Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

Granddad Broke His Leg

February 4th, 2017

A family horror story immediately came to mind when I saw the new object d’art in the main lobby of Boston’s South Station. If you loved trains growing up as I did and if you played with model-train sets, you’d recognize the coupling, even at 9 feet tall. It has special meeting to me.

My maternal grandfather, William Michael, worked the B&O for 48 years until they forced him to retire. He met one of these in a bad way in his early 50s.

Management lesson

As he told it, he knew better but was impatient. As he yard foreman in Cumberland, MD, he told his crew to climb up to the control wheels on top the cars to manually open the coupling when it would not connect two cars just by pushing them together. He didn’t wait when they couldn’t do it.

He took the little ladder up and was doing the work when he fell. As he did, the cars moved and the coupling linked…with him between, breaking his upper right leg in three or four places.

He found himself in his backyard for a couple of months with a cast from his waist down, on the broken side to his heel.

Lemonade

Meanwhile, my sister and I were kindergarten age and had recently returned from being part of the Occupation Army in Japan. Our parents had divorced and our father quickly remarried (a sordid tale for another time).

He and his new wife were stationed back in Fort Sill, OK, my sister and my birthplace. While our mother had full legal custody, she was trying to be a good scout and agreed when he requested that we spend the summer with them there.

That turned out to be a bad gesture. They decided at the end of the summer when he got orders to move to a base in Germany that they’d take my sister and me with them. So is the lesson never to trust an ex or that an officer is not necessarily an honorable gentleman?

They sent a telegram to my mother, who was then staying near her family in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Locale became important. It was before Internet highways and it was a couple of days’ drive, which she immediately planned upon receiving the shocking wire.

Despite his immobile, plaster-cast condition, Granddad was ready to help his daughter. They got into his car and headed to Southern OK. He somehow managed to operate the pedals and they took turns driving.

On arrival, they went into court as a local lawyer they had contacted arranged. Despite my stepmother and father doing their best marketing effort, apparently my sister and I were not at all convinced that we’d be “better off” with them overseas. The judge quickly ruled that our mother had full custody and that meant what it said. Done and done.

Backyard satori

With the melodrama resolved, the four of us headed back to Romney, still an intact family. So, what’s a crippled, healing railroader to do?

Years later I got the answer to that directly from him. We’d l long been buddies, I much more than any of the other grands. My sister and I spent summers with these grandparents and I worked his massive (one-acre) gardens with him.

We talked of pesky rabbits, his evolution from pesticides to organic, family, railroading, town history and on and on. However, I think I figured I knew more about him than I really did, just from seeing and hearing over the years.

Eventually in my late teens, I got to a seminal question — how could he remain so placid with such a nasty wife? My grandmother was mean and insulting to me, my sister and mother, my maternal aunt, her own sister who also lived in Romney, and of course her husband. She made some of us fume and others cry.

It had taken me years to ask myself the related question, why did he work into the night on the B&O, run his tailor and dry cleaning shop and even do volunteer work, then spend the summer days laboring in these gardens? I knew he gave away most of what he grew to the less fortunate, but why work so hard? That answer finally revealed itself — that got him away from his unpleasant wife, keeping the peace.

His answer to my underlying question of his attitude started with his usual beatific smile and soft words.

When he was in the backyard, hobbled in the massive cast, he remained his usual impatient, doer self. He read every book in the house and those people brought him, then magazines like Reader’s Digest and Life, which the got, plus the Romney and Cumberland newspapers.

Then he thought.

He said that one sunny afternoon, more than a thought came to him suddenly. He realized with his essence what mattered. If his wife for whatever reason struck out at so many, including him, that truly wasn’t important. He instantly shifted from as irritated as others. He transcended her nastiness and was out of reach.

In other words, amid the rose bushes, within sight of the 4 foot square goldfish pond, across the yard from the picnic table, brick BBQ and massive maple, he was enlightened. It wasn’t that he would no longer pay attention to her nasty words. They were no longer triggers.

He was sure he never would have arrived there without his broken leg and forced meditation. In the end, not a bad way to spend the summer, eh? Rescue your grandchildren and come to peace. What did you do last summer?

 

 

Stuffing, dressing and one vulgarity

December 26th, 2016

Back to yesterday and yesteryear, the stuff of stuffing emerges. Most of us, it seems, just know what is supposed to go in the roast bird. Our grannies or other family cooks did the perfect version — in our hazy memories. Anything different or less fails.

I too grew up with plugged up and trussed turkeys, ducks, chickens and geese. I am honestly indifferent to stuffing on my own and really prefer the control over the appearance, flavor and cooking times with an empty carcass. If you really want the best flavors and looks, cook a hollow bird.

However, do not delude yourself; holiday food fans want to see and smell (and in a perverted Proust madeleine moment) fully recall and relive stuffings of childhood. I advise acquiescing and producing the expected here. You can be creative with the rest of the bird and meal. At the least concentrate on a groaning board of beautiful, memorable appetizers.

Yesterday was the Christmas feast for a dozen. We did not go to mass on Christmas, rather massed for languid frivolity, gift and jest swapping and popping Christmas crackers.

As I prepared stuffing for the too-big turkey, I thought back to a Thanksgiving nearly 50 years ago in an alley in Cambridge, MA, with the grandiloquent address of King Place. It is a quarter block long, dead ended and perpetually shabby.

Oh, 10 or a dozen of us college types shared this narrow house of four tiny apartments in a brick building cheek to jowl with the next. We did not know each other except in pairs or small subgroups before moving there, but heck it was Thanksgiving away from family and friends. We’d make our own communal feast.

Then as now I was the primary cook. Our house consensus though included two essentials. First, we needed a sizable turkey, and second, it had to come from the oven extruding bread stuffing. Then democracy and family became obvious. We were all WASPy types, but our family and regional differences became pronounced. Each of us knew exactly what was necessary for a proper stuffing.

We had outlying votes for oysters, chestnuts and other favorites from other homes. We ended up agreeing as youth are wont on too many, just to make sure everyone would fork through to find the right bites. As I recall, in addition to the requisite cubed junk bread, stuffing stuff included celery onion, walnuts, prunes AND raisins, onion, poultry seasoning, pepper, salt, sausage and more and more.

I finished prep with far more than the turkey or any bird short of an ostrich could have held. Hence came the trays of patties, morphing from stuffing to dressing. My companion of the period loudly dubbed the patties buffalo turds. She was born in North Dakota, but more to the point, she was charming and attractive enough that she could and did get away with such vulgarities. I am sure to this day there are a few from the house who will refer to dressing patties that way.

We were all happy with our democratically derived stuffing and dressing.

Flash forward

Back to fewer than 24 hours ago, our Christmas feast benefited from that memory. I relented and decided to stuff the gigantic bird.

I’m not much for too easy and quick. Those result in bland or worse. I think Stop Top stuffing is more like wood wool, a.k.a. excelsior, than food. I fell back on childhood, King Place, restaurant, and previous stuffing goes. Still I was surprised as virtually all at the table went on about the stuffing.

  • The previous day, I cubed two family sized, thick sliced loaves of junk white bread into a huge bowl.
  • I added things that wouldn’t go bad, including 12 ounces of chopped walnuts, two teaspoons of kosher salt, a teaspoon of black pepper and a teaspoon of powdered sage. I mixed these and left the lid off for the cubes to harden up a little.
  • I cooked the turkey neck and giblets to death, removed the neck meat and minced everything. to this, I added a pound of smoked ham run through the food processor. These meats rested overnight in the fridge. Separately, two cups of turkey broth from giblet cooking cooled overnight.
  • I minced two medium onions, one long celery stalk, the celery core including the fine leaves, and a half cup of fresh parsley. Those too rested in the fridge.
  • Early in the morning, I ran about 12 ounces of rinsed baby bella mushrooms, stems included, through the food processor.
  • I got the broth from the fridge and microwaved a cup of golden raisins in it on high for two minutes. The idea was to pre-plump the raisins before stuffing the bird.
  • I heated a stick of unsalted butter and softened the onion mixture, and added the mushrooms.
  • All the ingredients went into the jammed bowl (I have some huge bowls) in the sink to permit an occasional errant lump. When all were squished by hand, I pressed as much as possible into the body and neck cavities of the dry-brined turkey. Six hours and one turning later, the bird received much praise.

To me, stuffing is merely a side dish. Yet, it got the level of compliment a well scrubbed, smelling and looking deb would have at the ball.

We should not overlook or deride simple pleasures. As one of Robert Frost’s poems concludes, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches. ”

 

 

Midtown, snow, long legs and a tree

December 22nd, 2016

Here in Boston, the light snow on Christmas week reminds me of Radio City Music Hall. A dear family friend, Evelyn Justice, took it on herself to guide my sister and me to our first Christmas spectacular there in 1963.

We waited in barricade queues, caught snowflakes on our coat sleeves and tongues, and grokked the Midtown essence of Christmas at Rockefeller Center. Yes, gigantic tree. Yes, ice skaters. Yes, a stage awash with long-legged Rockettes. Yes, a first-run movie.

Pic note: Public domain image by U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Gabriela Hurtado, 2006.

Evelyn was my biscuit lady. More on her here.

We’d known her as little ones in far Southern Virginia (Danville). We were delighted years later when we moved from rural Virginia (Chester) to New Jersey (Plainfield) to learn that she and hubby Rollins Justice (Justice to everyone) had moved there before us.

Evelyn was the kindest, most gracious, most empathetic human I’ve ever known. Of course, she’d be the one who wanted to take us to Radio City. I played chess too and she knew that two blocks away Brentano’s had a magnificent selection of boards and pieces.

She made even waiting on line fun, with jokes and stories of her childhood and things we didn’t remember about ourselves. We saw the wonderfully garish kick-dance show, kind of like Vegas showgirls, minus the decolletage and jiggling breasts. As I recall, they twirled mini-hula hoops that glowed under the lights around their calves and ankles. And the flick with Charade, starring the unnatural cervix lovely Audrey Hepburn.

I’ve been to the center since, seen the shows and tree, and of course the skaters. They aren’t as magical without Evelyn. She died in 1997. She was swell.

Old coots, chaws and vegetable display

November 19th, 2016

The farmers’ co-op in Romney WV was integral to my childhood. It had been moribund, then closed after long-time manager Fred Judd had a dreadful fall from which he never really recovered.

Just this week, it’s reopening in a form I would not have recognized. It is now the Hampshire County Co-op & Market Place. It offers local artists’ work and fancy food. The promo on the town FB page includes, “PS: Eric Hott’s smoked bacon pieces dipped in dark chocolate will change your life forever!”

That’s not the way I knew it.

Next door to the co-op on South Marsham Street was my grandfather’s tailor/dry cleaning shop. Abutting that was the family house where I spent summers and holidays. For a peripatetic  lad and his sister, that town and that specific street were home. We moved every couple of years but Marsham Street was always there for us.

We could sit on the front porch (and did often) watching as rain storms sheeted down the mountains before us, first wetting the apple and peach orchards.

Two doors down was a playground inside the co-op. The manager, Carl, let us play. In the big room by the entrance were bins of seed. If a farmer or gardener needed just a few pounds of corn to plant, he could fill a bag using a tin ladle and weigh it out. Likewise, you could get 16-penny spikes loose.

We kids were fascinated with the offerings. We’d also bury a toy in the seeds and challenge each other in a primitive hide-and-seek.

For the big games, the warehouse was filled with 50- and 100-pound bags of seed, feed, flour and such. We’d hide, chase each other and play battle with pea shooters.

Back in the front was a pot-bellied stove, replete with one to six old men. Several were excellent at sitting on nail kegs across from the stove and accurately spitting a big drop maybe 10 feet into the teardrop openings of the stove grate.

They’d tell true tales or maybe lies about their farms and WWI times and such. Highlights included remarkable vegetables they grew, like a 14-inch long bean pods. As I recall McCaslan was the usual champion bean.

I loved the stories and characters who told them. The co-op was a social club for them and me.

Next time I’m in town, I’ll surely visit the artisinal food and art version. I am pretty sure there’ll  be no stove glowing red and certainly tno tobacco-spitting performances.

 

Urine and Mine

October 2nd, 2016

tallurinalsOf course, most women have no need or desire to visit men’s rooms. I doubt they ask XY counterparts for details on urinals.So they don’t know there are a wide variety, which have changed in style in my lifetime.

I write of one memorable, re-emergent style. For details and pix see Chris Higgin’s post.

Meanwhile for the women who have never toured the men’s john, the snap left shows a pair of the ones that impressed me as a lad. This happens to be in Stoddard’s in downtown Boston.

It’s an adventure in that the stairway is very steep, very long and very narrow. Not only do the runners bring food up and dishes down, but M and W facilities are there. It’s a true test of how sober you are.
newcenturywThis tall urinal style used to be real common, mostly in fancier places. I first saw them in the hotel build in my childhood hometown (not birthplace) in West Virginia. The hotel was called the New Century; it went up before WWI and lasted into the ’70s. (For the New Century Hotel, a hat tip to Historic Hampshire. It’s a trove of snaps and postal cards of the Romney area.)

Romney long had east-west traffic on Route 50, from D.C. to Cincinnati, as well as being on the B&O line. It also featured a must-stop-at restaurant, the Green Palm, loved by Duncan Hines among others. However, until the New Century, it was short on hotel rooms, relying more on guest houses.

As a child in the ’50s and early ’60s, I’d occasionally visit the hotel, either with my grandfather for a meal or a pop, or sometimes for a meal.

Oddly enough, the urinals stay in memory. They are very much unlike toilets, small wall versions, and certainly different from the metal troughs at fairgrounds. Instead, the New Century’s looked like a boy, had he interest in doing so, could have stepped in for a shower.

They were about the right size. I see that new versions tend to be up to 38 inches high. In memory, the New Century’s were bigger. Then again, I was wee (if you pardon).

Nowadays, fancy joints tend to use flushless urinals, basically large bowls smaller than a regular urinal. They don’t require or allow flushing, which seems great until you know that someone has regularly to drain them and replace the lighter-than-pee chemical that lets the urine pass through while deodorizing the bowl. (Yuck. A job no one should have to do.)

I bet some hipster restaurant ended up with the salvaged New Century tall urinals.

Failing the Mom

July 18th, 2016

wanda1While my mother, Wanda Lee Michael Ball, died almost 12 years ago, I continue to recall my times with her. Those are almost entirely happy and grateful. She raised my sister and me solo, did a damned good job of it, and balanced fun and moral and smart by example and word.

On occasion, I do have minor regrets though. I recall particularly how I failed her by turning down one request. Sure, she denied me this or that over the the years as well. Yet, as an old guy now myself, I am increasingly aware of the stresses and pains — interpersonal, intellectual, physical, emotional — that living and aging bring. I could have taken one for the team that afternoon.

In her mid-50s, she had a devil of a year. Even typing that, I snort at Wanda’s example. She was loath to swear or even euphemize. “Damn!” was extreme language for her. When she was angry or very disappointed, her strong language was typically, “For crying out loud in a bucket!” (full emphasis on bucket). A malefactor we might call a bastard or asshole would suffer her, “What a crumbum.”

To most of us her 1979 was a year from hell. It included:

  • She had finally found happiness and fulfillment with a lover, who was chased by his ex-wife’s lawyers and courts for new spousal and child support. He got his company to transfer him to Asia and safety.
  • Her own  company got sold to a much larger pharma who handed payouts to the entire sales staff. Thus she was jobless.
  • With her payout, she had to invest it in six months or lose much of it to taxes. That meant buying a house for her and her sister across the country a decade before she wanted to consider such.
  • She got a breast cancer diagnosis. Her doc wanted to aspirate the growths, but her nurse sister convinced her to get a second opinion in her pending new town of Santa Fe. The surgeon there saw the lymph cancers as well and scheduled her for a radical mastectomy.
  • As part of the treatment at the time, her doctors immediately stopped the heavy doses of hormones she was getting for a hard menopause. As a result, her personality changed and her always modulated and logical self became short-tempered and even occasionally irrational, in other words like most other adults her age.

Beaten up and beaten down in every way, she did cope. In Santa Fe without her friends and lover, without her career, without a breast, and on an on.

In many ways, I was there and helpful. I visited, I called, I sent her goody boxes (something she had always done for her children). I was swell to her until she asked one thing that choked me.

Her surgeon liked to tell the story of when he visited her with the post-mastectomy lady and a couple  of nurses a few days after the surgery. The woman showed with a suitcase of padded bras and prostheses. The nurses were there to observe and learn.

Wanda looked at the assembled crew and asked, “What are you doing here?” The woman said she was there to help with the recovery. The surgeon said that Wanda then stated very clearly, “I’m not sick. I just had cancer,” and shooed them out. She was definitely not interested in being fitted for an artificial breast.

You should know that she never identified strongly with her mammary glands. Hers were small. Her daughter’s large. They’d joke about it being obvious whose bras were hanging to dry.

She had cancer of both breast and lymph. The prognosis after successful surgery was death within five years. She went 25.

On one of my visits not too long after the surgery, but when she had healed as much as her body was going to, she asked and I faltered. I knew they had taken a big chunk of muscle as was the style in those years of mastectomy. When the two of us were on the living room couch, she asked in her previous style whether I wanted to see and feel where the breast had been.

I did not and she seemed truly disappointed. It was a ritual offering that I failed to accept.

Yes, yes, the idea of a son touching his mothers breast, rather where the breast used to be, sounds morally and sexually wrong. It really would not have been. It was a medical, anatomical thing. It was yet another of her healing mechanisms.

I should have bucked up and gone with it…for her. I couldn’t and didn’t.

Shortly after I was rereading one of my favorite poets, Frederick Nicklaus. In The Man Who Bit The Sun, one of his poems starts:

I remember a horse in Indiana;
it came from the fields, it ran alongside
the bus. I remember its reddish hide.

But believe me, I failed the fright of its eyes.

So here it was. My mother looked me straight in the face and asked for something pretty simple. I failed. I couldn’t do it.

 

Refining Rubes…Maybe

April 20th, 2016

Odds are you don’t know farm life. Not only are few of us farmers or even from an ag background, but also time, mores, economics and politics have shifted considerably from the early 1900s. I straddle times and conditions. I have milked cows (manually and mechanically), collected eggs, scalded and plucked hens, and worked corn from seeding to weeding to harvesting to turning under.

On the other hand, I never was in a position to inherit a family farm. I grew, picked and sold vegetables but was never in effect indentured servant/slave to nasty father. I never even belonged to 4-H, while I knew many peers in WV, VA and SC who were all those.

Yet, The 4-H Harvest: Sensuality and the State in Rural America (Gabriel N. Rosenberg, U. Penn Press 2016) goes far beyond county and state fairs, farm kids with beloved pigs and cows, and FFA meetings.

One warning is that the book’s index sucks mightily. I’ve done large book indexing and am positive that the author had nothing to do with this one. Many complex and detailed citations are missing (homosexuality, venereal disease, and on and on); it lacks the ideas and uses only keywords. Boo. The other shortcoming is that Rosenberg is far more concerned with the political and economic relationships than the kids. We can infer about the social, intellectual and economic outcomes for the 4-H youth, but he tells us more about the political players individually.  A third note should be that this is an academic press property; at $55, it’s a good meal price; get it at the library.

As someone who visited relatives’ and friends’ farms, I did the work, but I never actually owned and raised cows, sheep or pigs for exhibition (and eventually slaughter). My chums who did that grew up knowing the true script for animals. They had no apparent problem assisting at the birth, naming the cow, raising her, exhibiting her, then either selling or killing and butchering her, and in the latter case eating her little one.

Fatalistic comes to mind.

The 4-H book recalls other intersections. The Y is one. As a child in several places I belonged to YMCAs. When we moved to Boston, I found myself a member in the original Y. I learned it was the Garden of Eden for Northeastern University.

That is, the nation’s first Y started to be a shield for Christian young men who had moved to the (relatively) big city from the farm to earn a living. The new institution offered wholesome residence, free from bars and prostitutes and the moral perils of rooming house life. This Y offered evening lectures to keep the young men wholesome and occupied. Those in turn led to the college and university — evening activities for the mind and soul rather than the crotch.

Likewise, the 4-H clubs were specifically to counter the immorality and amorality of rural life. In contrast to our idyllic bucolic images, country life was rife with lust, pregnancy, venereal disease, bestiality, homosexuality and.well, non-refined ways to spend an evening.

The clubs viewed, described and treated the youth involved much as they did the produce and animals (other than not eating the kids). The descriptions of the programs and contests are embarrassing in their paternalism. Then again, this was largely the range of the 20th Century, start to finish. There was rampant racism and sexism, with the asininity of stereotyping,  that continued well into the 1970s.

Oddly, the author keeps his academic distance and does not wonder specifically whether the good and bad balance on the 4-H scale.

As an aside, the book reminded me of a dinner about 1970 in Cape May, New Jersey. The hosts were the former mayor, Belford (Bucky) LeMunyon and his wife Ione. She was the aunt of the woman I kept company with in Manhattan. A guest (to my embarrassment I do not recall his name) was a retired local physician. He recalled performing seemingly unceasing Army physicals during the WWI draft in a field outside of town. There were stations of long tents and much longer lines of naked men, each wearing only a bag with personal effects. He remembered to that day one potential soldier after another with secondary or tertiary syphilis, sores and a fatal prognosis unknown to them. They were farm boys given to the amoral sexuality of rural life, young men who had no idea they were close to the insanity and death that end-stage disease brings.

The 4-H book refers to the raw and common sexuality of the farm life. We can sit at a distance and snicker at the self-righteousness of the clubs and Ys preaching about the risks to body and soul from city life, while farm kids were at least as likely to suffer…or more so.

 

 

Of fish and tools

February 21st, 2016

codeyeI finally broke down and bought a decent filleting knife. Now I’ll lug home whole fish more regularly.

As the main cook around here, I of course have a thing for knives. I believe in good ones, for example, the large carbon-steel French chef’s one I’ve used for over 40 years. I bought that with the advice of my friend Paula Delancey. She was a student at the CIA in Hyde Park NY and on the way to becoming the first woman to graduate at the head of her class there. She already knew knives. Thus it is amusing that I delayed springing for a good fillet knife, even if I would use it rarely.

Elder buddies

I remember my first fish filleting forays. Apparently some of my local fishing trips around Romney, West Virginia, were mildly amusing to family. In particular, when I would go sit on the bank of the South Branch of the Potomac with Rumsey Oates.

We were related by marriage. He was the father of the man who married my maternal grandmother’s younger sister. Discounting the by-marriage and removed qualifiers, he would have been my great-great uncle. I was a kid and he was in his mid and late seventies.

My mother said some people would try to tease him about his wee fishing buddy. He would tell them I was the best type — I had a lot of patience and didn’t talk much. We could sit by the river for hours. Sometimes we pulled in sunnies or perch. When luck was with us, it was trout and bass.

I enjoyed his quiet company too. The 60 to 70 year age difference seemed unremarkable to me. We got along.

I suppose it was my mother’s doing, along with her parents. She ran Red Cross chapters, which were filled with aged volunteers. Most of them insisted that I call them by their first name and treat them like peers. Likewise, my grandparents had mostly friends who were 50 or more years older than I, who also treated me as an well-mannered equal. I lived the school year with my mother and summers with her parents. I knew more old people than kids my age.

Scaling, gutting, filleting

Many fish aren’t that bad to prepare. Those little ones remained pretty bony though. The fat trout and small-mouth bass were much easier. The spine often lifted out with most of the bones still attached. Then slicing out a decent fillet on each side was something even a kid could do, assuming he had a decent knife.

That past revisited recently as my wife subscribed to Cape Ann fish shares, choosing the whole-fish options. Haddock and pollack were pretty easy to deal with; they were thick and my existing knives were OK. So were the two very large flounders one week. Another share though was seven very thin flounders. They were impossible to cut a real fillet from. I did accept that if I had a serious filleting knife I would have done a little better.

Now I’ve tipped over. I bought the good knife. It arrived a day after I had successfully butchered the two pollack, but I’m ready.

Fish stores and the Haymarket have a good range of whole fish. I’m armed.

 

 

Family Clipboards and Whistles

February 6th, 2016

Clipboards and lanyards with Acme Thunderer whistles were family tools for me. My true role model was Granddad, William Benjamin Michael, who worked on the B&O Railroad for 48 years until they forced him to retire. I had full train trappings, replete with cap and overalls and he let me drive a wood-burning engine around the yard. I never became a toot-toot engineer.

In a boomer lifestyle though, lifeguarding and water-safety instruction was a family biz. My mother ran Red Cross chapters in West Virginia, Virginia and New Jersey. She had been on her way to becoming a nurse when she married, was a Gray Lady in Japan when we were part of the Occupation Army there and came to her post-divorce career with many duties. Those included teaching home nursing, first aid, emergency first aid (bang, post-atomic-bomb stuff), and the range of swimming and lifeguard c0urses.

[By the bye, I took and taught those emergency first-aid courses too. I’m fine with having learned to delivery babies and less pleased with knowing how to treat radiation poisoning.]

Mom Wanda taught me to swim first in the South Branch of the Potomac by Romney, West Virginia. There were also pools, where I saw her in action —teaching, managing other instructors and generally being group mother.

As far as I recall, my sister and I never thought about it. Somehow organically, we also became lifeguards and water-safety instructors (WSIs). I also taught first aid and coached summer swim teams where I guarded. Back in the sensible days, my summer earnings from guarding, teaching and coaching paid for most of my college costs. The rest came from academic and athletic scholarships.

Thinking back, I remember Wanda with clipboards and whistles. Those became part of my life too, all and every summer. From beginner through senior life saver, my chargers were under my watch and subject to attendance checks and fill-in-the-boxes accomplishments. I would only guess how many class forms I completed, likely a thousand or two over many summers. Each form was on a clipboard, as much a part of the WSI uniform as a swimsuit.

Wanda also had a lanyard and whistle of dubious utility.

thudererWhen I became a lifeguard for summers and in college, the nasty-sounding Thunderer (pic from the Acme site [no coyotes]) became essential. Particularly when keeping a pool safe when it was rife with other teens, authority was in the whistle.

I was not the beloved laissez-faire lifeguard. No dunking on my watch. I’d throw people (almost always boys) out for running after being warned, diving when others were below, and again holding someone under water. Fortunately, I was large enough and athletic enough to pull it off. Plus, most young swimmers depended on me to pass their swimming courses.

My mother was often in a Red Cross uniform. Other times, I remember her in a bathing suit with a WSI path (I may still have one of mine), and always with the whistle and clipboard.

Those were badges of office in my family.

By the bye, none of my three sons had the slightest interest in being a team swimmer much less lifeguard or instructor.

Today in my house, I have numerous leftover clipboards. I put them to use daily though. When most of us turn on the TV, I either read a book or engage in my preferred evening activity, cryptic puzzles. My favorites are from the Financial Times.

My wife says the British puzzles are impossible and illogical, but they are my recreation and pleasure. They also work best with a clipboard.

 

 

Boo for Holiday Booze

December 24th, 2015

mymable“Oh no, Bill, not the boys!”

My grandmother, Mable Michael, had particular, peculiar, nearly miracle hearing. Let’s go with selective. She didn’t respond to all that much and seemed to lose the lower tones as so many older women do. And yet…

I recall a specific Christmas holiday in my college days in her home in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Several of my friends from the area has joined me in her living room, filling the couch and chairs.

She had a clear relationship with alcohol, as in it was sinful, shameful and to be avoided. She was like a Jew who speaks of alcoholism as the shegetz disease, without the quirk of ignoring Jewish vintners or the dominance of Jews in the whiskey distilling trade.

Her hypocrisy was baser and plainer. Her husband (my beloved grandfather) might have two 3.2% beers (all that was legal in West Virginia) and he was on the road to hell. Yet, we all knew we had to bear our version of frankincense each Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas in form of Mogan Davis blackberry wine.

We never saw it. We never saw her or anyone drinking it. By the end of the vacation, somehow the bottles disappeared (and were concealed in bags or more in the trash). She arose about 5 every morning to spend time with The Upper Room devotional, her Bible, and likely a glass of the star of David.

I never saw my grandfather tipsy. Well, maybe once. He took my sister and me to the Burlington drive-in movie and tossed back a 3.2 or two. As we were leaving, he drove off with the speaker still attached to the front passenger window and the cord snapped. High or impatient? We’ll never know.

Anyway, he was no sot and no one ever likely got drunk on 3.2 beer. You’d pee yourself into fatigue first.

That particuar Christmas eve, we were in the living room. She as usual was laboring in the kitchen for her planned massive Christmas Day family feast. After all, her beloved only son would arrive with his brood of four, plus wife.

The ambient noise level was high. The TV was on, as they always were in the 1960s. Hell, they still are (why is that, writes the non-TV watcher?). Granddad came to me in the distant corner armchair. He bent down to my right ear (farthest from the kitchen and his vigilant wife) and whispered so I could barely make it out, “Would you and the boys like a little nog?”

In West Viginia terms of the time, that of course meant some store-bought sugary eggnog from a carton with a small splash of bourbon. I attended the University of Sourh Carolina, where bourbon was a sacrament and such splashes were better suited as aftershave than refreshment. Still it was a host-worthy query.

Immediately from the kitchen — how the hell could she even have the faintest sense of the query — Mable immediately bellowed, “Oh no, Bill, not the boys!”

To this day, I wonder whether she sussed the concept or exhibited some canine-level superpower. Though everyone in the living room was of legal drinking age, she’d have none of it.

Even then we laughed.