Friday, February 27, 2009


Riddle: What birds inevitably follow tornados?
Answer: Vultures.

Walking out to the mailbox recently, I saw a burly fellow swagger confidently right at me. Not towards--at. He carried a self-important clipboard, wore jeans and a T-shirt that would have enabled his mother to find him on the far side of the Sahara in the middle of the night: ASK ME ABOUT YOUR ROOF!

"Guess you know what I do!" he bellowed.

I looked blank. (I'm getting good at that, better with every passing birthday, whichever one it may be.)

"Everybody in your neighborhood has to have a new ROOF!" he gloated, sweeping his arm possessively down the block.

"Ummm," I responded and kept going.

"You got a good roofing contractor?" he called to my back.

I nodded, in a manner of not speaking.

"YOU BETTER BE CAREFUL!" he yelled at the closing door.

Yesterday I went out into the back yard with the dogs, and while there, scattered some bird seed. I had spotted the shy cardinal couple on the patio earlier, and wanted to put the welcome mat out.

Amid the general cheeping and chirping around the neighborhood, I heard a different sound I couldn't place.

THUNK-thunk. THUNK-thunk. Tuh-THUNK-thunk. Woodpeckers? Nah. Then what?

Ah! Roofers. Not an unpleasant sound, actually. Rhythmic,and rather muted.

The tornado three weeks ago had swerved dangerously close to us for 10 minutes. There had been a great wind and battering hail (about the size of Ping-Pong balls) for perhaps five minutes. The roofing salesmen had swarmed for some ten days. Now the workers scamper up and down the high-pitched roofs like squirrels. And soon the hail-pocked roofs will be replaced by new ones, each costing about five times as much as a tornado shelter.

The Cardinals, however, seem to be using the same nest as last year, right up there in the big cottonwood.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


[This is the first of several posts on my "onstage" experience as Patty Bartlett Sessions. Several others may be expected sooner or later.]

The highlight of my bush league stage experience came out of the Wyoming blue. "Bush League"--now there's an old slang term that has been renewed and intensified during the most recent presidential administration! Here's the standard definition: "Bush League is a general term used to describe an action or thing as being amateur, inferior or crude." Now back to the Wyoming blue.

One day in 1984, an historian in Salt Lake City got a phone call from one Lou Burton in Wyoming. Lou, freshly retired from the military, admired the famous mountain man Jim Bridger, and had been giving lectures across the state of Wyoming, dressed in fringed buckskin, toting a long rifle, and telling tall tales for which the old hero had been well known. Burton had just received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a tour throughout five Western states with a presentation called "Trails West, Rails West." "Jim Bridger" would be the star attraction,of course, but he'd be joined by several other historic notables,among them, Thomas Durant, who engineered the Union Pacific railroad, and Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of explorer and miltary hero John C. Fremont. Lou Burton needed one more person, preferably a woman for gender balance and political correctness, preferably a Mormon pioneer since Mormons had been so famously involved in the westward expansion.

Thus Burton's call to historian Maureen Beecher in Utah. Could she tell him of a Mormon pioneer woman who'd come along the great "Mormon Trail"? Beecher certainly could: Patty Bartlett Sessions, a legendary midwife who had kept the most detailed journal extant of the Latter-day Saints' Westward migration. "Splendid!" said Burton. Now one more thing: did Beecher know a contemporary woman who could (a) write a 45-minute monologue based on Sessions' journals, and (b) travel around for six weeks the coming summer, portraying Sessions in an NEH-sponsored Chautauqua? Beecher batted not one eyelash as she named me.

Thus Maureen Beecher served as midwife in the rebirth of midwife Patty Bartlett Sessions. In addition to the six weeks of 1984, I had the keen pleasure of performing "Aunt Patty Remembers" as a solo for half a dozen years thereafter, including as a speaker for the Utah Arts Council's statewide slate of offerings. Bush league? Absolutely. The "major leagues" of such "Cast of One" acting include the likes of Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, the late James Whitmore as Harry Truman, Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf. But I have a hunch that our touring troupe of 1984 had every bit as much fun as any of the big names.

We toured small towns, the NEH theory being that the federal funds should be spent on taking history to out-of-the-way places with less access to great museums and live theater available in Salt Lake City or Denver. Our venue in sunny weather was a small red-white-and-blue tent over a wooden stage. The audience sat outside the tent in folding chairs or on the grass. We gave the folks of Left Boot, Montana, or South Wahoo, Wyoming, three costumed characters each evening for two days. Each monologue lasted about 45 minutes, with another 15 minutes alloted for questions and answers.

The Chautauqua Players adopted a particular pattern in Q & A. We would come back on stage after our set monologue was done, but still in costume and in character. Audience members would ask questions which we would answer as our particular character. As the days passed, we Players became a tad playful (not to say mischievous)during Q & A. For example, Patty Sessions, a meticulous record-keeper, had delivered a total of 3,977 babies in her long career. That became a ready number to answer an assortment of audience queries about which we amateur (or non-)historians hadn't a clue.

"How much did it cost Mrs. Fremont to sail from New York to San Francisco back then?"

"Exactly $3,977.00!"

"How long was the completed Union Pacific Railroad?"

"That would be 3, 977 miles."

Finally our honcho, Lou Burton, told us to quit the shenanigans.

The program moderator, Terri (Mrs. Lou) Burton) always reminded audience members to ask only questions that the characters could logically answer in their time frames.
No asking Jim Bridger, "How 'bout them Rockies?" No asking explorer Richard Burton when he died. Sometimes audience members asked questions that our characters could have answered, but we the actors could not. To me, that was a good sign: it meant that the line had blurred between historical character and summer thespian. One evening when I came back after my monologue, still as Patty, an elderly gentleman in the front row, an assortment of small tykes beside him, stiffly raised his hand.

"My great-grandfather came across in one of the handcart companies, and then he lived up there by City Creek near where you were. Do you remember him?" And he gave his ancestor's name.

Well, Aunt Patty surely must have known him, but I had nary an idea about the man. Yet I couldn't stand up there on the stage, Patty's authoritative cane in my hand, and say I didn't know this man's revered forebearer. I squinted as if trying to remember, stroked my chin, and then said, "Ah! Yes indeed! Yes indeed I do remember him! A fine man. Wonderful family man. Oh, mercy, was he a hard worker! A great example to us all!"

The old gentleman nodded. He seemed content.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


So last summer, we faced the big decision: buy a decent TV that does not ring and buzz and distort so insanely that Renee Fleming sounds like Selma Diamond--OR invest in a tornado shelter.

A tornado shelter is in that category of things you buy and hope you never use--like longterm care insurance, or the chip that is implanted under your dog's skin so that if he is lost, he can be retrieved (IF the finders give a hoot, and IF they take the dog where someone can READ the submerged chip, and IF they then give a second hoot and notify you.)

The tornado shelter costs about three times as much as a jim-dandy TV and is about the same size. Ours was installed beneath the concrete floor of the garage. In theory, it accommodates six people. In practice, the two of us and a hamster.

February is early for tornados here in Oklahoma. The wind, as you all know from the song, has the main year-round weather franchise. Tornados are normally onstage in the spring. So when the tornado watch became a tornado warning on Tuesday, folks didn't know whether to take it seriously or just to figure that the TV weathermen felt unappreciated.

If you think sports announcers have to be on their toes (or more aptly on their vocal cords) during a hotly contested game, envision the weather guys trying to cover a major tornado (or, in Tuesday's case, three tornados roaring down the track one after another). The Big Blow moves at 45 mph or faster across the largest metro area in the nation. (On the east, the Oklahoma City limits extend clear out to Hellandgone, where most residents actually vote in Arkansas.) On the TV screen, a radar arm sweeps across a street map of the area, and red dots show the neighborhoods next in line for a scrimmage. Outside, two guys in cars drive wildly through the streets, keeping their cameras trained for funnel clouds while the rain and hail play Car Wash on the windshield. In the sky, helicopters bounce about in the storm and capture pictures of roofs becoming airborne and large trees flying by like pitched celery stalks.

Pretty soon the red dots blink in our direction. The sky darkens and hail the size of Brussel sprouts begin to pelt and bang the roof and windows. Now it's time to corral the dogs, who are on edge (a) because their superior hearing alerted them to the storm while we were still watching Family Feud, and (b) because we keep saying, "It's all right, kids. It's all right," convincing them that disaster is afoot.

Inside the garage, Nancy pulls her car right up to the kitchen door. In theory, that allows us to slide back the cover of the shelter and climb down into its bowel. The cover, of course, lies flat, protruding just a couple of inches above the garage floor. There is minimal clear space between the garage door and the end of Nancy's car smack above the shelter cover. Getting ourselves inside is thus like slipping mail through a narrow mail slot. Except that this mail is more like a thick padded envelope. And of course the two dogs, having never had a rehearsal of this aspect of family life, are dubious. Finally I just plop them through the slot into Nancy's arms. Then I run back to the TV. All the weather guys and gals have been waiting for the possible touchdown. It comes, its funnel right there on the screen. It spins to the ground two blocks north and two blocks east of us.

The next day, in the chiropractor's office, I listen to two businessmen talking about the problems they had driving home after the tornado. Police and fire trucks had cordoned off some of the major arteries, but Suit #1 boasts about having given his wife an alternate route, and "she got home slick as a whistle." Then he casually continues, "But Fred's house was totally destroyed. Just trash and debris left. And their dog's run off."