Monday, July 30, 2012

A Fan of Fans

Just as there are scents that immediately bring back my childhood, there are sounds as well: The jaunty, jingly theme to Captain Kangaroo's morning show, the droning buzz of cicadas cycling up and down their repetitive songs, the heart-skipping call of our school number on the radio, signifying a snow day.

But one of the most evocative is the comforting whine of the large box fan my parents had.

An air conditioned home was a rarity in our neighborhood back then, so the summer heat was escaped only with the air that could be circulated through the use of fans. And yes, that meant that, in the swelter of a July or August mid-afternoon, all we were doing was blowing hot air around. But it was better than nothing.

The day that the fans would be dragged up from the basement and dusted off for the season was an exciting one, indeed, for it meant that school was almost out for the summer, that our pool membership would soon kick in, and that shoes and sneakers were soon going to be ditched for bare feet.

We had a number of fans in the house. My parents had a large window fan that screwed into the casing. The placement of this unit was key: It was put in a window that not only blew air across my parents' bed but also blocked the steady, screamy noise that came from our neighbors' use of their in-ground pool. This fan was dual-action, meaning its rotation could be reversed, therefore making it suitable for both blowing cool air in but also sucking hot air out.

My bedroom had a side-by-side fan that we inherited from somewhere. It looked like a 1940s prop plane, with its two blades left and right. Dad used to sit it in my window and close the sash to keep it in place. Airflow could be directed by the pivot points that were built into each side, but for the most part, I was content to let it blow forward. I also distinctly remember that one of the blades must have bent just a centimeter or so, causing it to touch repeatedly on the metal protective grating that covered its face. 

I learned very early on to ignore this soft ping-ping-ping, especially at night.

I loved sleeping with the fan on. I not only enjoyed the rush of coolness that it brought in after the sun went down, but I also let its steady drone lull me to sleep. The concept of "white noise" wasn't formally known back then -- at least to me -- but I understood at an early age its power and comfort.

The granddaddy of all our fans, however, was the green giant that occupied the kitchen.

This was a heavy-duty monster that my parents received as a wedding gift in 1957. It weighed a ton, had a motor that looked like it could drive the screws on the Titanic, and best of all, it moved a hurricane's worth of air.

The casing had gotten a little battered over the years. And one of its features -- a set of louvers that could be set to oscillate back and forth to vary the direction of its breeze -- hadn't worked in a long time. But this powerhouse served us well season after season.

The big fan had a tough job: Cooling the kitchen. My mother directed summer meals to be as least reliant on the stove as possible. And the oven was an absolute no-no in July and August.   But even still, the five of us would gather at the table each evening, the roasty setting sun blasting in from the back window, and eat, relying on the big fan to make the meal bearable.

This thing was loud, too. When it would start up, you'd think a B-52 was readying for takeoff: Brrn-Brnn-BRNN-BRNN-BRNN-BRNNNNNNN... Conversations around the table were often shouted to be heard above the din: "CAN YOU PASS MORE CORN, PLEASE?"  "CAN I HAVE SOME MORE ICED TEA?" "ANOTHER SLICE OF TOMATO, PLEASE!"

My mother also employed the big fan to help with that chore that is now long extinct: Defrosting the freezer. Once a summer, she would clean the refrigerator from top to bottom and then turn her attention to the large, drawer-like freezer unit below it. After unplugging the appliance, she'd remove all the contents, open the drawer, and let the mounds of accumulated frost melt away. This involved a steady emptying of the drip pan below. And to force more hot air inside, speeding the task, she'd position the big fan right in front of it and let it do its work.

This whole affair was fun for we kids because: A) we could stand nearby and enjoy "air conditioning," as the fan disbursed the cool air. B) we could wriggle off large pieces of the frosty accumulation, form them into snowballs, and pelt each other in the backyard.

Fast-forward to today. The summers are now less arduous, thanks to central air conditioning throughout our home. We flick it on without a thought, let it keep us comfortable, and pay the jump in the electric bill each month.

But we still have  a couple of fans, for that late-spring and early-summer period when it's too cool to use the A.C. full-time but it's still worth moving some air around.

And as much as I appreciate air conditioned comfort on those humid nights when, without it, our sheets would be a sodden mess and sleep would be difficult to find...

I still prefer the nights when I can leave the bedroom windows open.

Nestle under a cool sheet.

And let the steady sound of the fan lull me off to sleep.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Getting to First Base

Growing up, I was terrible at sports. Just awful.

I don't know if it was my bad coordination. Or my poor eyesight, which wasn't corrected until I was 11 and, thanks to the alphabetical order that ruled Catholic schools, was sat in the back as a W and, for the first time in my academic career, struggled to see the board accurately. 

Or maybe it was the bronchitis that felled me continually as a kid. Running became difficult, so sports like basketball were clearly beyond me. And soccer wasn't even a term I could define back in those days.

It's rather ironic that I was so bad at sports, having been raised in a sports-oriented family. My elder brothers played a variety of sports: baseball, basketball, football, swimming. As the youngest sibling, I would be bundled off to see their games and meets, which bored me to tears.

Ah, the curse of the youngest child.

Both Mom and Dad were ardent Philadelphia Eagles fans, camping out in front of the set each Sunday afternoon and yelling at the screen. How clearly I recall being in my room and doing homework while they bellowed: "Go-GO-GOOOO!" or "Get 'em-GET 'EM-GET 'EM!!"

It all went by in my periphery, football. I didn't really understand the game (these guys bash those guys; and then those guys bash these guys). So I rebelled, declaring it all stupid and annoying and not worthy of my attention.

It took me to adulthood to back off from that stance, and now, Eileen and I sit in front of the set each Sunday afternoon and yell at the screen, while our girls do homework. Somewhere in the cosmos, my dad is shaking his head at the irony of all this.

But as a kid, I did try my hand at Little League. Mostly because that was what was "done" in those days; if you were a boy between the ages of 10 and, say, 15, you played Little League. And partly to emulate my older brothers. They played and won the respect of peers and gained the value of team-participation and even took home a trophy or two (back in the day when trophies weren't awarded just for showing up), so I would attempt to do the same.

So each spring, I'd get the mitt out of the basement, blow off the cobwebs, moisten the leather with generous amounts of smelly Neatsfoot Oil, rub it in thoroughly with an old rag, and repeatedly pound the palm with a baseball, to create a good "pocket" that would assuredly help me field grounders and fly balls.

I was on the Tigers, with its white and blue uniforms.

And, truth be told, I sucked.

I was assigned to the no-man's-land of the outfield. Right Field, as I recall. Where I could presumably do the least damage defensively.

What that usually meant was long, long, stretches of doing absolutely nothing. Until the crack of a bat would send a pop-up fly my way. At which time, I would track it, running in circles trying to get underneath it, and promptly watch as it thudded at my feet.

Or a grounder would come hopping toward me at lightning speed. And as I was taught to do, I'd crouch down on one knee in front of the ball and prep my glove to scoop it up... Only to watch it dribble three feet to my left.

All the while, my teammates were screaming instructions. All of which went over my head. As did the ball. Usually.

I wasn't the only stumble-bum in the outfield of the Tigers, however. Danny Abrams, who was assigned to the outer reaches of Center Field, would become so bored and distracted that he would take off his glove and fill the pocket with yellow dandelions as the inning crawled along. You should have heard the din when a ball was shot his way.

I wonder what became of Danny Abrams. I imagine he's an attorney now, out-earning every single member of the old Tigers, watching MLB from a personal skybox somewhere.

He who laughs last, Danny. He who laughs last....

But as bad as I was at fielding, I was even worse at batting.

Here's my recollection of each time at the plate: Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. Yer out.

The pressure would be enormous. Especially if we were behind. The coaches--including my Dad, who volunteered to help out with the Tigers, and Mr. Farrell, our head coach--always offered encouragement. But the outcome was always the same: Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. Yer out.

I also had to endure the humiliation of "Sink-in!"

Sink-in! was an ironic (and insulting) spin on the fielders' phrase "Sink-out." Sink-out was reserved for heavy-hitters, those batters who could be relied on to send the ball soaring toward the fence each time, so the guys in the field would trot a step or three backward, in hopeful anticipation of being able to shag something outright or at least field a screamer more quickly.

Sink-in sent the opposite message: This loser is an easy strike out. Or if massive doses of luck are with him, he'll dribble something as far as the pitcher's mound.

But in either case, move in, fellas. Might as well position yourself closer to the dugout so that when he's either handily tagged at first or whiffs three in a row and the inning is over, it's a shorter jog to the dugout.

I was the very embodiment of Sink-in.

Except one time. There was one instance where a hit actually enabled me to advance to first base.

Well, sort-of a hit.

I had gone through my first Whoosh, and when the second whoosh followed, the umpire, nearsighted Mr. Beaumont, barked out loudly, "Take your base."


Take your base? Wasn't that ruling for batters who'd been hit by a wild pitch?

To the best of my knowledge, I hadn't been hit by a wild pitch.

Had I?

I wasn't really sure, but I wasn't going to let the technicality keep me from my first toe on a bag ever.

So I tossed the bat and trotted to first.

At which time the opposing coach exploded.

"What are you doing? He wasn't hit! I didn't see him hit!"

Mr. Beaumont looked a little puzzled, put his hands together in a capital T, and called "Time."

He then started down the first base line toward me.

Mr. Farrell jumped off the bench; "Dan! Dan! Don't say a word. Tell him you want your attorney. No questioning the accused without the presence of counsel! DO. NOT. SAY. A. THING!"

I froze.

A minor confab then developed at first base, with each coach arguing his side of the dispute.

Dad stood by the sidelines, holding his palms up to me comfortingly, telling me just to hang in there and no nothing for the moment.

We never reached the point of kicking dust on Mr. Beaumont's shoes, thankfully, but to settle it all, he point-blank asked me: "Were you hit?"

I didn't know what to do. So I let honesty be the best policy.

"I don't think so."

More conversation erupted, and after a moment or two of mayhem, Mr. Beaumont raised his hand and silenced both sides. He looked right at me and announced: "For being honest, I'm giving you first base."

My side of the bullpen cheered in response. Everyone returned to their assigned positions, coaches included, and the game continued.

I cannot remember the ultimate outcome of that game. My suspicion is that I died on first.


But perhaps my integrity survived.

Monday, July 9, 2012

How the Pony Express Helped Spur Me Toward Maturity

We grow up by degrees, don't we? A small revelation piles atop a small revelation, and before long, we put the pieces together that Santa's handwriting on our Christmas packages looks an awful lot like Mom's. Or that the monsters on Lost in Space do not, indeed, live in our closets. Or that the Geography teacher that makes our heart go thump-thump leaves the classroom at 3PM and falls into the loving arms of her fiancee, zooming off in his red convertible.

It's  series of small awakenings.

And in looking back on them, they can bring bitterness and disappointment, as we mourn the the veil of innocence and wonder that sometimes gets violently torn away.

Or it can bring a feeling of warmth and goodwill, as we realize the good fortune in growing up in an environment where such fantasy was possible in the first place.

I tend to lean toward the latter.


Mom was a Cub Scout Den Mother.

I've Googled this term, and it is now "Den Leader," in deference, I suppose, to the trend to de-genderize roles like this. But back in the day, they were Den Mothers.

A Den Mother was the adult leader of a Cub Scout pack. Cub Scouts were the entry point on the way to being a Boy Scout.

Den Mothers, armed with nothing more than perhaps a semi-finished basement and an official Cub Scout Den Mother Handbook, bravely volunteered who agreed to have 10-12 eight year olds meeting in her home once a week. Back then, these meetings usually comprised the Pledge of Allegiance, some sort of civics lesson, planning sessions for events like the annual Pinewood Derby or camporee, discussions on the advancement toward Boy Scout, a craft, a sugary snack, and lots of mayhem.

My older brothers were Cub Scouts when Mom agreed to host the neighborhood pack.

And in the name of efficiency, I was included in the weekly proceedings, even though I was officially too young to be in the Cub Scouts at all.

I provided a good testing ground for Mom and her activities. For example, she reasoned that if I could handle a craft or the memorization of a list of Scout virtues or whatever, that the older boys could as well. So I'd often work with her a day or two before the actual meeting, ensuring that her plans would unfold as planned.

So well before my peers, I learned things like how to fold a U.S. flag according to regulation.

And how to roll the official Scout bandanna.

And how to make a bald eagle out of gold-sprayed macaroni.

What the pack did, I did. Where the pack went, I went. I'm not sure how my brothers reacted to their younger sibling tag-along, but Mom said it was okay, so that make it okay.

Ever in search of new activities for us to do, Mom somehow got us tickets to attend the live morning broadcast of a kid-vid T.V. show.

Sally Starr and Her Popeye Theater was a daily dose of cartoons, jokes, games, guests, Three Stooges shorts, and other pee-wee entertainment hosted by Our Gal Sal, a western-themed lass with a giant grin, broad hat, handy holster, and spangly chaps.

Every local market back then had a show exactly like Sally Starr and Her Popeye Theater, hosted by a hometown "celebrity" who could also be counted on to make personal appearances, sign a slew of autographs, star in the yearly Thanksgiving Day parade, lead a bunch of charity fundraisers throughout the year, and bask in the glow of prepubescent televised adoration.

Sally was just such an icon. And I watched every day.

So attending this event was a big deal. A very big deal. And not just because it got us a dispensation from school attendance.

One of the highlights of Sally's show, for me, was the delivery of the daily mail. At some point in each of her broadcasts, Sal would get a faraway look in her eye and cock her open hand to her ear.

"Hey, boys and girls!" she'd chime. "What's that I hear?"

And in the distance, a sound would emerge. Faint at first but growing in intensity: hoof beats. And I would nestle closer to the set, bathed in the black and white backwash of light.

"Why tarnation! It's our trusty pal the Pony Express delivery man!" Sally would beam. And the sounds of the William Tell Overture would kick in. My eyes would widen. My heartbeat would quicken.

Thundering louder and louder, the unseen horse, surely flying at top speed, was racing toward Sal and her waiting brood. I could picture the rider, reins flapping behind him, buckskin jacket flared at his sides as he rocketed forward, one hand on his hat to keep it in place, one hand pounding the rump of his trusty steed, urging the muscular beast faster and faster to finish his assigned rounds.

The hoof beats ceased their rhythmic pounding and became a series of staccato percussions as the off-camera rider reined in his mount. The horse protested the halt with a loud whinny, eager to be off to the next destination.

"THUD!" A large mailbag flew on-camera and landed at Sally's feet.

"Why thank-ye!" waved Sally.

And with one more trumpeted whinny, the hoof beats started up again in their presto-tempo. They faded into the distance, taking the strains of Rossini with them, assuredly leaving nothing more than a dusty streak toward the golden horizon.

This was exciting stuff. Sal would then reach into the bag and read aloud a letter or two -- perhaps showing a piece of artwork that had been submitted -- and the cut to a commercial or cartoon.

The prospect of seeing this unfold LIVE was the highlight of the trip for me.

The morning of our show, I don't remember much at all about how we got there or what it was like entering the studio. I do know that someone told us that we would only be able to watch the cartoons and Stooges shorts by looking off to the monitors on the sides of the stage. And that we had to be quiet during the show, except when Sal asked us to hoot-and-holler. We could wave during the one shot of the audience when we were welcomed. But we had to stay in our seats.

I remember nothing about the show itself. I do recall being rather blase about the rotations of Popeye cartoons that morning.

But then...

Sal cocked her head and gave that faraway look. And my palms began to sweat.

"Hey, boys and girls!" she chimed. "What's that I hear?"

I knew! With every fiber of my being, I KNEW!!

In the distance, a sound emerged. Faint at first but growing in intensity: hoof beats. And then William Tell! I was electrified.

Louder. More intense. Closer.

I scanned the set. I watched the wings. I would be first to see the Pony Express rider. I would catch sight of that winged horse the very nanosecond he approached.

I would!

There was motion off to the side of Sal.

A horse?


A grizzled stagehand. Saggy jeans. Wrinkly flannel shirt. Cigarette stuck in his lips. Walking slump-shouldered to just aside the camera. Sally's mega-watt smile never dimmed. The sound effect whinny kicked in right on cue.

And this pot-bellied grip slung the mailbag at Sally's feet and sauntered off.



The horse...

The Pony Express guy...

Sally excitedly opened the mailbag and shared the delights of her mail with the audience.

And I grew up a whole bunch that morning.


As I say, I look back on this episode and smile. Sure it was disappointing for the moment. But  the magic and imagination represented by my belief in that Pony Express rider are things that I would't trade for all the horses in the old west itself.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Tobacco Road Not Taken

I do not smoke.


I did smoke. Back in college. For a while.

But I was an English Major. And smoking for an English Major was pretty much a given.

At least back then.

So I succumbed to the habit.

Not that it ever got out of control. If I were to characterize my usage back then, I could honestly classify myself as a moderate smoker.

But it didn't last. And well before graduation, I quit. And haven't looked back since.

Both my parents smoked regularly. In fact, Dad imbibed not only in cigarettes but also, on occasion, a pipe.

Larks were their brand, and he started each day with a bowl of Wheaties, a mug of black coffee, and a smoke, all habits learned from his time in the U.S. Navy.

Mom smoked, too. Larks. And I suppose her habit was born from the stress and pressure of being an R.N. and working crazy hours in a demanding, life-and-death career.

They both quit as they aged, he as the result of a heart attack at 53, she as a precaution against the high blood pressure and other physical ailments that were starting to catch up with her.

But as for me, I walked away from the smoking demon because it seemed to be trouble, for the most part.

My interactions with tobacco were ill-fated, especially early on.

During my newspaper delivery-boy days, one of my customers was Jerry Crawford, who was then a Major League umpire (you can Google him if you have no idea who he was) but to me, a non-sports fan, he was simply "Mr.Crawford," customer, reader of The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

Mr. Crawford was early on the route, one of the first or second houses.

One summer evening, while collecting my weekly fees, he was sitting on his stoop, enjoying the sunset and the waning heat.

And he was chomping on a chaw of tobacco.

I was fascinated. I'd seen chewing tobacco used on television. Old movies, mostly. But yes, the occasional baseball game, where the hock-and-spit action was grossly appealing, as it would be to any 13-year-old male.

I cannot recall how the conversation went, but I probably remarked that his chaw was "pretty cool."

And in his wisdom, he probably responded that it was a bad habit that he wished he had never embraced.

But somehow, I guess I persisted, and so he offered me this challenge.

He offered me a $5 bill, which was a pretty significant amount of money, if I could take a plug of his tobacco and keep it in my mouth the entire route.

COOL! The chance to not only earn some serious dough (the weekly cost of the paper, without tip, was a whopping $1.40, so he was basically offering me more than a month's earnings in one shot), plus I could earn some serious bragging rights.

"Okay!" I accepted eagerly.

He broke off a piece of the brown fibers and offered it to me. He even instructed me as to where to place it between the teeth and gums and how to chew it softly. I may have even gotten a spitting lesson or two in the deal.

He waved me on, and I mounted my metal steed (my Schwinn bike) and continued delivering.

First house, my throat dried up.

Second house, my vision blurred. My throwing became wildly inaccurate, and I was having to leave my seat to retrieve errant papers. And by then, my legs were getting wobbly.

Third house, my stomach began this uncomfortable rolling that caused me some alarm.

Fourth house, my bag of papers, pounding on my shoulder with each pedal, became and anvil-and-hammer in my head.

By the fifth house, I threw up not only the chaw of tobacco but also the remnants of my lunch. I continued to dry-heave into the gutter until even the vestiges of breakfast -- eaten a full 10 hours prior -- were gone.

I somehow finished my routine and returned dejectedly to the Crawfords. Mr. Crawford asked if I were okay, and I assured him I was. He also asked me if I still though chewing tobacco was "cool."

"Gah, no!" I said greenly.

"Good," he replied, sending me on my way.

You'd think a lesson like that would take hold and cause me to never touch tobacco again. And you'd be right.

Except for a sanctioned episode in high school.

Our senior year musical was My Fair Lady, and I was fortunate enough to be cast as Henry HIggins' sidekick and confidante, Col. Hugh Pickering. I donned my best British accent and got an Act 2 solo ("You Did It"), but the capstone in the characterization was smoking a pipe. Dad's pipe. And cherry-flavored tobacco.

Fortunately, this piece of stage business was limited to the scenes in Act 1 where, over time, Higgins and Eliza drill their elocution lessons. But I milked it for all it was worth, producing the pipe, stuffing the bowl, flaming the match, and puffing away.

It was more just creating a series of clouds that floated around the set than out-and-out smoking, but the effect was very convincing.

But as I said, in college, I succumbed a bit more fully to the allure of smoking.

And that ended badly, too.

I was driving to class one morning, late as usual, and fumbling with the car radio, the cigarette lighter, and the unlit coffin nail in the corner of my mouth. My attention wandered from the road for just a second or two, but that was all it took; I looked up and saw the back-end of a stopped city bus looming in my windshield.

I stomped on the brake, but it was too late.

Luckily, the result was only a fender-bender on my car and no damage at all to the city bus (which was blessedly light on passengers, for I was imagining case after case of whiplash litigating their way toward my future).

But that was enough.

Tobacco and I were through.

And as for smoking any kind of other substances, the appeal of that activity passed me right by. Not that I wasn't exposed to it at various parties in high school and college. But I could never quite see the point.

I've cautioned our girls on the dangers of tobacco. I've also warned them that I have become hypersensitive to the smell; so if they believe they can sneak a smoke, gargle some mouthwash, spritz on some body spray, and get away with it, they're dead wrong.

In adulthood, I've developed a weird association with the smell of cigarettes; it has become a trigger for the migraines that occasionally knock me sideways.

I also watched what an addition to cigarettes did to my mother-in-law, who could never toss that monkey from her back. Thanks to the cancer sticks, she fell victim to a very rough passing.

So all the associations I have with tobacco are now negative. Extremely so.

And I don't see anything changing that.