Friday, March 31, 2006
I was going to forego posting anything new until Monday. However, I need a shave.
To the normal person (that would be you) those two sentences wouldn't seem to go together. However, you (the normal person) aren't writing this. I am. And, to me, those two sentences make perfect sense together. You see, I hate shaving. In order to avoid shaving, I will use anything as an excuse. That includes writing about shaving.
Most men don’t like shaving. I suppose most women aren’t too fond of it, either, but I’m not one, so I’ll leave that to them to say. Besides, they're shaving things that men don't shave nor would they even consider shaving. If you shave your legs or armpits, it might be a pain but, if you screw up, you can generally find some way to hide it. When you shave your face, if you slice off your lower lip people are going to notice.
Yes, shaving is not only boring, but slightly dangerous as well. This is a combination you can’t find in too many other things. Possibly going to a Kanye West concert while wearing a t-shirt that reads, “George W. Bush is the best president ever!”, but beyond that?
The funny thing is, most boys look forward to shaving. They spend hours intently staring into mirrors, feeling up their own faces while diligently searching for the tiniest bit of peach fuzz that will reassure them of impending manhood. Many, myself included, lather up and put a blade to their chin before there’s anything there for the blade to attack. Of course, once they start to really have beard growth, they find out quickly what a pain in the ass it is to have to hack it off repeatedly.
Some guys just let the beard grow and never shave - not even that part on their necks that looks all scraggly. They don’t trim the beard at all and it grows wild and spiky. You’ve seen them. No matter how intelligent or nice they may actually be, they always give the first impression of being from some in-bred hillbilly clan and you imagine them as having B.O. that would fell a charging rhino even if they shower twice a day and use so much cologne that the folks at Old Spice send them Christmas cards. It’s unfair, but that’s the way it is. Society just will not politely accept anyone that natural.
Other guys shave only that part on the neck. They religiously trim the beard that remains, taking great pains to groom it and keep it neat. I did that for a while. You know what the problem is with that? It’s the part that grows on your neck that’s the worst part to shave, at least for me. That’s the part that gets irritated and red and bumpy and itchy and scratchy and Homer and Marge. Anyway, I’d like to be able to let only that part grow and shave the rest, but that would look ridiculous. I’ve never seen anyone do that. Maybe someday (when I’m really ancient and just don’t give a damn if folks think I look like a freak) I’ll try it.
I’ve worn a mustache at times. It’s not a great look for me. Anyway, a mustache gets in the way a lot, unless you’re willing to really work at keeping it trimmed. You’re always getting little bits and pieces of stuff stuck in it; cookie crumbs or maybe an occasional meatball, if you’re really messy. And, here’s a tip from someone who knows: never chew gum and try to blow bubbles if you have a mustache.
Sideburns are an option, of course. I’ve almost always had long sideburns, whether they’ve been in style or not. They’re not really in style now, but I still have them. The few times I’ve shaved them off in my life, I’ve felt almost naked. Sooner or later, they’ll start to come back into style and then I’ll be ahead of a trend for once in my life.
I’ve sometimes had women tell me that they envy the ability a man has to change his appearance so radically. It is sort of interesting. However, it’s also a bit frightening to not know yourself when you look in the mirror. I had that experience once when I shaved my face clean after having worn a full beard for about four years. When I grew the beard, I looked like me. When I shaved it off, four years later, I looked more like my father. Not that my father was Frankenstein or anything, but it was unsettling. I’ve always had some sort of beard since then and have never completely and cleanly shaven my entire face. I don't want to know what other relatives I might resemble next.
Luckily, I work in a field where shaving is extremely optional. The saying in this business is, "He has a great face for radio". You can look like Cousin Itt on a three-day bender, but as long as you sound clean-shaven, nobody gives a damn.
I now wear a Van Dyke. Or is it a goatee? I can never remember. It’s some shit on my chin. I enjoy imagining that it makes me look like a hip beatnik sort of a cat. In fact, it might make me look more like that dude from Scooby Doo; who knows? I’m not getting rid of it, though. The last time I saw my chin was over 10 years ago. Who knows what the hell it looks like now? Probably my grandfather’s chin. Worse yet, maybe my grandmother’s.
Having any sort of beard or sideburns makes shaving a bit tougher. You have to try not to make them uneven when you shave. If you make one sideburn shorter than the other, then you have to trim the other one up. Usually that doesn’t look even to you, either, so you keep trimming one side and then the other until you end up with no sideburns at all. Same thing with the goatee (or Van Dyke). Before I had the Van Dyke (or goat beard or whatever the hell) I had a mustache that went with it. One day I trimmed it and it came out uneven and before I knew what had happened, all I had left was the bulldyke or bearded clam or insert your own oh-so-funny name for it here.
Well, this is going nowhere - and not nearly fast enough, either. I’m going to go shave now since all I’m doing by not shaving is boring the hell out of you. I wish I had a funny shaving story, but I don’t. Shaving sucks. I can’t even get any good blogging material out of it.
(By the way, the chart of different beards is from The Organization For The Advancement Of Facial Hair website. For $20 you can start your very own local chapter and probably receive all sorts of interesting hate mail from depilatory manufacturers. See you Monday!)
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
For the life of me, I couldn't think of the fellow's name. The entire ride home from work, I tried to come up with it. Nothing but that vague "right on the tip of your tongue" insistence that your brain feels somehow obligated to torture you with until you do come up with whatever answer you're searching for. Couldn't think of any reasonable way to look up the answer (no internet at home) so cogitated and ruminated and aggravated myself with my un-ability to recover that single piece of information until I fell asleep, still trying to recall it. Woke up, had coffee and a cigarette, took a shower, dressed, was out the door this morning and on the road for ten minutes when it finally filtered it's way through whatever tangled morass of half-fried synapses it had been circuitously riding about in.
I got that one wrong.
Oh, yeah, I'm talking about the Jeopardy qualifier test that I took last night. If you don't know what in the hell I'm yammering about, go here.
It was the same type of test as the one I had taken a couple of years back, the major difference being that I took this one sitting at my computer here at work, while I had been sitting in a room full of other nervous contestants, in downtown Boston, the previous time. Just about the same results, too, I think.
Whereas on the in-person test I had actual pen and paper, so could go back and change an answer if inspiration hit me later, on this version I had a 15-second time limit in which to type an answer to a question. Then that question (and my answer) disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again. It was a bit nerve-wracking when I hit upon a question such as the one requiring "Dreyfus" as the answer. I knew that I knew the information they requested, but I just couldn't get it to the forefront of my brain within the time limit. Otherwise, the test wasn't so bad.
As the on-screen clock counted down the seconds to the start of the test, I was very nervous. I had no idea what the questions would look like; whether or not I would have to use my mouse, to click into a space provided for typing an answer, every time I had to type; how quickly 15 seconds might pass when required to type an answer, rather than verbalize it; if this set of questions would be easier, about the same, or tougher than those I was given on the in-person test; and whether having been at work for 12 hours straight would make it impossible for me to react quickly enough to have a realistic shot at passing the test.
Much of the worrying was unneeded, as much of the worrying about anything is. The questions were clearly presented and easily visible. I did not have to re-click the mouse each time to cue up within a typing space. 15 seconds was plenty of time, if I knew the answer; barely enough to type the right answer in full, if I had to think about it for a few seconds; and impossible, if I didn't know the answer (Duh!). The questions were on a par with those from the previous test. And having been at work for 12 hours in a row didn't help matters, but I don't think it could have cost me more than one answer.
I know for a fact that, of the 50 questions, I answered the first 11 or 12 correctly. As I got through the first 10 without missing one, I was rushing - that is to say, feeling very good about things, although I was also "rushing" by hitting the "submit" button with 6 or 7 seconds left on the clock, every time. I hoped that the speed with which someone answered the questions might be a consideration. I also thought that there might be a total time aspect to the test, and that seconds saved on the earlier questions might be used later. Wrong. It was 15 seconds for each and if you went to the next question before using the full 15 seconds, all you did was start the next 15 second clock. So, I hope speed counts when they grade the results, but that's probably not the case.
As I hit the 12th or 13th question, my reverie was broken. It was a question that I had to think about. It may have actually concerned synapses, for that matter. I believe I got it right, but from then on there were only a handful of answers that popped from my mind to my fingertips to the screen, and on into the ether, without at least a moment of sweat and thought. I think a conservative estimate would be 2 right for every 3 during this remainder of the test. Given that, the final tally would be 37 or 38 right.
Now, I may be underestimating my performance. I hope I am. However, 37 or 38 would put me, again, right on the very edge of passing the test and thus earning an invite to another in-person testing. I wish to hell they'd give me my score, instead of making me wait to hear from them.
Yep, that's the only way I find out for sure whether I passed. They call me. If I failed, they don't call me. Even if I did pass, it's possible they won't call me. There was a disclaimer saying that, in the event of more people passing the test than there are available seats for the next phase, a random draw from among the passing contestants will be held. In that case, I could very well have done myself proud, and redeemed myself from the previous experience, but never have the satisfaction of knowing it.
No, that's not true. I passed. Even if they don't call.
Especially if they don't call :-)
(If and when I receive definite word, I'll report it here. Thanks for your prayers and well wishes.)
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
(At the very bottom of this page is a very small update on this very convoluted entry.)
This is going to be a big jumble of poorly-connected threads.
(Isn't it nice when someone tells you upfront that they are giving you something poorply-written to read?)
(I know I could have corrected that easily enough, but there will be few enough jokes here, so be thankful for what you get.)
What is Alex Trebek doing here? Read on and find out!
(Wow, what a cliffhanger.)
Yeah, Weight Loss Wednesday, but it's actually Tuesday. I know I won't have time tomorrow, so bear with me.
I find myself with no desire to exercise. I am still laying off of the bread and milk, but the weight loss has leveled off.
I took a short walk on Sunday (not the two miles I had planned; more like 3/4 of a mile) and that's been about it. I have one excuse. Work has been piling up and I find myself extremely tired from it, both mentally and physically.
I did buy some healthy sorts of snacks this past weekend, but no matter how healthy something is, if you eat enough of it you probably gain weight. And what the hell is the use of eating celery and hummus if you don't lose weight?
I've twice set my alarm for an hour before my usual wake-up time, in order to go for a nice long walk, but have just not had the resolve to actually get out and do it.
Lifting weights in my office, as I supposed I might be doing? I'm lucky I can walk out of my office under my own power some of these nights. I have never been more exhausted in my life. What worries me most is that I'm not sure if the exhaustion is from the work or because I'm so horribly (relatively) out of shape. They're probably feeding off of each other.
I don't know. Is this what happens when you get older? Is the reason we tend to gain weight or lose muscle because of this lack of get up and go? Or am I just a lazy good-for-nothing slugabed, doomed to huff and puff around the bases this season, stretching doubles into singles, should I ever get a hit?
Man, I am having some serious self-esteem issues. I have so little desire for anything other than reading, sleeping, or watching TV. I don't much feel like writing - especially if I'm going to spend the time doing nothing but kvetching - and I haven't had the time for much of it lately, anyway.
So, I hear you asking with bated breath, what is Alex Trebek's picture doing at the head of this piece? Well, I'll tell you.
I've got one possible ego boost happening. If you watch Jeopardy, you've seen them advertising an on-line qualifier. I registered for it and will be taking the test tonight (Tuesday) at 8pm. If I pass it, I get a chance for a regional qualifier in Boston later on. I really need to pass this, because the last time I tried to qualify for Jeopardy - as a matter of fact, it was the only time I've tried to qualify for Jeopardy - I should have made it, but I blew it.
Usually, in order to be picked for a regional qualifier, you go to the website and enter your name into a lottery of sorts. They only have so many spots and they usually get way more applications for those spots than they have room for. I had registered a number of times before, but had never been lucky enough to be chosen. This last time, I got a call telling me that I was invited.
I was stoked! I really am quite good at the game; better than anyone I'm acquainted with. I know that if I get onto the show, I won't embarrass myself. I may not win, but I won't self-destruct in front of a national audience. I have some holes in my game, but I also have specialized knowledge of some fairly arcane trivia. I think I might have a better than average shot at winning a game or two.
I know that the pressure won't get to me for two very good reasons:
1) Unlike the great majority of human beings, I actually like speaking in public. My job is largely made up of spoken performance. I don't fear a microphone.
2) I was on a game show once before and I did OK. I didn't win, but it was because of a lack of knowledge concerning one particular category, not because of overall dumbness or stage fright. The name of the show was Think Twice and it was a production of PBS. Yes, a PBS game show. I actually found a picture of it on-line (fortunately for you, not one with me in it) and it is below.
I have a tape of that show, but I can't bear to watch it. I don't like watching myself on film. I never look how I think I look in my mind.
The show ran for thirteen weeks, so you probably never heard of it. Most people didn't hear of it; that's why it ran only thirteen weeks. It aired about ten years ago.
The premise, and thus the title, was that every part of the show either took two answers or had to be completed by two people in tandem. I had a partner and she was alright. She was assigned to me on the date of taping.
I'll give you an example of what happened on the show. The host (whose name I can't remember, but he was a comedian who had written a book called "Snaps", if that helps) would ask a question like "What two federal holidays occur during the month of January?", and then the first person to ring in would say, perhaps, "Martin Luther King Day". Then, it would be up to that person's partner to supply the second half of the answer, New Years Day. If the partner could not supply the answer, the other team had a chance to steal the points by answering it.
Now, that was pretty straightforward and fun, and I think if the show had ONLY done that, it might have been a success. However, for some ungodly reason, the producers decided to have three different types of rounds in the show, and the other two rounds were much harder for the audience to grasp. I won't go into them here. Suffice to say that my team led throughout the show, until the final question on the final round, which concerned country music.
I knew dick about country music. I still don't know much. However, I now know who Kitty Wells was. I had never heard of her before then.
(MY WIFE was in the studio audience. When they announced the category as country music, she turned to her friend, with a crestfallen look, and said, "Jim doesn't know anything about country music", and she was right.)
So, we finished second. I received a whole bunch of neat gift certificates, most of which we used to do our Christmas shopping that year.
Getting back to the other show...
I took the Jeopardy test (this was about two years ago now, I think) and it was hard but not overwhelming. They give you 50 questions and you need (if memory serves) 38 correct to qualify for the "personality" interview. That's where they make sure you aren't a psycho, have a face that won't traumatize little children, and will be able to talk in more than a mumble when Alex Trebek asks you to tell him why you were married on February 29th.
By my best estimate, I had either 37 or 38 correct. They don't tell you your score, by the way. They just tell you whether you passed or failed. I failed, but I'm almost positive I missed it by one damned answer. And it was a fairly easy answer, at that. I thought about this particular question afterwards and I realize that I probably out-thought myself on it. I thought the obvious answer was too obvious, you know? So I put down something else that sounded reasonable, but looking back I'm sure the obvious answer was right.
I get a chance at possible redemption tonight. If I don't pass the test this time, I am going to be extremely bummed. I might have to drown my sorrows in eclairs and milkshakes. And that will lend itself to an even more bummed-out Jim next Wednesday (or Tuesday, as the case may be.)
I'll let you know how I did. Wish me luck.
Monday, March 27, 2006
How does one person help another to heal? What words might be of aid? Are there any words that can truly console?
I write about a loss suffered by a person whom I have never actually met. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know his real name. However, I am saddened by his recent setback and I wish I had some way of providing him consolation. I know him only through his writing, but his writing has moved me to sadness and (much more often) to laughter. I have shared some private correspondence with this person and we have both expressed the feeling that we would probably enjoy a face-to-face meeting someday when circumstances allow. I guess we are the electronic equivalent of pen pals, but as far as is possible concerning someone I have never actually been in the same room with, I consider him a friend. I hope that what follows is helpful.
If you’re a regular reader of mine, then you know in what high regard I hold Magazine Man. He is exactly as I’ve billed him elsewhere on this page: The Best Writer On The Internet. His usual output is personal recollection filled with humor, written with a great attention to detail and an eye for the absurd. His stories are anecdotal masterpieces and I really don’t think it too much to compare him to Clemens in that regard.
Occasionally, as Clemens did also, he writes of pain or tragedy. And, like Clemens, he expresses his feelings clearly, succinctly, and without embarrassment concerning his loss. In my opinion, this is where a great writer sets himself apart from the mere humorist.
(I don’t particularly like using the term “mere humorist”. Someone who makes another laugh is doing the best of God’s work. I love humorists. It does seem the most apt way to make the distinction between two types of writers, though, so I’ll let it stand.)
What constitutes a “mere humorist”? The prime example that immediately comes to mind, for me, is Dave Barry. He is a wonderful writer, able to induce helpless fits of laughter, but he never strays more than a sentence or two from the joke. He, and other “mere humorists”, never write about pain unless it is as a base upon which to construct the painfully funny.
The other type of writer is not just a jokesmith. Clemens, though excruciatingly funny, wrote movingly and at length concerning the deaths of his daughter, Jean, and of his wife, Livy. He often imbued his fiction with great moral dilemma, a prime example being the “Alright, then, I’ll go to Hell!” soliloquy of Huck Finn. Another example would be Kurt Vonnegut. Though he almost always aims for a punch line, he consistently has an undercurrent of sadness present in his work, and it is the balancing act he performs between humor and angst that makes his writing so compelling.
An example of great literature (although perhaps not by a person one would normally consider a great writer) is Ball Four. It is, in my very humble opinion, the greatest book ever written concerning sports. The reason most of those that followed in its wake were such comparatively trite failures is because Jim Bouton (and his editor, Leonard Schecter) didn’t just bombard us with locker room humor, as the imitators did, but also considered the relative triviality of sport in comparison to the social issues of the day. The others that came after, purporting in blurbs to be more scandalous and revelatory, were filled with tell-all tales that told us nothing so much as the vapidity of the teller. They contained none of the heart and soul of the original.
As with all who create great literature, Magazine Man is willing to bare his heart and soul. He usually does this with great humor. His ability to provoke laughter is testified to by the many “I spit coffee onto my screen” comments left by readers of his blog. As mentioned before, most of his writings are anecdotal and, therefore, most concern his family. Journeying through his backlog, the reader is given tremendous detail concerning the psyches of, and interactions between, his relatives. We laugh, but a mental picture builds, detail upon detail, until the reader begins to truly care deeply not only about MM, but also about his wife, his children, his parents, his big brother, and even the good and faithful family dog, Blaze. Despite the dense construct of humor that pervades most of his tales, we come to know of the deep love that MM feels for all of those who have a place in his universe. We laugh, but we laugh with them, not at them. As a result, when MM writes concerning tragedy or loss, we - having invested ourselves fully into the happier tales - feel the sadness deeply as well.
It has been said that a friend is someone with whom you can be yourself. Magazine Man has made the conscious decision to unashamedly, and in comprehensive detail, be himself on the pages of his blog, even despite the maintenance of a nom de plume. By the above definition, he considers his readers to be his friends. And so we are. And so prayers and wishes of healing are given expression during this less-than-happy time. Friends would never do less.
The thing of it is, he has given us such a great quantity of joy, from allowing us to share in his family’s adventures, that we now find ourselves unable to adequately give back as much to him during his time of need. I know in my heart of hearts that I speak for all of his faithful readers when I say that we would gladly be willing to take his sadness and parcel it out amongst ourselves, in what would then be much much smaller and bearable portions, if we could. We can’t, though. Too bad.
So, in the end, what can one person do for another, to help that person to heal? What words can be offered in consolation? What might be said to truly help? I wish I knew. There isn’t any magic formula; otherwise it would have long ago become common knowledge. How could such a wonderful thing remain hidden? It would have been shouted from the rooftops.
I suppose – I guess - that the best anyone can do is to remind a person of their value; to help a person remember his worth to you and to others, and to let that person know that he or she is loved. Between friends, a big hug wordlessly conveys all of that. Lacking physical presence, words have to suffice. So, this is a virtual hug. I hope it helps a bit.
(I wrote this on Saturday. I am happy to report that MM has already put up an extremely funny entry since then. If part of the healing process is resumption of normal activity, then good for him. And for us.)
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
I've decided, at possible great embarrassment to my ego, to share with you my journey towards physical fitness. Here's a picture of me on Ash Wednesday when I started my diet:
And here's a picture of me now:
Amazing, huh? I didn't expect to grow back my hair, but I guess when you live right there are added benefits you don't count on.
OK, so here's the real deal.
When I started my so-I-don't-kill-myself-the-first-time-I-run-the-bases-this-year diet, I weighed in at 195. I stand about 5'10" (it used to be 5'11", but the world has worn me down for 49 years) and I carry a fair amount of muscle, so 180 would be a good playing weight. As of this morning, I am at 188.
I've accomplished this weight loss by simply not drinking milk with my meals and not eating any bread at all. Basically, I've substituted water for milk and a bit more fruit or vegetable for bread.
Tell you the truth, I can't see any great difference when I look in the mirror. I've hardly done any exercise, though, and that has to be the second component of this regimen. I'll start doing a daily walk of a couple of miles this weekend and add in some light weight training as time allows. I keep weights in my office, so I can do sets of ten curls or presses intermittently.
(No cracks. I chose my words carefully. I did not say that there was a dumbbell in my office.)
I'll update you each Wednesday until just after Easter, when I expect to have reached my goals.
I'll be back Thursday (or maybe Friday) with a good story. Thanks for hanging in there while I'm forced to devote my time to paying work :-)
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Aw, don't cry. It's not as bad as you think.
See? You're feeling better already!
OK, we can play trains, but I get to be the engineer.
The Interrupting Cow.
OK, you go to hell. Next!
Yes, and dog go "Woof".
The Jehovah's Witnesses.
Pee Cup Who?
I see you!
Panther no panth, I'm goin' thwimmin'..
The Libertarian Candidate For State Rep From The 13th Suffolk District.
I can't sign your petition. I'm a Democrat.
Eugene Ionesco Who?
Wash 'n Wear Giraffe Radios.
Suldog who will see you on Monday.
* If you find the title of this piece confusing, go here, scroll down and read the comments.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Lent, here is the definition from Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary:
Lent, n. 1. The period of forty weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter, observed in Christian churches by fasting and penitence to commemorate Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness. This is followed, on Easter Sunday, by the joyous eating of ham and the gifting of humongous amounts of chocolate to children, provided they are willing to affirm their belief in an anthropomorphic egg-hiding rodent of the hare family.
Yeah, I made up the second part. Well, I didn’t really make it up; it’s true. But Webster didn’t say it. I did.
Anyway, in the Catholic tradition, a person gives up something for Lent. Many kids give up candy and sweets, thus the traditional rewarding of a basket full of chocolate and such on Easter. Where the bunny came from, I have no idea. However, there is only a one letter difference between rabbit and rabbi. Coincidence? Yeah, probably.
What does all of the above have to do with the price of tea in China? Nothing. Can you think of anything that has something to do with the price of tea in China? I mean, besides the backbreaking work of the peasants in the tea fields and the cost of transporting the tea to the tea bag factory, where thousands of little old Chinese women work night and day stuffing those tiny little bags full of Orange Pekoe and then stapling a little string to the bag, and if it’s Salada tea, you get a funny saying on every tea bag, similar to a fortune cookie, which bring us back to something, but not what I was getting at, so never mind.
For Lent this year, I gave up flour and dairy products. That may well be the first entirely truthful sentence in this mélange, thus far, except for the fact that it isn’t. I gave up most flour products and a bunch of dairy products. OK, I’ll be honest. I gave up bran flakes and Roquefort cheese.
I’ve completely lost control of this entry. I meant to tell you all about how I use Lent as a sort of spring training for softball season, but now you’re probably off Googling “tea, china, price, something to do with”, and I’m just writing for my mother and Magazine Man. Hey, did I tell you that he hooked me up with a link from his site? Bet he’s sorry now!
After every softball season ends, I tell myself that this is the winter I’ll stay in shape. I’ll keep exercising and I’ll watch what I eat and I won’t have to lose 15 pounds or so at the beginning of the next softball season. What happens instead is that I eat like a ravening warthog and the most exercise I get is from loading the dishwasher with the many plates I’ve dirtied. I feel tremendously guilty when I do this, so I have a half-dozen jelly donuts and then I feel better.
Usually, Lent begins in March and ends in April. Softball begins the first week in May. The timing is just right for my purposes. I figure if I’m going to give up something for Lent anyway, why let just God get all the good out of it? If I work it right, not only will I save my soul, but I’ll look better, too!
This year I really did give up flour products and dairy products. The only exceptions are the half-and-half I put in my coffee and an occasional bowl of macaroni with plain tomatoes, which I also put in my coffee.
I’ve done this before. Giving up flour and dairy for Lent, I mean; not the jokes. Well, sure, the jokes, too, but since I’ve only been blogging for a short while, I’ve got a veritable truckload of tired wheezes which I’ve been using on my relatives and friends for forty years and now I get to abuse a whole new audience with them - you. Stick around for about a year and you’ll be sick of me, too.
The last time I gave up bread and milk, I dropped over 10 pounds in the first two weeks.
(There’s a whole slew of women reading this and giving me the stink eye. That’s because guys lose weight much more easily than women. Women do nothing for two weeks but eat celery, drink Diet Pepsi, run five miles a day on a treadmill and then they gain two pounds. Do I care? No. That’s what they get for eating celery and drinking Diet Pepsi. Yuck! Anyway, you women have a life expectancy of four more years than me. That’s because, cumulatively, you spend four years out of your life doing nothing but eating celery, drinking Diet Pepsi, running on treadmills, and otherwise torturing yourself. Wise up, for goodness’ sakes! I’ve spent four years out of my life eating Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. So I won’t get to stick around for those four years at the end of my life where I’d be hooked up to a catheter in some nursing home, watching Simpsons reruns and trying to remember which one is Itchy and which one is Scratchy. What a shame.)
When Lent started, I weighed 195. I weighed 191 this morning. I expect to be at 185 or lower by the time it’s all over, and we’re just talking my systolic blood pressure! There’s no telling where my IQ might end up. Did you know that you can tell a man’s IQ by a simple formula? Have him multiply his shoe size by the length of his pecker, to the nearest half-inch. It’s true! If he does the math, you’ll know he’s an imbecile.
(74 and 3/4, OK?)
(Oh, alright. 68 and 1/4.)
Anyway, I hope by the time softball season rolls around, I won’t anymore. I figure for every pound I drop, I can play like a man that many years younger than my actual age. I estimate that if I want to play like a 20-year-old again, I’ll have to chop off an arm. After reading this drivel, you were probably hoping it would be my head.
By the way, which one is Scratchy?
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
My Father really liked magic. Magicians always fascinated him. If you sat him down in front of a really good magician, he could watch him for hours and hours without becoming bored in the least. And the thing that really made him tick was trying to figure out how a trick was done.
While he enjoyed stage magic and big illusions, such as the type performed by Siegfried & Roy, his favorite type of performer was the sleight-of-hand artist. Anyone who could manipulate such things as cards or coins, close up, was a hero to my father. Inevitably, this led to him learning a few tricks himself.
He learned how to perform false shuffles and cuts. He knew how to palm a card. He practiced his patter and learned how to use misdirection. In the end, he learned how to perform three or four very good card tricks. He often used these during sales calls to loosen up a client, so it was a practical undertaking. Of course, in a relaxed social gathering, he’d do these tricks at a drop of a hat. He was quite proud of them, and they were good.
He also had a healthy respect for those people who could accomplish something unique with their hands in a non-magical manner. He loved to watch, at their work, any person who was unusually adept at what he or she did. A good example would be his love of professional chefs. The simple tricks that a good chef accomplishes with grace – the flipping of foods in a skillet or the rapid slicing of a vegetable (without concurrently slicing off a finger or two) – were things that he also worked hard to emulate. And so he became a fun person to watch in the kitchen, as well, as he mastered these techniques.
I mention all of this as background for a short, but extremely funny, bit of business that went down between my father and his brother, my Uncle Jimmy.
My father originally told me this story shortly after it happened, some 25 years ago. I had completely forgotten about it until my Uncle Jimmy jogged my memory a couple of days ago. I’m glad he did.
My father and I were living in Dorchester, a few years following his divorce from my mother. I’m about 24, just sort of bumming through life at that point with undefined dreams of becoming a rock star or a professional bowler or something else that didn’t involve heavy lifting. My dad worked for Singapore Airlines and held the position of District Sales Manager for the New England region. As a result, he pretty much set his own hours and I had no hours to speak of, so we ended up spending a fair amount of time together doing useless, but fun, things.
Somewhere in our journeys, we had picked up a set of five puzzles. These puzzles were constructed as follows: a clear plastic cube, perhaps three inches square, and inside of each cube is an orange piece of plastic and four very small ball bearings. The orange plastic had a different form and function in each puzzle. In one, for instance, it might have been attached to the bottom of the cube and shaped as a series of four small bumps, with an indentation on the top of each bump. In that puzzle, the idea would be to get the four ball bearings simultaneously resting on top of the four little bumps.
Well, four of the five puzzles were relatively easy. It took a bit of concentration, but we could do them in a few minutes. We’d play with them at random times, watching TV or whatnot, and trying to solve the puzzles during a commercial break. However, the fifth puzzle was a bitch.
The fifth puzzle had the piece of orange plastic set on an axle in the middle of the cube. The axle ran from corner to corner. The orange plastic was flat and had four holes in it, slightly smaller than the ball bearings, near its four corners. The idea, as you might imagine, was to get all of the balls into the holes. What made it so hard was that if you put the orange piece of plastic out of balance on its axle, the plastic would spin and the balls would all fall out.
Now, I may or may not have described the puzzle adequately for you to picture it; I hope I have. However, the important thing to know is this: whoever designed that puzzle was a sadist. We each took turns at it and not only weren’t we able to complete it successfully, we were rarely able to get more than one ball in place before the thing went out of whack and we had to start over.
We worked at this puzzle for months. Every time we weren’t doing anything else, that puzzle would be in one of our hands. As I said earlier, my dad was pretty good with his hands and could manipulate decks of cards and coins and do some sleight of hand, so he wasn’t all thumbs. I was a musician, so I had some fairly nimble fingers myself. Neither one of us was going to give up on this damned thing; we were both too stubborn for that.
To make a long story short, through some minor miracle my dad finally got the ball bearings to rest in the four holes without the axle spinning. He had solved the puzzle from hell! He very carefully and deliberately placed it on a bookshelf by our front door and there it stood, in perfect balance, as testament to his mastery. It was never touched after that and he was damned proud of having been able to do it.
One day, a few weeks later, my Uncle Jimmy came over to the house for a visit. My dad answered the door and let him in. He had to go do something in another room, so he told Jimmy to wait and he’d be right back.
Being a curious sort, Jimmy glanced around the room and then his eyes came to rest on the bookshelf. He saw the puzzle. He picked it up. The ball bearings fell out of the holes.
When my father came back into the room, my Uncle Jimmy held out the puzzle and said, “Tom, what’s this?”
According to my Uncle Jimmy, the look on my father’s face was somewhere between murderous and suicidal. Had he been a younger man, he might have cried.
“Oh, no! Do you know how long it took me to do that puzzle? I worked on it for weeks and weeks and weeks, and then you come in here and just ruin it! Do you know how hard that thing is? Shit. Shit.”
My Uncle Jimmy looked at the puzzle in his hand. He sort of shook it slightly and the four balls fell right back into the holes as though they couldn’t have possibly done any different. He put the puzzle back up on the shelf and said, “What’s so hard about that?”
If my father hadn’t wanted to cry before, he sure did then.
When my Uncle Jimmy reminded me of that story a couple of days ago, he added a fact that he never told my father.
“Jimmy, you should have seen the look on his face when it happened. When I ruined the puzzle, it was like his best friend had died and I felt really bad about doing it. I didn’t know what it was and how hard he had worked on the damned thing. But, when I put it back together, it was almost worth the first look to see the second one he got. His eyes bugged out and his jaw hung open and... it was just an amazing stroke of luck. I didn’t even try to really do the puzzle. The balls just fell into place. It was just one of those great cosmic accidents that happen only to piss off someone else.”
My father never took that puzzle off the shelf again for as long as he lived, God bless him.
Soon, with more better stuff.
Monday, March 13, 2006
Show of hands, please. How many of you have ever owned a baseball team?
Not too many of you. That’s too bad. I did. Remember the Boston Green Sox?
No? How strange! I mean, after all, they won five World Series in one year, back in 1966, and no other team has ever done that. You’d think people would remember such a feat. Jeez.
During the late summer of 1966, I was sick. I can’t remember now what it was I had; probably one of the childhood illnesses that would be common to a 9-year-old, like measles or the mumps.
(The Mumps. Sounds like a recurring sketch from Saturday Night Live. “Hey, did you see ‘The Mumps’ last night? Damn, that Cheri Oteri is funny! I thought I was going to pee my pants when she said they were from Scotland!”)
Anyway, while I was laid up in bed, a bunch of my friends did one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. They brought me a shoebox full to the brim with 1965 Topps baseball cards. There were probably 500 cards in the box, almost the complete set. Now, I know that they almost certainly fished the boxful of cards out of somebody’s trash, but that didn’t matter to me; it was the thought that counted. All of us kids liked baseball and baseball cards, and there were always card-flipping games going on, so they could just as easily have divvied the cards up between them as given them to a sick kid.
So, I had all of these baseball cards. I spent hours going through them, reading the stats on the back, wondering where such oddly-named places as Duluth-Superior and The Quad Cities were, and marveling at the fact that anyone would actually admit to having played in something called the Sally League.
(I have a pet theory, by the way. I think the reason boys have historically had much better math scores than girls is because girls don’t have any equivalent to baseball cards. Guys learn early on to deal with abstract numbers, fractions and percentages, all through the reading of sports statistics. If girls knew that My Little Pony batted .276 in the Three-I League, or that Barbie had an earned run average of 4.19 while playing for Pawtucket, the world would be a different place altogether. Once you start dealing with things like a third of an inning, two plus two isn’t all that hard.)
Getting back to the story, after I had looked at all of these cards a couple of times, I found that there had been a subtle shift in my boyhood dreams concerning baseball. Whereas before I had wanted to be just a baseball player, now I thought it would be exceedingly cool if I could not only be a player, but also the youngest team owner in the history of the sport. Of course, since I would own the team, I could choose my own manager and what better choice than me? To facilitate this fantasy, I decided to build my own team from out of the 500 or so players at my disposal in the shoebox.
The first thing I decided – and it was a fairly profound insight for a 9-year-old - was that the team couldn’t include players I had heard of before. How could Tony Conigliaro play for both the Red Sox and my team? So, although he was my favorite player in the real world, he couldn’t be part of this fantasy. The same was true for the rest of the Red Sox and for almost all American League players. Any player I had heard of before was eliminated. This cut the field pretty much in half.
Before I chose my roster from the remaining players, I thought about where the team would be located and how they would have come into being. Well, I lived in Boston and I liked Boston. New York had two teams; Chicago had two teams; Los Angeles did, too, so why not Boston? My team would be a National League expansion franchise and, since there were already White Sox and Red Sox, why not some Green Sox? It was my favorite color.
Now I had my ‘expansion draft’. I made up a roster of twenty-five players from out of the shoebox. No doubt a whole tribe of psychiatrists could make a serious living out of explaining why I chose whom I did. However, I’ll tell you that I chose my players based mainly on two factors:
1) They had to have some sort of interesting statistical aberration. In the case of many, it was that they were power hitters. If a guy had a few 20-home-run seasons, he was a leading contender. With some, it was their minor league record and I could enhance this fantasy by pretending that I was the only manager in baseball who saw their true potential! Others were guys who had hit 250 or 300 career home runs, but were old and gray and ready to be put out to pasture. I would be the manager to coax one last great season out of them. For pitchers, perhaps they had an inordinate amount of strikeouts one year, or they had once had one or two really good seasons, but had lost their effectiveness due to injury or age. Again, I was the genius boy manager, motivator of over-the-hill athletes, who would teach them to once again reach the peak of their abilities.
2) Or they had to have a really cool name.
Here’s the roster of the Boston Green Sox. These are all real players, and the links will take you to their pages at baseball-reference.com, where it won’t take you long to figure out that this team probably would have had trouble winning 50 games in a season, let alone any championships, especially with a 9-year-old for a manager.
P – Larry Bearnarth
P – Al Jackson
P – Curt Simmons
P – Chuck Estrada
P – Jack Fisher
P – Carl Willey
P – Bill Wakefield
P – Galen Cisco
P – Bob Bruce
C – Chris Cannizzaro
C – Gus Triandos
C – Jim Coker
1B – Jim Gentile
1B – Roy Sievers
2B – Ron Hunt
2B – Dick Tracewski
SS – Jim Davenport
SS – Julio Gotay
3B – Bobby Klaus
3B - Ozzie Virgil
OF – Hawk Taylor
OF – Chuck Hinton
OF – Gino Cimoli
OF – Frank Thomas
OF – Woody Held
Woody Held. I realize now that his name sounds like the punch line to a juvenile joke. You know the type, where you have a list of fictitious books written by authors with ironically funny names? The Yellow River by I.P. Freely; The Tiger’s Revenge by Claude Balls; The African Princess by Erasmus B. Black; that sort of thing. Perhaps my outfielder would have written The Joy Of Onanism.
The attraction of a couple of the others is less subconsciously explained. Bobby Klaus, for instance, sounded like he might have been Santa’s kid brother. And how could a kid not be fascinated by some guy named “Hawk”? He was the star of the team. I always had him batting clean up and he’d perennially challenge Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in a season. This was partly a function of how I devised the rules of the games I played with this team.
I used dice to simulate games. Each roll of the dice was a time at bat, and each number rolled corresponded to an action. Here’s how it worked:
If I rolled…
2 – Home Run
3 – Ground Out
4 – Fly out
5 – Ground Out
6 – Fly out
7 – Single
8 – Fly Out
9 – Walk
10 – Strike Out
11 – Double
12 – Triple
There were additional things to be done with the dice in certain situations. If, for instance, there was a man on first and the next batter came up with a ground out, I would then roll the dice again to determine if it was a double play; things like that.
Now, if you do the math (which I don’t expect you to do – I did it myself, a few years after the fact, to see just how closely my rules would have really approximated a baseball game) you’ll find that the team as a whole would hit well over .300 and you could expect about 200 home runs a season. There were a lot of 14 – 11 or 19 - 8 games for the Green Sox. My poor pitchers had hideous ERA’s.
Yes, I was so into this fantasy world that I kept detailed statistics for the team. My softball players of today will tell you that I still keep an ungodly amount of stats for our real seasons. For some reason, I’ve always found the breakdown of numbers in defined categories an interesting way to pass the time. I feel that there are secrets there, waiting for a diligent researcher to come along and uncover them. This is sometimes true, but other times I have to admit that it’s just so much high-level solitaire; a sort of bubblegum for the mathematically inclined mind.
I usually played the games out as honestly as the rolls of the dice would dictate, but sometimes the needs of fantasy are stronger than any sense of morality. Heck, it was my fantasy. If you can’t change the rules at whim now and again, what’s the use of even having a fantasy? You may as well live in the real world all day. So, I have to admit that the Green Sox didn’t win all of their championships strictly on the up-and-up.
Of course, after a while you tire of such things; you grow up, in other words. You realize how silly it is to be spending hours rolling dice, writing down utterly meaningless figures in a notebook and imagining yourself as something wholly unrealistic even under the most insane of circumstances. You realize that you aren’t going to be the miraculous boy manager. Soon after, you understand that more than likely you aren’t going to be a major league ballplayer, either. As a matter of fact, you realize that you aren’t even going to be a minor leaguer and, truth be told, the highest level of competition you’ll probably ever reach after high school is a decent brand of fast-pitch softball. You put away the baseball cards and you shelve a number of dreams along with them. Childhood and fantasy take a backseat to adulthood and real life.
Still doesn’t mean you aren’t pissed when your Mom throws out your cards, though.
I can’t end this on that note, because I’ve given my Mom way too much grief for her having thrown out my baseball cards. I think by now she knows that I’ve totally forgiven her, but just in case she’s still worried about it, she shouldn’t be. She’s gone out of her way to make it up to me, most notably by buying me another big shoebox full of cards one time when she was at someone’s yard sale, and then giving them to me as a birthday present, about ten years ago. That was extremely touching.
Anyway, I probably got the cards originally because someone’s mother threw them out. I like to think that when my Mom threw them out, they ended up giving great pleasure to some other kid.
Here’s the happy ending.
A few years back, when I was on a vacation in New Hampshire, I was strolling through the downtown area of where I was staying and I passed by a sports memorabilia shop. I took a couple more steps, stopped, and then decided to turn around and go back to have a look inside.
There were thousands and thousands of baseball cards, all categorized by year and then sorted alphabetically as well. I decided to see if the 1965 bins contained all of my old players. I’m happy to report they were all there - and in much better shape than when I last saw them, to boot.
I bought all 25 of them and took them home again. The nice thing about my team having been comprised of has-beens and never-weres is that they weren’t all that expensive, even for cards so old. I think I spent about 6 dollars to reacquire the Green Sox. They’re sitting here in front of me now as I write this, suspended in time so that now I’m way older than any of them were when I was the boy manager.
God bless you, Chris Cannizzaro, wherever you really are. You, too, Gino Cimoli. And especially you, Hawk Taylor. In real life, you guys may not be remembered as great players, but in the part of my heart that still belongs to a 9-year-old boy? You’re all in the hall of the fame.
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
My Dad was not a big fan of his Uncle Roy. Uncle Roy was, according to my Dad, not a tremendously nice fellow. I think the actual term he may have used was "miserable son of a bitch". Uncle Roy might have had some redeeming qualities, but the only impression he made on my Dad (or, at least, the only memory of Roy that my Dad ever talked about) was the following.
My Dad had a fear of heights similar to mine - open heights bothered him greatly - and Uncle Roy used to tease him about it when he was a kid. They'd be in a car, driving over a bridge, and Roy would see that my Dad was uncomfortable. He would then pretend that he had lost control of the car, letting it swerve slightly towards the edge of the bridge and then laughing derisively when he saw how pale my Dad became. He would then call him a sissy. Nice fellow.
Roy was married to our Aunt Anna, the sister of my grandfather. She liked my father and treated him better than Roy did, but I guess it wasn't very hard to accomplish that.
By the time I knew them, they were an older married couple living in an apartment building in West Roxbury. They had adult daughters living elsewhere. I personally never had any problem with them when I was a kid, but I wasn't especially close to them, either. So, when word came that Roy had died, it didn't affect me much emotionally. However, it did affect some plans that my Mom, Dad and myself had for a family vacation.
You see, my Dad worked for Eastern Airlines then. As an airline employee, he was able to travel pretty much anyplace he wanted, free. This deal included his immediate family, too. It was stand-by travel. That is, as long as there were seats free on whatever flight he had in mind, we could use them. This was a courtesy extended by most airlines at that time to other airlines and their employees. I suspect there probably isn't as generous an exchange these days.
At the time of this story, when I was about 11 or 12, we had already used this largesse to spend a week in Fort Lauderdale the past couple of winters. We had also traveled to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, and a few other spots in the USA. I was a very lucky kid. I would be taken out of school for many of these vacations. The thinking was that travel would be more educational than school - and so it was. This view was also held by most of my teachers. I was not penalized in any way for missing classes. As long as my grades kept up - and they did - no problem.
My Dad had planned a trip to Europe, the first one for all three of us. It would include stays in both London and Paris, and would take 8 days. We had studied up on English and French customs; had read books about getting the best bargains in hotels and meals and sightseeing, keeping copious notes; had pored over maps and itineraries and tour guides; struggled with the math of exchanging our money for pounds and francs and shillings and centimes; had bought new clothes for the trip; purchased many rolls of film for both a regular camera and a handheld 8mm movie camera that my Dad had recently acquired; we made arrangements with neighbors to take in the mail and feed the cat; had all gone to get passports and passport photos; new luggage had been bought; my Dad had meticulously planned the flights, trains, and other connections to the minute; with my Mom, he had made hotel reservations and planned interesting nights out for shows and days full of scheduled tours; every minute detail was accounted for and we were two days from leaving on this exciting adventure of a lifetime.
Then Uncle Roy died.
Now, even though my Dad was not a big admirer of Uncle Roy, he was a man who knew his duty to his family and to Aunt Anna. He and my Mom seriously considered canceling the trip. However, after speaking with a number of other relatives who knew about the vacation we had planned, they were unanimous in agreeing that we should still take the trip. There was nothing that could be done for Roy now - he was dead. As for Aunt Anna, there would be plenty of other folks there to comfort her and help with the arrangements. My parents agreed, so we continued with our plans for travel, but we would also make an appearance at Uncle Roy's wake, which was scheduled to begin in the afternoon of the day we were to leave.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a wake, it is the viewing of the body prior to burial. Relatives and friends gather to say a prayer or two for the deceased, as well as comfort each other and perhaps trade a few nice remembrances or stories concerning the departed. These days, this is almost wholly confined to funeral parlors. At the time of this story, however, it wasn't tremendously unusual to have a wake at the home of the deceased, or perhaps a relative's. Most pre-burial details would still be handled by a funeral director, and all of the cosmetic and sanitary niceties followed - you didn't just prop the body up in his favorite easy chair - but the coffin would be in the living room (or other suitable space in the house) and the mourners would be free to come and go all day and night, as opposed to the set hours of a funeral home.
Uncle Roy's wake would take place at the apartment he and Aunt Anna shared.
On the day of the wake, my Mom and Dad carefully planned out how we would be proceed. The body was due to first be put on display at around two that afternoon. Our flight was at six o'clock. We would stay at the wake for about an hour or so, then drive to Logan Airport in Boston. At worst, we would arrive at the airport at 4pm. This would give my Dad plenty of time to park our car in the long-term parking lot; for us to check our bags; and for my Dad to make acquaintance with the counter and gate personnel of BOAC, with whom we would be flying. This last was most important, as it would be a serious breach of etiquette to just rush up at the last minute and demand that your stand-by passes be validated. You had to be a nice fellow and shoot the breeze for a bit, in order to be assured of good treatment. It was common courtesy among airline employees.
We spent the morning going over last-minute details, making sure everything was perfect. Bags were packed, lists checked, tickets and reservations were made sure to be in hand. We dressed in our best suits and such, as not only were we going to a wake, but it was also the custom then to dress for air travel - no "I'm with stupid" t-shirts on airline passengers in those days. All of our bags were loaded into the trunk of the car and we started on our way to the wake.
We got to the house at a couple of minutes after two; just right for being among the close relatives and friends, but after the body had arrived from the mortician and the first sight of the remains had been made by the immediate family. Trouble was, the body hadn't arrived yet.
Small talk was made while the slowly growing crowd awaited the arrival of the funeral director. Everybody in the room, outside of Aunt Anna and her daughters, knew that we were on a tight schedule, and they assured my father that everything would soon be right. My father muttered under his breath to my mother, "The son of a bitch tortured me when he was alive and now he's goddamn well doing it after his death."
The body finally arrived at about 3 o'clock. The funeral director was extremely apologetic, explaining that there had been traffic, an unexpected delay at the parlor, etc. He now asked folks to leave the room so that he could set everything up nicely before the viewing.
After about ten or fifteen minutes, he called the family back in. The coffin was set up by the wall, with floral arrangements and candles nicely laid out. The cover of the casket was open, of course, so that we could all see Roy as we said a prayer. However, as soon as one of the daughters got the first look in the coffin, she said, "That's not my father! Oh, my God!"
General hysteria reigned for five minutes or so, until someone realized what had happened. It was, indeed, Roy in the coffin. However, Roy had always worn a mustache. He had light hair and the mustache was also extremely light. He had also kept it trimmed very close to the lip. The mortician, not knowing that this was a mustache, had instead thought that it was just a couple of days growth of beard and had shaved it off when he did the rest of the face. Profuse apologies were once again the order of the day. The immediate family was calmed down and the proceedings continued.
Aunt Anna was a daily communicant at the Catholic church up the street, so a priest was due to arrive to say a few prayers. He was late. Meanwhile, the clock kept moving. It was now well past the original time that my father had planned for our departure from the wake. As we were getting ready to go, priest or no priest, in walked the cleric. There was no getting around it now - we couldn't leave while the prayers were being said.
The priest said a couple of Hail Marys, an Our Father, and a few Glory Be To Gods. My father is looking at his watch and knowing that we had to get out of here now or we'd never make our flight. The priest finished and went over to comfort Aunt Anna and her daughters. Just about everybody else came up to my father and told him to go, now, while Aunt Anna was otherwise occupied, and they wished us well on our trip. We fairly ran out the door to our car.
My Dad was, among other things, a really fine driver. Nothing stopped him and he had no fear. Blizzards, hurricanes and other natural disasters didn't slow him down in the least. When we visited foreign lands, he drove everywhere. Didn't matter if they drove on the left side of the road or the right; he adapted immediately. And, if he had to be someplace in a hurry, he got there in a hurry. Such was the case now. We sped through the streets of Boston, attempting to get to the airport with at least enough time left to not look like total jerks to the BOAC employees.
We flew through the Sumner Tunnel and onto the airport access road. We arrived at the international terminal and pulled up to the curb with a screech. My Dad hopped out and opened the trunk, and we all grabbed our bags and pretty much ran up to the ticket counter, where we checked the bags and had our tickets stamped. We then made our way down to the gate, where my Dad made some small talk with the folks working there, being his usual charming self in explaining why we were so late. At last, we boarded the plane and were on our way to Europe.
We settled into our first-class seats. Another perk of being an employee of an airline, and especially one as voluble as my Dad, was that you often got the empty first-class accommodations. As the plane leveled off and drink service began, my mother got this slightly ashen look. My father asked what was the matter.
"Oh, Tom, I think I forgot to pack the film."
"What? For the cameras?"
"Yes, I'm pretty sure I forgot it. I'm sorry."
"Jee-zus Christ! All of the film? How could you forget something that important? Do you know how much it's going to cost us to get more film? Shit!"
My mother felt like crawling under the seat. She may very well have been willing to trade places with Uncle Roy at this moment.
The rest of the flight was uneventful.
We arrived in London and spent a marvelous couple of days getting to know that great city. We rode on the Underground (still my favorite subway in the world) and visited Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace was a treat, as was a visit to the Tower of London. My Mom and Dad were able to buy some film for the cameras, and if I wasn't such a dope when it comes to this computer age, I would post a couple of photos. All was excellent. The wake and the inconveniences of the past few days were forgotten completely.
The world premiere of the film Dr. Doolittle, starring Rex Harrison, was happening in London at that time. It wouldn't be out in the states for another month or so at least, so my Dad decided that we should go see it at one of London's movie houses. And so we did. It was a marvelous picture and we all enjoyed it greatly. It was a long movie, and was being shown with an intermission. We went out to the theater lobby, which had a full-service bar adjacent. As my Mom, Dad and myself enjoyed drinks of some sort, and while my father smoked a Players Navy Cut English cigarette, he suddenly got this horrible look on his face.
"Tom, what's wrong?", my mother asked.
"Oh, no! I... Oh, shit..."
"What? What is it?"
"I left the car running at the airport!"
When he was telling this story, to my Dad's credit, even after he and my Mom had divorced, he would say at this point:
"There I was on the airplane, laying into poor Connie because she had forgotten a couple of lousy packs of film, and then I went and left the goddamned car running at Logan Airport. What a jerk!"
(My Dad was often the hero of his stories, but he was just as willing to be the butt of the joke if it would get a good enough laugh.)
In his haste to get the luggage checked and get us to the departure gate, he had left the car at the curb of the international terminal - keys in the ignition, the motor running and the driver's side door, as well as the trunk, wide open. He was fairly well ill watching the second half of Dr. Doolittle.
This was before the days of the cell phone or e-mail. The only way to contact someone in the US was to call them long distance. At the time of the realization, it was after midnight back home, so who could he call? And, even if he reached someone, what good would it do? Whatever was going to happen to the car had already happened. It was either towed or stolen. He wasn't going to call the East Boston police department from overseas. In the end, my father decided to just make the best of the rest of the vacation. He wasn't going to spoil it by worrying about something he had no control over, and that made eminent sense.
We enjoyed the rest of the vacation (and enjoyed a couple of very good laughs about the ridiculousness of the situation) and then returned home.
Unbeknownst to my father, one of his fellow Eastern Airlines employees happened to be over at the international terminal the same night we had left. Rock O'Connor spotted my Dad's car sitting at the curb, idling, with the door and trunk open. He said to himself, "Isn't that Sully's car?"
After conferring with another EAL employee, and confirming that it was, indeed, my father's car, Rock put two and two together and realized what had happened. His first thought was to get into the car and drive it over to the long-term lot, assuming my father would check at Eastern first, when he got back, to find out if anyone knew the whereabouts of his vehicle.
Rock's second thought, however, was much better. He decided that it would a fantastic joke if he gassed up the car, then brought it back to the international terminal on the day we were due back. He would pull it up to approximately the same spot at the curb, open the door and trunk, and leave it on, so that when my father came out of the terminal, the car would appear to have been running the entire time we were in Europe, with the door and trunk open, and hadn't been stolen or towed or even run out of gas.
It was genius, but it never came to pass. Rock wasn't absolutely sure of our arrival time, so he couldn't guarantee being there at the right time. He wasn't going to leave the car running, door open, unless he could guarantee being there to watch it and make sure that it wasn't boosted by some creep who just happened to be passing by at the time. So, like many other great plans in life, it went by the boards. Great to think about the look on my father's face if Rock had done it, though.
And that's the story of Uncle Roy's Wake. It was the indisputable masterpiece of my Dad's prowess as a storyteller.
I can sometimes write a decent story, but he could just tell you one. I find that to be a much more difficult feat. The story, on paper, is a good one, but it pales in comparison to what it was like to hear my Dad tell it firsthand. I would give a minor body part to have a recording of him doing so. Sadly, none exists.
Soon, with more better stuff.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
MY WIFE and I watched a fascinating documentary on Saturday. Called Riding The Rails, it was about the quarter-million or so teenagers who became hobos during the depression of the 1930s. There are firsthand accounts from some of these kids, now elderly men and women, about how they hopped aboard freight trains, risking their lives and limbs in the hope of finding a better existence somewhere down the line. Archival footage from the era, as well as a soundtrack by great blues musicians of the period – Doc Watson, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee – make this a show well worth watching.
I once hopped a freight train.
(I’ll give my Mom a chance to get up off the floor here. And, Mom? Just keep saying to yourself, "This all happened thirty years ago. My son is now a nice Christian gentleman who knows what he did then was utterly moronic.")
My experience in this regard had no profound social significance. I was just stupid, as were my friends who accompanied me.
The Bakers Chocolate factory, on the Neponset River in Dorchester, Massachusetts, has long since closed its doors. However, when it was still a going concern, a rail line had serviced it. Long freight trains, their cars full to the brim with cocoa beans, would come into the plant area and unload their cargoes into a set of huge cement silos.
When the company decided to relocate to the Midwest, those buildings that weren’t just abandoned to rats and pigeons were sold to smaller companies. There was a print shop; a gym; a trucking company. The state of Massachusetts bought the administration building and turned it into a welfare office. One of the nicer complexes was redone as an apartment building. Central to this tale, though, is the only one of these buildings that still had access to the rail spur. It had been bought by a beer distributorship.
The trains that arrived now were full of beer. To teenage boys, some of whom had a slight larcenous streak, this was a much more interesting proposition than trains full of cocoa beans.
The way that the trains had to enter and exit the spur presented interesting possibilities for relocation of beer. At one time, there had been a roundhouse for the trains to reverse direction in. It had been located across Central Avenue from the factory. However, when the factory closed its doors and trains full of cocoa beans stopped coming, the acreage where the roundhouse stood was sold and a shopping center built. Shortly thereafter, the beer distributorship opened. Trains came again, but they now had nowhere to turn around. They had to run in reverse to leave the area.
In order to get the right image in your mind for the rest of this story, you’ll need to picture a medium-sized river. Train tracks run parallel to the river on the shore of either side. A bridge across the river connects the two sets of tracks. The factory complex is across the river.
The arriving train first travels in a straight line, all the way down the set of tracks on the opposite side of the river from the factory, until the last freight car clears a switch track at the bridge. A switchman disembarks and throws the switch. The engineer then backs up across the bridge. He continues backing the train, in a long semi-circle, all the way down the second set of tracks, on the other side of the river parallel to the first set of tracks, until his engine pulls clear of a second switch. That switch is thrown and, at this point, the engineer can once again drive the train forward, onto a spur that leads to the beer distributorship building. The spur is behind the huge cement silos mentioned earlier.
We boys from the neighborhood had been watching this operation for years now. We knew the schedule of arrivals and departures, as well as how long it took to perform each maneuver. We knew that each train carried a crew of only two: an engineer and a switchman. It was fun to watch a big old freight train do this curious arabesque of the rails. Whatever knowledge we had acquired had been by osmosis rather than a deliberate collecting of facts for use in thievery. We had no scheme in mind. We had no scheme in mind until we all turned 16 or 17, that is. That’s when we realized there was an opportunity for free beer that summer.
We thought it out. There were three times when a hit could be made, but two of them were no good. The first was when the train stopped on the opposite side of the river, before backing over the bridge. The second was when the train stopped backing up on the other side of the river. The third was when the train stopped to unload. Also, we had to contend with the way the doors of the freights were sealed, with a small band of metal that let anyone know if the freight had been tampered with on its journey.
The first stop was no good because the switchman disembarked as soon as the train stopped and he then headed back to the switch. There might have been enough time to open a freight car between the stop and his appearance at the end of the train, but not enough time to do anything once the door to the freight was open. In any case, even if we could boost the beer then, there was no place to go with it except across the bridge into the factory complex - which would be overrun with angry beer distributors once the yelling started - or back up the tracks toward the town of Milton. We doubted we could outrun an angry switchman, along railroad tracks with a wall on one side and a river on the other, while carrying cases of beer. We weren’t about to risk having to swim in the Neponset to get away, and that was a likely scenario no matter which of those escape routes we attempted.
The second stop was no good, either. Even though the switchman and the engineer would both be at the opposite end of the train for this switch, we would have had to have opened the freight car - and taken the beer - right in full view of Central Avenue, and all of the pedestrians and cars at the shopping center, as that was where the train backed to before stopping. This was at least as bad as the first scenario.
This left the third option, that being when the train came to a full stop to unload. While this might have appeared impossibly dangerous, being in such close proximity to the actual distributorship and a large number of workers, it was actually the perfect spot, for three reasons:
1) Both the engineer and the switchman left the train then, to enter the building. Nobody was watching the train for at least five minutes while they went inside and shot the shit with the loading dock guys. Usually, it would be well more than five minutes, but we knew we had at least that long and that would be long enough.
2) The train was completely out of sight of the street once it moved behind the silos. Nobody would be able to see us.
3) Since there was no way for us to actually transport the beer back into the neighborhood during the daylight hours without being seen, we needed a place to hide it. We knew that nobody ever went inside of the chocolate silos since they had been abandoned - nobody except us, that is, as we had taken to exploring around in them - so all we had to do was grab the beer and walk a short distance to a door in the silos and stash it there.
(I feel as though I should mention here that we weren’t normally thieves. We had the usual inclination towards petty larceny that is common in most boys, but that’s all. We had no profit motive. We weren’t really poor, so that wasn’t our excuse, either. More than anything else, we decided to do this because it was an adventure. We wanted to see if we could do it because it was there, just like the guy who climbed Everest. Also, since we couldn’t legally buy beer, we figured this was as easy [if not easier] as finding someone to buy it for us at the package store. It was wrong, of course, but we weren’t really malicious in our intent.)
Anyway, one of us appropriated a pair of wirecutters from his house and we waited for the train down at the bridge. We felt the rails vibrate as we heard the train approach, so we all scooted underneath the bridge, where there was a small bit of dry land to sit on while we waited for the train to cross the river.
The train came and did its dance; down one set of rails, back across the bridge, down the other set and then forward onto the spur and behind the silos. When the train passed over the bridge, with us underneath, it was pretty damned scary. We were about three feet from the bottom of the train. It was loud as all get out and even though we had seen the train pass over this very strong iron bridge hundreds of times, I still couldn’t help thinking that it would be one horrible way to die if the bridge decided to give out this time. Just as I was thinking this thought, a heavy black three-inch-long or so rivet actually fell from above me, landing a couple of feet to my right. Whether this had popped from the bridge, or the train itself, or had just been sitting on the bridge and been jostled loose by the train, I don’t know, but it wasn’t comforting.
After the train had passed completely by overhead, we climbed out and watched it finish its journey. We then crossed the bridge ourselves and ran towards the spur behind the silos, making sure that nobody saw us from the street. After a quick look up the tracks to be sure nobody was watching from the beer distributorship, the fellow with the wirecutters put them to use, snapping the steel band on the last boxcar. We slid open the door, as slowly and as quietly as possible, and there it was. Paydirt! Case after case of golden cans of Miller High Life! We each grabbed a case, scurried back past the end of the train, then took a left and headed towards the door of the silos. We went inside and put the beer in a stack over by the wall.
We now waited for the train to be unloaded. We wondered what they’d say when they found the last car open and five cases of beer missing. We were pretty sure there’d be some swearing, but overall we didn’t think they’d put up much fuss over five cases from a big trainload. And we were right. We heard a “sonovabitch!” and the door to the car slam shut, but that was about it.
Since we had nothing better to do while the train was unloaded, we all sat back and cracked open a can of our ill-gotten gain. Let me tell you – you haven’t lived until you’ve had piss-warm Miller High Life from a can. But, hey, we were 16 or 17 and it was beer. We sat in the semi-darkness drinking, smoking, and enjoying the feeling of being dangerous desperadoes.
After a while (after about three cans each) the train began backing away from the loading dock. It repeated its odd little dance, this time in reverse. It backed down to the street and then went forward towards the bridge. As the train entered the bridge and we were sure neither the engineer nor the switchman could see us, we left the silos, staggering just a bit as we were hit by the heat of the summer sun.
We walked along at a short distance behind the train and crossed the bridge after it. When the train stopped, and the switchman got out to throw the switch one more time, we hustled under the bridge again, this time trying to stifle a fair amount of laughter.
While we sat under the bridge, the thought occurred to us – all at the same time, it seemed – that it might be interesting to take a short ride on the train. We had never seen it go more than five or ten miles an hour, so we figured we could hop off whenever we wanted. We decided to do it. We watched as the switchman walked back up to the engine and climbed in. As the train began backing slowly down the track, we readied ourselves.
We saw the engine pass and we came out from under the bridge. There was a ledge of sorts on the front of the engine and plenty of room for us all to climb aboard and stand there. There were even handy bars and such to hold onto for balance. The crew couldn’t see us since the engine was taller than we were. We jogged along the tracks and, one by one, we hopped aboard and grabbed onto the bars to steady ourselves.
I’ve got to tell you that, as stupid as it was, it was a rush riding like that in the open air on that locomotive. We rode on past Milton, by Butler Street in Lower Mills, through an underpass that led to tracks along the river by Granite Avenue, and then past the Keystone apartment buildings. The train entered a straightaway stretch of less populated area and picked up a bit of speed. I would guess we were now going along at about 20 miles per hour.
Understand that the train is still going backwards, as it had nowhere to turn around. We were getting a little concerned with how far we had gone, and how we were going to get back when we got off, if we could get off, and we now had to grab onto the train pretty tightly because of the speed. We figured with a cargo of beer that the train had originally come from Milwaukee. While we didn’t expect that that was where we’d end up, we really didn’t know when we might be able to disembark safely at this point.
We cruised along, passing Neponset Circle, then the Savin Hill MBTA station. The Southeast Expressway was now to our left as we ran parallel to the MBTA tracks on our right. As we approached Columbia station, the train started to slow. We figured this was as good a time as any to get the heck off – maybe our only real good chance for a while - so we got ready to jump. Then the train came to a complete stop. We were now afraid that one of the crew had seen us and was coming for us. We hopped off and ran back up the tracks a little way, watching.
It turned out that this was where the train reversed direction before heading home – wherever home was. The switchman got out and threw a switch. The train lurched forward, onto another track. Another switch was thrown and then it backed up slowly towards where we stood. We took a few slow steps backward, giving our recent ride some room. Before it really came close to us, though, it had cleared the switch and our beer train left for parts unknown.
We had ridden about five miles. Now we had to get home.
We had a couple of choices. We could walk up to Columbia Station or back to Savin Hill. One problem presented itself, though; we had no money for carfare. Hard to believe that between us we couldn’t scratch up $2.50 or whatever it would have cost for the five of us to ride in those days, but that’s the way it was. Since we all couldn’t pay, we decided that we’d all sneak into one of the stations together. We figured if we got caught, those of us with money would then pay and the others would do whatever they had to do to get home. In other words, it was one for all, all for one, and if that didn’t work, every man for himself.
If you’re familiar with the MBTA, Boston’s public transit system, you know that the Red Line actually has two branches; one heads to Ashmont (which was near our neighborhood) and the other to Braintree. At that time, the Braintree branch was not yet carrying passengers. It had been built along the freight railroad right-of-way where we now were, but wasn’t scheduled to open for another month or so. With no subway trains to worry about, and with the knowledge that the only freight that used this road was the one we had just hopped off of, we didn’t feel we were in any danger. We decided to walk back to Savin Hill, about a half-mile distant. That way, if some of us had to walk all the way, we’d be closer to home. Savin Hill station also looked as though it would be easier to hop the fence to. Although Columbia was closer to us, there was barbed wire everywhere. We started walking.
About halfway there, we felt the tracks start to vibrate. There was nothing in front of us. We turned around quickly and saw that a subway train was slowly coming from the other direction, on our tracks!
We hopped to one side quickly and stood with our backs against the fence that separated the rails from the expressway. There was no danger of being hit. There was plenty of room between where we stood and where the train would pass us. We’d let it pass and then continue on our way. However, as the train neared where we stood, it slowed and then came to a complete stop.
The MBTA wasn’t operating passenger service on these lines yet, but they were running training classes for the operators. The motorman leaned out of his window and cursed a blue streak at us, telling us what damned fools we were. Heck, we knew that. He told us we were lucky he didn’t have us arrested, but there wouldn’t be another train along here for at least an hour, so we’d better hurry our asses up and get wherever the hell we were going and get the hell off the tracks before we got our fool asses run over and he closed his window and left towards Quincy.
After he left, we came to the realization that we had been - and still were - walking tracks with a live third rail. Until that time, we had assumed there was no danger, since there was supposedly no service on these tracks, but we now knew that if we tripped and fell we could end up fried. We walked onward, but very carefully, towards Savin Hill.
When we got to Savin Hill, we had to cross three electrified third rails to reach the platform – two on the side of the fence where we were now and the one we would encounter when we hopped the fence. We very gingerly stepped over the first one, then the second one, climbed the fence with an iron grip, lest we fall backwards onto 600 volts, and then jumped from the top of the fence far clear of the other live rail – a couple of us (me included) skinning a knee as we landed, since we had made so sure of clearing the live rail that we couldn’t properly land on our feet.
We boosted ourselves up onto the platform, saw after a short while that nobody else was in the station or had seen us, and we lit up celebratory cigarettes. We were sober, tired, dirty and, if not wholly remorseful, at least somewhat more knowledgeable than we had been a couple of hours ago. We caught the train and got home without further stupidity.
Personally, I didn’t have any more of the beer. I felt bad about taking it and, more important than that, it tasted horrible. I also never hopped another freight train.
This ranks right up there with the most moronic episodes of my life. I’d say it’s about tied with the time I actually walked all the way through a railroad tunnel. My friend Mark and I were near Kenmore Square one Sunday, and we wanted to get to a place in the Back Bay, and…
No, I haven’t the time to write about that now. You’ll just have to wait. I promise I won’t do anything stupid enough to get myself killed in the meantime.
Soon, with more better stuff.