The Solstice Train: A Carding Chronicle

SH-Solstice train storyYou can always tell when Andy Cooper is winding up to tell a story.

Drink in hand (just in case his throat gets dry), he settles into the room’s best chair (one of the benefits of being a storyteller is that others give way to your personal comfort), and waits for quiet to settle over his audience.

The story he tells about his great-grandfather’s ride home on a rather sketchy train has become an integral part of the Progressive Tree-Trimming Party that happens every December in Carding, Vermont. One year, his brother Charlie took notes during Andy’s telling, and then wrote the story up in a little book that gets sold in Cooper’s General Store during the holiday season.

We thought you’d enjoy it too.

Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. Carding is the small town (population 3,700 or so) that no one can seem to find on a map of the Green Mountain State. You’ll find information about the four Carding novels after the story.

And don’t forget to subscribe to the Chronicles. When you do, Carding stories are shipped right to your inbox.

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Wallace Cooper was the eldest child in the third generation of the family who own and run the general store in the center of Carding, Vermont.

He was a quiet man, one not given to open displays of affection.

Except when it came to his wife, Annie.

She made his eyes sparkle.

Wallace and Annie always wanted a big family—at least four children—but the beginning of that path was star-crossed for this deeply-in-love couple.

No matter how much pleasure they took in their efforts to conceive, pregnancy eluded them. But as the fifth anniversary of their marriage loomed on the horizon, Annie was finally with child.

Now 1874 was not the ideal year to have a baby in Vermont. The little state had given generously of its male population in the War Between the States that had ended only nine years before. Few families had been spared the demise of a son or an uncle or friend or cousin or father.

Wallace had been too young to enlist in the regular Union Army but he followed an uncle to Washington, D.C. to help with the wounded. To say that he left his hometown a carefree youth but came back a careworn adult is an understatement.

He would have been a lost man if Annie had not made his eyes sparkle.

Times were hard back then in the rocky hills of Vermont. In addition to the casualties of war, many of the state’s younger people had moved west to farm where land was flat, rock-free and fertile. As a consequence, fewer and fewer people needed what Cooper’s General Store sold, and there were days when Wallace wondered if he and Annie should move west too.

It was the tail-end of the year, the winter solstice, when the normally tight-walleted people of Carding decided to spend a little money on gifts for their children. Peppermint sticks were a favorite, of course, but what folks really wanted were oranges. 

But Wallace, short of available cash, had not stocked any of the exotic fruit.

That’s when Annie folded her husband’s fingers around a small bag of coins, her egg money, and told him to go to White River Junction to buy oranges for the people of Carding.

So Wallace reluctantly left an anxious and very-pregnant Annie that morning, promising to be home by the last train, no matter what.

Nowadays when we look back at the age of train travel, it all seems so steady and reliable. But when you look closer at the history of railroads in America, the reality is anything but tranquil. Railroad bankruptcies and corruption were rife, even in Vermont.

Wallace had read about the financial duel between the Vermont Central and the Rutland Railroads but he thought it was just more squabbling among the shiftier members of their boards of directors. 

But it is a truism, seldom voiced, that corruption at the top of a food chain is always matched by corruption at the bottom.

Wallace didn’t notice anything unusual about the train he rode to White River. But when he and his precious orange cargo boarded the train to head back home, he definitely had cause to worry.

First off, there was no coal or wood to burn in the stove meant to keep passengers—and fruit—from freezing. Then Wallace noticed the absence of several wooden seats, their legs sawn off near the floor.

There were a half dozen men in the car with him. Wallace knew three of them by sight if not by name. When they nodded greetings to one another, they looked equally worried about the condition of their transportation.

Suddenly the door slammed open, and a conductor stepped inside, his mouth set in a thin, grim line.

“Sorry to tell you this, folks, but this train won’t be running tonight,” he said.

“Why not?” one of the other passengers, a man with a full white beard, asked.

The conductor shrugged. “Seems the Vermont Central Railroad does not pay its bills, and as a consequence, no one will sell us wood for the boiler.” He paused to look around the passenger car. “And there aren’t enough seats left to burn.”

An image of Annie’s anxious face rose in Wallace’s mind. “How much do you need?” he asked.

The conductor looked confused. “How much of what?”

“Wood. How much wood do you need to get us to Carding? I promised my wife I’d be home tonight. We’re expecting a child…soon. And my oranges,” Wallace shook his head, “will be spoiled.”

The other passengers regarded their fellow traveler in silence for a long moment. They all knew Cooper’s General Store was struggling.

Then the bearded man turned to the conductor. “How much money do you need to buy the wood that will get us to Carding?”

The conductor started using his fingers to calculate.

“Without figuring in a profit for yourself,” the bearded man interrupted.

Wallace hid a grin as he suddenly remembered the bearded man’s name—Jack Candon, a lawyer originally from over Norwich way.

The conductor looked up sharp. “I wasn’t…,” he began. But something in the bearded man’s face stopped him. “Seventy-five cents.”

Wallace started fumbling for coins in his pockets but Jack put a hand on his arm.

“So there’s going to be a new Cooper in Carding, eh?” he said. “That calls for a celebration.” He took off his hat then dropped some coins from his own pocket into it. “I’ve got twenty-five cents. What can the rest of you do?”

“But…,” Wallace began.

Jack shook his head. “Let us do this for you, okay?”

Penny by penny, Jack eventually collected enough to buy wood to get the train to Carding. Then he dropped in another half dollar of his own. “Wood for the stove to keep your oranges—and us—warm,” he told Wallace. Then he shook the hat in the conductor’s face. “Take me to your wood seller.”

“Oh you don’t have to do that,” the conductor protested, his face cinched up with insincere sincerity. “I’ll be happy to take care of it all.”

“Not a chance. I want to be sure that the wood you buy is at least as dry as the seats you burned to get here,” Jack said. Then he clapped Wallace on the shoulder. “We need to get this man home.”

Years later, when he told his children the Solstice Train story—he and Annie eventually had six little Coopers—Wallace always said it was the longest ride home on the longest night of the year. But every orange made the journey without freezing, and he sold them all but the one he saved for his wife.

That fruit saved the store in 1874, a fact that the Cooper family still celebrates by giving away oranges every year on the winter solstice.

By the way, Jack Candon was not on that train by accident that night. Wallace eventually found out that his bearded friend had been hired by the state inspector of railroads to look into corruption, including the buying and selling and disappearing of wood.

His report eventually led to the merger of the Vermont Central and Rutland Railroads, a move that ensured better and safer travel for everyone in the Green Mountain State.


You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Lights in Water, Dancing, has just been published! You can find them all on Amazon or you can order them through your local independent book store.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the button on my home page. When you do, my stories speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

If you’d like to get in touch, my email address is: Sonja@SonjaHakala.com.

The Solstice Train

Tomorrow’s Carding Chronicle is a well-loved story retold in town about this time every year. It’s about a train and a man determined to get home to his very pregnant wife.

Oh, and there’s a lot of snow involved.

Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. Carding is the small town (population 3,700 or so) that no one can seem to find on a map of the Green Mountain State. But you can find it any time, right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.

Here’s a sample of tomorrow’s story. Hope you will stop by and please share it with everyone that you enjoy sharing with. And if you haven’t already, don’t forget to subscribe. That way, you’ll find the weekly Chronicle in your inbox every Thursday.

SH-Solstice train story

Ephemera: A Carding Chronicle

SH-Ephemera 2Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. Carding is the small town (population 3,700 or so) that no one can seem to find on a map of the Green Mountain State. But you can find it any time, right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont.

Details about the novels are at the end of this story. And I encourage you to subscribe to my website so you won’t miss out on anything Carding.

Today’s story is about recycling. Folks in Vermont are, generally, passionate about reusing and re-purposing, and that’s definitely true in Carding. It’s that impetus that led the town’s favorite eccentric, Amos Hardy, to lobby for space at the town’s solid waste site for a Swap Shed. It’s a place where folks can leave good stuff to be reused as well as rummaging about for free stuff to bring home. The most popular items are used books.

Why don’t you come along? You’ll never know what you’ll find in a book.


Amos Handy smiled at the calendar hanging on the inside of his closet door as he slid his arms into the sleeves of one of his many tropical shirts. It was the third Thursday of the month, Edie day at the Swap Shed.

Before the Swap Shed was built, Amos cursed every time he saw books thrown in the landfill (along with other good stuff that he used in his funky sculptures). One day, he finally got mad enough to lobby the town to set aside a little money to establish a shelter where people could exchange old books for new.

It didn’t take long for the book-swapping business to get too big for Amos to handle by himself. Fortunately, Carding has a number of voracious readers, and lots of them were happy to help Amos sort the good from the musty, dusty, torn and tortured volumes that arrived in cardboard boxes and plastic bags.

After a while, they chose to make Thursday the weekly sorting day with a revolving cast of volunteers. Edie always showed up on the third Thursday.

Amos would never admit it out loud but he’d developed something of a sweet spot for her. He’d never met anyone else who could discuss the finer points of Mary Oliver’s poetry, whether A.S. Byatt’s Possession deserved the Booker Prize, and the misogyny inherent in the Nero Wolfe mysteries.

They debated which Shakespeare dramas had the right to be called great. He was partial to Othello while Edie swore by Macbeth.

It was still quite early in the morning when Amos stopped at the Coop for the whole milk and honey that Edie liked in her tea while she picked up muffins from the Crow Town Bakery. Not long after that, the two of them converged at the Swap Shed’s front door.

“Oh jeez,” Amos muttered as their movements triggered the motion-sensor light on the outside of the shed. Its glare revealed a pile of ragged book-filled boxes damp with morning dew that someone had dumped after closing time. 

Amos took book abuse personally. “The least they could do is put them in plastic bags. We’re gonna end up throwing most of these away.”

Edie’s nose twitched, and then she sneezed hard enough to fumble the muffin box, barely rescuing it before it hit the ground. “From the smell, I would guess we were going to throw most of that stuff away no matter what. How many years do you suppose they’ve been in someone’s attic?”

Amos peeled up one of the box flaps up so he could look inside. “Hmph, there’s nothing here but 1950s hardcovers printed on that horrid paper that turns brown. But look at this.” He reached inside to extract a bookmark from the topmost novel. It was a faded Red Sox ticket stub.

The two book sorters grinned at one another. “Ooh, ephemera,” they cooed together.

As a reader, I’m sure you’ve used all sorts of stuff to mark your place in a book—greeting cards, paper napkins, dollar bills, ribbon, cloth scraps, string, grocery lists, letters, coupons clipped from newspapers, toothpicks or whatever.

When Amos and Edie first started sorting together, they tossed that stuff into a pile that was pitched in the wood stove at the end of the day. But occasionally, one or the other of them found an interesting postcard or photograph that was just too good to simply reduce to ashes. They nicknamed these finds “ephemera,” and found a small wooden box to keep them in for other readers in need of a bookmark.

It didn’t take long before the ephemera box developed a cult following. A summer resident named Theresa, who billed herself as a mixed media artist, regularly plundered it for collage materials. She was especially fond of postcards that had been used, oohing over descriptions of long ago travels or expressions of devotion.

She even brought one of her pieces into the Swap Shed to show Amos how she used her finds. He later told Edie that he wasn’t too impressed but at least the woman recycled.

Other people tried to coordinate these lost and wandering bookmarks with their reading finds, choosing black and white photos to go with Victorian classics, for example, or ribbons with romance novels.

As time went on, Edie and Amos put together a motley crew of reference books that they used to learn more about their finds. One of their prizes was an ancient atlas that they used to track postcards. Another was an amateur genealogy of the United Kingdom, and a third was an art history textbook whose authors, as Edie often remarked, didn’t seem to know that women existed.

Over time, Edie and Amos became vigorous in their ephemera hunting, shaking every book by its spine to be sure that nothing remained unfound. At the end of the day, they’d debate whose find qualified as “the most unusual” and the winner treated the loser to lunch.

“Does anyone believe that someone would actually read these things?” Edie asked as they unpacked the damp boxes. All of the books were spotted with mildew, and every time they shook them, she sneezed.

Amos shrugged. “I remember before I started sorting that I kinda looked at books as sacred objects that I just couldn’t throw away. Now,” he pinched one of the offending volumes between his thumb and forefinger, “I can see them as just so much ink and compressed wood pulp.”

The book landed in the recycling barrel with a resounding thump.

Edie was just about to do the same to a spoiled copy of Peyton Place when a fragile letter dropped out of the book that once scandalized America. She and Amos both lunged at it but he got there first.

The paper was thin, crackling with age, and covered with a spidery hand that had faded from black to gray. He carried it like a delicate Fabergé egg to the counter, turned on a bright light, and the two ephemera aficionados examined their prize.

“Oh my, look at the date.” Edie pointed to the top of the page where they read “November 13, 1864.”

“This was written during the Civil War,” Amos said. “This is the oldest thing we’ve ever found.”

The letter was short and they struggled to make out the words that had receded with time.

“‘My darling,’” Edie began to read, “‘A woman who helps at the hospital writes this for me as I am unable.’ I can’t make out the next words, can you?”

“Wait a minute.” Amos yanked a drawer open, rummaged around for a bit, and then came up with a magnifying glass worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

He re-angled the light, found the right distance from the paper in which to hold the glass, and then, concentrating hard, he read: “‘I don’t think I’ll be back to see our new baby. I am glad it’s a girl, and I know she’s as pretty as you.'”

“Oh dear,” Edie murmured. “This doesn’t sound good.”

“‘I’ve got the water fever,’” Amos went on. “Water fever? What’s that?”

“Typhoid maybe?” Edie said. “Though nobody knew back then that it was caused by bacteria in unclean water.”

“‘I want you to know, my darling, how dear you are to me.’” Amos cleared his throat, passing the letter and magnifying glass to Edie.

“‘I hoped to see the green hills of Vermont once again but that is not to be.’” Edie flipped the paper over. “‘I love you, my darling. I always will.’”

The two of them stood silent for a moment before Amos asked: “Is there a name at the end?”

Edie raised the paper closer to the light, straining to make out the last marks on the page. “I think it says Samuel but I can’t be sure,” she said as she carefully folded the sheet.

They stood as silent witnesses to the long-ago grief released by the words on the delicate paper.

“What do you think we should do with it?” Amos finally asked.

Edie shook her head, searching in her heart for the right answer. Was there a right answer? “Well, it seems a shame to give it to the historical society because hardly anyone will see it there.”

Amos raised a finger. “I’ve got an idea. I’ll be right back.”

And that’s how Samuel’s letter, as it came to be known, became a star attraction at the Swap Shed, commanding pride of place between two panes of window glass pressed together in a discarded picture frame held aloft on a stand.

Edie declared it one of Amos’s best finds ever while he maintained that she deserved the credit.

At first, purists tried to argue that the letter belonged in the historical society. But judging by the reaction of most people who came to read the spidery hand, displaying it in the Swap Shed suited most folks. Parents read it aloud to their children. Older people argued about who could have written it.

And somehow, it made the past feel a little closer, a little more human.

Because love is never ephemeral.


You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Lights in Water, Dancing, has just been published! You can find them all on Amazon or you can order them through your local independent book store.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the button on my home page. When you do, my stories speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

If you’d like to get in touch, my email address is: Sonja@SonjaHakala.com.

Ephemera

Tomorrow’s Carding Chronicle is about recycling. Folks in Vermont are, generally, passionate about reusing and re-purposing, and that’s definitely true in Carding. It’s that impetus that led the town’s favorite eccentric, Amos Hardy, to lobby for space at the town’s solid waste site for a Swap Shed. It’s a place where folks can leave good stuff to be reused as well as rummaging about for free stuff to bring home. The most popular items are used books.

Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. Carding is the small town (population 3,700 or so) that no one can seem to find on a map of the Green Mountain State. But you can find it any time, right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.

Here’s a sample of tomorrow’s story. Hope you will stop by and please share it with everyone that you enjoy sharing with.

SH-Ephemera 2

 

Author of the Carding, Vermont novels, quilt books, and book publishing guides.