Friday, November 28, 2014

Cell Mates, A Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

In the springtime, a young man’s thoughts often turn to baseball, while a young woman is more likely to be thinking of romance.
Eduardo [“Eddie”] Gomez strolled down Highland Avenue with his baseball glove, bat, and ball, thinking about the game his team had almost won. They had lost, but just barely, 4-3. He played well at shortstop, got three hits, but they lost, anyway, to another team made up of eighth-graders like Eddie.

Tess Williams marched up Highland Avenue on this beautiful spring afternoon, with a few things bothering her normally cheerful self: she did not have a boyfriend, her cell phone was out of power, and two guys in a convertible had just driven by and made some wisecracks about her. Would they move on or come back and cause her more grief?

As Eddie and Tess approached each other, they smiled. They were not friends, yet, but were only a grade apart. They knew each other as schoolmates, but not as classmates.

Just then, the guys in the convertible came back and shouted something rude at Tess. Eddie was already about ten yards past her. He frowned and turned around.

“Shall I walk you home?” he asked.

“Yes, I’d like that.”

“We’re they bothering you?”

“A bit.”

“Do you have your cell phone with you, in case you need it?”

“Yes, but the battery is dead.”

“Not good. Not good. I’ve got mine, if we need it.”

The convertible came by a third time, but the two guys were silent. Perhaps they thought that a boy with a baseball bat was not one to be messed with.

“I don’t like this,” Eddie said, “I’m going to call my father.”

“Why? What can he do?”

“He’s on the police force here. He’ll tell us.”

Eddie called his dad and described the situation. Eddie had noticed the kids were drinking something from cans partly hidden in paper bags, and they sounded drunk. His father said not to hang up the phone until he finished walking the girl back to her home.

Just before Tess and Eddie arrived at her house, a police car came up Highland Avenue. The couple did not see where it went.

“This is where I live, Eddie.”

“Nice house. Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“An older brother, Rick, and a younger brother, Tim. How about you?”

“I’m the oldest of three, with two younger sisters.”

“Would you like to come in for something to drink?”

“Not this time. I’m expected at home soon. Why don’t you give me your cell phone number and I’ll give you mine?”

“Good idea.” They exchanged phone numbers and said good-bye.

That evening, Tess excitedly told her parents about Eddie and the kids in the convertible.

Mr. Williams added, “I know Eddie’s father. Good man. I just saw him an hour ago. I wondered why there was a cop car with its flashing lights and a convertible pulled over on Highland Avenue when I came home. I saw Sergeant Gomez talking to two guys in the car. Now I get it.”

“Eddie walked me home. Very nice. I like his looks.”

“Handsome is as handsome does,” her mother said. “You’re welcome to invite him here some time, if you want to.”

“Maybe he’ll ask me on a date.”

“Take your time, young lady. Slow but steady wins the race. What will be, will be.” Her father was in no rush to have Tess start dating.

That night, Tess entered a few sentences about Eddie into her diary. She noted that she and he were more than just schoolmates, they had exchanged cell phone numbers and were now “cell mates.” [Mr. W. would not have liked that term.]

Tess hoped for more. Eddie did, too.


One of our series of 50 instructive short stories for young readers.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Rich Men, Poor Men," Ch. 5, Axtell Memoir BUT...AT WHAT COST

It was a story-book meeting. My friend from work loved to ride horses. I had a car, so I drove her to the hack stable and rode, though not very well, with her. A half-hour after my first riding experience began, my horse ran away with me and the tall, handsome college man working there galloped up from behind and delivered me from certain death! What a start to a relationship! Then, he said, “How in heck (or maybe hell) did you let this horse get away from you?” So much for romance … the man has not one romantic cell in his body… but he did have some other qualities I immediately recognized. And, as they say, the rest is history – at this writing, fifty-two years of history.

He showed up at my door the next day, so I guess something had sparked in him too. I don’t know how he found out where I lived, but there he was. I asked him many years later what the attraction was and he said, “You had very good manners.”  Good manners?  Anyway, the chase was on. We were inseparable… and he did have a bit of the “romantic” in him during the courtship. Not much, mind you, but a little.

I had never met anyone like Ashley before… or since, for that matter. I know I said previously that my childhood experiences dictated my future beliefs… and they did to some extent, but Ashley (for better or worse) provided (actively and passively) most of the finishing touches. We started out with very similar values. We both have somewhat rigid convictions about right and wrong, but our convictions were not prescribed by religious dogma. We are atheists (or agnostics), and dismissive of dogma in general. If anyone can be honest to a fault, he is. I see many more gray areas than he does, but our underlying “truths” are the same. He NEVER lies – I will skew the truth a little to save hurt feelings, but both of us are ethical in the extreme… and always have been. This has been both a blessing and a curse for me. His honesty and his strict sense of “rightness” (almost to the point of self-righteousness) were both an attraction and a problem – especially when we had kids… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dating Ashley deposited me into a wholly different kind of culture – a culture of the rich. Ash denied their wealth, and to him, they probably weren’t; however, to me, they were definitely of a different “class”… and something to be reckoned with! Sure, I had met educated “rich” people before, but never as an insider. His father, Silas Blake (SB), was a big time lawyer in NYC… and terrified me. When it first got around to him that we were dating, my parents received an invitation (issued more like a command) to appear at his home in Staten Island to discuss the futures of the children. “We wouldn’t want them to quit school and become common laborers,” he warned.

Ashley let my parents off the hook, but I felt obligated to obey. Maybe obligated isn’t the right word. In some ways, I was excited to comply. Prior to our going, I had received a large packet in the mail. It contained newspaper and magazine articles about his Supreme Court cases, his family’s history – notable achievements, and famous characters in his life…  it was a large packet! I was duly impressed, but appalled by his arrogance.

I was right to be afraid of the much-anticipated meeting; it was an inquisition. Upon our arrival, SB sent Ash off on an errand and told me to have a seat on the veranda by the pool. I could appreciate his concerns. Ashley had married previously at eighteen and that marriage had been annulled when he was twenty. Then, at twenty-one, he appeared to be ready to leap again. Yes, I understood SB’s concerns, but I found his manner quite deplorable. His wife, Betty, Ashley’s stepmother, tried to rescue me by offering some experimentation with an Ouija board… (WHAT?) Anyway, she said not to worry because nobody paid any attention to SB. (Where in heck was Ashley?!) For some unknown reason SB decided to quiz me on horticulture. I guessed I would pass the inspection only if I could name all the plants in the garden. There weren’t any roses or daisies, so I was cooked! I didn’t fare much better on any other topics he chose either. If he had asked about jazz artists and their music, I might have had a chance, but the words of the Kenyon College fight song were not in my repertoire.

I was eighteen when I arrived on that veranda… and at least twenty-five when we left. I learned a lot… I learned what wisteria looks like. I learned SB was “eccentric” and Betty was “crazy.”  And I learned I needed to save Ashley from this freak show. It back-fired, SB! I think you wanted to show me I wasn’t good enough, but instead, you showed me I was.

I had already met two of Ashley’s three older brothers and his two younger half-brothers. Hal (a lawyer), his wife Barbara (a teacher), and their daughter were a typical up-and-coming family. Ash had lived with them his junior and senior years of high school in Washingtonville, NY. Hal was a little scary; Barb, not at all. 

Dan and his wife, Sue, were the most welcoming. They were relatively poor and not at all intimidating. They lived in a small trailer on some of the farm property, and Ashley lived alone in the (unheated) farmhouse at that time. “The Farm,” as it was called, was 200 acres on Drury Lane, about seven miles from Washingtonville. The house, built in the late 1700s with an addition built in the 1870s, was quite run-down when I first saw it in 1960. I’m sure it must have been very beautiful when SB first bought it in the 1920s before the Crash, but by the time I saw it, the house was in major disrepair: the tennis court was unusable, the barns and out-buildings were losing boards and possibly their foundations, and the fields and riding trails were mostly overgrown. The glory days were definitely gone. 

As I learned later, SB barely survived the Crash, but fared much better than many of his colleagues. I’m told he took a couple of them in at the farm where they played “gentlemen farmers.”  The family has home films from that era, so I did get to see “the lifestyles of the rich and famous at the farm.”

None of the “names” SB dropped to impress me then would be recognizable now (to any but historians), but he did run for Congress in NYC, went on a diplomatic mission to meet Stalin, and was generally surrounded by the Who’s Who crowd. Neither was Ashley’s mother’s family a bunch of slouches. Not that my family were slouches, but I had NEVER met any people with these kinds of credentials. 

Ashley’s mother, Ellen, was an M.D., but didn’t practice medicine. Her aunt, however, had. Dr. Mary went to med school at Stanford, worked as a medical examiner in San Francisco, and then worked as a milliner to save enough money to start her own practice in NYC in 1903. She was an original suffragette and most of the pictures we have of her show her on a soap box… or at one or the other of society’s best costume balls. She, among others, initiated the law that eliminated the word “bastard” from birth certificates; only a birth mother’s maiden name was to be listed, so no stigma would attach to the child. Good for you, Dr. Mary!

Female doctors were nearly unheard of back then… yeah, she was quite the character! And quite the example – an example Ellen followed until she married SB and started a family.

From all accounts, Ellen was a wonderful mother – the perfect and necessary foil to SB’s brusqueness and eccentricities. But she died when Ash was six. Amo (Ellen’s mother) stepped in to raise the boys. She, too, was wonderful… but SB was a lot to overcome.

All agree Ashley suffered the most from his mother’s absence; he just didn’t have her long enough… and once crazy Betty arrived on the scene, he was a forgotten child, left to raise himself. Well, not completely; he lived with neighbors for a while and lived with friends in Mexico for a year or so when he was twelve. I don’t know many of the particulars because Ash doesn’t talk about those years much – certainly not enough for me to figure out the sequence of events. I do know Aunt Trudy (Ellen’s sister) wanted to raise him when Ellen died, but SB refused. I get the feeling he was shuffled around a lot and didn’t really have a place to call home.

There is no doubt in my mind: loneliness was the main reason he married so young. He loved Joan, to be sure, but he needed a family, and the Tuthills provided him one.  My mother warned me that might still be true. Ashley was brilliant and extremely competent in every chosen endeavor, but he was emotionally needy and too quick to anger. Watch out, Judy.

I had one more brother to meet – the eldest, ten years older than Ash. We were invited to Thanksgiving dinner. I didn’t know what to expect… another SB? A Hal? Or maybe a Dan? I didn’t trust Ashley’s assessment of anyone in his family. His take, at that time, was usually quite different from mine, so when he assured me I had nothing to fear, I didn’t entirely believe him.

Wow, what a house! It was a big old colonial surrounded by bigger and older trees. It was beautiful – even then at the end of November. As Ashley parked the car, he said, “They bought this as a fixer-upper. Si is doing all the work himself.” I was impressed. Every tidbit I learned about this family impressed me. I checked my hair one last time and hoped my little black dress was appropriate for the occasion. Butterflies fluttered wildly.

The door was pulled open as we stepped on the porch and a smiling Si greeted us warmly, “Come on in. You must be Judy…  Blah, blah, blah… This is Patty. Blah, blah.”  I muddled through the introductions with a frozen grin and a seemingly empty brain.

That done, I relaxed a bit and shadowed Ashley through the hall and into the living room. The inside of the house was as beautiful as the outside – straight out of Country Living Magazine. Well-oiled antiques dotted the rooms. It was like a museum, but cleaner and friendlier. Everything was perfect – a perfect house with two perfect parents and three perfect children. Even Patty’s apron was pristine. I figured food wouldn’t dare splatter on it.

The usual Thanksgiving hustle and bustle swallowed most of my discomfort. I listened and watched and on occasion spoke, but I never strayed far from Ashley’s side until it was time for dinner. We were seated at opposite ends of the longest table I’d ever seen. I forget how many people were there, but we all fit without touching elbows. Each place setting had too many forks, too many spoons, and too many sparkling glasses. Amazing. They were only in their early thirties. How in the world had they accumulated so much stuff? Auctions!

Bowl after bowl after bowl was passed around and I politely took a sampling of everything except the boiled onions. I don’t remember whom I sat between, but I guess I must have made polite conversation with them… that is, until I tried the green bean casserole. I had a mouthful of it, when I detected onion. I gagged. Oh my God. Oh my God. Please don’t let me throw up. Pleeease don’t throw up! Swallow; you’ve got to swallow! 

I couldn’t. This glutinous half-chewed mass lay in my mouth with nowhere to go. This can’t be happening… I pretended to sneeze and blew the blob into my napkin. My eyes were watering and I was still choking, but all seemed oblivious. I should have known – they had perfect manners too. The rest of the meal dragged on. All I could think about was how to get rid of my puke-filled napkin. God, could this get any worse? Well, it could have, I guess, but it didn’t. Between dinner and dessert, while they were busing the table, I escaped to the bathroom with napkin in hand. I scraped it clean; problem solved!

As often happens during dessert, everyone relaxed. Ties were loosened; jackets came off and postures slumped. The table wasn’t perfect anymore; it was filled with crumbs and spots of wine and gravy and cranberry sauce. Finally – a scene I could relate to. All formality was gone and conversations… well, they got more real too. I was starting to enjoy myself. I liked hearing about the problems and costs of house reconstructions from Si, and labor negotiations from Hal, and kids’ stories and SB stories. It was great… and it got even better. Barb went to the piano and said, “Come on, let’s sing some Christmas songs.” I was there in a flash. I was at home.    

Nothing in my nearly two years of college strikes me as being anywhere near as influential as meeting the Axtell clan. I was terrible at chemistry (slide rule and math difficulties), barely okay at history and good at everything else. The history professor once said, “You didn’t provide many historical facts or connections, but you wrote it so well, I passed you.”  So, seeing the writing on the wall, I changed from a medical lab tech major to an English major. The switch would require an extra two years of college, but it turned out not to matter. I got pregnant, quit school, married Ashley and moved to California in December, 1962. By then, Ashley had quit school to join the Army. There was a draft lottery at the time, so in order to be able to choose his MOS (military occupational specialty), he had enlisted rather than take his chances with the draft.

SB had died by then… otherwise, I doubt Ash would have been allowed to marry me. SB would have found a way – or at least tried to find a way to break us up. Hal offered an “out” (abortion, I guess), but Ash was, and is, an honorable man. Abortion was never considered by either of us. It was illegal, but available… and if I were a believer, I’d thank God every day we never considered it a reasonable “choice”!    

The older I get and the more society changes its rules and expectations, the more I treasure having lived in the good old days – a sure sign of advancing age. I enjoy the flights back – they are fond memories and they supply a perspective younger people don’t have or apparently want. That’s why I am writing this… I want to lend some added perspective to my grandchildren. They, after all, are growing up in a society in which college graduates believe they NEED to go to baby-bathing classes before their babies arrive. How did this happen? There’s a self-proclaimed “expert” waiting to give advice about darn near everything now. 

Astonishing…especially to those of us who have witnessed the accomplishments of folks left to solve life’s ordinary problems on their own. 


Judy Axtell's memoir has been published by Outskirts Press. It is available in paperback from OP, from, and

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Work is Love Made Real, A Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

Father’s Day was coming. Mother’s Day at the Williams’s house had been sweet. What to do for Dad? The kids conspired.

“I’ll give him breakfast in bed,” said Tess.

“I’ll wash his car, “ said Rick.

“What can I do?” asked Tim.

“You could buy him a present,” Tess suggested.

“What does he want?” Neither Tess nor Rick had an answer to Tim’s question.

Rick said, “You’ll sign your name to the card we bought.”

Tim thought, that’s good but not enough. I want to do something special for him.

Mr. W. was out, working. Tim asked his mother. She suggested Tim mow the lawn for Dad. It would save his father the trouble of mowing on that week-end. He would enjoy taking a nap while Tim did the job his father usually handled.

“Will that be enough?”

“Yes, dear. Quite enough. It will show him you care, you appreciate him. He spends long hours away from the family, works hard, and goes out at some odd times, being an Emergency Medical Services specialist with the Fire Department. I wish he did not have to work so hard, but I thank him for it and so do the people he helps. I know he loves his family and he loves his job, so I fully understood him when he told me, ‘Work is love made real.’”

Dad received breakfast in bed, a touching card, a cleaned car, and a restful nap on a happy Father’s Day he never forgot.

One of our 50 instructive short stories, primarily for young readers.

Monday, November 17, 2014

KIDNAPPED TWICE, A Memoir by Seaman and Cooper



“The Lovely Shall be Choosers” is the title of a Robert Frost poem that tells of the unhappy life of a woman born beautiful. Our Kidnapped Twice is a somewhat similar story, a memoir of a woman born both well-off and pretty, whose early life so shaped what came afterward that only her exceptional strength of character saved her. Even now she is in some jeopardy.

I met Mary Seaman (her maiden name) after she answered the ad I had placed in our local, rural weekly newspaper. The ad offered to help you “tell your story,” write your memoir. Having written one myself– Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion– I knew how to do it, if not expertly, and how to get it published, though not for free. Mary had a life story worth telling; it was a match.

We met Friday afternoons for about two years. We discussed the book and we discussed her life; then Mary went home and wrote, writing longhand in two composition books we exchanged each week. I would read into my computer what she had written, do a minimum of editing, and return the book to her the following Friday, when she would give me the other composition book with her week’s new writing. Thus, using high-tech and low-tech, we got the memoir written, and Mary insisted I be listed as her co-author, giving me more credit than I deserve.

Originally, we jokingly named the book How Not to Live Your Life, as it tells how rotten early years shaped her mistaken middle years, which warped her later years. Only recently has she had a less clouded view of her past than when she started to write. Now nearly bankrupt, living on a farm under difficult conditions, she nonetheless perseveres, doing what needs to be done, enjoying her cats and her wildlife, keeping afloat so far.

If “the unexamined life is not worth living,” then examining where one has been and what one has done can add value even to very disappointing previous years. Such insight gives hope that one’s future can be better than one’s past. Where there is life, there is hope. Where there is hope, there is life.

For you, our readers, Mary and I wish that you will find this memoir interesting, informative, even at times entertaining.


You can contact us at:

Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D.

264 East Drive

Walden, NY 12586

The memoir is available from and from its publisher Outskirts Press.

Until 30 November, free pdf efile of book will be sent to you by email on request.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Growing Pains and Gains," Ch. 4 of Memoir BUT...AT WHAT COST

My parents and I moved out to Hilltop Avenue in the suburbs of Newburgh when I was fourteen. Dad’s demons had disappeared (without therapy). We had a car and I (I’m ashamed to say) wanted to move. The old neighborhood was getting worse. A boy across the street was stalking me. To this day, I don’t know if he was dangerous or not, but he was creepy and I was afraid. There was also a new family around the corner – “the red-head” and her two teen-aged daughters. “Red,” it seemed, spent most of her time hanging out her window yelling in the foulest language possible.

I was in 9th grade then, and my circle of friends had changed from the daughters of laborers from the neighborhood to the daughters of professionals I’d met in junior high. I was embarrassed to let them see where I lived. I’m not proud of my selfishness, but I was a teenager with all those teenage drives to “fit in” with my new group.

As soon as I was in junior high, I had started distancing myself from the kids in the neighborhood. It wasn’t a purposeful divorce; it was a gradual separation caused by new exposures and my expanding interests and opportunities. I found new friends, and they provided experiences I’d never had before: an Easter sunrise service at West Point, Broadway shows, museums, and homes with maids. I sometimes got the feeling I was a pet project. I don’t know if I was or not, but these new families certainly expanded my horizons… and made me want to leave the old neighborhood.

My grandparents’ situation hadn’t changed – they had a new washing machine, but they needed as much help as ever. Our moving wasn’t good for them, but it was good for us – especially me. We remained “on call” and new downstairs tenants agreed to help – for money, of course. So, it was okay, I guess, but I really didn’t think about it much. I barely looked back. Life was great on Hilltop Ave. I finally got to know my parents, as parents. It was different; they and not my grandparents were “in charge.” Part of my revelations about them was a product of my coming of age, but I started to learn who they were, and about their dreams and expectations, when we moved. Dad was quite a thinker. We talked about books, religion (he was an atheist), and his music. He was a devotee of jazz, had acquired a huge collection of records, and knew darn near everything there was to know about jazz artists. Music filled the house – always.

My mom was not an “academic” thinker; she was a doer, a very savvy judge of character, and quite the enforcer of her expectations for me. She put me to work at the bobby pin factory where she worked, the summer I turned seventeen. She was determined to make sure I would want to go to college. It worked. Throwing hairpins up a chute for eight hours a day would not be an ambition of mine.

I worked beside another teen. Mary was sixteen and pregnant and we packed hairpins, not bobby pins. Believe me, there’s a difference. Bobby pins have a blob of lacquer on the ends of each pincer; hairpins do not. Hairpins are not pinched together; they are “u” shaped, made from skinnier wire, and are deadly sharp! Unlike a bobby pin, they can draw blood and drive up under your fingernails. (My mother must have been a closet sadist.) God, it was awful. Yeah, we had gloves, but there was not a glove in the world (or at least at the bobby pin factory) that allowed dexterity AND protected your fingers! The solid masses of intertwined little needles were delivered to us in huge drums. Our job was to separate them and pack them in boxes. The mechanism wasn’t very high-tech. It was an eight-foot slanted chute with a catch wire strung about half way up. Ideally, the hairpins would be caught by the wire on their way back down the chute and complete their journey to the packer. We took turns. One would throw and the other would pack until the thrower was ready to collapse; then we’d switch. My mother made her point… and my arms were well-toned by summer’s end.

I got a job at an ice-cream shop after that. Much better! Having been told my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my education, I got a part-time job as a waitress and worked twenty hours a week my senior year. “Thank you, Mr. Johnson!” He arranged all his teen workers’ schedules around our school commitments, so we were able to do it all! I was a busy, busy girl. I sang in three choral groups and sometimes with a small jazz combo and a quartet. I was a cheerleader too. I don’t know where I found the time. Well, one way I found time was to get up really early on school days to do homework. After football season, I usually had Sundays free too. In the fall, I cheered on Saturdays, so worked on Sundays, but after that, I worked on Saturdays and had Sundays free. I could do homework, practice with one group or another (or on my own), and date – whatever.

I was no longer a church-goer. That too, had freed a lot of time. I had stopped going to church when we moved… and never looked back. I was already an atheist, but NOT because my father was. My dad had been admonished by Mom to keep his mouth shut about God and religion – I was to make up my own mind. And I did (thanks, Mom). I had started doubting (without Dad’s pointing the way) when I was about twelve and a regular church-goer. Before moving, I went to Sunday school and youth group, sang in the choir and often went to Sunday dinner at the minister’s house. Church activities took-up the whole day, but by the time I was thirteen, these activities were more social than religious to me.

Remember my obsession with explaining inconsistencies? Well, I think that’s what made me an atheist. It’s a part of me that’s always been there… from “they’re riding ponies because the horses are sick” to “why would God let the children suffer?” Simplistic example, but nothing in the Bible ever made sense to me except as an allegory. I think some people just can’t “believe” – and I’m one of them. My brain won’t let me accept inconsistencies in logic. Neither could my dad’s. Genetic? Maybe. All I know is once I knew reindeer couldn’t fly, Santa couldn’t fit down the chimney, and there were too many kids in the world for him to visit in one night, I stopped believing in Santa Claus… and God, as a creator and a “hands on” manipulator of events seemed just as unlikely to me.

That is not to say all people who “believe” are illogical… they’re not; but, “believing” seems to require a willingness to accept facts not in evidence… and I can’t do that. Everything I “believe” MUST fit with everything else I “believe” – I don’t compartmentalize my beliefs; life is a big puzzle and each piece has to connect for the big picture to make sense.

Besides, some things are admittedly beyond my comprehension – God or the big bang? I can’t get my mind around either. Infinity is another concept I can’t quite get… or Einstein’s theory of relativity. Sure, I can define them, but can any brain actually conceive of something without an edge? For me there’s always that nagging perception that something must be on the “other side” of infinity. Maybe that makes me an agnostic more than an atheist, but I don’t think it’s possible for any human to fully comprehend the idea of God. I immediately think, Well, who created God? Another God? How? Where from? And on it goes. There are always more questions to be answered. So I settled on, “Who knows?”

I think the main events and experiences in my teen years that most influenced my beliefs were my employment at the bobby pin factory and singing with the band. At the time, it was just life – nothing notable or obviously important happened, but both experiences helped dictate my future world-views.

I, of course, had met many different “types” of people in junior high. I had been to the bobby pin factory quite often too, so “colored” people weren’t unknown to me. There was no hint of prejudice in me or any of my family except my father’s stepfather. He was pretty bad, but I can’t say I noticed at the time. It was not something I thought about… it was 1959 in Newburgh, New York, and no white person I knew (except Grandpa Newsome) thought about race. If they did, it certainly wasn’t a big topic of conversation.

The colored people I knew were just like me. I didn’t see any differences between their hopes and desires and mine. The women at the factory were a diverse group ethnically, but not economically that I could see. Most everybody was struggling… working hard to make as much money as they could. Most were on piecework, so they barely raised their heads! Mary, my 16-year-old, pregnant, colored co-worker and I were not paid by the pieces produced; we made a dollar an hour (thank God, because we weren’t very fast). I don’t remember Mary very well, but we got along and I recall having a baby shower for her at work (my mom’s idea). Looking back, it strikes me that race didn’t seem to matter at all – not to me or anybody else. Obviously, my recollections speak to my extreme naiveté! Or maybe not.

When I joined the band, I learned about racism… before that, I swear, I barely knew it existed… the clear results of being a self-centered, ignorant teenager! It took love (and conversation) to open my eyes… AND BOY, did they open! Within weeks of meeting Rod (the drummer, a college man, and colored), I became pretty much obsessed with racial inequality! I had asked him, quite innocently, why he always dressed so nicely. The guy was always in khakis and a button-down shirt. He said, “I have to look better to be treated the same.” He added that he didn’t swear, spoke perfect English and went out of his way to be accepted by white people… because he had to, to get ahead.

I was outraged he had to feel that way… and from that moment on was determined to make things right. My grandfather became a pariah to me… I hardly spoke to him. I fought with anyone who told a bad joke or said anything remotely racial, but, and this is a really big “but”, there were not very many overtly racist people in my circle of acquaintances. I don’t remember any incidents, but apparently, it doesn’t take very many incidents for one to presume there are racists everywhere when you are the brunt of it… or love somebody who is the brunt of it.

Anyway, I was on board… and set out to befriend every colored person I met. I cared! It’s embarrassing to think about how irrationally I behaved. Sometimes, I fear I was downright obsequious, not to those whom were already friends… but with strangers? Yeah, I think I was pretty phony! My heart was in the right place, but I made allowances for colored people I never would have made for white people who behaved badly.

Later, during the riots (in the sixties), I purposely went down to the dangerous part of town to prove I was in no danger from the rioters. Before that, of course, I was in no danger… I used to sing with some of these same people every morning in the auditorium at school. I had performed at benefits where I was one of nine or ten white people in a gathering of two or three hundred… but that was before… before the crime rates and violence soared. Race relationships in the North took a dive in the sixties. Some good things happened legally, but socially – well, not so much! It was a very turbulent time.

Had I not personally witnessed these social changes, I’m quite sure my political beliefs would have evolved very differently. I have a perspective that people only five years younger than I can’t have. They can’t because they weren’t there for the “before and after” comparisons. I was, and those experiences weigh heavily on my conclusions about race relations in America today. I’ll have much more to say about all of that later, but now, I must get back to my life as an eighteen-year-old.

My grandfather, Freddie, died at the end of my senior year of high school. My grandfather’s death affected me deeply; it was a wonder I managed to pass my final exams. It was sudden and emotionally devastating for all of us… not to mention the practical and logistical problems his death brought. Gram gave me Grandpa’s car, so I was able to stay with her when my mother couldn’t. Mom didn’t drive (not that unusual, back then), but I did, so with the two cars, we were all able to go to work and school and help Gram with her grief and with Pa and Uncle Donald. Her friends and neighbors helped too. The rest of that year is a blur. Pa got sicker, was hospitalized and died. I don’t remember when exactly, but sometime, in early ’61. Shortly after Pa died, Donald went in a nursing home and Gram came to live with us.

I couldn’t attend college immediately after graduation because I hadn’t saved enough money, but I worked full-time for a semester and managed to start in January, 1961. I lived at home and commuted to school. It was only the local junior college, but my family was very proud of me. I had done it and was the first in our whole family to have done it, AND, meanwhile, I had met the man I would marry.


From Judy Axtell's memoir, What Cost, being serialized here, published by Outskirts Press, and available through OP,, and other sites.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

How to Get Luckier

"Some people have all the luck." You've heard this said, and there is some truth to it. Not "dumb luck," not pure chance, but fortunate outcomes.

You cannot raise your chances in roulette or the lottery, but you can improve your fortune in life, by following principles described in Prof. Richard Wiseman's book, THE LUCK FACTOR, The Four Essential Principles: create and be alert to opportunities, be optimistic, follow your intuition, rebound from set-backs resiliently.

I discuss the book more at

Monday, November 10, 2014

Massage Message, A Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

“Hi, Mom, how was your day?”

“Fine, Rick, yours?”

“Good, except I have a lot of homework. I’ll be back downstairs for dinner.”


It was the end of a week in May, the Friday before Mother’s Day, nearing the end of Mom’s long nine months of teaching middle school kids. Mrs. Williams was tired. Her feet were tired. Worse, her feet hurt. When your feet hurt, you can’t ignore them. What she needed– wanted anyway– was a foot massage…not the kind of thing you can easily get from your son who is a junior in high school. Even if you got it, how good would it be?

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, Tim. How’s everything?”


Tim wandered off. Mrs. W. did not even mention her tired feet to Tim. How good a foot massage could a fourth-grade boy give?

“Hi, dear. How was your day?” Her husband inquired as he came in.

“Fine, honey. Yours?”

“OK. I’m tired. I’ll take a nap before dinner.”

Mr. W. headed for their bedroom, removing another possible foot massager from consideration.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, Tess. What’s up?”

“Nothing much.”

“Are you busy?”

“Not really.”

Things were looking up for Mom. She might be able to get a foot massage if she played her cards right.

“Would you like to earn a little extra money?”


“Massaging my aching feet.”

We will not go into the details of the rest of their conversation. A price was agreed upon, lotion obtained, feet massaged, relaxation achieved, a daughter enriched and a mother’s aches relieved.

“You’re looking relaxed,” Mr. W. said to his wife, coming into the living room after his nap.


“What’s your secret?”

“Tess’s foot massage. Excellent.”

Mom brought Dad up to speed on the deal she arranged with Tess.

“Next time you need one, please ask me. I’ll be happy to do it,” Mr. W. gallantly offered.

“Tess gave me a bargain price,” she teased.

“I’ll do even better.”

“How much will you ask?”

“Just a kiss…and my services will be free on Mother’s Day.”

That Mother’s Day Sunday, Mrs. Williams did get her massage, Mr. Williams got his kiss, even though he did not require one, and each got the other’s message.

One of our series of 50 instructive stories about life in small-town America.