Beth Floats Downriver

DSC_0249 (2)

Beth said, “Look out–there’s a rock straight ahead!”  I leaned to look around her, saw the ripple in the water, and pushed my paddle to veer away.  Too late.  The side of the bow hit the submerged rock hard. Beth flew out of the canoe, and I rolled into the river.  I bobbed to the surface and saw her 10 feet away from me.  Actually, I saw her upright head facing me as it floated sideways downriver, a huge grin plastered on her face.

I grabbed a paddle floating nearby, righted the canoe and climbed in.  I went after Beth.  I reached out a hand, shifted my weight away from her to counterbalance the canoe, and pulled her aboard.  I circled back and found the other paddle caught in some reeds at the edge of the Little Miami.

We had set out an hour earlier from a canoe rental shop.  The owner warned us of pirates downstream who would call to us from the shore.  He said, “Make sure you see my sign on the dock before you pull in.  If you pick the wrong place, they’ll take the canoe and leave you to find your way back on your own.  And if you come back without my canoe, I’m gonna charge you for it.  Same thing if you lose a paddle.  Oh yeah, give me your driver’s license.  You can have it back when you return with everything safe and sound.”

I normally wouldn’t have agreed to such odd terms, but Beth looked eager to go.  I handed the man a twenty and my license.

Beth and I had gone to the same grade school and high school, but had never been friends.  During the spring semester at U.D. she sat a few rows over from me in a philosophy class.  She had green eyes, a willowy figure, and a big smile.  I wanted to get to know her better.

Our first date didn’t end well.  I gave her a little kiss as we said goodnight, and she stared daggers at me.  I had crossed one of the lines a Catholic girl still felt obliged to draw.  She surprised me when she agreed to go out again.  We got on much better, and I made sure that I maintained a foot or two of separation between us the whole night.  A week later she stopped me as I turned to leave, closed her eyes and leaned in for a kiss.

That summer we went to movies, family picnics, and jogged together in the evening.  She liked to slip her hand into my back pocket as we walked side by side.

Beth broke things off at the end of August.  We’d had a few arguments, nothing serious.  Her phone call shocked me:  I hadn’t seen any of the usual signs.  She didn’t criticize my clothes, my choice in movies, the crappiness of my rust bucket car.  I didn’t catch her coldly studying me.  My first girlfriend once sat silently and glanced at me out of the corner of her eye as I drove us to a restaurant, toting up my strengths and weaknesses.  The balance had been a negative number.

I had annoyed Beth on a few occasions, and she once accused me of not caring one bit about her feelings.  But she’d never put any distance between us.  I called her back and demanded an explanation for the sudden dump, and she concluded with the following:  “I know I’ll find someone I like better than you.  There are other fish in the sea.”

I saw her once after the fall semester began.  She and a girlfriend crossed the quad in front of me, and Beth stopped to say hello.  I grunted something back, deeply embarrassed and still smarting from her rejection.  She smiled ever so brightly, said a few kind words and drifted away…

No pirates accosted us on a warm day in July as we glided on the current and twisted our way through a few rapids.  We made it to the correct drop-off point without further mishaps, turned in the canoe and paddles and waited for the bus to come.  She and I were still drenched, and the other canoe renters stared at us as we rode back.  Beth and I didn’t feel embarrassed, but held hands and smiled.  It had been an excellent day.

 

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Those Were The Days

 

When I was a kid in the early seventies a song came out called, “Those Were the Days, My Friend”, a nostalgic tune about the passing of youth set to a gypsy arrangement.  My sister Carla and I loved it even though we were too young to have any clue about how it felt to look back and remember the good old days.

I’m old enough now.

I’m also old enough to remember that the 70s were tough for our family.  My Dad got laid off from a manufacturing job in 1975 around Thanksgiving.  Our town went rust belt within a few years, unemployment surged, and the downtown area slowly died as businesses and shops closed.  Folks looked further afield for jobs, and many moved to Texas and Florida.

But I sometimes long to spend one more Friday night at home in 1972, a few years before the economic tsunami hit.  My Dad and Mom would sometimes throw a fish fry, Dad deep-frying perch, bluegills and crappies in pancake batter, Mom making a huge skillet of fried potatoes and onions.  The Hoelschers, my Dad’s sister’s family, might come over for the meal, and it would turn into a celebration.  Dad and Uncle Louie would guzzle beers, Mom and Aunt Mary would gossip about family, and the kids would trade stories about school and play touch football in the front yard.

DSC_0242 (2) Fishing with Jim and Johnny Hoelscher.

Or maybe my family would eat a simple meal of scrambled eggs, potatoes and salad–no visitors.  After washing the dishes, we kids would sit on the living room rug and watch “The Rockford Files” and “The Carol Burnett Show”.  First we’d learn about the evil adults could perpetrate on each other (Con artists and corporations conspired to bilk innocent young women.  A cynical, but warm-hearted detective solved their problems by getting beat up once or twice and driving around town in a muscle car.). And then we’d laugh at silly spoofs (“Jaws” became a skit about plumbers; Carol flushed the Tidy Bowl man when he tried to sing to her from a rowboat floating in a toilet tank).  Mom would make popcorn, and we’d ask for a glass of Coke if the weekly supply, one six-pack, hadn’t already run too low.

Sometimes I spent the evening in my bedroom reading books such as “The Northwest Passage” by Kenneth Roberts.  My sister would play her 45s on her monophonic record player she’d gotten as a discard from our Uncle Bill.  Or she’d snap on her handy transistor radio and listen to Simon and Garfunkel, Bobby Sherman (Julie, Julie), the Beatles, Jim Croce (If I Could Save Time in a Bottle), Jim Stafford (I Don’t like Spiders and Snakes).

If my Dad had some extra cash, we might drive down to Cincinnati to catch a Reds ballgame at Riverfront Stadium.  If we arrived early, we’d park at the stadium and walk downtown to catch a meal at a restaurant.  We’d pass vendors near the ballpark hawking bags of warm peanuts (fresh roasted in metal drums there on the sidewalk) and Reds pennants.  At the game we’d see Johnny Bench in action behind the plate.  Tony Perez played third, Pete Rose right field,  and Lee May first base.  The team wasn’t as good as the mid 70s Big Red Machine (with George Foster, Joe Morgan, David Concepcion bolstering the roster), but the stars of the earlier team could be dominant.  I remember seeing Atlanta’s Hank Aaron smoke a line drive out of the park with the mere flick of a bat.  Juan Marichal, the great Giant’s pitcher, high-kicked, cork-screwed and threw the ball overhand and side arm.  He toyed with the hitters, humiliated them, owned the mound.

If my parents went out on a Friday night, my brother and I wrestled on the living room carpet, played “rug football” in the hall, or played “jump off the throw rug in time or land on your butt”.  We’d also boxed a bit, pulling our punches most of the time.  In other words, we engaged in rough housing that my Mother strictly forbade.  My sister sometimes caught the action in black and white on her Instamatic camera.  I can’t remember if she ever threatened to blackmail us, but she had the goods.

DSC_0241 (2)   Wrasslin’

 

The times were much simpler.  We had one rotary phone, a black and white TV, no dishwasher, no microwave, no air conditioning, no video games, no internet, no movies on demand.  We passed the time by playing cards and board games, watching bad movies on the four channels available to us (Elvis’s Blue Hawaii, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin westerns),  and telling stories about family history (Aunt Margaret discovered that her husband was a cheat.  He tried to hit on one of her sisters-in-law as she walked to work.  Aunt Mary had a long affair with a married man.  Grampa tipped outhouses on Halloween nights when he was a boy.)  We read magazines, newspapers and books.

I don’t remember being bored, and while we didn’t have the happiest household, we had many days of contentment.  But all nostalgia comes from a sense of loss, and I think that mine stems from a desire to return to a time when I had few responsibilities and worries, when my step was springy and my mind worked with greater clarity and curiosity.  And, of course, to times before I fully understood that loss and grief are our inevitable companions as we grow older.

“Those were the days, my friend.

 We thought they’d never end.

We’d sing and dance forever and a day.

We’d live the life we’d choose, we’d fight and never lose.

Yes we were young and sure to have our way.”  

 

God Bless You, Father Shine

The Cincinnati archdiocese assigned Father Shine to our parish as an assistant pastor around 1970.  He had been acting as a hospital chaplain, and before that served as a teacher in a boys high school.  A thin man with a large nose, pale skin, jet-black hair and sunken eyes, he trembled at the pulpit when he delivered sermons.  Sweat slicked his forehead and his hands shook when he raised the host at consecration.  He stammered, “B-b-body, body of Christ,” when he handed out communion.

Most of the congregation understood his terror of speaking in public and forgave him his faltering interpretations of Holy Scripture.  We felt sorry for a well-meaning man trapped in a job that ran contrary to his nature.  We also sensed a sweet nature hidden behind the nerves.  The man was ready to forgive sins in the confessional before a penitent uttered the first word.  He never spoke harshly or with cold judgment, and remained unfailingly patient and kind when dealing with folks one on one.

No one knew how the nuns and head pastor viewed Father Shine, but someone with a cruel streak gave him an assignment designed to torture him:  a sex-ed lecture for the eighth-graders.

We were ushered into the library and told to sit on the carpet.  No one told us the purpose of the assembly, but whenever our two classes gathered it usually meant a tongue lashing from the principal.  We were somewhat rebellious, and our budding sexuality sent one of the nuns into spasms.

It didn’t take much to bring Sister M.M. to her knees to pray for our immortal souls.  One flagrant problem that raised her blood pressure:  some of the eighth grade girls had tired of us boys and decided to take up with seventh graders.  Older hussies were seen walking with younger boys on the playground at lunch.  They held hands.  The horror.  The utter horror.

We were surprised when Father Shine shuffled into the room.  He sat down in front of us, but didn’t say anything for several minutes.  He appeared to be morbidly fascinated by the texture of the carpet.  A nun standing nearby whispered a few urgent words to spur him into action.  He looked up for a split second, returned his gaze to the floor, and wiped his forehead with a trembling hand. The nun whispered again, and Father Shine began his address.

“I taught for a few years at a Catholic school for boys in Cincinnati… Cin-Cin-cin-cin…nati…I, uh, the boys, uh….One day there was a dance.  The boys invited girls from a nearby high school for…girls.  Girls…Uh…I taught boys in Cincinnati…dance…There was this dance and girls were invited to come to our gym and…dance…And the boys, the boys…I taught at this school and…”

At this point Father flushed deep red and slumped to one side.  He covered his face with his hands and his shoulders shook.  I feared that he verged on a nervous breakdown.  The nun stepped in, put a hand on his shoulder and helped him to his feet.  She led him from the room.  End of assembly.

Father Shine recovered and returned to his duties as assistant pastor.  He said masses, heard confessions and visited the sick.  I was glad that his attempt to speak to us about sexual morality hadn’t damaged him in any permanent way, and relieved that we had escaped another tirade about a subject I found troubling enough when contemplating it on my own.  My feelings of relief were premature.

Eighth-grade classes usual went on a spiritual retreat to a park-like Catholic center south of town.  Sister told us, to our chagrin, that our retreat would take place on campus.  Her stern look and threatening tone warned me that my classmates and I would probably need a retreat from our retreat.

A balding priest wearing a black cassock, black shoes and socks, and black plastic framed glasses met with us in the library one morning.  He wasn’t afraid, shy, or embarrassed.  He appeared, instead, to be driven by outrage.  He barked at us for an hour about our sinful natures, and his face turned purple with anger.  He scorned our obsession with sex.  He sentenced us to eternal damnation if we thought about it, masturbated, or allowed ourselves to enjoy accidental sexual feelings that occurred at random moments.  The only Catholics allowed to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh were married couples (heterosexual, it went without saying).  And even these lucky few were supposed to reluctantly engage in the act for the sole purpose of making more Catholics.

He spent the rest of the day with us, “celebrated” a mass featuring a sermon that underlined the grimmest points made in the prior assembly, and glared at us with arms crossed at his chest during a break at lunch time.  Father Damnation appeared to be standing in for a watchful, vengeful God.

The eighth-grade girls stayed away from the seventh graders that day, but resumed their assignations the next week.  We knew that Father Damnation wasn’t coming back.  And most of us had figured out that his reign of terror had been one more attempt to bludgeon us back in line.  There had been plenty of those, and we had grown used to threats and hysteria.

Looking back, I have to say that I’m grateful to both priests.  Father Shine showed me that there were some clerics in the church who genuinely cared for their congregants, who tried their best even when stretched beyond their natural limits.  Father Damnation showed me that the church ranks had their share of crazies and militants that were best ignored.

God bless you, Father Shine.  Get bent, Father Damnation.

Research Animals: Buh-caaaaack–Thunk!

I heard odd stories about the use of animals in research at the University of Dayton when I was a biology undergrad. My wife got her Ph.D. in plant physiology there, and she told me a few more tales.

U.D. is a Catholic school run by Marianist priests and brothers. They taught standards of morality in religion classes as expected, but the clerics’ influence extended to animal physiology labs as well. One doctoral candidate dosed lab rats with hormones. He needed to collect their sperm to analyze the results. He consulted with the university board that dictated rules for animal research, and they told him that the rats, whether they professed allegiance to the pope or worshipped gods of their own, could not be “milked” for their semen. Rodent sexual gratification was not permitted. The only church approved method of extraction was the following: behead the rats with mini-guillotines, dissect their testes, suck out the vital fluids with syringes. Dozens of rats died to further scientific research, but the school stayed true to its interpretation of Catholic doctrine: win-win.

One poor slob continued the research after the doctoral candidate graduated. One evening he came to my wife’s lab upset because he’d lost a decapitated rat before he could extract its semen. Someone had tidied up during one of his breaks, and he came back to discover an empty dissection tray. Judy and Ted, a fellow researcher, told him that his missing carcass had probably been thrown into a dumpster outside the back of the building. Ted and Judy watched from a window and saw the man’s progress, his hesitation to open the dumpster, his desperate scrabbling search through the refuse. Judy asked Ted, “Should we go help him?” The man was Ted’s roommate, but Ted  said, “Nah.”  Some folks chose to work with critters instead of plants, and they got what they deserved.

A biology professor once confessed (probably in a moment of drunken candor) that he drove through the middle of town one day with the arm of a dead simian dangling out the back of his car trunk. The deceased baboon was too large to fit comfortably inside, so the prof had to fold the body and strap the hood down. The arm refused to stay put. The drunken professor marveled that no one even honked a horn as a hairy hand bobbed up and down beckoning to motorists following behind.

He had picked up the dead baboon from Wright Patterson Air Force Base and planned to collect its bones. It had been strapped, while still alive, into a prototype ejection seat designed for fighter jets. Its sudden death came by an abrupt, crunching drop.  The broken body provided data to Air Force engineers about worst case scenarios for pilots making quick exits from their aircraft.

The alcoholic prof had another incident involving a dead baboon. He collected another carcass and dumped it into a vat filled with acid, and put the vat on a burner set low. The plan was to stew the baboon overnight to eat flesh away from bone. The vat boiled over in the wee morning hours while the professor slept blissfully unaware, and a noxious sludge drained through the lab floor, seeped into the ceiling tiles of the room below, ate through them and dripped down. The department secretary came in the next morning and found the department files and her desk coated with toxic, liquefied remains.

The engineering school’s Research Institute received funds from the Pentagon to test aircraft windshields. The military had lost planes and pilots in airborne collisions with large birds. I heard from undergrad engineering students that the experiments involved firing chickens from a cannon at windshields mounted against a wall in the basement of the Institute. I later found out that the chickens were frozen birds bought at a local Krogers, but at the time I assumed that they were alive. When a buddy and I walked by the building we sometimes heard a strange rumbling sound. We imagined hens and roosters rocketing to their dooms.  Ed and I memorialized their final moments by intoning, “Buh-caaaaaaaack—Thunk!”

Class Ring

My Dad did independent contracting jobs in the 1970s to earn extra money.  When I turned thirteen he drafted me as his laborer for glorified donkey work.  I dug ditches for foundations, scraped wood siding on houses before painting them, hauled bundles of shingles up ladders, trundled wet cement in wheel barrows, and cleaned trash and discarded belongings out of abandoned rental units.  He paid fifty cents less than minimum wage, but I knew better than to complain.

Dad landed a cement job the summer before my junior year.  A man who owned a frame house in east Dayton wanted a front porch.  I helped dig a trench for the foundation.  The project was on time and profitable until a neighbor saw that my father hadn’t posted a work permit on the site.  He reported us to the authorities, and they did a surprise inspection after the foundation of concrete blocks had been laid.  They fined Dad and told him that the foundation was a few inches too shallow.  We had to pull out the blocks and dig deeper.  The foundation was reset, and a cement mixer truck rumbled up the street early one morning and poured a load into the wooden forms Dad had built around the foundation.  He and I spread and smoothed the heavy, gray sludge with shovels, rakes and trowels until we had a fairly uniform slab.  The cool, overcast weather kept the cement from hardening quickly.  Dad decided to knock off for lunch figuring that we’d have plenty of time to do the final surfacing work that afternoon.

While we were away the sun came out and the temperature shot up five degrees in an hour.  We discovered when we returned that the cement was nearly rock solid.  He and I worked frantically with our tools but couldn’t properly trowel and edge the slab.  Dad swore at the concrete, at me, at his edger, at the sun.  We all had conspired against him.

The owner refused to pay for the porch.  He knew a shoddy job when he saw one, and so did my Dad.  The next week we took sledge hammers, broke it up and hauled away the debris.  Then we hired a cement mixer to dump another load into rebuilt forms.  This time we stayed on the job until the surfaces were slickly finished on the edges and across the whole expanse of the porch.  At the end of the day the owner finally handed my Dad a wad of cash.

I hadn’t gotten a cent up to that point, but when we got home Dad kept his wallet firmly wedged in his pants pocket.  A few weeks later school started, and the juniors got order forms for class rings.  My sister had gotten one, bought and paid for by my parents a few years earlier.  But Dad’s company was in the process of laying off workers, and our family finances were about to take a severe blow.  I didn’t know how my parents would react when I showed them the photo of the gold and garnet ring I favored.  A few days went by before my Dad spoke to me about the ring.  He grumphed, “I took a loss on that porch job.  That’s why I didn’t pay you.  I’m going to buy you your class ring, and we’ll call it even.”  I nodded in agreement even though I knew that he was shortchanging me.  I figured that something was better than nothing.

Dad got laid off in November right before Thanksgiving.  His former employer mailed him his twenty year pin a few days after giving him a pink slip.  The pin came with a letter thanking him for his loyal service.  Dad decided to turn his back on finding another factory job and attempted to grow his part time work into a full time business.  We scraped along for the next eight months on savings and the cash he brought in from remodeling and light construction projects.

I got the ring and enjoyed wearing it until I lost it midwinter.  It snowed one night in January, and on the following day the weather stayed frigid and dry.  My brother and I fought a snowball battle in the side yard after school, and we had to take off our gloves and use the heat of our bare hands to pack snowballs that held together when thrown.  I bombarded Tony for as long as he was willing and taunted him when he retreated inside.  That evening I noticed that my ring was gone.  I searched my bed covers, the kitchen counter and table, under my bed, on my dresser.  Then I remembered the fight, how cold my fingers had been, how my ring slid up and down easily on my wet finger.  I realized that I must have thrown it off my hand when I whipped a snowball at Tony.

I desperately searched the yard the next morning but couldn’t find it in the melting snow, mud, and needles from a nearby evergreen.  When I went to school I noticed guys twiddling their rings on their fingers, tapping them on tables.  I saw girls wearing their boyfriends’ rings on chains around their necks.

I reported the lost ring to my parents that evening and asked them if it could be replaced.  I wasn’t surprised when the answer was “no”.  They weren’t going to pay for a second ring when I had been stupid enough to lose the first.  I didn’t argue that I had paid for the first with my labor. At that time our grocery supplies came up short by the end of each week, our cars were old and dying, and Mom wore a strained look on her face whenever the topic of finances came up.  A ring could wait.

That spring my Dad gave up on his dream of self-employment.  He couldn’t afford the necessary equipment to make his business profitable enough to support a family.  He took the first of a series of dangerous and unpleasant factory jobs while still doing small projects on the side.  I continued to work for him in the summer.  He bought us lunch and cheap beer for the end of the day, and he paid me fifty cents less than minimum wage.  I took it, saved it.  Something was better than nothing.

I met my first girlfriend while working with Dad building another concrete porch.  Marge brought me lemonade and asked if I wanted a radio to listen to as I shoveled and hauled.  Dad let me off early one afternoon a few weeks later when she invited me to come with her to a swimming pool.  I gave him a look of stunned disbelief as we pulled out of her driveway, and he grinned back.

I spent all the money I earned that summer on dates with Marge and forgot all about buying myself another ring.