World Gratitude Day


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September 21 is World Gratitude Day, a day celebrated since 1966 when an international group meeting in Hawaii agreed to designate a day to express gratitude and appreciation for the many wonderful things to be found in the world.

Maui rainbox

Maui rainbow, 2011

I haven’t taken much time to be grateful in the last couple of years. I’ve been grieving the loss of my parents and managing their estates. I was busy with editing and publishing two novels. And I’ve been following with increasing disdain the political campaigns, while trying to maintain my dedication to our electoral process. There’s a lot to worry about in this world, along with the things to be grateful for.

But as my father said whenever I complained to him about the difficulties I faced, “That’s a high-class problem to have.” And he was right. I don’t worry about having food on the table, a roof over my head, or enough money each month to pay the bills. I have a lot to be grateful for.

On this World Gratitude Day, I am grateful for:

My family. I’ve lost my parents, but I have a wonderful husband and two great children. I’ve been married for almost 39 years, and both of our children are independent and productive adults. I have a sister and brother that I like as well as love (and their families along with them), and a good mother-in-law and other fine in-laws who have made my life easier over the years.

My friends. I may have few childhood acquaintances with whom I am still in contact, but I have a good college friend whose company I enjoy. I’ve maintained many relationships with the people I worked with, and have built even stronger friendships with some of them since I retired. I’ve been welcomed into a supportive community of writers in Kansas City, and the collective talent of this group awes me.

My health. I’m getting older—no doubt about it—and some problems are creeping up on me. But they are minor at this point, and I can enjoy all the activities I want (and even some strenuous endeavors I’d just as soon leave behind me).

My resources. I like my home and we’ve owned it outright for many years. We won’t be able to stay here forever, but we’ve enjoyed it for 32 years. My husband and I saved diligently when we worked, and we reap the benefits of our frugality now. We argue more over how to get rid of the things we have than we do over how to spend limited resources.

My focus. I set a goal ten years ago to publish a book before I died, and I’m about to publish my third novel. It’s been a steep learning curve, but an amazing experience to open myself up to creative endeavors after burying my talents for so many years.

. . . I could, of course, go on and on in this list of things I’m grateful for. The beauty of nature. The places I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited. The people who have passed through my life. Beaches. Chocolate. The list would never end.


Photo from Flickr: Keoni Cabral, The feeling of sun on fingertips

There is a risk of sounding like the Pharisee when recounting all the things I have to be grateful for. I fear it sounds as if I’m boasting. True gratitude requires humility, a recognition that everything we have began with those who came before us and that ultimately we received these gifts from a higher power. We all start naked and helpless in this world and cannot achieve anything without the help of others.

My father told me shortly after my mother died, “Your mother and I had a blessed life.” Actually, he told me this many times, but despite the suffering he went through caring for her in the last years of her life, he said it after her death with conviction. And so on this World Gratitude Day, in humility I recognize that, thanks in large part to the strong beginning my parents gave me, my life has been blessed also. And I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on my blessings.

What are you grateful for on this World Gratitude Day?

Gail Elizabeth Sullivan


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Gail on the right and me on the left on our First Communion day

In my last post, I mentioned that I developed some friends during my second grade year, the first school year I spent at Christ the King School in Richland, Washington. One of those friends was Gail Elizabeth Sullivan.

Gail was a bubbly little girl. She was smart (in the A reading group with me). She was not a bad athlete, though she was small (she was the second shortest girl in the class, and I barely topped her at third shortest). She was a cheerful, friendly type, who got along with everyone.

Our last names weren’t close in the alphabet, so we didn’t sit next to each other in class. But when we were lined up by height, as we were for First Communion and other formal class processions, she and I stood next to each other. (The girls, of course, had separate lines from the boys.)

Gail became one of my better friends in the second grade, a good enough friend to make the cut for my 7th birthday party in April 1963. We poked along as friends through the third grade as well. In third grade, the girls became very cliquish, and Gail was one of the few who could defy the chasms between the groups. She got along with everyone.

In the spring of my third grade year, I heard one girl whispering in the girls’ bathroom after recess one day, “Gail isn’t coming to school any more. She has cancer.” The whisper came in that ghoulish tone that kids use when they want to impress their peers with their knowledge of an awful fact.

“She does not,” I said.

It couldn’t be true. Kids didn’t get cancer. I’d never known anyone who had cancer. Gail had been sick a lot that past winter. But lots of kids got colds and bronchitis and such. That’s all Gail had. That’s why she’d been gone so long.

But it was true. Gail had cancer. She missed most of the last couple months of third grade.

And then came summer.

I was absent on the first day of fourth grade, September 8, 1964, the Tuesday after Labor Day. I was sick that day, mostly due to nerves over another school year starting.

That was the only day of fourth grade Gail attended. She probably was quite ill, attending class solely for the opportunity to see her friends. And I missed her. Just a few days later, Gail died, on September 17, 1964.

The reason the date of her death sticks in my mind so well is that my sister was born the next day, September 18, 1964. As our family rejoiced, Gail’s family grieved.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD! Job 1:21 (NAB)

I’ve written before about another death I experienced in childhood—that of my infant sister, Susan Elizabeth, who died two days after her birth in 1960. I was too young to understand death then—I was not quite four.

But when Gail Elizabeth Sullivan died, I was eight and a half. I understood, and I mourned the loss of my friend.

I didn’t attend Gail’s funeral a few days later, because our family was preoccupied with a new baby, and my parents didn’t think it appropriate for young children to go to funerals. But every year about this time, I think of Gail. What might she have become? Would we have remained friends? Would she have continued to bridge the divides between our little girl cliques? I think she might have made a difference in the world—at least in my world.

What do you remember as your first experience with death?

Second Grade Anonymity


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Throughout my first-grade year, I felt exposed. As I’ve written, I was a superstar during my three weeks of kindergarten and in the first first-grade classroom I attended, because I could read and the other pupils couldn’t. Even after we moved and I came into a new first-grade class in November of the school year, I was the new kid, and therefore immediately noticeable. My classmates knew my name far sooner than I learned all theirs.

I moved to yet another school for second grade. Christ the King School was a Catholic grade school, the only Catholic school in Richland, Washington. I was one of 52 students in my class. There were two second grades, so there were 52 more kids in the other class.

At the start of second grade, I knew only one other child—another girl who had been in my first grade class in the public school, who also transferred to parochial school for second grade. A few other second-graders were also new to the school, but most of the kids had gone to Christ the King in first grade and knew each other.

For the first time in my short school career, I was mostly anonymous. Not really anonymous, of course, but it felt that way. I was just one of a horde of children—one of 52 bodies crammed into desks that filled the classroom. Thirteen clusters of four desks each. Only one corner of the room was free of desks. That corner contained a semi-circle of pint-sized chairs and one teacher chair, where each reading group took its turn for reading class.

Our teacher, Sister Joanne Maureen, a young nun who I later learned was in her first year of teaching, seated us all alphabetically by last name, so she could learn our names. She had a seating chart, and she learned our names very quickly. But it took me weeks until I knew all my classmates’ names.

Sister Joanne Maureen had us read to her in the early week or two of school, then she sorted us into four groups by ability. I ended up in the A group of thirteen children, and I could identify these kids by the end of September.

As each group had its reading lesson, the other kids did worksheets on other subjects at their desks. The 39 of us were anonymous bodies during reading time. And as I recall, reading was the only subject in which the class split up. For most of the day, there were 52 of us doing everything.

Even during recess I remained mostly anonymous, because we seldom had planned activities. (I imagine even nuns need a little down time after coping with 52 children.) I roamed the playground, sometimes alone, sometimes with a couple of other girls, trying not to get asked to play hopscotch or four-square or jump roping—none of which did I do very well.

I was smaller than most kids because I was a year younger, though I was never the smallest girl in the class. My smallish size brought anonymity also. I could shrink into the woodwork pretty easily.

But as time went on, my anonymity naturally lessened.

For P.E. we were divided into teams. I didn’t know the rules to kickball, so I clearly stood out then. I remember getting yelled at by teacher and students alike when I did kicked the ball wrong (or missed it altogether).

I also was not anonymous when I threw up in the classroom late one afternoon. That made me very noticeable.

Second grade seemed to last forever. Of course, I had spent my first grade year in three different classrooms with three different teachers, so just the novelty of remaining in one room for nine months probably made second grade seem longer than the year before.

Through the course of the year, I made some friends. One very good friend, but she moved away in the summer after our second grade year. Several pretty good friends, and next week I’ll write the story of one of those. And some friends I continued to have as classmates all the way through high school.

As the months wore on, I discerned the various cliques that little girls have—the smart ones, the popular ones, the athletic ones, the slow ones. With 52 kids (about half girls), there were plenty of cliques. While I could hang with the smart kids during reading class, I was not destined to be in the popular or athletic groups. I ended up socializing mostly with the slow kids, despite my reading prowess. But I knew enough girls to invite for a birthday party in April of my second grade year.

By third grade, I was no longer anonymous. I might not have liked how my status shook out in the grade school clique hierarchy. But for better or worse, it was set. And remained that way through my eighth-grade graduation, with traces continuing through high school.

When have you felt anonymous?

No One To Ask About My Tantrums


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I look like I could have thrown a tantrum

I had to deal with a financial problem the other day, right in the middle of working on the last edits on Now I’m Found, the novel I hope to publish within a few weeks. Turning my mind to taxes was the last thing on earth I wanted to spend my time on.

I wrote in my journal that day that the problem would take a couple of hours to handle, “And I really don’t want to. I feel like a toddler jumping up and down in a tantrum.”

That got me thinking. Did I throw tantrums as a toddler? I don’t remember doing so. I remember being ornery. I remember being stubborn. I remember deliberately disobeying my parents as a pre-schooler. And I remember getting into physical fights with my siblings.

But I don’t remember lying on the floor and kicking my heels against the ground, nor banging my head against the wall, nor screaming out of control.

I know what tantrums look like. Both my children had tantrums, my daughter more often than my son. I’ve seen many other kids in the throes of a full-blown screaming rage when the world is not treating them as they think it ought and they cannot control their distress.

But I don’t remember having this reaction myself.

As I tried to remember, I wanted to ask someone, “Did I throw tantrums as a kid?”

72360158-sld-001-0022-croppedBut there was no one to ask. My parents and grandparents are all gone, as are my aunts and uncles (whom I never spent much time with anyway). I don’t have any older siblings. I’m not even in contact with any close family friends who knew me as a toddler.

I am it when it comes to remembering the details of my childhood. And those details grow fuzzier every year.

I wrote recently about memory, about how our memories shape us and form our self-identity. I suppose the same is true of lack of memory. If I don’t remember my tantrums, and no one else does either, then they didn’t happen. I’m really not sure they ever did, but without memory, it is a certainty that they didn’t.

So I never threw any tantrums.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

What memories do you wish you recalled? (Or wish you didn’t?)

On Glaciers, Goats, and Change


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I’ve written before about the family hike we took in Switzerland in 1998 when my kids were teenagers.  It was a good experience, but far more strenuous than I enjoy. My husband and (now-grown) kids recently took another hike in Slovenia and came back raving about the scenery. I had declined to accompany them, because I’d learned my lesson—no more hikes labeled “strenuous” for me.

But it took more than the 1998 Swiss Alps experience to convince me I don’t do well on mountain hikes. In 2001, my husband talked me into hiking in Glacier National Park. The park is beautiful. I love the calm lakes and soaring peaks in the park. The Going-to-the-Sun Road offers tremendous vistas, with stunning surprises around every corner.

I first went to Glacier with my parents and siblings in 1966 when I was ten (my youngest sibling wasn’t even born yet). We went on day hikes, drove all over, and I saw my first glacier. I went to a foreign country—Canada!—for the first time.

T halfway up to Sperry Chalet

Me, halfway up to Sperry Chalet

My husband’s proposal for our 2001 trip was that we spend most of our time in a real hotel, but take one overnight hike—beginning at Lake MacDonald and climbing to a back-country chalet where we would spend the night, then hike on up to a glacier the next day and all the way down. It didn’t sound too bad, and for some reason he thought I owed him one. (I don’t remember why, but I thought at the time he was right.) Despite my reluctance to undertake another hike after my Swiss experience, I agreed.

Then I saw what the hike really involved—a 3400 elevation gain straight up the mountain over a 6.2 mile trail, followed by an additional altitude gain of 1600 feet in 2.5 miles the second day, and then all the way down. I tried to back out, but I couldn’t do so gracefully.

So off we went. We flew from Kansas City to Kalispell, then rented a car and drove to Glacier. One day we took the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Lake McDonald to Many Glacier and St. Mary’s. We did a little day hiking to acclimate ourselves, but mostly we drove.

There was a bear problem in the park that summer. There are always bears in the park, but several grizzlies had been sighted in the higher elevations near the human areas, and we were advised to make a lot of noise and carry bear repellant. Thankfully, we did not see bears, though deer approached quite close to the visitors’ centers.

There was also a big forest fire in the vicinity. Some areas of the park were closed, though not on the side of Lake McDonald where we were staying. The sky was hazy, but the sunsets were beautiful.

Izaak Walton Inn, where we stayed near the park, was quaint but pleasant. After a night there, we started the hike from Lake McDonald up Sprague Creek to Sperry Chalet, our bed for the night.

Up, up, up we went. And up some more. Every time I thought we were almost there, we had another climb ahead. Finally, we reached Sperry Chalet at the top of the mountain and checked in. Our room was set up for comfortable sleeping, but there was no electricity, heat, or running water in the hotel building. The restrooms were in a separate building—with cold water, but no showers or hot water.

I was tired and ravenous when we reached Sperry Chalet. Dinner wasn’t being served yet, but I bought a snack. After two bites of the candy bar, I felt sick. I don’t know if it was fatigue or altitude, but I crashed. I didn’t eat dinner. I slept dreadfully in our spartan chalet room with the bathroom down the path.

Have I mentioned the bear sightings? How much noise was appropriate to ward off bears but not inconvenience other hikers when I staggered outside with a flashlight at 2:00am?

A at glacier

Husband at the glacier

In the morning, I decided I did not want to hike up to the glacier. My husband cajoled, but I refused. Off he went up to see Sperry Glacier on Gunsight Mountain. The chalet had packed us a picnic lunch. My husband took his half, and I kept mine. I sat outside Sperry Chalet and read a book. When noon approached, I ate my lunch.

Sometime after lunch, my husband returned, waxing poetic about the glacier and the mountain goats he’d seen.

Not to be outdone, I told him, “I saw goats, too. In fact, I had lunch with a baby goat.” While I sat on a rock in the sun eating my sandwich, a mother goat and kid had wandered into the clearing around the chalet. The mother calmly grazed, and the baby goat pranced around. At one point, he saw his reflection in a basement-level window in the chalet and tried to butt it. The reflection goat ran right at him, which stirred him up even more.

The attempted battle continued for about fifteen minutes, until mama goat decided she’d had enough foolishness and took her boy off to the woods, where perhaps they had a conversation about what’s important to focus on in life—such as food and safety—and what is not—such as imaginary foes.

I had a better tale to tell than my husband, though he got a picture of his goat and I didn’t.

Al's goat cropped

My husband’s goat photo

And then we hiked down. Down, down, down. All the way back down to the car. Going down is harder on the legs than going up, though not as hard on the heart and lungs.

That was the last strenuous hike I took. God willing, it’s the last I’ll ever take.

We flew home uneventfully and returned to our routine.

Less than a week later, on September 11, 2001, planes flew into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Flying has never been the same.

We’ve been back to Glacier National Park again. In 2007 a niece got married there.

But for me, our trip to Glacier in 2001 was a dividing point in time. Before, I was an occasional hiker and preferred to breeze into the airport terminal with my carry-on as the plane was boarding. After, I no longer would do any hike labeled “strenuous,” and airports were necessarily time-consuming and stressful places, where it was easier to check luggage to avoid slow security lines.

Before, while I wasn’t as youthful and innocent as the baby goat I saw, the world was a simpler place. After, it seemed clear that the greater danger we face comes from humans than from bears and forest fires, that our foes are not imaginary but real.

Do any trips you’ve taken strike you as turning points in your life?

Now I’m Found—Cover Reveal!


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A year ago, I showed readers the cover of Lead Me Home, the first book in my Oregon Chronicles series. Today I am ready to reveal the cover of the sequel—Now I’m Found. (I might revise the cover slightly, but this is close to final.)

NIF front cover 9-2-16

I’m working on final edits of this book, and it will be published later this fall, probably sometime in October. I’ll definitely post on this blog when it’s available.

This novel has been a challenge, because the plot is more complex than in the first book, with longer and more intricate time lines. Now I’m Found follows Mac McDougall and Jenny Calhoun over a three year period from 1848 through 1850 in both Oregon and California.

But I’m almost finished!

And I’m very happy with the cover, which is derived from Oregon City on the Willamette River, an oil painting by John Mix Stanley, circa 1850, in the Amon Carter Museum.

To follow my progress toward publication of Now I’m Found and learn more about the book you can

  • Follow this blog on WordPress (click on “Follow” on the bar at the top of this site)
  • Sign up to receive email updates in the box in the right-hand column
  • “Like” my Facebook Page, Theresa Hupp Author
  • “Like” the Facebook Page for Lead Me Home  (I won’t be setting up another Facebook page for Now I’m Found, but will report on both of my novels on the Lead Me Home page).

And if you haven’t read Lead Me Home yet, it’s available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Then you’ll be ready when the sequel is published.

Many thanks to readers of this blog, who have inspired me to keep writing for close to five years. I couldn’t have done it without your support!

The Squash Dish


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squash dishOne of our family’s go-to recipes is what we call “the squash dish.” I don’t have any better name for it.

It was either my sister’s or my brother’s family that started making this, and I don’t know where they found it. But once we tried it at a family gathering, my father, my siblings, and I all adopted it as an easy way to feed a large crowd. It’s flexible, easy to double, and can simmer for some period of time while people gather after a long day of vacation activities. It can be made meatless, or with extra meat (the way I like it).

Here is the usual variant of the recipe (I’ll give you my adaptations below):

1 onion (chopped)
2 pounds cooked brats or Polish sausage (sliced)
2 medium zucchini (sliced)
2 medium yellow summer squash (sliced)
2 cans diced tomatoes (or use 2 cups fresh tomatoes chopped)
1-2 cups water
2 Tbsp. Italian seasoning (more or less to taste)
Salt and pepper to taste

It’s easy to remember, because there’s essentially two of everything, except the onion—and I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to put in two onions.

In a large pot, saute the chopped onion in oil or with the sliced sausage until the onion is translucent. Then add in all other ingredients. Simmer until squash is tender (it can hold a while after the squash is cooked).

Ladle over rice or polenta or pasta. Or serve alone with bread.

I’ve found that this recipe (in the proportions listed above) served over rice, with bread and salad on the side, makes a hearty meal that can be expanded to fit a crowd of 8-12 people.

My variation for just my husband and myself is

1 onion (chopped)
2 pounds cooked Polish sausage (sliced) (I prefer to brats, but I’ve used andouille sausage also)
1 medium zucchini (sliced)
1 medium yellow summer squash (sliced)
1 can diced tomatoes
1 cup water
2 Tbsp. Italian seasoning
Dash of pepper (I rarely cook with salt)

Follow the same directions as above.

I made this variation and served it over fried polenta last week. It made at least six servings with lots of meat in each (we ran out of polenta sooner, but not the squash and sausage!). So we had lots of leftovers. I think it could have fed eight in a pinch, with more sides.

If you want a vegetarian option, leave out the sausage and increase the squash, or substitute eggplant and/or mushrooms for the meat.

What’s a quick and easy recipe your family relies on?

A Glossary: Troops and Sports Fans, Ace Guys and Dirt Bags


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troops 1989

Troops, 1989

I suppose every family develops its own lingo, terms they use to describe their experiences together. Our family’s jargon is heavily influenced by my husband’s time in the military. He went to the U.S. Naval Academy, spent time on active duty in the Navy before I knew him, and for the first 24 years of our marriage was in the U.S. Naval Reserves and drilled once a month plus two weeks every year. Our kids grew up knowing a lot of Navy terms.

Not all of the expressions he used were official. Some can’t be mentioned in this blog, though he didn’t use those around our children either.

Four phrases in his lexicon described categories of people that my husband dealt with on a regular basis. Not all were flattering.

Here are the definitions of those terms, in descending order of desirability:

sara about to bolt

Sara, another one of the troops

Troops: This was a pretty generic term. “Troops” were just his gang of followers. Anyone could be a troop. The kids were troops from a very young age, as in “Come on, troops, let’s get a snack.”

Of course, dogs could be troops also. “Out to the back yard, troops. Now!”

There was some affection behind the term “troops.” But my daughter commented recently, “Dad, I never knew if you were calling me or the dogs.”

I usually was not a troop, mostly because I resisted orders, but I was sometimes lumped in by accident.

sports fans 1989

Sports Fans, 1989

Sports Fans: I’m not quite sure where “sports fans” came from. It wasn’t really a military phrase. My husband was not a sports fan. Neither was I, though both of our children grew up to be sports fans.

Sports fans were like troops, though this was a more ironic appellation. It was used when something wasn’t going quite right, as in, “Let’s go, sports fans. We’re late.”

People were sports fans, but animals were typically not.

Ace Guys: Things started to get negative when we heard “ace guys.” Ace guys were the people who did something stupid. They weren’t necessarily evil, just dumb—like the ace guy who ran over my husband’s camera with a truck.

The driver who cut us off on the freeway was an ace guy. The grocery store checker who put the oranges in the sack on top of the bread was an ace guy.

Family members weren’t typically ace guys. Maybe a brother-in-law on occasion, but rarely.

Dirt Bags: We did not want to be dirt bags, nor associated in any way with such people.

“Dirt bags” were the sailors who couldn’t keep their lives in order, so they never got to drills on time. They were often in debt and had an ex-spouse or two hanging around. Maybe an illegitimate child. Dirt bags got into fights.

We didn’t have any dirt bags in our family. My husband would have court-martialed them.

What are some odd terms in your family’s lexicon?

The Vagaries of Mail Service During the Early California Gold Rush


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Grimes ltr San FranOne of the issues I have dealt with in my novel about the California Gold Rush is long-distance communications in the West between 1848 and 1850. I have characters living in Oregon, others in California, and they have relatives in Missouri and Massachusetts. The only way people could communicate over distance was through letters, but mail delivery was slow and often unreliable.

The difficulties of communications in the mid-19th century provides some interesting plot turns in my novel. In real life, it led to frustration, disappointment, and uncertainty, and the same is true in my story.

From California to either Oregon or the East Coast, the quickest way for a letter to be delivered was by ship. But regular ship schedules were not established until about the same time that news of the Gold Rush reached the East. The Gold Rush caused its own complications in mail delivery.

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company was founded in New York in April 1848. Its ships were intended to travel north as far as Oregon, but just as the company’s first ships were launched in the spring and summer of 1848, the Gold Rush intervened, and the ships had all they could do in transporting people and goods between Panama and California. Oregon was only an afterthought.

Mail service was overwhelmed by demand after the Forty-Niners invaded California. According to accounts in A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849-1850, edited by William Benemann (1999), after a ship docked in San Francisco bringing mail to California, the Post Office closed for two or three days to sort the mail the ship had brought. Think of the difficulty of sorting the mail, when the address might simply be a name and “Sacramento City, Upper California”. One man wrote in February 1850 that the San Francisco Post Office had received 95 bags of mail after a month with no deliveries.

Bidwell ltr Sutters Mill

Once the Post Office reopened, men spent hours in line waiting for their mail. One poor man got in line at 5:00am, with one hundred men in line ahead of him. It took him an hour to get inside the Post Office. Another wrote of 600 men waiting in the A-K line, and 600 more in L-Z. Some men paid others to wait in line for them.

I read one account stating Sacramento didn’t even have a Post Office until around September 1849. Stores and fort trading posts served as mail depositories in the absence of facilities under contract with the U.S. Postmaster General.

And mail service was slow and unreliable. In 1850 a letter sent from the East to California in early March didn’t arrive in San Francisco until mid-May—which was fairly rapid delivery for the times. Sometimes ships wrecked with mail on board. In 1850, the Samuel Roberts, a schooner bound from California to Oregon went down off the mouth of the Rogue River in southern Oregon. The Oregon Spectator edition for July 11, 1850, reported problems with mail and paper deliveries in the territory. Mail was supposed to come from Portland to Oregon City twice a week, but there was no contract in place at the time for that route, so the mail was placed on private boats to be forwarded.

us 5c stampToday’s consumers complain about the high cost of postage, but we don’t have it so bad. In the 1840s, U.S. postal rates varied by the distance the letter was sent. In 1845, two mail rates were established in the States, with additional rates for mail sent to the West Coast. Letters sent less than 300 miles cost 5 cents per half-ounce, and letters sent over 300 miles cost 10 cents per half-ounce. Starting in 1847, letters to and from Oregon or elsewhere on the West Coast to the States cost 40 cents per half-ounce. In 1848, another rate for letters between points on the West Coast was set—12.5 cents per half-ounce. Ship fees were added on top.

So emigrants paid 40 cents or more to send a letter back home, in a time when a laborer’s wages in San Francisco were $8/day, with skilled carpenters making $14/day and a blacksmith $20/day. And a man worth $40,000 was considered wealthy.

us 10c stampThe United States issued its first postage stamps in 1847—for 5 cents and 10 cents. Before that time, all domestic mail was “stampless” with the rates, dates and origin of the letter being either written by hand (manuscript) or sometimes in combination with a handstamp device.

Mail service between the coasts didn’t improve substantially until the Pony Express, which cut mail delivery across the continent to ten days. The Pony Express didn’t start until 1860, and it became obsolete with the establishment of the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861.

With all this, it’s amazing that any communications got through at all between the coasts in the late 1840s. Yet residents of the West longed for these letters from back home. High prices and waiting in line for hours seemed small prices to pay for word from their loved ones.

Based on all these historical variables, I felt justified in allowing letters the characters in my novel sent to arrive or be delayed as my plot required. My rule of thumb was that letters between Oregon to California should take at least a month to deliver. Letters from the East Coast or Missouri to the West would take at least two months after steamship service was established, and could take six or more months before then. One crucial letter never arrived. I could point to some historical occurrence to support any of these delivery decisions.

When have you been frustrated by slow communications?

Outlived Its Usefulness: The Reader’s Encyclopedia


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readers enc 20160809_093520Among the books I found when I cleaned out my bookcase recently was a two-volume set called The Reader’s Encyclopedia. These books had been on my shelf for many years, but they originally belonged to my parents. I remember the volumes from childhood.

When I had nothing better to do on a lazy afternoon, I would take one of the books down from the bookcase and browse through it, looking for something to interest my twelve-or-so-year-old mind. The books purported to summarize all literature around the world, and I could usually find something to engage my imagination. I read about classic English novels, important authors in the U.S. and Great Britain, and literature from the Greek and Roman Empires through To Kill a Mockingbird.

In high school, whenever I had a term paper to write in English, I started my research in The Reader’s Encyclopedia. It might only have a paragraph or two on the book or author I had to write about, but it was usually enough to get me started on a topic for my paper. Then I’d do my detailed research in more focused books on that author that I checked out from the library, but at least I had some direction as I read.

I don’t recall when my mother decided she didn’t want the set any more. I seem to remember acquiring the volumes sometime after my family moved into our current house in 1984. Therefore, it’s likely that she gave me the books in 1986, when my parents moved back to Richland, Washington. That was the year that my youngest sibling graduated from high school—no more need for her to keep a convenient reference set in the house.

Besides, the set was out of date by that time. My mother had the Second Edition, published in 1965, so it was about twenty years past its prime when she gave it to me. A lot of literature got published in those twenty years, though of course, anything written about the Greek and Roman Empires, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and a myriad of other authors and their works would still be valid.

I kept the volumes on my bookcase from whenever I received them until earlier this month. The volumes I gave away were over fifty years old. Half a century out of date. I decided I didn’t need them anymore.

In the thirty or so years that I owned the books, I only referred to them occasionally. About once every three or four years, I might pull down a book, mostly out of nostalgia. Of course, I no longer write English term papers, so I no longer need prompts to develop my themes. I simply didn’t use them.

But the primary reason I gave the books away is that they were no longer the quickest means of finding an answer to a literary question. Now we have the Internet. What were Thomas Hardy’s best-known works? Google it. Which writers were part of the transcendentalist school? Google it. What were the major Greek gods and how did they translate into the Roman gods? Google it. In less time than I could pull The Reader’s Encyclopedia off my shelf, I could type these questions into my computer—or even my cell phone—and have the answer.

So not only were the books outdated, they were old technology. They might still contain useful information, but their information was both incomplete and hard to access. It was not a hard decision to give the set away.

Still, I wonder, if I were twelve again today, what books would I browse that would open my imagination to the world that preceded me? Would I surf the net? But could I do so safely? The Reader’s Encyclopedia might have mentioned pornography, but the two volumes certainly didn’t depict it. Experts had curated what was worth knowing and how it was portrayed. The raw data available on the Internet is overwhelming, and we are never sure what we can trust.

I am awed whenever I think about our ability today to access all the knowledge of the ages through a device we can hold in the palm of a hand. But we have also lost the pleasure of meandering through great works from A through L (or M through Z) while nestled in an easy chair on a summer afternoon.

What books did you browse as a child?