Friday, December 28, 2012

Poverty and Trips to Idaho

I wrote this story over 20 years ago when I worked for the Postal Service. Some of the incidents actually took place. Well, possibly just one incident. But in the ensuing 20 years, one thing hasn’t changed. Many Americans can’t get the idea out of their heads that poor people are screwing us. My only question is this. If they’ve been screwing us for this long, why aren’t they doing better?

    It’s that time of the year when offices start collecting for Christmas care packages for the needy. At my workplace, in addition to asking for non-perishable canned goods, we were also asked if we knew of any needy families on our route that might benefit from our generosity. The request came with one caveat.

“Make sure the families are truly needy,” we were cautioned. One year we brought food to a home and the family was away on vacation to Idaho.”

This seemed rather strange to me. I never took vacationing in Idaho to be a measure of one’s financial well-being or not-so-well-being, and yet the implication clearly was that the truly poor would not be vacationing there.

I don’t know. Having vacationed in Washington D.C., Boston and other tourist hotspots, I’d look at Idaho as a pretty cheap getaway, all things considered. I have never heard anyone say, “We’d like to go to Idaho this year, but I don’t think we can afford it.”

I generally set an income level of 15 to 20 thousand a year for a family of four as being in the struggling range and below that to be poverty. But maybe I’m naïve to be considering poverty based solely on economic indicators. 

Maybe there is something to be said for the Idaho/poverty connection. I checked out some books from the library and sure enough Idaho has one of the lowest number of people living off Uncle Sam.

So if you can’t live there and be in poverty, it stands to reason you shouldn’t be able to visit there either and be in poverty. You can’t have it both ways. Therefore it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to be giving someone visiting Idaho a Christmas care package. Or anything else for that matter.

I’m very careful about this now that I know. Like they say, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way—maybe not as far as Idaho but still a long way.

I was walking into a neighborhood K-mart the other day and there was a Salvation Army soldier manning the post. I walked over to him and casually struck up a conversation.

“I was just wondering,” I said, “but you don’t happen to know if this money or any of the stuff you buy with this money goes to people who vacation in Idaho, do you?”

He looked real smug, like he knew where I was coming from but at the same time didn’t want to be bothered—like he had seen me coming or something. He stepped back and pointed to a sign taped to his pot. It read: WE DON’T GIVE NO MONEY, NO HOW TO PEOPLE WHO VACATION IN IDAHO.

“Satisfied?” he asked.

“Very much so,” I replied, “and impressed I might add.”

“Well, let’s put some of the green stuff into the pot then.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Not so quick. Being satisfied and being willing to part with my hard earned cash are two different things. You know, I watch a lot of 60-minutes, so I’m not exactly walking around in a vacuum. I know there is a lot of fraud going around, especially amongst the poor. You read the papers, don’t you?”

“What are you getting at?” he asked, a little impatiently.

“How do you know,” I said rather deliberately so as to make my point perfectly clear, “that some woman doesn’t tell you that her family never visits Idaho and then after you’ve given her a turkey and a week’s supply of canned peas they don’t pack up and hit the road. How-do-you-know, eh, how-do-you-know?”

“I don’t know, I’ll ask her.”

“You don’t think she’d lie to you if she wanted the turkey bad enough? Maybe you should have her sign an affidavit.”

“Stating what?”

“That they aren’t going to Idaho.”

“Never, ever? For how long?”

“For as long as they want to be treated as poor people.”

“And maybe, I could drop you right where you stand,” he said, sounding not so much like a Salvation Army soldier but more like a real soldier.

I wasn’t taking any chances. I dropped a buck in the pot and took off. Still, something has to be done about this Idaho problem. I’m just not exactly sure what but something has to be done.

I’ll tell you what I would like to do, though. I’d like to take a trip to Idaho over the holidays. Then I could send postcards to all my friends.

“Merry Christmas from Idaho,” I could write. “Wish you were here. Wish you could afford to be here.”
I’d be the envy of all my friends. “Man, that Phil has it made,” they’d say. “He’s doing Christmas in Idaho. He must be rich.”

Monday, December 3, 2012

Pearl Harbor Day 1982, Hope for the Holidays

I left Vietnam in July 1971 and the Army in January 1973. For the next few years I lived in San Pedro and Long Beach, California; Rochester, New York; and Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina before settling in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Somewhere in the middle of all that moving around I got married and by 1982 I was the father of two girls. I had done a little writing while living in California but not that much and I had reflected back on Vietnam even less. But by 1982 I was ready to take look back  , not just on Vietnam but also on just about everything else.


Hope For the Holidays
                     --a GI remembers
                           Virginian Pilot, Tuesday, December 7, 1982

In December 1970, I was nearing the end of my first year in the army. It was a strange year. I held none of the then-popular objections to serving in the army. Both my parents had served their country during World War II and I was proud to be following in their footsteps.

But there was one problem. I didn’t really feel that I was walking the same path that they had. So many changes had taken place and the army had come under so much attack in recent years that it was hard to believe that my army was my father’s army. His had had the support of the entire nation. Mine didn’t even have the support of its own members. After one year I was still looking for the missing link.

But as the year was drawing to a close it was the upcoming Bob Hope Christmas Show that occupied my thoughts more than anything else as the 12 days of Christmas passed so tediously slow.

I was an information specialist assigned to the 1st Aviation Brigade. We’d be in charge of taking the official pictures of the show—Hope, the girls, the celebrities, the girls—did I mention the girls.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hey, I Wrote That

In the last few months before I left the army, my commander, Col. Archie S. Cannon got me a position with the San Pedro News-Pilot, because he knew I wanted to be a writer. I wrote mostly obituaries but was sent out on a few assignments. One was to interview Guy Pullen, a hairdresser turned artist who created sculptures out of the wire and junk he found in landfills.  I drove to his house in Palos Verdes and conducted a very nice interview. As I was leaving he gave me a wire house he was working on.

I’ve carried that house with me for over 40 years, sometimes hanging it in my own homes, including my current one in Virginia Beach and sometimes simply storing it away in the attic or closet. Recently I gave it to my daughter, Danielle, who always liked it. And that was that until...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Amelia Earhart Luggage

I never really did understand the reasoning that went into naming Amelia Earhart Luggage. I mean, what was the point? Seriously?
About seven years before her plane crashed in the Pacific or possibly was stolen in mid-flight by aliens, she crashed another plane on this day, September 25, 1930 at the Hampton Roads Naval Air Station.
Later that night at a dinner party she made light of the accident saying, “It was just one of those little things.”—Like a bump in the road, perhaps.
If Mitt Romney had been alive then and running for—I don’t know—maybe pilot-in-chief, he might have been heard to exclaim, “Just a little thing! Just a little thing! My God, her plane flipped over and she calls it just a little thing. How out of touch can one person be?”
Anyway, when I realized that today was the anniversary of that crash I went looking into my archives—a box labeled “Rejected Stuff.” This was a letter written to the Virginian-Pilot on May 8, 1979, just a few months after we had moved to Virginia Beach.

Editor, Virginian-Pilot:

This month’s giveaway at a local bank is a beautiful matching set of Amelia Earhart luggage—“Something to hold your dreams.” It’s good to know someone has a sense of humor although the last people I would have suspected would be the banks.

The possibilities for Amelia Earhart luggage are endless:
Say your mother-in-law came over for dinner one night and never left; and that was six months ago! Give her a beautiful matching set of Amelia Earhart luggage for Mother’s Day and kiss her goodbye forever.
Say you borrowed $500 from a friend and now he’s beginning to threaten you. Don’t fret. Borrow another thousand and send him on an all-expense paid trip to Pago Pago with his brand new matching set of Amelia Earhart luggage. Watch your money problems fly out the window.
Say the 9 to 5 rat race has you beat and you want to get away from it all. Buy yourself a beautiful set of Amelia Earhart luggage and say goodbye to your workday blues.

And say, it you feel your mother-in-law or friend might get bored on their upcoming excursions, why not pack a handsome surprise in their brand new Amelia Earhart Luggage? How about a copy of Wiley Post's Come Fly With Me?

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Young Girl, the Salmon and the Genie

This was my entry for the Writers Weekly Summer 24-hour contest, which took place on the same day that grandson Brayden made his appearance into the world. I received an honorable mention for the story as did daughter, Danielle for her story "Something Special." July 15, 2012 was a fine day all around. The prompt for the story was the first paragraph ending with the words, "and she dropped her knife...

Growing up on a fishing boat docked in this small northwest coastal town brought stares from townspeople and jeers from classmates. She desperately wanted to escape but, with competitors driving down charter prices, she knew her dad would never be able to afford a replacement. As she sliced open the Salmon, her eyes widened and she dropped her knife

Monday, August 20, 2012

So, this is about the word, so

This article was published in the August 19 Virginian-Pilot Forum section most likely because the paper felt everyone needed a break from politics. I don't know if anyone else has observed this trend but I have been hearing it everywhere.
The article was accompanied by a picture of Hope Solo and a caption that read: "So, apparently, it's 'Hope Solo,' not 'So Lo.'"
So, this is about the word, so
So I was listening to an interview today on television, which reinforced for me that a brand new fad is combing the country.

So you might ask, “So what is this revolutionary craze sweeping the nation, and possibly the world?"

So I will tell you. “So” is it.

So what is it, you ask?

“So” is it, I tell you. So let me explain.
So what I am noticing is that every day more questions being asked by interviewers are being answered by statements beginning with the word “so”.
So maybe you are thinking that this might be simply a case of Beverly Hills teenage valley girls speak and surely not the way the civilized folks speak.
So you would be wrong to assume this. So let me tell you how widespread this so-so new way of talking has become.
So I have heard economists begin every sentence with so. So I have heard Congressmen, diplomats and scientists begin every sentence with so.
So, today, an astronaut talking about the vehicle that will land in a few hours on the planet Mars, described what would happen in these words.
“So the modular carrying the rover will hit the Mars atmosphere. So when it does a parachute will deploy and—”
So, and so what?
So what happens next isn’t really important.
So what is important is why does every sentence have to begin with the word “so?”
So didn’t we already go through this nightmare with the word “like?”
So didn’t we learn our lesson?
So who starts these trends?
So I think maybe some public relations firm must hear someone, somewhere start a sentence with “so” and decide that it sounds just different enough to make ordinary sentences and ideas a little more appealing and so it starts advising its clients to employ this unique new way of talking but then other public relations firms latch on to the idea and it starts spreading like so many cultured cells in a Petri dish.
So some people even hear it on their own and are attracted to it like so many flies to flypaper and before you know it, every Tom, Dick and Harry so and so is starting every stupid sentence with “so.”
So I was wondering if this was simply an American thing or if the whole world had jumped on the “so” bandwagon. So I turned to London where the Olympics, the largest international gathering of athletes were taking place.
So I hear an interviewer ask a girl on the Mexican soccer team who does she think is the best female soccer goalie in the world at this time.
“Solo,” she answers cautiously, perhaps not wanting to offend her own goalkeeper.
So I am at a complete loss because for the life of me I have never heard of a soccer goalie named Lo.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

September 1973: An Up and Down Month


This story was published this week by the The Whistling Fire web magazine. It describes two events that happened within the space of a few weeks back in September 1973. Hell on Earth, a love story is all about seemingly unrelated events proving eventually to be significant.
The novels Postal Service and Hell on Earth, a love story and my 30-year career in the Postal Service were the result of events set into motion in September 1973—a real up and down month, but a very significant one.

September 1973: An Up and Down Month
                                                                            September 5, 1973—Began classes at Cal State Long Beach

I hadn’t really expected to be going back to school.  God knows my time at Lowell Tech had been long enough and the five years I spent there hadn’t kept me out of Vietnam or gotten me a job.
 For sure it was a good experience but I think everyone, including myself, was hoping for more.  I don’t mean that in a bad way. Hell, hoping for more is the driving force that pushes us all. And when the more isn’t what you expect it to be then you hope for something else.

This Teaching Credential Program at Cal State Long Beach was that something else.  Things were finally coming together.  This time I was majoring in something I actually believed in.  And I was sure it would lead to a job and an opportunity to continue writing.  At last, I would be able to look my father in the eye and we would both know that everything was going to be all right.

What he had said the morning I left for boot camp at Fort Dix was still fresh in my mind.

 “I hope the army makes a man out of you,” he said, frustrated by my lack of direction. I have to admit, he had a point.

 “I hope so, too,” was my understated response.

So I went to Vietnam, did some writing for a military magazine and did the soldier thing in the form of guard duty on the third security ring around the Bien Hoa Airfield.  The general feeling was that if anyone got through the first two rings they’d have to be really good and we weren’t going to stop them no way, no how.  Still they gave us M-16’s and the code word of the day.

By the time I got out of the army I was more than ready to get back on the road to my future—a journey I has first started in 1964 and detoured from so many times I was losing count. That’s why I was returning to school. Only this time the plan wasn’t to go to college. This time I was going to college with a plan.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Genesee Brewery 1967

      I've written about the Powers Hotel before. The Genesee Brewery is what happened right after the Powers Hotel demolition job.


                                                                      Centum utres dolor in muro centum lagenas cervisiae.

                                                                      Si quis forte inciderit utres, quam multa utres cervisie in murum?

                                                                                                                       —from an old Roman drinking tune

I left the $2.10 per hour demolition job at the Powers Hotel—soon to be the Powers Office Building—for a better paying job at the Genesee Brewery. Some would say a raise to $2.30 isn’t worth the trouble of switching a bus route. They might be right. And certainly, when you throw in the $60 initiation fee I had to pay to join the Teamsters Union and the $15.00 monthly dues it really didn’t make much sense at all.

But money isn’t everything.  Maybe I had learned everything there was to learn about tearing down a wall.  Maybe it was just time to move on, to expand my horizons, to learn different skills, to challenge myself.  Maybe it was time to find a job that let me drink beer while I worked.  Yes, I think that was it—and the other stuff, too.

I heard the brewery was looking for a forklift driver and I had done a little bit at the paper warehouse the previous summer so I went down there one day after knocking down another wall and took the forklift driving test.
This is what the forklift driving test consists of: You turn it on, level the blades and line them up with a pallet that has about 25 cases of beer on it.  Then you drive the blades into the pallet, tilt them back, lift the pallet up and set it on top of another pallet of beer cases.  Then you repeat the procedure with those two pallets by stacking them on top of two other pallets of beer.  If you do this without dropping the pallets or hooking any other stacks or spilling any beer or breaking any bottles, you’re pretty much in.

I asked the forklift-driving test instructor when I could start and he told me I could begin immediately, explaining that the man I was replacing left for lunch and never came back. I guess I was fortunate that demolition work doesn’t require two weeks notice to leave and forklift driving doesn’t require two weeks of training to begin.

All in all, I did pretty well.  I kept those cases moving, those stacks growing, and the beer flowing.  It was on that very first day that I learned that the real Genesecret was not Hemlock Lake water or even the postcard portrayal of 20 men standing along the shore of Hemlock Lake peeing into it, but rather the part about “Keeping the beer flowing.”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The California Lunch Room—Where Stylish Woman Shop

Fiction 500 recently ran a contest for short  stories. The prompt for the 500-word story was a picture of a house bearing the sign, California Lunch Room. I didn't win but from the judge's comments, I seem to have made an impression.

The California Lunch Room, Where Stylish Women Shop

This is a picture of my first business venture—where it all began.

I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life—a creative genius if you will, whose ideas have always been both on the forefront and on the edge.

I came up with the metric clock when metrics were all the rave. Everyone felt it was only a matter of time before the whole world would go metric. Soda was being marketed by the liter and foodstuff (I wish I’d invented that word) was coming to us by the grams. Yardsticks suddenly became meter sticks and the whole world seemed to be aglow in ten and the powers of ten.

I didn’t care one way or the other but I did see an opportunity.

No one was looking into the time situation. No one was breaking the day down into the morning ten hours and the evening ten hours. No one was looking into hours composed of a hundred minutes, minutes made up of a hundred seconds, or seconds broken into milliseconds—okay they were doing that but why not the other stuff, too, I wondered.

Unfortunately, that idea went right into the 500-liter trashcan.

But I never gave up. I simply went looking for a better idea.

The good thing about ideas is they usually come at you a kilometer-a-centihour.

I was watching the Michigan/Ohio State game on TV one cold Saturday afternoon. Being inside I wasn’t affected by the cold but more importantly my brain was able to keep functioning. None of the frozen brains in Ann Arbor that day were even pretending to still be functioning. 

That’s when I invented the ear sock.

You are probably saying, “What about earmuffs? We already have earmuffs to keep our ears warm.”

Get real. No one wears earmuffs. They’re embarrassing for men and most women find them unattractive. 

As I watched the tuba player march across the field to famously dot the “i” in Ohio, I noticed the tuba had a covering over it, a sock if you will, with Ohio written across it. An idea was born.

College students would be able to purchase my ear socks with their school logos imprinted on it and not only keep their ears warm but also support their team.

Ah, but getting ideas is easy. Backers are another story.

So what about the California Lunch Room? Was it ever a restaurant?

That would have been too easy.

Back in 1947 I was a newly discharged soldier with enough ideas in my head to drive a sane man crazy. I bought this little house and began selling my newest invention—Tobacco gloves.

Everyone smoked in those days but no one liked having yellow fingers. My glove was the answer to a stylish woman’s nightmare. With my gloves she could smoke like a chimney but her hands would always look like pure white porcelain.

Of course to make money I still had to sell snacks, candy and caps and eventually even lunches.

Never Mess Around With a Nun Named Leo

It began as a casual observation, thrown out in haste—possibly, with little or no thought given to the consequences—obviously. The four of us had been called to the front of the room to explain our continued misbehavior after having spent the last hour standing in the back of the room for previous transgressions. We were clearly digging that hole that people are always talking about.
The question we were asked was a very simple one.

“What do you boys think you’re doing?”

Schoolboys have been asked this from time immortal and the correct response has always been the same. You look down at your feet, shuffle them around a little, shrug your shoulders and shake your head from side to side and then say, “I don’t know.”

That is the only acceptable answer. No one really expects you to incriminate yourself. The teacher is only interested in getting that question out of the way so she can move on to the next phase—the punishment phase. The question is only a formality and should be treated as such. That’s what the smart kids do.

Looking back, I realize our response didn’t even answer the question that she had posed and reluctantly I must admit that I was the one who answered the question but you can’t go back and rewrite history.

“The other eighth grade is better than ours,” I said, in response to the question, “What do you boys think you’re doing?”

Monday, June 11, 2012

America's The Greatest Ride of All

Roller coasters are great fun. Merry-go-rounds are great fun, too.

But merry-go-rounds are kind of old European fun. When I think of merry-go-rounds I think of Vienna, Austria. I think of organ music and mirrors and faces with masks.

Roller coasters are more American—Palisades Park, Coney Island, and King’s Dominion.

The theory behind the merry-go-round is to create a sort of pleasant monotony.

The idea behind the roller coaster is a thrill a minute. Speed.  Sharp turns. Scary drops. Yes, the roller coaster is definitely more America.

A nice thing about a roller coaster is that a lot of people can enjoy it together. In fact, a lot of people should enjoy it together. If you go on a roller coaster alone you might just as well go to the cotton candy booth and make something out of nothing, because when your ride is over, you’ve got nothing.

You have to have a crowd to do it right.  But that doesn’t mean everyone gets the same amount of fun or thrill. For some people, the roller coaster can’t go fast enough and they long for more. For others, it goes too fast but that’s all right because they want to push themselves to the limit for a short time. For some, it’s the challenge. For other’s, it’s the noise. Everyone has his or her own reason for riding the roller coaster.

While everyone has his or her own reason for riding a roller coaster, I’m sure we all would agree on one thing. A roller coaster should be safe. It shouldn’t go so fast that it falls off the tracks. There should be a safety bar to keep people from flying out of their seats. Imagine the irony of going on something to have a good time and winding up flying through the air and—well, you get the point.

So while it is important that a lot of people ride the roller coaster, it is also true that the most important people are the ones who design, build, and operate it. That is why it is almost mind boggling to think that the kid wearing the tee shirt and baseball cap with the tattoo on his arm and the cigarette dangling from his lips is in charge. But it’s true. Perhaps, that’s the scariest part of all about roller coaster rides.

What would happen if a small group of riders wanted the roller coaster to go faster and faster? What if it couldn’t go fast enough to please them? What if this kid in charge—this kid who doesn’t know anything about physics or gravity or centrifugal force; this kid who doesn’t understand that the purpose of the roller coaster in the first place is for a lot of people to have fun; this kid who is so insecure that all he wants is to be liked by the few people who want it to go faster and faster—what if this kid allows the roller coaster to go faster and faster?

The Frogs and My Magical Mandolin

The rainy season came to Vietnam shortly after I arrived and it didn’t seem like it was ever going to end. The reason that Lin said every Vietnamese song was about the rain was that it never truly went away. There was the season when it rained all day and all night and then there was the season where it got hot as hell every day and only rained around four in the afternoon to cool things off. I never minded being caught in that rain because it felt so good and I knew that a half-hour after it stopped I would be completely dry.

The period right after I arrived in Vietnam just seemed to a very damp and monotonous time. The only sounds permeating through the bleak, gray sky was the alternating whirring and whacking of huey rotor blades and the constant slamming of raindrops onto the metal roofs of the barracks.

On one of those rainy days Tony and I rode a bus into Saigon to take some pictures, play around with the tea girls on Tu Do Street, and just do our Hemingway thing, which boiled down to getting away from the structure of Long Binh and into the helter skelter of the city with absolutely no rules—or a lot of rules that everyone seemed intent on breaking. The object was to interact as much as possible with the locals so as to feel that the war, and our year in it, didn’t become just an exercise in keeping our noses clean. When we went to Saigon we were looking for trouble—not big trouble with a capital T but maybe mischief with a small m.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Man: Inherently Good or Inherently Evil?

The Great American Think-Off is a public debate that has been going on for twenty years. Each year a topic is chosen and people are asked to submit their arguments in 750 words or less. Two pro and two con advocates are selected and they go to New York Mills, Minnesota to debate the subject.
This year’s topic was “Man: Inherently good or inherently evil.” Readers of Hell on Earth, a love story—and you know who you are, are well aware that everyone on Earth has some bad trait or they wouldn’t be here in the first place. But that doesn’t make them evil. So I took the inherently good side of the argument.
I didn’t get chosen as one of the four finalists but this was my entry. Feel free to comment or offer your own opinions.

Mankind Is Inherently Good

We question the inherent goodness or evilness of mankind not because we have questions about his general construction but because we observe his deeds. If mankind only performed good deeds nobody would ever question his goodness and if he only performed bad deeds no one would even suspect that he might be inherently good and simply behaving badly.
But because man does perform random acts of evil, his inherent nature is continually questioned. Ironically, this ongoing self-inspection is the unlikely answer to the question it presents; but before we get ahead of ourselves let’s look at why man performs evil deeds.<

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The War of Jenkin's Ear

Hanks life in Hell on Earth, a love story often seemed to be going off in all directions with seemingly little hope for better direction other then the misguided efforts of his caseworker on Erebus. This is pretty much the way research on the Internet works.

You go looking for one thing and you may or may not find it but you will find something and that will lead you to something else and something else and something else. Before you realize it, you’ve got a dozen pages open and you don’t even remember what you were originally searching for.

Recently, while bouncing around the Internet —and I do mean bouncing, I came across a war that to the best of my knowledge never made it into the history books. At least none of the ones I had read.

This war preceded the French and Indian War (1754-63) that was fought between the very organized and disciplined English and French forces and their respective allies, the unorganized, undisciplined, sneak up behind you and shoot you in the back Americans and Indians. It was called the “War of Jenkins’s Ear” (1739-1748) and fought between Spain and England, two naval powers of the day, both with heavy investments in the New World.

You might be asking yourself, “How did I miss that war?” You aren't alone.<

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hope For the Holidays-a GI remembers a legend

This is a rewrite from the Virginia Pilot, December 7, 1982. This article was the beginning of a now 30-year off-and-on association with the Pilot and the nearest I've gotten to the intended newspaper career that I wanted and Hank needed in Hell on Earth, a love story.  

Hope For the Holidays
--a GI remembers a legend

In December 1970, I was nearing the end of my first year in the army. It was a strange year. I held none of the then-popular objections to serving in the army. Both my parents had served their country during World War II and I was proud to be doing the same.

But there was one problem. I didn’t really feel that I was walking the same path that they had. So many changes had taken place, and the army had come under so much attack in recent years that it was hard to believe that my army was my father’s army. His had had the support of the entire nation. My army didn’t even have the support of its own members. After one year I was still looking for the missing link.<

Monday, April 23, 2012

Did you ever take a trip, baby, on the Mobile Line?

The Laconia--Lowell's Most Beautiful Bar








This was the sound of thimbles on the fingers sweeping across a washboard to create the noise of the train wheels gaining traction against the rails serving the Mobile line.  It was also the call to put the books away and scrape up a few dollars for the nightly train to the Laconia, Lowell’s Most Beautiful Bar.

The Laconia probably was Lowell’s most beautiful bar at one time—back in the 40’s during the war. But in the 1960’s it was just one bar out of a couple dozen on Moody and Merrimac that made up what was then referred to as “The Acre,” possibly the sleaziest real estate on the east coast east of New York City’s East Side and north of Boston’s North End.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

We May Be Rats But We Ain’t Chicken

     You dirty Rat! Try counting all the times you’ve heard that remark. You know, it’s not really fair; the reputation that rats have, I mean. It’s really a disgrace.

And who am I, you ask.

And what do I know about rats.

Well, I’ll tell you. My name is Ralph and I am a rat. And don’t laugh at my name because it also happens to be my father’s name. I guess I’m what you would call a junior only no one has ever called me that.

But that’s beside the point. My big gripe has nothing to do with my name. What rattles my tail is the horrid reputation we rats have. And it’s all the fault of you humans.

Humans have really given rats a bad rap. Why to listen to you guys’ talk you’d think we were the worst things going.

It’s not something new, either. Humans have made the name rat synonymous with scum from day one—even going so far as to make rat the worst degree of scum.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Slugging It Out

A similar version was published in the Virginia Magazine, April 24, 1983. Steve McCracken, a Virginian-Pilot illustrator provided the artwork.

We're always hearing about some animal exhibiting some kind human characteristic or trait. Monkeys can be taught to paint like man, parrots can be taught to sing, dolphins can jump through hoops to earn a fish better than any worker ever dreamed of doing, and snakes can slither like a man—oh wait—that one goes the other way around.

Anyway, when it comes to seeking shelter from the rain, the most manlike of all the animals is the slug.

Slugs are those things found under garbage cans and in flower gardens. Because we tend to see slugs only when it is raining or right after a rain, there is a tendency to think slugs like the rain. This is what I always thought and said as much back in 1958 to my buddy Joe.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Restless Kids and Rainy Days

This is a rewrite of an article that appeared in The Virginia Beach Sun, August 24, 1988.

I think sometimes the biggest overriding factor in raising kids might just be luck.

As the former governor of Maine, James B. Langley’s mother told him at his graduation, “Despite all the honors, there is one circumstance more than any other that will determine the turnout at your funeral. And that will be the weather.

That was luck Mrs. Langley was talking about.

Take summer vacations—please!

Our kids, Jessica, eight; Danielle, six; and Dylan, four were all at the age where they were pretty much confined to the house, the yard and the immediate neighborhood. Kathy and I knew that we would have to have some kind of a plan going into the summer.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Artist

The artist stepped back and looked at the drawing she had just finished—a single stemmed flower arising out of a narrow vase. The drawing was slightly left of center beginning in the lower half of the paper and rising to just above the center mark.
As she stared down at the canvas the artist couldn’t help thinking that her picture needed something else. In fact, from the placement of the vase and flower, it seemed she intended all along to include something else.

But what, and besides, didn’t she always feel that way when she looked at a new drawing?

She went to sleep that night with visions of a lonely flower floating in her head. Tomorrow, she thought to herself, we will find you a friend to join you on that page.

A Tall Tale About a Stellar Visitor

This story appeared in The Los Angeles Times on October 20, 1975 and is the one that frustrated my composition professor so much because he had been trying to get something in the Times for so long. The couple that prepared the Oregonians for rapture are the same ones that cropped up 30 years later as Bo and Peep. I was attempting to poke fun at the whole idea and at the same time pose the question, "How would we or should we react if we really were visited by either a spiritual visitor or an alien visitor?"  I tended to see the man I talked to as sort of a Popeye character.
Looking back it's not much of a story but it was my first to be published and most of the research was done in a bar.

Were those Oregonians better ‘Believers’?
A fictional account of a factual event, which may have been fictional from the start.

I’ve been keeping up with the story of the
20 Oregonians who have left their state with stellar hopes. According to press reports, a mysterious husband-and-wife team paid a visit and enticed them to sell their belongings, and then move to Colorado—in preparation, supposedly, for some future trip into space.

This would be a very hard story for me to believe, verging almost on the impossible, except for one thing. I met the same man—or someone like him—about three years ago in San Pedro. Now I know what you’re thinking but it just isn’t so. I’m no kook or spiritualist or fanatic. Let me just tell you what happened.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Powers Hotel, The Summer of 1967

I’ve lived in Virginia Beach for the past 35 years and have traveled extensively. I enjoy browsing through boxes of old post cards and it never fails to amaze me when I find a picture of the old Powers Hotel.

It was probably an ad that I answered calling for laborers. I don’t know how else I would have found out about the job. I took a city bus downtown to State Street and Main; going right past the Robfogel paper warehouse I had worked at the previous two summers. From there I walked a block or two to the Powers Hotel.

For all its elegance, the hotel just wasn’t needed anymore. Modern new boxes, like the Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson located nearer the airport or the highway were replacing it—boxes that while not as elegant as the Powers Hotel were certainly more convenient and efficient.

What was needed, though, was more office space—specifically more office space right where the hotel was located.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Second Opinion

Writers Weekly puts on a unique quarterly contest open to all writers that is both fun and challenging. Those entered in the contest receive a prompt at noon on Saturday and have 24 hours to write a 500-2000 word short story. The lengths vary with each contest. This is the prompt for their winter contest and my entry, which received an honorable mention.

Blue ice stretched to the horizon, fading into the blinding rays of another waning winter sun. She shivered violently as the shifting mass groaned under her feet. She instinctively glanced down, looking for cracks under the transparent sheen. Suddenly, she tensed and dropped to her knees. Desperately clawing at the ice, she screamed...

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Long and Winding Road

Maybe I was knighting Gus but we definitely
needed better props than a winter jacket, a
beanie and a corny lamp.

In Hell on Earth, a love story I tried to show the crazy twists and turns that life takes us through to get us to where we are going. The winding road I created was the result of sins committed in a different world at a different time with a little assistance from a renegade angel with too much time on his hands. It took about 250 pages to tell the story.
The same story was related to me a while back in the space of one line in an alumni directory with much of the details left out.

I met Gus my freshman year at Lowell Tech and knew he wasn’t your ordinary Gus from the start. The man I came to know by the very trade union, blue-collar worker name of Gus was actually introduced to me as Arthur. He was the only Arthur I had ever known and I remember thinking it sounded kind of hoity-toity.

He attended the vocational school at Medford High in one of the tougher neighborhoods of Boston and made a name for himself by becoming the first student president to come out of the shop classes.

He lived in the dorms but, along with a few other students, came to the house I rented with three other guys every Wednesday to work on the weekly physic labs.

One night, after the reports were completed we were—like Foo Ling, the renegade angel in Hell on Earth—kicking the idea around of causing a little mischief.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Why I Buy My Shirts at the Goodwill

I don’t buy new shirts. Price might have something to do with it. I don’t know. The last time I looked at the price of a new shirt was probably 20 or 30 years ago and I didn’t like what I saw then. These days I buy my shirts at the Goodwill store—not just because they’re cheap but also because they have a better selection.

If you’re looking for a cheap shirt in a department store—and I’m only talking relatively cheap—you’re probably looking at a T-shirt rack. But beware. T-shirts don’t come in the sizes that they used to.

Now they come in sizes X, 2X, 3X and Googol-X.  The X size is equivalent to what used to be 40-Long.  The 3X-size is equivalent to what used to be a nightshirt in colonial days and the Googol-X could double as a parachute.

I don’t normally tuck in my T-shirts but in the old days, if I wanted to do so it could be easily done.  It was a way to change a work shirt into a casual shirt the way a secretary might unbutton a blouse slightly if stopping by a bar on the way home from the office.   And if you didn’t tuck it in, it never hung more than three or four inches below the belt. Either way was a very neat look.

Today’s X-Line of T-shirts goes down to somewhere right around my knees.  It’s nearly as impossible to tuck that much material into your pants as it was to squeeze a 4-man Boy Scout tent into those tiny bags they came in.  Of course, you could get the tent into the bag eventually but it required two guys working very hard to roll it very tight and a couple of sticks from around the camp fire to shoehorn them into the bag.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The right to bear arms and those crazy Masons

This is yet another look into those wedge issues that politicians pull out of their hats when real issues aren't working out so well.

There are a sizable number of people who suspect that many of the founding fathers were Masons. Because of the secrecy often associated with the Masons there is no way to be sure but it seems they might be right.

If there is one thing we know about Masons others than we don’t know a damn thing about them it’s that what we do know isn’t what it appears to be. This is because Masons in general are secretive, untrusting and above all conspirators unlike any conspirators the world or Oliver Stone has ever dreamed up.
Not legal tender or even a piece of legal tender

They talked in riddles and codes and nothing was what it appeared to be. There was nothing a Mason enjoyed more than “hiding something in plain sight” or on the dollar bill.

So I think we have to be very careful when we go around quoting the forefathers because we never can know for sure if they mean what they say, say what they mean or even if they were talking to us at all or not sending some coded message to some alien or space traveler.

Take the Second Amendment—please!<

Monday, February 27, 2012

School Prayer

In Hell on Earth, a love story, Hank wrote about everything. He even wrote Hell on Earth, a love story but he also wrote features for newspapers and letters to the editor and essays on every topic imaginable. I know where he’s coming from. I’ve done the same thing and now that wedge issues are again gaining prominence I decided to pull out an old editorial. The nice thing about wedge issues is they’re always there when you want them.

Here are my thoughts on school prayer. I don’t think it makes much difference, one way or the other. I definitely don’t think a moment of prayer, a moment of silence, a moment of meditation or for that matter a bicentennial minute will cause any harm to any student. I also can’t see it doing any real good. Those younger than 40 will have to ask heir parents what a bicentennial minute was.

The real winners—and winning these wedge issues are what these issues are always all about, pray tell—will be the adults who succeed in establishing a moment of silence or the adults who succeed in squashing a moment of silence. This is most definitely an adult thing and there is nothing really wrong with that, if it keeps them out of trouble, so long as everyone concedes that it has nothing to do with the kids.

I do question, though, the people who wrote the law. What’s with, “forbidding distractive displays?” Or more specifically, since when has making the sign of the cross, when praying, been a distractive display? Would bowing your head be a distractive display? Would closing your eyes qualify? How about closing one eye? Okay, maybe that would be distracting. But I don’t see the need for any further restrictions once you’ve declared that the moment be a moment of silence.

Actually, there is a lot to be gained from having a moment of silence without any other restrictions. If some kids stand, and some kids cross, and some kids bow, and some kids clinch their fists, then the lesson to be learned will be this: We’re all different and you better get used to it. Certainly, learning to be tolerant of others should be one of the most important lessons we learn in school.

When these kids finally put their school days behind them and move on into the work world the first thing they will learn is that the workroom floor or office will be made up of Christians and non-Christians. The Christians will be Catholics, Baptists, Methodists or any one of a number of other denominations; the non-Christians will be Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews; and there will be atheist, too. And just like in school there will be those who don’t have a clue.

And if that isn't enough variety there will be whites, blacks, Hispanics, and others; tall people and short people; skinny and fat, lazy and industrious. There’ll be polite men and obnoxious women, loud mouths and people who never talk.

And there will be people who never stop talking.

That is when everyone will pray for a moment of silence.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Planet of the Apes (three is enough)

In Hell on Earth, a love story I talk quite a bit about the Tiki Girls, which I discovered about twenty minutes after I signed in at the 19th Artillery Group at Fort MacArthur.

Cecil and I were spending another night in our second home, The Tiki Girls, making mindless conversation with the local fishermen, playing pool with the young toughs and old men, and having deep debates, which neither would remember in the morning. As Walter Cronkite would have said, it was a night like every other night and we were still there.

We first started going to the Tiki because of the barmaids. Rene was the first one. I met her the first day I was in San Pedro, a month before Cecil ever got there. It was 100° and she was sitting on the bar with her feet in the sink with the cold water running on them. After Rene, there was Linda, then Betsy and well, there really wasn’t anyone after them. In fact, a lot of the time, the Tiki didn’t even have barmaids; just some guy working the bar. That's how it was this particular night.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Abraham Lincoln School - Part Two, The Kid's Summer Talent Show

The escapades of Hank Johnson in Hell on Earth, a love story, begin for the most part with him going off to college because that is where he made most of the mistakes affecting his sentence. Before that, he was a pretty average kid doing pretty run-of-the-mill stuff. Earlier, in Abraham Lincoln Playground – Part One, I wrote about our activities when we weren’t being supervised. In Part Two, I take a look at some of the more structured activities.
The Abraham Lincoln summer school program consisted mostly of craft activities that involved making and painting plaster of Paris plaques.
We did the fruits—apples and pears, the presidents—Washington and Lincoln, and the historic events—the Last Supper. We did these and then we would do them again. And when we weren’t doing those we did ashtrays, which you could never have too many of back in the days when both parents smoked from dawn to dusk without ever giving a moments thought to cancer or the dangers of secondary smoke.

I’m sure we did other activities but none come to mind. What does come to mind is the way each summer’s summer school program ended. It was the great, open-to-all-comers, free for all, Abraham Lincoln Summer School Program Kid’s Talent Show. A kid’s talent show in the 50’s meant you’d be lucky to find a parent in the building.

There were three categories—song, dance and other—and musical accompaniment was probably limited to a piano.

Generally I didn’t enter the talent show, preferring instead to sit in the audience and toss wisecracks at those brave enough to perform, but one year was different.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chain Reactions

There are two things that I like about this picture. The most obvious is the reason for taking the picture in the first place. What’s not to like about a picture of a dog biting a cat?

But there is more to the picture than meets the eye. For instance, why is the dog biting the cat?

To know the answer to that question, you would have had to be walking the streets of Saigon’s Cong Ly slums on a muggy afternoon in 1971, and see what I saw a split second before this picture was taken.<

Friday, January 27, 2012

Founding Fathers vs Funding Fathers

The one thing that the founding fathers and funding fathers have in common is that we owe them a lot.

We know most but not all of the founding fathers by name—Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton—a veritable who’s who of who’s in our pockets.

We know some but certainly not all of the funding fathers but we do know the names of our political leaders—everyone of them most certainly with their hands in the funding father’s pockets.

The founding fathers are remembered both for what they did and for what they said because back then what you said and what you did was mostly the same thing.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Waiting For the Lima Bean

Waiting for something to happen is the running theme in Hell on Earth, a love story. Hank was sent down to become a newspaper writer and in the end no amount of waiting was going to see that goal reached. On the subject of waiting, this story was written a quarter of a century ago and has also been waiting to see the light of day.

This story could easily be called, “The lima bean that never came” but that title hints at a rather sad ending and besides we don’t know that it never came. No this is simply a story about waiting and although waiting never comes easily “Waiting for the Lima Bean” is a much better title and a much nicer thought.

People wait for all kind of things to happen. They wait impatiently everyday for their mail to arrive—anticipating that special letter that will somehow make that day special. Of course, that letter rarely shows up. That is the definition of ordinary. Ordinary is what happens while we are waiting for the extraordinary. It can’t be any other way but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. The hardest thing to wait for is results.