Nazi Muff-Diving: It Could’ve Happened Here

Memorial Day weekend marks the traditional start of summer, and with it beach reading. An unexpected by-product of summer’s lower intellectual standards is that one’s literary risk-reward ratio expands exponentially, the way pole vaulting records were shattered by quantum leaps when athletes abandoned aluminum poles for fiberglass. Pick a mildewed paperback off a bookshelf in a vacation house–one that you’d be ashamed to check out of your local library for fear it would be cited in a future Senate confirmation hearing–and you can be transported to realms of schlock that previously lay beyond your poor powers of comprehension.

Thus it is with Ken Follett’s “Eye of the Needle.” Originally published as “Storm Island,” “Eye of the Needle” is a counterfactual tale, a story that asks the question “what if” about a historical event, imagining what might have happened if the proximate link in the chain leading up to it were altered. Here’s how Follett himself describes the thesis on which he built the plot:


German U Boat

 

It is 1944 and weeks before D-Day. The Allies are disguising their invasion plans with a phoney (sic) armada of ships and planes. Their plan would be scuppered if an enemy agent found out… and then, Hitler’s prize agent, “The Needle,” does just that. Hunted by MI5, he leads a murderous trail across Britain to a waiting U-Boat. But he hasn’t planned for a storm-battered island, and the remarkable young woman who lives there.

It’s enough to set you off and running, like a starter’s pistol at the beginning of a footrace. But the important thing to note is that it’s based largely on fact; the Allies did indeed disguise the D-Day invasion by sending legions of British vacationers to Normandy Beach, outfitting their children with inflatable squeaky frog inner-tubes. Surely, thought the Nazis, the Allies won’t attack here, now that the mothers have unwrapped the tinned meat sandwiches and the fathers have lost their car keys.


Allied decoy

 

Follett’s masterwork is marbled with a number of other historically-correct elements that lend it an air of verisimilitude, and which leave the reader, as he finally puts the book down late at night, shaking his head at what might have been. “My God,” you say to yourself, “but for a simple twist of fate, the women of America would have been in hopeless thrall to legions of Nazi cunnilinguists.”


President and Treasurer of your local Parent-Teacher Organization?

 

It’s right there on page 226, the infamous Gestapo muff-diving scene, as famous in its genre of mindless beach-reading as Gatsby at the end of the dock, the madeleines in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Hawthorne’s scarlet letter. Again, I quote at length, or as much length as I am permitted by this site’s Terms of Service and my ability to control my involuntary aesthetic gag reflex:

He slipped down the bed, between her thighs. (. . .) Surely he doesn’t want to kiss me there. He did. And he did more than kiss.

Suffice it to say that Follett’s “remarkable young woman” is ”paralyzed by shock” at the hitherto-unknown worlds of pleasure that her German tonguemeister introduces her to.


Elite Nazi Blitzentonguen Corps

 

Which raises the question: Suppose the Nazis had won World War II. Yes, the bright light of democracy would have been snuffed out, millions of “undesirables”–-Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Masons (!) and Poles–would have been consigned to certain death in concentration camps, and single men across America would have been subject to humiliation in scenes such as this:


“Pass the Pepperidge Farms Weiner Schnitzel-Flavored Goldfish!”

 

SINGLE MAN: Hi–can I buy you a drink?

SINGLE WOMAN: Are you a member in good standing of the National Socialist German Workers Party, better known as the Nazis?

SINGLE MAN: Well, uh, no, but . . .

SINGLE WOMAN: (To “wingwoman” friend) Look–isn’t that Josef Goebbels, Jr. over there?

The possibility is one with more than a passing interest to me, since I live on the East Coast, and German U-boats were believed to have patrolled the waters of the Atlantic until V-E Day. Say the Nazis had won World War II in 1945; I was born in 1951, and moved to Massachusetts two decades later. Had the Allies gone down to defeat, by the time I got here Nazi subjugation of American women would have been complete. The upshot for me? No dates, no mate, no heirs to carry on my name or DNA.

One imagines the final steps to Nazi dominance with horror, aboard a German submarine, V or C class, as it patrols the beaches between Cape Cod and the North Shore of Boston:

Aboard the Marlene Dietrich:

VICE ADMIRAL HEINRICH VON TIECHLER: What’s shakin’?

FIRST MATE: The Yankee women seem to have sacrificed greatly to the Allies’ cause. There is not a healthy set of gams to be seen on the beach!

VICE ADMIRAL: We are north of Boston, where the women lose their muscle tone playing bridge, making stupid jokes about how they like to go into Boston to get “scrod.” Let us turn to the south.

(. . .)

FIRST MATE: We are off Revere Beach.

VICE ADMIRAL: Keep going–Mussolini has dibs on the Italians.

(. . .)

FIRST MATE: We approach Cape Cod.

VICE ADMIRAL: Check the Infidelity Meter.

FIRST MATE: Conditions are favorable–I’m showing high concentrations of discarded limes with traces of gin in the water.

VICE ADMIRAL: Dive, man, dive!

A Day in the Life of a Federal Catfish Inspector

               To date the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent $20 million to set up a catfish office without inspecting a single catfish.  I’m not making that up.

Senator John McCain, remarks on Senate floor in opposition to the Trans-Pacific trade bill, Wall Street Journal

Image result for catfish
“Ahem–we’re waiting.”

 

As I gazed out the window of my office in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Catfish Inspection Office, a little internal voice that I recognized as my conscience told me that I probably shouldn’t spend the whole morning looking out at the Lake of the Ozarks just above Bagnell Dam.  After all, I needed something to do in the afternoon, after I came back from my two-hour lunch at Catfish Larry’s.  If I spent the first three hours of my day admiring the water–so beautiful and placid, like my girlfriend Verna Lee–I might be too bored to waste time looking at it in the afternoon.

No, things weren’t like they used to be at the USDA, ever since Senator John McCain got a bee in his bonnet about catfish inspectors actually–inspecting catfish.  How naïve could he be?  The Viet Cong must have fried his brain during his five and a half years in captivity, otherwise he’d realize that soldiers like him fought and died so bureaucrats like me could goof off.

Image result for bagnell dam

The word “fried” made my mouth water thinking about the catfish basket at Catfish Larry’s.  It comes with cole slaw and fries, so it’s a balanced diet of grease, carbs, more grease and artery-clogging mayo.  I stood up, put on my USDA Catfish Inspector hat so I’d get priority seating (“Law enforcement–step aside!”) when I heard a buzz and saw my receptionist’s extension number on the screen of my phone.

“Catfish Inspector Dillard speaking,” I said.  You have to keep the menial GS-0318’s in their place, otherwise they’ll start bitching that they’re “professionals” and don’t have to go on coffee runs anymore.

“There’s a school of fish out here that wants to talk to you.”

I gulped involuntarily.  “Did you tell them I was here?”

“I don’t get paid enough to lie.  For that you need to be at least a Cabinet Secretary, or a . . .”

Enough with your cheap cynicism about our federal government!” I snapped.  “Do you think I could duck out the back?”

“There’s a truck back there flipping the dumpster–you’re blocked in.”

Damn the Ozark Mountains, I thought to myself.  Everything’s so hilly here its nearly impossible to find a good parking lot, like they have in, like Kansas, or . . .

“Are you coming out or not?”

I knew I was trapped.  “All right,” I said.  “You’ve got the Federal Marshalls on speed-dial, right?”

Image result for giant catfish
You know you want it.

I heard a snort through the earpiece.  “You think you’re Abraham Lincoln or something?”

I’d had about enough of the punching-up backtalk from the receptionist, so I decided to face the music and dance.  The sooner I got over talking to catfish, the sooner I could eat one.  Or six.

I hitched up my pants, hesitated for a moment, then stepped into the reception area trying to look as cool as a cucumber–but I felt like I was lying in the sun at an outdoor produce stand, and so technically was sort of a hot cucumber.

“What can I do for you all?” I said in my most ingratiating federal bureaucrat voice.

The fish slithered across the floor to the point where I was standing.  Their slimy whiskers flipped back and forth across my “rough-out” suede cowboy boots.  Have to remember to write-up a claim for expense reimbursement after lunch.

Image result for giant catfish
“He followed me home–can I keep him?”

 

“We’re here to stop government waste and abuse,” one of the smaller fry said.  Looked like the kind of fish who files his taxes a month early.

“Yeah–we want to be inspected!” another said.  I started looking around for the 60 Minutes “gotcha” camera crew, but the fish had apparently come without human assistance.

“Now hold on, just a minute everybody.”  Just what I needed–a bunch of gill-breathing escapees from a Tea Party caucus.  “The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working hard . . .”

“You mean hardly working,” one of the fish said, and they all broke out laughing.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been mocked by a bunch of catfish, but it’s not pleasant.  I have to take a lot of bullhockey in my job, but at least it comes from the mouths of distinguished assholes, like congresspeople and citizens complaining about why I didn’t catch the latest e-coli or salmonella outbreak.  Hey–I was taking a personal day!

“This is why it’s so hard to get people to go into public service,” I remonstrated, and that shut the fish up.  I don’t think they’d ever even seen a remonstrator before.  I got it on cable TV, and it came with a battery-powered nose-hair clipper.

“We pay your salary, fat boy,” one of the more aggressive males snapped.  How do I know he was male, you ask?  He had a receding whisker-line.

“Folks, if you want to step into the conference room, I can receive your complaint in complete confidence.”  A lot of guys couldn’t pull off that high level of aplomb, but I got a Class 2 Plombers license after I got out of high school, and it comes in handy at times like this.

Image result for usda inspectors
“This appears to be some sort of chicken.”

 

I opened the door and the fish began to slither in, one by one.  “Would anybody like something to eat?”  Stupid negotiating trick:  Give some loser a free cup of coffee and subconsciously he feels he owes you something.  Which–if you’ve ever tasted the coffee in a federal agency break room–he most assuredly does not.

The fish looked at each other, making little moues with their wide mouths as if to say “What the hell, if he’s gonna offer, I’m gonna grab some!”

“I’ll have a couple hundred crappie,” one said.

“I’ll have a two-by-four and a tire,” said another.  Sheesh–I knew they were bottom-feeding trash fish, but I had no idea they were that disgusting.

“Okay, let me get Velma Jean in here to take orders,” I said, and after the receptionist had taken their lunch requests, we sat down for some serious negotiating.

“I understand your frustration,” I said in a low, considerate voice once the door was closed.  “I know you’re upset that after spending twenty million dollars on catfish inspection we still haven’t inspected any catfish.  But you’ve got to understand–there are almost three hundred and twenty million people in the United States.”

“We’re not people,” one of them said.

“Fair enough.  I walked right into that one.  On the other hand I’m a people . . .”

“A people who needs people?”

“No, I’m a people who works for the federal government, so I’d rather not have anything to do with people.  But catfish–that’s another story.”

I saw just a glimmer of approbation in their eyes.

“We’ve never had a catfish office in the history of the United States.  I’m going to be at the helm when we open up the first one.  Think about that.  I’m going to be the George Washington of catfish.”

Image result for catfish
The Millard Fillmore of catfish

 

“Wow,” one of them said.  I didn’t think they were supposed to be too smart.

“So I’m only gonna get one chance in my life–America’s only got one chance.  I’m gonna get this right no matter how many million dollars it takes–okay?”

If they’d had feet, they would have been up on them, cheering me on.  What’s the old expression?  Patriotism is the last refuge of the catfish?  Something like that.

“When you put it that way,” one of the smart-aleckier ones said, “I’m behind you 100%.”

“No you’re not, you’re in front of me–right there!” I said as I poked him in his big, soft, white underbelly.

I had them eating out of my hand by then, so it was a good thing the receptionist was back with lunch.  “Let’s see, did you order the tuna?” I asked one.

“No–I had a dead dog.  And a Cooper Mini.”

“Right, right,” I said as I passed around napkins, salt and those little coffee stirrer things–as an appetizer.

“What did you get?” one of them asked as I started to peel back the wax paper on my order.

“Oh, nothing you’d like,” I said as I discreetly dribbled ketchup on the fried delight who, for all I knew, was a relative of theirs.

Image result for catfish basket
Catfish basket–yum!

 

“C’mon, lemme see,” another said, and then, after he’d raised his ugly head to take a peek, recoiled in horror.

“You . . . bastard!” he hissed through whiskers that wiggled like those strips of paper they put on room air conditioners in appliance stores.

“What?” one of the fish asked.

The offended fish looked around the room with utter contempt.  “You won’t believe it!”

“How bad could it be?”

“He got fries–and we didn’t!”

At the Bizarro Rotary Club

It’s noontime on Wednesday, time for me to head over to the Bothner Hotel for the weekly meeting of our local chapter of the Bizarro Rotary Club.  It’s a great bunch and when you’re a small business man in a small town, you’ve got to get out and press the flesh if you want to be seen as a regular guy–and keep the big chain stores at bay.

I wave to Ethel, my top salesgal, and even though she knows from many years of habit where I’m going, she asks “You heading over to Bizarro Rotary?”

“How’d you guess?” I reply facetiously–I’m known as a great “kidder” around town.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she says coquettishly.  “A little birdie told me.”

Image result for small town ladies shop

“I’m expecting Jackson”–our desultory trashman–“to come by to haul away some cardboard boxes.”

“I’ll look out for him,” Ethel says.

“He’s like the Abominable Snowman,” I quip.  “If you blink–he’s gone and you may never see him again.”

We share a laugh and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail I’m out on Indiana Avenue and headed over to the meeting.  A lot of guys would view membership in Bizarro Rotary–the contrarian doppelganger of Rotary International–as a mark of failure, but not me.  Sure, I’m an upbeat, can-do, go-getter, but everybody needs a little negativity to recharge their battery from time to time.  I mean, if all you have is a positive charge, you’ll never get anywhere!

I recall my first apartment after college, with a roommate named “Ed” from Chicago.  Ed and I were friendly, but there was a wide gulf that separated our tastes in music.  Mine ended with bebop, and I leaned–quite dramatically, I might add–towards Clifford Brown on the trumpet and Johnny Hodges on alto sax.  Ed, by contrast, liked to listen to stuff that struck my ears as sandpaper Q-Tips: Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra.  To me, hearing McCoy Tyner recalled the sound you’d get if you dropped a piano out a third-story window.  And Sonny Sharock?  What he did to a guitar should have been illegal.

Image result for sonny sharrock
Sonny Sharrock: Worst jazz guitar player ever?

 

“You know what you need?” Ed said to me late one night, dropping the quotation marks that he habitually wore around his name since we’d been deep into drink and drugs for some time.

“What?”

“You need some chaos in your life,” he said with finality, setting off one of life’s little epiphanies for me.  Perhaps, I thought, he’s right.  Maybe I did need some unbridled, in-your-face, don’t-stint-on-the-hyphens Dionysian disruption to balance the rational, orderly side of my psyche.

Of course, I’d had a germ of the Bizarro in my being from boyhood, perhaps best revealed by an unprovoked wise-crack I made in the very building I was about to walk into, in the Bothner Hotel Barbershop.  After getting my usual mortifying crew-cut, which my mother had trained the barbers to give me even if I asked for a flat-top, I hopped out of the chair, accepted my stick of Juicy Fruit gum and put on my cool crew jacket.

Image result for flat top haircut
What I WANTED to look like.

 

“You’re looking pretty sharp there, young man!” the barber named “Frosty” said as I walked towards the door.

“Forms a nice contrast, since you’re not,” I cracked, causing audible gasps to escape from the gaping mouths of the assorted idlers assembled in the little white-tiled shop.

“That boy’s headed for trouble!” a hare-lipped farmer said as I walked away, as if to put a gypsy curse on me.

“Pah!” I pahhed.  What did I care for the opinions of a bunch of yahoos, rednecks and hilljacks?  I was above all that, a Nietzsche in short pants.

But when I came back to my little home town after college, I found out that my reputation formed in childhood had hardened with time; I was, forever and irredeemably, The Kid Who Cracked Wise.

Image result for shriners
Whoa–look out!

 

I tried to join the Lions, the Moose, the Elks.  Nothing.  I called up the Shriners, the Masons, and the Odd Fellows.  Nada.  Desperate, I called the Extremely Odd Fellows.  Even they turned me down.

But then one night when I was in my cups–or more precisely in my longneck beer bottles–a fellow embittered townsman “pulled my coat tail,” as they used to say in Harlem.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree, man,” he said as he reached in front of me for the last of the Pizza-flavored goldfish.

“How so?”

“You should try the Bizarro fraternal societies.”

I was vaguely familiar with the concept of Bizarro culture, the alternative universe created for Superman’s mirror-image antagonist.  Where Superman fought for truth, justice and the American Way, Bizarro fought for falsehood, injustice, and–uh–I guess the un-American Way.

“There are–Bizarro lodges?” I asked, incredulous.

“Sure–how do you think I can stand living in this boring burg?”

I looked him over and sized him up; an embittered post-adolescent like me.

“Do you think,” I began hesitantly, “I’d qualify?”

Image result for bizarro

“Let’s see,” he said.  “Are you shunned for your grotesque appearance?”

“Look at me!” I said, pointing to the numerous scars on my face.  There was the one from a football helmet that cracked during a freshman game, giving me a cut that required six stitches to close.  There were chicken pox and acne scars.  I hit myself over my left eye playing tennis–not an easy trick–three more stitches.  There was the one on my upper lip from a punch.  Finally, there was one from a potato rake; don’t ask me how I got that one, but it involved a tree, a dare and some youthful hijinks.  It was the 70s–everybody else was having sex.

“Okay,” he said, “You’ll pass that test.  Do you have strange speech patterns?”

I thought of the many hours I’d spent with crackpot speech therapists as a child; forced to recite poetry in the hope that it would untie my tongue, to this day I can recall entire stanzas from Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel on a bet.

“I got that one covered,” I said.  “What else?”

“Are you habitually contrarian, trying to make a joke out of everything, making cutting remarks . . .”

“You’re looking at the King of the Gratuitously Smart-Aleck Comment.”

And so I was inducted, after a brief instructional course, payment of first month’s dues and purchase of a goofy hat–a prerequisite for membership in any self-respecting men’s lodge–into Bizarro Rotary.

Image result for goofy lodge hat
Loyal Order of the Blue Buffalo

 

Bizarro Rotary, as the name implies, is the obverse of normal Rotary.  The Rotary Pledge is an inspiring set of principles that have seeped out of that order’s meetings into the broader stream of American life.  They are, quite frankly, words to live by, at least as far as idle remarks go.  And believe me, as the guy who once referred to one of his law partners as “The Blanche DuBois of the Boston bar” because he always depended on the kindness of strangers–idle remarks can go a long way.

Surely you have heard the Rotary Pledge, even if you don’t observe its tenets.  It has been translated into over a hundred languages, so you can’t say they don’t apply to you because you only speak Urdu.  Before a Rotarian says, thinks or does anything, he must ask himself these questions:

1.  Is it the TRUTH?

2.  Is it FAIR to all concerned?

3.  Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?

4.  Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

(As you can see, the “Caps Lock” key gets stuck a lot at Rotary headquarters, but you get the drift.)

If the answer to any one of these questions is “no,” a regular Rotarian may not say, think or do what he was ever-so-close to saying, thinking or doing just moments before.

At Bizarro Rotary, on the other hand, it works the opposite way.  If the answer to question 1 is “yes,” and the answer to any of the next three “no,” the Bizarro Rotarian must plunge ahead, consequences be damned.  Do think Jerry Spagnola’s tie is ugly?  It may be true, but it may not build a better friendship, so you’d better tell him so.

Do you think it’s likely Al Urquart’s daughter will never get married because she looks too much like him, instead of his gamine-like wife Marjean, who possesses a prize-winning collection of thimbles?  Sorry, but you’re going to have to break the news to him.

Image result for chevy gmc dealer
“Shore is purty at sundown, ain’t it?”

 

As I walked into the lobby of the Bothner I spied Bob Gramach, our local Chevy-GMC dealer.

“Hey Bob–still selling those crappy cars like the lemon you unloaded on me?” I say by way of greeting.

“You better believe it,” he says with a smile.  “Are you still stuck in that dead-end job you hate?”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” I say.  I push the button on the old-fashioned elevator with the brass grillwork and we glide slowly up to the second floor, where we see a number of our fellow local bad-handers palavering about things.

“Des Moegelin!” I say when I spy our local farm implements dealer.  “How’s you’re inadequate sexual equipment hangin’?”

“A little to the left, but my little looks big next to yours!” he says and his buddies erupt in laughter–that’s the Bizarro Rotary spirit!

“Good to see you again,” says Mike Dworpkin, an insurance agent for Modern Moosehead Indemnity.  “That bump on the side of your nose is getting bigger all the time!”

“Thanks,” I say proudly.

Many people mistake the blunt honesty of Bizarro Rotarians for some sort of disorder, like Asperger’s Syndrome, but our demonstrated lack of empathy is our way of steeling each other for the hard rows we all have to hoe; if you want a lodge that’s going to give you a false sense of comfort, like life’s a big bag of marshmallows, get your ass over to the Knights of Pythias.

Image result for knights of pythias
Knights of Pythias: What the hell–are you guys a glee club or something?

 

We begin to take our seats at the round tables that are set up for lunch and our Grand Scorchmaster, Ted Wyboldt, offer’s the day’s invocation.

“Heavenly Father,” he intones as we all bow our heads, “you have made one gigantic hot steaming mess of the world.”

“A-men,” we all murmur humbly, recognizing that our pitiful inadequacies in the here and now are nothing compared to the way the Creator of All Things has screwed things up.  They say on the seventh day he rested, but my guess is he looked upon his work and decided it was too broke to fix.

The speaker on program today is the new head coach of the Oklahoma A&M Fighting Stinkbugs, Joe Ray Diggs, an up-and-coming offensive genius who has turned around every team he’s touched so far in a career that has every appearance will end up with him on national television some New Year’s Day.  After the obligatory business part of the meeting–unpaid dues, recognition of how poorly the winners of our local oratorical contest did in the regionals–it’s time for some game film and football talk.

“Thanks for having me today, Ted,” Diggs says as he fumbles with the remote that turns on the projector.  “How many A&M grads we got here today?” he begins, using the old public speaking gimmick of getting the audience on your side from the get-go.  Approximately a third of the hands in the room go up, and Diggs smiles.  “That’s good,” he says with a smile.  “May I remind you that every check you write to the Booster Club does not have to be reported to the NCAA.”

The crowd laughs appreciatively, and Diggs moves on to his pitch.  “Folks, I know A&M has let you down over the last few decades,” he says.  He’s been told to tell the truth and not sugarcoat it.  “My predecessor was the kind of guy who couldn’t find his ass with both hands, to tell you the truth.  He couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if there was instructions on the heel.”

Diggs plays these for laugh lines, but when he realizes that such rough talk is permitted–even expected–he continues.  “Me?  I’ve got a different philosophy,” he says.

“What’s that, coacher?” ask Gene Haskins, a beefy man down front who played for the Fighting Stinkbugs during their last winning season a decade-and-a-half ago.

“If you want to win,” Diggs says with squinting eyes that evince his seriousness, “you’ve got to pay your players enough.”

 

For Some US Students Heavy Backpacks Are No Burden

QUIBDO, Colombia.  It’s “Day of Return” in this, the capital of the Choco, a department (roughly equivalent to a U.S. state) of Colombia.  “Today we put the Children of Affluence back into the belly of the big silver songbird,” says Jhon Diaz, a young man in his twenties who hopes someday to come to the United States to have the middle two letters of his first name reversed.  “We will miss them when they are back home playing video games and eating double-stuffed Oreos.”

Image result for MUDSLIDE

Diaz is referring to forty ninth-graders from Nellie Fox Middle School in the suburbs of Chicago, who for the past two weeks have lived in this village on a trip that has cost their parents $5,000 in tuition, plus airfare and gear such as waterproof ponchos to keep the children dry during Colombia’s spring rainy season, which falls in April and May.  “These children have been a gift from God,” says village elder Vasquez Osorio.  “Before we had to buy pack mules, but thanks to American cultural enrichment programs, we are now paid to take little human beasts of burden,” he says with a smile as he tousles the hair of Timmy Felknap, a 15-year-old with braces and a shy smile.

Image result for heavy student backpack middle school
“Ungh!”

Choco suffers from devastating mudslides in the spring, and in the past villagers have used burros to haul the mud back to the top of the Baudo mountains so that it can slide down again the following year.  “It was back-breaking work for the poor animals,” says Diaz as he shakes his head in sympathy.  “The Nellie Fox students have been hauling heavy books around since kindergarten, and are suited to mind-numbing work due to standardized testing.”

Image result for chip hilton

Despite being a wealthy nation capable of providing its children with expensive technological doo-dads, America forces young children to haul heavy textbooks around on their backs even though a “thumb drive” no bigger than a human thumb can hold more information that a typical school library.  “We checked and it’s true,” said Morris Barnum, immediate past president of the American Association of Vice Principals.  “We squeezed all the Chip Hilton stories I loved growing up onto a little thingy that holds thirty-two gigabytes, whatever they are.”

As for the students, many of whom refuse to do chores at home, the chance to help illiterate third-world villagers has been an enlightening experience.  “It’s only work if you have to do it,” says Melinda Bassett, who will highlight her expensive Colombian experience on her college applications.  “If your parents pay for it and it looks good on your resume, it’s fun!”

Poetry for Cats

Call me crazy, but I like to write poetry.

For cats.

Cats are a good training ground for poets. They are largely indifferent to poetry, like the overwhelming majority of people, but that still makes them a more receptive audience than my wife, who is openly hostile to the stuff.

Writing poetry for cats is low-level mental stimulation, like doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, but you make up the problem to be solved, rather than some faceless drone at a newspaper syndicate, so when you’re done you’ve created something. Albeit on a par with a gimp necklace at summer camp.

It takes very little activity, or inactivity, on the part of my cats to serve as my muse. Here’s a cat poem I thought of just last night:

I take my laser pen in hand
and shine it in a circle.
My little cat goes chasing ’round,
it drives him quite berserkle!

Then I take what I’ve written, crumple the paper up into a ball, and throw it across the room. My cat pounces on it, extending our fun, and conserving precious resources through recycling. I’m trying to reduce our humor footprint.

Just because I write poetry for my cats doesn’t mean they’re sissies. They’re both males who will stay out all night, getting into fights with all manner of beasts. They bring us sustenance; field mice, birds, chipmunks. Once Rocco, the younger of the two, horse-collared a squirrel from behind, like a member of the New England Patriots’ defense, and dragged it, dying, to our back patio. As a former high school middle linebacker in a 4-3 defensive alignment, I found this to be a most gratifying spectacle.


Horse collar tackle

T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” is perhaps the most famous collection of cat poems, but it has always struck me as a bit fuss-budgety, like its author, a native of St. Louis who became a British subject in 1927, thereby missing out on seven World Series titles by the St. Louis Cardinals. What a dope! That book, of course, was turned into the hugely successful Broadway show Cats.


T.S. Eliot: And you call yourself a Cardinals fan!

My wife once bought us tickets to see the show for my birthday, assuming that because I liked cats, I would like the show, but she sensed my indifference to Eliot’s work at dinner. As we left the restaurant for the theatre we were approached by two show tune mavens who breathlessly asked us if we had tickets we were willing to sell. We gave each other a look that lasted as long as the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings, then sold the ducats at a premium. This is the first and only known instance of scalping by a Presbyterian woman since the church was established during the Scottish Reformation in 1560.


Cats: Thanks, I’ll pass.

Lots of poets have had cats, chief among them Samuel Johnson, whose cat was named “Hodge.” I had a girlfriend whose cat was named after Johnson’s. When we had her refined friends over she’d tell the story about how, when Johnson learned of a wave of cat-napping sweeping London at the height of the popularity of catsmeat pies, he looked down at his cat and said “They’ll not have Hodge!” Sort of NPR humor, as Harry Shearer would say–loads of muted titters. We broke up; she got the cat, and I got the hell out of there.


Johnson: How do you know you won’t like cat’s meat unless you try it?

For my money, the greatest of all cat poems is For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey by Christopher Smart (1722-1770), from Jubilate Agno. It’s a work that every pet store owner and cat groomer should have up on their wall, in needlepoint. Surely you know its stirring opening lines:


Christopher Smart, wearing his “everyday” mortarboard

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey.
For he is the servant of the Living God,
duly and daily serving him.
For at the First glance of the
glory of God in the East
he worships him in his way.
For is this done by wreathing
his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk,
which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.

Musk is the smelly substance obtained from a small sac under the skin of the abdomen of the rodents cats kill, and to “roll upon prank” refers, in a charming 18th century way, to cats’ preferred method of applying it. Yep–that’s a real cat there, not some Broadway-bound dancer-pussy.

Oh–I neglected to mention that when Smart wrote the above, he was a resident of Bedlam, the London hospital for the mentally ill.

Call him crazy.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collections “Cats Say the Darndest Things” and “poetry is kind of important.”

Moi et Stendhal’s Lust for Women’s Eyebrows

What marvelous eyebrows these women of Angouleme have!

The thing that strikes the traveler from Paris most are the fine features of the women in Bordeaux and the beauty of their eyebrows.

Most admirable of everything in Bordeaux are the foreheads and eyebrows of the women.

In the boldness of the nose, in general not too large, the smooth beauty of the forehead, the admirably drawn eyebrows, one can recognize the Iberian race.

Inhabitants of Bordeaux: obvious mixture of the Iberian, the Cimbrian and the Gallic races. Beautiful eyebrows.

Today [in Bayonne], there were many beautiful women with Spanish faces (handsome eyebrows).

Stendhal, Travels in the South of France.

 

I’m sitting in the cell phone lot at Logan Airport waiting for my friend Marie-Henri Beyle to arrive from France. And from the past, since he’s been dead for 171 years.


Cell phone lot, Logan International Airport, Boston

My phone buzzes and, after a few seconds of fumbling, I succeed in answering.

“‘Allo ‘enri!” I say, trying to make him feel at home with a little Franglais. “Comment-allez vous?”

“Skip the high school French and come pick me up you dingbat,” he snaps.

“Okay, Mr. Grouchy Culottes!”


Marie-Henri Beyle, a/k/a Stendhal

I’ve been a big fan of Stendhal ever since I read The Red and the Black. That book has all the elements of a great novel; a young man from the provinces–ambitious, cynical, without social advantages–arrives in the big city and prepares to make his way in the world. And I say this with total objectivity as a young man from the provinces–ambitious, cynical, without social advantages–who arrived in the big city about the time I first read Stendhal and prepared to make my way in the world.

But now, I think as I maneuver my way through the spaghetti-like strands of roadway that lead back to Terminal E where international flights land, our roles are reversed; back then, he gave me guidance to overcome my naivete and provincialism, now I’m going to help him get over his curious fixation with–women’s eyebrows.


“Look at the eyebrows on that jeune fille!”

I first noticed it reading his Travels in the South of France, as I traveled in the south of France two years ago; from Angouleme, to Bordeaux, to Bayonne, the guy couldn’t take his eyes off of women’s ‘brows.


Frida Kahlo: “Whadda you lookin’ at?”

I’ll cop to something of an eyebrow jones myself, although I like to think I keep it under control. One summer when my mom tried to get me interested in a rather plain girl she said “She’s plucked her eyebrows!” I could have said “And you think that will make her look better?“–but I didn’t. I don’t hang out at Unibrow, the local eyebrow fetish club. I don’t do the Walk for the Cure for Synophrys, the one sure-fire fresh-air event to attend if you want to meet nice, wholesome girls with monobrow. I don’t have a Frida Kahlo pinup poster in my bedroom.


“Please–my sense of taste is too good to be in this post.”

But Stendhal–to steal a line from Duke Ellington–he’s got it bad and that ain’t good, and so I’ve arranged for an intervention of sorts: I’m going to strap him in a chair and make him watch while world-class aestheticians work their magic, plucking, tweezing, shaping, piercing, threading, tinting and tatooing the eyebrows of Boston’s women. That sort of forced overdose ought to cure him.

“I hope you’re not going to waste my time practicing your French on me,” the great man says as he squeezes himself in my 2006 Pontiac Torrent.

“Pas de fumez,” I say with a debonair air.

“I don’t smoke,” he replies.

“Oh, I thought I was saying ‘Of course not, you silly nimmy-not.’”

“Where is it you are taking me?”

“You’ll see when we get there,” I say cryptically, which shuts him up like a crypt.

“These people are worse than Parisian cab drivers,” he says, shaking his head as a man cuts diagonally across three lanes to get to the automated toll lane.

“It’s part of our rich cultural heritage,” I say, overflowing with bogus sentimentality about the place I chose to make my home four decades ago. “The cows were dizzy when they got off the Mayflower, and everyone has been following their crazy-ass example ever since.”


“If you want to get on the Boston Post Road, cut off a team of oxen here and exit right.”

I take the Government Center exit and soon we are driving down fashionable Newbury Street, home to more salons devoted to the care and upkeep of hair, skin and nails than anyplace else in New England.

“Your women,” Stendhal begins, “they have bodacious . . .”

“Hank,” I say cutting him off, “we’re going to try and do something about this obsession you have with women’s eyebrows.”

“I am not obsessed with women’s eyebrows!”

“Oh yeah–I found six references to them in Travels in the South of France. You don’t think about anything else!”

“So what?” he asks, implictly conceding the point. “It’s much healthier than a foot fetish, or staring rudely at a women’s . . .”

“Watch it–this is a family blog.”

“I’ll keep it French–mammaire.

“Thanks. No it’s not, it’s downright weird.”


“Show us your eyebrows!”

“Nobody’s complained before you.”

“Um, did you ever make it into l’Academie Francaise?”

He looks hurt, and for good reason. As every French schoolboy–or anyone who cares to look it up on Yahoo! France Questions Reponses–knows, Stendhal didn’t get invited to be one of the les Immortels who guard the purity of the French language, while a political hack like Valéry Giscard d’Estaing got to wear l’habit vert.

“It wasn’t fair!” he sniffs.

“What did Jack Kennedy’s father tell him?”

“I dunno.”

“Life is unfair–to people who don’t have tons of money and beautiful women throwing themselves at their feet.”


“Please–take a number!”

“It was a big disappointment,” he says, but I break into my “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” chant and he cans the self-pity.

We park and I feed the meter with two hours’ worth of quarters–that oughta do it–and we find Brow Beat, a clean well-lighted place that specializes in women’s eyebrows. I poke my head in to make sure Hemingway’s not here–I don’t want Stendhal to get sucker-punched–and when I see the coast is clear, introduce myself to the receptionist.

“We’d like to observe a few plucking sessions,” I say, trying to project a mature if slightly goofy self-confidence. I’ve found that you can bluff your way into just about anything if you act like it would be the height of effrontery for them to turn you down.

“We have a session in progress. Are you . . . a city inspector?”

“Federal Food and Drug Administration,” I say, opening my wallet and flashing a health club membership card. “We want to make sure you’re not putting any eyebrow hair you pluck into children’s cereal.”


“Me and my partner Harry Morgan have a few questions to ask about those tweezers.”

“Oh, okay,” she says. Apparently she hasn’t taken the American Government course at beauty school yet.

They take us to a room with a two-way mirror looking out over the salon floor, where the owner, a Serbian woman named Branka, observes the girls’ technique.

“Thanks,” I say to the young woman as she shows us in.

“Can I get you anything?” she asks politely.

“What he wants doesn’t come in a bottle,” I say, nodding my head at Mr. Sourcil.


“You have such thick, lustrous brows!”

I tell Stendhal to sit down, then I strap him in. I’m going to subject him to his worst nightmare, like Winston Smith being attacked by rats in Room 101 in Orwell’s 1984; I’m going to make him squirm while women’s eyebrows are plucked out.

“Did I tell you what my major was in college?” I ask, once he’s uncomfortably situated.

“No, what?”

“Philosophy, concentrating in aesthetics. That’s why I get along so well with aestheticians.”


“Get outta town–I majored in aesthetics too!”

He seems under control at first, but after a while the sight of women’s brows being plucked and then thrown away as if they were merely–I dunno, hair–begins to be too much for him.

“No–don’t,” he moans, then closes his eyes.

“Not a pretty picture for a beauty parlor, is it?” I say, tightening the screws.

“Please–make them stop!”

“It’s the circle of life. Like a cat’s whisker, or a gnat’s eyelash.”

“They are . . . so much more than that!”

“What, exactly? Tell me . . . what is so damned erotic about an eyebrow?”

“It is the facial feature by which a woman expresses skepticism, so vital to the proper functioning of a man’s constitution.”

I have to say, at this point he’s lost me. “And why is that so important?”

“It is essential,” he says, breathing heavily, “to be reminded from time to time that you are completely full of merde.”

The Last Game

Don’t come ’round here looking for the fresh, clean, family-friendly content this site is known for this afternoon. I’m taking off at 3:30 to watch my kid pitch what may be the final start of his high school career. He will take the mound today with a 3-0 record and three home runs last week alone! He hit them, I mean; he didn’t give them up.

It’s an occasion that causes normally hard-bitten sports writers–and Boston has them by the pallet-load–to turn sentimental and wax rhapsodic. I have to say, now that I’m in their shoes, I can’t blame them. My kid didn’t get a scholarship and will thus try to walk on when he gets to college, but he may never play another competitive game.


Premature babi–hey, who gave them Sprite, the refreshing lemon-lime soft drink?

 

He’s 6’2″ and weighs 165 pounds, but when he came into this world, the prospects that he would ever develop into such a strapping young man were slim. He was born a month premature; for an infant boy, that means his lungs were dangerously underdeveloped.

“Is there anything you can do about it?” I asked the doctor who delivered him.

“We recommend that they go on drugs right away,” she replied.

“What kind of drugs?” my wife asked nervously.

“Steroids,” the doctor said.


Jose Canseco: He, uh, did a lot of push-ups.

 

I looked at my wife, and I could tell she was with me 100%. “Go ahead,” I said, “Double the normal dosage.”

Thanks to the miracles of modern science, my boy was out of the incubator in a few days, but we kept him on the medication. No point in taking chances when a kid’s lungs are at risk.

It paid off, let me tell you. By the time he started T-ball he was hitting tape-measure shots, 565-foot home runs over everything. Eventually, we lowered the dose as the ‘roid-rage fines began to get expensive. I’ll never forget the look on the face of the teenaged umpire who called him out on a ball that just barely grazed the outside corner of the plate. My kid chased him back to his crappy Honda Civic and flipped it over–at the age of 10! That’s the kind of upper-body strength you need to hit with power to the opposite field.

As any parent of a young athlete will tell you, a lot of sacrifice goes into the making of a kid who can play at the Division I level. There was the $45 per half hour hitting coach, the pseudo-religious earrings a la Barry Bonds, the heavy chains that look like they could have been lifted off the neck of a Rottweiler or an investment banker’s second wife. But it’s all part of the great American tradition of baseball.


“I don’t really like you, but I’m 0 for 21 in June.”

 

I don’t mean to suggest that my kid’s career has been one long home run trot around the basepaths. Like any baseball player, he’s had his ups and downs. I remember when he was 11 and started the season 0-for-June for the Orthwein Insurance Agency A’s. One night I heard him sobbing to himself as I walked past his bedroom.

“What’s the matter, kiddo?” I asked as I sat down beside him and tousled his hair.

“I’ve lost it, dad,” he said through his sobs. “My career is over.”

“No it’s not,” I said reassuringly. “You’re just going through a dry spell.”

He calmed down a bit. “You think so?” he asked.

“Sure. What you need is a slumpbuster!”

“What’s that?”

“Well, it’s a girl who you might not really like as a friend because she hasn’t got the greatest personal hygiene or something, but you, uh, decide to . . . to spend some time with her to change your luck.”

He was silent for a moment. “So somebody like Susan van de Kamp?”

“Is that the chubby girl in your class who’s always wearing her Little Dutch Girl outfit to school on Show ‘n Tell Day?”

“That’s her,” he said. “She picks her butt in line to the cafeteria.”

My eyes misted over. “She sounds perfect. Why don’t you give her a whirl.”

“Like how?”

There are some things you can’t coach, but I gave it a try. “You do something to make her think you like her.”

“What do the big-leaguers do?” he asked me.

“They, uh, invite them over to spend the night, sort of like you and Timmy Salmon last Friday.”

“Yuk!” he said, clearly repulsed by the thought.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “At the Little League level, all you have to do is throw a spit ball at her.”

Republished annually after the fashion among weepy Boston sportswriters. Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Kids: They’re Cute When They’re Young.”

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.
The Esquire Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,968 other followers