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.”


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.


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.


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?



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,


Once Again, It’s That Time Of Year

6 November 2013

Once again, it’s that time of year.  Time to dust off the red suit, polish the boots, clean the glasses and get ready to sit upon the golden throne.  I’m talking about Christmas, of course.  I play Santa.

My old friend, Filoman Farquart, was over last night and we were belting a few beers while I sewed some Velcro onto the suit’s collar.  “Merlin, you superannuated old goat”, he said as I worked the thread, “You’re all spavined up.  How can you do that Santa thing year-after-year?”

“It’s a noble calling, Filoman.” I replied.  “Besides, there’s something about this time of year that, seems to bring out the best in people — at least in most people, anyway, and I enjoy seeing that”.

“Rubbish,” said Filoman, “People as just as churlish and mean-spirited on the 25th of December as they are on the 4th of July”.

“Not really,” I said.  “In fact, last year a gent even older than me maintained the Golden Rule was practiced at this time of year more than any other.  He said if you got a flat tire on a warm, languorous summer evening, there isn’t a soul in a hundred mile that’ll stop to help.  Ah, but if you get a flat tire on a nasty, sub-zero night with a biting wind, someone’ll stop to help within five minutes.  And like as not, that someone’ll tell you to go sit in his nice warm car while he finishes-up.

And what he said is true, Filoman, I’ve seen more random acts of kindness in the month of December than any other time of year.  Something about this time of year brings out the good nature lurking in us all”.

“In all of us, huh”, Filoman snorted.

Hoping to soften my friend’s crusty heart, I went on the internet and Googled “the golden rule”.  Perhaps I could find some supporting evidence of my assertion, and rub Filoman’s nose in it.  I found the following things and they appear in many, many websites:

Bahá’í Faith: Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

Confucianism: Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.

Christianity: Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.

Hinduism: That which is unfavorable to us, do not do that to others.

Humanist: Don’t do things you wouldn’t want to have done to you.

Islam: None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.

Jainism: Just as pain is not agreeable to you, it is so with others.

Judaism: Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Mohism: For one would do for others as one would do for oneself.

Native American: All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves.  All is really One.

Scientology: Cause only those things which others are able to experience easily.

Sikhism: Treat others as you would be treated yourself.

Taoism: Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.

The Way to Happiness: Try not to do things to others that you would not like them to do to you

Wiccan: I command thee thus, O children of the Earth, that which ye deem harmful unto thyself, the very same shall ye be forbidden from doing unto another.

Zoroastrianism: That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to others whatsoever is not good for itself.

Googling further, I found that all these faiths — and many other faiths too numerous to quote — have at least one major celebration on-or-near the Winter Solstice, which is 21 December.  Perhaps the juxtapositions of these major holidays and core philosophies is why, at this time of year, people seem so nice.  And to answer Filoman’s question as to why I play Santa, it’s so I get a chance to see all this niceness firsthand.  Well, time to go to the store and see if I can find a nice, plump goose for Jo to stick in the freezer.  

And a nice bottle of booze for my old buddy Filoman.


Genetic Engineering

27 October 2013

Here in Washington, next month’s election carries Initiative #-522 to be voted on by the people.  If passed, it will mandate product labeling to show contents that hasve been genetically modified.  It’s creating a lot of controversy.  Here were my thoughts on the subject.

This past summer I had occasion to visit a zoo and stopped by to see the wolves.  They really are fetching creatures.  They’re nothing like my neighbor’s bulldog which, though sweet, is as ugly as sin.   It’s hard to believe that homely bulldog, or any dog, for that matter, is descended from the noble wolf.  This disparity is the result of an ancient form of genetic engineering: Animal husbandry.  From time immemorial, goatherds, shepherds, stockmen and other keepers of animals have “improved the breed” by only letting ones with desired traits get together and rut.  They did this with wolves too and over time, they selected ones with stubby legs, or floppy ears, or wiry fur and so on.  Of course husbandmen are breeding the whole animal, so you would also end up with ancillary traits you may not want, e.g., curly tails.

Enter now the modern husbandman who, instead of selectively breeding for desired traits, consults the mad scientist in the genetics lab.  This scientist fellow can isolate individual genes for desired traits, but no others.  For example, you can custom-order a dog with stubby legs but without the curly tail — or any tail at all, for that matter.

Beyond that, the mad scientist can take genes from one kind of organism and insert them into another, one of a whole different kind.  Say a farmer wants to make use of the offal coming from his slaughter operation.  He thinks it would be nice if he could get his chickens to eat it but they are not suited to a diet of guts.  After mulling over the problem, the mad scientist decides to take a hens’ egg and insert the digestive gene from a spyder; spyders, after all, live on liquefied guts.  Ah, now the good farmer can make use of everything on the farm and increase his profits thereby.

But do you want to eat a chicken that’s part spyder?  I thought not.

Even more disturbing is the possibility (likelihood?) that the spyder gene will affect other genes and pretty soon you’ve got some horrid chimera that can fly in your window, peck open your neck and suck out your blood.

But there is another kind of genetic engineering, the kind done with vegetation.  In an effort to increase soybean yields, the mad scientists have messed with the soybean genome, cutting out a gene here, inserting a gene there, and now soybeans survive spraying with Roundup.

What might the Law of Unintended Consequences have in store for our intrepid mad scientist?  How about this anti-Roundup gene nudging the gene for growth?  Sending out a bazillion runners, corn, or soybeans or barley or wheat, could grow like Kudzu vines.  Kudzu, a noxious weed, grows over everything in sight — grass, weeds, shrubs and trees — and kills by impenetrable shade.  Kudzu has laid waste much of the southeastern US and is spreading at the rate of 150,000 acres a year.  Eradication is all but impossible.

But why would our mad scientists fool around with the world’s food crops anyway?  Why would they run such a risk?  Answer?  Money.  If genetic engineering can make crops grow faster, grow bigger and grow throughout the year, Big Ag can make a boatload of money.

But genetic engineering, left unchecked, can all too easily give us Frankenstein’s Monsters. A few weeks ago, down in Oregon, a farmer discovered some wheat in his north forty that survived a spraying with Roundup.  Though Monsanto denied this Roundup-resistant wheat was an experiment gone awry, Roundup-resistant soybeans are Monsanto’s stock-in-trade so draw your own conclusions.

It seems someone in Big Ag has let loose the Kraken.  What’s next?  Probably nothing good.  Kudzu, here we come.

Ah, but if we Washingtonians saw labels informing us our Wheaties and hamburgers contained genetically modified foodstuffs, we probably wouldn’t buy as much of it.  By our selecting for natural foods, genetically engineered foods will die out as they will no longer be profitable.  If people said “I’ll not buy another thing with Roundup-resistant soybeans,” Roundup-resistant soybeans would be off the market inside a week.

“Better safe than sorry” is a bit of old folk wisdom.  “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” is another.  I’ll pay a few cents more for my breakfast cereal if it will forefend my grandson being born with an eye in the middle of his forehead.

I’m voting for I-522.  So should you.  Caution and prudence demand it.



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