A Night Ride With the Mobile Humor Patrol

CHATHAM, Mass.  This picturesque seaside community on Cape Cod is a vacation dream spot for many extended families, and for good reason.  “There are tons of playgrounds for the kids,” says Courtney Phelan, a mother of teen-aged twins.  “There’s fishing for my husband Pete and his father, and there’s the sun–and shopping–for my mother-in-law.”


Chatham, Mass.

But the intergenerational composition of many vacation rentals can lead to dinner-time strife, as jokes that win laughs among the elderly fall flat on adolescent ears, and the edgy, satirical style of humor favored by adolescents is perceived by many senior citizens as disrespectful or “flip.”


“Why does your t-shirt say ‘Dead Kennedys’ on it?”

 

“We’re caught in the middle,” says Phelan.  “Once grandma has her second Whiskey Sour she starts in with the ethnic jokes, and the kids make fun of everything.”


“Grandma, that’s not funny–it’s stupid.”

 

Into this valley of dinner-time discord has driven a specially-trained squadron of humor police, The Odd Squad, which cruises the roads leading to beachfront houses beginning around cocktail hour and ending their shift just as grandparents are nodding off after “Wheel of Fortune.”


“This game is hard to follow when you’re senile.”

 

“We try to get there before trouble starts,” says Chris Donaldson, who will do a stand-up routine at a comedy club in Provincetown after his public safety work is done for the night.  “Once the grandparents go nuclear and say ‘I can’t believe how you’re raising those kids’ you’ve got blood on the deck and somebody being disinherited.”


“We’ve got a priest, a rabbi and a lady snake charmer joke in progress on Seagull Lane.”

 

The two-way radio crackles and the voice of the dispatcher is heard to say “Mobile Unit 1, come in.”

Donaldson’s partner, Tom Minos, a free-lance joke writer, picks up the handpiece.  “Mobile Unit 1,” he says.

“I’ve got a report of a priest, a rabbi and a lady snake charmer joke under way on Seagull Lane, do you copy?” the dispatcher says.

“Roger that, we’re on our way.  10-4.”

Donaldson turns on the flasher but not the siren.  “I don’t want to disturb the sunset-watchers,” he says.  “Also, it gives the perps advance notice.”

They arrive at the scene; an alcohol-fueled elderly couple about to attempt small talk with their grandchildren while the parents are distracted making a summer dinner of steaks, corn on the cob, tomato slices and salad.

“This baby’s likely to blow sky-high,” Minos says as he notices that the grandparents are drinking pre-dinner cocktails made with distilled spirits, whose alcohol content is seven times as great as a glass of wine.

“We need to get there before the Sammy Davis, Jr. jokes start,” Donaldson adds.

His hopes are dashed when the grandmother, a 78-year-old former executive secretary who married her boss, stumbles under the influence of her “highball” as she sits down at the table.


“You slay me, granny!”

 

“I’m getting to be like Sammy Davis, Jr.!” she exclaims to blank stares from her grandchildren Todd and Tricia, who are both wearing iPod “ear buds” but can still hear their grandmother over the noise of Lady Gaga.


Lady Gaga:  Turquoise is the new purple.

 

“Why’s that?” Todd asks, genuinely mystified if not exactly interested.

“Well he had so many things wrong with him–he was handicapped, he was a Jew, and he was a n—”

Donaldson grabs the woman around the neck and in a second has her under control, a bit discombobulated but clearly docile.

“Was she choking on something?” her husband, an 80-year-old former captain of industry asks.

“She was about to make a lame joke incorporating a derogatory racial epithet in violation of local ordinances,” Minos says grimly.  “It may seem like an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, but it comes under the fire-in-a-crowded-theatre-or-incredibly-stupid-remark-at-a-family-gathering exception.”


” . . . so she gets into bed with the mailman . . .”

 

“Oh,” the elderly man says, his voice trailing off as notices that his daughter-in-law has placed a juicy steak before him.

Everyone digs in after a celebratory toast, and as the food fortifies his blood sugar, the grandfather tries to engage the younger generation in conversation.  “So, what do you kids think of that Susan Boyle–pretty good singer, huh?”


Well, you’ve never seen them together, have you?

 

“I think she looks like Andy Rooney in drag,” Todd says.

“What does ‘drag’ mean?” the grandmother asks.

“A man dressed up like a woman,” Tricia says, causing both grandparents to sit up straight in their chairs, obviously offended by the remark.

“I like Susan Boyle,” the grandmother says.

“And I like Andy Rooney,” the grandfather says.

It looks like an ugly confrontation is about to erupt when Donaldson steps in to keep the peace.

“That’s not such a bad thing, is it?” he asks with a conciliatory demeanor.  “I mean–men dressing up in women’s clothes is funny, right?  Like Benny Hill?”

“Ha-ha-ha,” the patriarch of the family laughs, his head thrown back.  “Benny Hill–funny.”

“I just love him!” the grandmother says.  “We’ll have to watch some of his old shows on videotape after dinner!”


Peanut brittle can with gag snakes inside:  Always good for a laugh.

 

The officers put away their “Peanut Brittle” cans stuffed with gag snakes, which they had removed from their holsters in case things had escalated any further.

“I think we’re all set here,” Minos says to the parents.

“Thank you so much,” Pete Phelan says, a look of relief on his face.

“Just give us a call if they start to tell any gay hairdresser jokes.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Kids: They’re Cute When They’re Young.”

For Young Cowboy Poets, Hot Practices Only Get Verse

AMARILLO, Texas. Joe Don Mergen has just a week and three days left before he begins the school year as a sophomore at Darrell Royal High School here, but he says he’s looking forward to it even though it will mean an end to summer fun.

“It’ll mean the end of two-a-day practices, and I’m all for that,” he says.

Joe Don was a highly-touted halfback at Tommy Nobis Junior High School when a crushing tackle in the last seconds of a come-from-behind win over archrival Bum Phillips Voke-Tech left him with a fractured vertebrae, effectively ending a promising football career.

“I was real depressed there for a while,” he says. “I considered suicide, but I learned at Vacation Bible Camp that you can go to hell for that.”

So Joe Don followed the route taken by an increasing number of Texas teenage jocks whose football glory days are prematurely cut short and joined his high school’s Cowboy Poet Squad.

“It gives you something to say to girls,” he says with a shy smile. “Most of the guys on the football team never get beyond ‘Wassup?’”

The frontier ethic that turned Texas high school football into a metaphor for the hardscrabble nature of life on the windswept plains of the adjective-rich Lone Star State has been carried over to high school poetry with the tradition of “two-a-day” practices. Morning practices begin at 6 a.m., and there is a second afternoon session every day until Labor Day.


MacLeish and McKuen

 

“This is where we separate the Archibald MacLeishs from the Rod McKuens,” says head coach Jim Ray Dugan, a former English major at the University of Texas. “I don’t want to hear any sentimental ‘June-moon’ crap out there today-understand?” he barks at thirty young men who fear that they will be consigned to the school yearbook staff if they don’t make the cut for the Cowboy Poetry Squad.


Burma-Shave signs

 

After limbering-up exercises that include limericks and Burma-Shave rhymes, the boys divide into offensive and defensive groups, with Dugan taking the Romantics while his assistant, Ray Eberle, works with the Symbolists.

“Guys, we’ve got six weeks before we play John David Crow Prep,” he says, referring to a long-time powerhouse that had three representatives on the Parade Magazine High-School All-America Poetry Team the previous year. “You guys have got to be sharp, you’ve got to scan your sonnets pre-cisely, okay?”

“Yes sir!” the boys shout in military fashion. “Mergen–line up against A.C.,” the coach says, referring to an African-American senior named Alonzo Carl Byrd who is already drawing comparisons to Langston Hughes. “When I give the signal, you peel out, okay?” he says to A.C.

“Got it coach.”


Langston Hughes: 9.7 yards after the catch

 

The boys take their positions across from each other at the line of scrimmage as their coach counts off a quarterback’s cadence–”Hut-one, hut-two, hut-three.” He slaps A.C. on the butt, and the wide receiver takes off on a traditional sideline-and-up pattern:

Old Bill Jones had two daughters and a song,
One went to Dallas and the other went wrong.

Mergen back-peddles and keeps Byrd in front of him, as he’s been coached. Suddenly, Byrd puts the “up” move on him after Coach Dugan pump-fakes a pass to the sideline.

His wife she died in a poolroom fight
While he kept singin’ day and night.

The juke-step has given the receiver a yard on the defender, and the coach lofts a tight spiral that Byrd is just about to haul in when Mergen recovers.

You’re wife’s as ugly as a bitch coyote
And you ain’t half the man of Truman Capote.


Truman Capote: “Why did you drag me into this post?”

 

“Good job, son,” his coach says gruffly, not wanting praise to go to the young man’s head with the home opener coming up.

As Mergen trots back up the field, his coach notices that A.C. Byrd is bent over, puking up his guts. “Goddamn it A.C.,” Dugan yells. “Were you out drinkin’ last night?”

“Just some amaretto while I worked on my sestinas,” Byrd says, obviously winded from an elementary pattern he should be able to handle easily if he had followed the squad’s mandatory offseason conditioning program.

“If you guys think you can go out there and sling a few similes around and beat John David Crow, you are sadly mistaken,” the coach says as he shakes his head. He blows his whistle and calls the entire squad into the middle of the field for wind sprints.

“All right, we’re gonna go at it hard today, cause I get the impression some of you been doggin’ it on me,” the coach says, and the budding poets inhale deeply, preparing themselves for the worst.

“Haikus and villainelles, stay right here. Elegies and terzanelles, over there.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

Aging Chanteuse Has Hit With Vocal Tribute to Internet

QUESADILLA, Texas. Vikki Floria is an 84 year-old chanteuse who has sung for five vice presidents, but she hasn’t had a top-selling record in over three decades. She hopes to end that losing streak with her new CD “That Crazy, Wacky Thing We Call the Internet,” an attempt to re-position herself for a youthful audience “hip” to technological innovation.

singer
Vikki, in her salad days.

 

“I was in my urologist’s office and I read an article in Reader’s Digest that said the internet is here to stay,” recalls her manager, Del Floyd, Jr. “So I figured–what the hey!–let’s do an album around it!”


See Vikki this August at the East Texas State Fair!

 

In addition to the title song, Floria sings a soothing lullaby called “I Caught Daddy Bookmarking Victoria’s Secret,” a fast-paced polka titled “I’ve Had it With My Dial-Up Connection,” and “I’ve Got So Many Passwords, I Can’t Remember Them All,” a bluesy song about a woman who forgets her six-letter combination for shopping on-line at the Metamucil website.


“Vikki, you have two very nice chimichangas.”

 

Flores sang for Vice Presidents rather than Presidents, according to her manager, “because her act was so hot she was a security risk.” She changed the course of history when she asked Vice President Gerald Ford to name the dish he liked best, according to Ford’s autobiography “A Time to Heal.” “I like you,” Ford replied within earshot of his wife Betty, setting off a drinking binge by the First Lady that resulted in the founding of the Betty Ford Clinic.


Dino!

 

While her music is decidedly middle-of-the-road, she attracted the attention of Rat Pack charter member Dean Martin in the late 60′s as the boozy Italian crooner called her “the best girl singer in the business.” Martin was hospitalized from the blow to his head that Floria landed after she learned of his patronizing remark, but he recovered and was eventually able to drink without the use of a wheelchair.

singer1
“Need to write your doctor about your cramps? Try email–you’ll save on stamps!”

 

The senior citizen singer consults with the recording engineer as she tries one last take of a “big band” flavored number with a bridge that tests her “pipes.” After she adjusts her headphones in the isolation booth, she finally “nails it” as her manager beams with pride:

From late at night,
to early morn
You can “surf the ‘net”
for all kinds of porn.

Floria admits her technological skills aren’t “up to snuff,” but says she’s experimenting with email as a way of keeping in touch with her grandchildren. “They’re just adorable,” she says as she affixes a “forever” stamp to her computer screen and hits “Send.”

The Boy’s Hair Was Burned, But Your Shishkabobs Are Fine

The kids are into baseball now, a development that warms this old good field-no hit third baseman’s heart, so we were watching the Red Sox after bath time.

“Dad?” Skipper, the younger of my two sons asked.

“Why are Alex Verdugo’s necklaces bigger than mom’s?”

“Well Skip,” I said in the serious tone I adopt whenever I’m about to unravel one of life’s apparent mysteries for him, “he’s having a better year than mom.”

“Does that matter?”

“Sure it does.  He’s batting .274 with 7 home runs.  Mom’s numbers are okay, and if she focuses down the back-to-school stretch this fall she could end up with a nice bonus at Christmas.”

“Matt Barnes is really mowing ‘em down tonight,” said Scooter, the older of the two boys at twelve.

“Yeah,” I said. “His hair is really on fire tonight.”

“It is?” asked his younger brother Skipper. He’s very literal-minded–may have been switched in the nursery.

“Not really, that’s just an expression that Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee used to use,” I said, alerting him to the possibility of hidden meanings in the things we say.

“What does it mean?” Skipper asked.

“That he’s doing a good job,” I said.

“Then why didn’t you just say that?”


“I chose Sara Teasdale and sleeping pills!”

“Well, just like your brother said he was ‘mowing them down,’” I replied. “He used an image of cutting grass to paint a picture in your mind of how easy it was.”

“Oh,” Skip said, although I wasn’t sure he understood. His English teacher at Sylvia Plath Middle School must not have covered similes and metaphor. Too busy helping the kids with their suicidal poetess dioramas.

“Has your hair ever caught fire?” Skipper asked. I guess he just didn’t get it, so I decided to answer him literally.

“Why yes, Skip–as a matter of fact it did one time.”

“It did?” Scooter asked, astounded that the careful, cautious old man who tucked him in bed every night had so many narrow escapes from death as a boy. “How’d that happen?”

“Well, in the mid-sixties I was working at mid-Missouri’s only barbecue restaurant owned by a gay man.”

“What’s a gay man?” Skipper asked. His Human Sexuality Course had been cancelled after a guest speaker taught the kids how to put a condom on a zucchini.

“Skip, a gay man is a daddy who likes other daddies instead of mommies, okay? Nothing wrong with that.”

He seemed puzzled, so I drove the point home a little further. “‘Different strokes for different folks’–who said that?”

“Abraham Lincoln!” Scooter answered. Always a good guess around our place, with an admirer of Our Greatest President in da house.


“Umm, no. Guess again.”

“No. Skip? Who do you think?”

“George Washington?”

“Nope, you’re both wrong. It was another great American, Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stone. Anyway, what it means is we’re all very different–in very similar ways.”

“So, he made gay barbecue?” Scooter asked.

“It was asexual, like the amoebas you learned about in science class last year. He got the restaurant from his wife, who inherited it from her dad. When they divorced, she got their home and he got the restaurant.”

“Did he live in the restaurant?” Skipper asked.

“Pretty much. He had a trailer out the back. Anyway, he didn’t like barbecue–he thought it was for po’ white trash, so he tried to spruce the place up a bit, make it into a fancy restaurant.”

“I don’t like fancy restaurants,” Scooter said with disgust.

“Me neither, buddy, but sometimes you have to take mommies out to them so they know you love them enough to blow a lot of money on an overpriced meal and obsequious service. Anyway, the owner tried to get the customers to use finger bowls . . .”

“What’s that?” Skipper asked.

“A little bowl with warm water in it to clean your fingers after you’ve had something messy like barbecue.”

“What happened?”

“A lot of people thought it was soup. They complained it tasted like warm water.”

“And that was it?”

“No, he tried to vary the menu too. He introduced lobster, and Italian dishes, and–his triumph–flaming shish kabobs.”

“What’s that?” Scooter asked.

“Meat and vegetables on a big sword that you set on fire.”

“Cool!”

“I’ll say. Second only to Baked Alaska in terms of cheap, meretricious dining spectacle.”

“So did you stick your hair in the shish kabob?”

“Not really, but close. I was serving three of the flaming swords one night, carrying the tray in one hand and a tray stand in the other.”

“What happened?” Skip asked.

“I leaned over to set up the tray stand, and the plates with the flaming swords started sliding towards my head.”

“And did your hair really catch on fire?”

“Not totally, but it got singed and I dropped all the plates on the floor.”

“Did the owner yell at you?”

“No, he came out and apologized to everybody while I was picking up the meat and vegetables and swords. He said ‘The boy’s hair was singed, but I’ll have some more shish kabobs ready for you in just a minute.’”

“So did he have more shish kabobs cooking?”

“Nope. He took the ones I spilled back to the room where we washed the dishes, hosed them down, threw them back on the fire, put some new parsley on the plates–and served them!”

“Is that okay?” Skipper asked nervously. He’s always got a runny nose because he has no resistance to germs, thanks to his mother’s fanatic devotion to an unattainable ideal of cleanliness.

“Sure it’s okay. As long as you pick it up within ten minutes, and no carrion bird has tried to eat it and no insect has laid eggs in it–you’re good to go.”

I noticed a new stillness in their demeanor and sensed that their mother had appeared in the doorway to announce that quality male-bonding time watching televised sports with dad was over.

“C’mon you two,” she said. “Up we go.”

“Mom, did you know if you set food on fire and drop it on the floor you can still eat it if you hose it off and put some parsley on it?” Skipper asked, his little face a picture of satisfaction that there was a time-tested, hygienic basis to his personal culinary preferences.

“No I didn’t,” she said as she looked askance at me. “Your father tells you the strangest fairy tales.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Scooter & Skipper Blow Things Up!”

Summer’s End Has Grade School “Cougars” on the Prowl

WESTLAND, Mass. Emily Adams is a twelve-year-old who will be entering sixth grade at Mosi Tatupu Middle School in this western suburb of Boston next month, and yesterday found her with her mother shopping for back-to-school needs.


“Let’s see–Artgum eraser, backpack, boyfriend . . .”

But Emily’s eyes aren’t on her new pencil box and three-ring binder as she waits for the cashier to ring up her purchases. Instead, she’s looking at rising fourth-grader Timmy Fallman, who’s with his mother two cash registers to her left. “He doesn’t know it yet,” she tells this reporter, “but he’s going to be my new boyfriend.”


“Sure it’s fine . . . if you want me to marry the manager of a Jiffy-Lube.”

Like penguins, Emily practices a form of serial monogamy, dumping her boyfriend for a new one every fall, but this year she has sworn off boys in her own grade and is looking for a younger man. “It’s due to a constellation of factors,” says her mother Trish, an assistant producer of Nova, the public television science program. “Boys in her grade learned how to belch on cue and make armpit farts last year, so she’s looking for someone . . . how shall I put this . . . more malleable.”


“My fifth-grade boyfriend could never satisfy me this way!”

Emily and girls like her form a new sociological group within the K-12 demographic; pre-teen “cougars” who seek out younger men rather than put up with the gross habits that boys acquire as they near puberty.  “In many ways, it’s a wise choice,” says actuary Mike Mildam of Modern Moosehead Life Insurance, whose headquarters is just a frisbee toss away at the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike. “A young girl can expect to live five years longer than a boy her age. What’s she going to do for the last half-decade of her life–twiddle her thumbs and watch Wheel of Fortune?”


“She’s twelve.  What would we talk about?”

There is a financial aspect to the trend as well, as many older boys are saddled with obligations to “legacy” girlfriends that act as a drag on their spending power, like alimony. “Brian Forsh asked me to go to the movies but I said no,” says Vicki Swinson, who will be head cheerleader for the Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd Middle School Vikings this fall. “He gave his old girlfriend a ring over the summer, and I know he hasn’t got two Chuck E Cheese tokens to rub together now.”

Emily knows her younger man will eventually acquire all the nasty traits of boys her age, but she hopes to teach and guide him as he matures in order to modulate their more baleful aspects. “He’s a guy, so I know he’s going to pick his nose,” she says with resignation. “But if I get to him when he’s young, maybe he won’t eat it.”

Conchita Aramaio, Female Jackie Robinson of Jai Alai, Dead at 89

HOLLYWOOD, Florida.  Conchita Aramaio, often referred to as the “female Jackie Robinson of jai alai,” died yesterday after a brief illness.  She was 89.

A native of Navarre, Spain, Aramaio broke jai alai’s sex barrier in 1941 after sneaking on to a cancha with her hair cut short and wearing a binder to conceal her breasts.  She scored points with several well-placed chula shots off the back wall, and was accepted by teammates who had previously barred her because of her gender.

Like many famous athletes, Aramaio acquired nicknames from both fans and fellow players during her years with the Hialeah Hurricane.  She was lovingly referred to as “La Diosa Ramera” or “The Bitch Goddess” by her fellow players, and as “La Blanco Linda” or “Linda White” by American bettors who felt funny trying to pronounce her name in Spanish.


Xistera

 

Aramaio first become proficient at jai alai, widely-acknowledged to be the fastest game on earth, by carrying her groceries in her father’s xistera, the basket in which the pelota is caught and returned to the front wall of the jai alai court.  She would often recall the pelota’s roomy capacity fondly when, in later years, arthritis forced her to switch to Kate Spade handbags.


Kate Spade handbag.  Holds wallet, lipstick, one Tic Tac.

 

Her finest hour came in game seven of the 1954 All-World Championships against the Ft. Myers Conch, in which she recovered from a blow to the head from an opponent’s errant shot to rally her team to victory in a sudden-death tiebreaker.  Her skills declined dramatically after that incident, as she often mistook her husband Joao for a floor lamp.


Memorial service.

 

Before Aramaio’s rise, women’s participation in jai alai was limited to sitting at the fronton and placing bets based on inside knowledge as to which team would “throw” a game.  “It was lucrative, yes,” Aramaio said, “but I wanted to be part of the action.”

She is survived by a son, Francisco, a daughter-in-law Concepcion, and Luz, her Pomeranian.  In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Zazpiak Basque-American Social Club and Jota Dance School.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Fauxbituaries.”

Let’s Put on a Show

Like every red-blooded American boy of a certain age–gay or straight–the first time I saw Judy Garland I fell deeply and tragically in love.  Those big cocker spaniel eyes; the quivering lip when faced with perplexity; the slightly pudgy midsection; the permanent wave that anticipated Farrah Fawcett’s flaring side-bangs of the seventies.  She was, as the French would say, trop pour moi.  Also des saucisses, sans doubte.

Babes in Arms
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in “Babes in Arms”

 

But what I and my somewhat effeminate friend Dennis loved about her most was her willingness to stop whatever she was doing, no matter how important, and break into song.  Some of the transitions were awkward, of the “. . . and that’s why I say–” variety memorably mocked by comedian Jonathan Winters in his stand-up send-up of Broadway shows.  But we didn’t care.


Jonathan Winters

 

No, Judy was our heroine, and not just because of The Wizard of Oz, one of those classic movies an indulgent teacher might actually let you watch in the classroom as a study aid to Frank Baum’s text.  Judy–like Dennis and I–had a dream burning inside her, an eternal internal flame, and she wasn’t going to let anybody or anything stand in her way.

puppet show
Actual backyard puppet show

 

In Dennis’s case, that dream was his own backyard puppet show.  He didn’t care what the rough boys said about him; he just went ahead and built his jerry-rigged puppet theatre, set it up in his front yard, tried to charge admission–a dismal failure, since you could stand outside his fence and watch for free–and then put on his show.

Just like Judy and Mickey Rooney in “Babes in Arms,” the mother of all “Let’s put on a show” shows, not to get too meta on you.  It was Judy who said “We’ve gotta have a great show, with a million laughs . . . and color . . . and a lot of lights to make it sparkle.  And songs–wonderful songs. And after we get the people in that hall, we’ve gotta start ‘em in laughing right away. Oh, can’t you just see it?”

In that 1939 movie, Mickey and Judy put on a show because their parents, aging vaudevillians, won’t take them on a revival tour, sort of like Ozzie Osborne not wanting to let his kids perform in a Black Sabbath reunion concert.  The “Let’s put on a show” theme has morphed into something larger with a much broader reach; it is now used as an inspiration when times seem bleakest, a ray of hope in your darkest hour in a wide variety of situations.  Outbreak of bubonic plague?  Mudslide in the Chilean Andes?  Forty-car pileup on fog-shrouded highway?  Let’s put on a show!

The number of Let’s-Put-on-a-Show movies is in the low double figures, including such cinema classics as Blues Brothers, The Full Monty, White Christmas and Hannah Montana.  South Park and SpongeBob Square Pants have used the theme, as has The Onion.  It’s not too great of a stretch to say that one-off benefits such as Farm Aid are real-life derivatives of the phenomenon, a sort of life-imitates-art inversion.


“The band sucks–but they’re all we’ve got.”

 

The importance in life of merely putting on a show was impressed upon me in college when, trying to make time with the most popular woman on campus, I uttered some cutting remark about a half-assed band playing covers of Grateful Dead songs at a backyard party.  “Well, at least they’re doing something to make life more enjoyable around here,” she said with disdain bordering on contempt.  Also bordering on Lake Michigan, since we were in Chicago.

I took that lesson to heart, and as a result have since put on plays of my own composition in venues large and small, but mainly small.  The basement of a former grade school.  A room in a YMCA next to the indoor swimming pool, which steeped the audience with the smell of chlorine.


“Some guy in there thinks he’s Hamlet or sumpin’.”

 

I reached the nadir of my experience as playwright one night in Salem, Massachusetts–that’s right, where they used to hang witches.  I had responded to a “call for scripts” and my hockey-themed play was selected for a reading!  When I arrived at the address the night of the performance I found–a pizza parlor.  Thinking there was some mistake, I took a walk up and down the block.  No performance space to be seen.

After standing around for awhile a fellow showed up and introduced himself as one of the actors.  Where were we going to put on the play? I asked.  “In there,” he said.  “After they close.”


“Alas, poor Yorick.  He ordered the anchovy.”

 

And so, after the last slice of pepperoni and mushroom had been served, the world premier of What Mickey Belle Isle Told You was held before an audience of precisely one (1); the janitor, who was sweeping up.

But these are the indignities that backyard impresarios and community theater playwrights endure for your sake, to make of the world a brighter place, one where children laugh, and hearts are free, where men put on shows and women love ’em.

Instead of the guys in that godawful Grateful Dead cover band.

Scooter & Skipper at the Junior Algonquin Club

It’s August, time for me to check on the kids to see how they’re doing with their summer reading lists.  Things haven’t changed much in our little town since I was a boy; every spring when school gets out a prim, lavender-scented woman at our local library draws up a list of ten categories, and parents agree that each boy and girl who reads a book in all of them by Labor Day gets a reward.


Summer reading fun!

 

There’s fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, science, sports, biography, hobbies, geography and romance. I was kidding about that last one just to see if you were paying attention; the tenth category is mystery/free choice, so the aging Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew hardbacks on the shelves still get a workout, as does Duns Scotus, the Scholastic philosopher generally known as the Godfather of Free Will.

I call the boys into the den—they know what’s coming.  I never actually got a cupcake when I was a kid, because—story of my life—I’d choke on one single category (usually poetry) rather than sucking it up and reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses.”  My sons are the product of breeding–as you might expect–and have acquired the stick-to-itiveness of their mother’s side of the family; finish the job, no matter how inconsequential or boring, for somebody might be looking, or it could come up on your performance review.


Stevenson: “God, I was hoping I wouldn’t appear in this post.”

 

“Let’s see what you’ve got here, Skipper,” I say to the younger of the two, a “rising” fifth-grader to use the new performance-enhanced lingo of the education profession. “Well, looks like you’re going to get a cupcake, young man!” I say proudly.

“He didn’t finish ‘The Witchcraft of Salem Village,’” his big brother Scooter says, tattling on him. I’m projecting him to be a first-round draft pick by the National Security Agency in about ten years.

“Skip—is that true?” I ask. This is a subject close to my heart, as the book in question was one of my favorites growing up.

“I got too scared,” Skipper says, stifling a sniffle.

I lift him up on my knee to impress upon him the importance of the matter.

“Skip,” I say with as much fatherly gravity as I can muster, “it’s important for you to understand just what happened here in Massachusetts back then.”

“What?” Skip says—he’s fighting back tears.

“Here in the cradle of liberty, one of our most precious freedoms is the right to harass our neighbors if they’re weird.”

“Like how?” Scooter asks—he’s interested now.


                         “More rocks!”

 

“Well, crazy old women, men who own land you want—you call them names, pretty soon everybody hates them, then you hang them or burn them at the stake.”

“Cool!” You know that was Scooter.

“Or you crush them under rocks until they confess,” I add.

“What if they don’t?” Skipper asks.

“Well, they’d better, because until they do, you just keep piling more rocks on them.”

I can tell from Skip’s furrowed brow that he’s somehow troubled by the superficial unfairness of our unique system of justice, admired the world over. “You don’t have to worry about somebody innocent dying,” I tell him as I plop him back down on the floor. “Once our elected officials and newspaper of record and blow-dried TV reporters start a witch hunt, they’re never wrong. Just ask them!”


Coakley: “We all make mistakes–but I don’t have to admit them.”

 

He’s mollified, so I turn to his big brother. “Let’s see, Scoots.”

He hands me his card and I have to squint to make out the title in the Poetry category. “What’s this say—‘Arsenal and Other Poems’?”

“It’s Ariel,” he says correcting me, referring to the landmark second volume of poems by Sylvia Plath, the overrated poetess who grew up one town over from us.

“Really?” I say, and I try to work as much skepticism into that word as I can. “Who suggested that book?”


Plath: “What’s your problem–everybody else likes me.”

 

“Ms. Frobisher,” he says, referring to his fifth grade teacher, a young woman whose hyper-political approach to earth science caused our little elementary school to crap out of the pâpier-maché volcano regional tournament without making the finals for the first time in the 21st century. That’s what you get when you blame dinosaur extinction on George W. Bush.

It’s time for Scoot’s Little Lesson in Life from dad. “Scoots,” I say gently but firmly. “That book has a lot of racist and anti-Semitic images in it.”

His faces clouds over. “That means it’s bad, right?”

“I don’t think so—all the critics thought it was great.”

“But–they told us on Diversity Day,” Scoots begins, but I cut him off.

“Diversity is for saps,” I tell him. “When you’re a feminist heroine like Plath you can say anything you want!”

I’m not sure they’re persuaded, but I’m the only published poet in the house, so they defer to my aesthetic ruling.

“Well, an objective judge might disagree with me, but I’m your dad so I’m going to sign your cards.”

“Yay—cupcakes!” Skipper yells.

“Not so fast, young man,” I say, putting the brakes on his enthusiasm. “Cupcakes are dessert. First you have to have a wholesome dinner.”

“But we get an afternoon treat,” Scooter says.

He’s right, and I see from the fancy faux-antique clock that my wife bought to make my man-of-letters cave less comfortable that it’s three o’clock, the Pavlovian point at which by routine the boys’ mouths start watering for a snack.

“All right. But you can’t have a cupcake on an empty stomach. First you’ve got to have cocktails.”

The two look at each other as if I’m daft–they score very high on aptitude tests, by the way. “We can’t drink anything in the liquor cabinet—you told us,” Scooter says.

“We’ll make some play-cocktails. Why don’t you call up Mary Beth Schoenen and Tommy Valvo and ask them to come over.”

“If we do, there won’t be as many cupcakes for us,” Skipper says.

“I knew you guys would come through, so I got enough to go around. I want you kids to learn how to have a literary soirée.”

“What’s a . . . swa-ray?” Scooter asks.

“Since you’re both so literate, now you ask your friends over for a Junior Algonquin Club Party!”

“What’s that?” Skipper asks.

“Well, the Algonquin Round Table was a bunch of funny men and women, all very well-read. They’d get together and make smart remarks about each other.”

“Whenever we do that mom tells us not to be ‘fresh.’”

“I know, bub. She’s just trying to make sure you grow up to be a well-behaved, respectful young man so you can toady up to people who have more money than you.”


Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley

 

“Why would I want to do that?” Skipper asks.

“So they’ll give some of it to you!” I fairly shout. I’m tempted to say “Duh,” but I refuse to corrupt the boys’ speech the way I undermine their morals.

“Oh, I get it,” Skipper says.

“Great. Well, let’s get going—you call your friends, I’ll set the kids’ table and put out the Hostess snack treats.”

The boys’ friends arrive in land-speed record time once they hear that cupcakes are involved.  “You got here in two shakes of a lamb’s tail!” I say as I open the door for Mary Beth Schoenen.

“Did the lamb do any doody on the floor?” she asks suspiciously.  She had a bad experience with her Mary Janes on her class trip to the petting zoo.

“That’s a figure of speech, like I hope you came prepared to use. You kids sit down and start being witty.”

Each of the boys took a card from our Junior Algonquin Club deck; Skipper draws Robert Benchley, my favorite because we both lived in Worcester, Mass., one of two—count ‘em—two Roundtable members to come from the Industrial Abrasives Capital of the World, the other being playwright S.N. Behrman. Scooter picks George S. Kaufman, another playwright and author of several Marx Brothers screenplays; Tommy Valvo goes last because he’s guest—the transvaluation of values as my buddy Fred Nietzsche would say–and selects . . . Harold Ross.

“Who’s he?” Tommy asked.

“Only the greatest editor The New Yorker ever had.”

“What’s The New Yorker?” Tommy asked.

“It’s the magazine that keeps turning our dad down,” Scooter said. He really knows how to twist the knife.

Mary Beth has only two choices, Ruth Hale and Dorothy Parker. I cross my fingers and hope against hope that she won’t pick Hale, a tiresome ideologue and a freelance writer more successful than me.

“Turn it over, Mary Beth,” I said. Yes—Dorothy Parker!

“I don’t want to be her,” Mary Beth said, her little mouth turned upside down into an exaggerated frown.

“Why not, sugar?” I asked.

“She was unhappy.”

I don’t have any daughters, so I was a bit uncertain as to how to proceed. “Mary Beth—think of all the happy women you know, like your mom and her friends.”

“Yes?”

“Don’t you think they’d be much happier if they knew that people would be repeating their funny jokes nearly a half century after they died?”

She thinks about this for a second; I can tell she’s struggling with the concept of posthumous fame. “I don’t think so,” she says finally.

“Why not?” I ask, genuinely interested in the workings of the female litterateur’s mind.

“Because my mommy wants a new Sub-Zero refrigerator—she told my daddy.”


“Hmm–more venom, or more spleen?”

 

“Oh, okay,” I say. I should have known that people in our wealth-obsessed suburb would make bad choices and prefer material comforts while they’re alive to acclaim that they can’t enjoy once they’re cremated and their ashes scattered over unsuspecting sunbathers on Cape Cod.

“Well,” I say to Mary Beth, “in Junior Algonquin Club, as in life, you have to play the cards you’re dealt, so you’re going to have to be Dorothy Parker, okay?”

“Fudge!” she says bitterly, and then—much to my surprise—blurts out a little quatrain that sounds like something Parker might have written when she was a girl:

You tell me how I should prefer
Future fame to stuff in the present,
I disagree, and I demur
I’m not a stupid peasant.

“That’s very good for a little girl,” I say. “Where did you learn how to do that?”

“We did a unit on Depression as a Fuel to Creativity in Language Arts,” she says, before excusing herself to bang on the bathroom door. “I’m not through!” Skipper calls out from within.

Things settle down in a bit and I make the kids a pitcher of lemonade “martinis” that I serve with a raisin garnish. Skipper starts to gulp his, but I remind him to observe ceremonial conventions. “Somebody needs to propose a toast.”

“I had toast for breakfast,” Tommy says.

“Not that kind of toast—you say something fitting about the occasion.”

“Like what?” Mary Beth asks.

“Well, for example, if one of you got an A on a paper . . .”

“We all get A’s on our papers,” they say in unison. I’d forgotten about grade inflation.

“Okay, well, if one of you just got a big part in a school play, or won the talent contest.”

I see four sets of lips purse together as they think for a moment. “I got a gold star on my drawing the other day.”

“Okay, let’s work with that. Guys—anybody?”

Skipper, the natural gentlemen, rises to the occasion: “To Dorothy,” he says as he stands up and raises his glass. “On her latest, but most assuredly not her last artistic triumph!”

“Hear, hear!” I say. We all take a sip of our lemonade-tinis.

“Now what?” Scooter asks.

“Now you all make cutting remarks about each other. Mary Beth—why don’t you go first?”

She looks around the table until her eyes lock on Scooter, as if he’s an animal caught in the crosshairs of her rifle scope. “You stink!” she cries out.

“Do not!” Scooter fires right back.

“Kids, please,” I say, intervening as a thoughtful, conscientious parent should when a party game threatens to spin out of control.

“But you told me to!” Mary Beth pleads by way of excuse.

“I should have made myself more clear. You have to proceed by indirection if you want to be known as a wit.”

“What does ‘indirection’ mean?” Skipper asks.

“It means you have to insult your friends in an obscure, roundabout way. So if Mary Beth thinks Scooter stinks, she can say ‘I think I’m going to change seats. Being downwind from Scooter is like walking along the beach at low tide.’”

“Ew!” Tommy says, holding his nose. “P.U.!”

They all giggle except Scooter, who is not known for his adherence to high standards of personal hygiene.

“Okay, Skip—why don’t you give it a shot,” I say, encouraging my younger son who can be something of a wallflower in grade school social settings.

He looks around the table, and both Tommy and Mary Beth put on their most innocent faces, hoping to divert whatever spleen Skip may be capable of venting onto someone else.

That someone is, naturally, Scooter, who has made his little brother’s life a living hell for the better part of a decade, what with noogies, wedgies, Indian sunburn and—most painful of all—“monkey bites,” a hard clamp with the hand to the region of the thigh right behind the knee.

“Can I have your cupcake, Scooter?” he asks after a moment, in the sweetest, most genial voice you can imagine.

“No, you stupid fishstick,” Scooter snaps. “Why would I do that?”

“I didn’t think you’d still be hungry,” Skipper says, “after picking your nose and eating it all day.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Scooter and Skipper Blow Things Up!”

The Unsupervised Summers of My Youth

At a college graduation a few years back it hit me: my two sons had grown to manhood without ever playing an inning of unsupervised baseball–that is, without uniforms, screaming parents, and designer bottled water in the dugout to keep them hydrated between innings.  It sure wasn’t that way when I was growing up.


Third base

 

We played in a vacant lot and used box turtles for bases.  If there was a close call at first, there was no umpire to resolve the dispute.  A representative from each team would meet to discuss the matter, and the one who survived the fight that followed would get his way, while the “loser”–and we weren’t afraid to use that word even though it might hurt a kid’s feelings–bled profusely.  It was a more innocent time.


Weird Masonic ritual

 

That horsehide idyll was interrupted when the local Masonic lodge bought the land we played on to build a new facility.   We could have taken our bats and gloves and gone home to watch Buffalo Bob and Flubadub on Howdy Doody, but we were made of sterner stuff.  No, we had spunk, we had moxie–not the soft drink, the ability to face difficulty with spirit and courage.  We weren’t going to take the encroachment of boring adult concepts such as “private property” on our summer fun lying down, no sirree bob!  We set out upon a campaign of property destruction that recalled Sherman’s March to the Sea.


Sherman’s March to the Sea:  “Let’s see . . . did I forget to destroy anything?”

 

When raw materials were delivered to the lot, we would steal them.  When the contractor erected a wall, we’d destroy it.  After a while the lodge sent out the Grand Pursuivant to restore order.  He marched on the site and proceeded to lecture our little band of scalawags. “I have NEVER seen such juvenile delinquency, such disrespect for authority, as we’ve encountered . . . WHOA!” he said as he fell into the Tiger Pit we had fashioned after learning of this neat counter-imperialism tool used by the Viet Cong; sharp bamboo stakes, their tips covered with cow dung, pointed upwards and concealed beneath brush in a deep hole in the ground.  Vietnam was the first war to be televised, and it paid off for us–big time!


Viet Cong Tiger Pit:  That’ll teach ’em to come on their own property!

 

Of course, summertime wasn’t ALL fun and games.  We worked .  .  . hard.  None of our parents could afford to have illegal immigrant lawn crews, like today.  Nope, we had to cut the grass and pull the weeds, in sweltering heat, day after day!  That’s right, don’t believe the “global warming” kooks who say the earth is getting hotter because of CO2 emissions.  Why, back when I was a kid it could get up to 100 degrees at night.  When you set a neighbor’s tool shed on fire.


Pure, innocent fun.

 

No, I think kids today really miss out what with the safety helmets they have to wear every time they get on their bikes.  We never did, and none of us shows any ill effects from it.  Well, maybe Tommy Souza, but his dad was a career criminal with the defective Y chromosome often found in serial killers, so I hardly think you can blame his life of crime on a simple fall from his bike when his brakes failed and he hit the concrete curb outside the neighborhood grocery.

Boy, what treasures were to be found within the old corner store!  Root beer barrels, Slo-Poke all-day caramel suckers, Black Crows, Lik-M-Aid!  You don’t see candy like that any more; “too sugary” the goof-ball government nutritionist cranks say.  “They make the kids hyperactive”–as if that’s a bad thing!  It’s childhood–let kids be kids!

We sure didn’t let hidebound moral strictures get in the way of our fun.  We’d go into the store in a pack, then Ronnie Urbaugh would distract the owner by faking an Osgood-Schlatter’s attack over in the produce section, while we stuffed our pockets with Pixie Sticks, licorice,  Red-Hots, small bills and quart bottles of malt liquor.  Ah, to be a boy again!


“Arrgh!  Osgood-Schlatter attack!”

 

No, by comparison to kids today, we were much more innocent.

At least until proven guilty.

The Summer We Cornered the Hog Lard Market

The year was 1962. The place–a small town in Missouri so insignificant it billed itself as The Gateway to the Ozarks. Not the Ozark Mountains themselves, you understand, but if you wanted to get to them you had to go through us. Unless you were coming from the south, the east or the west, in which case you could avoid us and go through some other gateway.


Ray Sadecki, bespectacled left-handed fireballer, 6-8 that year.

 

I was one of five eleven-year-old boys who, because of our inadequate baseball skills, had been held back on a B-level Little League team, when others our age or younger had been promoted to the “A” league. Even John Rader, who couldn’t throw a ball and hit the broad side of a barn, was called up because his dad was chummy with–there I go again, angrily rehashing the past. It’s better to just let it go.


Charlie James: .276 batting average.

 

In any event, we were a bitter bunch, determined to strike back at the world that had so cruelly cast us aside to play with kids who were as much as two years younger than we were! We went on a tear and, after losing a game early in the season to the Lions Club team, we swept our way into the B League championship game where we defeated the Optimist Club team, whose members included Timmy Slater, a hot-shot ten year old who had made a cutting remark about me and the other over-the-hill retreads on our team earlier in the season. “See you next year,” I said facetiously to Timmy as we walked off the field. “Don’t gloat” my dad scolded me, but who could blame us for enjoying the comeuppance we had administered to our doubters.


“Dad, these are what real trophies look like.”

 

For our efforts, we received trophies that were approximately four inches high, trifling little things that my kids, who receive hunks of metal that outweigh the Stanley Cup for losing, wouldn’t use as a doorstop. We had the rest of the summer ahead of us, however, and we were just getting started.


“On your mark, get set . . .”

 

After every broadcast of a St. Louis Cardinals’ game on a local radio station, there was a feature called Baseball Quiz, in which an announcer would ask a question about the game–for example, who replaced left-handed pitcher Ray Sadecki in the seventh inning. The first caller to correctly answer it received an assortment of prizes that included unwanted 45 rpm records that hadn’t become hits and a variety of products provided by advertisers.

Since the typical caller was a pre-teen boy, this made a somewhat dubious reward for one’s efforts. What was an eleven-year-old baseball fan supposed to do with Mrs. Paul’s Fishsticks, Lipton Instant Soup, and the piece de resistance, a one-pound package of Roseland Lard?


Lard, in all its glory.

 

Lard, in case you didn’t know, is clarified hog fat that is used as a cooking oil, shortening or a spread similar to butter. Despite the efforts of British lard producers to glamorize the product, it is not generally associated with an upscale lifestyle.


These British toffs use lard–shouldn’t you?

 

But we were young–we didn’t know what to do with the stuff. So whenever one of us won Baseball Quiz, we’d give the foodstuffs to our mothers, then take the 45′s out in our backyards and throw baseballs at them until they were smashed to bits. The records, not our mothers.

Until one day it dawned on me, the only one of our gang who would go on to study free market economics at a leading research university, that we were literally throwing money away.


Andrew Carnegie, taking a break from robber baroning.

 

“Listen guys,” I said to my pals. “You know Andrew Carnegie, the robber baron who donated the money to build the Public Library?”

“No,” came the answer.

“He made billions because he was able to control the production of steel in America.”

“Let’s go to the pool.”

“Wait–if we win Baseball Quiz every day, eventually we’ll have a monopoly on hog lard! People will have to come to us whenever they want to make fried chicken, or hush puppies.”


Hush Puppies: Yum.

 

“What’s in it for me?” asked Wayne, our fireballing right-hander.

I hesitated before I spoke. After all, it was my idea. But Wayne was the guy who had carried us all season long, gunning down batters with his wicked sidearm delivery. Great business leaders don’t care who gets the credit, I thought, as long as the enterprise succeeds.

“You can be president of the company,” I said magnanimously. “I’ll be vice-president.”

“Okay–deal,” he said, and a conspiracy in restraint of trade was born.

For the rest of the summer we coordinated a rapid-response team that would tie up the phone lines after Cardinals’ games. We’d listen to each other’s answers–dialled in on rotary phones–risking earsplitting feedback if we called from a point too near our radios. Eventually, by memory or process of elimination, we’d come up with the correct answer and take home the hog lard.


Excess crappie: “Uh, thanks but no thanks.”

 

Soon, our mother’s refrigerators were full of the stuff. Just as neighbors would come back from the Lake of the Ozarks with hundreds of crappie they had caught but couldn’t eat, we had more lard than we knew what to do with.

But for some reason, the anticipated crisis in hog lard supply never materialized. Maybe it was because there is no shortage of hogs in central Missouri, or perhaps it was the availability of butter and margarine substitutes that eased the market chokehold we had hoped to create. As monopolists, we were failures.

My mother, cleaning the refrigerator one day, gave away her stash to Augusta, the country woman who did housework for us. My co-conspirators lost interest, or were forced to turn their attention to seventh grade, which loomed ahead. I was left with my shattered hopes of owning an agribusiness empire that would make me rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Oh, and a question that I continue to ask to this day.

You wouldn’t by chance be interested in a couple of boxes of Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks, would you?