On A Cold Winter’s Afternoon

15 June 2014

In Richfield, winters are in their own way, as bad as summer.  The sky is as gray as ashes and the dying land is littered with brown leaves as dry as dust.  The plants and trees are brittle skeletons that dance in the bitter winds.  As the days grown ever darker, a dankness sets in.  First comes the cold rain, then the sleet.   The gloom is palpable.

Sales of alcoholic beverages go through the roof.

The previous year, Ma have become a volunteer; she was helping pimp the upcoming Tyrone Guthrie Theater.  A worthy undertaking that got her out of the house and away from me a good part of the week.  She’d hop the bus up on Portland Avenue and head to an office somewhere on Hennepin Avenue where she worked a phone bank, calling all the local swells and hitting them up for money.  Because money was involved, Ma took to the work like a glutton takes to food.  On this cold winter’s afternoon, she was down at the office, ten miles and a two hour bus ride away from me.  I had the house to myself.

What to do, what to do?

I went to the desk in my bedroom at took a stab at the chemistry book and its page of homework.  Deadly dull.  Like a shot of Novocain in the brain.  I soon cast it aside.  Back in the living room, I turned on the TV; only thing on was Howdy Doody.  Crap.

I sat on the couch trying to think of some way to kill the hours until Ma returned and we could engage in another battle over my sloth and indolence.  “Listen, Buster,” she’d growl, “All you do is flunk your courses and sit around like an old woman.  You’ll never amount to anything.  Your poor father works like a dog to provide for you and all the thanks he gets are your failures.  You’ll be a drag on society.  Honestly.”  Other times she browbeat me about the salutary effects of Tang, the ghastly drink of the Astronauts:  “If you drank more Tang, you might become like them and not the wastrel you are.  Honestly.”

I sat alone in the silence looking out the front window at the dreary world.  I had all this free time and couldn’t think of a thing to do.

Ah, but wait!  An idea began to form.

Against the living room’s far wall sat the Hi-Fi.  Dad picked it up the previous summer and Ma, with her pretensions to art, had a acquired a whole stack of albums; mostly  long-plays, but some 78’s as well.  One of the 78’s was Ravel’s ‘Bolero”.  It was Ma’s favorite.  Well now.

What if I taped a darning needle to the front of the phonograph’s tone arm?  What if I taped a half-dollar on top of the tone arm?  What if I put “Bolero” on the turntable, powered up the Hi-Fi and when the turntable reached 79 RPM, I carefully set the darning needle-cum-tone arm down into the lead groove?  YESSSSS!

As the turntable spun, the darning needle plowed out great curls of the record’s material.  The record was ruined for good and all.  I blew off all the chunks and curls, removed the darning needle and half-dollar, returned the tone arm to its resting place and carefully placed the disk back in its jacket and returned the album to its place in the stack.  Bingo!

It took about a week before Ma decided to listen to the sweet, burgeoning strains of “Bolero” but when she did, out came naught but squawks, squeals, hoots and crunches  “What happened to my record?” she bellowed.  “It’s ruined,” she all but wept.  Her face turning red with fury, Ma turned to me: “It was you, wasn’t it?” she hissed.  “I knew it,” she spat, “I knew it.  I can never have anything I want but that you ruin it!”  Ma was jerking and lurching around the living room so I decided it was time to get out of the house.  Bundled up against the elements, I headed for Dave’s place where we played Monopoly until dinner was called and his mom shooed me home.

As I came in the door, I heard Ma giving Dad a screed of particulars about her delinquent son, ungrateful lout that I was.

“Jesus Christ, Peach*” said Dad, “Don’t blow a gasket.  I’ll pick up another copy tomorrow.”

We ate dinner in awkward silence.  Another blow had been struck for freedom and right-thinking.

-Merlin-

*PS: Peach was Ma’s life-long appellation.  She explained to my friend, Paul, that Grandma Hazel gave it to her because, as Ma put it, “I have skin like a peach.”  I couldn’t resist; “Yeah, Paul, that’s because it’s yellow, fuzzy and full of pits.”  

 


Beans, Beans and More Beans

15 June 2014

IMG_3751[1]

 

Got a new car.  New to me anyway.  Fun.  Nice car.  The only thing it doesn’t have is the “Uconnect” cellphone device, and rear seat heaters (though it does send hot/cold air into the rear seat via conduits built into the console).  The Uconnect thing is an option, but the fellow who first bought the car didn’t —  what — want the potential intrusiveness of a cellphone?  No, I don’t think he knew it wasn’t a standard part of the SatNav,-CD, jukebox-disk library-AM/FM/Serius residing in the center of the dashboard.

As to why the Uconnect phone feature wasn’t simply included as standard equipment had to do with, I believe, a curmudgeonly bean-counter in Product Management.  He was probably old and felt this kind of feature was too Philistine.  So he drew a line through the feature as standard so the poor buyer had to specifically request it.  And if the buyer, Philistine that he was, forgot to ask for the phone feature, he didn’t get it.  But this is a small thing, for one can purchase a bluetooth thing that hangs on the sun visor like a radar detector and which accomplishes the same end.

Anyway, I’m having fun.

-Merlin-


An Observation

17 April 2014

While hanging out with some older folks from Minnesota, one of them ruefully expressed a sentiment held by many from that state.  It goes as follows:

“I set out to please everybody but  myself and ended up pleasing nobody, including myself.”

-Merlin-


Young Love

2 April 2014

Old men, and I am one, often sit and reminisce — lugubriously — over those days during the spring of our lives when love first made itself known.  We sit, looking at our pot bellies, our white hair (if any) and sagging flesh and recall better days.  Days when the world was an open-ended adventure and all things were possible.

These were also the days when the appearance of a captivating woman was both sudden and unexpected. The first time your head was turned away from childish pursuits when a woman took you to her bed, your head and your heart, as well as your loins, boiled over with . . .  gad, I don’t know what. Emotion?  Certainly, and wonderful emotions at that.  Lust?  Of course, but not the base, lecherous kind; I’m talking about the kind of lust one might feel on seeing an angel.  And why not? You thought you’d just died and went to heaven.  No more chess club for you, stud!

Of course, being a male of the species, the instinct to mate had raised its magnificent head and stayed above water thereafter.  I could, and often did, fall in love every other day. A woman’s intellect, humor, generosity and perspicacity meant nothing — at least not those first few days until I began to really appreciate the lovely creature on my arm.  Soon, she became more than a comely squeeze.  “Cathecting” is the name of this process, and rare it is.

I went out with many women and had torrid, steamy assignations with several well-chosen morsels.   Of course these were shallow relationships that began with fierce intensity but soon petered-out from ennui and waning interest.  They ran from 1-night stands to three months deals, a few even longer.

But unhappily, my wits failed me and I married (*ptoo* I spit) a horrid fishwife.  And that’s a goddamned shame too, since to marry the fishwife I threw over three splendid women, any of whom would have made me tearfully happy.

In throwing over these good women, I hurt them.  Some pretty badly.  And I regret that. But what’s the alternative to dating and loving several women — often in series, sometimes concurrently — understanding that all but one will fail?  Marry the first woman you date.  Well, that’s a bad idea.

Anyway, the one woman I most regret kicking to the curb was Carol.  We found each other in an orientation session at he university one fall.  Our eyes met, then met again and finally I got up and went over.  Carol was a fetching thing.  Jet black hair worn Jackie Kennedy style, the athletic build of one who lifts weights on a sometime basis and blue/green eyes.  She was wearing a frilly summer blouse and loose-fitting shorts that, when she crossed her legs just right, left little to the imagination.  Also, knee-high socks like a cheerleader.

I soon found out Carol had attended a Catholic girls school where the conflation of sex with sin was duly inculcated and Carol harped on this constantly.  Normally, on hearing this kind of  anti-sex nonsense, I took my bow and made my exit.  But not with Carol.  I liked her.  A lot.

Carol and I went out through the winter and one night in early spring, she ditched her bra. Oh, such magnificence.  Then on a warm and moonless night that summer, we were in my old convertible, which had more room inside than was proper.  Wrapped in our usual embraces with Carol working her way beneath me, Carol grabbed me by the ears, turned my face to her’s, looked at me with a a disconcerting  intensity I’d never seen and said (and I shit you not): “Make love to me, Merlin”.

Good Christ in his heaven!  Never before, and never since, has a woman ever said those words to me.

Normally, I’d have jumped right on it (no pun intended) but being the naif that she was, I felt Carol was making more of our relationship than I was.  I had no plans to marry but I’d no doubt Carol did.  If you keep in mind my earlier sentiment that Carol would have made a fine catch, there really wasn’t a problem with the idea, given a bit of time.  In any case, I felt that a woman like Carol, and especially Carol, would take it badly were she debauched only have her swain break off the relationship.  So I turned her down.  Both of us were disappointed.

A few weeks later, I was on the cusp.  If I kept on with Carol, we’d end up married for sure.  If I moved on I’d be free.  One day our car pool guy parked in the back lot and as Carol, me and two others walked to the stairway, I told Carol we were done.  Bang, just like that.

It took a few second for that to sink in, and when it did, Carol broke into a tearful rage of pain and disbelief.  I felt horrible about what I’d just done but I felt it had been  necessary.  There was a lot of Strum und Drang before the dust settled and after it did, I saw Carol just once more.  It was in a trendy tavern named CC Tap and she was with friends.  Lord, had Carol changed.  All in bad ways.  This Carol made me think of a cup of cream that’d had a spoonful of vinegar dumped in it. The blow I’d inflicted had really hurt, and the hurt seemed to have changed her.

Carol saw me and gave me that awkward insouciance of people whose harts are smarting.  In return, I gave Carol a quick nod and short wave, turned and was out the door.

Fifty-odd years later, I deplore my actions.  That awful day in the parking lot, I could have said nothing and simply seen where the heart leads.  And if it led nowhere, Carol and I would have simply drifted apart and one day agreed we no longer cared for each other in that special way: “Have a nice day and see you in the funny papers.”  On the other hand, if the heart took things to ultimate conclusions, I’d have waited until her folks were on one of their frequent trips, knocked on the door, popped the question, stuck a ring on her finger, took her to her bedroom and banged her brains out.

But I didn’t do that, did I?  No.

When I look back on it now, I see the way I ended the affaire de Carol was monstrously cruel and callous and I’m stunned that I could have done it.  Now these fifty years later, I wonder about Carol.  Did the hurt heal and she go on with her life?  I truly hope so.  If I’d done lasting  damage to Carol, truly, I’d be the guy who poured the spoonful of vinegar into that cup of cream.

They say that time heals all wounds and wounds all heels.

-Merlin-


The Coffin Banger

23 March 2014

During my grunt job era, I interviewed with a coffin factory and hired on as a metal finisher.  In case you don’t know, most coffins these days are made of .20 gauge cold-rolled sheet steel, not wood.  Oh, you can get wood coffins, but they cost like sin.  Anyway, because of metal unit’s prevalence, finishers were in great demand — especially because turnover was ferocious.

What a place this was.  It was on the north side of the city in a dingy industrial area served by a pot-holed gravel road.  The building was an old brick thing from the late 1880’s and looked every day of its age.  The shop where I worked had no air conditioning for the sweltering summer months and for the gelled winter days, there was a single gas-fired area heater located atop the south wall.  Fortunately, the toilets worked.

I understood the owner of this coffin factory got caught doing a no-no and was told to get out of managing the business.  Not one to see his baby fall into strange hands he couldn’t control, the Big Kahuna installed a shirttail relative in the corner office.  This shirttail relative , who worked in the factory, was an old witless creature who had no idea of how to run the business.  We came to know this fellow as The Big Green Thing, for he was fat and wore the same green workman’s ensemble day in and day out.  The Big Kahuna told The Big Green Thing to keep on with his regular job but told him that every once-in-a-while, he’d be summoned to the front office to affix his signature to some various documents. As to his job, The Big Green Thing would stride into the shop every other day, go to the welding bench for about two hours, fart around with metal parts, then stride out.  Never said a word to anyone.  It was like he didn’t even know we were there.  We thought The Big Green Thing had a make-work job so he could legitimately appear on the payroll. 

Anyway, as to my job.  Metal coffins consisted of several pre-stamped panels.  They were shipped in by rail and stored in a musty warehouse adjacent to the metal shop, where I hung my hat.  These panels were: One floorboard, four side panels, and two halves of the top (or, if the unit was to be a “sealer”, the top was one piece).  After normal working hours, some fellow we never saw cane in and roughed-out the next day’s supply of boxes.  For each floorboard, he cut two 2×6 slats six feet long, laid them in the bench, set a bottom panel atop the slats and *bang*, nailed them in place with an air powered nail gun.  The wooden slats let the coffin slide easily and noiselessly in in and out of the hearse — it wouldn’t do to have the box (as we in the trade called coffins) screech as metal slid over metal.  Next, he’d lay the bottom panel on the bench, position the four side panels just so, and spot weld them into place.  After that, he’d take an arc welder and weld the sides together at their midpoints.  Now you must understand that these welds were real hash jobs: When the arc was struck, the cold-rolled steel would buckle and twist from the heat and huge puckers and gaps opened.  Not only that, but his welds left behind great gobs of unsightly weld material.  But no matter, these unsightly welds would be covered by the end plates of the coffin’s handles (these parts are called “bright work”).  No one would ever see the awful workmanship.

When the day shift started, Donny would braze the visible portion of the corners together, i.e., the portions not covered by the bright work.  These were the parts visible to the viewers, and that’s where I came in.  It was my job to take a large electric grinder and sand the edges so everything was smooth as a baby’s bum and the seams lined up perfectly.  I did this for eight hours a day and became so good that I got an extra dime an hour.  

After I was done with a box, it went to Biff and Wink to have its lid affixed, be painted and have its bright work attached.  After Biff and Wink were through, it went to Nelson, who “upholstered” the box.  This upholstery looked like silk, right enough, but it was the flimsiest, cheesiest and cheapest material money could buy.  And why not, it would only be used once.  You might think a coffin is richly padded (it sure looks like it), but you’d be wrong.  A sheet of the upholstery material was simply laid on the bottom while the sides were puffed up with cotton wool covered by a sheet of the upholstery.  It was only for looks.  In truth, the body lay on the cold steel bottom panel but of course the occupant isn’t feeling anything anyway, so . . .

For those families who want to preserve the remains at all costs, the company produced a line of what we called “sealers”.  For these, the sides were welded properly — after all, this box was to be air-tight.  Then after I did my thing, Biff and Wink would spray a thick layer of automobile undercoating over all the seams so as to retain the gasses and liquids produced by a decomposing body.  Next, they glued a thick rubber gasket around the lip of the box and attached latches that would compress the gasket when closed.  Finally, they drilled a small hole in the back in which they mounted the valve from a car tire and pressure-tested the box.  If the box held its air pressure at some prescribed level for some prescribed period of time, the box passed muster and was placed in inventory, or shipped to the undertaker who ordered it.

Of course, being cheap cold-rolled steel of inferior quality, all metal boxes will eventually rust through and their contents return to the earth.  Of course you could buy a wooden box for your dearly departed, but they’re made of untreated pine and will rot through in even less time.  Now here’s an odd story: The crew in the wood shop (where they made coffins out of wood) told us they had a special order for a box made of cherry wood and outfitted with a telephone in case the occupant woke up.  I just can’t picture a man who’s had his blood replaced with embalming fluid coming to and calling home.

It wasn’t long before I began to do a lot of coughing and hacking and when I blew my nose, saw the issue was filled with black, gritty matter.  Looking around the shop one day, I realized the air was filled with metal dust and smoke from all the grinding and welding.  Not a good.  Finally, large pustules began to appear on my skin wherever clothing was tight.  The last straw came one evening when I came home to clean up.  The shower head broke the previous evening so I had to take a bath.  In showering, I couldn’t see all the crud and corruption being washed off but on this night, soaking in the tub, I a saw a gray, shiny slick form on the water and a black ring the texture of cottage cheese gather at the water line. Well, that was enough for me.  The next morning I walked in the office, asked the gal if she had my address.  When she said “yes” I told her to send my check there as I was done.  I turned, walked back into the clean fresh air, hopped in my car and went looking for my next grunt job.

-Merlin-


The Blasted Heath

12 March 2014

In 1953, in the summer of my eleventh year, we moved from Minneapolis to Richfield.  Richfield!  Gad, what a misnomer.  Where we’d lived on the second floor of a stucco triplex, we now occupied a box-like rambler.  Where Minneapolis gave us winding streets on low hills with huge elms and oaks for shade and gentile breezes, Richfield gave us a blasted heath.  There were no trees to be seen, not a one.  The place was semi-arid with a blistering wind blasting dirt and sand into our eyes.  The streets were laid out in a monotonous and featureless grid.  Ugh.

And the sun!  Oh Christ, the sun.  Each day it blazed down on our house heating the place almost to incandescence.  Heat waves shimmered off the softened asphalt streets.  Lawn?  Ha.  It was just a brown, dry patch of hateful weeds, chiefly sandburs.

Ever seen a sandbur?  No?  Well it’s a type of grass suited to a desiccated wasteland, such as our “lawn”.  The weed’s fruiting bodies appear on the ends of low-lying runners that creep across the lawn. These fruiting bodies consist of six-odd little burrs covered in unbelievably sharp spikes that at the slightest touch, go deep in the flesh and break off.  At the very least, these burrs stick onto your pants, your socks, your sneakers . . . anything, and must be picked off with leather gloves.

I felt like I’d been exiled to Mars.

Anyway, Dad agreed the so-called “lawn” was a travesty.  “We needed to lay down sod,” he said.  He made the call and soon some yard tenders came in, uprooted all the damned sandburs, poisoned everything else and the week after, came by with a truckload of sod.  Three weeks and a lake’s worth of water later, we had a lawn.  Back in Minneapolis, the triplex had a lawn but it was tiny and could be quickly cut back with the push mower.  The mowing duty was shared by Dad, Jim Schlafer downstairs and Harland Nasvik upstairs.  Not so in Richfield; thanks to my being a strapping young lad, the job was mine.  One evening Dad came home with a gas-powered rotary mower.  He set it up then tried it out.  It roared and stank.  “What the hell’s that?” I asked, pointing.  “Your new job,” Dad replied.  I was on Devil’s Island for sure.

In any case, Ma decided we needed a shrub to dress up the front lawn.  One Saturday afternoon she and Dad came home with a thing called a Mugo Pine.  It was supposed to become a decent sized shrub at some point but what Dad hauled out of the trunk was a runt.  It was just a ball of roots topped with a little green thatch.  “Give it time,” Ma said.  Out came the shovel and a half-pint of sweat later, the Mugo Pine was planted, it’s ugly little top barely peeking above the grass.

Now you need to know Ma and I got along like two cats in a gunny sack.  Our relationship died years before and, by 1953, we spent much of our time tormenting each other.  One deadly July day the  following year, I was sitting in the oven-like house with a fan blowing on my face when Ma came in.  “Listen, buster,” she snarled.  “The lawn needs mowing.  Now get cracking.”

“Ma.  You gotta be shitting me,” I exclaimed.  “It’s a hundred degrees out there.  The sun’s at its zenith and there’s not a cloud in the sky.  Not a breath of air moving.  I’ll die!”

It was no good.  In mere moments I found myself standing outside with cotton stuffed in my ears, a hankie wrapped over my nose and goggles to keep the debris out of eyes.  I pulled the starter cord, the engine chugged to life and I was off.  With each pass I cursed Ma and the goddamned lawn.  I mowed the back yard first, working my way around the sides, saving the front yard to last.  Well, as I was making my umpteenth pass across the front yard, I saw Ma’s Mugo Pine out of the corner of my eye.  “Humm,” I said to myself, “There may be an opportunity here.”  The mower was running low on gas so I headed back to the garage for more, mulling over the possibilities for mischief and smacking my lips in anticipation.

Back out on the front yard, I restarted the mower and took up where I left off.  The Mugo Pine was but two passes away.  Then there it was, dead ahead, squat and ugly.  (In truth, the pine really was hard to see, especially through sweat-streaked goggles.)  I advanced the throttle to full power and headed straight into the little shrub.  Bang.  Thunk,  Buzz, Whir. Thunk.  A cloud of dirt, bark, wood chips and pine needles went spraying everywhere leaving naught but a tattered stump.  The deed was done.

Back in the house and rehydrated from my ordeal, I flopped on the couch in front of the fan, picked up a copy of Collier’s magazine and thumbed through.  Ma didn’t see the assassination of her Mugo Pine until the following afternoon.  But when she did, she came rolling in the front door at full boil.  “You little son-of-a-bitch,” she yelled, stamping her foot as she often did in situations like this, “What did you do to my Mugo Pine?”

“What?” I asked, feigning innocence.

Ma went on to detail the death of her beloved pine.

“Your Mugo Pine?  Is that what I hit?  Aw, Jezus, Ma!  I remember hitting something but my goggles were filthy and I couldn’t see well — I just assumed I’d hit  another dried-out dog shit.”

Ma proceeded to call me everything in the book.  Then, gritting her dentures said, “I’m going to take a nap,” and down the hall she went.  Slam went the bedroom door.

Payback’s bitch, ain’t it?

-Merlin-


Reorientation

11 March 2014

Sorry for the lack of posts lately, but I’ve been working on another book.  This one’s called Stories From The Bus, a study in the economics and politics of our times.  It’ll be up on Smashwords and Amazon early next week.

So what about this blog?  Well, while playing Santa Claus up in Abbotsford, BC, Canada last year, I had some down time during which I regaled my elves with stories from my past.  They liked them.  Found them amusing.  So that’s what I’m going to do from now on — at least until I’ve exhausted my supply.  Which probably won’t be anytime soon as I’ve got seventy-two years worth.

Until later, then,

-Merlin-


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