It’s too hot and humid today to write, or even think.
Today my Facebook page brought up a memory from three years ago.
Above is the poster that hangs in the Muehl Public Library. My special book was/is Lassie Come Home. It was the book that made me a reader and eventually a writer.
It took until Seventh Grade for me to discover the joys of reading.
For school, I needed to do a book report and was far from a library. In my mother’s books, I found Lassie Come Home, a story about a dog. Until I met Lassie, reading was just work–my dyslexia was undiagnosed when I was a child.
Finding that book was a blessing. Eventually, I added horse books to my book list. A special favorite was the Black Stallion series.
Yesterday I read a very short piece written by my dad. Today I’m sharing how I used it in my novel.
From my novel Chicken Charlie’s Year
Even though it had been Bea’s idea to beat the rugs, Charlie felt like he was helping Ma, too. He also knew when he was finished with his job outside, his sister would have a cup of hot milk ready for him. That always warmed him up fast.
That afternoon Ma came home with a treat for her children. She popped a pot full of popcorn. “Bernice, Casimir you both were so good today, you each may have your own bowl of popcorn all for yourself,” she said as she handed each an overflowing soup bowl.
Bea and Charlie took their bowls into the parlor. There, Bea switched on the radio and turned the dial until she found music playing. Charlie would have rather heard a western story, but Bea had gotten to the machine first and when it comes down to it his sister was bigger then him, being almost five years older. Now he had to listen to a guy named Fred Astaire sing Night and Day, which wasn’t so bad until Bea started singing, too.
“Ugh, Bea.” Charlie winced. “You sure will never be on the radio.”
“Sure I will.” Bea laughed as she leaned over the big wood radio and sang louder.
Charlie almost choked on his popcorn when he laughed.
Suddenly Bea turned. “Hey, Charlie, want to play chicken?”
“Baloney! You’re always the chicken and I’m always the farmer.” He remembered the last time they played Chicken. He ended up feeding all his popcorn to his sister while she pretended to be a chicken. It had been fun watching her clucking and scratching around the room. She made a pretty good chicken, but in the end his popcorn was gone and Bea went to her bedroom with her bowl still full to the brim.
“Oh, come on, Charlie. Be a sport.”
“This time I want to be the chicken,” I demanded.
“Okay, you can be the chicken,” Bea said. “Give me your popcorn and I’ll feed you.”
Down on all fours Charlie went, crawling around, pretending to scratch for food. “Cluck, cluck,” he said while Bea scattered popcorn on the floor.
“Here chick, chick, chick. Here Chicken Charlie,” said Bea.
Since chickens can’t talk, Charlie didn’t say anything about how the floor was so clean a person could eat off of it. That would have admitted his sister had done a good job and he would never admit anything like that to her face. He just kept clucking, scratching and eating while encouraged him.
“Chick, chick, chick… Here’s some more Chicken Charlie.” Bea reached into the bowl and threw a dozen or so pieces to Charlie’s left.
He went after them, pecking them up almost as fast as they fell, then something strange happened. Somehow a piece of popcorn didn’t go into his mouth; instead it went up his nose. Charlie felt a wave of panic rush through him. He stood up and with his hand over his nose trying to pick the popped kernel out. His eyes began to water as the salt stung the inside of his nose.
Bea grabbed him by the shoulders, stopping him from running around in circles. She looked him over, figured out the problem, then said, “Just close your mouth and blow.” With her hands still on his shoulders, she spun him so he was facing away from her. “Blow that-a-way,” she directed.
Charlie closed his mouth and tried to blow the air out of his nose. Most of the air went out the other nostril, not the blocked one. Now tears began to overflow his eyes and he began to cry.
“Chickens don’t cry, Charlie. Anyway, that’ll only make things worse.” Bea stepped up behind him and put her finger over the open nostril. “Now, blow real hard,” she commanded.
That time Charlie took a deep breath and blew as hard as he could. Finally, with the addition of a glob of fresh snot, the piece of popcorn came out.
“That’s the way to go, Chicken Charlie.” Bea slapped him on his back.
That stung a little, but he felt so much better, he didn’t care, until he got a look at his popcorn bowl. It was nearly empty. That’s when he realized that as Bea fed him his popcorn and she had been eating from his bowl, too.
By the time Charlie realized that his sister had tricked him again, Bea was halfway to the bedroom she shared with Sophie with her full bowl of popcorn. “You sure do make a good chicken, Charlie. Yes-sir-ree. You’re a real good Chicken Charlie.” She laughed as she closed her bedroom door.
Charlie stood in the parlor holding his empty bowl. He had only five pieces of popcorn left and his nose still hurt from the salt. It seemed to him that his ma’s treat hadn’t been such a good thing after all.
My dad was a storyteller. I listened to his stories all the time. Here is one about playing Chicken with his big sister Bea.
This he wrote down for me, but when he told the story he added more graphic descriptions. I hope you enjoy my reading.
I adapted this story and used it for Charlie in my novel Chicken Charlie’s Year, which I sell and can be found at Sissy’s in Seymour, and on Amazon. In the book, I used Dad’s more colorful telling of the popcorn in his nose issue.
Today I’m sharing the first chapter of my novel, Chicken Charlie’s Year. It is set in the Great Depression. Each chapter is a story in itself.
Charlie Petkus squirmed and dropped his pencil. All he had written was: How are
you? I am fine.
hand went to his backside, running his ragged fingernails over the wool of his
stop that scratching.” Bea, one of his older sisters, glared at him as she hung
her apron next to the sink.
can’t help it,” said Charlie. He wiggled in his seat at the kitchen table.
“It’s my new underwear.”
mother came up from the cellar carrying an overflowing laundry basket. Plop went the wash basket onto the
table. “Ya, good you get long johns for Christmas,” Mama said, examining the
assortment of socks and picking out those that needed mending. “You write
tank-you letter to you aunt yet, Casimir?”
still thinking what to say, Mama,” said Charlie.
write good letter. You show what you learn in school and how smart you are,
Casi, that you can write the English. I proud you know to read and write. My
son, the man of house, iz learning be smart American.”
“What about Sophie and me?” asked Bea. “Aren’t
we smart Americans, Mama?”
“Girls good, but Casimir
is only son. With Papa long time in grave, he is man of family.” Mama sagged
into a chair, settling her large frame with a sigh. “Aye-yi-yi, Casimir, you
work hard at wearing out you clothes.” She held up the knickers Charlie had
snagged while climbing over the neighbor’s fence.
Mama.” He leaned down to stroke their cat, Tigro, on the head.
Write.” She waved. “Make long letter. Tell our good news.”
news?” Charlie picked up his pencil. He wiggled in his chair, but he didn’t
scratch. What’s good these days, he wondered. Everyone was broke in their
Calumet Park neighborhood, and in most of Chicago, too. Heck, the whole country
seemed to be broke. He chewed on his pencil, and then slowly, he began to
Dear Aunt Mutzie,
are you? I am fine.
for the underwear. Mama made me wear it to church on Christmas. I didn’t mean
to wiggle. Those long johns are warm and itchy.
diary is good gift, too. Mama says I have to write in it every day or I won’t
get to go to the movies. She says I become smarter if I read and write. A guy
doesn’t need to be so smart to work in the stockyards.
sure 1933’s going to be better with a new president and the World’s Fair’s
coming to Chicago. Some men around here are working to set it up by Lake
Michigan. For us, well, Ma and Sophie have jobs cleaning and cooking for a rich
family and that’s good.
I’ll be writing in the diary every day. Wouldn’t want to miss a Saturday double
feature, if I ever do get a dime to go.
could barely force his hand to write his given name, Casimir. It should be a law that a kid isn’t named
after a relative, he thought. So what
if that relative is old and might leave them some money some day? If I ever
have a kid, I’m naming him Buddy.
only time Charlie liked the sound of his name was when his mother called him in
for supper. Then it sounded pretty okay.At
times like that, Casimir seemed like it had a taste to it—the taste of Ma’s
fresh-made oxtail soup.
He waved the letter in the air.
looked up. “You have envelope and stamp?”
set,” he said. He folded the paper, slipped it into the envelope, and licked
the flap. “Okay if I go mail this now?”
slid into his jacket and walked out the front door. He stopped at the top of
the steps. No more snow had fallen since last night to mess up his sidewalk. Their yard had mounds of
snow, but not a flake remained on the cement. He had shoveled before his mother
had come home from work last night. “Casimir, you such good boy,” she had said
and kissed him on the top of his head. Charlie smiled again as he remembered.
He tucked the letter to Aunt Mutzie
into his jacket pocket and started down the street. Charlie had gone only a
little way when he heard feet slapping the sidewalk behind him. He turned to
see his friend Wally hurrying to catch up.
“Hey, Charlie, where you going?” Wally
“I’m mailing a letter to my aunt. Ma said I
had to thank her for the underwear she sent, even if it itches.” He pulled at
his patched britches and turned back toward the post office. Just thinking
about the underwear made the wool itch all the more.
“My aunt sent me socks.” Wally pulled
up his pant leg, revealing a bright red sock. “My ma says I have to be thankful
for them even if they are an awful color.”
“At least no one can see what I got,”
“I figure if I wear them every day,
they’ll wear out sooner,” said Wally. “Maybe I won’t even give them to Ma to
wash. A little dirt should help wear them out faster, don’t you think?”
“I don’t think I’d want to wear this
underwear for too long without washing it.” Charlie scratched his backside.
“Waldemar,” called a woman from down the
block, in a long, singsong way. As
Mrs. Rolenitis called again, Wally put his hands over his ears. “I didn’t hear
that. You didn’t hear that. I think Ma wants me to clean out the chicken house.
I told her it didn’t need to be cleaned till spring. Some of the guys are
meeting by the hill to go sledding.”
“Sounds good to me, but I ain’t got no
“I bet we’ll find something thrown out
in the alley.”
A horse-drawn wagon plodded down the
street as the boys walked toward the alley back of Aberdeen. The driver, Moe,
clicked his tongue to his horse and nodded at Charlie as he rolled past. It
looked to Charlie like Moe’s horse winked at him.
Wally tugged on Charlie’s arm. “Moe
gives me the creeps. He’s like a vulture circling the neighborhood, always
looking for something to put in his wagon.”
“Ma says that’s how he makes money.”
“Pa says he’s a lazy
good-for-nothin’,” said Wally.
Charlie shrugged. “Seems busy enough
Besides finding a wringer washer tub
with a nice round bottom in the alley, the boys also found Joey and Ziggy. The
brothers had tied a piece of rope to a curved sheet of metal that had once been
the hood of a car. Together they were dragging it toward the sledding hill.
The washer tub went on top of the
makeshift toboggan and all four boys pulled on the rope Joey had rigged up. It
was a job getting all that to the top of the hill, but they didn’t care. The
ride down would be worth it.
Some other guys were already sliding
when they got there. Al and another kid rode flattened cardboard boxes. Shorty
had his old man’s coal shovel, which left black marks in the snow as he skidded
down the hill.
“Let me ride first,” said Wally. “I’ve
done this before.”
Charlie agreed and helped his friend
into the tub. “Ready?”
Wally had to wiggle to get his body
folded just right, but soon he said, “Ready. Give her all you got.”
Charlie planted his feet and gave the
tub a shove. At first, the tub didn’t want to move. Charlie had to get down on
all fours and push with his shoulder. In no time, the tub slid away and down
the hill. All Charlie could see of his friend was the top of his wool cap as
Wally peeked over the edge.
The tub spun around, sending Wally
down the hill backwards. Thump! The
tub hit a bump and flipped on its side. This sent Wally rolling down the hill,
and with each turn he picked up speed.
“HELP!” cried Wally.
“Hop on, Charlie,” yelled Joey from
his makeshift sled. “We’ll catch up to him.”
Charlie climbed onto the car hood
behind Joey, who was behind Ziggy. Sitting way at the back end made the hood
seem a whole lot smaller.
All the other guys pulled on the rope
or pushed on Charlie’s back to get the trio moving. After a few heaves, the car
hood took off down the hill. As it picked up speed, Charlie decided it was a
good thing there were no trees on this hill. This kind of sled had absolutely
Suddenly, they hit the same bump that
had tipped Wally’s tub. As they flew into the air, Joey and Ziggy pushed back,
sending Charlie off the back of the sled. He would have tumbled free, but a
bolt on the hood caught hold of Charlie’s pants.
The thin material let loose with a
rip, but Charlie’s underwear didn’t. The new wool was too strong. Instead of
tearing, it pulled away from Charlie’s bottom, and that’s the way he went down
the hill – on his bare behind, attached to the sled by the seat of the long
“Whoa!” Charlie howled. Snow slid
under his jacket and shirt, but that didn’t bother him as much as the hot snow
his butt skimmed over. He knew it was frozen, but it sure felt HOT.
“Joey, stop!” Charlie yelled. He
cursed in Lithuanian, which everyone understood, but Joey and Ziggy could no
more stop the hood than they could stop a bullet.
Finally, they ran out of hill near
“Help me out,” called a muffled voice
from inside the tub. When Joey pulled Wally free, the boy staggered to the
left, then to the right. Finally Joey grabbed hold of him and Wally stood
still. “I’m okay, a little dizzy, but okay.”
Charlie’s pants and bottom hadn’t done
as well. His pants’ had given way and split down the back. Joey came over.
“Need some help?”
shrugged away from him, pulling closed the long underwear’s back door as fast
as he could, and tugging at his pants. “I’m fine,” said Charlie as he turned to
face his friends. “Just caught my pants.” Cold tickled him through the rip, yet
his behind felt really warm.
“You goin’ home?” asked Wally, who
looked a little green.
“Not yet,” said Charlie. “But next
time, someone else can sit on the back of Joey and Ziggy’s sled.” With his long
johns in place, Charlie reinforced his pants by slipping a piece of rope
through the belt loops. To keep the draft out, he took his jacket off and tied
the sleeves around his waist. For the next hour, he joined in on many more
rides down the hill, but none on the back of the hood.
Finally, Shorty offered Charlie a ride
on his coal shovel. Charlie straddled it, sat on the metal shovel, and held the
wooden handle with both hands. It took a bit of scooting with his feet, but
soon he was swooshing down the hill. Immediately, snow started spraying up the
hole in his pants. The icy stuff also managed to slip into the back flap of his
long johns and chilled Charlie from the bottom up. When he skidded to a stop he
“I better head home. My ma will be
looking for me,” he said. Snow sifted down his pant leg as he turned for
Trying to sneak in the back door
didn’t do Charlie any good. His sister Bea was coming out with a rolled-up rug
and the long-handled carpet beater. Of course, she caught him. Bea always did.
“Charlie, what’s the matter with you? You’re walking kind of funny.”
“Nothing’s the matter.” He tried to
edge around Bea without showing his ripped pants, but Bea was too smart and
“Not another rip? Ma’s doesn’t have
time for more sewing, Charlie.”
“I know.” He kicked at a chunk of
“Are your new long johns okay?”
“I think so,” said Charlie.
She took his arm. “Let me see.”
“You’re crazy!” He pulled away.
“They’re fine. They kept me covered okay.”
Bea stroked her chin just the way
their mother did when she was thinking. “Tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll
sew your pants, Charlie, and Ma will never have to know.”
“Really?” He looked up at his sister.
He knew her well enough to expect a catch. “All
you’ll have to do is beat these rugs for me.”
“Okay,” he quickly agreed.
“Now and every week for the next
“You wouldn’t want me to tell Ma,
“No,” he admitted. Charlie knew his
mother had enough to think about, with money being so scarce. “You don’t have
to tell Ma, Bea. I’ll do the rugs.” Maybe,
he thought. He might be able to get out of beating the rugs if he had something
“Okay. Change your pants and get to
Later that night, Charlie sat down at
the kitchen table and took out his blank book. Mama watched and smiled. “You
man of family, Casimir. You get good schoolin’,” she said. “I like you write.
You learn the English like good American.”
Charlie chewed his pencil and then
December 30, 1932
Today I wrote a thank you letter to Aunt
Mutzie and me and the guys went sledding. Sledding wasn’t so much fun today.
Bea caught me sneaking in the back door ~~~ again.