My Best Christmas Gift? George the Chimpanzee and his Friend the Black Stallion

Chimp on my shoulder

1954, Fourth Grade. I wake up on Christmas morning knowing that George the Chimpanzee is waiting under the tree for me.

Why a chimpanzee? My favorite book was Chimp on my Shoulder. The cover photograph shows a baby chimpanzee peering over the shoulder of the author, Bill Westley, an adventurer who lived with chimpanzees on his farm in England.  What better life could one have?

When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “A chimpanzee collector and raiser.” My mother and father said, “Well, that would be a fine occupation for you.” I knew then that my parents understood that I needed my own chimpanzee to start on my career.

My mother grew up in the Philippines before World War II where my grandfather, the Colonel, rescued a baby monkey and brought it home for her to raise. She named him George.

George ate the laundry soap and hid pieces of candy in his cheeks and had big dark brown eyes. If my mother once had a monkey, wasn’t I meant to have a chimpanzee?

I had not yet told my parents that I did not believe in Santa Claus. Grown-ups, I felt, were very sensitive on the issue and became sad when their children stopped believing. So I wrote a letter to Santa telling him that I wanted a chimpanzee and why, hoping that my parents read the letter. I never spoke directly to them about my chimpanzee, as I believed expressing my wish would be a jinx.

My mother hinted about my main Christmas present, words that had to do with jungles and tigers and lions and bears, solid evidence for my chimpanzee. Two days before Christmas, I heard my parents whispering. I could taste the excitement in our house. I knew that George, my chimpanzee, had arrived.

I worried.  Where would my parents hide George until Christmas Day so that he couldn’t be found by me or the dogs or my snoopy brother? Of course. In the chicken coop, tucked behind the garage, away from the normal traffic of the house.

How would George be fed? I decided that my mother would sneak food out back when we weren’t watching. I was very careful not to go to the back of the yard near the chicken coop, or turn my head in that direction. I didn’t want to accidentally discover George and spoil my parents’ surprise.

On Christmas Eve I kept myself from peeking out my bedroom window in case my mother carried a pan of bananas and grapes to the chicken coop. I went to bed early to make the night go by. I lay under the white sheets, eyes shut, envisioning my tiptoeing out to the living room in the early morning light, finding George under the tree. I could feel his big hairy hug and his weight as he jumped up onto my shoulder.

Well, you have probably guessed how this story ends. No chimpanzee under the tree on Christmas morning. My main gift that had to do with jungles and animals? A pair of tiger-striped toreador pants that my mother was obviously very proud of.  I acted very excited about this gift and wore the pants right away.

I never did tell my parents that I truly believed that I would be getting a chimpanzee for Christmas and how disappointed I was, not because I felt foolish, but because I knew their feelings would be hurt knowing that they had not fulfilled my wish.

I wore and wore and wore those tiger-striped toreador pants until they were too small, which was the following summer, when I read The Black Stallion and knew I needed a horse, a large black steed to carry me over the mountains and across the plains. I would name the stallion George. He would live in the side yard by the chicken coop and I would grow up to be a cowgirl.

                                           black Stallion

 As I think about my childhood fantasy about having my own chimpanzee, I remember all the books on the shelves in our house, just waiting for me to open them and read them. We were lucky because these books let us adventure around the world way before we were ready to leave home.

What books helped you create your own stories, your own adventures as a child?


Veterans Day and the Questions We Never Ask

Band-aids and Uniforms

Ned Winston Cadet  Cadet Edward Green Winston USMA   1932                        2Ned85 Edward Green Winston (Ned) 1986

When I was 4 years old, the family was piling into our 1940‘s black Ford sedan. My mother sat in the front passenger seat, my brother crawled to the far side of the back seat, and I started climbing in behind him.

Something, a noise, a memory, an echo, caused me to pause, my fingers with their twig-like Hansel and Gretel bones braced on the side of the car. My father, perhaps also distracted by a noise, a memory, an echo, slammed the big heavy metal door, crunch, on my fingers.

I don’t remember my hand hurting, too many years have gone by. I do remember the nighttime sidewalk, the dark sky above me, a few bright street lights, and my crying. I remember standing there by the side of the car, my father holding my hand, small  rounds of skin peeled below my fingernails and off my knuckles. I don’t remember my pain, but I still feel the throb of my father’s distress.

This is an odd memory, because I see my father leaning down towards my hand and I clearly see him in his khaki Army officer’s uniform. I am comforted by this image. He is strong and in charge, and I knew he would take care of me. In truth, I never saw my father wearing his Army uniform, except in photographs. He was discharged from the military at the end of World War II, when I was two years old.

Our car was parked in front of the small brick two story local hospital on the main street of town. My father picked me up, carried me up the concrete steps into the hospital, ordered the nurse on duty to call a doctor, to x-ray my hand to be sure no bones were broken. The nurse looked at him, at me. “Move your fingers, dear. Make a fist, now open it.”  She touched my father on the shoulder. “No bones are broken, sir. I assure you, she doesn’t need a doctor and she doesn’t need an X-ray.” The nurse cleaned my fingers, wrapped band-aids around them and we were sent home.

Here is the echo in that memory. My father was a West Point graduate, a major in the Army,  a career officer, just as his father and my mother’s father had been. In 1946, when he was 37 years old, my father returned from France at the end of WWII. A week later he walked away from the Army base at Ft. Benning, Georgia, not telling anyone where he was going. Just disappeared off the base, committing the military sin of going AWOL (away without leave), a punishable offense. Two weeks later my twenty-four year old mother received a telephone call in the middle of the night. My father had been found, working on a fishing boat in Florida. She left my three year old brother and one year old me with neighbors, drove alone down the dark road south. Two days later she returned to Ft. Benning with my father .

The Army sent my father to a hospital for rehabilitation. While he was institutionalized he learned leather-work, carpentry, pottery. He may have learned about electric shock treatment. At the end of his time in the hospital, a military panel ruled on his case. His discharge papers say that he begged the officers at his hearing to allow him to remain in the Army, telling them that the military was his life’s work, that there was no where else for him to be. The uniformed men listened, then they stamped his papers with an “Honorable Discharge” and sent him on his way.

My father never had a real career after that day. He took odd jobs in our small town. He was a digger of ditches, a cleaner of cess pools, a milker of cows. In our garage he made intricate stamped leather pieces, a purse for my mother, a pistol holder for my brother, a belt for me. He created life-like wooden rocking horses, a galloping white stallion with fire red eyes for my brother, a gentle black and white pinto pony for me. He built finely jointed bookcases. In the winters he sculpted snowmen that looked like Greek statues. He never talked about France, but he was often distracted, staring into space, listening for an echo of something we could not hear. Sometimes he would disappear, hitchhike to visit his relatives in Illinois and California. Someone would always bring him back.

We children often wondered, “What happened to Daddy?” but never asked, suspecting that this was an off-limit, grown-up topic. Once, my grandmother said, “You know, Ned loves children, and he just was too upset with what he saw had happened to the children in France. It broke him up. Now he is just a lost soul.”

The word band-aid brings my father back to me, his distress at himself for hurting me that night and his always, in his own way, wanting to protect me and all children, an echo of the soldier he wanted to be. If I had been wise and more kind as I grew older, I might have talked to him, listened to him, told him that he did take care of us, that he was of value even though the Army sent him away. I might have given him the one hug that would have welcomed him back, that would have been the band-aid to hold him together. I might have thanked him for taking care of me, especially when I was young and small-boned and he was strong. I might have told him that it wasn’t the uniform that mattered to us, it was that he always returned.

Alice Winston Carney November 11, 2013

So here is a prompt as you set  about writing:

What questions have you never asked? What do you think might happen if you did ask?

American Bison Gives Writing Tips of the Day

  American Bison bull on the Rio Mora National Wildllife Reserve

Tip 1: Take the time to ruminate on your idea. A good writer, he says, is a deep thinker.

Tip 2: Keep an eye on your goal. Remember that you want to be a writer and take the steps to get there.

Tip 3:  Get your facts straight. Did you know that American Bison are not buffalo? Just because they are called buffalo, does not make them one.

Tip 4: Look at things from a different perspective. Sit down behind a bush, look round, take notes. How do things look differently when you sit on the ground rather than stand  on your feet or stare at a computer screen.

Tip 5: Get outside and trust your senses. What do you see, feel, smell, hear, taste? Bring that detail into your writing. Look at the bison's coat. How would you describe it?


This American Bison bull is part of a herd that lives on the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge  north of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The herd lives and roams freely on these 4,600 acres of protected land.

Did you know that there most bison carry genes of cattle from interbreeding? The Yellowstone herd of over 3000 are the only genetically pure American Bison managed by the  Department of the Interior.

Bison rolling copy Steve

How to create a "buffalo wallow."  Photo by Steve Winston

Did you know that American Bison roll around on the open prairie, creating large dust bowls called “buffalo wallows?” When they roll in the wallows, they crush any small junipers trees growing in the area. This is actually a behavior which protects the environment for the bison. Junipers are invasive trees that suck up precious water and take away space from the grasses that the bison live on. By tromping out the junipers, the bison keep the prairies open for grasses and grazing.


Look around you. What fact of nature can you use for a creative writing prompt?

Charles Bukowski, Praying Mantis, and the Meaning of Life

Hatching preying mantis repel out of the egg sac One summer morning I watched as over 100 miniscule pale green praying mantis repelled out of their two-inch long egg sac. Within an hour they had dispersed around my garden, ready to take  unwary insects. For weeks I would find them, under a leaf, sitting on the red petal of a rose, twice the size from the day before, barbed front legs held in prayer, ready to pounce.

So, how do praying mantis, rapscalllion poet Charles Bukowski, and the meaning of life all fit together? That is your question for the day.

Here's Bukowski repelling out of his egg sac, singing his answer to the meaning of life as he goes.

the last song 

driving the freeway while listening to the Country and Western boys sing about a broken heart and the honkytonk blues, it seems that things just don't work most of the time and when they do it will be for a short time only. well, that's not news. nothing's news. it's the same old thing in disguise. only one thing comes without a disguise and you only see it once, or maybe never. like getting hit by a freight train. makes us realize that all our moaning about long lost girls in gingham dresses is not so important after all.

And if that whets your appetite, try this one locks

I moved into a new place and decided to change the locks . . .

 So, do you see a connection, or am I just day-dreaming, imagining myself a green bit of rapscalllion poet, repelling through life?

Ancient Jack Russell Terrier Clicks down hallway: Time to feed me! Now!

In response to the prompt“The food I crave . . .

fiona2 She sniffs, pushing her shiny black nose against one of the small hard brown lumps in her bowl, sniffs again, the tip of her nose at the end of her graying muzzle turning up ever so slightly. She sniffs, sighs, turns, and clicks way across the hardwood floor. "That is not," she sighs, turns around twice in her round bed by the fireplace, "the food that I crave." She sighs again, curls her arthritic back in a small arch, her black nose resting on one back leg, her ribs stretching under her tight old skin as she breathes slower, deeper, a soft snore, her ears relaxing, twitching.

The food that I crave . . . and she is off again, out of her stiff old body, back into her pliable, flexible young body, feet stretched out in front, in back, nose to the ground, under the corral fence, between the horses' legs, zig-zagging back and forth across the field.

She smells pine needles, turkey droppings, fresh horse manure, green grass.

FionarunningcopyShe flies across the field seeking the food that she craves and suddenly, as if a switch is turned off, she stops.

She cocks one ear, then the other, turns her head with full concentration towards the ground to the right, sniffs, standing on three legs, right paw lifted as she stares, not hearing the red-shouldered hawk circling  in the blue sky above, calling, “Scree, scree,” higher and higher overhead, not hearing the burbling of the river or the pickup clanking down the road way above her. She sniffs. Here, here is the food that I crave, and she leaps straight in the air and down on front feet, frantically digging dirt on both sides of her, a speeding dynamo after the food that she craves.

And then she stops, sits back, looks around, takes in the burbling water, the screeing hawk, the clanking pickup, and the empty hole in front of her, still giving off the warm scent of the gopher that was there only seconds before. Gone. But look, another gopher head pops it head up three feet away.

She jumps, jaws clamp down. She shakes her head hard, the squeaking stops. She swallows, fur, bone, warmth.

Now, that is the food that she craves.

The old dog curls tighter in front of the fireplace, gives a dreaming yip, then gets up, clicks back to her bowl and sniffs. Nope, just small brown lumps,

not the food that she craves.