Patchouli Oil Blues

I took my first hit on a marijuana cigarette in September of 1968. I was at a small party with some friends who played in a rock ‘n’ roll band and I noticed what had to be a joint smoldering its way around the room. When it got to me I thought, “What the hell?” I took a long drag then held the smoke in my lungs for as long as I could like I’d watched other people do. I’d like to say that I immediately saw God and had an instantaneous understanding of the workings of the universe. But I didn’t. I didn’t really feel anything. It must have been four or five joints later when I took my umpteenth hit that I realized I was well and truly stoned.  Everything was suddenly warm, fuzzy, and very funny.

And so I began. I liked the feeling so much that I swore off drinking. At least I did until I found out how good a beer tastes when you’ve been smoking pot. Then someone introduced me to cheap red wine and hashish and the prospect of hanging out in dark alleyways with other winos suddenly wasn’t as repellant an idea as it had once seemed.

Near the end of October, a bunch of us piled into an old van and traveled down to Boulder. There may have been more hippies in Denver at the time, but per capita, no place was hipper than Boulder. I can’t remember if we had any other reason to go to Boulder other than to just congregate with as many Flower Children as we could find. So we went to Central Park on the corner of Boulder Canyon and Broadway. We were not disappointed.

The park was crowded but the weather was cool, so instead of clothing being optional – as it probably was in the summer – clothing was pretty much mandatory. But what amazing clothing it was. The vibe was part Thrift-Store and part DIY creative. As long as it was brightly colored and it flowed, it was acceptable.

Those of us who had come down from Laramie found a spot of grass and sat down. We talked, smiled at people going by, flashed peace signs now and then, and tried to look totally blasé about it all.

“Hey Tim,” my friend Randy muttered. “Take a look at these two. About ten o’clock.”

I casually turned my head and looked back over my shoulder. A couple of big-time hippies were strolling together down a path that was near to our group. When I say “big” it was, about the guy at least, true. He could have tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds. A mass of wavy hair and a lumberjack beard hid most of his head. He wore a pair of blue denim farmer’s coveralls with large triangles of red bandana material let into both sides of each leg, turning them into bell-bottoms with shoulder straps.

His “Old Lady,” which was a term of endearment at the time, also wore bell-bottom pants, but hers were so big and so long that they dragged almost continuously on the ground. She wore a white leather jacket with long fringes on the arms and across the back and around her head was a lengthy tie-dyed silk scarf, the ends of which undulated in the air behind her.

There was a slight cross breeze and as they passed our little group, a terrible smell assaulted my olfactory lobes. A nauseating odor, it was as if someone had found a two-week dead opossum next to the road and dumped half a bottle of air freshener on it. It was a long time after the couple had passed before the smell finally dissipated and an even longer period of thought before I came to a couple of decisions. The first was, “If a person does a lot of drugs and doesn’t take a bath, this must be what their body odor smells like.” The second decision was, “I don’t ever want to smell like that.” So the obvious conclusion had to be, “I’ve gotta remember to always bathe.”

A couple of months later, I found that this was a scent that people voluntarily put on themselves. They, in fact, even paid for the privilege. The flowers of the patchouli plant – a native of India – were steamed, dried, and then made into Patchouli Oil. The hippie subculture originally started using it because its sharp, sickly-sweet, gamey odor would cover the smell of marijuana smoke. It soon became fashionable among the “far-out” – the people we disdainfully referred to as “tweeks.”

We weren’t always so cynical. For myself and my friends, for about six or eight months, everything was peace and love and flowers in our hair. Then a young man named Rusty came into our lives.  He’d grown up in Riverton and Kent, one of our crowd who was from there brought him along to several parties.  Rusty was tall, long-legged, and hyper-kinetic. Talking a mile a minute with one foot bouncing wildly up and down, he’d tell us elaborate lies and then make fun of us when we believed him. For example, one day he came strolling into our house and told us that he’d just seen a whole busload of Scottish senior citizens in downtown Laramie. Their tour bus driver had let them out and then gone into the Cowboy Bar and drunk himself into a stupor. Now there were old men in plaid skirts stomping around the streets and shouting at people unintelligibly. We all looked goggle-eyed at him and each other, trying to stumble through a drug-induced mental fog to try to make some sense of it. Suddenly he started laughing maniacally and miming a fisherman bringing in a big catch.

“Wow! Look what I’m reelin’ in! Tell Cookie we’re havin’ tuna tonight. I just caught a whole school of ‘em!”

This strange game quickly caught on until nobody would believe anything they were told for fear of being “reeled in” and made fun of. The second game Rusty taught us was to be very suspicious of anyone trying to be “hipper than thou.” If somebody new casually laid a story on us about being “on the Haight” and “hanging with Kesey” they’d be labeled a “hopeless tweek” and the butt of sarcastic jokes for days.  

One weekend Rusty and his friend Kip were back in Riverton and asked a young friend if he could score a lid of grass for them. The fellow said he’d do it but wouldn’t tell them the Dealer’s name. Finally, under pressure, the kid agreed to tell them but they had to agree not to get violent. Rusty and Kip said okay and the guy told them the only name he knew the dealer by – “Captain Mind Candy.” Rusty and Kip had to get out of the car and walk up and down the street several times just to cool off. When they finally came back they gave the kid twenty bucks to make the buy for them but said if the bag had a peace sign drawn on it or smelled of patchouli oil, the deal was off.

Now we come to my old friend Dave. Dave loved to argue. I can remember standing in front of a fish tank with Dave and having a loud, emotional argument, complete with ad-hominem attacks, about the relative intelligence of guppies. So it will come as no surprise that when Debbie, a fellow philosophy major, invited Dave back to her apartment for tea and a talk about a class they were in, the discussion quickly devolved into a debate about some obscure philosophical point. Dave got so involved in presenting his side of the disagreement, along with his usual disrespectful eye-rolling and loud interruptions, that he didn’t notice Debbie’s roommate, Jane, sneaking up behind him. In her hand was an open bottle of – you guessed it – patchouli oil.

Jane had sprinkled nearly half the bottle’s contents on his head before Dave realized what was happening. He left the two hysterically laughing women with some well-chosen epithets and went home. He later said that he had to take three showers and shampoo his hair six times before he could feel like he’d gotten rid of most of the smell.

Two days later, Dave dropped by Kip and Rusty’s house for a visit. No sooner had he sat down than the two began to sniff the air experimentally. Without a word they picked Dave up, Rusty taking his wrists and Kip taking his ankles. They carried him outside and threw him in the garden. Then they calmly walked back inside and locked the door.

The Prisoner Has a Phone Call

I was in the United States Air Force from August 1964 to January 1966. Anyone who can count on their fingers (and even some who can’t) will tell you that that only amounts to about 18 months.

“The standard hitch for a volunteer in the Air Force is four years. So, what gives?”

The simple truth is that the Air Force, unable to stand it any longer, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, marched me to the door, and threw me out into the street. This happened under the auspices of section 39-16 of the United Code of Military Justice, to wit: “sloth, defective attitudes, and inability to expend effort constructively.”

Basically, I couldn’t get up in the morning. At least not at 5:30 or whatever ungodly hour they were expecting me to be upright. Never could. Still can’t. Oh, I can do it under special circumstances – like if there’s a fire, or the dog is throwing up on the bed – but as a daily habit? Um… no.

After I had completed Language Training in Indiana* and spent two weeks at home on leave, I was ordered to report to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas for Voice Intercept Training. The trip down there was not one of my stellar moments. I missed two planes out of four – one I was asleep as the plane took off, the other I missed because I was engrossed in a comic book – and I arrived, instead of the six hours early as I’d planned, three hours late.

The lateness resulted in me losing the small promotion I’d gotten two weeks earlier. It also meant that there was no more room in the barracks with my friends from the Indiana school and I was assigned to a bunk in another barracks among strangers. With no one to pull me out of bed at the crack of dawn, it wasn’t long before I’d slept through some mandatory early morning formation and I was once again in hot water.

Voice Intercept was, at the time, some pretty secret stuff and all of us had been preliminarily vetted for a Top Secret security clearance. We were all on “casual status” – doing KP and mopping floors – while we waited for the final okay before we could start school. Seeing this propensity for tardiness on my record, I was ordered to undergo a Psychiatric Evaluation.

I was half an hour late for the appointment.

The psychiatrist decided that I wasn’t dangerously deranged, I was just a “doofus” (I think that’s the clinical expression).  The Squadron Commander decided the best way to deal with doofusness was to get tough. And so I was Court Martialed.

Right now you are probably imagining a military courthouse full of uniforms covered in gold braid and an angry Prosecutor yelling, “Why were you late? Tell the truth!” and me yelling back, “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!” That is called a General Court Martial and they are somewhat rare. What I underwent was a Summary Court Martial consisting of me and a lieutenant who acted as judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense. There were “extenuating circumstances” (I had had Baker’s KP the night before one of these heinous offenses against common decency and had only been allowed three hours sleep) so instead of the usual sentence of four weeks at hard labor; I only was required to serve two.

I was taken to the base Law Enforcement Center and escorted into the Stockade. This took up about half of the building’s available floor space, the other half being devoted to the Front Desk, offices, and meeting rooms of the Air Police. The Stockade consisted of a bunk room with eight or ten bunks, a recreation room with five jigsaw puzzles, all with multiple missing pieces, and two solitary confinement cells which were never locked. Why were they never locked? Because I was the only one in there. Both the recreation room and the bunk room had barred doors into the Air Police’s front desk area so Goodfellow AFB’s Finest could keep an eye on me. I guess they wanted to make sure I didn’t start any one-man prison riots or beat myself up in the shower.

I was actually looking forward to the “Hard Labor” part of the sentence, figuring at least the time would pass quickly. I did spend a day or two on the floor of some building scraping up years of accumulated dirt and floor wax with a razor blade, but for the most part, it was two weeks of Hard Boredom.

I did have company for three of those days. A Sailor was picked up on his parents’ nearby farm for being AWOL from the Navy for the previous two months and he was dropped for safekeeping at the nearest military prison – mine. His name was Andy and he was jaw-droppingly stupid. He and a friend had sailed into the Port of San Diego, climbed off their ship, cashed their paychecks, and with the proceeds obtained a motel room and a full, twenty-four bottle case of cheap whisky. He said they drank until they passed out and upon waking, drank until they passed out again. When the whisky was gone, so was their ship.

“As long as I was already AWOL, I figured what the hell I might as well go see the family.”  So he used the last of his money to buy a bus ticket to Texas.

Andy had two hobbies. Most of his time was spent using a Big Chief Tablet and a pencil designing bad tattoos. After he had finished one of his creations and proudly showed it to me, he was a little disappointed that I couldn’t make out what it was. “It’s a damned skull that’s on fire and has a dagger stickin’ through it. Anybody could see that!” His other pastime was crawling on his belly as quietly as he could under bunks and around furniture so he could grab me by the ankle and shout, “Gotcha!”

I moved into one of the Solitary Confinement cells until a couple of Shore Patrolmen arrived to take him back to San Diego.

One evening, about ten days into my sentence, I heard a telephone ring.  It barely registered with me because the telephone out on the Duty Desk rang frequently. Had I known it was my Mother on the other end of the line, I would have given it more attention.

Since she had not heard from me since I left home the last time, Mom had decided to get on the phone and track me down. In my defense, I had vowed to myself to call her as soon as I was out of the jug and tell her everything was hunky-dory. If I mentioned my little contretemps with military law at all it would be to dismiss it as an amusing misunderstanding.

Not having much information except the name and city of the Air Force Base, she called Base HQ which referred her to Wing HQ which referred her to Squadron HQ which, not being able to find me on the list of Active Personnel referred her back to Wing. She was getting pretty rattled by then and the fellow who said, “Oh. I think they’ve got him over at Base Security. Let me connect you,” didn’t help.

The phone rang. The man who answered it said, “Air Police. Desk Sergeant Jones,” then held the receiver up over his head and yelled, “Hey! The Prisoner has a phone call!”

By the time someone had opened the gate and walked me out to the telephone, Mom was a hopeless, sobbing wreck. All she could say was, “p-p-p-prisoner?” It took about eight minutes of the ten minutes I was allotted to calm her down, reassure her that I was being treated well, and my only crime was not being able to get out of bed in the morning. I promised her I’d call as soon as I was out and, as Sgt. Jones was tapping on the crystal of his watch, told her I loved her.

She hung up with, “Well, just remember, we love you…” leaving unspoken the rest of the sentence, “…even if they don’t.”

As soon as I was released, my Squadron Commander informed me that since I had, during my year-and-a-half in uniform, accumulated two non-judicial punishments and a Court Martial, I was eligible under the above-mentioned Article 39-16, to be booted out of the Service. And that he was starting said proceedings forthwith.

For about an hour I was devastated. Then several of my friends became so jealous they were angry with me and I began to think that maybe things would be okay. By the time we got to the bottom of the second pitcher of beer at the bowling alley, my future had been lit by a rosy glow.

They teach you in Basic Training that getting out of the Air Force in any other manner than completing a full four-year hitch meant that your life was ruined. No college would ever accept you, no employer would ever hire you. I am happy to say that this is a complete bag of lies. My particular Discharge was classed “Honorable,” meaning, I suppose, that I did my best but I was just not cut out for military life. I have never had any employer or institution so much as ask how long I served or what class of Discharge I was given.

It took a month of being bounced around among a myriad of different departments and offices before I was finally escorted to the front gate.  There were no drums, nobody ripping insignia from my shoulders, no lines of troops turning their faces away. Just the click of the gate closing behind me as I walked to the bus station.

***

* Look on the list to the right and click Russian Training

The Rock and Roll Kid

When we’re young, we want a lot of things for ourselves. As we age we realize the absurdity of those desires one after another and let them go. I had to come to grips with the knowledge that I would never own a pair of spring shoes that would enable me to leap over the garage. It also became obvious that a boy with a hefty fear of heights would not ever become a jet pilot. But there is one desire I hung onto for years. Despite repeatedly falling on my face, I always thought that someday I could be a good musician. Not a “great” musician, that would be out of the question, just “good” or even “passable.” There were only a few minor problems with this – my manual dexterity wasn’t very good, I had little or no sense of rhythm, and I couldn’t bring myself to practice.

On the other side of the vacant lot* from our house stood the large brick house of Fauniel Fellhauer. She was a piano teacher. Her house had been designed with piano instruction in mind with a large living room – perfect for recitals. It had a raised platform at one end on which stood a grand piano. There were two rehearsal rooms with upright pianos in the basement. When I was seven my mother enrolled me in piano classes. After three or four months of very slow progress, Ms. Fellhauer came down to a practice room to see how I was doing and found me asleep on the floor behind the piano. It was decided that I needed a little more maturity before I could try it again.

After that, there were minor flirtations with the saxophone (that lasted about two weeks) and the ukulele (a month or so) before I came face-to-face with the upright double bass. And that was because of 8th Grade gym class. The rule in gym class was that you first had to climb a twenty-foot rope to the top before you could play basketball or volleyball. Every class became four other nerds and I taking turns hanging from the damned rope while we grunted and struggled to climb it. Meanwhile, all the other kids were having fun and snickering at us. Then I heard that if you joined the school orchestra, you could do that instead of gym class. My only question was, “where do I sign up?”

I had several reasons for choosing the bass as my instrument. I liked that deep sound that an upright bass makes, you can kind of lean on it as you play, and it doesn’t require a lot of nimble finger work. While the violin is flying through some multi-sixteenth-note arpeggio, the bass has to produce a single, “zoooom”. When I realized that the bass was so big I couldn’t take it home to practice (darn!) I was sold.

Over the next year and a half, I learned to play the upright bass. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was a Junior High School orchestra and I was no worse than anyone else. If you’ve never heard a Junior High School orchestra play, and if you like things that are simultaneously painful and hilarious, by all means, go. At the end of the school year, I was promoted to the new Laramie Senior High School on the other side of town. They had an orchestra, but being a member no longer excused one from gym class. So I gave up the bass and went back to standing with the other nerds and weaklings while everybody else played basketball and other sports. Instead of having to climb a rope, we were required to climb a pegboard.

I might never have gotten another swing at being a musician if it hadn’t been for the machinations of my older brother Chuck and his friends Dean and Gary. Dean played drums, Gary played electric piano and Dean’s alcoholic father played the saxophone. All they needed was a bass player and Chuck, who knew his way around the guitar, was quite willing. What he needed was a bass – or rather a more portable electric bass guitar. And Dean’s Father’s Music Store just happened to have one of the new Fender Precision Basses in stock.

Having sunk all his money into a hot rod that wouldn’t go faster than forty miles an hour without vibrating so bad your fillings would fall out, Chuck had to try to find a way to get my parents to pay for the new bass. Here was the pitch: “Tim played the big double bass in Junior High, but now he can’t. How about buying it for both of us and we’ll share.”  Having been primed beforehand by Chuck and Dean, I lied and told Mom and Dad that I had a couple of friends who were putting together a rock ‘n’ roll band and would love it if I had a bass to play. The instrument was purchased and Mom even threw in some lessons for me.

An old World War Two veteran named Mel Orlick had been a big-band drummer in the ’30s but lost a leg in the war. He and his wife lived in a tiny house in Laramie and he gave music lessons. After the first couple of lessons, I had learned just about everything that he knew about playing the bass which wasn’t a lot. But I kept going back because I liked the guy and enjoyed his company. He would sit on his bed, play the guitar, sing, and beat time with his stump. We’d play “Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown”, “Pennies from Heaven”, or “We’re in the Money” then we’d take a break and he would tell a rousing story about him and his fellow sailors getting in a fistfight with Marines in a Pearl Harbor bar. We’d hoot with laughter, then he’d pick up his guitar and we’d play another old song.

About that time my good friend Charlie, who played guitar and knew a fellow named Dwayne who’d just bought an electric guitar, started talking to me about a rock and roll band. My lies had become prophetic. Although Chuck was playing with Dean and Gary’s foxtrot-style band most weekends so the bass was not always available, Charlie and Dwayne and I were able to put together about an hour’s worth of music. We had no drummer, nobody sang, we didn’t even own a microphone, so we learned instrumental songs like Telstar,  Green Onions, Walk Don’t Run and others by the Ventures. We weren’t very good but since we were available and we were cheap, we managed to book a few gigs around town.

At one of these gigs, a dance in the Laramie High School cafeteria after a football game, a kid was standing against the wall in the dark and studying us. His name was Dennis Woods. I don’t know if Dennis already owned an electric guitar or that we inspired him to buy one, but by the time I finished high school and went into the Service, Dennis had begun organizing and rehearsing a band. When I got tossed out of the Service a year and a half later, Dennis’ band was going strong. When they had come to that question that every band comes to – “what the hell do we call ourselves?” – they decided they wanted something that sounded “Space Age”. They settled on the name The Retros. It wasn’t until they had spent money on posters and publicity material that they found out that “retro” meant “backward”.

It wasn’t long before The Retros broke up, as teenage bands invariably do.  And Dennis – everybody knew him as “Woody” – began putting together a new band. My old friend Charlie was now in the Navy but his younger brother Don was as good a picker as Charlie was and Woody asked him to play lead guitar. Max, one of the most cheerful and good-natured men I ever knew, was to be the drummer. Woody recruited me to play the bass.

After a month or two of rehearsals, it became clear that my simplistic Mel Orlick-inspired bass patterns were inadequate for rock ‘n’ roll, and instead of asking me to buckle down and really learn to play the bass, Woody strongly suggested that I buckle down and learn to play keyboards. His younger brother George had just bought a bass guitar and was already better at it than I was.

After some wheedling with my parents, they agreed to cosign a loan. I in turn agreed to look for a job to pay for the loan and ended up at a local furniture store delivering console TVs.  So I found myself the proud owner of a Farfisa Portable Organ.  Now all I had to do was learn how to play it. With a book titled “Learn to Play the EZ Way” and what I could remember from my Fauniel Fellhauer lessons, I was able to play background chords for simple things like “Louie Louie” and “Little Latin Lupe Lu”. But when I tried to play any tune that required a modicum of complexity, my fingers would bump into each other and I’d quickly get lost.

So when we played I mostly stood behind the keyboard, played the tambourine, and sang backup. On some songs, just to change it up,  I would stand off to one side, play tambourine and sing backup while Woody played my keyboards. But I was cute, back in the day, and could sing a little, so my bandmates put up with me as long as the band was together. Some friends of mine told me they once had a teenage band in Evanston and they tossed a guy out of the group by stacking his equipment on his front porch, ringing the doorbell, and driving away. At least I was spared that kind of humiliation.

Before we had actually started to play in public and after much discussion, we settled on the name “Mes Amis” which means “My Friends” in French. That meant that most of our audiences had no idea what our name meant and the few that did, hated it because it reminded them of the French classes they despised. Back then I preferred “Woody and the Ax Men”.  I still do.

People who believe in reincarnation will tell you that it’s the secret and strong desires you hold in your heart that will dictate the circumstances of your next life, though what you may have to put up with to get there could be truly awful. If that’s true, then next life look for me in a stinking bar on a back street on the bad side of Old Rangoon. I’ll be the piano player.

***

*Go to the column on the right and click The Vacant Lot

The Birthday Pie

Nearly twenty people had gathered at the house in Denver where I was living. It was my birthday and I had reluctantly agreed to celebrate. Some people adore their birthday and look forward to having their Special Day complete with cake, ice cream, and friends bearing gifts. I am not among them. If I have worked hard to achieve something, when I finally get there I’ll happily dance and sing and blow my own horn. But my birth was a shock to me, rude and unwanted. Here I was floating peacefully in warm amniotic fluid and the next thing I know I’ve been squeezed out into the cold and loud. Then some huge, faceless beast holds me up by the heels and slaps my butt. And I’m supposed to remember this with fondness?

But anyway, there we all were – laughing, drinking, telling stories, and eating far more sugar than was good for us – when someone yelled to me that I had a phone call. This was in the days when there was only one phone in the house and it hung on the wall in the hallway to the kitchen. I picked up the phone and said “hello” but the only sound was the buzz of the dial tone. An arm suddenly shot out at me from around the corner. It was holding a large cream pie.

“Whupp!”

The pie hit me in the face so hard that globs of filling sailed past my ears and speckled the baseboard on the far side of the dining room. As I wiped the stuff out of my eyes, some onlookers were worried that I had a bloody nose but it turned out to be the cherry that had been sitting on top of the pie was now smeared across my upper lip.

I should pause here to explain the tradition of the Birthday Pie.  When I was in my twenties, I began to wonder what being a grown-up man was all about and when, if ever, I was going to get there. I was no longer a boy, but what the hell was I? I decided it was time to cut loose all those childish things. One of the first to go was my birthday. Without making a big deal about it, I just mentally erased “my birthday” from that square on the calendar. I was hoping that it might start a trend – that all the guys who didn’t like having a birthday would all get together for a party every year on Super Bowl Sunday. We’d eat cake and ice cream, give each other joke gifts, drink beer, and watch the game.

I had managed to go for several years without a birthday and I was feeling rather pleased with myself. When the subject came up I’d say “Oh, next spring. It’s a long way away.” So it was with a certain smugness that I drove, on my birthday, from Denver up to Cheyenne to visit some old friends. This get-together had spontaneously turned into a small party with other folks we knew showing up. I remember sitting in an armchair in the living room, discussing Paul Simon’s new album when Jean came sauntering out of the kitchen holding what looked like a small armload of laundry.

“Hey, Tim,” she said, “when exactly is your birthday anyway?”

“Oh, it was a couple of months ago. I guess I missed it.”

“That’s not what we heard,” she said as she whipped a dish towel aside. She was holding a lemon meringue pie.

“Happy Birthday!” she yelled as she pushed the pie into my face. Everyone laughed uproariously except her four-year-old daughter Morgan, who started crying.

“It’s not nice to hit somebody with a pie on their birthday!” she wailed.

For several years after that, smacking the honoree with a pie became a necessary part of any birthday celebration in our group of friends. And, of course, one good pie deserves another. If you got one in the face on your birthday, it behooved you to retaliate. The only rule was that you had to wait until the thrower’s birthday to exact your revenge. This required some planning, subterfuge, and a little sneakiness, but the astonished look on your target’s face made it all worthwhile.

At one birthday, my friend Margo surreptitiously slipped a pie out of a secret flap in a gaily-wrapped gift box and smacked me in the face with it. A year and a half later, at her own birthday party, she was laughing with some partygoers in her kitchen when I slipped out of the shadows near the back door and put one in her ear.

It was Margo’s brother Mike who drilled me with that whipped cream number with the cherry on top. The bizarre thing was that he and I were total strangers at the time. He was visiting his sister and she told him about my upcoming party and the pie-throwing thing. He couldn’t resist the opportunity. Just like me when I walked into Lou’s Sport Shop ten years before,* he just had to hit somebody in the face with a pie and only a relative stranger would do.

It was eight years later and eight hundred miles away when I sneaked into Mike’s birthday party and pushed a chocolate cream pie in his face. Revenge truly is a dish best served cold. And with a nice, crushed Oreo crust.

As for Jean, several years had passed for her and her husband, Jim. They had purchased a house on the north side of Cheyenne and were getting settled in July of 1979 when the first tornado to ever hit Cheyenne roared right through their living room. No one was home but the cat, which hid in the basement and survived, but little more than a couple of walls were left standing. The roof was in the back yard and the garage had disappeared completely. 

When the shock had subsided, they moved what little they had left into a FEMA-provided apartment and began the rebuilding process. Several of their friends who were in the building trades, myself included, were hired to help Jim put up a new house. We slept in the still-intact basement of the ruined house, but ate our meals and hung out in the apartment.

One day in September, Eric, who was doing the plumbing, mentioned that Jean’s birthday was coming up in two days. And I saw my chance to finally retaliate for that original lemon meringue pie that started it all.

“Wait a minute!” my bleeding-heart, do-gooder self spoke up. “After all she’s been through, are you seriously going to hit her with a pie?”

I gave that do-gooder self the Bronx cheer, pushed him into a mud puddle, and went off to buy a frozen vanilla custard pie. Two days later Jean was out buying groceries, the pie was well-thawed, and I was standing next to the front door of the apartment.

She walked in the door carrying grocery bags and saw nothing but onrushing pie. With a good, solid “Whupp!” the debt was paid.

***

*Go to the right-hand column and click on A Pie for Lou

The White Truck

Sometime in March of 1963 (Spring for most of the country but the tail end of Winter in Laramie) the Old Man put a long-gestating plan into action.

A year before, wanting a powerful vehicle to pull his boat, he had bought a four-wheel-drive Chevy Suburban.  But he didn’t like it. I think the Old Man always pictured himself as a kind of James Bond type – classy, confident, and unruffled. Would James Bond hitch his sexy little runabout to a big, bulbous, bright yellow tugboat that his kids nicknamed “The Canary?”

In a small town, there is a business understanding, a quid pro quo, especially among the professional people. The Builder who fixes the Lawyer’s roof is also the Lawyer’s client, The Plumber’s daughter is sent to have her tooth filled by the Dentist who previously hired the Plumber, and the Doctor (my Old Man) buys his power boat from a Salesman who happens to be one of his patients. This patient, in the office because his gall bladder is giving him trouble, tells the Old Man that he is branching out and will soon be selling cars from a relatively unknown Japanese manufacturer, Toyota. One of the vehicles in this new line is called the Land Cruiser.

When the Old Man drops by the sales room and sees the pictures of the Land Cruiser, it looks a lot like the classic English Land Rover. Suddenly he pictures himself not as Sean Connery in a tuxedo, but as John Wayne in a bush hat roaring across the African veldt. The only remaining problem was how to get his wife’s approval.

“The ashtrays are barely full in the Canary and now you want to sell it and buy this new Japanese toy?” he could almost hear her asking.

 Now he could, he knew, just go ahead and sign for it. This was, after all, back in the days long before Gloria Steinem ever set pen to paper. But if Mom didn’t agree and he did it anyway there were a myriad of ways she could, and would, make him pay afterward.  No, the solution was to get her on board first. And so he hatched his plan.

“Honey, I’ve been thinking,” he said one night. “What you really should have is a nice, easy-to-handle, four-wheel-drive vehicle so you can go out in the mountains and paint anything you like.”

She looked up at him with interest. The Pontiac station wagons she’d been driving for the last twelve years (bought not from a patient but from an old Army buddy) were really not suited for any road that was not paved. And she’d developed a strong desire to get out in the boonies and paint scenery that  few others had ever seen. She had even tried it once or twice in the Canary, but the beast was just too big and clumsy for her. After looking at the brochures and considering it, she said that she would love to have a Land Cruiser as her painting car. But with one stipulation – she wanted the car to be painted something other than plain old stock tan and she wanted to pick the new color.

Delighted at how well it all went, the Old Man agreed and ordered the car, making sure it would come with a sturdy hitch and large side mirrors “just in case” he wanted to pull the boat with it. When it was delivered, Mom had it taken to the local body shop where it was to be painted with the colors she had chosen. They kept it for a few extra days to make sure the paint was dry. During that time and unbeknownst to the Old Man, a hired sign painter came in to do some special work on it.

One sunny day in late April, the Old man finished his rounds at the hospital and headed home. And there, parked in the driveway, was a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser sporting a two-tone paint job. The roof, the sides and the rear of the cab showed a warm, cream color. The rest of the car was pink. A bright, bilious, Pepto-Bismol pink. Even the wheels were pink. Across the back of the cab was lettered, in an Oriental-style script, “ROTUS BROSSOM.”

The Old Man just stood there slitty-eyed and staring at it. What he really wanted to do was to lose his temper, stomp into the house, and raise hell about it. But to do so would be admitting who the car had actually been purchased for. He had been well and truly snookered. All he could do was say, “a little loud, isn’t it?” and bury his head in the evening paper.

The Old Man tried to tow the boat out to Lake Hattie with the Rotus Brossom, but the giggles, winks, and stares were more than he could handle and he began to look for some other way to get his boat out to the water. My Mother offered an olive branch when she said that she’d fallen in love with the little Land Cruiser and it would be fine with her if he sold the Pontiac station wagon and used the money to buy some kind of a truck.

What the Old Man found was a 1949 Chevy pickup that he bought for a song because it had a blown engine. He then bought a working engine that came from a wrecked truck, and he and my older brother Chuck spent the next month of evenings and weekends swapping one engine for the other. And by God, it worked! I was there when the Old Man turned the key on, pressed the starter button, the engine turned over a few times, and then caught. Much cheering ensued. It seemed like the old family malady – the Pelton’s Something for Nothing Disease – had finally been defeated

All the small things and minor touches, such as hooking up the gas gauge and the speedometer, were pushed to the back burner in favor of what the Old Man considered the essential next step – changing the color. As purchased, the original color – a faded green – was only visible on the parts of the truck that were somewhat protected. The roof, the front fenders, the hood and the bed had a lovely brownish-orange patina of rust.

The truck was parked on a large tarp in the driveway and the three older brothers – Chuck, Lewis, and I – spent our afternoons during the next week sanding and then masking off everything that was not going to be painted. On Saturday, with a borrowed spray rig, Chuck sprayed primer on the truck.  On Sunday, we were ready to paint. I say “we” even though my job was mostly to stand around and be ready to offer help if needed. Lewis was working in the garden in the back and Donald was mowing the side yard.

Chuck and the Old Man were having a hard time getting the white paint thinned to the right consistency for the sprayer. Finally, Chuck held up the spray gun, pulled the trigger, and the paint came sputtering out in fat globs that splattered and ran. The Old Man picked up a paint brush and spread the white enamel out into a large patch. 

“After it dries, we’ll come back with the spray gun and fill in the brush marks,” he explained to me as Chuck was trying to clean out the tip of the gun with thinner.

Once more the sprayer was tried, once more lumps of white paint spattered across the truck, and once more the Old Man chased them with the brush.

“Tim,” the Old Man said, his jaw muscles flexing in frustration. “Run into the house and ask your mother for a paper clip.”

By the time I returned with the clip, they had taken the tip off the spray gun and were peering through the aperture. The Old Man unfolded the paper clip and used it like a miniature ramrod to clear some dried paint from the opening. Satisfied, he and Chuck reassembled the rig. Aiming at a fender, Chuck pulled the trigger and out came a fine mist of paint. We all grinned at each other as the primer-gray steel turned a pristine white.

Then the gun coughed, sputtered, and once again began belching heavy blobs of paint. There was a moment of silence, then the Old Man said through clenched teeth, “Tim, go get a paint brush from the rack in the garage. Chuck, keep spraying and we’ll spread it out as well as we can.”

Within a few minutes, the spray gun had become just the delivery system for the brushes. And the enamel, being somewhat self-leveling, didn’t look too bad if you stepped back a few feet. About that time Donald had finished mowing the large side yard and was looking forward to finishing the small yard next to the driveway so he could go watch cartoons. We were too busy to notice him or care what he was doing until he made his first pass all along the length of the driveway. Our mower was not fitted with a grass catcher.

A steady fountain of freshly-cut grass shot out of the mower and embedded itself in the fresh paint. One side of the truck was green and fuzzy from the headlight to the rear bumper. The Old Man’s cry of agony was palpable. Donald, hearing the shouting over the sound of the mower, stopped and looked back. Deciding that whatever it was had nothing to do with him, he turned back to his work.

The Old Man, like a condemned prisoner resigned to his fate, dipped his brush and began to entomb the grass clippings in the truck finish. Chuck and I shrugged our shoulders and followed suit.

The White Truck served us well most of the next few years and those times it didn’t were our own damned fault for not finishing those pesky details that had been relegated to “the back burner”.  For example, the time that Chuck, clinging in vain to the front fender, was dragged back down the launch ramp into the lake. The emergency brake handle he had set before jumping out wasn’t, in fact, connected to anything. Another time, the Old Man had bought a used camper to put on the back of the truck and he was driving down the highway to Seminoe Reservoir when a blur of motion off to the side caught his eye. He looked over in time to see the boat that was supposed to be hitched to the back of his truck skimming down the middle of the ditch. Had he bought and installed mirrors to see around the camper, he’d have seen the trailer come off the hitch long before the safety chains ground through on the asphalt.

One day when I was on leave from the Air Force, I drove North out of Laramie toward Rock River accompanied by two friends and a couple of six-packs of beer. Since the dashboard gauges had never been hooked up, we had no idea that there was a drop in oil pressure. At least, not until there was a loud “bang” and the engine died. We hitched a ride back to town and the White Truck was towed directly to the junkyard, never to run again.

The Wood Butcher’s Trade

There are several ways to learn the skill of Carpentry. One might involve having a father who swings a hammer for a living. You start by sweeping up and carrying boards around the job site after school.  Eventually, if you don’t run off to join a punk band, you’ll learn the rudiments of the trade.  Or you can join the Carpenters Union (you’ll need a Sponsor) and be an apprentice for a number of years. If you have the cash or are willing to go into debt, you can find a Trade School that’ll teach you the basics.

Or you can do what I did. I read a couple of books on building, got myself a used tool belt and filled it up with various hand tools, and then bought a power saw and taught myself to use it. I finally walked onto a construction site in Denver with a fictitious resume and applied for a job. It took them a few days to figure out I was lying and to fire me. But in the meantime, I had been keeping my eyes open and learning all I could. By the second or third try, the Foreman decided, however reluctantly, to let me stay and I spent the next forty years cutting up chunks of wood and nailing them back together.

Over the years I worked as an employee for a few small outfits and for a few big commercial companies, but most of the time I worked by myself as a freelance contractor. I’ve partnered a few times, the most notable being in Iowa where Kelly, Glenn, and I formed our own construction company and called it “Pigs in Space Construction.” Kelly and I came up with the name a few years earlier when we were working together building balconies on an apartment complex in Denver.  One day we had just been laughing about a segment on The Muppet Show called Pigs in Space. I climbed up on a temporary handrail to grab an electric cord when the rail broke underneath me and I dropped about fifteen feet into a mudhole. Kelly leaned out over the edge of the deck and intoned, “Pigggs inn Spaaace!”  Three days later, he was climbing a homemade ladder when his foot slipped between the rungs and he dropped head first into a similar mudhole. This time I had the honor – “Pigggs inn Spaaace!”  By the time we got together in Iowa and added Glenn, the name was a foregone conclusion.

Construction partnerships have about the same shelf-life as rock ‘n’ roll bands, and a few years later when Pigs in Space had faded into legend, I moved to Chicago. I got a job doing finish work for what was probably the only gay-owned construction company in the city. Tad had gotten his degree in veterinary science, but decided to give up his practice when a milk cow took a couple of casual sideways steps and crushed his assistant up against a barn wall, breaking two ribs. Since Tad was allergic to cats, he decided to go into upscale remodeling and he quickly found his services were in high demand in the gay community. I think his customers were relieved not to have to take down their favorite artworks and “butch” up the place because the carpenters were coming over.

I was comfortable working in that environment because I already had several gay friends who seemed to take special pleasure in telling me the most perverse stories and then laughing at my reaction.* Over the course of my career, I worked for many different types and varieties of people, but my favorites were gay couples and black people.

Gay couples were appreciative, didn’t care so much about price as long as it looked good, and –  I’ll take the risk of stumbling over the line into stereotypes here –  they invariably had great taste. The only problems I ever had were when each one of a couple thought that they had a better eye than their partner. One would say, “You know those little medallion things on the mantelpiece that Kevin sketched up? Do you mind kind of forgetting to put them on?” Then Kevin would take me aside and say, “Don’t forget the medallions on the mantelpiece, okay?” I had to ask Tad to make them sit down and talk to each other.

I spent fifteen of the twenty years I was in Los Angeles installing kitchen cabinets. There was, and still is, a business in Culver City called The Kitchen Store. They will take your kitchen measurements and design an entire kitchen for you and order the cabinets. They do not have in-store installers, instead they hand you a business card for an independent installer and say, “We recommend you call this guy to install your new cabinets. He’s bonded, insured, licensed, and has done a lot of work with us.” For those fifteen years, I was one of the six or seven guys whose card was handed out.

Unlike some of the other installers, I was always pleased to be referred to a black family. I did have a few bad experiences with customers (we’ll get to some of those in a bit), but never with a person of color. The first day or two on one of these jobs was always a little stiff and formal but once the ice was broken, I became family.  “Would you like something to drink? Some sweet tea or something?” and “My mama and I are going to watch Judge Judy. Let us know if the volume is too high. Or take a break and come and watch. This girl took care of her boyfriend’s dog for a week, shaved it like it was a poodle or something,  and now she won’t give it back.”

Probably my favorite kitchen installation for a black family was in a large house in Carson, California. Mrs. Conrad’s husband had passed away five years before and left her enough money to buy the house. She needed a large one because she had a large family. There were adult children, teenagers, friends of the teenagers and grandchildren going constantly in and out. My assistant Jon and I were there for two weeks and we were never sure how many people actually lived there. But it was a jolly crew that would wander into the kitchen to swap jokes, make fun of the music we listened to (jazz), or tell on a little brother who’d done something heinous. Mrs. Conrad was my favorite. She’d bring in her friends in to watch us work and they’d tut-tut, and nod their heads, and tell us how nice it looked.

One day we came to work and Mrs. Conrad was angry and yelling at the kids. Evidently, there had been some kind of rebellion earlier and choice words and punishments were being handed out.  Afterward, she came into the kitchen to apologize for the uproar.

“I blame my husband,” she said with some heat. “He just up and died on me, leaving me all these mouthy kids to deal with. Sometimes it makes me so mad I just want to dig him up and kill him again!”

Most of my customers were middle-aged, white, housewives whose husbands had said, “Go ahead and do whatever you like, just don’t spend too much.” There were a few outliers like the college roommates  whose dog had chewed the corners off every reachable cabinet in the kitchen and asked me “Can you fix it so we can get our deposit back?” My answer: “No.”

But the banes of my existence were young, A-type, businessmen on the rise. When I went to a job and met one of these, I knew it was going to be trouble. Guys like this are very status-aware. They want to make sure I knew whose territory it was by metaphorically peeing on every post and rock around the perimeter. I could accept this if the fellow knew anything about carpentry or construction, but he usually did not. One guy, for instance, called me up after the job was complete and demanded that I drop everything and come over to correct some mistakes. After making me wait for nearly an hour while he talked on the phone, he finally told me what the problem was – he had discovered, behind a roll-out drawer in the back of a cabinet, a pile of sawdust.  It took me all of three minutes to vacuum it up.

And then there was Ralph. Ralph was a “Licensed” Contractor. I use the quotes because of the California system of granting licenses to building contractors. To get a license one must take an extensive test to, ostensibly, weed out those people who don’t know which end of the nail to hit with a hammer. In response, there arose a cottage industry of “Construction License Schools.” For several hundred dollars you go to a two-day class. They pass out sheets of paper that list all the questions that will appear on the tests along with the correct answers. The “student” spends the next two days memorizing. Hence, we have General Contractors like Ralph. He was not only clueless but had a tender ego that wouldn’t allow him to admit he was clueless.

So it was Ralph who got concerned that during an earthquake the island cabinets might tear loose from the screws I was using to anchor them and hop around the room. He insisted that I put eight-inch lag bolts through the bottoms of the cabinets and into the floor joist below. I told him that if there was ever an earthquake with that much force, the customers were going to have a much bigger problems than their island cabinets hopping around the floor. But he insisted and I put in the lag bolts. On other points, I just couldn’t let him have his way. He was disturbed that when he opened the drawers and looked at the inside of the drawer face, there were two different colors of screws – the screws that held on the outer face were brass-colored and the screws that held on the handles were chrome. He was also sure that the system I used to attach the wall cabinets to the wall was not strong enough and the cabinets would someday fall.

A couple of months after finishing the job, I got a phone call from Ralph. “Just as I predicted,” he said, “the cabinets are falling off the wall. You have to go and fix them.”

The next day I dropped by the house and asked to look at the kitchen. I was proud to see how nice it looked with all the finishing details. All the wall cabinets were tight to the wall in exactly the places I had installed them. The only problem was that when I had installed the crown molding, I had snugged it up against the ceiling. Now there was nearly a ½” gap that ran all the way around the room. I swiped a couple of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, drove home, and that evening called Ralph.

“Tell me, Raph,” I said. “You bought the two by twelves  that your guys used to frame the kitchen ceiling from Home Depot, right?”

He said he had.

“The big framing lumber they sell is still green – heavy with moisture. Once installed, the joists dry out and as they do, they shrink. My cabinets are exactly where I put them, the shrinking joists just pulled the sheetrock up and away from them. That kitchen ceiling is now about half an inch higher than it was.”

After recommending that he wait for a few more months for the framing to finish drying out, then hire a plasterer to fill the gap, I hung up and then grinned at my phone feeling just as smug as smug could be.

***

*Look at the right-hand column and click “Boscamp.”

Tim vs. the Tractor

It was June, the first of the three months of Summer, and I was as happy as a robin with a fat worm in his beak. I was thirteen. Eighth grade was only a memory and Ninth grade was far off in the future. Other than being roped into taking out the garbage and mowing the lawn now and then, I had few responsibilities. My friends and I were outdoor kids and we always could come up with something to do, whether it was playing with rubber band-powered balsawood airplanes, throwing a baseball around, or digging a hole in the vacant lot. If we wanted to go somewhere, the whole of Laramie was only a bike-ride away.

Then, at Dinner one night, the Old Man had an announcement. He had had a conversation with his rancher friend George, who owned a spread outside of Centennial, Wyoming, about 30 miles away, and they had decided that I was going to spend the summer working on the Red Ladder Ranch.

A few years before, George’s son Mick had needed a place to stay in town while he went to High School  for his Senior year. My parents were happy to push another bed into my brother Chuck’s room for him. Chuck, being the same age as Mick, was fine with having a roommate. Fast forward to 1960 and the Old Man, worried that his third son was becoming a layabout and ne’er do well, called in the favor. My weak protests were pretty much ignored and two days later I was standing in the bunkhouse being introduced to Ray and Joe Bob, the two ranch hands.

I had never been required to sleep in the same room as a grown man before, let alone two. Suddenly I was three years old again, wanting desperately to hide behind my mother’s legs and peek out at these two  aged and grizzled veterans. Actually, they were each about 19 and, in George’s eyes, mere boys not much older than I was. Ray and Joe Bob were nice enough to me then, smiling and shaking hands, but as soon as George left, they quickly let me know what was what and who was at the bottom of the totem pole. I was to haul water for them to wash up every morning and evening, make their beds after they had gone to work, and generally stay out of their way and do what I was told.

After a couple of days of being bodily hauled out of bed, having the water bucket shoved into my hands, and receiving a boot in the butt to send me on my way, I developed the habit of being the first one out of bed in the morning. I am not now, nor have I ever been a “morning person,” but there were some quiet rewards. Wyoming sunrises are consistently magnificent and at that time of day the sweet songs of the Western Meadowlark are always in the air. What the bird is actually saying is “This land, this grass, and these bugs are mine! Stay away or I’ll rip your wings off! Unless you’re a female, and in that case, sweet mama, just come on down and look me over!” What he says may not be gracious, but to human ears, the way he says it is absolutely breathtaking.

I spent a few days getting familiar with the ranch and running a few errands before George summoned me to the barn.

“I was going to have you muck out the barn,” he said as he pointedly tapped the handle of a big scoop shovel hanging on the wall. “But I decided to get you started on digging the rocks out of the North pasture first . Come out here.”

I followed him out  to a large corral made of hand-split wooden posts and rails. He pulled up a wooden latch, opened a gate, then closed and latched the gate behind us.

“First rule,” he said, “always shut the damned gate behind you. A cow can smell an open gate from a quarter of a mile away.”

Parked next to the corral fence was a rusty old tractor. Hitched up behind it was a trailer home-made from the back half of an even older and rustier pickup truck. A shovel, a pick, and a long, heavy steel bar that narrowed to a point at one end lay in the bed of the trailer next to a ragged pair of work gloves.

“I want you to drive this tractor up to the North pasture, remembering  to close the damned gates behind you. You’ll see a lot of rocks – from the size of your head to the size of a watermelon. You’re gonna dig those up, one-by-one, and put ’em into this trailer. When you get a load take ’em down to the trout pond and dump ’em on the face of the dam. Got that?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “But I don’t know how to drive a tractor.”

“Well, there’s really not much to it  Get up in the seat.”

He turned the key in its slot. The starter labored several times, then the engine caught and started to roar. Big clouds of black smoke belched out of the vertical exhaust pipe.

 “Now push that pedal on the left down,” he shouted over the din. “Push the gear shift lever into the slot marked ‘1.’ Now let up slowly on the clutch – that’s the pedal you’re pushing down.”

I did so and the tractor heaved ahead a couple of neck-snapping times, then settled into steady, forward motion.

“Good,” he said, “the other pedal is the brake. The throttle is this lever on the steering column. Just drive it around the corral a few times to get the feel of it, then go on up there and start to work. Got it? Okay.”

George jumped off the tractor and whistled up Jigger, his Border Collie. He climbed into his Jeep and was gone.

Around and around the corral I drove, gaining confidence as I went. “Heck, driving isn’t that hard,” I said to myself. “What’s the big deal about it?”

I decided I was ready and steered toward the gate. I pushed on the brake and the machine slowed way down, then started bucking and choking horribly. Fear grabbed me and I pulled my foot off the brake and turned the wheel hard to the left. The tractor just missed crashing into the gate, came around,  straightened out and was once more chugging around the corral. Every time I pushed on the brake, the same thing happened. George had showed me how to get the tractor going, but he hadn’t told me how to stop it. Rational  thoughts started hurling themselves overboard leaving only panic to run the ship.

“Help!” I shouted. “Help! Please, somebody help me!”

Ray and Joe Bob, stacking bales in the barn loft, heard my cries and came running. When they got to the corral fence they saw only a red-faced kid with bulging eyes driving a tractor around and around.

“What’s the problem?” they yelled.

I shouted back, “I don’t know how to stop this thing!”

The two just looked at each other and laughed. They climbed up and sat on the top railing like two old crows cackling together. Every time I’d drive around in front of them, they’d yell advice.

“Try driving it through the fence and into the barn. That’ll stop it!”

“Just keep driving it around. It’ll run out of gas in a few more hours!”

They suddenly stopped laughing. A hand clapped down on one of my  shoulders and I screamed and thrashed like a goldfish falling out of his bowl. An arm reached around me and turned the key. With a cough the engine died and the tractor lurched to a stop.

“How about you two yayhoos get back to work!” George yelled at Joe Bob and Ray and they went back to the barn stifling their giggles. He sat back against the big fender, crossed his arms, and gave me an appraising look.

“I’m sorry,” I said as I fought back tears, “I didn’t know how to stop it.”

“Aw, hell,” he said. “I’m the one who should apologize. Didn’t your father ever teach you how to drive?”

“No sir. I’m only thirteen.”

“Out here we teach a kid to drive as soon as he can reach the pedals and see over the dashboard. Now push in the clutch, turn the key to start it, and get it moving.”

Standing next to me on the rear axle housing, George coached me on the finer points of driving a tractor. In a short while i had the thing stopped and idling while I opened the gate.

“I think you’ll be okay now,” he called as he went back to the Jeep. “Just remember to close the God-damned gate behind you.”

Theatre Disasters

Over the years, I’ve always been attracted to live theatre (and no, I didn’t spell that incorrectly. One sees movies in a “theater” but if it’s a live show and you spell it “…er”, we theatre folk will smack you over the head with a powder puff.)  I’ve acted in a lot of shows, two dozen at last count, and there are a few more that I’ve written or directed.  If you add in the shows that I wasn’t in, but built the set, the total would be much higher. Here’s a hint for anyone who would like to get involved in a theatre company. First, learn Carpentry. If, when applying to join said company, you let on that you know your way around wood and tools, they will snap you up like a throat lozenge at an auctioneers’ convention.

Acting in a production, even a small, local theatre gig, can be pretty stressful. Anyone who thinks that “just standing on a stage and reciting lines” isn’t high stress has never stood on that stage, in front of several hundred people, in complete silence, and wondered what the Hell is that thing you were supposed to be saying. Like folks in other high-stress activities, actors like to go to a local bar after a performance or rehearsal, nurse a beer, and swap stories about theatre. Subjects usually include “Impossible Directors,” “Actors Without a Clue,” and “Producers with Starry Eyes and Tight Fists.”

But one of the most favored categories is “Theatre Disasters.” These are not actual disasters like the theatre burning down or The President getting shot, but more on the order of the bizarre and hilarious. For example, there’s the story of the guy whose memory, in the middle of a scene, suddenly went blank. After a few moments of tedious silence, he turned and walked off stage, got in his car, and went home.

Here are three stories. All are true. I was not there for any of the three, but I know people who were and I got these tales from them.

The first happened in a production of the musical play Peter Pan. Because the show, despite being more than 60 years old, is still very popular,  several companies around the country specialize in providing all the necessary technical things that local theatres need to pull it off. As well as sets and costumes, they provide all the ropes, pulleys, and harnesses needed to fly Peter, Wendy, Michael, and John around the stage. And, of course, they hire out professional stagehands that are trained to know what line to pull exactly when.

In the last scene of the play, Wendy and her brothers are in bed in the nursery and Peter flies in through the window. He has come to see Wendy for the last time. They sing a final song and Peter whisks away. Since the musical role of Peter was originated by Mary Martin, it has become a tradition to cast an athletic young woman in the role of Peter Pan. This production was no exception. On this night, at the same time the two leads are singing “Don’t Say Goodbye” to each other, the backstage flying crew has slipped out the back door for a smoke. The stagehand who flies Peter suddenly realizes that the song is ending and in a few moments the actress playing Peter is going to throw herself out of the nursery window. He runs for the ropes. On stage, Peter nimbly hops up onto the windowsill. Backstage, the crewman grabs the rope and kicks off the brake. Peter crows like a rooster, leaps out the window and falls on her face on the stage outside. At the same moment, Wendy shoots up out of bed, flails into the middle of the room, swings around, and slams back into a wall.

In a noble gesture, the audience was charged no extra for the slapstick fun.

The second story was told to me by my friend Donna, who is the Artistic Director of The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and has been for many years. The Company produces three plays every summer, two by Shakespeare and one other, usually a classic, by another playwright. The play in question was Romeo and Juliet, and the scene was the swordfight between Mercutio and Tybalt. Romeo tries to break up the fight but instead hinders his cousin Mercutio. Tybalt’s sword slips under Romeo’s arm and skewers Mercutio. Then Tybalt and the other Capulets run away.

Let’s pause for a quick note about stage combat with swords. Swords made for stage duels all have flat, steel buttons welded to the pointy end and this button cannot puncture clothing or people. To make it seem as if it did, there is a device called a “blood bag.” It is a very flimsy plastic bag filled with chocolate syrup, corn syrup, and red food coloring. This is slipped into a special pocket sewn into the victim’s costume. When the button on the attacker’s sword hits the correct spot, the bag splits open, and very realistic-looking blood pours out and stains the victim’s shirt.

On this particular night, the button on Tybalt’s sword, instead of just breaking the bag, got entangled with the torn plastic. When the actor jerked the sword back, the bloody bag went flying across the stage, hit the proscenium, and slowly slid down, leaving a dripping, crimson track behind. Donna said it looked like Tybalt had ripped out Mercutio’s liver and flung it across the stage. Although the cast plunged ahead with the dialogue, the gasps and screams drowned out Mercutio saying, “…a scratch, ‘tis but a scratch,” before he keeled over and expired.

Finally, let’s turn to Chicago, my old pal Patti, and her story of the “starving pirates.”

There are several major universities in the Chicago area with active Theatre Departments. Every year, theatre graduates from Northwestern, Loyola, DePaul, and the University of Chicago walk out the front gates clutching their little mortarboards and wondering, “What the hell do I do now?” Many of them get together with some of their acting friends, chip in to rent a small storefront or a warehouse, paint the inside walls black, and start putting up shows. The nationally-famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company started just this way. There are, at last count, approximately 200 small theatre companies in Chicago. They include A Red Orchid Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, Remy Bummpo Theatre Company, Redtwist Theatre, The Conspirators, and TUTA Theatre. Very few of the spaces they are performing in have more than 50 seats, and because these spaces were originally built for far different purposes, their layouts can be very peculiar. I have been to a show where, to relieve yourself at Intermission, you had to get into a line that went across the stage, by the door to the former storage closet that now served as the actors’ dressing room, and down the hall to a single bathroom.

My friend Patti had been hired to direct a new show, a drama about pirates. I don’t remember the name of the show, but let’s call it The Last Cruise of the Frigate Matilda or “Tillie” for short. The space was the old gymnasium in Hull House at the Jane Addams complex. The room was tall and roughly square with a balcony on three sides. The advantages were that there was plenty of overhead space to hang lights and that although the seating was limited every seat in the house had a great view of the stage. Steppenwolf put up plays there in the 1980s before their big, new theatre was built. The disadvantages were that the gym was down a long hallway from the front door, and if you came down that hallway and didn’t turn left or right, you’d walk right onto the stage.

Tillie is about a band of pirates whose ship gets caught in a hurricane and though it still floats, it is too badly damaged to sail. There is a fight over the only longboat and the Captain, his lady love, and the First Mate are forced to stay aboard as the crew rows away. There is no food, no hope of rescue, and they prepare to die of starvation.

Some plays go like a dream in rehearsal and are ready to open with time to spare. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve only ever been involved with the other kind – the kind that attracts last-minute problems like bats to a beehive hairdo. And Tillie was one of those. Usually, the rehearsal schedule for the final week is Technical Rehearsal on Tuesday, Dress Rehearsal on Wednesday, and Opening Night (Also known as Critics’ Night) on Thursday. Rehearsals for Tillie had been such a tough slog that the cast and crew had had to show up Thursday morning for Tech, do their Dress that afternoon, then take two hours to rest and eat before opening the show at eight o’clock that night.

At six o’clock, Patti gathered the cast and crew together to give them the bad news.  To get the show ready to open, they would have to work for two more hours. There would be no time to rest, no time to eat dinner. As a consolation, Patti promised to order pizzas for everyone to be delivered to the building’s rear door at ten o’clock, just after the final curtain.

Why do people do live theatre? It’s surely not for the money and most of it is not that much fun. But you do what you are asked as well as you can because you never know when some magical Theatre Miracle will slip out from the shadows and grab you by the scruff of the neck. For the cast and crew of Tillie, it came in the middle of the first act. The show that had seemed to be doomed, the show that was held together only by prayer, baling wire, and duct tape was working! The timing was good, the energy was building, and the audience was being swept along. When a play is going well and the company and spectators are in sync, the feeling for everyone is wonderful, subtle, and almost transcendent.

Patti was one of those Directors who are unable to sit down and so roam the theatre, scribbling notes, checking sightlines, and taking the temperature of the audience. She was aware which seats had been reserved for critics and was happy to see that the people in them, while not grinning broadly, were not grimacing or rolling their eyes.

Things were still going well toward the end of the second and final act. The Captain, his Mistress, and the First Mate, in the advanced stages of starvation, were admitting to each other that there was no hope of survival and so began revealing the secrets they had kept inside for years. Patti was up in the far corner of the balcony when she heard something she was not expecting. It was a deep, male voice coming from a long way away.

“Hello? Is anybody here?”

Patti began to run. Patti was a big woman who was surprisingly strong and fast, especially when driven by terror. She was quickly out of the balcony door and flying past half a dozen classrooms to get to the stairs. She sprinted down the stairway, two steps at a time, listening to a pair of heavy boots clunk their way down the main hallway toward the stage. As she got to the bottom she was mentally damning the woman who answered the phone at the pizza place to the lowest ring of Hell for not making it clear that the delivery was to go to the back door of the building, not the front.

On stage, the First Mate seized a rope and dragged himself up to a standing position. As he addressed the other two, he pulled a knife out of his belt and held it up to his own throat.

“I have loved you both too deeply and for too long to watch you starve to death. There is not so much of this body left for you to make a meal on, but I give it to you freely.”

Before the Captain could say his next line, a stranger appeared on stage. He was holding nine flat, white cardboard boxes. Squinting in the lights, he yelled out.

“PIZZA MAN!”

A hand landed on his shoulder and dragged him back off stage.

The critics that were there gleefully filled their reviews with the story of how the starving pirates were rescued by a timely delivery of pizza pies and barely mentioned the play at all. Audiences afterward grew slimmer and slimmer. The play closed within a few weeks and as far as Patti knows, was never produced again.

Video Symphony

We’ve been out of them for eight years now and I still don’t know how to refer to the first decade of this century. The “aughts?” or the “twenty-ohs?” or maybe the “zeros?” All these terms have one thing in common – they sound wrong.

Anyway, back then, about ‘04 or ’05, I was in my usual work position – down on my knees on someone’s kitchen floor – when I tried to stand up. And I couldn’t do it. My knees were not willing to comply. I had to use the line of cabinets I had just installed as a kind of monkey bars in order to pull myself up to my feet.  That was when I started thinking that it was time to look for a new occupation. But what?

In my spare time, I had been writing screenplays – as was every other person in LA. Despite a few minor successes, a couple of free options here and a Producer/Director who liked my work there, nothing was really happening. So even though I liked writing (and, obviously, I still do) I was not going to make a living with a comfy chair and a word processor.

For months my wife and I made lists, did research, and talked it over. As we did so, I continued to work in people’s kitchens and my knees kept reminding me that my days of crawling into cabinets were numbered. The ironic thing was that as the certainty of the end grew larger, I was getting better at the job. People were saying that they didn’t want anyone working in their kitchen but me and even the term “Master Carpenter” was being thrown around. Even though I had raised my rates a couple of times, I was still booking six weeks to two months out. Of course, these were the heady days before the Great Recession dropped out of the sky and flattened everybody in the housing business.

In the midst of all this, I made my decision. I would learn to be a Video Editor. This job seemed like it was custom-made for me. It was a sit-down job that required a lot of computer skills (which I didn’t have but could learn) and a generous helping of creativity (which I flattered myself that I already possessed). And being so right-brained that it’s surprising I don’t list to starboard when I walk, it was not surprising that I was attracted to such a visual skill.

“Age?” said the salesman in answer to my question, “No, it’s really not a problem. In other areas of the business, yes it’s a factor, but in the Editor’s chair they like to see somebody older, somebody with the calm and steady attitude you only get from years of experience.”  With me being nearly sixty at the time, this was cream for the cat.

We had found several trade schools that taught Video Editing. This one, Video Symphony, was the closest to home. It was also, bigger, flashier, and more self-assured than their competitors. It had been set up as a high-end training facility while the other places we looked at seemed more like, ”Yeah, we put in a school in the back room.” Video Symphony had more than eighty computer workstations divided among eight large classrooms. When they told me that they had set up a program dedicated to working people and offering classes on evenings and weekends, I was patting my pockets for a pen.

Thirty thousand dollars in school loans was, admittedly, a huge pill to ask my wife to swallow. I guess she bought my argument that once I had a job as an editor I’d be bringing in enough money that we could make the payments on the loans and still not have to move into a cardboard box under the underpass. Either that or she looked into my big, pleading eyes and just couldn’t say no.

Once again, I became a student. When you’re sixty and going back to school, your approach is very different. When you look speculatively at an attractive female classmate, it’s only because you’re wondering if she understood that part about “drop frame rates.”  Instead of wondering if you can skip a class without missing too much, you’re wondering when you can come and do some extra hours on a workstation just so you can keep up with some of the young hotshots in your class.

The principal software that Video Symphony trained people on was Avid. At the time, and probably today, 98% of studio feature films are cut on Avid. Ditto with high-end network television. It’s a big, expensive software package that will only run on big, expensive computer work stations. We also learned Final Cut Pro, but it was treated as the red-headed stepson of Post Production Software.

Editing, to me, was just another form of construction. When one begins to build a house, all around the lot there are piles of boards, plywood, nails, siding roofing materials, windows, doors, and a myriad of other things. The builder cuts boards to the exact length needed, attaches them together, stands them up in the proper place, and moves on. An Editor is, essentially, doing the same thing. Every scene has been filmed or videoed, in its entirety, four or five times. All from different angles. The Editor takes a moment from here at this angle and a moment from there at that angle tweaks them back and forth to get both the audio and the video to work seamlessly, then goes on to the next set of moments.  One of the main differences is that, in construction, you don’t have the Architect and the Interior Designer sitting on a comfortable couch right behind you and watching you work. “Can we see this room again only with that wall three inches longer, and this window opening six inches to the left.”

One thing the school, the teachers, and a little bit down the road, the students had to contend with was the constant innovation of technology.  When I began in 2006, for example, everything arrived in the editing room on tape cassettes. The higher the quality of the show, the bigger the tape cassettes got, not to mention the size and price of the tape decks needed to capture all the video and sound. We were taught, retaught, and drilled on the workflow to digitize those tapes and get them into the computer’s memory and the Avid’s usable files. By the time I’d completed and passed ingestion of taped media, production houses and studios were trading in their old tape cameras for ones that shot on hard drive. By the time six months had passed after graduation, tapes and tape decks were as out-of-date as flip phones and CRT monitors.

I had been in the school for a couple of years before someone finally came out and told us the truth. Graduates of Video Symphony were not being hired directly out of school as Editors. The few that were actually editing were working on no-budget indie productions for “exposure.” The paying job that we were eligible for was Assistant Editor.

Going back to our Construction analogy, the Builder has minions working for him that cut, code, and stack all the raw materials and get everything ready so when he walks onto the job site he can start whacking things together immediately. The Editor has Assistant Editors that spend all night ingesting all the dailies into the Computer’s memory, going through them and throwing out all the blown takes, then precisely coding each take at each angle and ingesting these marked clips into the Avid’s files, ready for cutting. A one-hour show might need five to seven hours of raw footage in clips. Then the next day the Editor saunters in, cracks his knuckles, and begins putting the show together.

During my last year of school, 2008-09, I had taken on as many small freelance editing jobs as I could squeeze in. The bottom had fallen out of the kitchen remodeling business and I had more free time than I wanted so I did what I could to build up my resume. Then I went looking for work.

After I had been sending out resumes for only a couple of weeks, I got a request for an interview with a small production house that was looking for Assistant Editors. I interviewed with the boss and, with a big grin and a handshake, he offered me a one-month Internship. I would work there for free for a month, and after that, if they liked my work, they would pay me fifteen dollars an hour. This was about what restaurants were paying experienced dishwashers.

I turned it down. This offer had come so quickly, I told myself; surely others that were a little more reasonable would soon follow. Au contraire, mon frère. This would turn out to be the closest I ever got to a regular Post Production job.

In hindsight, I had three things going against me; any one of which could have, by itself, swamped my canoe. Together they were like taking a torpedo amidships just below the water line. One was the Recession. Everyone was feeling the pinch, even the entertainment industry. Financiers and Producers were suddenly looking for ways to save money by downsizing. The second blow was the advent of Final Cut Pro. This software was relatively inexpensive, ran on any regular computer, was fairly easy to learn, and could do almost everything Avid could do. Kids across the country were buying a copy of FCP, a laptop, and an instruction book. Shortly thereafter, hordes of them began showing up in LA willing to work for minimum wage. The third, and maybe the biggest blow, was that most people in the Los Angeles area who were looking for an Assistant Editor were men or women in their thirties. And nobody wants to hire their Dad to be their assistant. Somehow, yelling out, “Hey, run down to craft services and get me a cup of coffee and a bagel, wouldja? And this time don’t put so much damned sugar in it!” at a nice old guy with gray hair just makes the yeller look and feel like a jerk.

After many months of banging my head against that particular wall, I threw in the towel, stopped mixing my metaphors, and went back to the kitchen cabinet trade. People who needed their old cabinets repaired because they could not afford new ones began calling. It wasn’t much, but I was able to pay a few bills and start chipping away at those ridiculous school loans. With luck, ibuprofen, and steroid injections, I was able to make my knees last for another seven years until I could finally retire.

Tonsillectomy

In 1966 I had acquired a bass guitar, learned a few rudimentary bass patterns, and joined a little rock and roll group that was playing various gigs around Laramie, Wyoming. I’ll save the story of my life in the rock ‘n’ roll lane for another time, except to say this: my throat was not cooperating.  It seemed to be constantly sore, varying only in degree. It’s hard to sing the harmony part on “Mustang Sally” when your vocal cords are inflamed and your voice sounds like a raven cawing through a cheese grater.

I finally went to The Old Man and asked him to take a look. My Old Man had finished Medical School and his Internship in the late thirties and then served in the Army as a Doctor. After the war, he and my Mother moved their new family to Laramie where he hung out his shingle as a General Practitioner and Surgeon. I grew up the son of a small-town Doctor. So one Sunday Night, during a commercial break for the Ed Sullivan Show, holding a spoon as a tongue-depressor in one hand and a flashlight in the other, The Old Man took a look at my pipes.

“Your tonsils are kind of a mess,” he told me. “They’re swollen and pretty ugly. No wonder you get a lot of sore throats. We’d better have ’em out of there.”

He told me to go to his office in the morning and talk to his Nurse. She’d set everything up. I did, she did, and a couple of weeks later I walked into Ivinson Memorial Hospital and up to the window marked “Admissions.”

They put me in a room with two other guys. Ace, a talkative ranch hand, was there for a hernia operation that was to take place the next morning at about the same time as my own tonsillectomy. The other roommate didn’t speak, slept a lot, and spent his waking time in a cloudy haze, staring into space. I had never spent the night in a hospital before so the concept of being prodded awake every few hours to be asked if I needed a sleeping pill seemed a little weird.

“Since you don’t have a particularly strong gag reflex,” my nurse told me the next morning, “and you are 19 years old, we are not going to give you a general anesthetic.  Instead, you’ll be sitting up and awake.  That’s just in case a little blood runs down into your lungs. It’ll be easy for you to cough it back up.”

Somewhere inside my head is a bulletin board labeled “Things That are Going to Happen to Me in the Immediate Future.” It took a few moments to take down “Go to sleep and wake up without tonsils. Eat lots of pudding and ice cream” and pin up “It will be kind of like going to Dr. Zuckerman the Dentist and having a tooth filled. I hope the Old Man’s breath is better than Dr. Z’s.” I decided the nurse’s remark about the blood was just overstatement, but the pudding and ice cream remained in my expectations.

Then she gave me an injection and said she’d be back in a few minutes. When she returned, accompanied by an attendant pushing a gurney, I was as high as a red-tailed hawk floating on a summer updraft. I’ve always loved to watch cartoons and when I did, I’d wonder what it would be like to live in Cartoonland where everything was colorful and wildly amusing, where a stick of dynamite could go off in your hand and it would only turn you black and frizzled for a few moments, then you’d be whole again and ready for the next adventure. I don’t know what was in that injection (and it’s probably a good thing I don’t), but it was the ticket to Cartoonland I’d always been wishing for.

Through the hallways of Ivinson Memorial Hospital I giggled, waved at passersby, and asked the attendant and the nurse one silly question after another. I was wondering if I should stand up to ride this surfboard when we crashed through a double door into a dark room. The only illumination was several bright spotlights that lit up what looked like an old fashioned Barber’s chair. They got me off the gurney and into the chair and left.

Anxiety had already started to take the fun out of my hypodermic high when three threatening people wearing white masks and dressed in baggy, white, full body suits came out of the darkness around me. It was The Old Man’s voice that finally cut through my gothic fantasies.

“Okay, Tim, this is Nurse Whidbey, and I think you know Doctor Sullivan. He’s going to perform the tonsillectomy, I’ll just be here to assist.” Out of the murk I recalled being reminded of this. For obvious reasons, a surgeon will never operate on his own family unless it is an emergency and there is no one else there who is equally competent.

After several injections in the back of my mouth, I could feel the area around my tonsils go numb. Then, in short order, my mouth was full of surgical instruments. A wire noose was placed around the tonsil, then forceps  were attached to pull the tissue forward and the wire noose was steadily tightened as it cut deeper and deeper into the flesh.

I only knew two things. A steady stream of blood was running down my throat and much of it down the wrong tube. I coughed and sprayed blood all over myself and Doctor Sullivan. Repeatedly. The other thing I was aware of was pain – horrendous pain. I don’t know if they decided to save some money on anesthetic or what, but it became the job of both the Nurse and The Old Man to hold me down while Doctor Sullivan worked. I couldn’t scream, I was too busy coughing up blood.

When the one tonsil hung by only a few remaining threads, Doctor Sullivan picked up the forceps and twisted the tissue the rest of the way out. Then he clamped the wound, stitched it up, and set the loop and forceps on the other tonsil. Then he and The Old Man stepped back, looked me over, and laughed.

I suppose that to them I was a merry sight. Surgical instruments were sticking out of my mouth in all directions, the bib around my neck was soaked red, and my tears had washed tracks through the blood speckles on my face. Doctor Sullivan had to ask his nurse to clean the crimson mist from his glasses before he could start in on the second tonsil.

After the operation, they kept me in the hospital for another twenty-four hours and during that time I learned a few things. One was that they had actually given me plenty of local anesthetic because when that wore off, every attempt to swallow was agony. Ice cream, pudding, and everything else I might have wanted was out. I even had a little tray to spit in so I wouldn’t have to swallow. More than once I remembered that string of sore throats that started it all and I’d look back on them with a feeling bordering on nostalgia.

In time I healed and within a couple of weeks I was back rehearsing with the band once more, happy to find that I could sing again. Perhaps not always in tune, but lustily.