Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Common Sense? What's That?

  • My first lesson in logic came over a family dinner. We had corn on the cob and I was deemed old enough to butter and salt my own. The first time I picked it up I dropped it immediately. Man, it was HOT. I tried again a moment later. I could barely hold it, so I set it down again. Tried again - this time it was uncomfortable but bearable. I buttered it, salted it, and bit into it. It burned the Hell out of my lips. I dropped it quickly. My father shook his head, looked at me, and said, "Goddamn kid. If it was too hot for your fingers what did you think it would do to your lips?"

    This was the first time that I consciously understood that one could reason from point A to point B. Better late than never.

  • It was a hot day during the summer vacation between first and second grades. Running around in the heat, I built up a pretty good thirst. My mind wandered to a large bottle of Pepsi-Cola in the refrigerator.

    Open the screen door, through the living room, into the kitchen. It was a weekend or a holiday, because my dad was home. I asked for some Pepsi-Cola and he snagged a tall glass and the Pepsi-Cola bottle, which must have been too large for little hands, because he poured. Or it may simply have been that the table top was too high for me.

    The kitchen table was slightly below eye level and I reached up to hold the bottom of the glass while Dad poured. At some point I must have become frantic with desire for that drink, because without thinking (obviously) I suddenly snatched the glass off the table and began drinking. Only then did I realize that I had left Dad pouring Pepsi-Cola onto an empty table.

    "Goddamn kid!"

  • Home alone, I was broiling a steak. After a couple of minutes I grabbed a potholder and opened the broiler to turn the steak over. As I did so, I heard just the slightest noise, as if something solid but tiny had fallen onto the floor. I turned the steak over, closed the broiler, and checked the floor. Sure enough a tiny metal nut had come unthreaded from something or other related to the broiler.

    With thumb and forefinger, I picked it up.

    With thumb and forefinger, I tossed it into the air to get metal that had been heated to 500 degrees or more away from my flesh.

    Before it hit the floor again I said aloud, "How could you be that Goddamn stupid?"

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Earliest Memory

When I was perhaps four years old and my brother Billy was just old enough to sit up unassisted, my maternal grandmother and a great-aunt came to visit us in Red Bank, in Portland, Maine. My mother left Billy and me in a playroom, sitting on the floor playing with wooden blocks. She left the door slightly ajar and made periodic check-up visits from the adults' kaffee klatch.

I tried to teach my brother to stack blocks. Of course he didn't have quite the motor skills for it, but I didn't know that. He often managed to stack two blocks, but never a third. Billy began to get frustrated, but I just knew that if we worked at it he'd be able to do it.

(It might help you to know that I have a stubborn streak. Billy has too, and we both got it from Mom.)

We were facing each other, blocks between us, and to reassure him I moved around to his side of the blocks and put an arm around his shoulders. At that very moment, my mother made one of her visits. Via peripheral vision I saw her take a peek at us and then tiptoe away. Even at four I knew this could only mean one thing: she would return with the other adults to show them this scene.

In a very early example of my built-in contrariness, I promptly returned to the other side of the blocks.

When I was in my forties I told this story to my mother and she said, "You were a little bastard even then."

Lest ye be misled, I must say that by all accounts I was a very well-behaved little boy. Mom's reference was to my fondness for teasing, a trait inherited from and reinforced by Dad, but not much appreciated by Mom.

It was in Portland that I learned to read, although no one seems to know exactly how that came about. It would have been sometime around 1945, so I didn't learn it from television. What I have heard from my family is . . .

I attended Nursery School the year before Kindergarten. The facilities were in a grammar school. One day I "disappeared," and was tracked down by a couple of adults. I was in a lighted closet, looking at a first grade primer. One of the adults asked, "Do you want to learn to read?" and I responded indignantly, "*Eye* know how to read."

Asked to read a page aloud, I did so, astonishing the adults. No one in the family remembers teaching me to read at that early age, so this is just going to remain one of life's little mysteries.

We moved from Portland to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when I was in the first grade. I remember only one or two other incidents from Portland, and they are not interesting enough to post here, but I do remember feeling "homesick." For months after we moved, I played with my blocks occasionally, using them to create in miniature all the rooms in the house that we had left.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Marylou - Part IV: Meeting Mom

Marylou and I had had several dates, always ending up at her home. On one Friday we had decided to stay at mine. The next morning . . . .

We were going to spend the day together, and of course we had to go to her place so she could change clothes, etc. Not far from her house, she said, "Let's stop for breakfast."

"Sure thing."

"Good. Park anywhere around here. I like this place." She pointed to a small restaurant which my memory tells me was called "The Mug and Muffin," certainly a name to inspire confidence regarding the likelihood of a good breakfast.

I held the restaurant door open, she stepped in, I stepped in behind her, and she stopped in her tracks.

She reached for my hand and began pulling me forward. "There's my Mom," she said and nodded across the room toward a table of four women, middle-aged or approaching it. "Come on, I'll introduce you."

As we reached the table, Mom was finishing a sentence. Marylou led me to Mom's side, but before she could speak Mom looked up, took me in with a glance, and said, "Hi, Marylou. Isn't that the dress you wore to work yesterday?"

It was all I could do not to laugh, and I knew then that she and I would get along just fine, thank you very much. That was a bit of a relief. I've always made it a point to get along with the mom. You just can't have a better ally or a worse enemy.

(As an aside, I've also made it a point to remain friends with former girlfriends. Partings have always been friendly. One former girlfriend, Dee Dee - about whom there will be some discussion later - and I split more than twenty-five years ago, and she married a year or so after. Not only do she and I still exchange Christmas cards, but her mother and I do as well. I still see Dee Dee for lunch on the rare occasions when I am in the Boston area, and a few years ago we visited with her mother.)

Several more isolated Marylou incidents come to mind:
  • I had picked Marylou up after work and we were driving on the Boston Expressway. Ford had a station wagon model named the Country Squire and had just introduced the Pinto. I had read that someone suggested it be called the Country Squirt.

    I mentioned the Pinto, which Marylou knew about, and asked, "Do you know what someone suggested it be called?"

    "The Country Squirt."

    "How did you know that?"

    "Not only am I pretty . . . ."

  • In bed on a Saturday morning at my apartment, I grabbed one of Marylou's feet and began playing "This Little Piggy." When I finished she said, "That's not how it goes."

    "Yes it is. How else would it go?"

    "I don't remember, but that's not it."

    Later on, at her house, she finished changing clothes, grabbed my hand and said, "Come on. I want to talk to my mother."

    Downstairs we went, and we found Mom sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee. We sat down with her and Marylou demanded, "How does 'This Little Piggy' go?"

    Mom looked at me and her eyes twinkled. She knew something was up and it was going to be fun. She recited "This Little Piggy" and waited.

    "That's not how you did it with me when I was little."

    "Of course it is, dear. Why would I lie?"

  • We decided to drive to Quebec City for a holiday weekend. There we had a wonderful time, but Monday morning it was time to leave and rain was coming down in sheets.

    Perhaps an hour and a half into the return drive, still in Canada, I realized that we were not on the road I had intended to be on. I played it back in my mind and decided that a half hour earlier I had veered left at a fork in the road and should have veered right. I told Marylou about it and kept driving.

    "Aren't you going to look at a map?"

    "No. The map's in the trunk and it's pouring rain. We're heading south, which is good, and I'll just keep taking major roads west and south as we come to them." I no longer remember the highway number I wanted to be on, but told it to her and suggested she watch for it.

    Wriggle. Wriggle wriggle.

    "I think you should look at the map."

    "I'm not gonna get out in this rain if I can help it. We'll be OK."

    More wriggling. Much accusatory silence.

    West. South. West. Bingo!

    WRIGGLE! "I was hoping you wouldn't find it."
Marylou and I dated for perhaps a year. Given the coat closet and hair on fire incidents, I sometimes wonder if she wasn't just waiting to see what I would do next. A year or two later I heard that she had married a Kansas City consultant, and I wish her well.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Marylou - Part III: First Date

It was Saturday evening, eight days after we had met. Marylou had already had some commitment for the preceding night, so we'd settled on this night for our first "official" date.

I was to take her to dinner at a cozy little restaurant not far from where she lived. I had never been to the restaurant but she had, and when she suggested it she told me it would be "comfortable," one of the best judgments I've encountered.

It was small but not tiny. We were seated in a booth in an area just dark enough to give the illusion of privacy, an illusion furthered by the other patrons. My recollection is that they were all or mostly all other couples, and pretty much involved with each other, so there was not much noise.

Menus arrived with the first round of drinks, and were promptly ignored. We chattered away, as comfortable with each other as we had been on the night we met. We were both smokers, and after a couple of cigarettes and just as the drinks were about to vanish completely, our waitress returned. No, sorry, we haven't even looked yet. But if you'll bring us two more drinks we will promise to do it now.

I have no recollection of what we ate, only a lingering impression that it was very good. But we were having a marvelous time and the food would have had to be atrocious to spoil things. The company was the most important thing about this meal, and once again there was laughter and contentment.

After dinner we had coffee, followed by a third and final round of drinks. I lit a cigarette and Marylou indicated that I should light one for her too. I gave her the first and got another out of the pack. During the lighting of one of these cigarettes, I don't know which, the front of my hair caught fire.

Well, I was looking at Marylou, not a mirror, and *eye* certainly didn't know about it. But soon I got the first tentative whiffs of the foul odor of burning hair. At the same time I felt a certain unexplained and increasingly uncomfortable warmth just above my forehead. I'm Mr. Cool, that's who I am.

Putting two and two together at last, I reached up and patted out the fire.

"Did you know my hair was on fire?"


"Well, why didn't you tell me?"

"I don't know. I thought it was part of your act."

Even today, more than thirty-five years later, I don't quite understand that, but I have a vague feeling that it is very funny.

And speaking of funny - but this time funny peculiar, not funny ha ha - I have several times told two stories to small groups of people: this story and the coat closet story. Without exception, the men have found the coat closet incident funnier and the women have found the hair on fire incident funnier. I'm not sure what that says.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Marylou - Part II: The Malevolent Closet

I reached out a hand for Marylou, who took it, smiled, and moved to me.

For the next hour or so, the setting was quite relaxed. On each sofa there was some kissing, some touching, some talking, the occasional low laughter, all in all a nice and quiet time. In our corner, the first kiss was very nice. The chemistry was there, we were in no hurry, and the kiss began just a little tentatively on both sides. Then came the feeling, "This is a perfect fit. This is how it should be."

Eventually, I asked her, "Shall I take you home?" You never can be quite certain how it's going to go at this point. She had arrived with Sandy, and some girls in similar circumstances would feel obligated to remain with each other for the evening, but with no hesitation Marylou said, "Yes."

We stood up and took the opportunity to have our first standing kiss, bodies full length against each other, and it was very nice - not intense, just comfortable. Well, maybe a little intense.

"Brad, Sandy, I'm going to drive Marylou home."

From Sandy: "Everything OK, Marylou?"

"Everything's great."

At this point I must confess that I don't remember what I did or didn't say to Brad. I know I only saw him once or twice more over the next several years. Brad, in case you're still out there and you see this and recognize the four of us, thanks, man. Thanks.

Marylou, it turned out, lived in a suburb south of Boston, only a half hour's drive from where we were. During the drive it was mostly quiet in the car, but it was a comfortable silence, not an awkward one. She sat close to me and we held hands.

We arrived at a two story house, and she told me that it was her parents' house and that she rented the upper story. All lights were out and we were quiet but not stealthy as we ascended the stairs. She turned one hallway light on, led me to a sofa in her living room, went away for a moment, and returned with two drinks. She turned a radio on, set the volume to about the same level we'd had at Brad's, and joined me on the couch.

We picked up where we had left off, and it was still very nice, perhaps even nicer. After a while, perhaps an hour or so, I decided that enough was enough. I stood up, bent down, and took her by the arm. She joined me in standing and I walked her over to the bedroom door and opened it.

It was a coat closet.

My Adam's apple and testicles exchanged places.

But Marylou was the pick of her litter, and she just took my hand and led me to her bedroom.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Marylou - Part I: The Scoop

It was the early 1970s, perhaps 1971. I was unattached, about thirty, and had pork chop sideburns and hair long enough to pull it from opposite sides and touch it under my chin, not long enough for a pony tail, just combed straight back.

On a Friday night at the Board Room (the third floor of a "99" restaurant in Boston), I was approached by Brad, a Board Room acquaintance of about my age. "Donnie, I have two girls here who need directions to the White Rhino. I know one of them from work. Whaddaya think?"

"I'm in."

We walked over to where the   young women  girls, perhaps in their mid-twenties, were sitting and Brad introduced me to Marylou and to the one he knew from work, whose name I have long since forgotten, this being the only time I ever met her. We're going to need a name for her if we're to get through this story, so let's call her Sandy. Believe me, if that was actually her name we have a major coincidence on our hands. (As for "girls" vis-à-vis "women," well, that's what younger women were called at the time in all but the most cutting edge feminist circles, and that's what they'll be called here when referring to this period. When referring to later periods we'll use "women.")

I learned that they were planning to meet two other guys at the Rhino - dates, but not boyfriends, and in fact a blind date in Marylou's case. They were on foot, and Brad solemnly pledged to drive them to their rendezvous after a round of drinks. Things went well, there was some laughter, and then it was that time.

As we prepared to leave, they invited us to join them and their intended dates at the Rhino. (WTF? Are women really oblivious about this sort of thing? How pleased would their dates have been if we said yes?) Brad disingenuously accepted for both of us, looked at me and said, "You follow me, OK?" Well, why not? We split up, Marylou riding with me. In no time at all I could see that we were going in a direction not remotely in accordance with the girls' plans. To this day I don't know whether Brad talked it out with Sandy or we just "kidnapped" them. In any event, they'd been scooped.

Before long we were at Brad's apartment - in Cambridge, I think - and no one raised any objections as he led us in. The apartment was a 1970s style passion pit with sunken living room, hidden speakers, lush and comfortable furniture, a full bar, and a vast selection of mood music.

He disappeared briefly and the rest of us checked things out: books, records, etc. Brad returned, heading for the bar with a bottle of chilled champagne. POP! Ice bucket, four glasses, done deal. Brad dimmed the lights a little and led Sandy to a sofa, so I led Marylou to another. Each couple sat sort of sideways, perhaps two feet apart, half facing each other and half facing the other couple.

Well, you know how it is when people meet each other for the first time and really get along. It was comfortable and it was fun. The four of us talked about any number of things, all interesting to all of us. Lots of smiles, more laughter, more champagne.

After a while Brad got up and really dimmed the lights, leaving us with about one candlepower, according to my memory. He turned the volume down but left the music audible, walked back and sat down inches away from Sandy. I reached out a hand for Marylou, who took it, smiled, and moved to me.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Informal Justice in Chicago

This incident occurred about twenty-five years ago and I still don't know where I stand on it. That is, I do know but I stand all over the place.

Members in a backgammon club I frequented included men and women who might be anywhere from their twenties to their sixties or seventies. One winter night a fiftyish woman left the club and returned a minute or two later, visibly upset.

"Those damn kids!"

One of the members then present was a city policeman, Ron, thirtyish, tall and muscular. He asked her, "What's wrong?"

"Oh, my driver's side window is smashed." Pointing toward the front plate glass window, she continued, "That bunch of teenagers has started hanging around outside the pizza place across the street, and since they arrived there have been two or three broken car windows every night."

This was the first I'd heard of it but there were affirmations from several members. The police had been called, but there were no witnesses and nothing could be done.

Ron's whole demeanor changed. He stood up, said "I'll take care of it," and walked across the street to the kids, several men following.

There were four teenage boys, all smirking as if they were certain they were immune to the consequences of anything they might say or do, and somehow Ron picked out the leader. Flashing his badge, Ron confronted him and told him, "You and your boys go somewhere else. I don't want to see you hanging around here again."

The boy, perhaps sixteen, smiled and said, "Fuck you. We don't have to do that."

Ron picked him up by his jacket front, slammed him against an aluminum lamp post, and released him. The boy collapsed to the sidewalk. Ron turned to the other three and said, "When he gets up, get him out of here. And tell him I meant what I said."

That was the end of that problem. The boys never came back and no more car windows were broken.

But doesn't it raise another problem?

I shouldn't have to say that that isn't how it's supposed to work. What if it hadn't been those kids who broke the windows? What if Ron had seriously injured the boy?

But that time Ron's instincts were one hundred percent correct regarding who broke the windows, which one of the four was the alpha punk, and how much force to use to fix the problem.

And the thing is that I know and you know too - yes you do, don't deny it - that acting within the law the police could not have solved this problem and there would have been weeks, perhaps months, of additional window breaking.

I can't find firm ground on one side or the other of this incident. All I know is that Ron "shouldn't" have done it and that I'm glad he did it.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Some Things You Just Gotta Be a Man About

I was twenty-one and stationed in Germany, and my German girlfriend, Anna, wanted to see Judgment at Nuremberg, which was playing at the theater on post. We arrived so early that the lights in the theater were still on. We bought popcorn or candy or something, then seated ourselves.

A few minutes later a young couple with a baby came in and sat down right in front of us. The baby was perhaps six months old and at some point Mama put him over her left shoulder, looking right at me. As is the case with many adults faced with a baby, I became an instant idiot. I made a face at the baby, and to my surprise he wrinkled up his face and let out a howl.

Mama relocated the baby to her lap to calm him down. I looked at Anna and raised my eyebrows. I was greeted by a blank stare.

Mama put the baby back on her shoulder and the baby watched me intently. I returned the favor and after a moment made the face again. Instant howl. Mama took the baby around front again, and I felt an elbow hit my arm and heard a muttered "Stop it!" from Anna.

The baby quieted down and soon he was again looking over his mother's shoulder. The right shoulder this time. But did he look at Anna? Nooooo. He stared at me. I stared back. Neither of us blinked. I swear, that baby was daring me to make that face again. This was our own version of High Noon.

Well, there are some things you just gotta be a man about. I made the face, the baby shrieked, and I was reminded that Anna was wearing boots with high heels. Kicking backwards, she put one heel halfway through my right shin. Just writing about it, I can feel the pain today.

A minute later the baby popped up again and through my tears I could see it in his eyes: "How do you like them apples, hot shot?"

Just as I was caving in, just as I was thinking "There are some things you don't actually have to be a man about," and "I wonder how long I'll have to use a crutch," I was saved by the dimming of the lights and the onset of the previews.

I speculate that the baby went on to become a serial killer or something equally appropriate to his personality.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

She'd Cut Your Throat for an Overtrick

In 1965, preparatory to heading for Vietnam, I was transferred to Corpus Christi, Texas. During the first few days I decided to check out the local duplicate bridge scene. I went to a club on a night that a game was scheduled and introduced myself. As is customary more or less everywhere, the club found a partner for me, and I was paired with a local gentleman who was at loose ends for that game.

We got along well and had a decent game, although not a great one. Early in the session I was declarer in a hand that seemed to have no particularly unusual dangers, but the result was gruesome. I got slaughtered. I made a note of the board number so I could check the results at the end of the night and learn whether my partner and I had made a bidding mistake, or whether I had played the hand badly, or just what the scoop was.

We finished the last round early and I hunted down the board. A sixtyish woman was playing the hand in exactly the same contract, and her opponents were hacking her to death. I stood behind her and watched. She sensed that someone was behind her, turned around, looked up at me, and said, "Hi, sweetie. They've got me by the ying-yang. (Yes, I know it's yin and yang, but that's what she said.) And so I met Dolly, who is turning over in her grave at the thought of being called "Dolly."

It turned out that the slaughters we had undergone were a "normal" result for that hand, which was an aberration if ever there was one. Our bidding and play had been "normal," and no one did any better.

Dolly and I became bridge partners for the next year or so. She was one of the two best bridge players I have ever been partnered with. She would cut your throat for an overtrick, and found overtricks where most players didn't even think to look, and she defended more tenaciously than General McAuliffe at Bastogne (well, Google it then).

She was a widow and used to her independence, and could be crusty but was generally an entertaining person.

We played together for a year, perhaps a little more, and then I was sent to Vietnam. Thirteen months later I was assigned to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, but a couple of stops were necessary prior to reporting. My car was stored in Corpus Christi, and I retrieved that. It was a 1966 Fiat Spider, a convertible with five forward gears on the floor. It got 40 miles per gallon, but had no acceleration and was not the most comfortable car for a long drive, which I was about to undertake as I planned to drive to Massachusetts for a thirty day leave.

Dolly invited me for a home cooked dinner, my first in more than a year, and it was wonderful. She had a brand new Chevy and a sister in Washington, D.C., and I talked her into making the drive across the country with me - in her car. I bribed her with promises to play at local bridge clubs along the way (we had a national bridge club directory). In the event, we only played once as the drive took just a couple of days. We played at a club in Mississippi, where we were surrounded by friendly people (we came in first).

Several trip-related incidents come to mind:

  • At some point the eastbound Interstate was under repair and we were shunted over to the westbound side, two lanes, one now temporarily eastbound. After a few minutes we encountered an uphill climb. Halfway up, I saw a truck cresting the hill and coming toward us and a car trying to pass it in our lane. We - and that's pretty much everyone on the road - were doing 65 mph and there was no chance he would get past the truck, get behind the truck, or atomize before we met. I went right over the embankment, driving on grass, dodging construction equipment (I do not recall any workmen being present), and braking a little at a time, and was soon able to get back up to the road. By that time we were well on the other side of the hill and I will never know whether that moron killed himself or anyone else.

    Dolly lit a cigarette and never said a word.

  • We needed gas and were on a long stretch of highway with no oases. When it began to look critical I got off the highway and onto the access road, hoping to find a gas station. In a heavily wooded stretch we came across a shack - literally, a shack - with two gas pumps in front of it. I pulled up to the pumps and out came a big, pot-bellied, middle-aged man in overalls. He walked to the front of our car, stopped, looked at the license plate, walked to the back of the car, stopped, looked at the license plate, and walked back to my window.

    "You want gas?"


    "We don't sell gas."

    I speculate that sometime during the preceding hundred years someone from Texas had done something to someone from Mississippi, and it had never been forgotten or forgiven.

    Still on the access road, we finally found a gas station that sold gas, even to Texans. I stopped in front of the pumps and Dolly bounded out of the car and headed for the rest rooms. When we were on our way again she said, "That was the filthiest rest room I've ever been in."

    "What did you do?"

    "Honey, some women are standers and some women are sitters."

  • We stopped briefly in Maryland so I could see my brother Billy, who was in the Navy. I introduced Dolly and Billy, and immediately heard:

    Dolly: "You're too fat."

    Billy: "You're too old."

    That charming exchange ensured that my reacquaintance with my brother was brief, and we were soon on our way again.