Santa Fidelis

“‘Twas a Wednesday before Christmas, and all through the mall
tho no children were present, this day topped them all…”

Some twenty-five years ago, I decided to pick up a few extra holiday dollars by taking a part-time job as a shopping mall Santa in suburban Minneapolis. As I was neither the natural size, age or type (nor naturally hirsute enough for the role) I wore a roll of foam rubber beneath my suit, silver nylon beard on my chin, and ended up working mostly the mall’s lower-traffic hours – late morning, midday.

On a very quiet Wednesday afternoon in early December, I was sitting there in my big Santa chair chatting with my college-student, elf-for-the-day Susie, and grad-school student/photographer,  brookdaleholiday2Jen. They, like me, were simply making some extra holiday cash; we were Santaland rookies, all. This particular day, we hadn’t taken a picture in an hour or so, though we did a lot of waving and yelling ‘Merry Christmas’ to assorted passers-by. As the three of us chatted about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a sight that was interesting, but not really of the season: walking towards us down the center of the mall was a tall, young, U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; alongside  him was a petite, simply dressed woman, maybe forty-five, fifty years old.

It quickly became obvious they were indeed headed right for us.

Elf Susie walked cheerfully back to the gate of Santa Land to greet the pair, and I straightened up in my throne and smoothed out my beard – although I wasn’t sure why as I didn’t see any kids. I watched the young Marine, who glanced around nervously, while the woman spoke to Susie.brookdaleholiday1

“O.K. Santa! This young man is next!” chirped Susie merrily, as she swung open the little white picket gate for the youthful Jarhead to pass, as Jen took her spot behind the camera. The Marine walked up to me and I greeted him with my usual “Ho-ho-ho” shtick, to which he replied quickly, coming to crisp, serious attention, “Merry Christmas, sir.”

Their story was short, sweet, uncomplicated. Unless you are a twenty-year-old Marine having his picture taken on Santa’s lap.

The young man was an only child, U.S.M.C. Corporal home on leave, and his widowed mother was very proud of his recent accomplishments: a marksmanship award, three ribbons and a training award. Having her only son home for the holidays was a huge thrill, and, per what the young Marine told me, and what his mother shared with Susie and Jen, she wanted only one other thing in the world for Christmas: nice pictures of her son in full dress blues.

With Santa Claus.

The young Marine told the young women  – and then me – he said had no idea why this particular setting was so important to her, but it was. So thus began a suddenly interesting Wednesday afternoon, just the five of us: Susie, Jen, proud mom, Santa…and the Marine.

This was in the days before digital photography; our pictures were the time-consuming, one-shot-at-a time, Polaroid-you-stick-in-a-cardboard-frame variety – and the young man’s mother wanted nine of them to send out to relatives all over the country. My arm around his waist, the young Marine sat awkwardly but patiently at attention on the arm of Santa’s throne, glancing around nervously.

After the first picture was snapped, he staged whispered to me, while staring directly at the camera, “I’m really sorry about this, sir.”

I smiled, quietly chuckled “ho-ho-ho” as Jen readied the next shot. “Sorry about what?” I asked, robustly Santa-like.

brookdaleholiday4“About doing this, sir. It’s my mother’s idea. I’m a little…uncomfortable.”

“Ho-ho-ho!” I bellowed.

I didn’t much look the part without help, but I could sure play it.

The scene played out, the Marine finally getting comfortable enough to lean into my shoulder a little bit, as Jen continued to focus and shoot, reminding us to smile – which the Marine did only slightly less uncomfortable with each shot. We sat there, his mother beaming with pride while chatting with Susie the Elf, me ho-ho-ho-ing-it-up, trying to help the guy out with his discomfort. After a few shots, I whispered to the young Marine.“O.K., I know this feels silly, but it’s making your mom really happy.”

He glanced at his mother, smiled slightly. “Yes, sir.”

He was loosening up a little, though that was countered a bit as by now as a small crowd was gathering, eyes wide; guess it’s not every day you see a Marine sitting on Santa’s lap. He smiled self-consciously. I made more Santa-small talk while Jen snapped away. “Grow up around here? Afraid you’re going to see somebody you know?” I inquired.

“Yes, sir,’ he said, staying focused on the camera, “I graduated from Park Center.” which was a high school within walking distance of the mall.  I nodded, ho-ho-hoed some more, asked him a few more questions, reminded him a couple more times about how his mother was smiling, talked sports with the young man, while Jen finished getting all of the pictures to the mom’s satisfaction.

It took fourteen shots to get the nine pictures the Marine’s mom wanted (I saved a couple of the botched extras for a time; they were wonderful.). As his mom was paying Jen and newly Marine-smitten Susie (from the fevered looks on many of the women in the crowd, she wasn’t the only one) finished sliding each picture into its candy-cane-and-reindeer-motif cardboard frame, the young Marine stood up, turned toward me, started to salute but then stuck out his hand to shake mine.

“Thank you, Santa, sir.” He said crisply, with just a hint of relief, in what I believe was proper-holiday-Marine-etiquette for the situation.

Then, bag of pictures in hand, proud mother and dutiful, loving son walked off, arm-in-arm back down the mall, as the smiling crowd quickly dispersed.

To my understanding, the young man was probably breaking protocol by wearing his dress blues in such a setting. But in the years since, I’ve gotten the opportunity to tell this story to more than a few Marines to not one objection. Younger Jarheads tend to dressbluehatlook at me quizzically, apparently pondering the obvious ‘what ifs’ if their own situations. Older Corpsmen mostly nod, smiling proudly.

All have agreed at my story punchline: it’s a pretty unique take on ‘Semper Fi’

As for me, every year around this time I read newspaper or magazine articles about mall Santas, the at times heartbreaking requests they get, the funny things kids say, that sort of thing, and I invariably think of twenty-minutes on a long-ago afternoon in a quiet, suburban Minneapolis mall.  Sometimes in conversation, someone will start talking about the best Christmas they ever had, or the favorite present they ever received.

I can always take things in a slightly different direction – with the story of one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a small part in giving.

brookdaleholiday3

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Everything is on the table

Our kitchen table is an heirloom in training.

Sitting alone at this table with open notebook, a pen, and a fresh cup of coffee in the early morning light of day I can, with an angular glance, see the extensive preparation and practice for remembrance that it has already put in. At a mere sixteen-years, the table is hardly an antique – yet its smooth, blonde-maple surface is already pockmarked with the memorable nicks and ruts left by stray utensils and homework-prodding pencils – stray treatises to family,  assorted Christmas cards and letters.

All embossed in memory and maple.

My wife and I assembled the table the first night we lived in a rural, southwestern Minnesota Victorian we had just moved into from big-city Minneapolis; a new board-with-legs for our small-town fresh-start. The nondescript table fit perfectly in our new, multi-windowed, breakfast alcove; perfectly seating the four members of our family.  While we read the instructions, inserting the right bolt into the right hole, our boys, then seven and three, were tucked soundly into sleeping bags in the bare living room, as our furniture still in transit. We labored to assemble the table, determined to have a place at which to properly commemorate our first meal together in our new home and community.

The last screw was secured in the final chair leg just after two a.m.

Today, a decade-and-a-half later, when the southern sunlight of our now-home in New Orleans smothers it, you will see the signs of the life the table has nobly earned in service to our family. Worn spots mark each place setting. Plates and bowls of china, paper, and plastic have been repeatedly set down, slid around, eaten upon, picked up again – sometimes dropped. A knot on one end of the table has dried out, a small crack has now settled into a browned notch out of the edge. If you put your face close to the table’s edge and look at its surface, you can trace the hard-scrabble pencil indentations of the two boys who completed their homework each night 100_49891while mom or dad prepared dinner.

Look more closely and you can find a worn two-digit, kindergarten math problem overlaid with something more algebraic, far more recent.  The ancient nine-plus-three-equals-eight-no-twelve is still bold from the pressing of a hot dog-diameter pencil; the more recent equation made by a more elegant and confident ink pen.

The table has made its way south with us.

A million small lines zigzag the surface;  swooping in graceful curves atop the now-worn maple, resembling a vacant skating rink in January. Every member of our family has triple-axeled this table countless times to the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ of each of the others. It is a spot of triumph, of place of individual and group confession, reflection, renewal. It has hosted countless meals, endless discussions, prompted numerous revelations; it has echoed the laughter of day-to-day  100_4986life, heard the solemnity of nightly prayers of thanksgiving and praise, sorrow and intercession. It has been spilled on, bumped into, lived on, all the while quietly, steadily. Always smoothly supportive.

It has served us well.

Some ten years ago, we uprooted our brood again – this time to New Orleans. The table that once bore mostly pedestrian, traditional Midwestern fare has become attuned to hosting more exotic and at times experimental and quirky meals of gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish.  I am certain the resulting changes in dietary spills and slops has only served to enhance the preservation and aging process of the maple; it is a seasoned patina – the spice of memories – adding character to the worn, blonde, wood

The table is loyal; it has been almost exclusively devoted to our immediate family; guests have usually necessitated a shift to the more expansive, less lived-on, dining room table.  It, too, has stories to tell, but nothing approaching the quantity of those with that our kitchen table could regale us. And now, our time here is coming to a close; both boys have graduated high school, one has completed college as well,  while the younger begins his collegiate experience. We are headed off on new adventures, different adventures.

Our inexpensive-when-purchased, still not priceless, D.I.Y. table will accompany us.100_4979_00

Boys who once needed help to scootch up their chairs now find little elbow room to spare when we are all together. The table’s chairs creak a bit beneath their more considerable heft. Still, neither of them has asked if we will ever get a new kitchen table, or why we just  can’t eat in the dining room. The table has adapted nicely over the last few years from a haven of group work, to more solo time with family members; a boy with a bowl of cereal and spread out newspapers or school project is now more common than then the full-fledged mealtime family foursomes of the past.

The table also spends more time sheltering two aging dogs seeking the relaxing companionship of their boy’s stocking feet –  adept as each has become at absent-minded, foot petting.  Both dogs are equally content to lay there, just soaking in affection, less time frenetically awaiting dropped crumbs from younger, less observant boys,  who used to provide ample treat-pouncing opportunities.

Mealtimes are cozier than they used to be, though this is just a phase of sorts. Our sons have more hectic schedules, and sporadic all-of-us-home home evenings often find us in the living room, munching pizza and binge-watching Netflix – another family ritual once confined to Friday nights, now preciously savored whenever we can scrounge one up. One son still lives at home; mealtimes for three of us frees up some of that vaunted, and coveted, elbow room, though probably to some occasional chagrin on our part.

Soon, the table’s adaptability will again be tested,  as the term ‘table for two’ will be de rigueur.

Someday the table may serve in an entirely different capacity – maybe a first-apartment-hand-me-down for one of the boys, or maybe someday many years down the road and to the 100_4977puzzlement of a spouse, a much-wanted keepsake for one of them.

Not that they are likely to ask about its eventual fate now, but if they do I can just tell them, to their confusion and my satisfaction, that this little kitchen table is, indeed, our heirloom in training.

Santa Fidelis

“‘Twas a Wednesday before Christmas, and all through the mall
tho no children were present, this day topped them all…”

Some twenty years ago, I decided to pick up a few extra holiday dollars by taking a part-time job as a shopping mall Santa in suburban Minneapolis. As I was neither the natural size, age or type (nor naturally hirsute enough for the role) I wore a roll of foam rubber beneath my suit, silver nylon beard on my chin, and ended up working mostly the mall’s lower-traffic hours – late morning, midday.

On a very quiet Wednesday afternoon in early December, I was sitting there in my big Santa chair chatting with my college-student, elf-for-the-day Susie, and grad-school student/photographer,  brookdaleholiday2Jen. They, like me, were simply making some extra holiday cash; we were Santaland rookies, all. This particular day, we hadn’t taken a picture in an hour or so, though we did a lot of waving and yelling ‘Merry Christmas’ to assorted passers-by. As the three of us chatted about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a sight that was interesting, but not really of the season: walking towards us down the center of the mall was a tall, young, U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; alongside  him was a petite, simply dressed woman, maybe forty-five, fifty years old.

It quickly became obvious they were indeed headed right for us.

Elf Susie walked cheerfully back to the gate of Santa Land to greet the pair, and I straightened up in my throne and smoothed out my beard – although I wasn’t sure why as I didn’t see any kids. I watched the young Marine, who glanced around nervously, while the woman spoke to Susie.brookdaleholiday1

“O.K. Santa! This young man is next!” chirped Susie merrily, as she swung open the little white picket gate for the youthful Jarhead to pass, as Jen took her spot behind the camera. The Marine walked up to me and I greeted him with my usual “Ho-ho-ho” shtick, to which he replied quickly, coming to crisp, serious attention, “Merry Christmas, sir.”

Their story was short, sweet, uncomplicated. Unless you are a twenty-year-old Marine having his picture taken on Santa’s lap.

The young man was an only child, U.S.M.C. Corporal home on leave, and his widowed mother was very proud of his recent accomplishments: a marksmanship award, three ribbons and a training award. Having her only son home for the holidays was a huge thrill, and, per what the young Marine told me, and what his mother shared with Susie and Jen, she wanted only one other thing in the world for Christmas: nice pictures of her son in full dress blues.

With Santa Claus.

The young Marine told the young women  – and then me – he said had no idea why this particular setting was so important to her, but it was. So thus began a suddenly interesting Wednesday afternoon, just the five of us: Susie, Jen, proud mom, Santa…and the Marine.

This was in the days before digital photography; our pictures were the time-consuming, one-shot-at-a time, Polaroid-you-stick-in-a-cardboard-frame variety – and the young man’s mother wanted nine of them to send out to relatives all over the country. My arm around his waist, the young Marine sat awkwardly but patiently at attention on the arm of Santa’s throne, glancing around nervously.

After the first picture was snapped, he staged whispered to me, while staring directly at the camera, “I’m really sorry about this, sir.”

I smiled, quietly chuckled “ho-ho-ho” as Jen readied the next shot. “Sorry about what?” I asked, robustly Santa-like.

brookdaleholiday4“About doing this, sir. It’s my mother’s idea. I’m a little…uncomfortable.”

“Ho-ho-ho!” I bellowed.

I didn’t much look the part without help, but I could sure play it.

The scene played out, the Marine finally getting comfortable enough to lean into my shoulder a little bit, as Jen continued to focus and shoot, reminding us to smile – which the Marine did only slightly less uncomfortably with each shot. We sat there, his mother beaming with pride while chatting with Susie the Elf, me ho-ho-ho-ing-it-up, trying to help the guy out with his discomfort. After a few shots, I whispered to the young Marine.“O.K., I know this feels silly, but it’s making your mom really happy.”

He glanced at his mother, smiled slightly. “Yes, sir.”

He was loosening up a little, though that was countered a bit as by now as a small crowd was gathering, eyes wide; guess it’s not every day you see a Marine sitting on Santa’s lap. He smiled self-consciously. I made more Santa-small talk while Jen snapped away. “Grow up around here? Afraid you’re going to see somebody you know?” I inquired.

“Yes, sir,’ he said, staying focused on the camera, “I graduated from Park Center.” which was a high school within walking distance of the mall.  I nodded, ho-ho-hoed some more, asked him a few more questions, reminded him a couple more times about how his mother was smiling, talked sports with the young man, while Jen finished getting all of the pictures to the mom’s satisfaction.

It took fourteen shots to get the nine pictures the Marine’s mom wanted (I saved a couple of the botched extras for a time; they were wonderful.). As his mom was paying Jen and newly Marine-smitten Susie (from the fevered looks on many of the women in the crowd, she wasn’t the only one) finished sliding each picture into its candy-cane-and-reindeer-motif cardboard frame, the young Marine stood up, turned toward me, started to salute but then stuck out his hand to shake mine.

“Thank you, Santa, sir.” He said crisply, with just a hint of relief, in what I believe was proper-holiday-Marine-etiquette for the situation.

Then, bag of pictures in hand, proud mother and dutiful, loving son walked off, arm-in-arm back down the mall, as the smiling crowd quickly dispersed.

To my understanding, the young man was probably breaking protocol by wearing his dress blues in such a setting. But in the years since, I’ve gotten the opportunity to tell this story to more than a few Marines to not one objection. Younger Jarheads tend to dressbluehatlook at me quizzically, apparently pondering the obvious ‘what ifs’ if their own situations. Older Corpsmen mostly nod, smiling proudly.

All have agreed at my story punchline: it’s a pretty unique take on ‘Semper Fi’

As for me, every year around this time I read newspaper or magazine articles about mall Santas, the at times heartbreaking requests they get, the funny things kids say, that sort of thing, and I invariably think of twenty-minutes on a long-ago afternoon in a quiet, suburban Minneapolis mall.  Sometimes in conversation, someone will start talking about the best Christmas they ever had, or the favorite present they ever received.

I can always take things in a slightly different direction – with the story of one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a small part in giving.

brookdaleholiday3

‘Chicken is chicken. Parts is parts.’

A friend recently posted a note on Facebook concerning her young sons voracious appetites, bemoaning the fact that her first-grader could “apparently eat a whole rotisserie chicken by himself!’”

Ahh, rotisserie chicken.

At one time or another, we’ve all had the need for a quick meal. If you are really in a rush, you can go the convenient but less than healthy fast-food route, or you hit the grocery store deli area for something already prepared and ready for you to just grab and bring home. One of the more popular grocery store grab-and-go’s are those golden brown, rotating slowly on the spit chickens.

As they are known in our house, ‘Barbarian Chickens.’

When our now sixteen year old son Will was seven, we picked up a rotisserie chicken for dinner one night. While setting the table, washing hands, etcetera, we put it in the center of the table, and Will stared at it quizzically, sitting there in its black plastic container with the clear top. He knew what it was, but he was used to having his chicken served on a plate, cut up, so was a bit puzzled. His younger brother Sam was non-plussed awaiting whatever was put on his plate.

We opened the steaming carton, cut the chicken up and served it without incident that night; Will ate it without any vehemence whatsoever that night, nor any of the others that we opted for a deli bird.

One chicken night changed that.

Will and Sam had been at daycare, where they had seen a movie in which a character goes glutton and messily gorges himself on a large turkey leg. Having also previously seen a commercial for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in which a corpulent king poses with a large drumstick, Will politely (and ironically) asked if, the next time we had rotisserie chicken, he could eat it ‘like a barbarian’ – ripping the drumsticks off with his bare hands before chowing down.

Seemed like a one-and-done deal to me,so, why not?

A few nights later, we brought home both the boys and a golden brown, hot and juicy chicken fresh off the grocery store Ferris wheel. There was a palpable excitement as we set the kitchen table, and once we sat down and said grace. Will asked if he could he could have at it, and we said yes.

We removed the clear lid of the chicken container, and Will dove in – grabbing the drumstick closest to him and yanking it. And then yanking it again. Fortunately, the bird was tender and easily separated from the bird’s thigh on that second yank. Will looked at it triumphantly for a moment, then dove in doing his best-as-could-be-expected-for-a-seven-year-old Henry VII impersonation, tearing (plucking?) meat from bone with a gleeful smile.

Thus was born, as it is known in this household to this day, ‘Barbarian Chicken.’

Fast-forward some seven, eight years and we were now living in New Orleans. To supplement my teaching income, I was working part-time as a cashier at an upscale neighborhood market that had a large deli department and a loyal following or their prepared foods – expecially rotisserie chickens. The store featured different seasoning combinations of the rotating fowl, and they were quite popular not just for dinner, but as the base for a good New Orleans staple – the stock for gumbo. It wasn;t uncommon for customers to buy five or six chickens at a time.

One night one of our regular customers came in and we were chatting as I scanned her three birds, making a comment that she usually only purchased two. The woman shook her head and told me that they were all destined for gumbo prep, as her kids ‘didn’t like the chicken anymore’ which she attributed to a ‘pickiness phase’ by her three kids, ages eight-to-eleven and lamenting the kids disinterest, as she and her husband both liked the chicken.

“My boys love it when I bring home Barbarian Chicken.” I remarked casually.

“What did you call it?” the woman replied with a laugh as I bagged her fresh asparagus and kale.

Explaining the story to her, she nodded and I could see the light-bulb clicking on. She paid for her groceries, then asked if she could leave her cart behind my register briefly. A few minutes later returning with three more chickens purchased at the deli.

“I’ll let you know how it goes” she said enthusiastically as she headed out the door.

A few nights later she there she was in my line with another load of groceries, sans chicken this time. She said she was glad I was working because she wanted to tell me when I told her  my story about ‘Barbarian Chicken’ she knew she could get her kids into the concept with exactly that sales pitch, and that it had worked like a charm. Her husband found the dinner-table Phillistine angle odd but effective, as their once bored-with-rotisserie chicken-boys chowed down with gusto on the re-branded ‘Barbarian Chicken.’

And they weren’t the only ones.

In my time at the store, I frequently recommended our rotating birds to many a stumped-on-what-to-fix-for-dinner mom, along with the Lucker-family label for the treat. It wasn’t long before store customers were coming up to my register with multiple roasted fowl and reminding me that it was “Barbarian chicken night at our house.”

I wonder if Bananas Foster got started this way?

I no longer work at the market, and the whole gluttonous role play thing is only a memory. Will is now sixteen, Sam thirteen, and on the rare occasions we have barbarian chicken, both boys handle it in a refined manner more reminiscent of Henry Gibson than Henry VII – though they still refer to it by its more romantic moniker.

That’s just how we roll. How the chickens roll.

Or at least, how they rotate.

Like Son, Like Father, Like Wow, Man

“You young kids and your crazy ideas.”

That’s a phrase my thirteen-year old son Sam uses dryly when a topic comes up and I refer to something from the past, or throw in some sort of archaic phrase like ‘groovy’ into a dinner table conversation.

One of Sam’s favorite treats is a cold Dr.Pepper; so much so that he has, on a few occasions, been given twelve packs of the stuff as a birthday present. We limit his consumption of pop to just a couple a week, usually our Friday night family ‘Pizza Picnic,’ and/or if we are at some special event or gathering, so it really is a treat for him, and a gift that keeps on giving.

The other night at dinner my wife and I were discussing coffee, and Sam got to musing about how when he was an adult, he didn’t think he would drink coffee, and would probably stick to Dr. Pepper and root beer as his beverages of choice, adding, that maybe sometime, somewhere along the line, he would want a hot beverage of some sort, but didn’t think it would be coffee.

“Well” I said, “You could always heat up some Dr. Pepper. It’s pretty good that way.”

“Dad, who would ‘heat up’ Dr. Pepper…or any kind of soda?” as he shook his head dismissively.

“We did with Dr.Pepper. Put it in a pan and heat it up, add a lemon slice.”

An incredulous stare and cocked eyebrow were, for a moment, his only response. Then, “Annnnnnnd why would you do that?”

“Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“This was your idea, I suppose?”

“No. They marketed it like that for a while back in the sixties.”

“They did not.” Sam replied dryly, with just a hint of skepticism. He knows this is dangerous ground, as I had, some time ago, proved to him that the Mr. Potato Head toy of my youth was far superior to the plastic, pre-drilled holes version of today, because you needed to use a real potato. (See my post from last August: https://poetluckerate.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/kids-don%e2%80%99t-try-this-at-home-or-not/ )

“You really made…and drank… hot Dr.Pepper?”

“Yep.”

He furrowed his brow as I continued eating. Before adding a dismissive, “You young kids and your crazy ideas.”

One of the great things about the Internet Age is that things like this don’t have to become ‘because-I-said-it-was’ ‘no-way-I-don’t-believe-you’ things; a few keystrokes on the ol’ laptop, and presto!

Proof. It took all of about forty-five seconds.

As his mom and older brother cleared the dinner table, I went to the computer and summoned Sam. He looked at what I had pulled up, shook his head. “O.K. “You young kids and your crazy ideas.” As he walked away he calmly and defiantly stated, ‘I’M not gonna be trying it.”

I smiled with satisfaction, leaned back in my chair. The Internet: “You young kids and your crazy ideas.”

More memorable (and enticing) than warm Dr. Pepper.

Digging in the Dirt Pile of Memories

The other day I was standing on the front porch with my sixteen year old son Will, waiting for his family car pool ride to school, sophomore year now in the homestretch. I was on spring break from my school and was savoring the opportunity for a little morning one-on-one we don’t normally have; younger son Sam and wife Amy were already off to their respective schools.

Mug of coffee in hand, I watched Will sitting on the porch swing, organizing his contemporary teenager-self: loaded, full-size backpack, small, nylon pull-string backpack, insulated cooler lunch bag, personal electronic device (with ear buds dangling from his neck) and cellphone. His school I.D. badge and flash drives dangled on lanyards beneath his beatnik-hearkening goatee. He was texting his girlfriend and I could see him smiling beneath the brim of his ever-present grey baseball cap.

Leaning against the porch post and looking down the block I motioned to the big pile of dirt two lots down; another new home for the neighborhood as the post-Katrina revitalization continues. I jokingly mentioned that the big pile of dirt made me want to “Get some old Tonka trucks and go play in the dirt for a few hours.”

Will finished his text and glanced at the dirt pile. “Do you remember that crane we had in our yard back in Marshall? That thing was so cool.”

I nodded, remembering the homemade wood-and-steel contraption: a small, square, carpet-remnant covered seat attached to a couple of wooden runners hat made it look like a really small sled – except for the two-foot long arm with a two-levered metal crane bucket attached to it. One lever made the crane arm extend, the other made it curve inward like a hand and wrist, which allowed the actual digging to occur. A kid could sit on the thing, dig a hole, swivel around (360 degrees, even!) dig another hole, then another. Homemade and won by Will’s uncle Ted at a church raffle after his own sons were past sandbox stage, we placed it in the sandbox beneath the ‘crow’s nest’ of the big, wooden playset we had built in our backyard when we moved to Marshall, Minnesota – when Will was seven.

Will gleefully dug a few holes in his day with that thing, as did three-years-younger brother Sam. We more than got Ted’s dollar raffle ticket worth out of it.

“You remember that thing, huh? Uncle Ted won that in a church raffle, if I remember correctly.”

“That’s where we got that? From Uncle Ted?”

“I think so.” I nodded, taking a sip of my coffee. Just then, Will got a text from his girlfriend Lien. Without looking up from his cellphone, fingers flying on the tiny keyboard, he added, “That thing was so cool.”

I nodded, and got to thinking…

A few years before the crane, some friends of ours found a swing set being dismantled and put on the curb by neighbors. With their help and a borrowed pickup truck we got it, took it apart and brought it to our yard in south Minneapolis.

Nothing fancy, just two plastic swings on chains, a short sheet-metal slide, a plastic glider and a swinging trapeze. Four-and-a-half year old Will was fascinated by the prospect of the pile of spot-rusted metal actually morphing into a swing set. He would pick up the yellow seats and then stare at the pile of tubing with a quizzical look on his face. But a few dollars’ worth of new nuts, bolts, bushings and three hours of re-assembly later, there it was.

The shiny new hardware stood out more than the rusty old ones, highlighting its age and hand-me-down nature. No matter. It became Will’s pride and joy, the thing that he most looked forward to coming home to. Even after full summer daycare days in the park, with the big swing sets, Will wanted to come home to “his playground.” On Saturdays, Will would take his lunch outside and eat it while sitting on his favorite swing (the one next to the trapeze.) It became a focal point for Will’s friends on the block, and became a trusty companion when they weren’t around. It was also a refuge on those days when the world got a little gloomy, and many were the nights it barely got to rest while dinner was consumed.

Came our first snow, and I hadn’t removed the swings yet. It didn’t much matter. Our parka-clad boy brushed off the seats and got in a few minutes of action before dinner, and another ten or so after, till it just got too dark. The cool air accentuated every creak of the metal, chains and “S” hooks that made it all work. Spring eventually returned and become summer again and Will continued swinging away until we moved, leaving the swing set out on the curb for someone else to claim as their own – which they did within a day.

Once we moved, Will had his big, wooden playset and his gift-crane…

“Here come the Worthylakes.”

Will’s carpool had swung into view from around the corner, and in a few quick seconds he, seemingly in one, fluid motion and without getting tangled in multiple lanyards, effortlessly threw on both backpacks (lunch bag clipped to the big one with a carabiner) adjusted his cap, stuffed his PSP into his pocket, threw his arm (with hand still clutching cellphone) around my neck, gave me a hug and said “Love you dad” before bounding down to the steps and out to the S.U.V. at the curb.

“Love you, bud. See you this afternoon.”

“Bye.” He threw the farewell over his shoulder, hopped into the backseat, gave me a quick wave as they drove off.

I took another sip of coffee and went inside, lacking any old Tonka Trucks ® and figuring I had had my dirt pile enjoyment for the day anyway.

Building a More Varied Vocabulary in 2012, Lesson 1

I recently got another lesson in accidental parenting – one of those I-didn’t-know-he-had-picked-that-one-up from youngest son Sam, nearly thirteen. While driving back to New Orleans from our Christmas in Minnesota, Sam was laying casually in the back of our mini van playing a video game, and something that occurred apparently surprised him. His blurted response?

“Son of a Bisquick pancake!”

I take complete ownership of the phrase, I know where he got it and I smiled with something resembling satisfaction, I suppose, as  (I believe)  I coined the phrase somewhere back around the turn of the century.

But until Sam’s recent vanclamation, I wasn’t aware he had picked up on it, though to be honest, he used the abbreviated version. The full phrase is actually, ‘Well I’ll be a son of a Bisquick pancake!”

To be sure, there are far shoddier rejoinders he could have uttered, and there are much worse (in my opinion) examples of phraseology that have somehow made their way into daily American vernacular and that I hear kids Sam’s age and younger uttering daily: ‘Oh snap’ and ‘Flippin’ coming immediately to mind.

We’ll just add “Son of a Bisquick pancake!” to the Thesaurus of Luckerisms available to the general public. It’ll be dog-eared in the volume somewhere along with these perennial favorites:

FAAA-reee? Did somebody say FAAA-ree?”
“I hear ya cluckin’ big chicken!”
“Hey, buddy! Only one shade of green in this town!”
“Somebody get that, it might be a phone call.”

As it is a far more versatile phrase along the lines of the former (‘FAAA-ree?’ of course referring to any situation where you are getting something for free, and the ever-affirming/esteem building ‘chicken’) and not nearly so limited as the two latter (‘green’ when you’re stuck in traffic behind someone who won’t move when the light changes, ‘phone’ obviously the choice of phrase whenever a phone rings) I see a bright future for this latest ‘Those Linguistic Luckers!’ innovation.

As we are not seeking a copyright, feel free to use it yourself. You’ll be surprised at how quickly and easily it will flow into your daily conversation: “Son of a Bisquick pancake!”

It’s as versatile a phrase as the product it borrows from. Play with the inflection in various forms for better effect and more conversational flexibility. You’ll find the phrase can be used to connote everything from basic surprise, ala Sam, to outright repugnance with someone or something.

And best of all, it’s not like your swearing. ‘I’ll be a son of a Bisquick pancake!’ doesn’t even nudge the needle on the vulgarity meter, so have at it with gusto.

I’ll make a prediction: About a week after reading this, you will use this new-found vocabularic gem without thinking about, and only when you realize what you have said (possibly due to a puzzled look from a fellow conversant) you will place your hands on your hips, and with some sense of wonder/disgust proclaim, to nobody in particular:

“Son of a Bisquick pancake! Lucker did it to me again!”

Post-it-Notes and scrap paper notations from throughout the year that were scrunched up and stuffed in my pants pockets and forgotten about. The ones that didn’t go through the laundry.

One of my favorite overheard  lines of the year: A guy was sitting in a New Orleans restaurant nursing a beer and waiting for his order, complaining that the beer was cheap but wasn’t very cold, when the waitress walked up with his po-boy and said, “Here – wash your beer down with this.”

Things to ponder in the coming year:
There is no ‘I’ in team, there are no carbs in coffee.
Meringue’ is what sits atop a pie; ‘merengue’ is a dance. Both involve elaborate whipping techniques, both are more entertaining with partaken in with a partner.

When I pull underwear out of my dresser drawer, I feel like I’m headed off to camp: my name (well, DAD) is written in bold, indelible Magic Marker on all the tags.

Such is life in the household when you have a teenager who is now taller than you, and wears some of the same sizes in certain apparel. I’m guessing in the next year, my youngest son, soon to be thirteen, will add further to the labeling and sorting dilemma.

One of us is going have to change brands, styles or laundry.

Around here we don’t sort and our laundry as much as we collate and calibrate it.

Speaking of matters familial, one night, while still only fifteen, Will made a statement about something that made no sense to the rest of us. His response to our blank stares and silence?

“I’m thinking ahead here. My paranoia is getting the best of me.”

I know my kids are really getting older when…
I had to bribe soon-to-be-thirteen Sam to play ‘Auto Bingo’ with me on our recent trip home to Minnesota.  Kid won two bucks, really got into it. We had a good time. Well worth the investment.

One of my favorite students is a tall, lanky African-American junior who is an average student, but really picks up on nuance and subtly better than most of his peers.

I stand in the hallway outside of my class during every passing period, and ‘Alan’ almost always greets me at the doorway with a bump-ready fist or a handshake, and a hearty, “Yo, Mr. Luckerwhat’s up?!” to which I one day responded, “My blood pressure.”

This got him to stop in his tracks, think for a moment, and as the light bulb came on over his head, he smiled, shook my hand and his head, replying “Dawg…” with a chuckle as he took his seat.

This has become a near daily ritual, and depending on his mood, the ‘Dawg’ now takes on different inflections and meanings: ‘Dawwwwwg’ with a guttural growl of agreement indicates ‘I hear you man.’ “Dawg!” with a yelp of surprise says, ‘You can’t be serious!’ Dawg…?’ in questioning tone means, ‘What did those ninth graders do now?’

He won’t be in any of my classes when the new semester begins, but I hope we will see each other in the hall from time to time, and that he continues to dawg me. Pun intended.

One of the things I miss about not working in the food service area of the grocery store was getting to take po-boy orders, and hollering them out to the kitchen while I stuck the order on the wheel.

This was especially true when there were a large number of elderly customers around the counter area, because they would always giggle when I hollered out, “Six inch hot sausage – dressed!” as I rang the bell.

Old people are funny when they giggle…just because a bell rings.


Finally…

Just for kicks, one day I ran my blog homepage through a translation website – just to see what it might look like, should any of my Norwegian relatives or long-lost members of my Russian lineage track me down in cyberspace; it has an interesting look in Cyrillic.

It was all fun, but I really liked seeing my blog in Italian. In Italian, I am known as ‘maestro.’

I kind of like that. ‘Maestro’ Mark Lucker. A big ‘thumbs up’ for the romance languages.

Oddly, though, my blog wouldn’t translate into Dutch or Greek – I am apparently incomprehensible to those cultures. This is ironic, as many of my English readers say when reading my stuff, “It’s all Greek to me!”

Now that statement will probably land me in Dutch for perceived political incorrectness.

Let’s hear it for my last official puns of 2011.

Happy New year to you and yours, from me and mine.

Til next year; Ciao, kids!

Past his/my freshness date

My grandson-to-be Felix is, at this writing, some five days removed from his expected due date and still in utero. This, of course, has created much consternation amongst a wide range of folks – most notably his mother, my daughter Lindsay, and his dad Brad.

As is the apparent norm in this modern technological age of ours, the updates on all-things Felix have come via frequent Facebook updates on the young man’s stubbornness in joining us in the world. While Facebook allows wide, quick dissemination of news, it is also provides a wide-open responsorial forum for commentary.

It’s been fun.

For most of us, anyway. Lindsay might just roll her eyes at this stage at any ‘fun’ comments.

Aside from Facebook, text messaging is of course another source of instantaneous checking in. Knowing this, and getting a slight sense of exasperation from Lindsay as the week wore on, I tried to keep my Felix inquiries to just a couple of  light-hearted texts each day.

Brevity was almost as difficult as the waiting is.

Others got in on the act; son Sam the-seventh grader got out of school the other day, immediately flipped on his phone and texted Lindsay this quick query: “Any word yet on my uncleocity?”

A SIM card micro-chip off the old block.

Meanwhile, back at the grandpa-in-waiting’s Facebook homepage, I was endeavoring to keep my peeps posted on the latest goings on and…clarifying a few things to wit:

Mark Lucker
has mentioned a few times, in passing, that now-overdue-a-day first grandchild Felix will be fourth in line to the Lucker throne. Yes, there is, indeed, a Lucker throne – though we refer to it as the ‘king chair’ or ‘birthday chair.’ It is a treasured heirloom that resides in a corner of our dining room until a special occasion, when it moves to the head of the table and the guest of honor gets to sit in it for the day. Sometimes, we even decorate it for said special events. Inquiring minds may or may not have wanted to really know this…

On Thursday, the poet in me took a shot at updating the situation with a kicky and  topical  haiku:

Mark Lucker watched pot not boiling
patience is not my virtue,
overdue grandson! 😉

But Friday, my early morning update showed me to be more antediluvian than my young-and-hip mastery of grandfatherly social networking would indicate:

Mark Lucker just wants to say, to grandson-to-be Felix: “Olly olly oxen free!”

As I had been posting early in the morning, I would get to share these mini-gems with the family before heading out to work. My ‘olly olly oxen free’ prompted a look of quizzical disdain from Sam, and prompted me to add the explanation, “You know, when you’re playing hide-and-seek…”

“Yeah, I know, dad…but that’s a ‘your generation’ thing. People don’t say that anymore.”

“What? Sure they do. You have to when you’re playing hide-and-seek.”

I’ve never said it, and I never heard anybody say it.” He began blithely pouring milk on his cereal, as I turned to my six-years-my-junior wife for validation.

“Yeah, I don’t think I ever said it. I have heard of it, but Iiiiiiive never said it. Don’t think I ever heard it used.” She took a bite of her raisin bran and continued reading the paper.  Son Will the high school sophomore was, fortunately, still in the shower, and totally missed out on this one.

“Harumph.” I shook my head and headed out the door.

At school, I was relating the story to my colleague across the hall, a fellow English teacher and self-professed word geek just a few years younger than me. She, too, claimed she never said the phrase, nor could she recall ever hearing it in personal H&S usage.

She did  allow hopefully that she had heard it on t.v. or in a movie, “Probably a Leave-it-to-Beaver episode, or something like that.”

‘Something like that.’ A Leave-it-to-Beaver episode.  Sigh.

Gosh, Wally – I mean Felix –  you gotta get cracking and get out here. I am apparently getting more outdated with each post.

Olly olly oxen free, dude.

Quash the squash

We had stir-fry for dinner the other night – with a bit of a new twist; we added some sliced squash to our usual chicken-vegetable combo.

I still don’t like squash.

In this particular instance, nobody really did. As they were fairly large and distinctive, they were easy to pick out from the cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and chicken. Dinner was going smoothly for the four of us, until I made mention of the confirmation of my dislike of squash:

“Goes to what I’ve been saying for years, ‘I never eat food that is also a verb’” I stated with conviction.

Sam, our seventh grader, quickly cocked an eyebrow and looked at me suspiciously. “So then why are you eating chicken?”

“Ummm…”

“Do you really say that – that you don’t eat food that is also a verb?” he continued “…because you eat a lot of foods that are verbs.”

“Yes, I have said that. Mostly in regard to squash and peas” seeing the look in Sam’s eye, I quickly added “but I suppose there are exceptions to every rule.”

“And what about rolls?” Sam was on a roll. ” What about the ribs we had last night? You know, you can rib people. You roll stuff. If you’ve really been saying you don’t eat foods that are also verbs, there is a lot of stuff you shouldn’t be eating.” He continued with his dinner, wearing a smirk of victory.

“That’s right, and what about getting in a pickle” interjected my wife, pseudo-helpfully.

“You do love pickles, dad, and we all like Spam” added Sam. Meanwhile, fifteen year old Will just shook his head and kept on chowing down.

“Got any more of these or would that just be egging you on?” I replied, dryly.

“You’re eating chicken right now. And you do fix steak once in a while.”

“Okay, I see your point. We’re really milking this. Maybe I should just change my saying to ‘I never eat a vegetable that is also a verb.”

“I think so.”

The following night at dinner, the food conversation was briefer.

“Hey, Sam! Did you realize that ‘verb’ is a noun, and…?”

“Yes dad” he said with obvious disdain, “everyone knows that.”

I still don’t like squash.  And some other vegetables.