When the affair ended, nobody in the playgroup took the blame for saying the new daddy in the cut-off jeans had Baryshnikov’s ass. Still, they all remembered Mary Sue Jamison telling the other women, “He’s cute.” The guy waved a hairy black horse fly away and murmured a hello towards the maple-shaded benches where they sat in their faded shirts and snug shorts.

            “Jeez, nice smile,” Peg Alviar whispered. The other four nodded, as if in reply to his greeting. The new daddy in the neighborhood lifted his three-year-old-or-so into the baby swing and started pushing.

            The Romano boys and Peg’s older daughter dashed over to take a look at the newcomers, asking questions while their mommies strained, without looking, to hear the answers. For a moment it seemed as if the Alviar girl would climb into an empty swing and call to be pushed, but the slide won out. The new daddy remained alone with his daughter, a little sweat glistening on his forehead.


            The playgroup met two or three times a week now that summer had started and their kids could not bear being kept at home. As often as not, the mothers gathered in the little recreation park at the end of the two streets that bordered their neighborhood, Maple Lane and Cedar Terrace. Otherwise they congregated at one of their homes, on whichever terrace, unless it rained.

            The playgroup lived in a suburban community—not one of those suburbs that thrive in film and fiction, with manicured lawns and pedicured wives, but a neighborhood in which every budget had to be stretched, ten minutes’ drive from the Metro train between Washington and Maryland. Each of the homes in the Baxter Heights area of Takoma Park centered around a comfortable little two-story postwar house, with an extra room downstairs that a previous owner had converted from a screened-in porch. Each backyard differed from the others, each had its own deck or patio with table, chairs, a charcoal grill and a chez lounge. Every flowerbed dazzled with bright colors, shaded by fully-grown yellow-green leaves.  Every lawn, in its turn, looked a little overdue for mowing, strewn with toys and dandelions.

            Unseen forces created the neighborhood’s demographics. If there had been a public square, it would have been built around a rusting biological clock. Most of the couples were in their late thirties and early forties, though the kids, if they had any, were under eight. A year or two of the public schools sent a lot of families elsewhere.

            Don’t call the women housewives, not in 1997, for Chrissake. The wives, feminists of the soft kind, had put off choosing between careers and children as long as they could. The conclusion was not assumed but thoughtfully discussed and decided that the mothers should stay home for the first few years, rather than find a good pre-school.

            An economy of numbers brought the playgroup together. While they enjoyed a couple of hours talking to each other, the reduced intensity of the mother-child interaction made it restful to sit around with other women, raising an occasional eye or voice as the big kids—the oldest being four—tore all over the park while the little ones giggled on the gym set and the two babies cooed on a blanket.

[To be continued…]  


This story first appeared in Halloween Party 2017.

If my shirt buttons were thinner, I’d have been closer to the ground. Bullets burst around us. For most of fifteen minutes I could do nothing but memorize Miller’s face. I can still see it.

We were eating lunch when the VC opened fire. A can of boned chicken lay splattered beside Miller. Its whitish gray color, its terrifying motionlessness mocked his cheeks.

So Miller was alive. Not that it showed. Even his sweat stood still until the sun dried it.

His nostrils were flared. Miller risked making them bigger so the acrid air might wander into his lungs without any telltale breathing. His pale blue eyeballs were fastened on the three inches between Miller’s locked fist and his rifle.

I saw no change in his face the whole time, except in the little creases between his eyebrows each time a Marine cried out. A steel helmet with a torn cover hid the top of his head, giving his scalp no more real protection than his jungle boots offered his drawn-up feet. His straight jaw was clenched, as if to steel him against the inevitable impact.

The bullet did most of its damage unseen, disappearing through a dime-sized dab of red at the base of his throat and tearing downward. Miller barely flinched. Then his eyes met mine just before they went dim, and every muscle relaxed.

I guess I was luckier. The battle didn’t leave any marks on me that show.


One of the girls on the tour came from Wisconsin, and she agreed to mail the thing from there to collect the postmark, using the Margie Miller address I knew Dad had used. When I got home, I spoke not a word about musical toilet paper holders.

August 1959. School would start soon and I slept late when I still could. I heard Mom get off the phone and come into my room. “I just talked with Dad,” she said. “Mrs. Miller told him she got a package from Northern Tissue. Some kind of musical toilet paper holder. Mrs. Miller thinks it’s worth something.”

“Yeah, five bucks from a high school kid.” I sat up and told Mom the whole story. She loved it, calling Dad right back and suggesting he ask Mrs. Miller to bring the thing to work the next day so he could heft it home and show it to us.

The following afternoon my magical device arrived in a shopping bag with Dad. Having tipped my brother off before Dad got there, we gathered round the kitchen table. Imaginary drumroll. He hoisted the musical toilet paper holder out of the sack and set it down, turning the paper roller so it played its mawkish, perfect tune. We stood transfixed.

Then Mom, poker-faced, turned to me and said, “I thought you told me it had a strawberry painted on it. That’s more of a clover.”

Dad’s eyebrows pinched.

“Guess you’re right,” I answered. Then I spurted out a laugh, and so did Mom and Ter. And then Dad.

I got him. Forget seeing London, Paris and Rome. Greatest triumph of my life.

That far.

                                                                THE END


A guy you’ve never seen before walks in the front door of your home, behind an icy wind. You know three, maybe four, facts about him, but that’s all. Annapolis graduate, survived Pearl Harbor a decade or so earlier. At some point, he hands you a package, heavy as a brick, wrapped as a Christmas gift. You weren’t expecting anything from your dad’s distant uncle, but nobody tells a day-dreaming boy of nine or ten anything.

I realized when Uncle Don and his wife Peg gave me the present that it was a book. By that age I spent much of my free time reading, loved it. Golden Books lay behind me, and I’d graduated to more mature stuff—the Billy and Blaze stories about a kid with my name and his horse being my favorites. The new one from Uncle Don and Aunt Peg, Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels, weighed in at a full pound and 315 pages, with innumerable photos and maps. For kids! 

Nowadays, the writer, Richard Halliburton, is described as “an American travel writer,” but he called himself an adventurer and author. He crossed the Alps on an elephant, swam the Hellespont and the Panama Canal, flew and sailed everywhere. On one of his early flights around the world, he took the first aerial photo of Mount Everest, standing in the back seat of an open cockpit biplane. Halliburton disappeared into a typhoon at 39 in 1939 while trying to sail a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco. But he left his mark on me

Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels takes two imaginary kids of indeterminate ages on a globe-girding exploration of wonders made by humans or forged by nature, with Halliburton as your tour guide. You—because it’s always “you”—follow a series of maps so you know where each place fits into the planet. The key is the stories, everything in stories: how the Grand Canyon or the Empire State Building was formed, the reach of Rome shown in its structures and told in human stories of its thousand years of power. Or how a ruler built the moon-white Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his beloved wife. Stories of dangerous adventure, like when Halliburton searched the lower levels of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine where he hoped to find the Ark of the Covenant, and wound up fleeing. 

The book is jammed with sharp black-and-white photos of all the places, the castle town Carcasonne in France and California’s breathtaking Yosemite among the most stirring. Photographs of ruins are generally augmented with early drawings. Your guide shows and tells you everything, with good humor, respect for differing backgrounds and a sense of place. 

Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels gave me a wide world, full of wonder, adventure and storytelling. I told tales as a kid, made things up, read heroic fiction, took up camping and canoeing. At 16, I was a foreign correspondent touring Europe. I marched in Washington and stood at the Lincoln Memorial for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I fought as a paratrooper in Vietnam and I faced the Ohio National Guard’s rifles in 1970. These campaigns gave me the courage to marry the woman of my dreams and adopt a baby girl in Russia. 

And to write.

Let’s go adventuring!

Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels


July 1959. I’d won a place on a 6-week tour of Europe in an essay competition. The day our buses roared into Geneva, we got mail from home. During suppertime at our 1800s hotel, I started showing some of the kids Dad’s letter. Explaining that he’d finally done the deed we’d discussed (and neglected to mention to Mom), sending labels and coins with his secretary’s return address, he enclosed a carbon copy:

Dear Northern Tissue Company,

I am enclosing two Northern Tissue Paper wrappers and 25¢ for the musical toilet paper holder offer advertised on The Barney Bean Show. My bathroom is blue.

                                                Sincerely yours, 

                                                            Margie Miller

The guys who read it laughed, the girls tee-heed, and Dwayne Johnson from Dubuque sang out, “Hey, I saw one of those this afternoon in the cuckoo clock shop a block from here.”

It cost me five bucks. Painted white, it sported some stylized leaves and a strawberry. A spring connected the music box to the paper roller. When you tugged it, you got a tinkly tune. I’d hoped to find “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but happily settled for the popular German ditty “Oh, Meine Papa.”


Mom should’ve known better than to check into a hospital for an issue less than life or death. She left Dad, my ninth-grade brother Terry and me, a high school junior, without adult supervision overnight. Barney Burton began his journey that single unguarded evening. 

Our Dad, one of the first members of the Tower Club scholarship barracks under Ohio State’s old horseshoe stadium, became a master of the practical joke. We’d grown up on tales of his dorm-mates searching a huge pile for their own shoes, or an accounting major raising his fist and saying “Down with communism” before sitting in an unknown class. Neighbors opened their car trunks to find a disconnected urinal smiling up at them. Christmas cards signed “Sue and Dave” mystified car pool buddies all through the holidays.

In 1959, you could still win cash or valuable prizes in corporate contests involving creativity. Trips, power tools, freezers. Dad had just won two electric dryers from Toledo Electric for composing catchy slogans. He and Ter and I sat on the sectional sofa in the living room of our ranch-style home, joking around about silly contests, irritating jingles and dumb commercials. I’m the one who brought up toilet paper.

“Got to say ‘bathroom tissue,’” I complained. “You can’t hint what it’s used for. They show babies rubbing their fool faces with it. Harps play to tell you it’s soft.” Who cared about babies?

Dad chuckled. “At least they don’t ask you for slogans about toilet paper. No contests for a family tour of the Northern Tissue mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin.”

“No,” Ter chimed in, “but they’d probably give you some junky gizmo for two wrappers and a quarter.”

“Imagine some local promotion,” Dad mused, “on a made-up TV show the company never heard of.” 

My turn. “The Barney Burton Show.”

“Oh, man,” Ter chimed in. “Junior executives flapping their arms and wondering who screwed up.”

We all laughed and tossed in ideas for worthless prizes. The ones with some functional connection to “bathroom tiss-you” seemed far-fetched. I’d just finished reading something in which a well-to-do joker had the seat in his guest lavatory rigged to play the National Anthem if you sat on it. “A musical toilet paper holder,” I said.

Two months later a letter reached the Swiss Alps. (to be continued….)


What’s so ominous about the comment, “Martin’s Neck appeared to be a little different from any other town of its time”? The shadows deepen just a bit, though the place lies between comfortable and prosperous. Marc Steadman, the narrator of David Dutton’s novel, One of the Madding Crowd, introduces himself in 1957, at the age of ten. Marc lets us know, even before me meet his lifelong friends Tom Powell and Fredrika “Freddie” Clifton, that he is mad, though he routinely hides it as part of the charade their families have fixed upon their lives. 

The half-century saga, its title an allusion to Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, provide the richness in characters and setting I expected from a seasoned writer. Dutton, known along the Eastern Seaboard for tantalizing short stories, plots the tale deftly, taking the comrades, their classmates and their kin through the years. As a historian, I savored the manner in which the author ripened the characters, and indeed their snug Delaware town, each chapter keen in its particular time. And the madness, binding the decades with razor-edged ivy—well, that’s what flips the pages, sheets lit by a thunderstorm. 

David Dutton

One of the Madding Crowd


Oh the Fox Went Out


Oh the fox went out on a chilly night,
he prayed to the Moon to give him light,
he had many a mile to go that night
before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o,
he had many a mile to go that night
before he reached the town-o.

He ran till he came to a great big bin
where the ducks and the geese were kept therein.
He said, “One of you critters gonna grease my chin
before I leave this town-o, town-o, town-o,
one of you critters gonna grease my chin
before I leave this town-o.”

Well, he grabbed the grey goose by the neck,
and threw the gray goose behind his back;
he didn’t mind the quack, quack, quack,
and their legs all dangling down-o, down-o, down-o,
he didn’t mind the quack, quack, quack,
and their legs all dangling down-o.

Old Mother Pitter Patter jumped out of bed,
out of the window she poked her head,
Crying, “John, John! The grey goose is gone
and the fox is on the town-o, town-o, town-o!”
Crying, “John, John, the grey goose is gone
and the fox is on the town-o!”

Then John he ran to the top of the hill,
blew his horn both loud and shrill.
The fox he said, “I’d better run with my kill
He’ll soon be on my trail-o, trail-o, trail-o.”
The fox he said, “I’d better run with my kill
Cause they’ll soon be on my trail-o.”

He ran till he came to his cozy den.
There were the little ones eight, nine, ten
They said, “Daddy, Daddy, better go back again,
’cause it must be a mighty fine town-o, town-o, town-o!”
They said, “Daddy, Daddy, better go back again,
’cause it must be a mighty fine town-o.”

Oh he gave the gray goose to his wife
who cut it up with his carving knife.
They never had such a feast in their life
and the little ones chewed on the bones-o, bones-o, bones-o,
they never had such a feast in their life
and the little ones chewed on the bones-o.

The Fox