The laughter never fades

Father’s Day. A bit pretentious of a title for a holiday, but it is what it is. ‘Dad’s Day’ just doesn’t have the panache – except to me, because I had my dad.

A bit pretentious of a title for a holiday, but it is what it is. ‘Dad’s Day’ just doesn’t have the panache – except to me, because I had my dad.

Dad died in 1986 – now more than half my life ago, which is an interesting realization to come to – I have lived more of my life without his physical presence than with.  In a way, that makes no sense to me.

It’s quite natural to wonder what he would think of the here-and-now; what his family has become, his grandchildren, great- grandchildren – life in general, the world in which we all live.

I don’t need to think too hard to reach a definite conclusion; he would see my life as it is today with a sense of pride, but also a heightened level of amusement and bemusement.

My dad wasn’t highly educated, topping out the formal end of things with a high school diploma,  but he was knowledgeable and well read, a man of continual curiosity about the world.  He would have some definite opinions the recent state of affairs of the country and it would be a blunt, probably sarcastic, enlightening and entertaining – LOL commentary. He would have appreciated his grandchildren’s fairly sophisticated interest in things social and political.

Life would still be pointedly funny, as would he

Aside from all of the typical moments I regret my dad and I  missed getting to share  – the wife and children of mine he never met, my career and creative and milestones, the man I have become – one thing I get oddly  wistful about is the fact that my dad and I never got to sit down in front of a VHS or DVD player and watch funny movies.

That many sound funny as a major regret.

Dad was an aficionado of comedy. He spent the bulk of his working years as a television station film editor in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and then Denver. This was back in the fifties, sixties and seventies, when television was still a fairly new and burgeoning entity, and most places had only four-or-five channels to choose from, and aside from their network programming, had lots of local air time to fill.  TV stations ran a lot of old movies; my father edited them to fit time frames and insert commercial breaks. He loved movies, and did some community theater work himself in his younger, pre-me days. He also made a few appearances in front of the camera at both stations he worked at; as a menswear model in Minneapolis, and for a number of years in Denver as Santa Claus.  Dad was gregarious, willing to try new things and to have fun.

Dad knew comedy.

Most of all, Dad knew comedy and loved a wide array of comedic films and performers. Comedy of all kinds, actually. A favorite stand-up comedian’s appearance on a show noted in TV Guide or the newspaper listings and the television was thus appropriated for that time frame: my first, youthful experiences with ‘appointment television’ were comedic in nature. Comedy (and humor – a distinction, to be sure) and an appreciation for things humorous, was a trait he passed on to me, though we had somewhat divergent viewpoints on what/who was funny, and who wasn’t.

Hence, my regret over his not living to see the home video age come to full bloom.

Born in 1916, Dad’s early experiences with comedy were vaudeville and silent films. He was a fan of silent stars Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, and also the Keystone Cops. When I was a teenager, any public television salute to either of those guys was duly noted and watched by my dad, and since we only had one t.v. in the house, me too.

I easily came to share his admiration for most of it.

Dad’s true passion, the guys he found funniest of all, were Laurel and Hardy. They were his heroes – especially Stan Laurel, the skinny straight-man of the classic duo. My dad did a pretty good Stan Laurel impersonation, and even as a young kid I was aware that I was  seeing a different look in my dad’s eyes when we watched Laurel and Hardy versus other movies or shows.

Stan and Ollie

Nostalgia is funny; sometimes you look back on something fondly, and wonder why, but this is truly not one of those times. I still enjoy watching Laurel and Hardy – probably even more so now that I am older, and grasp far more of the subtle nuances of their humor – the verbal mastery of the language of humor, the pathos in the true to life friendship that their humor (even when absurdist) came from.

I always laughed along with dad when watching Laurel and Hardy; now I know why he laughed much harder at some things than I did.  I now laugh at the same things he did.

Watch a Laurel and Hardy short sometime, and you will see that even the physical, slapstick humor has a certain humanity to it, a gentleness. Chaplin is much the same, and Chaplin  I also get in a much different way now than I did as a kid.  Dad liked Charlie, and even portrayed him a couple of times for costume parties.  He had Chaplin’s waddle and cane twirl down pat.

We did diverge, at times.

In a very different vein, Dad loved The Bowery Boys; I got quickly bored with their antics. Abbot and Costello did nothing for dad, I found them mildly amusing – though they don’t wear as well as the years move on, so maybe my sense of humor is aging like good wine – or my dad’s.

Larry, Moe, Curly. Soitenly.

Dad loved the Three Stooges – about as far removed comedically from Laurel and Hardy as you can get, in some regards. There is little subtlety in the Stooges and their eye poking-head smacking mayhem, but my dad enjoyed them tremendously,  as do I, as do both my sons – his grandsons. There is something timeless in a pie in the face or a poke in the eye.  Don’t believe me?  As an adult, I have, by way of actual demonstration, won a couple of bets on whether or not a pie-in-the-face would get a laugh in most any public setting.

Dad would be proud.

But while I grew up sharing dad’s appreciation for Laurel & Hardy and the Stooges (among others) we parted ways over the Marx Brothers.  I was, and still am, a big fan; dad didn’t really find them funny, which is one thing that has always puzzled me.  All he could say in response to my not-concealed disappointment was that he just didn’t find them all that funny.

Funny how serious a guy can get about a disagreement sbout what is funny with his dad.

Nairobi Trio
Ernie Kovacs Nairobi Trio

As well read and cerebral as my dad was in terms of comedy and satire (both on-screen and in real life) the Marx Brothers would seem to be a natural for him. Oh, he watched some Brothers stuff with me a few times, but it just wasn’t really his thing. When I was in high school, PBS resurrected Groucho Marx’s  ‘You Bet Your Life’ quiz show from the fifties and ran them on Saturday nights. I became hooked, and dad actually found Groucho Marx to be a funny guy, much to my relief and vindication of sorts. He still never really cared for their movies, though. Conversely, when PBS resurrected  Ernie Kovacs old shows, I was puzzled as what Kovacs bits he liked and which ones he really didn’t. The Nairobi Trio did nothing for him, had me in stitches. Subjectivity reigns.

When asked on his deathbed if he was finding it difficult to leave this life, acclaimed actor John

dad jewelry
Dad’s favorite cuff links; comedy and tragedy masks – along with his Laurel & Hardy cuff links, and his comedy/tragedy ring.

Barrymore was quoted as saying, “No. Death is easy; comedy is hard.”

I get that.

Even though we didn’t get to plunk down in front of a t.v. with a handful of classics in black-and-white on DVD, my dad and I shared numerous moments of comedic television brilliance through the 60’s and 70′, and had quite lengthy and spirited debates about who and what was and wasn’t funny.

Comedians were prevalent on television when I was growing up, and not just late night with Johnny Carson; The Ed Sullivan Show, the Carol Burnet Show, Flip Wilson – there was always somebody funny on. He loved (and I came to appreciate) Myron Cohen and Morey Amsterdam; he couldn’t stand Buddy Hacket or Shecky Greene, puzzled over my love for the insult humor of Don Rickles or the confetti-throwing antics of Rip Taylor. We both liked Jonathan Winters, and I could stay up late with him on non-school nights to catch Carson when a comedic favorite was scheduled.

Dad was not so old school that he couldn’t enjoy contemporary stuff: he would sit with me on Monday nights and watch The Monkees. He enjoyed the antics, tolerated the music.  Looking back, this makes more sense to me; while I used to equate The Monkees humor with the Stooges, viewing them now, I see much more of the love and affection of friends evident in Laurel and Hardy.

TV of the time of my youth was something my dad and I got to share.

Here’s Dan and Dick

Sitcoms we mostly agreed upon and enjoyed watching as a family: The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in The Family and M*A*S*H* were favorites.

Dad also loved Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, and my daughter Lindsay, now in her thirties, became a fan watching Laugh In reruns in her teens. She now owns some DVD’s compilations of Laugh In and uses a number of the shows memorable lines regularly in her personal repertoire, which would please my father to no end – probably even more than it amuses me.

SwedishChef
“Eeety beety chunkerdere bork bork bork…”

But the quirkiest bit of humor/comedy that my father and I shared was The Muppet Show.

The Swedish Chef in particular always sent him convulsing with laughter, and he really enjoyed Rolf the piano playing dog. And Fozzie Bear and Kermit, of course.  But the Swedish Chef was a whole different level of gut-buster for my dad.  No, he wasn’t Swedish himself, but marrying into an extended family of Norwegian immigrants and their Swedish cohorts,  he could somewhat identify.  I think.   The Muppet Show aired five nights a week at six-thirty, and if there was a particularly intriguing guest star that night, we had dinner on t.v. trays in the family room – a treat generally reserved for Apollo blastoffs or something equally noteworthy. Or to watch The Muppet Show.

Movies is why I really regret my dad missing out on the home video era.

One of the few ‘grown-up’ movies I ever saw with my dad in a theater was The Pink Panther Strikes Again, starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. My father loved the earlier Pink Panther movies, and thought Peter Sellers was brilliantly funny. I had only seen bits and pieces of the earlier films on t.v. and was unsure what to expect from a whole movie of Seller’s antics.

It was a memorable experience on a whole lot of levels, as I never saw my dad laugh as hard or as frequently as he did that evening in a Denver movie theater.

Two things vividly stand out in my mind from going to sse that film with my father. One is a scene in which Clouseau is chasing a villain, and exits a hotel as the bad guy drives off. Clouseau summons a waiting taxi, jumps in the back seat, and in his French drawl yells at the rotund cab driver to “Fullow that caaaaar.”  The overweight cabbie responds by looking at Clouseau blankly, shrugging his shoulders, then jumping out of the cab and running down the road – following the bad guy’s car. The camera then cuts back to a close up of Seller’s face, mostly his eyes and eyebrows, as Clouseau realizes the result of his order.

It was the late 1970’s, dad had recently had heart surgery, and was laughing so hard I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Seriously, I did.

I could watch that scene a hundred times and laugh just as hard as he did then.

The other thing of note from that film has less to do with my dad, and more with my relationship with my sons. A few years ago I rented the original Pink Panther movie and my sons and I  watched it together. My dad loved one particular scene, and my boys do now too, and they have been able to watch that particular bit over and over via YouTube.

Assassins are trying to kill Inspector Clouseau. One assassin disguised as Clouseau enters his hotel room, while another assassin follows and kills the first assassin, hiding in the bathtub, thinking it is the real Clouseau. When the lovely Russian assassin, Olga, enters, she declares her love for Clouseau and seduces the second assassin in a dimly lit room. He leaves and then the real  Clouseau arrives, moving throughout several rooms turning on lights and turning off others while Olga is doing the same in his wake. He’s befuddled as to what is happening with the lighting and even more surprised when he gets into bed with some “cold hands.” Olga thinks she is with the same man, and a confused Clouseau then escapes to the bathroom, where he now finds the body of the first assassin in the bathtub.

To this point in the scene, there has been no dialogue. Clouseau goes to the phone and calls the front desk, matter-of-factly informing them of what he has discovered.

“Hello?… Yezzz. There eez a beautiful woman in my bed, and a dead man in my bath. Thank you.” Again, a close-up shot of Clouseau’s face – a pause, then his wide-eyed look when he realizes what he has said – the subtle, played straight absurdity of it all, makes the whole scene.

“Heeelo? Izs dis zee front desk?”

That line has become a piece of family folklore.

Whenever we check into a hotel room, one of the Lucker males is sure to pick up the phone and intone, in suave French accent, “Hello?… Yes. There eeze a dead man in my bathtub, and a naked woman in my bed. Thank you.”

With any luck at all, we remember to hold down the button on the phone so the call doesn’t actually go through.

Treasured keepsake hand-me-downs from my dad. Or at least, of my dad.

He would find that wonderfully amusing.

My village elders

It takes a village, and mine was well populated.

Father’s Day weekend is my ‘take stock’ time; gratefulness for healthy, happy, successful-in-their-own-unique-ways children, a self-check on how I’m doing as a father and grandfather.  It is also a time of reflection and a reminder of the men who played the codified  dad and grandpa roles in my life: my dad, Gramps, my pseudo-grandfather Ivar, my uncle Don and stepfather Gary.  The value of what I received from all of them is incalculable  – the sum only as great as it’s multiple, generous parts.

I am simply thankful that I was blessed by having them all.

Along with dad, Gramps, Ivar, Don, and Gary, there are other men that I think about on Father’s Day – gentlemen whose lives intersected with mine in a wide, ongoing array of ways for many years each; they all brought something special to the smorgasbord that is me.

There were Elving, Albert, Art, Cleo, and Harold, helping ride herd on me every Horseshoe Lake summer of my youth. Len, Henry, Win were family by choice, not blood.  Hjalmer and Palmer, father and uncle of boyhood friends and our up-the-street neighbors; master mechanics, guardians of our block.

It’s an impressive roll call, and humbling when I stop to think of all the time and wisdom they invested in me. Each of them played very significant roles in making me into the man – the husband, father, grandfather, teacher, and leader that I am.

The list of tactile, hard skills that I learned from these guys would fill a flash-drive: plumbing, house painting, carpentry, roofing, lumberjacking.  Ivar and would be proud that I still know my way around underneath a sink and can still handle a pipe wrench with aplomb. With satisfaction, Elving would see that with house paint and brushes, I’m pretty damn good at cutting a doorway or window.

The lines of memory blur when I try to place a specific skill to the individual in learned it from. Even so, I learned things then learned that everyone has their own way of doing things. So much the better for me.

Truth be told, it was a village effort.  No matter who may have shown me how to do something, each person added their own take on how to handle, for example, chainsaws, splitting mauls and axes, logging chains and cross-cut saws – among other tools of the wood cutting game, and when and where (and why not) to use each of them.  Knowing the difference between a framing hammer and ball peen hammer is good; skill with each of them, better.  A number of these guys took a hand in teaching me the nuances (and their own peccadilloes and quirks) about how to drive a stick shift, change spark plugs or oil in Detroit’s finest, bait a fish-hook, hoe the weeds from a potato patch, scale and filet a sunfish.

Len showed me how to use a lathe, Albert how to properly seine for minnows, Harold showed me how to whittle. I handsremember each of those initial lessons vividly, and later looks of accomplishment and satisfaction when I showed some mastery at them.  Those were just some of the unique slices of expertise I was served that stand out.  Those guys were all present (and responsible) for so much more.

I also remember others who played lesser, but powerfully remembered roles as additional father figures; Mr. Keuken across the alley, Vic the taxidermist, Joe the bartender, and Birkland the electrician.  That’s how I knew them, anyway, and what everyone else called them. Vic and Joe did have last names, Mr. Keuken and Mr. Birkland had given names.  There was also Ray, the anthropology professor-cum-writing-coach/encourager, and Super Joe the grocer: laughing boisterously is a learned skill

As I peruse this list, I know I am forgetting somebody.

To this day, I tend to get more than a bit peeved with someone when they marvel at some skill I have displayed, or expertise I have shared. “Wow, where’d you learn how to do THAT?”   Their ignorance, my bliss, I suppose. In my days as an employment counselor, I helped develop and then taught a class on skills identification – an easy and fun assignment, as I have significant expertise – and the thrill of acquiring it.

Writing that curriculum came rather easily to me. I saw it as a tribute to all of the men on this list, and quite a few others.

There is a popular meme that makes its rounds on Facebook pretty regularly stating  ‘Well, another day has passed and I still haven’t used algebra.’ I used to  share that attitude, but I now know better. Algebra? Maybe not; but the skills that go into solving equations, the critical thought involved…oh yeah, I use all of that. But I am still lousy at algebra itself. As an English teacher, I constantly have students complaining that (fill-in-the-blank) skill I am trying to impart on any given day will never be of use to them.

Their ‘aha’ moments will come for them. In time.

One more aspect to the men listed above that I have always been aware and in awe of: I wasn’t their sole focus. For the most part, there was no palpable obligation to include me in much of anything; these guys were volunteers in the purest sense of the word.  They had their own children and grandchildren, other things to occupy their time.

The skills were hands-on, as was the problem solving; the lessons often implied, frequently not grasped until after the fact.   Thanks, guys.

If you were to Venn diagram all of the key dads, granddad and facsimiles thereof in my life, the outlying rings – the ‘not in common’ stuff – would be filled to overflowing.   As a village, ‘eclectic’ would be a good name for this tribe. The inner circle – the ‘in common’ – would be full and diverse as well, and would make a good primer for how to live a life: treat people with kindness, respect, dignity. How to develop patience and put it into practice. Do onto others. Help somebody. Follow your gut and your heart, but don’t lose your head doing it. Don’t get frustrated – figure it out. Have faith, live it out.

Clichés?

A good instruction manual for how to live a life.

No, I do not regularly use most of the skills I mentioned here on a day-to-day or even-year-to year basis.  As an urban guy, I don’t have much need to lumberjack anymore, and adjusting a carburetor is not something I will probably ever need to do again. It is unlikely I’ll  anytime soon be needing to shingle a cabin, patch a fiberglass canoe, or lathe a wooden flower vase. Maybe I will someday get a chance to again pilot a pontoon boat. Will I have to treat a maple dance floor with dance wax again? Probably not – but there is always hope in that one.

Oh, I may someday get a chance to play cribbage, or whist again, hopefully.  Or canasta, chinese checkers, mumbly peg, the harmonica.  But I will definitely have to fix another toilet, and there will always be a room that needs a new paint job, something to be repaired or replaced, and each day brings something that needs to be brainstormed, benignly finagled or simply figured out.

I will always write, always need to think.  I will forever need to laugh, need to cry, need to empathize.

This is where the rubber meets the road; because of what I learned back then, refined and cultured through the years, I can dive in with confidence – anytime, ay place, anywhere. I am Mr. Problem-Solver, because of all of these guys

If anybody wonders how I can always say “I got this” it simply because….

I had them.

Climate change your mind, skeptic

People who doubt that mankind has had an effect on the climate of the earth puzzle me. I am a person of faith, and not a scientist, but I am fascinated by science, and the creativity involved, and I do believe strongly in the scientific method.

Wscientific-methodhen well over ninety percent of the world’s scientists agree on something, I think it is foolish to doubt their logic, their methods, or their conclusions are incorrect or politicaly motivated.

The scientific method (question, pose hypothesis, experiment, analyze results, form a conclusion) has a lot going for it in areas aside from science.  But aside from simply accepting the claims of others, there is something I have in my own home that using in simple, accidental, experimentation convinced me that the theories behind greenhouse gasses and climate change are legit.

It’s bacon.

The earth has been hanging around for millions of years, and aside from the natural life cycles of natural pollutants like forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and flatulating cows, it is not unreasonable to believe that a couple of centuries of an industrial revolution pumping all the junk we do into the atmosphere of the planet has had an undesirable effect.

Bacon is a perfect example.

Grab a pound of bacon, throw it in a basic, twelve-inch frying pan, put it on the stove and turn the burner on beneath the pan.  Cook the bacon and then don’t stop cooking the bacon. Let the bacon fry to a crispy brown and then let it simmer to a crispy, charcoal-black shade. Cook the bacon until the bacon no longer is visually identifiable as bacon and scientific-method-editthen keep cooking the bacon until every smoke alarm in the house has triggered in tandem.  Then, turn off the stove, shut off the smoke detectors, let the pan cool down, throw out the bacon char (and probably the pan, too).

Then look up at the ceiling of your kitchen.

That sooty, greasy, glop you see? It’s not going away anytime soon. It will be there, timeless in its heaviness. Just like your favorite roadside diner that still has the same grill and deep fat fryer they have had in place like stucco since 1967.  You have just replicated the classic American diner ceiling in your own kitchen. Ambiance.

Ample proof, and documentable, that global warming is indeed caused, at least in part, by mankind.

Obviously, one pan of bacon is not absolute proof of anything, but if you replicate this experiment, which, according to National Safety Council statistics is done at a steadily increasing rate on a daily basis in America (with statistically alarming spikes on Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day) and extrapolate the results outward mathematically, manmade global warming is easily believable.

Because….bacon.

Oh, and, if you have a textured ceiling in your kitchen, you will also have more faith in the theory that dinosaurs became extinct by being choked,  en masse, not by gasses produced by a huge asteroid strike or volcanic eruption, but by the smoke and grease from billions of wild boars who were barbequed by the conflagration triggered by the aforementioned asteroid.

Try this experimentation yourself, kids, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. As a wise old man once bacon1told me, “Don’t ask a question if you aren’t ready for the answer.” Global warming is real.

The proof is in the bacon. And on the ceiling.

Duty

The old man stood peering down orderly rows of white marble. Matching in color with the rectangular monuments, wisps of his thin, white hair fluttered in the breeze. Two birds chirped from the branches of a distant tree, and in the distance, he could hear a crow. Couching gingerly on sturdily worn knees, he read the names etched in the headstones on either side of him; one he knew, the other, based on sparse, chiseled information, he felt he could have. He stepped back, looked up and down the crisp row of stones, turned on his heel, and stepped between the two, coming to swift attention.

Passersby would have found it a strange sight; an old man, standing at attention between two graves, facing the cleanly polished, unadorned side of other headstones. He would have appeared to be facing the wrong way to read 2_Fort_Snelling_Looking_Southeastanything on them. He was not.

The idea had just come to him to stand, one more time, in formation, with comrades. He had never done, or even thought of doing it, before today, before right now.

He thought back to the fateful end of his basic training as a paratrooper, his last jump from a plane, one final practice jump before his unit was shipped out; the jump where he landed awkwardly, shattered his left leg, ending his dreams of combat, nearly ending his career in the army. Only the intervention of an influential friend of his family kept him from getting the deserved, but loathed,  honorable, medical discharge. One week to the day before his release from the hospital, his unit had jumped behind enemy lines for the first – for some, the last – time.

For three of his old unit, including his best buddy, it was their only jump that counted. Now, here they were, back in formation. It all came back to him.

Three weeks in traction, followed by grueling physical therapy, and he was bound not for discharge, but for a desk job, somewhere. A hard-to-swallow, better-than-the-alternative option. He had hoped to go back to some sort of active duty role with a combat unit, but his leg was too badly damaged for any of that.  He could walk just fine, not totally without pain, but the puzzle pieces that were his left leg would balk at much more extensive rigor. The thought of sitting behind a desk held little appeal, and there were no other logical options.  Then, nearing the end of his hospital stay, he overheard someone in the mess hall mentioning mortuary duty. Unsure of what that meant, but pretty sure it did not involve a desk,  he decided to investigate his prospects there.

The colonel in charge of the unit he was assigned to was skeptical at first; very few men eagerly volunteered for the duty, and of those that did, many couldn’t hack it. The washout rate – even more than in paratroop school, he learned – was high.  He quickly came to understand why, though he never once thought of asking to transfer out. The work was, in almost every regard, as fear-laden, emotionally controlled, as jumping out of a plane had been. Just as difficult, too.

But, more than he felt would ever be the case behind a desk, it was humbly rewarding.

On his first assignment, on a train, escorting a fallen soldier to a small town he had never heard of, he encountered a Navy Chaplain, a slightly older man than he, who was on the same mission as he, for one of his own; a seaman, killed in battle. The two men spent precious hours talking about their respective jobs – their ‘calling’ the chaplain termed. He also said it was their ‘missionary field’ – to serve, spiritually as well as militarily which took the young soldier by surprise. As a boy, he had heard stories in church and had helped collect pennies for, church members doing missionary work – carrying out their ‘mission’ – but he could not bring himself to see his new job in the same light.

Until now, meeting the chaplain, he had considered himself just a soldier, carrying out his orders.  As he was soon to learn first hand, this duty was, to be sure, not just an assignment. Where once he had dreamed of being assigned to dangerous missions, and the potential to be a hero, the young soldier eventually came to refer to his work in the same vein as did the chaplain – this was his mission, in every sense of the word.  As the train rumbled through the night, the two men found they shared many a common bond; big city boys, amused at the naivete of many of their more countrified, fellow raw recruits they had encountered, and whom they now counted as friends unlike those they would ever find in their respective cities.  They shared many of the same experiences growing up; major league baseball games, gritty neighborhoods, subway trains, and cosmopolitan outlooks. They were kindred spirits, and the young soldier laughed at the similarities the two men shared, the stories they told each other.  With the exception of one story the chaplain told him that the soldier could never push out of his mind,  even if he had wanted to.

The chaplain told the younger man of his despair in not knowing what to say to a grieving family disappointed that their son died in a simple training mission, and not in the perceived glory of actual battle. The young man had served honorably and had earned promotions earlier than most of his peers, yet the family, for some reason the chaplain couldn’t grasp, felt cheated. Though it had been a year since he had brought the sailor IMG_7637_1200home to his final rest, the chaplain was still troubled by the family’s reaction, their outright disappointment, and his lack of answers for the man’s family. He wondered, he whispered repeatedly, if time had lessened their disappointment in the fate of their son.

As he listened intently to the chaplain’s story, the young soldier thought he knew something of what he family meant about disappointment, though he could never articulate that at the time. Nor could he tell the chaplain how he came to be there, on that train, escorting home a soldier who had died in battle. Nor could he say anything of the envy he felt – had felt until that moment – until the chaplain’s story of the disappointed family. Suddenly, he felt a little guilty for his misplaced jealousy for a dead man. In the years since, he had thought often of the chaplain, and of that story.

He thought about the chaplain again, standing here, amidst the fallen, grateful for having met him when he did, the first time he had escorted a young man home. He stood there, in the breeze, and let the memories come; the chaplain, the train ride, the young corporal he brought home to his grieving, but appreciative family. The first, nowhere near the last.

Time, and the soldier’s  experiences in the graves registration unit had softened, then eventually erased, his frustrations with never having jumped in combat.

One-hundred-thirty-seven times he had escorted a fallen serviceman home to a family. He had been one only two men in his thirty-man platoon to request to stay in graves registration when his tour was up. The rest had enough after one go around – those that didn’t transfer out early; it was difficult duty, impossible to describe until you had done it – something not for anyone or everyone.  There was no animosity or derision directed towards the men who left, silent admiration for those who stayed.

Bringing the dead home was not something every man was equipped for.

One-hundred-thirty-seven times. Big cities, small towns; the Northeast, the Midwest, the south and the mountain west. He had seen it all, through train windows, and mortuary sedans.  He had stood at attention at gravesides in small family plots alongside country churches, and in obscure corners of gritty, urban cemeteries that seemed to be cities themselves. He had become well-versed in services simple and profound; high masses and elaborate, afternoon-long prayer services.  He knew of being an outsider – the only person in attendance of his skin color, the only one in the room not of the denomination, not versed in the way they sang their hymns, how they said their prayers.  He had seen somber eulogies and been an invited, at times even honored, guest,  at a variety of wakes, reviewals, and repasts.  The routine for any and all of them came naturally to him, and he was determined that every wooden casket he escorted was treated with proper respect. At every destination stop, he was the first one off the train. The short hop from top step to station platform was just like the step out of a plane as a paratrooper.

Only for this duty, he never had a parachute.

After ensuring the dignified removal of each casket from the train, he would meet with the local mortician and escort the soldier to the mortuary. Sometimes the family had gotten word of their arrival and would be at the train station; at other times he carried out his duties in anonymity, contacting the family only after arriving at the funeral home. Over time he became conversant in the routine of the local mortuary staff; identifying the remains, preparation of the body for initial viewing by the family. The decisions laid out for each situation: open casket or closed, dress uniform or favorite suit for interment. Every situation different, every situation the same. No matter where, no matter who.

Death, especially in combat, knew nothing of the victim: black, white, rich, poor, city, country. Death was death, grief was grief. There was a finality as universal and as individual as each soldier he escorted home. The longer his mission, the deeper he felt his duty a calling.  Just as the chaplain had said that first night on the train.

He came to know intimately the unchanging, never-the-same-twice, liturgy of saying goodbye to a soldier: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Hebrew, atheist – every variation of each.  He had heard the 23rd Psalm spoken in more than a dozen native, immigrant languages, and knew who would favor lengthy oratory, who would quickly move through a few prayers and simple readings. Ironically, having no musical talent whatsoever,  for years, he could impress friends and family with his uncanny ability to recognize most any wwii imageChristian hymn by its first four or five notes.

There were standing-room-only crowds, audiences in name only and times of hastily recruited, unknown, volunteer pallbearers.

High church, tent revival, ten-minute graveside homily – he had seen them all. Men of various cloths; elaborate robes, simple, white collars, plain brown suits, and bib overalls. He knew which model rifle an honor guard was using from the clattering of shell casings hitting cemetery grass in the unison of the salute of a graveside volley, and knew instinctively when the trumpet player had never before played ‘Taps’ in public.

He remained, through his life, amazed at the gracious thankfulness expressed by grieving families.

There was often a family gratitude – a realization – that, as tragic as the situation was, at least their soldier, their loved one, was coming home. He lost count of the number of times that family members would tell of another family they knew, who received word of the death of a soldier who was now at rest on some foreign battlefield somewhere, or of a sailor lost at sea, or an airman who went down with his plane. Those families would never have the opportunity, to say goodbye, to have a place, right there in their hometown, to physically grieve.

It never ceased to amaze him that so many of these families that he met in their darkest hours, were aware that they, in a great many respects, were among the fortunate ones. That, he always felt, was the most humbling thing of all.  The wind picked up, the chirping birds had taken flight from shaking branch.  The day was growing cooler, and he smiled.

That was all a long time ago, he reminded himself. He smiled for a moment, remembering his sixtieth birthday, and the atonement gift from his wife and children; a free fall skydive, strapped to a young Marine.

He thought back to his last jump in uniform, and the excruciating pain of his rehab and shattered leg. He thought of the despair known only by a young man who had his dreams suddenly, irrevocably altered by events, and reflected with the wisdom of an old man on how those changes had worked out.

Though he had never fired his weapon at an adversary, he had fought many, sometimes brutal battles; the dignity of returning a fallen soldier was not always smooth, rarely without some sort of unexpected incident or reaction. Ill-fitting uniforms, incorrect insignia, stuck-in-traffic or lost-on-a-country-backroad honor guards were recurring obstacles. There was dealing with the pain, bitterness, or denial of families; the blank faces of young widows whose dreams and plans were now gone and the uncomprehending-the-magnitude small children, fascinated by the pomp of death, confused at the sadness displayed by the adults.

He often thought of a chaplain on a train, and myriad other travelers who, seeing his uniform, would engage him in fascinated conversation until their discomfort of his assignment came into play.

He had fought the battles as he had been ordered, emerged from them all with scars. Victorious and without regret. He had done his duty.

He came to old-man, near-parade rest for a moment, before turning to the headstone of his old friend, where he snapped off a lingering, still crisp salute. He had escorted his buddy only briefly; the walk from the front of the church to the hearse, then from hearse to gravesite.  he valued every moment as no one else could.

There was pride, and great honor in what he had done for all of those years.  No, there were no ribbons, or medals to share with children, grandchildren – none of the stories of heroism that his friends got to tell, that other children and grandchildren got to hear.  But the stories he did have to tell, that he did share with family, friends, were told with solemnity and grace. With dignity and honor. He told people, quietly, and without personal pride, how he did his duty, and why each and every soldier he escorted was deserving of all the respect he could give them in death.

He knew more about finality in all its forms than most anyone and was grateful, thankful of the opportunities he had been afforded, the chance to serve in a special, meaningful way, his fellow soldiers. His fellow man.  Hoping he had been the warrior he needed to be, at the time people needed him, he stood quietly, nodding his head. He was proud of the work he had done, he could admit that to himself. And so he did, for the first time ever.

Then, turning on his heel, he walked steadily between two rows of symmetrical marble stones, and went home.

Statues and Limitations

I am not from Connecticut, and this aint King Arthur’s court – but it is New Orleans, in the national spotlight of late because the mayor orchestrated the removal of four major Confederate War monuments. And I am from Minnesota.

A transplant, my family and I moved here nine years ago – my wife and I becoming inner-city teachers, helping to rebuild one of the worst school systems in America, post-hurricane Katrina. My perspective on the controversy and local angst over the removal of the statues is one of a citizen and a teacher; I see this as a teachable moment. Or rather, a series of them, a long-time in the making, as two of the four monuments I have driven by very regularly over the past nine years.

I’ll be blunt: I think the statues need to go – at least, be removed from their prominent, public locales, and placed in a museum or park, along with some historical context. Especially the first one to be removed – the Liberty Monument, which commemorates a group of white supremacists who tried to topple a biracial post-Civil War government in New Orleans. Why this one had remained in public view for so long is way beyond me.

The others, all of war heroes in various forms, I can at least, on some level, understand a historical attachment to.

Many who are pro-removal speak of the offensiveness of the statues, but I eschew the ‘O’ word, as I think it has been horribly overused as a concept the past few years. Still, not having grown up here, living my entire life with these legacies, I do understand those who are offended by the Confederate monuments and their legacies – real and implied.

As an American (not a Southerner, not a Midwesterner – an American) I find Confederate monuments in general to be more embarrassing than offensive. Embarrassment, coupled with puzzlement: where I am from, we generally don’t commemorate the losers.

In fact, where I am from, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, we commemorate a wide array of folks less imbued with automatic controversy. Those that came immediately to mind included a couple of famous American authors, along with the most famous characters created by one of them, a Norwegian violinist, and a bunch of famous cartoon characters.

I’m talking full-fledged statues here – not plaques or granite markers of some sort.
When mulling over my hometown statuary, a bunch of images lacking names came to mind, so I needed to hit Google for a virtual, refresher-course, tour to refresh my memory, and the wide array of actual statues was a pleasant eye-opener.

I had immediately thought of the statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet, and of the bronze rendition of Minnehaha and Hiawatha together – his most famous literary creations.These were familiar from a childhood hanging around the parks where those edifices stand – in popular, high-traffic parks, where each has stood, independently, for over a century each. Only major point of controversy?  That the depictions of Hiawatha and Minnehaha were ‘not Indian enough’.

Then there was the more recent vintage, twenty years or so, bronze tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald, which stands outside of a hotel I once worked at, and with whom I took a selfie a few years back.

Okay, I am a writer and English teacher; Fitzgerald and Longfellow were gimmes.

I also remembered the statue of Ole Bull, famous Norwegian violinist, erected in 1897, but I had forgotten about the one honoring Gunnar Wennerberg, a Swedish poet and stateman, which dates from 1915 (there is that ‘poet’ angle again). Then there was the biggie: The Father of Waters statue in Minneapolis City Hall.

This behemoth was carved from a block of marble that weighed 44 tons and now covers a large area in the main lobby, under a rotunda, and when I looked up some stats on the statue, I also learned something I did not realize. From the Minneapolis City Hall, self-guided tour, brochure:

‘The Father of Waters” statue features symbols of the countryside the river flows through on its journey from the headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The figure reclines on a Native American blanket and leans against the 1 paddle wheel of a riverboat. He holds a cornstalk, while surrounded by a fish net, alligator, and aquatic turtle, and his head is adorned with a pine cone and leaf wreath. When New Orleans was unable to afford the statue, twelve leading Minneapolis citizens and the Minneapolis Journal presented the “Father of Waters” to the City of Lakes in 1904.’

Added bonus, statue-wise: rubbing dad’s toe brings good luck.

Crossing the Mississippi river to St. Paul, you can seek out any of the dozen or more, life-size bronze statues of various ‘Peanuts’ characters scattered throughout town as a homage to creator Charles Schultz, a St. Paul native. St. Paul is also the hometown of Fitzgerald, and his tribute, and also features a statue of the renowned German philosopher, poet, and dramatist, Johann von Schiller.

Me either.

A most intriguing monument from my hometown is one of particular curiosity, and some confusion, to visitors not from the area (and many locals): a bronze statue, mounted on a wide, concrete base, with a lot of adornment and words of praise, for Thomas Lowry – the father of the Minneapolis streetcar system.

A bit overdone, in a lot of people’s eyes.

Then there is another monument, a bronze statue of Theodore Wirth, considered one of the finest in America. His legacy is secured not only by the parks, but by the four, life-sized, bronze children playing around him…and the one clutching his hand.

Very moving, and playful.

There, of course, the typical variety of memorials to wars fought, and people who worked to build America (Abe Lincoln, Nathan “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” Hale, to name two) along with statues commemorating pioneers, immigrants, and initial white inhabitants – some fodder for controversy amongst indigenous peoples, but largely accepted. There are also a number of paeans, in statue form, to local native populations.

I guess I come from a different statuary environment.

Not that there isn’t some hometown controversy involving some deeply-rooted cultural feelings about symbols, and what they represent; Minneapolis is currently in the process of trying to rename its largest, most prominent lake – Lake Calhoun. This is no small thing in a place that bills itself as, ‘The City of Lakes’ and has thirteen identifiable lakes within its borders.

The lake was named for John C. Calhoun, U.S. Vice President in the 1800’s and strong proponent of slavery; having the city’s largest, most famous, centrally located lake named for a famous secessionist has not sat well with a lot of the local populace for years, but now the park board and the city have moved to change the name of the lake back to its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska (be-DAY’ mah-kah skah).

The move is not without controversy, but is lacking the, at times, overwrought, hand-wringing, angst of doom over any impending loss of ‘cultural heritage.’ In fact, many of the businesses in the cosmopolitan neighborhoods around the lake, that have ‘Calhoun’ as an identifier, have already begun changing their business names.

Changing the name of a lake is a big deal; approval still needs to come from the state department of natural resources, as well as U.S. Board on Geographic Names, due to the implications of changing maps – no small deal. Still, opposition has been limited and fairly tame, compared to the removal of statues in New Orleans. And, as opposed to being a divisive issue, returning the original, Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska is seen as a point of reconciliation with the local indigenous populations, and is strongly supported by a wide array of business, community, and religious organizations.

A far cry from the lack of vocal civic support here in New Orleans.

There have been plenty of individual citizens speaking out here regarding statue removal – perusing either of the local papers, or any of the local broadcast media outlets will get you a plethora of material, but there has been very little said by any of the major civic organizations in town.

This surprises me somewhat, as I believe that much of what is driving the removal of the statues now is largely driven by economic and business realities. I get that groups don’t like to take sides in such things, and don’t want to alienate constituencies, but there is also a part of me that feels someone should be stepping up about why this benefits the community – especially the tourism industry, the largest segment of the local economy.

You see, New Orleans celebrates its 300th birthday in 2018, and has a full slate of events to celebrate, and expects the world spotlight to be shining brightly on the city, generating more tourism, and substantial monetary value to the city. I believe there are many who will benefit greatly from these statues being gone, and by the positive press getting them removed has been generating around the world, but nobody wants to talk about that.

In the meantime, a lot of passion and anger is being stirred up about ‘cultural heritage’ and ‘erasing history’ and nobody seems to want to get involved in giving anything any reasonable, thought-out context.

My adopted city could possibly learn a few things from my hometown.

Schoolyear Homestretch: They Know Not of What They Speak. Or Write.

The discussion in my predominately black, tenth-grade classroom was focused on racism.

We have been working our way through the book A Lesson Before Dying, a wonderful 1994 Pulitzer nominee about a rural Louisiana black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Set in 1947, the story pre-dates the Civil Rights days of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King (the only such benchmarks my students really know) by a decade, and chronicles the effort to see that the accused man dies with a sense of dignity.

Racism is a dominant theme of the story, and a concept that many of even my brightest students tend to incorrectly think is something in the past or, more sadly, not a huge part of their present.

During the discussion on where racism really ‘comes’ from, a black student stated firmly that racism is generally learned from one’s parents – ‘Even black racism.’ This idea was met with murmurs and nods of approval from those that are inclined to jump so forcefully into a discussion like that, but I wanted to point out that that might be a little over-simplified, noting that what parents think or believe doesn’t always transfer to a child and asking my students to think of things they disagree with their parents about. I told my students that I know of plenty of kids who aren’t racist even though their parents seem to be.

This idea was greeted with a few moments of silent indifference until one of the few white kids in the class chimed in proudly with an affirmation of my concept. “I’ve got proof of that, Mr. Lucker!” the kid said earnestly. “I’m supposed to be a fifth-generation KKK Klansman…

….but I’m NOT!”

“That’s…..good, Darren. Thank you for, umm…sharing that.”

The class stared at me, a few with quizzical looks that I can only assume were a reaction to whatever facial expression I had as I stared at Darren* for a moment. Aside from a few nods of agreement, nobody had a thing to say in response, and at first I was more surprised by the lack of reaction than I was the initial comment.

But I’m not. Just another day in the front of my classroom.

My students have a propensity for being obstinate – like most teenagers – but they will dig in their heels ferociously and adamantly defend their version when their take on a turn of phrase is challenged. Two examples from this year stand out.

The first was a sophomore who wrote about an essay commenting on her sister’s positive attitude, and the inspiration the sister provides her younger siblings, including Brenda, my student. She lauded, in worthy prose, her sister’s ‘self of steam.’

Even with provided context, I still had to read it a few times to understand what ‘self of steam’ meant for Brenda.

Discussing her paper with her, I was met with a puzzled look as I tried to explain that what she meant was her sister had a lot of ‘self-esteem’ – even going so far as to having her look up ‘esteem’ in the dictionary. Still, she contemplated, paused, looked at her paper and the dictionary, then looked up at me standing over her and said, distinctly, and with a definite correcting me tone of voice: ”Yeah, it’s her SELF. OF. STEAM, Mr. Lucker…how good she feels about herself.”

And the young woman’s ‘self of steam’ stayed that way in the final draft.

Maybe that’s what my students mean when they say, “Mr. Lucker…you’re blowin’ me!”

But I’m not.

The other top curious turn of phrase also came from a sophomore girl, who noted that when talking about literary point-of-view, it is not third-person-limited and third-person omniscient you need to understand, but rather ‘third- person limited and third person ammunition’ point-of-view.

She too, was left unswayed by logic, or the class handout on her desk we had been reviewing and discussing, or the textbook on her desk, all focusing on ‘third-person-omniscient’ narration.

Carlene was steadfast in explaining ‘third-person-ammunition’ point-of-view – which she actually did quite well.  If you overlook the fact that ‘omniscient’ and ‘ammunition’ are not synonymous. If you do that.

Even in New Orleans, I’m not sure ‘third-person-ammunition’ is a viable legal defense.

And finally…

I had a good chuckle to wrap up the last full week of the year with Ms. W, our school’s lead librarian. (The librarians love me because I bring all my classes there at the start of the semester to teach them about the library; apparently I’m the only English teacher who does that. Plus, I actually assign book reports – hence the initial library-orientation visit. They then know where to go to find the books for their book reports.)

Seems a student came into the library on Friday to return a book that he had checked out in October and found only now while cleaning out his locker. Aside from any pangs of guilt over depriving some other poor student of a book, the return of said tome also probably removed a financial hold from the kid’s record. Fortunately, the fines cease when the fine amount reaches the cost of the book; $16 in this case.

As Ms.W clicked away on the computer showing the book as returned and getting the kid’s holds removed, she said the running dialogue continued as follows:

“Well, at least I hope you enjoyed the book.”

“Eh. It was o.k. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

“But you liked it.”

“It was alright. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

All she could do relating the story to me was laugh about the kid’s ongoing ‘Mr. Lucker made us read a book.’ I shook my head and said ‘So, I suppose I should wear that as a badge of honor?

She continued laughing as she headed for the door, “Why not, Mr. Lucker? Why not?”

All this time I thought I was teaching English, not eastern philosophy. But I guess if the mantra “Mr. Lucker made us read a book” is the primary result of the year, maybe that will enhance someone’s self-of…Eh. You know what I mean.

Eh. You know what I mean.

Conversation

“How many students of yours have been killed?” Her tone was inquisitive, non-invasive.
“A dozen” I replied softly, taking a deep hit on my bottle of Coke.

She sighed, audibly. “At least nine” I clarified. “Nine that I have seen the obit on, story on the news, newspaper article about. Nine.” I was running through the Coke more quickly than usual; it burned going down.  I continued. “That’s one for each school year I have taught in New Orleans. On the plus side, it’s been three years since I added to the list.”

I finished off the Coke, raising the empty bottle. “Cheers.”

“Why’d you say ‘a dozen’?”
“Nine I am sure of, but I have heard of another two, three. Always running into former colleagues and students, always hear, ‘hey – remember x-and-so’? He got shot.”

She sighed again, more uncomfortably. Her voice took on a nervous edge. “How’s that make you feel?”
“I don’t know how that makes me feel.” Easy to answer frequently asked questions.
“Sad.”
“Sadness is part of it.”
Sighing can be far more communicative than one realizes. “It’s not what you signed up for, huh?”
My turn to sigh. “Even if it was, who would believe it would really be…this.”

She took a deep breath, then exhaled. “You saw some of them on the news?”
“Yep.”
“Wow.”
“Ten o’clock lead story, one kid. Morning paper is worse, though.”

This seemed to puzzle her, and I think she had run out of sighs. “Shocking to see a student of yours on the front page?”
“Ahh! My front page students have been perpetrators. Victims inside. Open up the metro section like the bomb squad handling a suspicious package. THAT”S what you want to do along with your morning coffee.”

“Your students ever kill each other?”
“Ohhhhh, no!  My front page alums are in a whole different class. Some are doing hard time, a bunch are doing -various times for various…infractions.”  Gallows humor isn’t always funny.
“How many of those?”
“That, I stopped counting.”

I was drumming my empty Coke bottle against my leg. We stood there, relative strangers, friends of a mutual friend making small talk because we really had nobody else to speak with, both being from somewhere else, originally, and finding our adopted environs to be quite different than anything we had experienced elsewhere. We had hit upon a mutual topic – careers in education. Now, we were each getting one.  Some party.

“Roughly how many kids in ‘I stopped counting’?” she asked, with trepidation.
“Really, I stopped counting. I meant that literally.”

There was nothing more she could ask, nothing more I could say. I could see in her eyes that she was looking for something in mine, but wasn’t finding it. Whatever it was she DID see, she seemed ill at ease with. Not seeing anything resembling an answer, she apparently thought it best to go looking for one.

“How does all that make you feel?” she prodded.
“Angry discouraged pissed off.” It wasn’t so much a varied list as it was a newly-coined, matter-of-fact adjective. “Disturbing thing is, ‘surprise’ isn’t part of it for me anymore.”

That was more than she seemed ready to digest. She found a fresh sigh, punctuated this time with a disbelieving shake of her head. We stood there, awkwardly filling the void of incredulity that permeated the whole concept of what it meant to be an inner city high school teacher. We watched others mingle, laughing at told jokes, work anecdotes. A few seconds passed, maybe an hour – who knows?

I started to speak and she looked at me intently. “I say the same thing every time I see a former student in the news – only thing I can think of to say: ‘What a fucking waste’.”
“Yeah. I bet.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Yeah.”
“Thanks for the insight.”
“Yeah. Nice meeting you.”

What a waste.

To dye for

Easter eggs always make me chuckle. Not the inside-joke or special treat hidden inside a movie or video game ‘Easter egg’ – not the trinket filled, plastic variety, but real, from a chicken, dyed-with-food-coloring-tablets-and-vinegar Easter eggs, in all their splendor.

Some years ago I lived in Marshalltown, Iowa, and was a member of the local Jaycees chapter. We hosted an annual Easter egg hunt on the grounds of the Iowa Veterans Home; a sprawling, hilly landscape dotted with Civil war cannon2cannons and statues of various ilk – ideal hiding places for eggs.

And man, did we hide eggs.

The egg boiling and dying took the better part of the week, as did the stuffing of plastic eggs with candy and trinkets. On the appointed Saturday before Easter, we showed up early in the morning, two hours before the start of the event. Taking care to avoid places rabid egg hunters might trample, we avoided neatly manicured flower beds, but pretty much everything else was in play. We used every nook and cranny of statue bases, shrubs, antique cannons, trees…you get the idea. We had two pickup trucks filled with eggs, and we used the bulk of those two hours making sure things were distributed over a wide area.

When we looked back over the scene from the high ground where the hunt would begin, we could see a smattering of eastereggs3color here-and-there, but for the most part we knew we had concealed the bounty well. Then the kids arrived, roughly one hundred of them, none older than nine. They had their baskets and bags clenched tightly in their hands, the starter got ready with a countdown to let them loose, and long-term Jaycees suddenly flipped their wrists to check their watches, and the starter yelled “GO!”

It was over in forty-seven seconds; an impressive Biblical-in-scope-locust-swarm-in-OshKosh-B’gosh had stripped the grounds of anything pastel in color and/or plastic in nature.

Over. Done.

Clean as a whistle Kids were wandering aimlessly, finding nothing else, carrying looks of everything from utter joy to bewilderment: ‘YESSSSS!” to “I got nothing.”grasss3

In less than a minute.

There were other activities for the kids to partake in elsewhere on the grounds, and as the kids departed, baskets of goodies in hand, some of the Jaycee vets of egg hunts past started strolling the various cannons and statuary, and I overheard multiple variations on a theme.

“How did they find THAT one?!”eastereggs4

“They found the one in the cannon fuse hole.”

“Didn’t think they’d find the one I hid THERE!”

“Yep, they plucked us clean again.”

I have not seen anything like it in the thirty-plus years since.

Since my muse is egging me on…

When my daughter Lindsay was two, we helped her dye Easter eggs, and to her delight but eventual boredom, we whipped up an extra dozen to give to our staff at the small town radio station I managed.

eastereggsThe Thursday morning before Easter, I stuck a whimsically decorated egg into each staff person’s mailbox, including a bright, purple egg into the slot labeled ‘Don Thomas’. In reality, ‘Don’ was Tom Shumacher, a middle-aged, part-time announcer at the station. Uncle Tommy (as we sometimes called him) was a quirky guy with deep bass radio voice and a hearty laugh that got ample use, as his sense of humor and inability to keep a straight face were both easily triggered.

I made the plain, bright purple egg special for Uncle Tommy, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t get his egg confused with one of the eggs for the other staff.

Because Tom’s egg was the only one of the batch that was not hard-boiled.

I had learned that Tom liked hard-boiled eggs, during a conversation about our respective family Easter plans. I figured giving Tom and only Tom an egg would have seemed suspicious, so I came up with the plan to color eggs for all to basically legitimize my prank.

As I envisioned the gag, there were three, highly possible outcomes:
1. He decides to eat the egg at work, cracks it open, makes a mess, we all have a good laugh
2. He takes the egg home, gives it to his (then) wife to make egg salad with, she cracks it open and, as a woman with a droll sense of humor would find her annoyance overridden by the amusement
3. Tom takes the raw egg home, and somehow his teenaged son Patrick gets a hold of it, cracks it open, and responds with confusion

You know what they say about the best-laid-egg/plans.

I had not considered option number four: that Tom, finding the egg to be quite colorful, would bring it to his sister, a resident of a local long-term care facility, to brighten up her room during the holiday season. To top things off, he had also taken with him the little die-cut cardboard chicken to hold the egg (I had put some of those in the mailboxes, too) so the egg could stand on the table in her room for all to see.

Eggsactly what happened.

One of the staff nurses came in later that afternoon, complimented Tom’s sister on how lovely the egg was, to which she replied, “Well, it will just go to waste here, why don’t you take it home for your little girl?” The nurse, very appreciative did just that.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Tom returned to the station the next afternoon to help record some commercials. There were still a number of eggs sitting in mailboxes, which prompted Tom to thank me for the nice purple egg. Keeping a straight face I said, “Oh you’re welcome….” I paused, as comedic timing is everything, before adding, “How was it?”purple-easter-egg-38169082
“I don’t know. I gave it to my sister. Thought her room could use some holiday cheer.”
“Are you headed back over there today?” I asked, hopefully.
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
“Do you think she’ll eat it?”
“No, she doesn’t like eggs and it’s been sitting out.”

I figured I needed to spill the beans (or, in this case, let him in on the intended yoke) to which Tom responded with gut-busting laughter. Once he caught his breath, he calmly said, “I’ll just call over there and make sure the nurses tell her not to eat it.”

He was still laughing.

He made the call, explaining to the nurse that there was a purple egg in his sister’s room he wanted to make sure she didn’t try to eat. There was a pause, Tom waited. A minute later the conversation began anew.
“It’s not? Oh, realllllllly…” he started chuckling. “O.K., thanks a lot.”

He returned the phone receiver to its cradle and, between guttural chortles explained that his sister no longer had the egg, that she had given it to a nurse to bring home to her daughter, and that the nurse in question was off all weekend, not returning until Monday.

By the end of relating his phone call with the care center, he had tears in his eyes from laughing. I was laughing as well, but figured there would be some eventual blowback on this – and there was, but nothing bad. As the story eastereggs5eventually made its way back to us, the nurse brought the egg and it’s holder home, her daughter displayed it on the counter, as mom suggested she not eat it since it hadn’t been refrigerated. The girl agreed, but somewhere along the line, the girl grabbed the egg to show to someone, dropped it, and it went ‘splat’. Child and mother cleaned up minor mess, the mom simply figuring somebody goofed, and colored a raw egg by accident.

By the Tuesday after Easter, the story of the wayward egg had made the rounds of the care center, Tom’s family, and the WYRQ staff, all of whom seemingly found the story more odd and/or dumb than amusing, causing Tom to find it even MORE amusing with every retelling, especially when he related the dialogue, starting with his sister and the nurse.

“That egg you gave me was raw.”
Broken-egg-on-the-floor“I know. I’m sorry. My brother called and told me it wasn’t cooked, but you had gone home already.”
“Why did your brother give you a raw egg?”
“He didn’t know it was raw. It was a gift from his boss.”
“Why would his boss give him a raw egg?”
“I think it was supposed to be a joke.”
“Oh.”

Although, I could have laid a gigantic egg with this gag, Uncle Tommy and I at least amused ourselves (and occasionally, others) with the story for many years after.

And as far as Easter egg stories go, “Ebbeddaebbedaebbedda! That’s albumin, folks.”

raw-eggs

 

 

Ya buy ’em books…

An elementary school I drive by daily is emblazoned with signs announcing their ongoing book fair, and I will admit to a bit of nostalgia.  An only child, books were my constant companions, and book fair time at Horace Mann Elementary in Minneapolis meant my usually-not-overly-indulgent parents were willing to drop a few bucks at my behest.

Good stuff, Maynard.

I tried to indulge my own kids to an extent every time a bookfair rolled around, but those were different affairs – much more than books available for purchase.  Now, as a New Orleans teacher for the past nine years, I have encountered even more of the whole Scholastic book-selling-cases-on-wheels operation. A few years back, I was working at a K-12 charter school.  One afternoon, the delivered carts and cases full of books and related paraphernalia was pretty well in place in our school library, and I got to browse a bit. Many of the young adult titles and series looked familiar, and it was nice to see that many of the various series I remember from their younger days are still around, with new some titles in the series, to boot. (The gang from Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type are still going hilariously strong – bless ‘em.) There was also an admirable selection of classics.

As I roamed our makeshift Barnes and Ignoble, one of the selections on the ‘Adult Bestsellers and Cookbooks’ table caught my eye. It was a cookbook entitled “9 x 13:  The Perfect-Fit Dish – More than 180 family favorites to fit America’s most popular pan.” For the record, had I been asked ‘name America’s favorite pan’ I would have answered, “Sauce”.

Only in America: a cookbook predicated on a specific size of pan.

Sorry, but I couldn’t see this in the same vein as crock-pot cookery, or Dutch oven cooking like we did in Boy Scout days. This is something else entirely. The phrase ‘lame gimmick’ came to mind.

The blurbs on the back cover of the book are intended to be, one supposes, enlightening. To wit:

“A 9×13 pan can do everything from roasting a chicken to baking brownies!”

Really?

But there was more…

“Feast on comfort foods you grew up with, including Beef Stroganoff Casserole and Tuna Noodle Casserole.”

Sure, let’s recycle the gastronomic 1950’s – only in the correct sized pan! Let’s also salvage the word ‘casserole’ from the culinary dust heap. (Personal, two-part aside: 1. I hail from the Midwest, where the term ‘hot dish’ reins supreme over ‘casserole.’ 2. I know of very few people who would make a hot dish in a 9 x 13 pan.  That is what ‘casserole’ dishes are for, Chucklebunnies.)

So continueth the back cover hype:

“Revel in new flavor twists such as Cajun Mac and Cheese and Chocolate Chipotle Brownies.”

Chipotle brownies? Last guy I knew who put spicy herbs in brownies ended up getting two years probation.

But there was additional hype – and we haven’t even left the cover of the book yet:

“Dig into potluck pleasers such as Smokin’ Tetrazzini and Herbed Chicken and Orzo.”

‘Smokin’ Tetrazzini’ falls somewhere between ‘Cajun blackened’ and ‘left under the broiler too long’ while Chicken and Orzo is shorthand for ‘chicken-and-schizophrenic-starch.’  Is it pasta? is it rice? Is it crawling around your plate?

Then there are the recipes – no! Wait! The cookbook opens with a helpful ‘Pan Comparison’ page in which they compare 9×13 pans, covering various and sundry pluses and minuses.

‘Glass or Stoneware’ 9x13s have more pluses than ‘Metal’ 9x13s – but also more minuses; ‘breakable, cannot withstand sudden temperature change’ among them. (Pyrex or Corning Ware anybody?) Chief plusses include ‘Clear glass makes it easy to monitor browning’ and ‘Shows off beauty of gelatin or layered salads’ (except for stoneware, I guess) and then my personal favorite glass-or-stoneware ‘plus’:

“Some pans come with lids.”

Golly, what will they think of next? And why haven’t those pesky metal 9×13 manufacturers gotten on this ‘lid’ bandwagon? They don’t have it listed as a metal ‘plus,’ so one wonders.

And we can’t forget our third category of 9×13 pan, the ever popular…

plastic?

Plastic pans? Containers, maybe. Vessel, receptacle, canister, holder are all reasonable possibilities. But plastic pans? As we like to say in our household, “I don’t think so, Tim.”

The authors state that while plastic 9x13s are ‘good for no-bake recipes, refrigerator salads and freezer desserts’ they do allow in the minus column that they ‘may not be used for baking.’

That’s news you can really use, though there is not a word said about lids and plastic nine-by-thirteens. The authors need a Tupperware intervention, stat!

A bargain at $16.99, even without reading the actual recipes.

Just out of curiosity, I wondered what the book sold for elsewhere, and clicked over to Amazon, where I found not only the edition of the cookbook that we will be selling, but also this rather curious entry:

9 X 13: The Perfect-Fit Dish (In Memoriam Volume III Exclusive Edition) In memoriam?
Volume III?
That is a lot of commemorating.

I kid you not -new and used editions available…but that’s all on-line. Curiously, no mention of just who is being commemorated via cake pan.

Though $16.99 for a 9×13 pan cookbook seems pennywise, but pan foolish.

Hey, it’s all for books for the kids, right?

Judge, jury and…say what again?

Recently called for a month of jury duty, I showed up at the various appointed times, and actually made the next-to-final cut for two different cases, but never got the nod to actually sit on a trial jury.

Not to say I didn’t leave my mark in Orleans Parish Criminal Court.  OPCH

My second day there, I got the call to go upstairs as part of a pool of fifty potential jurors. We were escorted to the courtroom in groups of twenty-five, and for the questioning, I was seated in the top row of the jury box – an interesting comfortable vantage point to the whole voir dire process.

This particular trial was not a typical situation – it was a cold case; nearly twenty years had passed since the crime, and both the prosecution and defense told us they would be relying on the reliability of possibly degraded DNA evidence, and two-decade old memories for testimony. Both sides acknowledged up front that testimony via hazy recollections and recalled memories presented a variety of challenges.

The defendant sat stoically through the proceedings as the prosecution took their turn at interviewing us. He remained that way through the early part of his defense team doing the potential-juror questioning, though by then he had started making more notes on his notepad – adding a few doodles at times.

The prosecution had moved us through all the basic stuff – occupations, background, our attitudes about a variety of issues, what television crime shows we watched regularly. That part surprised me, but apparently this is standard procedure these days in cases of this nature due to the proliferation of the ‘crime show procedurals’ as one of the prosecutors put it. Both sides said they want juries bloodvialsto understand the science of crime fighting via DNA and other forensics is not as cut-and-dried as on ‘CSI and shows of that ilk’ s one of the attorneys phrased it. When asked, most of my fellow jurors and I were in agreement that was all a very reasonable line of questioning, though a few seemed expressed bewilderment that watching TV would be a factor.

It was interesting.

As this was a cold case, both the prosecution and defense took great pains to note that this trial would hinge primarily on witness testimony – twenty-year-old memories and changed relationships. Both sides also asked a series of questions focusing on how we judged people’s trustworthiness, especially after a lot of time had elapsed. When the lead defense attorney got his crack at us, he said right at the start that we may not find some of the defense witnesses to be particularly likable or even all that supportive of the defendant they were testifying for. He was very pointed in asking us if we felt we could still believe what someone had to say, even if our personal opinion of that person was not very high.  Some of my fellow jurors-in-waiting were very uncomfortable with the prospect.

Me? Not so much.

The defense attorney, an African-American man of about thirty-five who had pretty much stuck to confirming questions about my background and neighborhood of residence to that point, finally got around to asking me about how I viewed people and their credibility.

csalesofjustice“Mr. Lucker” he intoned calmly, “Would it be possible for you to accept and believe the testimony of witnesses who may not seem at first glance to be all that credible, and decide the case on that testimony if you didn’t always find them credible?”

“It depends.  I guess a lot of it would depend on the rest of the equation, how much I did or didn’t believe the other side’s witnesses. ”

He looked at me intently, and his tone turned somewhat quizzical, and very pointed. “Mr. Lucker, are you saying you could foresee a trial situation where you didn’t necessarily believe anything that anybody had to say?”

I shrugged. “I teach high school. I deal with that, evvv. ry. -DAY!”

The place erupted in laughter; even the judge was chortling. The court stenographer actually turned and looked at me. The bailiffs seemed especially tickled, as did all four attorneys. The defendant was chuckling as he scribbled away on his yellow legal pad. The defense attorney smiled, shook his head, looked down at his notes briefly before looking back at me, making eye contact and giving me a little ‘good one’ salute before moving on to one of my partners-in-jurisprudence, still smiling and shaking his head.

I made the initial cut down to ten out of our pool, but did not make the final jury. Nor did I get in the last word.

Wrapping up his juror questioning, the defense attorney revisited a few of us who had made the cut down to ten with a series of final questions – though in my case it was more his pre-follow-up-question salutation that was noteworthy: “One more question, Mr. Lucker. We have already established…” he paused dramatically. “That you teach high school….”

william_talman_raymond_burrThe room was again enveloped in laughter, including mine. I returned the attorney’s ‘nice one’ gesture from earlier, and he smiled.

Touché.  I had been Perry Masoned during jury selection.

So while I never did get to provide much service-to-society in the way of fulfilling my civic duty, I did get a good taste of both sides of our judicial system:

I got to deliver the punchline and play the straight man.