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National Story Project
With Paul Auster

November 1999

audio buttonHear Weekend All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden and Paul Auster introduce the National Story Project and read stories by Linda Elegant, Phillip Radcliffe and Kristine Lundquist.

audio buttonListen to more tales from Yale Huffman, Terry Williams and Marie Johnson, read by Paul Auster.

Linda Elegant of Portland, Oregon, was taking a walk early one Sunday morning along Stanton Avenue when she happened to see a white chicken some distance ahead of her. "I was walking faster than the chicken," she writes, "so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached 18th Avenue, I was close behind. The chicken turned south on 18th. At the fourth house along, it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment, the door opened and the chicken went in."

Phillip Radcliffe writes about going to an art exhibit at the old state capitol building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1980. After wandering around the crowded galleries for about an hour, he went upstairs to the balcony that overlooked the main hall. Leaning over the handrail and admiring the mosaic tile-work below, he suddenly thought to himself: What an uproar the crowd would make if all the lights in the building were to go out. And a second after he thought that thought, they did. He found himself standing in total darkness on the balcony, and a great commotion started below. Mr. Radcliffe speculates: "Did some part of me know what was going to happen? Or did I cause it to happen? Or was the whole thing just too big for me to comprehend? Whatever the answer, the event that night nineteen years ago has left me without an adequate definition of reality."

In 1949, Kristine Lundquist moved with her family from Rockford, Illinois, to Southern California. She was just a small girl at the time. Her mother, she writes, "had carefully wrapped and packed many precious family heirlooms, including four cartons of her mother's hand-painted china. Grandmother had painted this set herself, choosing the forget-me-not pattern Unfortunately, during the move, one box of the china didn't make it. It never arrived at our new home. So mom had only three-fourths of the china. Often at family gatherings or when we would all sit down for a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, she would remark about the missing china and how she wished it had survived the trip." Kristine's mother died in 1983, and Kristine inherited the china. Ten years later, in 1993, she happened to go to a Sunday morning flea market at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. After a couple of hours of walking up and down the outdoor aisles, she had pretty much seen everything there was to see. "I rounded the corner of the next-to-last row of vendors," she writes, "when my eye caught some china lying haphazardly on the macadam. I saw hand-painted china with forget-me-nots! Exactly like grandmother's china, with the same delicate strokes and the same thin gold bands around the rims. I looked at the rest of the items ... there were the cups! the saucers! the bowls! It was grandmother's china!"
Needless to say, Kristine bought it, and when she told the dealer the story of the missing box, the dealer explained that the china had come from an estate sale in Pasadena, the next town over from Arcadia, where Kristine and her family had moved in 1949. "She said that when she bought the contents of the estate, she had found an old carton stored and unopened in the garden shed, and the china was in it. She questioned the heirs about the china and they said they knew nothing about it, that the box had been in the shed 'forever'
I left the Rose Bowl Flea Market that day laden with my amazing treasure. Even now, six years later -- I am filled with wonder. What would have happened if I had slept in? What gave me the 'itch' to go to the Rose Bowl that particular day? What if I hadn't walked down that next-to-last aisle, choosing instead to leave and rest my aching feet? Last week I had a dinner party for 15 friends. We used grandmother's china. And at the end of the meal I proudly served coffee in those beautiful cups and saucers that had been missing for so long."

Dozens of stories came in this month about household pets, particularly cats and dogs. This was my favorite one. It comes from Yale Huffman of Denver, Colorado, writing about his boyhood in the mid 1920s in the Nebraska town of Broken Bow. As with many other towns in that region during that time, the years immediately following World War I, the Ku Klux Klan had become a dominant political force. "Came the time for the annual parade of the Ku Klux Klan around the town square," Mr. Huffman writes. "Clad in white robes and conical caps and masks with eyeholes, and led by the powerful but anonymous figure of the Grand Kleagle, they strode forth to remind the citizenry of their dignity and their power. The curb was lined three deep with people speculating about the marchers and whispering about their mysterious powers. Then-there came bounding out of an alley a small white dog with black spots The dog ran joyously up to the Grand Kleagle and jumped up on him, clamoring for a pat on the head from that beloved hand. 'Rascal,' the word started around, 'that's Doc Hansen's dog 'Rascal.' Meanwhile, the majestic Grand Kleagle was thrashing his long legs through the robe trying to kick away what was obviously his own dog. 'Home, Rascal, home!' Now the word was running along the curb ahead of the procession. People weren't whispering now, they were talking aloud. Then Doc Hansen's boy appeared and called off the dog. 'Here, Rascal! Here!' That broke the tension. Somebody took up the cry, 'Here, Rascal!' That was when the snickers turned into guffaws, and a great gale of laughter swept around the town square. Doc Hansen stopped kicking his dog and resumed his stately march, but the spectators were having none of that. 'Here, Rascal! Here, Rascal!' So that was the last of the Ku Klux Klan in Broken Bow.
Once in a while some smart-ass kid would see Doc Hansen driving by and holler 'Here, Rascal!' And the small white dog with black spots was kept close to home after that."

Terry Williams Franklin of Oviedo, Florida, was divorced over twenty years ago and raised her son as a single parent. She supported herself by working as a floral designer. An interior decorator friend of hers with whom she sometimes collaborated on jobs told her about a new client she had started working for, a recently widowed man who had just moved into the area with his two children. "She would always mention what a nice fellow he was," Mrs. Franklin writes, "and that she thought this was the kind of person I should get to know. And we would laugh and I would joke that after all these years, 'do you think there could possibly be anyone out there for me?'" At one point, the friend asked Mrs. Franklin to accompany her to the client's house to help with the decorating job, but Mrs. Franklin had made other plans for that weekend and wasn't able to go. A few months later, she learned that her mystery man had married someone else. That seemed to be the end of the story, but then, just eleven months later, the friend reported that the marriage hadn't worked, and the man and his new wife were getting divorced. Not long after that, the man called her, no doubt at the friend's urging, and they began seeing each other. After a courtship that lasted a couple of years, they were married and continue to be happily married to this day. I had come to this point in Mrs. Franklin's story and was beginning to wonder what it was all about. I mean, it was all very nice, but I failed to see anything the least bit remarkable about it. Then she added, "Now the story is over -- or is it? There is one small part I failed to tell you. The woman he divorced and I had the same first name. But not only did we have the same first name, but the same maiden name as well. Now I don't know about you, but I think God had a trainee angel on the job and he made a small error and gave my husband the wrong woman. And when he realized his mistake, he had to fix the situation -- and he did."

Finally this one from Marie Johnson of Fairbanks, Alaska, who works at the University of Alaska library and is in charge of purchasing videos for the collection. As she puts it in her story, "I buy videotapes for a living. Over the years I've seen thousands of tapes. It's pretty routine after a while. Until last week. I put in a tape, a mother and her children riding in the car. The children ask where they are going. The mother replies, 'we're going to Santa Rosa.' I give a mental thumbs-up. After all, Santa Rosa is my hometown. I watch a while checking for sound and picture quality. I eject the tape and put in part II. It's night. A young girl is running down the street. She approaches a house, runs up the steps across the porch and climbs in a bedroom window. I move forward in my seat. It can't be. That is my porch and the window leads into my bedroom. Two girls are talking, but I don't hear what they're saying. I'm busy looking at the room. Window to the right, no closets, the house is too old for that. The fourteen-foot ceilings so hard to find curtains for. I stop the tape, my mind is spinning. This is the bedroom in the house I grew up in. I slept in that room with my grandmother in a small iron bed across the room from her. I eject the tape and put in the first tape again. Mother and children driving along the street. Now they are entering a neighborhood made up of different ethnic groups. Hispanic children playing in the street, a Vietnamese woman reading the paper, black men wearing gang colors talking in an alley. The car turns the corner. I lean forward in my chair. I've been on this street. I've ridden down it on my blue Sears bicycle with the sheep-skin seat, the summer wind blowing in my face. The car pulls up to a house. The mother gets out and climbs the porch steps. A woman comes to the door. Through the screen door I can see the gingerbread along the arch that leads to the dining room. They are in the kitchen talking. Everything is exactly the same. The kitchen table under the window, the big white enamel stove, the single cabinet by the sink. A man steps from another room, my bedroom. He has a towel around his shoulders. He is coming from the only bathroom in the house. My bedroom door has a small oval-shaped knob that is high up on the door. I can remember reaching for it. I strain forward as though I can see more this way. I can make out the side door to the porch where I made mud cookies for my dog. I know just beyond this are the steps that lead to the backyard where I buried the dead bird I found, the apple tree with the swing and my grandfather's garden. In some subtle way I am changed. I can feel the sun on my skin, see my dog's face, and hear the bird singing. In a world where life is sometimes mundane, repetitive, and often cruel, I am filled with wonder."

The National Story Project can be heard the first Saturday of every month on Weekend All Things Considered.