Take Me to the Fair

by Taffy Cannon

I started with the biggest in the nation, the Texas State Fair. Big Tex

I’d seen this fair on the silver screen, as it happened, when Ann-Margret starred in the remake of State Fair in 1961. On the last day of school, I took the Rock Island to downtown Chicago, where the star herself was attending the premiere on State Street at one of the Loop’s grand old movie palaces. She was the first movie star I’d ever seen, surprisingly tiny with flaming red hair. I thought the movie was wonderful, and even managed to believe this hot young performer would be smitten with Pat Boone.

When we moved to Dallas in the mid-70s, I was delighted to discover that the Texas State Fair was held right there, in a huge Art Deco park built for the 1936 Texas Centennial, Depression be damned. Here the Fair events were overseen by Big Tex, a man of few words repeated endlessly. From his size 96 boots to his 75 gallon hat, the 52-foot-tall Big Tex was actually kind of creepy, with a hard-chiseled face that made his previous incarnation as a Santa Claus seem almost impossible to believe.

Big Tex burns[Big Tex turned out to be a bad boy of the James Dean/Jett Rink school. He was smoking behind the barn one night in 2012 and burned himself up, sixty years after he first arrived at the fair. His inevitable replacement, Big Tex 2.0, is even larger: three feet taller, twenty gallons more to the hat, etc. etc.]

When I first visited the Texas State Fair, I was fascinated by the exhibits. No product was too minor or obscure not to merit its own state-sponsored booth. Beef, pork, and pecans, of course. But Mohair goats? Who knew? I’d made half a dozen mohair sweaters by then, without ever giving a moment’s thought to where that filmy yarn came from.

And then there were the FFA (Future Farmers of America) and 4H (Head, Heart, Hands, Health) entrants in the livestock competitions.

Livestock is a major matter in Texas, and these kids were damned serious about their animals. I watched in fascination as they teased and hair-sprayed cattle tails into puffy concoctions that looked a lot like the hairdos on their mothers. Their sheep, meanwhile, wore snug-fitting coveralls and terrorist masks to avoid getting dirty before judging, sheep having a tendency to roll in anything that might be on the ground in their pens.

Other competitions came to symbolize fair culture for me, particularly the pride of craftsmanship in culinary and needlework projects. (In the State Fair movie, success seemed dependent on adding vast quantities of hooch to the mincemeat.) I was pretty sure I could compete in some of those events, though the mechanics of entering were always a little fuzzy.

I was hooked on Going to the Fair. How had I come so far in life without having ever attended one? Pretty easily, actually. I grew up in Chicago. I defy anybody to say “Cook County Fair” without at least a snicker.

The next year I went out to Fair Park a couple days before the Fair opened, thinking I’d sell an article about this wacky event to some New York magazine, even though New York magazines were seriously disinterested in my work.

I met a kid named Joey as I walked around, and he offered me a job.

Joey was a carny, with a two-booth operation selling carnival jewelry. I decided on the spot that there was no reason not to do this, which would provide all sorts of interesting material and pay me a little at the same time.

Very little, actually. I talked myself up to $2 an hour, an executive wage in the carnival business back then. I also insisted on being paid daily, which they were reluctant to do because unless you owe your underpaid help money, they have a tendency not to show up.

Perhaps my lowest moment in the hiring process came when Joey’s coworker, who would be my boss on the Midway, asked if I could make change.

“I have a master’s degree,” I told her, a trifle insulted.

“Yes,” she said, “but can you make change?”

The booth where I worked was at the heart of the Midway, between Big Bertha the Fat Lady and the Freak Show, a collection of ten physical anomalies. Loudspeakers touting both ran constantly, though I mostly remember hearing about the Human Blockhead, who drove nails into his head. After about the six hundredth time I heard that recording, I wanted to do the same.

The specialty of our operation was metal pendants and bracelets with your name engraved for free. I am here to tell you that you get what you pay for, though I was never entrusted with that task, being busy making change. It was hard work, this carny business, and I went home exhausted every night.

My favorite of our wares was the Half-Eaten Food Collection, from which I purchased two items: a marshmallow cookie with a bite out of it and a heavy metal apple core, very realistically painted. That apple core, which came on a lengthy leather thong, would make a very effective lethal weapon.

I still have both pieces of jewelry. You just never know.268

When we moved to Los Angeles, I figured my fair days were over, but we discovered that there was in fact an LA County Fair in the eastern part of the county. There was no icon comparable to Big Tex, no Big Marilyn or Big Sinatra. You probably wouldn’t have been able to see their heads through the smog anyway. The thick September air not only obscured the nearby mountains, but seemed to hang in palpable chunks on the fairgrounds.

There were plenty of Home Arts exhibits and competitions, which I always thought I should enter and never did. Radio host Dr. Laura Schlesinger won a lot of ribbons for sweaters with complicated patterns and designs. This conflicted me a bit, since she made these on knitting machines, which somehow felt like cheating.

Still, most of the people at the LA County Fair—particularly in the home and livestock events—were very different from those in the beach towns and celebrity enclaves of the western part of the county. Here jeans were clothing, not a fashion statement, and nobody had to lie down and writhe in order to get them on. Kids had a wholesome look, and they too were spraying and ratting the hair on their heifers’ tails, just like their cousins fifteen hundred miles east in Texas.

I never much took to the LA County fair, which among other problems required hours of unpleasant travel across the entire width of the county, right through downtown LA. After a couple of years, we stopped going.

But then we got lucky, and found the Ventura County Fair. On the coast northwest of LA, this fair was probably no closer to our place in Venice, but there was much less traffic and the scenery didn’t involve backed-up underpasses or eighteen-wheelers.

Compared to Texas and LA, this was a tiny little fair, but by then we had a small child and the reduced size was perfect, helping to provide a far more charming experience. My two-year-old daughter ran gleefully around the barns in a pink romper and we discovered the Swifty Swine piglet races, for which I still retain a soft spot. Once again I felt a yearning to compete in Home Arts, though here I had the excuse of nonresidency to cover my failure to enter.

I don’t go to the Fair every year any more. Some years it just doesn’t fit the rest of my life, and my local fair seems huge because it is, seventh largest in the nation. (Texas remains #1 and Los Angeles is a surprising #6.)

The San Diego County Fair renamed itself from Del Mar Fair a few years ago for reasons that were never clear. “Del Mar Fair” sounds more sophisticated, even mildly exotic—but perhaps that’s the problem. Sophistication isn’t really on the agenda at the Fair, which this year featured $20 barbecued turkey legs, each swaddled in a full pound of bacon.266

The San Diego County Fair sponsored a lot of the same kind of Home Arts competitions I’d seen elsewhere, and I still kept telling myself I should be entering. I still never did, though the urge grew stronger when I discovered the Collections competitions.

Many were straightforward collections of similar items: tickets to musicals, Pez dispensers, shot glasses, Barbie dolls, coins and stamps, doilies, bakelite purses, Wheaties boxes with famous people on them. Others were more whimsical: a year’s worth of junk mail or dryer lint. The ones from kids were always fun: My Little Ponys, Happy Meal toys, dump trucks, Big Bird in every incarnation, trolls, things found on walks.

I began to notice certain entrants whose names were all over the competitions and collections, including a home-schooled family from a neighboring town entered in multiple categories. They were forever trimming Christmas trees, setting special occasion tables, making jams and cookies, decorating cakes, and collecting, collecting, collecting. I confess I found this overachieving household a bit annoying, though I later got to know the entire family and liked them very much.

After Texas, I never went back to a Midway. I don’t like thrill rides and had met enough carnies to be a little uneasy about maintenance anyway. Nor do I eat much Fair food, particularly of the deep-fried-Snickers variety. But there’s plenty else to see.

I like to start with the garden exhibits, which in recent years have leaned heavily toward xeriscaping and succulents as California slogs through its current drought. Floriculture was once a major industry in this frost-free region, and people still grow plenty of amazing flowers here. These are displayed by the dozens in single-stem vases, and I am always intrigued at the notion of timing rose-pruning to produce a major bloom on a certain date. I am generally grateful if I get everything pruned, period. Of course I always think I’m going to enter some of those competitions, though I never do.261

I also love to visit the Gem Show, paying regular homage to a collection of rocks and minerals that so closely resemble food that they used to be set up on a full dinner table. Gems are right next to the Woodworking exhibits, which are also extraordinary, and invariably feature at least one exquisitely crafted surfboard.

I am sad to see that the Collections competitions have diminished in recent years, and a year ago I vowed to finally enter my political memorabilia. Besides plenty of great buttons and bumper stickers, I’ve got a life-sized blowup bust of Ronald Reagan. Put him in a Pat Buchanan t-shirt with a Governator cap, and how could I possibly go wrong?

Yep, this was definitely going to be the year. I even subscribed to Fair emails so I wouldn’t miss any deadlines. And then my daughter scheduled her wedding for the mandatory setup day.

I’ll do it next year, for sure.

 

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Decoration Day

by Taffy Cannon

My grandfather called it Decoration Day, which seemed very old-fashioned.

Then again, so was he, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, which to a child in the fifties felt as distant as the French and Indian Wars. He had been in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the farthest he’d travelled since leaving Mecklenburg, Germany, for Wisconsin at the age of four.

I knew, of course, that it was now called Memorial Day, and the important issue wasn’t nomenclature anyway. It was that May 30 provided a school holiday at a time when we desperately needed one, when the Chicago Public Schools still had a solid month left before closing down for the torpid summer. A kid gets restless after six months of Chicago winter. Continue reading “Decoration Day”

Faux Fun

by Taffy Cannon

When you finish a return with Turbo Tax, you are offered the option of completing a questionnaire about the experience. This has historically been pretty dry, but for 2014, somebody got creative.

“Thinking about preparing and filing your taxes, how would you rate your overall experience with TurboTax?” The answer continuum ran from “Not Impressive” to “Awesome.” Yes, you read that correctly. Awesome.

Another question wanted to know at what point in the process something “delightful” happened. Delightful? My answer, of course, was “Never.” It’s tax preparation software, not a hot fudge sundae.

But I got to thinking about the way people perceive things, and how often we are asked to believe that something is really fun when in fact it is tedious drudgery.

And how we are indoctrinated from an early age, forming all sorts of hidden memories that surface when we become parents ourselves. At that point, we continue the dastardly chain by pawning off all manner of chores on our children when they are too young to know any better.

“Let’s shovel snow!” “Let’s see how many dandelions we can pull!” “Let’s scrub-a-dub-dub the bathroom!”

It’s faux fun, and it’s scary how easily you can buy into it.

 

For the record, my own list of faux fun is topped by exercise and housework.

I have always believed exercise to be the devil’s handiwork, though I do grudgingly complete minimal amounts of it and have actually paid to belong to a gym. It was a women-only gym that was bought out by a big glitzy place with huge plasma TVs playing sports, frequented by buff young hardbodies strutting their stuff. I took a refund on the rest of my membership—had to fight for it, actually, as I recall—in the late lamented ladies gym, and never looked back.

Exercise is often touted as a way to experience endorphins, and for those lucky enough to have achieved that nirvana, I congratulate you. But since I personally have only encountered endorphins on the printed page, I have to agree with the friend who says exercise is only fun when you’re through.

As for housework, do I really need to elaborate?

I recently watched some housework-related related YouTube commercial videos from my childhood. In these commercials, housewives in crisp shirtwaists and perky aprons positively glistened with enthusiasm as they discovered new miracle cleansers. They emulated orgasm with bleach-and-toxin-riddled laundry detergent, sold in boxes the size of Rhode Island. And I don’t even want to talk about what happened once Mr. Clean came on the scene.

I am descended from a long line of indifferent housekeepers and if anything, my standards have grown higher as I age. Also my standards took a significant jump when my daughter become engaged to the son of a health inspector.

But that does not mean that I consider housework fun, or that I ever will.

 

I asked some friends about their experiences with faux fun, and got fascinating responses.

Reunions. Baby showers. Visiting relatives you barely know or don’t like. Tupperware, Amway, Pampered Chef—those awkward gatherings where you are expected to arrive with a checkbook and to feign enthusiasm for arcane kitchen paraphernalia.

Flying.

Then somebody mentioned New Year’s Eve. This struck me as odd until I stopped to think about it. Because both my parents had worked in the Emergency Room on multiple New Year’s Eves, they never left the house on December 31. Which would have been fine, except that I had some kind of Stork Club-based notions about what constitutes proper welcoming of a New Year. (Every December when we watch Holiday Inn, I recognize those New Year’s Eve scenes as a prototype of that fantasy, which has never coincided with my actual life.)

I started making canapés at a tender age with oddball bar and hors d’oeuvre paraphernalia that my parents had received as late forties wedding gifts, but I don’t remember a lot of specific New Year’s Eves. One I do recall was the first I spent with the guy who would eventually become my husband, featuring a bottle of sparkling burgundy and his high school fraternity pin. Another was the college year we drove forty miles in eighteen-below weather to a party in the Chicago suburbs where we knew maybe three people.

After that, matters leap pretty directly to the most recent turn of the century when a dear friend hosted a party to welcome a millennium I wish she had lived to see more of. Mostly, however, I have turned into my parents and never go anywhere, celebrating at home when it’s twelve o’clock somewhere.

The friend who mentioned New Year’s Eve noted two exceptions: “One was watching a Twilight Zone marathon in a nice motel on the southern Oregon Coast during a big storm with my husband and wine and snacks. One was a lobster dinner at your house in Chicago.”

Hard to argue with that motel on the Oregon Coast, but who knew that my family’s idiosyncratic holiday celebrations would become somebody else’s memories? Particularly when I didn’t even remember that occasion, other than that it must have been during college.

And then, just like that, another friend trumped her. “I’ll second you New Year’s Eve and raise you Valentine’s Day.”

Faux fun. Who can get enough of it?

 

When I Was on Jeopardy!

by Taffy Cannon

Believe it or not, I did it for the money.Jeopardy

And it wasn’t much money back then, either. When I was a contestant, Single Jeopardy started at $25 and Double Jeopardy ended with $250. In these days of five-figure daily payouts and individuals who’ve earned up to $3.5 million, that sounds like chump change, but back in 1979 it represented the possibility of buying a few more months to work on what would become my first published novel.

Here’s the key: back then, you got to keep the money you earned, win or lose. Today the losers head home with only memories and the Rice-a-Roni, game show parlance for “parting gifts” listed on a crawl at the end of the show. In olden times, you got it all.

Becoming a Jeopardy! contestant in the new millennium involves endless rounds of paperwork and testing and a scouting roadshow that forever circles the country in search of hidden intelligentsia. I know highly-qualified people who’ve been attempting for years to become contestants.

But back then it meant going to a second-floor office up on Hollywood Boulevard and taking a written test. If you did well on the test, you were called back for a practice session with actual buzzers, and if you passed that hurdle, you were slated as a contestant.

Art Fleming was the host, a genial man who had been with the show from its daytime black-and-white beginnings in March 1964. He was the host when I watched with my mother, back when prize money started at $10 and Single Jeopardy invariably featured a category of “Old Testament” or “Five Syllable Words.”

That first era of Jeopardy! lasted peacefully and successfully through 1973, when a Daytime Programming hotshot at NBC began bouncing it around different timeslots, a process which eventually got it cancelled. The last of that first incarnation’s 2753 episodes aired at the beginning of 1975, after which the time slot was added to Another World, creating the first hour-long soap opera. (When Jeopardy!’s second incarnation ended, another half hour was ceded to Another World, bringing it to ninety action-packed minutes a day.) A weekly evening prime time Jeopardy! ran for thirty-nine episodes in 1974-5, and then the show went dark for three years.

When it returned in October 1978, it was as The All-New Jeopardy!, a name change I had entirely forgotten until I looked it up on Wikipedia. The show was tarted up in an attempt to add suspense, including basic structural changes. Three contestants began Single Jeopardy, but only the two highest scorers went on to Double Jeopardy. Whoever was ahead at the end of Double Jeopardy was declared the winner and went on alone to the Super Jeopardy Bonus Board for a chance to earn more through an absurdly complicated mechanism.

This did not produce suspense, as it happened, or success.

The show got cancelled after only five months, which I didn’t realize at the time. All I knew was that a couple of weeks after I was told I’d be a contestant and might expect a call a few months down the line, Jeopardy! called back, all a-bustle. They were going off the air at the end of the next two-week taping cycle, and wanted all of the best contestants currently in the pipeline to participate in those final weeks.

Was I available?

Well, yes. But while flattering, this was also utterly unnerving. The idea of going on Jeopardy! was scary enough. However, if they really were gathering the best and brightest, I was in deep trouble.

I did practice a bit. I made sure I wouldn’t embarrass myself with anything obvious like state capitals, and I used a Jeopardy! board game with tiny red plastic panels that you slid up to reveal answers printed in secret agent ink on the paper beneath. For buzzing in, you used the same kind of cricket clickers we had for New Year’s Eve as kids. Fortunately I did not need to master the clicker since I was playing alone.

I am not sure in retrospect that practicing with this game was any help. I was also pretty certain of this at the time. But it did keep me busy as the show loomed on the very near horizon, and reading almanacs was incredibly tedious.

There was no online game in 1979, of course, and even home videotaping was in its infancy. The only reason I have video of the experience is that a friend of a friend had cutting-edge home VHS recording technology. It was, after all, L.A.

Art Fleming was living in Pennsylvania at the time, and the show taped in Burbank. Taping was scheduled to run through five shows on Saturday and another five on Sunday so Art could pop in and out of town.

We were instructed to bring five changes of clothing, in case we kept winning, and also to provide five interesting facts about ourselves for Art to use in small talk. This was not easy because my life was rather dull, and I don’t remember what most of them were. One that I do recall was that I had managed to delay the departure of an Amtrak train from Fort Worth in hopes that my husband and cat, arriving at the station separately, would make it on board. (I told you it wasn’t interesting.)

The question Art did ask caught me by surprise. Noting that I was originally from Chicago, he asked how I had happened to come to California. Prepared to discuss Amtrak and my cat, I was momentarily taken aback, then listened with fascination as my voice answered, out of thin air: “Manifest destiny.”

Contestants and their families made up the audience, and I was called for the third show. My opponents were a guy who had just smoked his opposition and a previous contestant brought back because they done him wrong. Judges had too-late determined he should have gotten something right or the other person should have gotten something wrong, so they were giving him another chance. Lovely for him, of course, and normally I am a big fan of justice. But my only thought back then was that each of them had experience that I didn’t, particularly in using that accursed buzzer.

Timing was critical with the buzzer. You had to be careful not to buzz in too soon (i.e. before the window fully opened) because then you’d have a time penalty and somebody else would definitely get in first. But if you waited too long, somebody else would get there first as well. Not a problem if you’re running a category you know cold, but something that can turn on you if you come up against a real stumper.

It was terrifying.

Not only were all these people ridiculously smart, but the equipment was unfamiliar and crucial to success, or even survival. I had voluntarily placed myself in a position where I could humiliate myself on national television in a pseudo-intellectual endeavor, a truly dreadful double-header.

I did nicely on some stuff and made horrific blunders on others. The doctor’s daughter did well on “Human Body,” and the news junky aced “Headlines,” winning money for identifying Patty Hearst and the Ayatollah Khomeini within moments of one other. The woman introduced as “a writer from Venice, California” also ran “Women Writers.” As it happened, I’d just lost a bunch of money on wrong answers when I should have known better, so when a Daily Double came up in this category, I bet everything I had left.

Six hundred smackers.

The answer was “She wrote ‘The Lottery’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.”

Ka-ching.

The Former Contestant had become a former contestant once again by having the lowest score at the end of Single Jeopardy. Shirley Jackson now gave me the jump to catch up with the Returning Champion and tie the score just before our final Double Jeopardy question was revealed. We both knew the answer, but he rang in first and told me later that he didn’t wait to see the question.

And so I was dropped off the boat as The Returning Champion sailed on to the Super Jeopardy Bonus Board. As I recall, he didn’t do very well there.

I wrote the above account of my game from memory, a set piece that has become fairly well established over the years. And I was going to let it go at that, since this was a fond reminiscence and not a term paper. But I got curious, and dug out the VHS tape from 1979.

The criminal justice system, about which I’ve written many fictional accounts, is overloaded with contradictory reports on memory, so I figured I probably had messed up a few details. I knew I had no recollection whatsoever of many categories, and there’d been a dozen. I specifically recalled wrong answers I’d given, but not much that I’d gotten right.

Superficialities first.

The set, which I recalled as cheesy, was actually even worse. It looked like the play stages I used to put together as a kid for productions of “Rapunzel” and “Rumplestiltskin” in our kind-of finished basement. But we were natty dressers.The Returning Champion and Former Contestant both wore stylish seventies polyester with longish curly hair, one white ‘fro and one unruly rebel. The Returning Champion’s white shirt, unbuttoned to reveal some manly chest hair, had a fifteen-inch lapel span. The points of those lapels looked like high-end pie servers.

As for me, I looked impossibly young and smoker-slim, wearing enormous round tortoise-shell glasses.

(A few years ago at a Sisters in Crime conference at Sony Studios, we went into the current Jeopardy! studio. It is gargantuan by comparison to the humble digs out in Burbank, and several generations of glitz more advanced. The chairs were even comfortable.)

As I watched my own competition again, it began to remind me of the description of war as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.  I remembered getting many things wrong, but in reality I barely ever was able to buzz in. The Returning Champion took the lead and played aggressively, and he totally understood how to use the buzzer.  Now and then I’d get in and run a category (I’d forgotten all about “Florida”) and they made expensive mistakes more often than I did.

I was astonished to discover that at the end of Single Jeopardy, I was actually in the lead by fifty bucks, with a cool $700.  I’d also forgotten betting very cautiously on an audio Daily Double that I knew instantly when I heard it. And who could have foreseen how funny it would seem today that Ted Nugent was an answer in the category “Musical Instruments?”

I most assuredly had forgotten that my last correct answer in Double Jeopardy was “Who was Dorothy Parker?” And I should have remembered that one, because as a teenager I memorized every single one of her bittersweet love poems. I once recited “Resume” as my eight lines of required weekly poetry for high school English.

I had also forgotten the significant stretches of time where I sat demurely between two guys who had those buzzers down, wondering if I would ever get to hear my voice again. They were just so damned fast.

And then I finally caught on to the buzzer myself, and made an incredible comeback in the final minutes of the game. When I got control of the board after watching The Returning Champion run “19th Century History” I went straight to “Women Writers” for $250. At $200 I got the Daily Double, and then I moved over into “Headlines” at $250. I was bouncing all over the board from the bottom up, concentrating on the categories I felt confident about, fast and furious. It really was a photo finish, and the Returning Champion and I both look stunned at the end of it, right before a commercial break.

Next up was Jane Russell for the Playtex 18-hour bra, back in an era when women’s lingerie could not be modeled on actual women in television commercials. Liquid Plumr showed disgusted homeowners bailing water out of sinks allegedly chock-a-block with useless Drano.  Other cleaning product commercials were balanced by a portent of YouTube videos to come: a Meow Mix commercial for a contest in which people would submit tapes of their own cats meowing. The cat on camera fiddled with a giant reel of professional recording tape as the rules were explained.

The All-New Jeopardy! was gone after the following week’s shows, and it would be five long years before Alex Trebek returned with the current incarnation in 1984.

How did I feel about losing? Well, I wouldn’t have minded playing again, once I actually had the hang of it. But I had accomplished the mission I set out on and I was satisfied.

I went home with $1750 and the Rice-a-Roni. There was no actual Rice-a-Roni, though I did get $25 worth of Chunky bars, which is way too many when nobody in your household likes them. I also got a little cooler from Kentucky Fried Chicken and some paint. Applesauce and canned soup, plus some quality time with The Rug Doctor. All that Rice-a-Roni brought the taxable income on my IRS paperwork from NBC up to nineteen hundred and change.

There was even a brief coda, as I learned of a game show circuit for which I had now qualified. Networks were hungry, it turned out, for bright contestants to appear on programs which could be won by a persistent parrot. There were even very specific rules about how often you could appear. Since I knew that the questions on most game shows were a lot easier than those on Jeopardy! I found this prospect fairly appealing, at least until I got to my first tryout. There I learned that I am not somebody who can jump up and down and squeal with glee as I identify the river that runs from Minnesota to New Orleans.

When the game show loot ran out, I went back to temping.

I have been fortunate to know a lot of intelligent and interesting people over the years. Several have been Jeopardy! contestants and a couple are five-time champions, which impresses the hell out of me. I even know some people who have been featured in questions.

I also now know a former Jeopardy! writer.

Fast forward a couple of decades from 1979 and my appearance during Art Fleming’s swan song. It’s the turn of the century, and I’m publishing crime fiction and becoming active in the mystery writing community. I meet Jerrilyn Farmer, also a rising mystery writer, and discover that she was a writer on Jeopardy! way back when. And guess what? Turns out she wrote all the questions in that “Women Writers” category for my show, which she remembered clearly because she was the only woman in the writers’ room and everybody thought it was a stupid category.

She also taught me that it is imperative to use an exclamation point in the name of the program, a fact which had somehow escaped my attention. You’re never too old to learn.

So am I glad I did it? Absolutely.

Would I do it again now? Not on your life.

Was the paltry payout worth it? You’d better believe it.

I worked a lot of office temp jobs back then, generally alternating three months of work and three months of writing. That Jeopardy! check bought me three months, a lifetime supply of Chunky bars, and a story that I can still drag out thirty-five years later with relative certainty that somebody will be willing to listen.

Who could ask for more?

 

 

 

The Power of Persistence: Met Her on the Mountain by Mark I. Pinsky

met-her-on-the-mountain-bookby Taffy Cannon

 

The subtitle says it all: “A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan.”

When Mark Pinsky first heard of the death of a young VISTA volunteer in the mountains of western North Carolina, he was just out of college, aiming at a journalism career with a decided political bent. She seemed like a lot of people he knew who had ideas about how to make a better world, and when time passed and her murder remained unsolved, it bothered him.

It continued to bother him over decades to come, as he covered murder trials  (Jeffrey MacDonald, Ted Bundy, and others with more political agendas) as both a freelancer and a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. Periodically he returned to the North Carolina mountains, looking into the death of a young woman he never knew who had been long forgotten. He swung from covering murder trials to covering religion, then moved to the Orlando Sentinel and published such books as The Gospel According to the Simpsons and The Gospel According to Disney.

Pinsky’s visits to the North Carolina mountains became a regular fall event, as he interviewed witnesses (many now deceased) and followed leads that often went nowhere. It wasn’t the kind of obsession that ruins a life, which by now included a wife and two children, but it was the kind that meant one day his son came home from middle school and found a couple of agents from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation sitting at the kitchen table, looking through Dad’s files. With Dad’s blessing.

The journalist had become inextricably intertwined with the investigation. Had in fact become the heart of the investigation.

According to the State of North Carolina, the murder of Nancy Morgan remains unsolved. But as far as I’m concerned, Pinsky has solved it, and that is remarkable in itself. True crime is not a genre where the journalist solves the crime, except on television. And there hasn’t exactly been a continuing clamor for justice. Hardly anybody is still around who knew the victim, or misses her.

I’ve known Mark Pinsky since we were both at Duke, and read this book in manuscript a few years ago. I found it fascinating, but worried that the ending was so ambiguous—true crime demands a resolution, or at least an outrage. This concern also bothered his agent and a lot of publishers. But he kept on revising, hiring editors and soliciting opinions from respected colleagues, trying to find a way to bring this book to the world.

And here is where the story moves into fairy tale territory. A small publisher decided to take a chance, and has treated it well. Publisher’s Weekly made it a Pick of the Week.

Every writer who has anguished that since four agents didn’t like his book he’ll have to publish it himself, or who is certain that the first draft or the second or the third is perfect, or who decides a topic is just too much trouble should be required to read this book.  I was also going to say that anybody who aspires to print journalism should as well, but considering the state of print journalism, it’s difficult to imagine people entering the field with that level of persistence.

Because persistence can indeed move mountains, including the one where Nancy Morgan died in 1971.

 

 

 

The Alaska Taxidermy Shop

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by Taffy Cannon

We found it purely by chance, tucked into a mid-block covered pathway leading from one downtown street to another in Ketchikan, an Inside Passage waterfront town so remote from both the rest of Alaska and the continental US that it might be on another planet.  It had never occurred to me that I would encounter a taxidermy store here—in the middle of the largest North American rain forest in a town that prides itself on excessive rainfall, a lengthy association with the salmon industry and a very nice totem pole museum.

But here we were.

Pelts from all manner of animals were displayed in piles, in bins, hanging on racks. Some were large enough to require folding.

Jackets and moccasins and intricate butter-soft wedding dresses of fringed and beaded leather. Thick fur caps displayed on deer antlers near stern signs forbidding try-ons for photo purposes.  All manner of fish in dramatic mounts hanging on a wall above displays of intricately designed and crafted mittens and mukluks.

Oh, and a whole lot of dead animals, brought back to a form of faux-life through loving taxidermy. The animals stood, crouched, clutched captured prey in their mouths and hung on walls, sometimes clear down to the midsection as if bursting in from the wild.

It was way beyond overwhelming.IMG_0750

We arrived with other tourists newly disembarked from a couple of large cruise ships docked nearby. A man and woman behind the counter rang up sales, answered questions and took care of business. It was all too much. We left, walked around town in light persistent rain and found the soggy totem pole museum and the salmon ladder and the former whorehouse on Creek Street.

All the while, those animals kept marching around in my mind. Or, actually, standing perfectly still in my mind.

So we went back.

20130708_104504This time the store was deserted and the woman alone behind the counter of what was essentially a single large room, filled to overflowing with the preserved skins and bodies of animals.

For the first time I recognized the depth as well as the breadth of this collection. It seemed to feature nearly every creature that had ever walked or swum in Alaska. Birds were underrepresented, usually appearing only in the mouth of a predator.  I learned that the man we’d seen earlier was the taxidermist, father of the woman at the counter. He had gone off to continue  taxiderming, an intriguing notion all by itself. What was he working on now?

Some of his handiwork reminded me of whimsical expressions I’d seen on deer in a game room at Shelburne Farms in Vermont while researching Fall Into Death. Around the same time, I’d learned as much as I really wanted to know about taxidermy from a former student, including the art of expressioning the deceased, and it was enough to make me appreciate that this guy was pretty darned good.IMG_0773

Or maybe he wasn’t.

How would I know, after all? I’d never been in a taxidermy shop before, had only seen TAXIDERMY signs on nondescript buildings in small towns, places where you dropped off the remains of your butchered buck in the back. That was a service for hunters; this was a specialty shop for tourists, offering shipping anywhere.

I should explain that I grew up in the brutal winters of Chicago and now live in a climate where winter wear is not an issue.  I own only two fur items: a bunch of scraps of something dark brown that looks expensive from a church rummage sale, and a black Persian lamb scarf from the estate sale of Gloria Winters, the actress who played Sky King’s niece Penny. (Yes, really.)

This time, alone in the store, we could see the incredible detail and range of what the place had to offer, from a standing bear to a bin of deer antler chunks for sale at nine bucks apiece: “Great for carving, knife handles, even dog chews!”

20130708_104720I also noticed details I’d missed earlier, as well as an omission or two. I have long been fascinated by the notion of animals who put on a white winter coat to elude predators in the frozen north, and was relieved to confirm that there were no full or partial polar bears on the premises. I was also nonplussed that a white Arctic fox had been marked down to $995 from $1400, and fascinated by a group of virtually identical white Arctic weasel pelts at $25 apiece. I’d never heard of Arctic weasels, but it later turned out I knew them by their haut couture name, ermine. It was appalling to consider how many of these tough little critters with the super-soft white fur would be necessary to make a single ermine coat.IMG_0748

As I looked at piles of pelts from everything from beavers to otters to musk oxen, I began to fully appreciate the role of fur-trapping and the fur trade when Europeans were opening the North American continent and inventing Manifest Destiny. I could also see that back in those days before central heat and Polartec it would be mighty useful to have winter garments of fur if you lived in a place that got really cold in winter and stayed that way for months on end. You’d also want some pretty heavy furs as laprobes if you were riding in a vehicle drawn by horses or dogs. And maybe something to drape over your shoulders if  you happened to be riding the horse.

The other things I took away from this array of pelts were a renewed appreciation for the size and scope of Alaska, and a reassessment of what I had previously regarded as an unseemly disregard for preserving its natural wonders. While I might not agree with the philosophy, I could better understand some of the Alaskan attitude toward the environment and regulation from afar: get out of my face, my business, and my life.

Its natural wonders (wildlife included) now seemed as vast as the state itself, the size of which can only be fully appreciated on a globe. It is, after all, a place where most spots are accessible only by small plane and where small planes crash and/or disappear with some regularity. (Cf. Will Rogers, Wiley Post, and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs.)IMG_0770

I wanted something from this place, wanted to support it without participating too actively in the death of an Alaskan creature, but I kept drawing the line. Did I really need fur-lined moccasins for winter in Southern California? How could I buy that sad but beautiful Arctic weasel, knowing that another would be hunted to replace it for the next customer? About the most neutral items in my price range were the deer antler pieces, but I didn’t want one and didn’t have a dog anyway.

Then I saw my answer on the counter.  Earrings, my default souvenir from almost anywhere, crafted into darker-than-amber miniature rosettes from thin sheets of cedar bark by a Ketchikan native.

And so I left with flowers, not fur.