every street and alley, hunting a UPS truck, any UPS truck.

But he didn’t know Harlem. I looked at my clock. 11:05. I knew that Dale was probably at the post office. I hustled out to the PO. “Jan, has Dale been here yet?” “He just left, Sondra. You might try the Clothing Company. He drops a lot of things there.” “Thanks.”

Nope, Dale wasn’t at the Clothing Company. Who else might get a lot of shipments? The High School! I whizzed around the corner. And there it was, the familiar brown truck, headed in my direction. I waved my arm. Dale stopped. I handed him the box. I had the last laugh. Only in a very small town.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
August 18, 2011

I Started Out with Nothing and I Still Have Most of It

And I Didn't Plan It This Way!

Without trying to eavesdrop, it is funny what one overhears. A couple weeks ago, on my way to Washington, I stopped for a fish sandwich at a diner in Ritzville. As my order to-go was being prepared, I stood back out of the way. I wasn’t really paying attention to anything, when I overheard a conversation from behind the counter. The pony-tailed manager harangued his youthful employee, “The orders are backing up. Ya gotta work harder. How ya gonna get anywhere in life. Ya gotta work harder.” Youthful Employee stood with his mouth open and his knuckles dragging. The words washed over him. I saw him glance at the clock.

At that point the manager looked up and caught my eye. By this time I was rather enjoying the scene and had a grin spread across my face. “You heard that, didn’t you?” he asked. “I’m right, aren’t I?” I nodded my head. He rolled his eyes and shrugged. As I drove down the road with my sandwich, I wondered if Youthful Employee would last through the shift.

Ritzville is a rich place for being a party to other’s conversations. On my way back to Montana I stopped at Jake’s on the west end of town for a sit-down meal. This time I found myself listening to a good ‘ol boy with a rich North Carolina accent. He was wearing overalls and cowboy boots. I’d say he was in his eighty’s and definitely hard of hearing. Sitting in the farthest corner of the joint, I could hear every word he said. I tried to block his voice but some things came through anyway. “If folks would just stick to the ways we always done things, we wouldn’t be having troubles in this country,” he enlightened his wife, his daughter and all the rest of us. “I seen one of them bumper stickers on one of them new cars. It said ‘Green and Clean’.” He said the words as if they were dirty. “’Green’ is nothing but a waste of our good hard-earned money.”

Yesterday morning I walked into Jean’s Bakery in Chinook. The men’s coffee group was gathered around a large table and the first thing I heard was “Now that we’ve solved all the world problems , we can fix the economy.”

“Oh I don’t know about that,” was the reply. “We’ve been broke all our lives. I see no reason to change anything now.”

“We’ve just got to work harder,” another man said. Everybody laughed.

About then my friends Dick and Jane walked in and sat down. They’d been stuck behind a long line of cars waiting in road construction. Dick is a walking billboard. Every jacket he owns is adorned with embroidered mottoes. Today’s jacket announced “I started out with nothing and I still have most of it.”

Maybe it was the jacket or maybe it was my recent collection of overheard conversations that reminded me of a treasured postcard that I found in Missoula during another recession in the early 1980’s. It shows a bulldozer rooting in a hill of dirt with a coffee stand off to the side bearing the sign: “Fred’s Fill Dirt and Croissants.”

I asked Dick about how I should repair the driver’s seat of my van. He said it would be easier to get a new one. That reminded him that he had a biker buddy who owned a junkyard. Dick said, “You should meet him. He is looking for a girlfriend. I know you’d like him.” For a moment I actually considered it. It’s been a rough year for everyone.

Sondra Ashton
Looking out my back door
August 11, 2011

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

All I Need Is A Good Book
My home resembles a library. I am a reader. Books control my life. Books line my shelves in every room. For a long time when I wanted to find a favorite book I found myself wandering from room to room searching the shelves. Finally I organized them by authors’ names. What a monumental job. It took days. Now poetry lives in one corner. Theatre holds forth in another. Fiction authors A through C are in the living room, along with most non-fiction. The rest of my fiction resides in a room dedicated solely to books. I cannot resist a good book. I buy books new. I buy books used. When I accidently purchase a book I already own, I pass it on to a friend. I read for pleasure. I read to learn. I read for the beauty of language.

Typically I kick-start my day with coffee and my current book. In the summer I work in my garden in the cool morning hours. In winter I head for my shop. When I take a break, it is with book in hand. Sometimes I read a page or two—sometimes soar through several chapters. I’m disciplined. I have rules. I don’t read at the dining table. One day while hovering over a page-turner, I discovered my plate was empty but I had no recollection of eating. Also I don’t read in bed. The first book I remember staying up all night to finish while lying in bed was “Gone with the Wind”. So I read in a chair and reserve my bed for sleep. Neither rule is ironclad. I have been known to falter and fail.

If I am not busy I often read a book a day. I read eclectically. Classical literature. Novels. History. Poetry. Physics. Art. Trash. I love it all. Therefore these last three weeks have been unusual. I actually quit reading. Cold turkey. By necessity, not by intention.

Why did I quit reading? I simply over-scheduled my life. Not on purpose. I am a busy person. In these three weeks I had an opportunity to take a financial education workshop. A three-day class reunion immediately followed. Then company arrived on my doorstep. My garden suddenly burgeoned forth with bounty. Strawberries insisted on being picked daily. Raspberries ripened in time for me to take a batch to the reunion. I had a sudden opportunity to take a trip to Washington to visit my grandchildren. The day before I took off, I picked both red and black currants, Saskatoon berries and four more gallons of raspberries. I cleaned them all and bagged them for the freezer to await jelly making on my return. Work projects needed to be finished. So many things to do and I needed to do them all.

Everything seemed to happen at once. Each morning I prepared my to-do list for the day. Each evening I fell exhausted into bed, list unfinished, too tired to read. I pined for my books. The stack next to my reading chair accumulated a thick layer of dust. I a newly arrived box of four books, lingered over the titles, ran my hands over the covers and reluctantly added them to the pile of unread books on my footstool. I prepared a bag of books to take on my trip.

When I arrived at my son’s home in Issaquah I selected the book I most wanted to read next and set in on my bed table. But life is full. We crammed our days and nights with activities. Whenever I glanced at my book I broke into a cold sweat. No time to read. In my sleep I dreamed about reading. Four days later I still had not cracked the cover.

This morning I drove to Marysville to spend a couple days with my daughter and her family. When I walked in the door she hugged me and handed me “Heaven’s Prisoners”, a novel by James Lee Burke, a favorite author of ours. “I can’t start this. It’s a library book. I can’t take it with me. And I’ll only be her two days. How will I finish it?”

“Go ahead, start,” she tempted me. “You’ll not be able to put it down.” She pushed me into a chair. My hands shook. I caressed the cover. I lingered over the title page. I could no longer control myself. I read the first page, then the next and the next. And the next. Doomed. The End.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 4, 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Weekend at Fort Peck with Friends

Friends and Food
A Weekend at Fort Peck with Friends


We were planning our annual Harlem High Class of ’63 reunion when we got a phone call. Actually we got two. They sounded something like this, “Can some of our class join you this year for your reunion? Your class has more fun.” And that is what led to a blended Class of ’61-’63 Gathering at Ft. Peck . It must be true—we, like blondes, have more fun.

Early Friday afternoon, along with driving rain and golf-ball sized hail, our group pulled into the Buckhorn Lodge at Fort Peck Lake . Some of us beat the stormy winds and black clouds, some rode the deluge in fear and trembling, and others followed behind, assaying the damage in Glasgow . Meanwhile, out at the Buckhorn, it rained a bit, hailed a bit, and the sun beamed until nightfall--true Montana weather.

One thing about our class, we eat well. Every fresh arrival brought more food, enough to pack two refrigerators and crowd the tops of two tables and the kitchen counters.

Friday night dinner came off with barely a hitch, although at times it resembled a fire drill. Jim had volunteered to man the grill, cooking the prime rib brought by Fred, possibly from his own beef. Whenever I glanced out at the back patio, I saw what looked like dinner by committee. Jim, Fred and Jess each had strong opinions about the best way to cook the cow, but true friends, they worked out their differences without resorting to fisticuffs. Once the flash-fire seared (don’t ask) rack of beef was sliced, the chefs plunked a huge chunk of perfection on every plate. Unanimous in our accord, we agreed—this was without doubt the best prime rib we’d ever eaten. The accompanying baked potatoes and pasta salad were perfect, the huckleberry-topped cheesecake divine.

Before and after the meal we played cards, poured over photo albums and school annuals, snacked on salmon, told stories, and soaked up being together while the tunes we had enjoyed in our high school days played in the background. We had come from California , Washington and Oregon ; from Harlem, Chinook, Conrad, Billings and Glasgow . And if you weren’t there, we talked about you.

Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast of country sausage, eggs, sourdough waffles and fresh garden raspberries with whipped cream, we waddled out the door and caravanned across the four miles of earth-filled dam. We viewed the lake from the overlook, then we drove on to the spillway where we stood in awe, feeling the sheer power of the rushing water. We went down the hill to the Interpretive Center where we were captivated by the story of the building of the dam. From there we continued on to tour of the fish hatchery. Not wanting to miss a thing, we took in the vintage car show and Art in the Park on the grounds of the old Fort Peck Hotel. I bought a wonderful wooden pink flamingo (I named him Floyd, of course), with a strip of flexible metal for a neck. Floyd now resides in my chokecherry orchard, feeling quite at home.

We wandered back to the Buckhorn to rest, tell more stories, and get ready for a dinner of sautéed shrimp and steak grilled to order. Fat and happy, those who chose went to the Fort Peck Theatre for an absolutely stunning performance of the musical, “ Chicago ”.

Sunday, after sour dough pancakes, so light they floated off the griddle, ham, fruit and gallons of steaming coffee, some of our friends gave us a farewell round of hugs and headed down the trail to home. A few of us went for a ride on the lake in Jim’s boat. When we returned I realized I had sacrificed my favorite best green sweater to the spirits of Fort Peck Lake . I didn’t mean to but I guess the lake wanted it. Those things can happen in a boat.

Stuffed with food and stimulated by our activities, we slept well each night. I know I did. After I arrived home in Harlem , a friend asked me what I liked most about the weekend. That was easy. Friends. Being with friends. Reconnecting, deepening our relationships, strengthening our bonds. I have a rather simple belief—life is about friends. Friendship is what’s important—not houses or cars or money. Not stocks or bonds or clothing or jewelry or awards. Simply friendship.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 28, 2011

Who’s That Cat in the Hat?

Out of the closet and onto my head!

Who’s That Cat in the Hat?


“You know, Sondra, we’re going to take up a collection to buy you a new hat.”

I was drinking coffee with the guys at the city shop.

“I don’t know. I’m used to seeing her in that hat; I think it is who she is.”

“Old and wrinkled?”

“I was thinking ‘eccentric’.”

“Wait,” I protested. “I like this hat. It keeps the sun off my face and stays on my head in the wind.” My straw hat has survived many summers. It is, I admit, a little bit stained, a little bit crumpled. Okay, it looks like it has been stomped on, slept in and dragged through prickly pear. The left brim is rolled tightly. The right brim sports splotches of blue paint. The crown is smashed. The whole thing resembles a warped UFO. “Why, this fine hat is just getting broken in. It’s comfortable, like my favorite pair of Birkenstocks.”

I eyeballed my three friends in their baseball caps. “At least I don’t have hat head,” I said, maliciously.

I love hats. Over the years I have accumulated a modest collection. When I was preparing to move back to my childhood hometown, my sister asked me, “What will you do with all your hats? Women don’t wear hats in Harlem .”

“What do you mean?”

“We don’t wear hats. People will stare at you. You’ll feel ridiculous. You’ll see.”

“That’s silly. I’ll wear my hats wherever I feel like it,” I said. My sister just grinned and said, “Uh huh.”

Sure enough, after I had lived here a few months, without realizing it, I had conformed to the prevailing fashion. I often scanned the closet shelves for the right hat to wear, only to close the door, and leave the house bare-headed. My hats sat lonely on the shelves, collecting dust. I bought a couple baseball caps to wear on windy days, but I never wear them.

One day I was gathering clothing and household items for the Salvation Army. I have a loosely held rule that if it hasn’t been used in the past year, it becomes a serious contender for the donation box. I opened my closet and there they sat, abandoned and forlorn. My straw hats, my wool hats, my felt hats, my cloth hats. Silk hats, velvet hats, tapestry hats, fur hats, feather hats. My designer leopard hat. My fiberglass hard hat that an artist friend had made for me. Vintage hats, knit hats, grass hats, winter hats, summer hats. Expensive hats. Hats I made myself. Hats from junk stores. All unworn.

My poor neglected orphaned hats. I took them in arms. I heard the echo of my sister’s voice, “You won’t wear hats in Harlem .” I stared at the visible evidence of my foolish attempt at conformity.

Since that day my hats are out of the closet and on my head. In the summer I often wear my battered favorite straw. In the cold of winter I especially like my fleece-lined hat with ear flaps. This morning I plucked my red straw hat, circa 1960, out of the pile and popped it on my head. I wore it to the post office and I wore it to the grocery. Nobody pointed and snickered. One sweet gentleman smiled, winked and complimented, “Nice hat.”

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 21, 2011