Jack Garner, Parsley Farmer

Jack Garner gazed out over the farm that had been in his family for three generations and gave out a sigh of exasperation. He looked down the rows of curly leaf parsley, often used as a garnish, and thought back to the lessons he had learned bouncing on his father’s lap as their old tractor made its way over the fields.

“Stay away from fad fruits and vegetables like endive, pomegranates and kiwis,” the old man had said. “Stick with something that people need, something that will last–parsley.”

And that advice had stood Jack in good stead for nearly two decades. When he was younger, every plate that emerged from a restaurant or hotel kitchen was adorned with the flat-leaved cultivar that he so diligently cultivated. Sure, nobody actually ate the stuff, but that wasn’t the point. Parsley brought smiles to the faces of diners across the country–around the world, even. It enhanced the presentation of a meal, in the words of Common Victualler’s Monthly.

Every rib eye steak with mashed potatoes? Parsley sat like a clump of trees beneath the timber line of the starch mountain next to it. Did somebody say scrod? Between the lemon and the fish, there was his bright, green biennial plantae. Pigs in a blanket? Give the little herbivores something to chew on.

But now, all his years of hard work were about to be washed away, like chemical run-off in an irrigation ditch. Times had changed, but Jack hadn’t changed with them. The bottom had fallen out of the parsley market, leaving him with acres and acres of petroselinum crispum that wasn’t worth the cost of the gas it would take to harvest the stuff. The culprit?

Jack’s eyelids narrowed, but he wasn’t squinting from the glare of the sun. “Freaking nouvelle cuisine,” he said to himself bitterly.

It was the celebrity chefs, with their “glamour garnishes”. The chives and the citrus zest strips. The white asparagus spears lying draped over a vegetable compote, like trees fallen into a swamp. The tomato roses–the radish mice–the hard-boiled egg bunnies-the . . .

“Papa Daddy!”

Jack was recalled from his bilious reverie by the voice of his son, Clell, Jr.

“Hey Clell!” he replied, forcing his face into a smile that he hoped would hide the depths of his financial distress from the boy.

“Can we go fishin’ today?”

“Sure, son, sure,” Jack answered with a distrait tone. He hopped down from the tractor and put his arm around the boy. “Let’s walk down to the pond.”

They made their way across the field, the boy talking excitedly about a barn mouse he had flattened with a shovel that morning.

” . . . and when he tried to get away, I squooshed him like a bug!”

Jack had been listening but not paying attention to his son’s story. When he realized that the boy was waiting for him to register his approval, he spoke.

“That’s fine, Clell. Just fine,” he said, then fell to musing again. The bank had sent him a final foreclosure notice thirty days before. The sale would begin at 10 o’clock. Maybe if they could make it to the pond before then, his son wouldn’t notice and he could explain it all to him–afterwards. After the lawyer and the auctioneer and the banker and all the bidders, and tire-kickers, and curiosity-seekers had gone.

“Papa Daddy?”

Again, the enthusiasm of youth interrupted the troubled mind of adulthood.

“What son?”

“Some of the kids at school are making fun of me.”

“What for?” Jack asked.

“They say I got a ‘Junior’ on my name, but you’re not a ‘Senior’.”

Perhaps it was time to be straight with the boy. “Clell,” Jack began, forcing back a lump in his throat, before continuing. “When you were born, your mother and I wanted to do the right thing by you. We didn’t want you to bear the stigma . . .”

“What’s a stigma, Papa Daddy?”

“Sorry–that was the author’s mistake. I’ll revert to my character’s plain-spoken manner.” He drew in a little breath, and continued. “What I mean is, people look down their noses at parsley farmers–always have. And we knew it would only get worse. Parsley goes well with fish, or sprinkled in spaghetti sauce–but raising garnishes is a dying way of life. There’s no future in it.”

The boy looked puzzled, and his father continued. “We thought it was better if you grew up with a name that would throw folks off the scent. Nobody will know you’re my son if you’re Clell, Jr. and I’m Jack.”

The boy’s eyes grew watery, as if he himself were a bundle of parsley beneath a misting machine in the produce section of a grocery store.

“I’m proud of you Papa Daddy–and I always will be!” the boy said as he threw his arms around his father. The two embraced and, deep in the well of their sentiments, did not notice the black livery car turn on the long driveway that connected their farm to State Route BB. It was loaded with the crew from First Second Short Agricultural Bank, FSB.

Jack heard the crumble of the car’s tires over the dusty road, and looked up. It was too late, he thought. Time to face the music and do-si-do.

He stood up straight as the car pulled to a stop a few feet away from him and his boy. The rear doors opened and out stepped Lloyd Van Der Meer, Assistant Vice President; George Maher, Esq., the bank’s attorney; and Dan McMullin, licensed auctioneer.

“Who are the doofuses in the suits?” Clell, Jr. asked.

“Clell–don’t be disrespectful,” Jack said before turning to meet his adversaries.

“Good morning, Mr. Garner,” Van Der Meer said evenly and professionally. The
banker hoped to avoid trouble, but he was ready for it if it came.

“Good morning, Lloyd,” Jack replied. “There’s no need for the bogus formality.” You little weasel, he thought, but didn’t say.

“Mr. Garner, I’m Dan McMullin, the auctioneer. I assume you know why we’re here.”

“I may be a farmer, but I’m not stupid,” Jack replied, his gorge rising.

“Mr. Garner, there’s no need to be difficult,” Maher interjected.

“Difficult?” Jack said sarcastically. “What do you know about ‘difficult’ you wing-tipped dweeb, sitting in your air-conditioned office all day, surfing the Internet. Probably got some stupid blog going-’shyster.com’ or something like that, you . . .”

“Set the sign up,” Van Der Meer said crisply to the auctioneer. McMullin opened the trunk of the car and removed his traditional sandwich board with protruding red flags. The legend that it bore-”AUCTION TODAY’-meant the death of all that Jack had dreamed of for his family.

Cars began to make their way down the driveway, and Clell, Jr. grabbed his father’s leg with a fearful look. “What’s going on, Papa Daddy?” he asked

Jack looked the boy in the eyes and put his hands on his son’s shoulders. “Let me try and explain,” he said. “You know parsley–that green stuff that comes on your plate when you order the triple stack of blueberry pancakes at IHOP?” he asked.

“Yes,” the boy said quietly.

“Well, there aren’t many places that do that anymore. Most of your upscale–”

“What’s upscale?”

“Sorry–fancy restaurants use green onion ferns, or cucumber spirals, or carrot shavings.”

“Yuck!”

“Exactly. Well, I’ve got a lot of parsley out there that I can’t sell. And if I can’t sell it, I can’t pay back the money I owe that man over there, Mr. Van Der Meer.”

“The goofy-looking one?”

“No. That would be the lawyer. Anyway, we may have to leave the farm.”

Clell, Jr.’s face took on the appearance of a water balloon about to burst. The boy contained himself for a moment, then–finally and spectacularly–broke into tears.

“Bwaaaah!”

“There, there,” Jack said as he tried to comfort his son.

“Jack!” It was Velma Garner, Jack’s wife, calling from the back porch.

“What is it, honey?” Jack replied.

“Phone for you.”

“Who is it?”

“Denny’s.”

“Who?”

“You know–’Great Food and Great Service by Great People!’.”

A look of puzzlement came over Jack’s face. “The one that discriminates against black people?”

“Only when they make too much noise, or hog a table for too long, or ask for too many free refills of coffee, or wear their hair in those loopy things with the beads in them. They want to talk to you.”

Jack looked at Van Der Meer and his crack team of foreclosure professionals. He saw that he had no time to spare.

“Coming!” he yelled and ran to meet his wife. He took the go-phone from her and spoke breathlessly into the mouthpiece. “Hello?” he said.

“Jack–Tony Martino, Director of Purchasing for Denny’s. How are you today?”

“Not so good.”

“Terrific. Say, I’ve heard you’ve got a nice crop of parsley that’s ready to go.”

You’ve got that right, Jack thought. Play it cool, he said to himself. “That is correct,” he said. “I could make enough tabbouleh to stock every Quiki-Mart in Lebanon.”

“That’s great. Say, I just had a vendor do a Dixie on me. Sold his whole harvest to International House of Pancakes. You got any you can spare?”

“Do I?” A thin little smile formed on his lips. “Yes, Mr. Martino, I believe I do.” And with that, Jack turned to confront his creditor.

“Van Der Meer!” he yelled as he approached the banker at a rapid clip. “Tell your auctioneer to put his hammer down. There’ll be no sale today!”

“We’ve heard your sob story before,” the lawyer said as he interposed himself between the farmer and his client. “Everything goes when the whistle blows, unless you’ve got cold, hard cash.”

“I’ve got something better than that, pal,” Jack said with a snarl. “Here,” he said, as he handed the phone to the banker.

Van Der Meer took it with a confused look. “Hullo?” he said.

“Who’s this?” Tony Martino asked at his end of the connection.

“Lloyd Van Der Meer–Troubled Loan Division, First Second Short Agricultural Bank. Who are you?”

“Tony Martino–Denny’s.”

“The largest family-style restaurant company in America?”

“Not just America-North America.”

“Wow,” Van Der Meer said. “Home of the ‘Lumberjack Slam’?”

“On the nosey. What’s the problem there?”

“Parsley farmer on the ropes. So what else is new, right?”

“Wrong-o. I need that parsley-now!”

“You do?”

“You better believe it. And I’m willing to pay top dollar for it.”

“You are?”

“Yep. You like to bowl?”

“Who doesn’t?” Van Der Meer rheplied rhetorically.

“How would you like a coupon for a free game of bowling with the purchase of any Denny’s dinner entrée?”

“You mean it?” the banker asked, softening for the first time.

“Coupon is subject to lane availability and rules of participating PBA bowling centers, including regulations requiring use of socks when wearing rented shoes.”

“No problem!” Van Der Meer fairly shouted into the phone. “Guys,” he said to Maher and McMullin, “I hate to break your hearts, but the sale is cancelled.”

“Shoot,” said the lawyer. “I never have any fun.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Van Der Meer replied. “We’re going bowling!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Vegetables Say the Darndest Things.”

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.”

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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!”

One Standup Comic Never Counted Out His Dream

PARAMUS, New Jersey.  Mike Ross, Jr., comes from a long line of entertainers.  His grandfather, Aaron Ross, was a tap dancer, his father Mike Sr. a slick-haired crooner in the 50′s, and his mother Annette a ventriloquist.


“Don’t touch me there, lady–I’ve got termites.”

“I was encouraged to go into show business,” he says as he waits in the wings of The Comedy Corner, a bar that is considered a stepping stone for comics on the way up to the big time in Manhattan, or on their way back down.  “Actually, ‘pushed’ is the better word,” he adds with a professional’s timing.


“But seriously, folks.  You should consider a Roth IRA.”

Mike has flirted with fame in the past, logging a Tonight Show appearance and a week-long engagement opening for Celine Dion in Las Vegas, but he says the applause and the laughter left him strangely unfulfilled.  “It was what my parents wanted,” he says ruefully, “but it wasn’t what I wanted.”


“This stuff is a scream!”

And so Mike studied on the side, sneaking off to night school when he didn’t have a gig, sometimes telling his wife Mona “little white lies about where I was going,” he says with obvious embarrassment.  Then one night last month, after she caught him with a roll of calculator tape in his pocket, he was forced to confess.

“I want,” he told her tearfully, “to become an accountant.”

After a heated exchange in which she threatened to leave him, Mona gradually came to understand that “‘for better or for worse’ means you’ve got to let your husband follow his dream,” she says with look of hopeful resignation on her face.  “I’ll miss the free cocktail napkins,” she adds.


“A beefalo tax shelter?  You’re cracking me up!”

Mike is blunt about what he saw before him if he stuck with comedy for the rest of his life.  “Sure, maybe I’d get a guest host slot for Leno at some point, or a special on Comedy Central, or maybe even my own telethon for a crippling disease,” he says.  “But in the back of my mind, I’d always know that I could be preparing K-1′s for a wealthy family’s limited partnership, or consoling a young couple who were late with their estimated tax payments.  Making people laugh pales beside that kind of responsibility.”


“ . . . and the guy from the IRS says ‘You call this a home office?’”

Mike’s apprenticeship with a six-man accounting firm hasn’t been easy, but he says he’s willing to “pay his dues” in order to earn the coveted designation of C.P.A.  “Some of the senior tax guys heckle me when I’m filing an extension with the IRS, but it’s something you have to put up with when you’re a nobody just starting out,” he says with a smile.  “I don’t mind as long as they don’t throw the federal tax code at me–that thing’s heavy!”

Coriolis Effect Has Things Topsy-Turvy Down Under

AUCKLAND, New Zealand.  The morning skies are grey as our plane touches down at Auckland Airport, but that doesn’t dampen our spirits as my family and I peer out the windows for our first glance at New Zealand, the adopted homeland of my cousin Mary Beth and her husband Gary.


Auckland Airport

“I wanna go to the bathroom and check out the sink,” my son says.

He’s interested in seeing the Coriolis effect, the force first described by French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis that causes water in sinks and toilets in the Southern hemisphere to drain in a counterclockwise direction, the opposite of what we Americans are used to seeing in the Northern hemisphere.

“Not now, sweetie, the seatbelt light is still on,” my wife says.

“We’ll have plenty of time for that later,” I say as we pull to a stop and passengers stand up and begin to de-board.

We spy Mary Beth and Gary as we emerge from the jetway and, after hugs and kisses all around, Mary Beth asks if we’d like to grab some dinner.

“But–it’s nine o’clock in the morning,” I say, a bit puzzled.

Now it’s her turn to act surprised.  “Yes–so what?”

“Uh, I think the kids should get some breakfast in them,” my wife says.

Suddenly, the source of our confusion becomes apparent to Mary Beth.  “You two are still on Northern hemisphere meal times,” she says with a laugh.  “Down here, we start the day with meat, potatoes, broccoli–the works!”

I look at the kids, who don’t seem enthusiastic.  “We’ll just grab some orange juice,” I say as we head towards the short-term parking lot.

We stow our luggage in the trunk of our hosts’ car, and Gary eases his way out of the parking lot.

“Look out!” my wife exclaims as Gary pulls into the left-hand lane of the high-speed motorway that surrounds the airport.

“What?” Gary replies, somewhat startled.

“Oh, I forgot, you drive on the left side down here,” my wife replies, a bit calmer now.

“Yeah, and not just that–watch,” Gary says as he makes a sharp right-hand turn from the left-hand lane.

My wife is unimpressed.  “People do that all the time in America,” she says.  “We call them ‘senior citizens.’”

I glance in the sideview mirror and notice a double-trailer truck bearing down on us at high speed.  “Uh, Gary,” I say a little nervously.  “You see that truck coming, right?”

“That guy?” Gary replies.  “Don’t worry–I’ve got plenty of room,” he says as he pulls into the passing lane.  “You forgot–objects in mirrors are further away than they appear down here.”

“Oh, right–the Coriolis effect,” I say.

I’ve noticed as I’ve watched Gary’s maneuvers in and out of traffic that Mary Beth has remained remarkably calm, a placid smile on her face.  “I think it’s great that you don’t criticize Gary’s driving,” I say to her.

“Do women do that where you live?” she asks incredulously as he cuts off a young couple in a Volkswagen Scirocco with a “Baby on Board” window sign.  I look at my wife, who makes a pugnacious little moue with her lips.

“It’s in my DNA,” she says.  “If the Coriolis effect means I couldn’t bitch about your dingbat driving, I say to hell with it.”

We take an exit ramp and stop at the toll gate.

“From the airport?” the attendant says as he examines the ticket that Gary hands him.  “I owe you four dollars and twenty-five cents.”

“Gosh,” my wife says.  “They pay you to drive on the highway?”

“It’s the Coriolis effect!” Mary Beth exclaims.  “We used to take the bus but they only pay you $1.50 for that!”

Gary tells us a little bit about the country as we head into downtown Auckland.  “Did you know that there are more sheep than people in New Zealand?” he asks the kids.

“Wow,” my daughter says, fascinated.

“We have lots of sheep in America too, sweetie,” my wife says to her.

“We do?”


Mel Carnahan

“Yes, like people who elected Mel Carnahan to the Senate after he died.”

The kids nod in wonderment, and Gary pulls up in front of a movie theatre.

“Are we going to a movie?” my son asks.

“It’s such a hot day, I thought this would be a good place to keep cool,” Gary says.

“What’s playing?” my wife asks.

“It’s a noir Presbyterian film festival,” Mary Beth says.  “Really dark themes with perverse characters and ironic plot twists.”

My wife, a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ, the straightest Protestant denomination in America, absorbs this information with a disturbed look on her face.

“You mean–no happy endings, or upbeat sound tracks?”


Olivia John-Newton

“No,” Gary explains.  “The Coriolis force has a significant impact on our popular culture.  Take Olivia John-Newton,” he says, referring to the relentlessly pleasant Australian pop singer whose last name is “Newton-John” north of the equator.  “The only people who listen to her down here are depressed, suicidal Goth kids.”

My wife recoils involuntarily, as if someone has just punched her in the gut.  She may be experiencing Coriolis-induced vertigo, a malady that affects travelers from the Northern hemisphere much as Montezuma’s Revenge keeps American tourists confined to Mexican hotel bathrooms.

She looks nauseated, and I put my hand on her forehead.  “Are you okay?” I ask.

She takes a deep breath, then bursts into tears and blurts out–”I want to go home!”

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