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The Vanity of Ernest Hem (or, Dead Roots Drama) Part One of Two
Of two parts
I had an impulse, when I was nineteen-years old, to become the editor and publisher of a small town weekly newspaper in Stillwater, Minnesota, it turned out to be a little more complex than I had expected. I think inside of most men they think they can be a singer, own a restaurant, or be a small town editor, and I was no different.
Formerly, when I lived in St. Paul Minnesota, I knew a good many newspaper men and women, met them through contacts when I was quite young, seventeen, eighteen and now nineteen. They all dreamed of getting away from the low tone, hustle and bustle of things in these Midwestern conservative cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and owning their own little place, running it the way they wanted to, and writing books in their spare time, or moving onto San Francisco or New York, something bigger, not like a generation before them, when now, the old folks, came to the city, and all they wanted was to own a corner ma and pa grocery store, that’s all but gone now. With change, comes new generational goals, comes new dreams, or perhaps it is just one dream for me, the dream I always wanted, to be a writer, a novelist, and in the interim, a newspaper man, and it all would start at nineteen years old for me, and it was starting.
This so called writer, a want to be writer, wanted to be a good writer, and write short stories, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, novelettes, novellas you name it, I wanted to write it, articles, essays and so forth. Just to write. I asked an author once, “What qualifies a person to be an author, or writer?” and he said, firmly, and stoutly, “He or she’s got to have a lot to say, or write about.” And I suppose now I am acquiring that.
There it is, I said it, in a nutshell, you see; a windy call to the brotherhood of ink slingers, and plot builders, and theme moulders. I am among them, few hear their calling at nineteen, but I did, I really did, not for vanity sake, yet I suppose I had a little of that who doesn’t. I mean it is one of the seven great sins I hear, but was mine any worse than anyone else’s? I’d say no; perhaps an objectionable vice, not a Christian teaching, but not in the bible per se, I had never read it, nothing to put me into the Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ surely not one of the seven virtues also. I did not have the other six, if indeed Vanity is one: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy and pride. Woops, pride, might be the other word for vanity. But I had kindness also, and humility, a raw kind of humility. My mother once said, pride is the most serious of all the deadly sins, and the ultimate source of which all the others arise. She said it is trying to compete with God; Lucifer tried that I mean, not me. I know that is what caused his fall from heaven. Anyhow, I’m talking too much on this subject.
In my own case, I had that impulse; I really, truly felt I did. But I knew I would have to learn the trade, I think that also, my head feels numb, but I will write on: I had to make a living, and this was my main reason to try and get a job as a newspaper editor, and in the process of all these elements, I’d become a writer, because I had a lot to say, a whole lot to say and write about. And the job just kind of made itself available. Almost like genetic manipulation now that I think of it. You know what I mean, like, environmental pollution; it just seeped in, like drug trafficking-it was there, available.
And I did get the job, in the little town-ship of Stillwater, after birthday party, with its deep history dating back to the around sometime in the 17th Century; Stillwater, about twenty-five miles outside of St. Paul.
(The Narrator 🙂 I hate to pop in at such an occasion, but I must explain something psychological, behavior change techniques to improve behavior, such as altering an individual’s behaviors and reactions to stimuli through positive and negative reinforcement of adaptive behavior and/or the reduction of maladaptive behavior through punishment and/or therapy, this my dear readers can all be reversed.)
Just making a living was not really the big issue, because back then when I got the job, work was plentiful in America, and Minnesota above all, perhaps a little better off than most states.
I suppose I felt making a living needed to connect with what I wanted to become, and knowing this I spent many hours at making my living, and writing at night, and trying to go to college, after my nineteenth birthday, I quite college, at the University of Minnesota at that point and time, never heard from them again either, they never tried to contact me, and so I left them be, I had one year behind me, and the owner of the newspaper overlooked having a degree. And I figured since Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner never had degrees, why would I have to have one, I mean I was in good company. Prior to this job, I had worked as a labourer, wandering from foundry to factory, just a common employee, for the most part; I needed money only to pay for my one room apartment, and my college tuition.
The sad thing was, I lost the impulse to write after I took that job in Stillwater, unknowingly why, and my new feelings were simply to publish, drink, try to do my college studies through the mail, Mr. Scriber, the newspaper owner fixed that up for me. Some college I never heard of but it was accredited, and that also took time away from my personal writings, no time for sending out manuscripts of my short stories, and so forth and so on. Oh I did sit at my desk and write out a few stories now and then, less then, than before, and less now than ever before. What I’m trying to say is I did not have much spare time, or sleeping time, cheating my body and mind of rest, for work and socialization. Mostly work and the socialization was with elements of the newspaper. But I was young and wild and like everyone else at my age, which’s to say I was any different.
My employer was naturally unaware of what was going on, because I played the game quite well, my time management skills were good. Or if he knew, I didn’t know he knew, and he was then, or I am inclined to thing he was endearingly sympathetic, with such a fellow like me, but I was growing up. My mother and father had passed on before my 16th birthday, and I was the only child. So I had no one to really keep close contact with but a few friends.
All youth have that edge to be the unscrupulous once in a while, to do the unthinkable, like I did at the party once and drank twenty-shots of whisky, and my friend ran down in his car to Ramsey Hospital, to get my system cleaned out, I remember he had sad eyes, where prior to this he had, or we had joyful faces, or we had something like that. It was like my friends became my caretakers, instead of nurtures. And I wanted to show my appreciation, when we had the contest of who could drink more; funny the things we do to get attention.
My first book a novel, had sold very well, “Formless Darkness,” not sure where I came up with that name, it was in my head when I woke up one morning, just like that, as if someone had planted it there, as if I was under a spell, and the name imprinted onto one of my genes. And now I had money, and I bought myself a duplex, three apartments to it, rented two out to friends of Mr. Scriber, this paid for the heat and electric, although it seemed I was paying for more the electric, to keep the place cool, and the summers were longer and winters shorter. I thought of myself as settling down now, leading the simple life, I was twenty-three years old. Already had published a book, now I could consort with nature, read, and loaf about, as long the royalties kept coming in, and I held my job.
Whatever takes place in my life, I thought at this juncture, I mean with my career as an editor and novelist, I would when need be, do all I had to do to live in this simple, and independent, fashion.
During these years between nineteen and thirty, I was kept busy. It was at thirty-one, I began to pay heavily for my indiscretion, or better put, lack of direction. I was drinking too much, seeing too many lovers, they came to my door, at work, and I had so many affairs one right after the other, I had no time to call my friends, and I had not written my second book yet, had it contracted to do so in a year, the year was up, it was a year and half, six months past the due date, and I was told do or die. Meaning, for an American, grind the book out…I will leave that out for later.
Anyhow, I had to try to do what I thought was the impossible. I guess as I look back now, folks often talk about leisure, I had it at such a young age, I didn’t think it would ever fade, but it does. And to be honest with myself, it turns into laziness, and nobody likes to look at the lazy people, and I was as lazy as the day was long, lazy, lazy, and it was a sinful laziness.
My friend was writing eight to twelve hours a day, everyday, seven days a week, so the postcards said; he now changed from phone calls to postcards said he was travelling too much, all over the world, so he had to write by postcards. I was sleeping those hours away at night, and wake up at noon and partied, drank and well, if I got an hour in to write, I was doing well. Like many writers, I could not write at all like C.E. my friend. What was I doing with Greg Hamilton, my agent, who had the contract in my face every other day? I was avoiding him that is what I was doing.
I wandered through the town-let, went fishing, never did tramp around in St. Paul, or go to those night clubs I used to anymore, stayed in Stillwater. I used to visit my friend in Oakdale, Diane Horn, was going to college to become a teacher, at the time, but we only now talked over the phone; her voice changed from year to year.
My country neighbours talked too much, gossip, so I couldn’t ask for their advice, not like I used to in High School with Diane but she gave it over the phone. They were shopkeepers, farmers, restaurant owners, antique dealers.
These told gossipers, were the old idlers sitting up and down on benches along the street. They talked among themselves as if I was a millionaire; far from it. They thought I was a young man going through life not working, and even suspected me of bring a crook, connected to the mob, or mafia. But if anyone looked suspicious, it was them, not me. I kind of felt I was an open book, not closed.
The thing I suppose I liked mostly was that many of them read my book, and asked, “When’s the next one coming?” So I had forces working on all sides of me, and I asked myself, “How was I to get out of it.”
I do not know how to explain how I felt, but perhaps I can this way, it was the same feeling I had when I was nineteen years old at the party, when I drank those twenty-shot glasses of whiskey: here now, I was living in or near a fat agricultural region, one sits in the cornfields, or the carrot fields, or the wheat fields, or out in his backyard on his grass, you acquire a sense of pulling at whatever is near you, pulling it roots, grass roots, in my case, you see the root, you learn in the country, is really the organ of the plant, in this case grass roots, typically lie below you, under you, under the surface of the soil you are laying on, not always but most often, the root is part of the plant’s body, it bears no leaves grant you, nor can be seen, but it is an important internal structure, if you pull on it too hard, you will kill the plant, if you do not give it water to absorb, you will kill the plant, absorption is a main factor in its life. In a like manner, I was not being nurtured, absorbing anything. How could I write, I had nothing more to write about, as the man had said: he who wants to be a writer, must have a lot to say. I had nothing more to say; evidently I said it all at nineteen. And that is how I felt, as if all my roots were being pulled out of its soil. As if I was not being watered.
As was my policy at that time in living, and running my life at the newspaper, and drinking, I can say most definitely that I have no policy at all other than amusing myself, making the world around me pay, and keeping myself busy. Maybe I only had one book in me. So I asked myself; because I couldn’t, or wouldn’t and didn’t find time for that, to write it.
You should understand, a small town newspaper is not like a big city paper, we didn’t handle any National or International sensational issues, like murders, and there was to rush for the most part, like a deadline. In general, the paper was filled with the comings and goings of the community, its inhabitants, along with: long death notices (or obituaries), marriages, High School commencements, the events at the churches, lodges, and so forth.
I did most of the work myself, the editorial work and reporting. And now at this juncture of my life, at 35-years old, I still had not written my second book. And my agent had all but forgotten me, and only on Christmas did I get a card from him. The publisher sent me one also, saying, “If you ever do write that second novel, it mush come to us, other than that, you’re a jerk,” signed, “the Publisher.” But he was very kind in that, he kept me in mind, and I liked that, in that I didn’t have to go looking for a new publisher, god forbid.
It was now a year after that last Christmas Card, I would be thirty six, come October, the matter of my drinking was brought up at a meeting, Mr. Gene Weatherbee (who lived in one of my apartments at my house), the head of the town council, spoke very emotionally of me, my condition. He said, in so many words: I hate to go home some nights, alone in that big, dark house. It would be alright, he said, if he (meaning me) could have an occasional evening of quiet. On several evenings, he said: “I came out in the hallway, and turned on the lights, Mr. Ernest Hem had invited the devils into his room and they were all dancing, there was a song they sang, but I can’t remember it.”
A counsel member said (the local judge, Judge Albemarle): “You must, Mr. Weatherbee, think rational on what you are saying, and think wisely over your words. You don’t have to injure Mr. Hem’s reputation, just make arrangements to leave.”
“The priest (Father Jose) from the local church said, in a humorous tone, “We are quite sure everyone here would be happier if you leave the house, and be gone, leave poor Mr. Hem, to his business, and see the local psychologist.”
I was of course in shock, thinking: where was I all this time, I don’t remember having parties, and this was all surprising news to me-and his tone of voice increased amazingly. I knew my dignity was at stake, yet the judge and Father Jose, and the rest of the counsel members, all became contributors on my behalf, I didn’t need to say a word, and it made me feel I suppose more indebted to the well-known group.
As you know, Minnesota is a God fearing state. And such thing like what had been said at the meeting is not taken lightly. The voices of my supporters were hot. And I had never been through one of these ordeals in my life. And I did escape this part of Mr. Gene Weatherbee’s accusations.
In the following months, the newspaper acquired 20,000 subscribers, I felt it all was going to be disastrous: too many too much, too quick, so I told Mr. Denny Scriber anyhow, the owner, and that we needed to hire some more workers, and I wanted to get onto my second novel, I had half of it written already. But he had no desire to reform the paper to my liking, and simple said, “I’ll double your pay check.”
“Fine,” I said, but I asked myself: however was I going to escape this editorial master-head. I felt naked, and nailed to the paper, and he said something weird, Mr. Scriber, “I liked your party, that Friday.”
It was all new to me, what Friday was he talking about, and as far as I know, or knew, the last party I had was on the nineteenth birthday. But I didn’t say anything, or ask for an explanation, it was perhaps a mix-wording of something. I had parties in the newspaper room; I stayed at the paper because I wanted to make a living. And he overlooked them, and I did not want to bring that up to his mind, lest he say I could not have anymore female companionship during late hours at work.
As you see, I have got myself into something, first because I was young and wanted to make a living, then found I could not connect the dotes to my writing, thinking I might, by taking this job. It appeared to me, after being at it for so long, I lost the fun out of life. I don’t see anymore writers, publishers, or agents. It is or was, as if the devil gave me a gift, and was slowly cooking me alive like a frog.
I knew if I left the paper, writing stories for magazines, or pushing out enough novels to make a living, a sufficient income to live on, was a dreary life, but so was this one. I had never married, and now had begun to feel the curse of the hack writer; I needed to be alone for two months, solidly alone to write. Having already written a novel, half done with my second, now at middle age but if I left my job would I starve? It was a thought that came to mind often. I felt a needed go beyond this job but I hadn’t yet.
The first half of my book was really kind of hurried; my craft was at its low peak. It was sad, I no longer had the desire to write-that is, not like I had 13-years prior, or even work as an editor. But I felt I wanted to do something more that I was doing something but it was less, not a challenge anymore, but I didn’t know what that something more was about.
I did discover one thing, and perhaps a way out; by reading all the local newspapers and the bigger ones of course, the Minneapolis Star, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I discovered many of the writers in the newspapers nowadays, were very skilful. And some became writers. And some were better than novel writers. And so I would put a chapter of my book into the paper once a week, that way I’d kill two birds with one stone. And who could make a fuss.
This was a new impulse, and I was in close contact with the community everyday of the year. What could any writer asks for. The name of my new book would be, “The Un-industrialist Town.” A funny name, it just came to me as if a bird dropped it in my ear while sleeping one night.
I agree it was a flare-up of labour and desire to get the book done, and I had hands on information, information at my fingertips now. It had been hold-up much too long; it was in a way, to be very ugly the book. In the following months, I wrote everything I heard, overheard that is, from everybody I saw, talked to. I didn’t give names, just accounts, but I didn’t need to everybody knew everybody anyhow. And the paper turned into a scandal like paper, the counsel liked it, but the town folks complained, as I expected somewhat. They had a love hate relationship with it, and with Mr. Denny Scriber.
The town’s folk had said, “Look here, we are in a lovely town, everything works here, good organizations, working women. Interesting people, and now we are getting news of all the little secrets of everybody we know.” How true that was, the book had thirty-nine chapters of it.
Mr. Denny Scriber, he even came up to me on Mondays now and said, “You should have another good party, Hem.” As if it was part of a joke. Again I figured it must be the winsome girls I was having over during my night work at the office.
I was thinking of moving to Illinois or Ohio, or San Francisco, or even Seattle, just to get away. Here was a town, twenty-five miles away from a metropolitan area, and its paper was selling nearly as many as the big city papers were. We even got big soap advertisements in the paper now, and I changed the name of my book, called it “The Shockingly Young, Old and Feeble of a Little Town” now because the last ten chapters talked about all the youth in the town, what they were doing, drinking, and all the corruption no one saw, the girls they got pregnant, the little boys on dope. This was changed during the second edition, as if it was a new book, with ten new chapters in it.
I talked about the poor, from the hills nearby; and I scorned the older ladies for having nervous debilities, and stooped shoulders, and thin legs. I was going out of my mind in this book. And in 1985, my second book was published.
The critics said it was a combination of the terrible with the magnificent. Whatever that means, believe it or not, the young girls of the town, half fell in love with me after the second book came out, and the second edition didn’t phase anyone in town, not really, their parents hated me, but the hate was short lived, and there is always the old question “Make men rise to nobility, so they can see the nobility of its towns people. And pray they don’t disclose their findings,” and in my case, I told them what I saw and felt, they had no nobility, that was the bottom line. But I liked, if not adored the admiration I was getting, stopped going to church, and Father Jose, and never chased me to get back into the any prayer studies or so forth.
The town’s folks were not organized as they thought they were. And the book sold 83,000 copies, the first edition. A shrike flared up starting they called it. And I starting to sell more copies of my old book, signing books, and my old publisher, and agent, were happy as to pigs in a muddy pen.
But the town began to organize, Doctor Headman, was the new city counsel’s leader, the Mayor was my friend, and employer, Mr. Denny Scriber. Somehow it seemed those two did not get along. Don’t know if it is called a bit of characteristic stupidity, or what, they argued over every little thing, every issue, like two devils in a pie, and one wasn’t getting it share. Scriber didn’t like the town organizing, or the labour or the industry, or the factory, and he had the local psychologist-I never did get his name, the priest and the judge on his side, and I suppose he had me. But Doctor Headman was getting everybody else. He told Headman, he was going to throw him out of office.
You cannot throw a man out of town because he comes up with a new organization, or way of thinking, or gets a following. I felt we needed a more moderate, if not intelligent mayor, but I never spoke up, he was my bread and butter, sort of speaking, but I really didn’t need him anymore, somehow I just thought I did.
So here were folks now organized that never were, and under the leadership of Headman.
Scriber wrote in his paper, “All of Stillwater is apparently being organized by Doctor Headman…” Now here is the peculiar thing, he writes, “how often I go to dine at his house, and he has parties, and they dance wildly, as if devils, and not only I but the good Father Jose, and our Psychologist, and Mr. Hem’s friend and international writer, C.E. and our good judge, Albemarle, we were all guests, and saw his devil worship.”
It was all a lie of course. None of these folks, meaning, Father Jose, the Psychologist, Albemarle, protested this, C.E., said he didn’t know what he was talking about, as I didn’t know. Mr. Headman, had to lock himself in a hotel room, the towns folk wanted to lynch him. They had lynched someone years prior, the wrong man they found out.
I still didn’t know my position in life, but I was not the writer I wanted to be, and I accepted this, then I found out there was a secret meeting, among the few elite of the city, again the Psychologist, I could not name him because I had not met him yet nor did I come to know his name at this point-as you well know, but they called him Mr. Psycho, and the judge, the priest, and my boss, and several others, merchants of town, these folks all said to me, most of them that is, said to me, many just wave at me-not saying anything, there was a big meeting to be held in the back room of the newspaper, this wasn’t real news, I mean it was often held there, and everyone that came said to me: “Good party Hem.”
People keep saying that, it is turning out to be an unknown mockery almost, as if they were laughing in my face, somewhat laughing, so I sensed, when they said that.
The meeting, there was no doubt in my mind: this was in connection with Mr. Headman.
I thought my boss would let me in, but he didn’t, he never did, he locked the door behind him. There was no doubt in my mind again; harm was going to come to Mr. Headman. There was a wicked side to all these men, I sat outside and did my work as usual.
I wanted very much to go in there, I saw a few more people, town’s folks that are, escorted into the backroom, and it smelled mildew, dirt like. He never allowed me back there, although he told me it was next to the sandstone walls, old mushroom caves, Stillwater is famous for them, and so forward went the meeting.
I got the impression, Mr. Denny Scriber, my boss, had a hand in everything in town, and the longer I got to know him, the more I witnessed this, he was involved with workers from the: factories, and merchant shops, the local gas station, in classrooms, the older kids. He had girls and even his sisters, come over and go in that backroom with him, I think he was a dirty old man, delicately featured. I had more money in the bank now than I needed, near- $760,000-thousand dollars. I said at one million, I’d quite my job, I even told Mr. Scriber that, and he said, “Well, be that as it may, the games over then,” and laughed, I wrote a note to myself in my diary, here it is:
see Part II
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