Retrieving the past that never was

Sitting on our old car seat on the front porch up here in the mountains, watching the sun drift down a few months back, I got to thinking about memory as key to the past.

My generation tends to wonder if the kids who’ve grown up with instant “presence” can fully comprehend a world (my world) where events could not be immediately shared. I started thinking that we and all generations of the last two centuries suffer collectively from a similar limitation: We can’t mentally recreate the hundreds of thousands of years when the past existed only as personal memory and communal consensus.

Until the invention of photography in the early 19th century, all events died without leaving a corpse. Yes, an artist might attempt to reproduce a face or a battle scene, but the result was filtered through conflicting memories and the unique, often idiosyncratic attitude of the artist. 

Printing was the first development to “freeze” any aspect of the past: Never before could a collection of words be reproduced flawlessly, in quantity, without the inevitable human lapses and errors of a Bartleby. As one result, oral poetry – the recited epic of Homer and medieval bards – largely disappeared. Such prodigious arabesques of memory where no longer needed (though I’ve often wondered what new ways of cadging spare change the literate blind then devised).

Photography upended memory itself. The exact lineaments of a visual object could be fixed and reproduced, essentially without limit. Uncle Eustace, in his twenties, could live not only into his own old age, but into the old age of his grand- and great grandchildren. 

The camera, the mechanical child of physics, has no attitude, no personal investment, no “outlook.” You may quibble that the image depends on the angle of the shot, the stance of the photographer. But any two cameras of the same type and quality could produce the same picture when the conditions were equal. Personal memory and common consensus were trumped by an independent record that could be declared definitive.

Later in the 19th century, sound recording worked a similar revolution. Accurate reproduction was initially limited, but the effect was the same – the recorded song or sonata faithfully reproduced that song or sonata as heard on a given occasion. It was the difference between imagination and immediate perception. Now we could thumb our photo album to pull Uncle Eustace from his grave and place a needle in a groove to relive his laughter.

And here we are at the next step.

I delight in the online world and, like most today, feel cheated when all information does not swoop instantly to hand. (God forbid my ISP should tumble into the ditch, as it did a year or so back: “A tornado hit two miles down the road? Why the hell does that mean I can’t access the news from Ukraine?”) 

Yet in the midst of successfully nailing down an obscure etymology, I’m sometimes hit with a pang of loss: A lingering quizzicality – my cloaked friend all these years – has been executed by the Google mafia.

Will my brain atrophy if I’m no longer required to incrementally trace myriad possibilities back to a most likely probability? And should we really recover the lost eight hours of von Stoheim’s Greed, only to find them mundane? My personal reluctance to use a camera may stem in part from a desire to keep my memories firmly mine, even if that leaves them inaccurate and subject to the muddling meddling of my mind.

As printing silenced the oral epic, so has ubiquitous recorded sound smothered the intimate musical gathering. Here in our mountains, the tunes of the settlers have all but disappeared under the attack of generic country radio – not only for the younger generation, but for just about everyone. 

Only the very oldest residents express nostalgia for the progressive parties that ferried neighbors from one farm to another in horse-drawn wagons (summer) or “bobsleds” (winter) to dance to live jigs and polkas in living rooms where the furniture had been herded against the walls.

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Relativity in Kansas

Relativity in Kansas

As for Linda’s relatives …

Linda was born in Wichita, Kansas, where she lived most of the years until coming east with her first husband, Rusty in 1965. Her parents both had jobs at Wichita aircraft plants, then moved back briefly to their tiny home town of Cedar Vale – which, by chance, has about the same minuscule population (650) as Dushore, our town in upstate PA. 

In Cedar Vale, her father toiled in Uncle Floyd’s Garage until he realized he preferred the aircraft work, so the family moved to Herington (then the demographic center of the contiguous US) to work for Beech Aircraft, and again to Wichita when the Herington plant closed. They retired to Cedar Vale shortly before Linda and I got married.

I think I’ve got that right.

Her parents visited us two or three times at our Baring St. home in Philly. Each time, their van was broken into, which didn’t help their unease with city living.

Linda and I lived together for two and a half years before we got married. During that time, her dad treated me as next of kin to the Devil. Invited to our favorite Indian restaurant (where he and his wife got little joy from the food), he would not look at or speak to me directly, throwing his words across the table 45 degrees past my left shoulder. 

When, later, Linda called them to announce our wedding plans, he chuckled at me like an old chum. I’d offended his bedrock social sense of decency, so I suppose this change in attitude made at least superficial sense. I found it difficult to talk civilly without biting the phone cord from a fury I’ve seldom felt against another human being – was I now a separate person from the lout who had sullied his daughter? 

The year after our marriage, our family  – Linda, me, my daughters Morgan and Erin and Linda’s son Ben – drove to Florida to visit her parents, living for the summer with Linda’s 8-years-older brother Carl on his chicken ranch in Apopka, Florida, northwest of Orlando – I sincerely hope our only trip to that determinedly repellant state. 

A side note on our means of transportation:

Once merged, Linda and I shopped at the dingy excuse for a supermarket on Haverford Ave., hauling groceries back in the only conveyance we could afford, a foldable shopping cart that tottered closer to extinction with each trip. For the rest of our transportation needs, we pulled Linda’s little red wagon, which served us well for a year or so. (Would you believe someone stole that little red wagon from our front yard? Of course you would.)

So we bought a 1964 Dodge Dart – of the famed slant 6 engine – for $350. The speedometer and odometer were dead, someone had repaired the driver’s door with aluminum flashing and pop rivets, a gaping hole in the rusted backseat flooring wafted noxious gases to the inhabitants, and the heating failed in mid-winter. It consumed a quart of oil every 70 miles, and once stopped, would not restart for the following ten minutes.

Yet Linda and I (even the kids, I think) grew fond of this wounded beast. 

Back to Florida:

While Linda’s mom and dad and Carl’s family stayed in the main house, we spent the nights in her parents’ tiny RV, downwind from the chickens. In the mornings we could watch the chickens, confined in wire cages of half a cubic foot each, being fed some kind of slurry while feral cats lapped up broken eggs.

For recreation, Linda’s parents took us to Disney World, where we spent 70% of the time waiting in lines. What fun!

The way back from Florida would have been a total horror – except for the fact that we were no longer in Florida. We bought a case of oil before lumbering up I-95, which has convenient mile markers to count off the 70 miles for odometerless us to the next oil change. 

Ben and Erin raised such holy hell in the back seat that we seriously considered abandoning them in Newark, Delaware, if we could make it that far without murder. Morgan, even ten minutes, would collapse sideways in her seat and intone, with Russian inflection, “I have no weel to livvve,” our one bit of pleasant entertainment.

The next year, Linda’s mom developed cancer that metastasized like a rabbit on estrogen. Within a few months she was in a nursing home, and by the following February (1983), she had died. Three months or so later, Linda was taken aback when her dad said he was planning to remarry.

He certainly didn’t have the stash to lure a gold-digger, so what was going on? From Uncle Frank (Linda’s dad’s brother), Linda learned that Treva, the intended bride, had been the subject of her father’s intense devotion when he and she were 14 – so intense that his mother had scuttled their romance as unfitting in ones so young. Treva, a widow now living in Oklahoma, read of his wife’s death, sent her condolences, and things swept on quickly from there.

We were invited to the wedding and took our first cross-country visit to Cedar Vale. Were we still driving the Dart? You’d think that would be stamped in my memory, but it isn’t.

The flatness of Kansas is exaggerated, at least in the eastern sector. (For flatness, go to Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s 1200-mile tabletop of wheat, a nightmare of the mundane.)

Cedar Vale had a squat Main St. with standard little stores and semi-deserted storefronts, one of which seemed to be a pool hall, and one good restaurant, (the Café). A numbered route, 166, doglegged through the town in those days; it was later diverted to a bypass – god knows what’s left of its near-terminal commercial center. A bus stopped a couple times a day in front of a leather store, a cross between a saddle emporium and a ’60s craft rediscovery.

While we stayed in her dad’s house, Linda offered to clean out the excess that any couple accumulates. In the garage she found that her parents had not thrown out a plastic container over the last decade. Whole racks of shelving were packed cheek by jowl with empty gallon milk jugs and yellow margarine dishes (her parents, in cow country, never bought butter). Linda disposed of the plastic, but when she returned a decade later for her father’s funeral, she found that he had replenished the supply.

I was much taken with her Uncle Frank, who owed a small dairy farm nearby. Good-humored, bright, straightforward and mildly sarcastic, he was a full character filled with a genuine love and appreciation for his land. He drove us to a small hill so we could gaze down on his holdings – “a pretty man’s farm,” as he described it. 

All his family – wife (also named Treva), sons F.E. and Bobby – were good souls. I was enthralled by F.E, with his massive square head and love of rollercoasters and motorcycles (one of which had spilled and left him on crutches for a year and a half).

Her dad’s youngest brother, Johnny, had been the black sheep of the family, an alcoholic nomad rodeo rider and riverboat rat recently settled down with his champion coon dogs and realigned (after a separation tumult) with his wonderful wife Joann (pronounced “Joanne”). I felt easy with him, accepted.

An unsettling sidelight: Johnny’s almost blind father would, unknown to Johnny,  seat Johnna, Johnny’s daughter then about five years old, on his lap while driving to tell him when it was safe to move ahead or turn. Johnny – whose weirdly-set false teeth made his mouth look out of balance – said he was rightly pissed when he found out.

We’re not sure if Johnna –one of the most outrageously sexually exciting women I’ve ever been around – recalls this. Last time we visited her, she was living with a dissipated-looking limousine driver and wondering if she might end up “polluting the gene pool.”

Johnny died of a heart attack in his late 50s, which initially wrecked Joann, though she later sent letters indicating she was doing well in Iowa or somewhere else, far from Kansas.

Linda’s father’s only sister, Ferne, lived in one of the few interesting houses (perhaps the only interesting house) in Cedar Vale, where she sewed quilts and crocheted brilliantly colored afghans. The house had been left to her by her husband, who ran off with the “town floozie” (how often do you here that designation?). Ferne had a hole in her vocal cords and could only speak at a rasping whisper. A thoroughly gracious lady.

Johnny, Frank and especially Ferne had a strong sense of beauty, an appreciation for nature and for art in its various forms. Linda’s dad, so far as either of us could tell, had no aesthetic sense whatsoever, except for flowers – no interest in music, paintings, reading for pleasure. He seemed indifferent to food (his almost undeviating supper was cornbread and milk). That Linda could have sprung from such a contained man astounds me.

I knew far less about her mom (a schoolteacher for many years) – I think Linda’s amazingly wide range of interests and talents more likely came from her. Except… Frank, Johnny, Ferne: Where do genes or interests get passed along, where lost?

Linda’s father had been a lifelong Baptist and had intended to marry reunited teen sweetheart Treva in the local Baptist church, but the pastor frowned on remarrying one so recently widowed. Without skipping a beat, her dad switched to the Lutheran church for the ceremony. When it came time to kiss the bride, let us just say this late-70s man did not restrain himself in front of the altar.

Treva was a solid, contained, confident presence. She did much to open up their few remaining years – few because she developed cancer, refused pointless extended treatments and left him a widower a second time at age of 80.

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How much sense can most of us make of our ancestral relatives? 

On my father’s side, his mother (Josephine Rogers Davis by name) was the one with a definable lineage, going back to almost Pilgrim times in the U.S. (or so I was told – my daughter Erin has not been able to confirm this through her genealogical program).

Her father, a Rogers, died two days before my father was born, in 1891. He owned a huge swath of land in Texas that has passed down, gradually diminished, to the current generation, now a square mile of mostly arid cotton-growing land with a smattering of wildcat oil wells that the family owns in common. (I sold my share to my Aunt Beck in the ’70s, when the wells were producing mostly dust, and so lost out on the later discovery of fossil leftovers that brought the others a modicum of cash. I’ve never had financial sense.)

I have the family portrait of that great grandfather, recently reframed. He looked a lot like me, except he had eyebrows. Rumor said he possessed an unregistered deed to what is now Brownsville, Texas. Had it been registered, we would all be filthy rich. None of us is rich. I’m just filthy.

My grandmother, called Nana by everyone except Dad – he referred to her as Muddy, a nickname emanating from an interchange between them in his childhood – was the matriarch throughout my youth. As the youngest of my generation and congenitally out of place, I would sit like a pillow at gatherings where Nana’s clan would form a circle and drink tea at each other. A bright, quiet, friendly but fiendishly uninteresting bunch, few had done anything of note, or if they had, seemed incapable of expressing it.

Nana lived most of the year with Aunt Beck, her daughter, in Upper Darby, ensconced in her chair like an icon, a thin, revered Buddhetta who was allowed to do virtually nothing. During the summers she lived with her other daughter, Mary Rose (pronounced Mare-rose), in Chatham, NJ. Mare-rose made sure Nana actually did things around the house, giving her an actual reason for being.

Now and then, after I finished exercises with my Austrian eye doctor, Miss Brunn, in Upper Darby, I’d walk over to Aunt Beck’s house, on Kent Road. If Aunt Beck wasn’t there, Nana would somewhat cook me scrambled eggs to the consistency of snot (though less tasty).

About Dad’s father I knew and know little. An obese man addicted to key lime pie, he died of a heart attack in his 60s, before I was born. Somehow he lost all the money invested by his wife’s family, who sued him for it. But then, who hadn’t lost everything by the 1930s? 

My mother’s side of the family was more populated in my head but wholly mysterious. I met only her sister Melba and one female cousin (Hildegard? something H) who visited from England. 

As for the rest, everything about them was conveyed in letters that passed to and from Canada. (Mom corresponded regularly with her fifth cousin – only English progeny are aware they have fifth cousins. Her letters became increasing strange; she died of a brain tumor.)

With each telling of their Canadian adventures my confusion grew. I finally asked Mom to make me a list of these strange creatures, referred to by such unilluminating terms as “W.J.” and “T William.”

In a 3×5 notebook she jotted down and annotated over 50 names, in no chronological, genealogical or other logical order. I wish I still had it – I might know a smidgeon about these people. Erin finds most of them untraceable. 

I think W.J. was the one who’d been a teetotaler all his life until, in his 80s, a doctor prescribed an alky-laced medication and he became a raving alcoholic. T William lived to the age of 94 and died from complications of having a glass catheter broken in his penis. (No, I don’t want to picture that.)

Some of the others come across as wholesale wackjobs. One committed suicide by leaping off a ferry boat. Another tried to knife his mother during Thanksgiving dinner to speed her course to Heaven. Like Mom herself, her two previous female progenitors died of early-onset dementia (likely Alzheimer’s).

Mom’s father was only 42 when he died. Mom was 10. The head of the “black gang” (engine-room crew) for United Fruit’s ships, he’d received an almost lethal electric shock aboard ship and never fully recovered, being later eliminated by a minor heart attack.

United Fruit was responsible for the term “banana republic.” Through their stranglehold on production in Central America, they controlled the politics of the nominal countries providing the fruit. According to Mom, my grandfather, with the help of his black gang, put down a native revolt somewhere – Colombia, Venezuela? They then broke into and robbed the Indian graves. He came back with a small squatting stone statue, its arms crossed, that mimicked the mummified deceased with which it was found. Mom called it “Daddy Jinx,” I guess because of his death soon after.

She said he was also an inventor who developed the pocketed conveyor belt that loaded bananas onto the ships, and also a device for men to iron a crease in their trousers while they wore them. That may well be so.

After her father’s death – I recall nothing about her mother – Mom was passed like a suitcase from relative to relative, up and down the coast from Canada to St. Augustine, Florida. Why? Unclear.

What once seemed important and vibrant about these mythical figures matters less to me today. But they’re fascinating in a small and poignant way, like uncovering a mouse skull in the sand.

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Sicker than a proctologist’s dream

I was actively conscious that I was a Sickly Kid. My mother told me, daily, that I was allergic to almost everything (possibly life itself), that I had contracted pneumonia every year since birth, that I should stay home from school if the temperature fell below 15 degrees, that, all in all, I was more fragile than a Ming vase (if not worth half so much).

My being became so tied to the idea of sickness that my parents gave me an adjustable sickbed table for Christmas – which I enjoyed and which I can still picture in minute detail, including the one filed-down roundhead bolt (nothing to do with Oliver Cromwell) that Dad used to replace a missing flathead bolt. 

Whether in bed or out, this table was where I spent much of my time with my humongous coloring book that was divided into sections: standard outline figures for coloring; numbered connect-the-dots arrays; find the hidden figures; pages for painting; and my favorite – the almost magical sheets which, when swished with a brush dipped in plain water, brought forth different colors on the formerly black and white pages – I can still picture the emergence of Dagwood’s pinky-red pajamas.

Let me clear: Maybe I really was the sickest human being on the planet. I don’t care: No parent should ever do such a thing to a child! It’s the spiritual equivalent of reaming the kid’s emotional innards with an ice cream scoop. What was Mon’s point in this? Possibly to keep me close, the one son whose closeness she might salvage.

I missed 100 days of school in first grade, 80 in the second – one whole year’s worth of class days. Not surprisingly, I felt no connection with my fellow students. The mere thought of school made me heave my breakfast most mornings. My inner and outer sicknesses had merged into a scattershot spray of terrors, what I later named omniphobia – fear of everything.

My most humiliating school experience was my recovery from chicken pox. In those days, you were quarantined until the disease passed (or flew the coop). With the pox gone, I stumbled off to school that morning, reported to the office and was told that without an official doctor’s release I must return home. Back the three or four blocks, cast out even from a place I loathed.

Now that we’re thoroughly enmeshed in sickness and misery, lets flip through a brief catalog of doctors I’ve known through the years.

Sulfa drugs, a product of the ’40s, pulled me through those early yearly bouts of pneumonia. I have a single vague memory of a doctor visiting when I was about four. Can’t see his face, but I think physically but not emotionally severe. 

Pinprick tests by another visitor showed I was violently reactive to dust (plenty of that at our Hastings Ave. house), lamb, chocolate and – orange juice?? Nobody’s allergic to orange juice. My father made chocolate chip cookies for the family and left me the chip-free, bottom-of-the-bowl scrapings – why not just throw me under the steamroller?

After we moved Powelton in Philly, our first doctor was officed down at the end of our block. I enjoyed his little sugar pills with their enticing, alcoholic under-tang. I never thought about it until a few years ago when brother Rod noted that Dr. F. was a homeopath. Rod also claimed he was a misanthrope who let someone die on his front porch because it was past office hours.

During my teens, I was shunted to a woman doctor downtown, on Rittenhouse Square, the ultra hoity-toit of Philly hoity-toitiness. (Her house was later bought by the art collector next door and incorporated into his brick mansionlet, with its bronze guard dog eternally reclining by the steps.) She didn’t make appointments. So, unaccompanied, having ridden the underground trolley in misery, dripping snot and half falling off the waiting-room chair, I’d sit among the bilious and indisposed until my turn came, wishing I was at home, dying quietly.

In her office, she’d blast existential-smelling shit up my nose so I could blow the plugged contents of my sinuses into monstrous Kleenexes: Normal folks never see these tissue mothers – I wish I had them today. She’d hand me a little bottle of powdered penicillin, then back home on the subway to keel over and sweat under a pile of blankets.

(I later had a massive reaction to the penicillin powder – or, from what I read later, possibly to the filler used at the time to make us believe we were getting a Whole Lot of Medicine. I broke out in hives that fused until I became a uniform 1/8-inch thicker, head to feet. Then I passed out. My mother, on some amazing instinct, stuck me in the shower. I revived without further incident. Huh!)

Slightly later, I got athlete’s foot (“Walk a mile in my shoes and you’ll get athlete’s foot” – Killdozer lyric). I think I got the feet of the entire NY Yankees. I became a fungal sideshow, my toes and arches blistered and swathed in gauze, barely able to hobble.

Back then, you first squished on Desitin, a zinc oxide prep that did slightly less than squat. Next step up, you soaked your feet in a scalding hot foot-bath of potassium permanganate – a brilliant, scintillating purple beyond the hope of the most potent of Oriental potentates. Oh, did that feel good on my tormented tootsies. I guess it was supposed to oxidize the microscopic bastards – you could almost hear their tiny screams. But, in my case, the bitty athletes just laughed. Last step, I had my feet irradiated. It worked. The suppurating ooze was Nagasaki’d away – yet I could still have children!

In the fall of 1977, I had an eye operation. All my life I’ve had double vision. Growing up, it was an ever-present half image (on the left) behind and underlapping a full image (on the right). You get used to such things, right? NO! I could never ignore that second half image. It gave me a headache, almost every day.

At Wills Eye Hospital in Philly, a short, compact, smug surgeon told me that shifting the muscles controlling movement of the left eye would be merely “cosmetic.” Oh, really, Dr. Smartass? Happens I’m very familiar with how my eyes work.

Cosmetic my ass – I haven’t had an eye-related headache since the operation. But the morning after, as I blundered from my hospital room, I experienced two corridors, one branching right, the other left, with a grey emptiness between. I loved it! It took a couple days to resolve my vision into the “real” world. The first time I saw what a tree actually looked like, I cried.

In the ’80s, Linda and I routinely visited Dr. Fetter, downtown, on 21st St. He was in his late 60s, early 70s, a compassionate, superbly decent, fully knowing, competent professional who charged the decade-before-last’s fees. He first diagnosed Linda’s ulcer (alas, before ulcers were found to be bacterial, but he treated it to effect) and relieved the worst pain I’ve ever had (either from food poisoning from a barely-shrink-wrapped sandwich on a return flight from interviewing Noam Chomsky, or – extrapolating from later experience – a kidney stone).

Going to acupuncturist Dr. Wheeler Yin in the ’90s mornings, I’d listen to the Drexel University station broadcast mostly punk. I’d hear Mikey Wilde, a loose Philly nut, sing “I Hate New York,” which ends with the bubbling refrain, “fuck you New York, fuck you – New York fuck you.” Drexel shoved in random bleeps that bore no relation to the placement of the “fucks.” Heh.

Dr. Yin worked from a semi-basement office in Society Hill, down by the river. You lay under a stained drop ceiling and meditated or fell asleep. Acupuncture doesn’t hurt. The micro-slim needles slip in without your body noticing, just ahhh. Something inside my shoulder had ripped when I’d tried isometrics in the ’70s (don’t!). It had stabbed me in odd positions for over 25 years. After 6 or 7 insinuations of Dr. Yin’s needles – total, lasting relief.

(Up in Sullivan County, I tried acupuncture for my back, performed by an American doctor sporting a mustache with tightly cured end-hairs and a Dr. Seuss tie. Nada. Maybe it needs the Asian touch?)

Somewhere in and around Dr. Yin, I took a congeries of ailments to a woman on 46th Street recommended by both my elder daughters. Most times I take their recommendations, because they’re far wiser than I am. Most times. In this case, I’m surprised Morgan and Erin are still functional.

More than once I arrived at her office to find from her mildly depressed receptionist that the doctor’s own ailments made it impossible for her to attend me that morning. Couldn’t miss malamind have called me? 

When I finally got through to the doc about my hand and arm numbing, she unravelled a remarkable skein of possibilities involving angry responses from my spinal vertebrae. She recommended a regimen of Xrays and MRI scans. I did sign on for the Xrays, but something about her outlook unsettled me, and I never went for the MRIs, which would have walloped the health system for a sizable amount.

After our move upstate, it became clear that my whole arm-wrist-hand thing was carpal tunnel syndrome, a fairly common and obvious complaint (doesn’t the Carpal Tunnel carry trains through the Alps?). Dr. Nazar, a Mexican who doesn’t give a flying fark about convention, operated on both my wrists, humming the whole time.

At one point, under local anesthetic, I tried to see what he was doing. He stepped back: “You don’t want to see the inside of your hand!” Slight pause. “You want to see the inside of your hand?” He immediately held up my slit, blood-drained, wide-open palm for review, explaining everything visible in the chicken-white interior. Then he went back to humming. When he was through, he slingshot his latex gloves into the trashcan across the room.

Our family physician most years since 2000 (when, on Halloween, his receptionist, who owned a local winery, greeted me in witch’s hat) is both a superb doctor and a blues musician. He prodded me to eat good food (I resisted) and to have pieces of metal rammed up my arteries (I rejoiced).

In 2010(?) I came to him because my intermittent mild chest pain had become more frequent. When it refused to be intermittent, he sent me to the ER in Williamsport – two weeks before I’d flunked an echo-stress test (running a treadmill like a gerbil while someone took grainy brown-tinted  pix of my heart that looked like the fur on our dog’s back).

 At Williamsport I was re-tested and quickly admitted as a patient for angioplasty… again. (I’d had a stent inserted there a few years before.) In the OR I was greeted by 3 lively, lovely, friendly, chatty nurses. Everyone on the Williamsport staff was bright and eager to help (even over-eager). A few of the women were genuine foxes, which didn’t hurt at all.

Angioplasty consisted of sticking a tiny catheter into the femoral artery through a small incision near the groin and snaking it up into the coronary arteries, where a little balloon-thing on the end flattened fatty deposits against the artery walls (“Oh no, Daddy Art! Not the Catheter!”).

None of that may sound like fun, but for somebody like me… it was. I had only local anesthesia, but none of the procedure really hurt: The area around the incision was mildly dulled with some green stuff that looked like the translucent primer we used on the decks of the oil tankers I worked on. And the insides of blood vessels have no nerve endings, so they don’t know you’re bothering them. 

The catheter then delivered a dye that showed up on videos taken by a monstrous camera hanging over the table from beams. This horse of a device danced delicately around at the whim of the tech taking pix. The cardiologist then had his Aha! moment, noting that a coronary artery was indeed badly obstructed. His next step was to recommend insertion of another stent, a bitty, spring-like metal mesh that holds the artery open once the obstruction has been flattened.

He handed the actual insertion off to another surgeon, who wouldn’t be available for half an hour. In the  meantime, he told three really bad dirty jokes involving fishermen and hot-chocolate enemas. He actually did say “Oops!” at one point. I really liked this man.

While waiting for doc #2, the chattiest nurse leaned on the table and delivered her life story to me. It was neither boring nor intrusive, just an honest give and take.

The second doctor, a volatile Polish Jew, looked at the video and rubbed his chin. “You have two choices, a stent or a bypass. There’s a lot of calcium in there, really hard. I can try getting through it, but I’m not sure I can. If I can, good. If it starts to close on me, boom! a heart attack! We’d have to get you down for a bypass right away.”

“What do you think is best?” I hazarded.

He shrugged. “It’s your choice.”

Again, I liked this man and also really trusted him, so… “Go ahead, I know you can do it.”

There’s some mild pain associated with angioplasty, when the balloon expands, which it does for about 20-30 seconds each time. Ouch. Ahhh. Ouch. Ahhh. Running the balloon back and forth, expanding it along the way, he tunneled successfully through.

“I knew he could do it,” said I to a nurse.

He then inserted the drug-coated stent, anticlimactically.

Back in my room, I lay still for six hours with a 10-lb. sandbag on my leg to assure that the invaded femoral artery stayed closed to heal. That was the worst. Try lying still for 6 hours with a 10-lb. sandbag on your leg when you really, really need to take a crap. Try even thinking about it.

I went home, the chest pain gone – except for a dull ache from oh, my somewhat broken heart. 

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One book from my childhood has always haunted me. Cursed Be the Treasure, by H. B. Drake, didn’t just get under my skin, it crawled inside and gnawed. An “adventure” tale of smugglers and pirates, of guilt and vengeance, it was a cold soak in an alternate reality that I could believe with all my heart. 

My mother presented it to me at I’d guess age 10 or 11. Probably it had been in our collection all along. I assumed it was from her own teen years, so in the 1910s. I never knew where my mother came by such things, she seemed to absorb offbeat, peculiar works through some etheric transfer.

Over the years, I remembered little of the plot – just two incidents so horrific that they hung on me like literary albatrosses. 

Perhaps five years back, that haunting returned and I felt the need to find that book again – the original had disappeared into the mists of yesteryear. I bought a copy online – a mere $3.50 if I remember rightly – a ratty-spined hardback. I immediately determined not to read it. I couldn’t face the possibility that it would be just another “young adult” monstrosity that had overwhelmed my feeble mind. That would be a gut stab.

But Daniel Reccuito, who compiles, edits, owns, manages and continually re-envisions, asked me if I could do an article about some “unusual” book from the ’20s or ”30s – my pick – for a new side venture. I immediately thought of Cursed Be the Treasure – but “uh-oh, wrong decade.” Yet when I flipped back the creaky cover, I found the copyright was 1928. Again, where and how had my mother come by it? Likely she bought the original for my elder brothers (though neither had mentioned it to me).

I committed to reading it again, with dripping trepidation. And…? It resonates with the “now” of me as solidly as with the “then” of me; it’s left an unusual sense of wonder, a “how can the universe work this way?” that I pooh-pooh in daily life.

Before getting to that: Who was H. B. Drake?

I’ve found minimal online biographical info on Henry Burgess Drake, who had two (at least) parallel careers. Born of British missionary parents in China in 1894, the next to last of seven children, he served in WWI, then taught English in China, Korea (at a Japanese university) and England, sometimes alongside his younger brother, Eric – this bio snippet, an aside to a longer one of Eric, does not mention Henry’s writing. During (or before?) WWII, Henry served in the British Intelligence Corps, “to recruit spies to penetrate Japanese held territory” in China.

Of his alternate existence, fantasy and SF sites note him mainly as author of The Shadowy Thing, which had a strong influence on H. P. Lovecraft. You can purchase a 1928 hardback edition online for $967; I don’t plan to. Beyond that and Cursed, he penned a few sea and other adventure tales (sometimes as Burgess Drake), and a five-volume Approach to English Literature for Students Abroad during the ’40s and ’50s. He died in 1963.

I’ve had little truck with adventure stories. The Conan tales bore me silly – great gnarled nonsense. I recently downloaded a humongous boulder of public-domain fantasy/SF/adventure (many of them novel-length), looking for a simple, non-challenging read. The first four I staggered through were almost malignantly bad – cumbersome slagheaps of adjectives, mostly multi-page descriptions of otherworldly scenery, including, so help me, two travels through nothing – quite literally a void interrupted by different-colored lights. They showed less imagination than an addled exterminator.

It’s turned out that what I was looking for, without knowing, was Cursed Be the Treasure, which harks back to lesser-known works such as R. L. Stevenson’s The Wrecker, about a ship (“The Flying Scud”) in which the adventure is as much inside the narrator as mired in convoluted events wavering beyond the written horizon. I think Drake also took inspiration from Dickens, especially Nell’s wanderings through the countryside with her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop. (Though unlike Dickens with his often black and white characters, all of Drake’s emanate shades of moral grey.)

The first-person narrator of Cursed is Tommy, recalling his youth from age 6 to roughly 17, consumed in continual flight with his father from the vengeance of what his father calls Shadow-of-Fear. During their flight, they are briefly “trapped” by a witch-like figure, Bite-in-the-Dark, whom Tommy kills by accident. Then the flight continues, because… who or what is Bite-in-the-Dark, and can the greater Shadow-of-Fear be killed?

Baldly stated, this can sound silly. But it’s written with a riveting intensity of isolation and unfocused fear. His father will run forever to protect Tommy, but does not feel he can, himself, escape the inevitable. And there are also the magically bright summers at the Dolphin Inn, where Tommy investigates the caves and rock ledges of the coast, the supposed refuge of smugglers, uncovering secret passageways leading to… what?

Along the way, he and his father stop at a supposed haunted house. Tommy sees a ghost (does he?) and encounters a skeleton (he does).When his father must leave on for an extended period, Tommy goes to school for the first time – his father’s extensive, intensive knowledge had been enough to meet his educational needs.

Tommy makes friends with Worthing, an older, rule-bound student (who faults Tommy’s adventuresome ways). Tommy invites Worthing for a stay at the house, during which Tommy finds a hidden passage and loses it again. In a later stint at the house, he meets Captain Field and his daughter. She, like Tommy, is traveling alone with her father, and like his father, the Captain is haunted by an implacable enemy.

Why no mother for either of these near-bewitched children? The word “mother” never appears in this tale. For both, the single parent and the single child have always been thus.

From here on, I’ll leave the plot alone, because it’s the method of telling and the near-perfect pacing that make this book, in my mind, close to a masterpiece. Reliving it, retrieving the incidents I forgot through the years, was unlike any other literary experience I’ve had; 70 years between readings, and it holds the same searing chill. And those two remembered incidents that I did recall – I can’t talk sanely about them. The second details perhaps the worst mistake any human being could make.

There’s nothing overtly supernatural in the telling, but the possibility of it hangs like a torn curtain. As Tommy slowly uncovers clues, a more enmeshed tale emerges, tying together disparate elements –almost typing them together. Certain small details don’t quite fit… but not because Drake is lax. It’s because nothing here can be complete, wholly true or fully whole. A “definitive” through line would only cheapen the tale. The passageways by the Dolphin Inn lead to no found end; the lost treasure is truly cursed – through the intertwined vengeance of those who fought and killed for it, and the inescapable guilt with which each must live. 

That’s the book, as written. But its effect on me goes beyond the words. It reaches something in me as inescapable as Shadow-of-Fear, like a reflected study of my life. Not Tommy’s flight – the entire tale. I have none of Tommy’s robust, adventuresome spirit… at least not externally. But something of my mind works the way this story works, with the details incomplete, the compounded feeling of guilt, the need for everything to be different, released. It was somehow like I was reading myself.

But a few details….

The novel I’ve been working on for the past couple years (before I reread Cursed) encapsulates a woman in her early 30s:

  • • raised by her father, from the ages of 4 to 16
  • • haunted by the past and her eerie effects on the present
  • • with no direct memory of her mother, though unlike Tommy, the not knowing torments her
  • • her name is Jenny; Captain Field’s daughter’s name is Jenny

This litany of congruence rattles my innards.

Did those plot details from Cursed that I thought had been lost remain hidden in the far reaches of my mind?

I don’t think so. On rereading, the early chapters seemed fully new to me. 

Are there cosmic associations that exhibit when we least expect them, in the least likely ways?

I think that even less.

I see the world as a grand accumulation of circumstances, ruled by laws that we can never directly experience or untangle as they apply to the minute incidents of life.

Sometimes these circumstances heap in symmetrical piles that can delight or terrify, as did the Dolphin Inn and Shadow-of-Fear for Tommy. 

In my case, the dovetailing of this marvelous tale with driving events in my life is an overwhelming gift.

I refuse to question it.

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Phil for free, Carl for 10 cents

As a creepy kid tied tightly inside myself, I existed on radio programs, comic books and the Sunday comics, pulp science-fiction magazines and stunningly illustrated reprints of serialized fantasy novels. 

For sheer time spent, radio was my king. I listened at least as much to the squawk box as the next kid generation watched TV or the following one surfed the Net.

A sickly little beast, I spent many a day, week, month in bed or blanketed in an overstuffed chair listening to every show from “Rambling with Gambling” on WOR New York at 7 am, through “The Breakfast Club” out of Chicago (which played each new Hank Williams song), the treacly women’s morning shows like “Queen for a Day,” the entire noon-5 pm afternoon of quarter-hour soaps, the evening news, then ”Suspense” or “The Lone Ranger” at 7:30 or 8, and into the late-night dramas, including “Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons” (parodied by Bob and Ray as “Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons”).

I have almost 3,000 old-time radio shows on my computer; Linda and I play them during dinner when we’re in a giddy mood. Some hold up remarkably well: the “Phil Harris/Alive Faye Show” was funnier than any five current sitcoms crushed together (as well they should be).

And the comic books.

My allowance wasn’t much in the early ’50s. Once a month I shuffled into the newsstandish shop on Haverford Ave. in Powelton (a few doors east of Shuman’s Hardware) and plopped down ten cents for the latest issue of Walt Disney Comics.

This was the era of Carl Barks. You don’t know Carl Barks? Of course you don’t – because pre-Trumpian Walt, by way of his dippy, stylized signature, took personal credit for every single page turned out by the Disney studios. Barks, recognized only after he retired, drew the still-legendary adventures of Donald Duck, his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, and their even more legendary Uncle Scrooge McDuck. I loved those comics as much as I loved my dad’s corn fritters.

Comic books were then 52 pages, without ads. Within a decade they had descended to 32 pages, of which 10 were advertising, while the price shot up. Was it lack of demand? I can’t understand economics.

So, did I read anything “serious”?

That depends on your definition. The ’50s are often referred to as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” thought the ’60s took SF in much more daring directions.

During the ’40s and ’50s, John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding Science Fiction, set the tone for the field, much as Will Eisner set it for the newspaper Sunday comics. Campbell was hardly reticence in telling his writers and readers exactly what SF should be in his didactic editorials. He both led the field and, in some respects, hemmed it in.

Though I devoured Astounding and its closest rival, Galaxy, every month, I was most enamored of brother Rod’s collection of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, book-length pulp reprints of mesmerizing authors such as A. Merritt. Looking at Merritt today, some of his stuff seems almost sophomoric. Yet I challenge anyone not to nestle their minds snugly inside his Seven Footprints to Satan or The Ship of Ishtar

But what most got me in FFM were the illustrations by Virgil Finlay, a magnificent black-and-white pointillist. He sang like Hildegard von Bingen (or, for non-medievalists, Sarah McLaughlin releasing “Angel”) – at once ethereal yet tied to human aspiration. And his women … oh lordy.

There’s a strange and muddled history to those particular copies of FFM: I kept them for years, then, for whatever lame reason, handed them over to a passing acquaintance to keep in their attic for me.

I never went back to collect them, can’t now recall the person’s name. But years later, in Chafey’s – the most wondrous used book store ever to grace downtown Philadelphia – I found a similar collection and bought it. At home, I wondered, could it be …. Today, more than half a century on, I’m convinced it was – the very same shopworn issues I’d abandoned. They now sit, wrapped in protective plastic, on a bedroom shelf.

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Science gets impeded by the messy mind

I’m fascinated by water in motion. Standing calf-deep in Michigan’s Bass Lake, I watched the diminished wake of a motorboat strike the shore and reflect outward in smaller, tighter ripples. Even a bluegill snapping after a tasty treat generated an expanding circle of ripples that reached the shore and flipped back out, joining a complex interaction of forms: the fish’s original rhythmic perturbations, the boat’s wake, the shore’s reflection of the wake – wind-formed wavelets and tiny emanations from all of these bouncing off the dock pilings.

Each of the various ripples kept its identity. The fish’s minute wave forms rode on top of the wake and back down into the valleys, unchanged, and the wake crossed its own reflection without interference. Oh, I know the physics and some of the math of these things. I know that’s what’s supposed to happen. But seeing it in action, it felt counter-intuitive – shouldn’t all these competing wave forms slam into each other and cancel out or create a chaotic mess?

Then I thought: Why would I expect these physical forces to act the opposite of how they actually do? Do such faulty assumptions arise from some innate brain function? And if so, what purpose would it serve? How could it aid in our survival?

I wonder, too, how this sort of half-cocked mis-reasoning might hinder our understanding of the world. Perhaps it took several thousand years for science to develop, not just because we hadn’t evolved the tools to create scientific models, but because there’s an anti-scientific bias to the human mind (as our dependence on religion also might indicate). Certainly, any number of “common sense” explanations of the workings of the world have proven wrong – that the world is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, that fire represents the release of phlogiston.

We should pay closer attention to water.

Once inscrutable scientific mysteries are turning out to have fairly straightforward explanations.

In my high school chemistry and physics courses, terms like “friction,” “surface tension” and “catalyst” were surrounded by almost mystic veils. No one ever said as much explicitly, but we were led to believe that such (then) unmeasurable quantities, which lay below the level of the observable, operated by principles different from those of standard, formulated physical law.

I especially recall friction, which was linked with inertia: Bodies at rest don’t move because … well, they don’t want to; you have to kick their butts to overcome friction and inertia and get them going. I don’t know the official line on at-rest inertia these days, but friction – examined at the molecular and atomic level using advanced microscopes – turns out to be simple and direct.

Atoms and molecules on the surfaces of two objects in contact get in each other’s way, physically, and attract one another through hydrogen bonding and similar small forces. Long, snaky molecules sticking up from a surface get caught on most anything that passes by (the snakiest of these form adhesives). And any two objects, of like or different composition, form surface bonds between their respective atoms under pressure – even just the pressure of gravity.

In high school, catalysts were treated as big-brother entities that caused chemical reactions to proceed at a faster rate while themselves remaining “unchanged.” “Unchanged” meant that the catalysts didn’t react with the compounds they influenced, but rather exerted an almost mystical controlling force upon them. But it turns out that catalysts actually form transient compounds with the reactants they influence, then release the product – a cycle repeated thousands or millions of times each second.

These micro-recapitulates-macro examples make me wonder how quantum theory will shake out over the next 50 years. A variety of cogent mathematical arguments indicate that, at the subatomic level, particles cannot behave according to the laws of classical or Einsteinian physics. Yet who, 50 years ago, would have thought that friction would depend on a microscopic reflection of known forces and known physical reactions? Will it turn out that electrons, despite Heisenberg, aren’t doing anything quite as arcane as we suppose?

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Young loves

The thwarted romances of youth.

The first time, I was 10 or 11, our family helping out with somebody’s house-fixing something in the suburbs. I was inside, painting. I slowly pulled a brush along a window frame on a clear, sunny day, applying fresh off-white to the aged, underlying off-white. To my right stood a girl a year or two older, also painting. I recall nothing but her arm, the sun amplified on the blonde hairs. I loved her, loved her arm, loved that glistening hair.

I never saw her again.

In the ancient decommissioned church hall in Powelton that served as the local community center, I was corralled into a square dance. I almost never dance. My appendages don’t work that way. But square dancing is impersonal, in the best sense, and it’s hard to be obviously clumsy.

At 34th and Baring Sts., a lush Victorian house had some rehabilitation function that no one could quite explain. It housed girls who…I guess needed housing.

At the square dance, I was paired with one of those girls. I remember her face: simple, open, slightly heavy eyebrows, dark hair, shy yet engaging, asking nothing obvious of anybody. We do-si-doed, allemanded right and whatever else you do in a square dance. We barely talked. We smiled and, I think, understood each other. Ahhh…

I never saw her again.

At St. Agatha’s, my Catholic grade school, the boys and girls were taught in separate classrooms until the last grade (eighth), when the class size had pared down to “only” 40 students total, so we were all, boys and girls, shrugged together in one room. 

Connie was the class beauty – a description I’ll defend to my dying day. Geeky me – short, lank-haired, sway-backed, class brain, eyeglassed with black tape on the lenses – there was little I cared about in that room but the impossible hope of Connie. Though the rest of the class must have noticed my continually glancing back at her – blonde, serene, virginal but delectable – no one ever ranked me for it. Had they, I would have dissolved. 

We spoke once, I think.

After I graduated St. Agatha’s, I was invited back for excursions that honored those expatriates who had gone on to do well in Catholic high school (and shit, did I do well … academically). The first time was the grade school’s annual spring outing to Woodside Park, one of two amusement parks back then, to the north of Philadelphia. 

(“Amusement parks”: You went to a place with a couple roller coasters and bumper cars and simple-ass spinning rides and balloon stands with games and wandered a lot and didn’t have to stand in line too long, bought trinkets, there was a fun house, maybe two, you sat on park benches, ate not too much, laughed at stuff that didn’t matter…. God was it fun.) 

I mentally/spiritually hooked up with a brunette, short, unassuming, glasses, nothing specific to attach to, but I was snagged. I wanted to cruise with her in the “tunnel of love,” where a multi-personed gondola drifted through whateverthehell might be in there. Our little four-person squad got up to the stepping-off point and the gondolier filling the boat ahead yowled, “C’mon, we need one more.” And I, alone, stepped into that be-sataned boat. Why would I do such an absurd, pointless, self-defeating thing?

The good little boy listened to authority and lost one of the most promising experiences of his young lifetime. Sure, nothing would have happened in that wretched boat. But my day was ruined, my sense of self tanked like a decommissioned submarine. Few dumbnesses I’ve perpetrated in life have rankled with such an abiding sense of shame.

I never saw her again.

Another St. A’s high-school-reward trip took us to Washington DC. We visited the catacombs. You didn’t know there were Catholic catacombs under DC? I don’t have any idea why/how they’re there, but as a budding teen they were a load of mildly spooky fun. On the way back in the bus, I sat next to a sharp-featured girl who thought a lot of herself. You could tell that. And though she wasn’t really attractive, I thought a fair amount of her too. We sang songs together.

What songs? I never saw her again.

In my teens, on the few days I took the Lancaster Ave. trolley (rather than walked) to St. Thomas More, my high school, a cocoa-colored girl often hung from the strap of the crowded car. Oh lord. The mornings when she didn’t dangle across from me were empty.

I never spoke to her.

In the house next door to us (home of Peter Boyle’s sister), lived a girl who had a rabbit. I’m not sure why I remember that, because I was concerned only with the girl, not the rabbit. In the summer she wore shorts, unleashing lovely, abundant white legs. She would sit on the front steps with her friend, someone I recognized from back in grade school but barely knew.

Squinting out through the internal shutters shielding our seven-foot front windows, I’d pine away until I couldn’t stand it, then creep out and sit on our front steps, next to them, separated by the simple iron stair-fence between the two houses.

I never said a word. They never acknowledged me. What in god’s name could they have thought of such an idjit?

Can you overcome through time, rehabilitate the years you’ve made a fool of yourself? Oddly enough, I think you can. But maybe you have to have (again) the good luck to live long enough. Had I died in my 40s, 50s, even 60s, I would have left behind what so often seems, to me, a wasteland. Now it hangs in bemused retrospect. I could have been anybody, have probably done what most did at one time, in one way or another. 

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Pogo sticks (to me)

My mother’s humor was different from (even antagonistic to) my father’s, but their inherited combination forms a solid core that has been my mainstay even in the darkest times. And unlike most things, it has grown more pronounced with age (well, my nose…). I watch the blithering goofballs running the world and I picture them piling out of a Ringling clown car with their big floppy feet and red noses, bowing to the spectators – heyugh, heyugh. If only they could be that entertaining.

In my teens, I wanted to be a humor writer. I loved Robert Benchley, Stephen Leacock, and Don Marquis, the classic humor “essayists” of the first half of the 20th century. Some of their stuff falls flat these days, but a lot is timeless (like Leacock’s “How My Wife and I Built Our Home for $4.90”) . I wish I’d kept some of the bits I whacked together back then. I remember one about why elephants can’t walk backwards (oh, they can? Damn).

The Sunday comics where my reward for having survived the morning’s Catholic Mass. We bought the Sunday editions of both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Record, until it folded around 1948, when the Evening Bulletin introduced a Sunday edition to take its place. In both papers, the comics were multi-section, an unending spill of color, adventure, belly-laugh and often superb artwork.

The Inquirer lynchpin was the eight-page insert of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit.” I started reading “The Spirit” in 1946, at age seven. I can identify the year because later, dated reprints include episodes that never left my head. (One of the most delightful Christmas presents ever was a pile of Spirit reprints from daughter Erin.)

Eisner was a towering figure in the history of American comics, and “The Spirit” was his masterpiece. Tabloid size, it slipped inside the other comic sections, each week’s episode telling a complete, often labyrinthine tale of masked urban crime fighter Denny Colt, who lived in a well-appointed cavern beneath his own supposed grave.

Tough, death-defying (though not super-powered), he was also a noir mix of startled naiveté and emotional confusion. His flawed humanity foreshadowed much of the Marvel Comics output (Jack Kirby was one of Eisner’s crew, as was Jules Feiffer, and Wally Wood of Mad Magazine fame). 

Eisner excelled at both storytelling and a rambunctious sense of humor. His best stories often featured The Spirit only as a background figure, while the downtrodden of Central City lived out their fractured lives. To add to the fun, Eisner insinuated talking bulls and cockroaches, guns that shot by themselves, a little man who learned how to fly, and a ghost madly intent on posting his income tax before filing deadline.

I still read the comic strips daily – but online, creating my own “page” so I don’t have to have to close my eyes to skip over crap like “Rex Morgan, M.D.” and “Tank MacNamara.” My favorite single strip today? (glad you asked) “Overboard.” There’s nothing else quite like it for endearing looniness.

Most classic strips went to pot when the originators died off. Walt Kelly’s widow made a short-lived, unfortunate attempt to keep “Pogo” going, but its swamp humor was one man’s mind laid out for all to study. Other old strips kept going but tumbled into eternal senescence, like “Mutt & Jeff.” (“Shoe,” to my amazement, is going strong decades after Jeff MacNelly’s death, keeping its nasty sarcastic tone with help from his widow, Susie.)

Writing for the Philadelphia weeklies, my humor often got me in hot water. I couldn’t resist absurd captions for movie photos and was told by the business manager that they kept the paper from getting ads from the Hollywood PR factories. A local geographical society regularly sent in stills from film travelogues that always, no matter what part of the world, featured some old coot with chasmed lines channeling his face. I pretended these were a recurring figure, The Old Geezer – until the society politely asked me to stop.

 Under my brief editorship of the Philly Welcomat in the early ’90s, we had the most wide-ranging, totally wacko group of cartoonists ever assembled in one publication – John McCormick, Tom Reeves, Kev Monko’s ”Zym Zzyzzo, the Last Guy in the Phone Book”, Ben Katchor’s “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” “Steve Nicks’ Other Thoughts” (unlike anything else that existed before or after), AWest’s “Duckhead.” As soon as I left the paper, the new editor axed every one of them. No accounting for lack of taste.

I never – honestly – want to upset anyone, I just find funny what most people take seriously. My worst offense was my explication for a kids’ Christmas-show photo that featured a guy wearing a massive turban like a gift-wrapped trash bag. My caption noted that he suffered from “HAIDS, a sexual inflammation of the brain.” Lord, did the PC crowd whomp my butt for that one.

(The righteous uproar over jokes really pisses me off, no matter which direction it flies. A prime example: James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, spent his hours in office trying to strip the environment bare (in the fundamentalist belief that since Christ was coming back soon, who needs trees?). Yet what forced him out was making a pretty funny joke about the diverse composition of one of his committees: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” For that one instant, I liked the man. Moral: You can eviscerate an entire continent, but god help if you giggle about the unfortunate.)

Daily life can be a hoot, especially when it sneaks in from odd angles to slap you upside the head. After dropping my daughter’s friend off in West Philly on Halloween, I stopped at a red light on Baltimore Ave. Suddenly there’s a slam against the driver’s door – and a gorilla staring in at me. I snapped alert and then let loose a happy bellow. The teen backed off, removed his mask and waved, laughing too. I snorted and howled and whooped the whole way home.

Again: I’d just crossed 20th St. at Market, on the way to the Welcomat, when a homeless guy, probably in his 50s, turned from watching the traffic. He wore a bedspread or a tablecloth draped over his shoulders. He gazed at us workaday walkers, and in a serene, conversational but booming tone, commented: “WELL, SUCK MY ASSHOLE.” I didn’t oblige, but I did carry a smile for the rest of the day.

Maybe three times in my life I’ve gotten into physical fights, and each time I broke into sniggers half way through. One example: When my first wife, Julie, and I lived on the 500 block of Delancey St., the family on the first floor – a very loud electrician and his two even louder (and loutish) teen sons – had a chow dog that lay across the bottom step of the stairway and snapped at our ankles as we attempted to ascend. I finally kicked the beast a good one, which brought the younger, physically over-developed cretin out of their apartment to remonstrate.

We stepped outside and started swinging. To get better aim, I started to remove my sweater. I had it half over my head when it hit me how uproarious the whole thing was. I kept swinging, ineffectually, and kept laughing.

I’m glad that Linda puts up with my exponentially increasing need to pun. I make fun of death and destruction, infirmity, politics (or course!), celebrities, TV, signs (ah, signs!) animals, people, even trees. And I find myself endlessly ridiculous.

Humor, for me, is the measure of man, the justification of existence. Life is a kiddy car on wobbly wheels.

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Christian Henrik Bakeland von Hessert

My friend’s festering bedsore of nomenclature. 

To me, he was always just Chris, or Hessert. A college waistrel when I first met him, he was surreally beautiful (cleft chin, electric blue-grey eyes, the curly blond hair of an Adonis). The scion of a Tarrytown, NY, family that owned chunks of Manhattan and gold mines in the somewhere, he didn’t really care about any of it. Yes, Chris did use his privilege, grew up to live off his father’s inheritance, but if it had all gone away he would simply have found something else to do.

He was a depressive who plastered it over with a ratcheting, inhaled laugh like a hyena gnawing a particularly delicious bone. Those eyes chuckled and danced and his whole face radiated exuberance, even while you knew (if you knew Chris) that he was haunted, living beyond the cynical in an arena where the ways of the world were dogshit under his shoes.

He blundered through a couple years at Penn, then dropped out or was kicked out, completed a degree I don’t know where and became a mining geologist. That interest may have come from his father, an aging German pillar whom I saw only once. Or maybe he just liked rocks. Later, with his father’s inheritance, he invested in gold mines and, like several others in his trade, fell victim to a superbly orchestrated fraud pulled off in Indonesia.

Chris was the one friend I retained from college. We had known each other only tangentially at Penn, but he visited me off and on when I was living after graduation with some current students in a house on 34th St. (you’ll hear more about The House in coming months if you hang in with me). 

A bit later, every year or two, I’d get a drunken phone call from Chris inviting me to something or other. The first was to his marriage in NYC. When I showed up, with my then (and several years after) Great Love Ronnie, he caught my eye and looked startled. Had he forgotten he’d invited me or just not figured I’d show?

Hard to say with Chris: The next time was an invitation to his mother’s Tarrytown home. I took the train to NYC and called ahead to Tarrytown. Chris wasn’t there, had gone off on some travel and told no one of my pending arrival. Feeling feverish and generally punk, I hopped the train back to Philly.

The drunken phone calls slowed to about once every five years. For the next decade, not surprisingly, I resisted all calls to gather. Finally, my wife Julie and I visited him (now divorced) in New York. We ended up sleeping in our van because his apartment was too small to accommodate us.

I hadn’t seen him for many years when he called this tine to say that he was remarried to a woman with whom he’d set up a mystery fanzine. They were living in Ontario but would be in Philly for a mystery-related convention. Could Linda and I drop by their convention booth?

When we tracked him down at the downtown hotel, I had to rein in an automatic startle response: with bland receding hair, and at least 100 pounds heavier, nothing about him – except the dancing eyes – resembled the shining god of yesteryear. But within five minutes I saw that the essential Chris was unchanged – the opposite of what I’d encountered with the few other college retreads. I’d found them weirdly unchanged physically but totally altered in their human aspect. (Is it impossible to retain both the inner and the outer mask?)

Another half decade later, Chris asked us to recommend restaurants in Philly where he could feed a couple business associates from Canada. From our narrowed list, he chose the White Dog, on the Penn campus, where we all gathered for one of the worst meals of my life.

I apologized profusely to everyone involved. They were all gracious – Canadians usually are (though the rightwinger business associates bitched about Clinton throughout the evening).

Somewhere along the line, Linda and I began a series of vacation trips to the farmhouse he’d bought on the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario. With his inheritance, he and Barbara had remodeled exquisitely, adding, on the side facing the lake, a light-shimmering room with a red-tiled floor and a wood stove.

That’s where we spent most of our time, since Chris kept the rest of the house at 50 degrees. I’ve never known anyone as inured to cold as Chris, except my brother Rod. (Neither of them, to my knowledge, owned any sort of outer coat.)

Our daughter Cait went with us on those visits. Chris and Barbara treated her not like a child but as another expansive member of the ensemble. We brought along Cait’s pug, Moonlight; Christ delighted in skewering her name: “Moonbeam,” “Moonshine,” and the like. 

Cait had a great time tiring out their eldest dog, Bruno, a mostly-lab who would chase a frisbee until he could no longer move his legs. Their cocker spaniel, Penny, by contrast, was mostly immobile – a  bloated, nasty, smelly little cur who didn’t like anybody.

I spent two weeks at their farmhouse alone one winter, housesitting while Chris and Barbara vacationed somewhere warm (Linda was teaching back home). Great fun. I love the snow, love the seasons, have never wanted to skedaddle to a place like Florida that refuses to acknowledge winter. And has no real trees.

For that visit, I flew into Toronto (on Chris’s dime), and he drove me the 100 miles to his place, while I, tucked inside my Bean jacket, shivered like a wet dog. Riding through the Canadian winter in Chris’s unheated car was an experience I wouldn’t wish to share with anyone. Except Chris.

For the Duration, they left me alone with a car, several hundred dollars in cash, full access to his computer and the run of their beautiful house. Chris may have been a major-league cynic about the human race, but with a friend, his trust was complete, unwavering, eternal (another way he echoed Rod).

Chris was a sailing enthusiast. I am not a sailing enthusiast. Once he took us out in his boat for two hours of encapsulated boredom. In his last year, he ordered a hand-crafted catamaran that was awaiting delivery when he dropped dead of a heart attack on his bedroom floor, age 59. Eleven months later, Barbara died of pancreatic cancer.

I miss few people from my past – almost none, really. Chris is one. The two pictures of him in my head – Greek god and German burger – stand side by side without conflict.

He was extremely ill at ease with life in its reality. So am I. Is that what we shared? I don’t know. But, beneath his surface contradictions, he was a complete, seamless human being. 

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