The Shirley Temple Effect

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My Dad looked and sounded tough.  Kids in the neighborhood stayed away from our house after he came home from work.  They knew that tempting his wrath was like pulling Godzilla’s tail.

Dad’s dark looks and growly demeanor scared me too, but not as much as they scared my compatriots.  I had an advantage.  I had carefully studied Dad as he watched Shirley Temple movies.

Shirley was a kid star in the thirties.  She had an adorable round face, curly hair, could sing and dance, sided with orphans and disabled children, and thawed the hearts of crusty old men.  You didn’t want to be cast as her birth mother as your part would last about thirty seconds.  (Your character might have good intentions, but rushing down the street to get a cake to your kid’s birthday party could get you run over by a speeding Studebaker.)  Miss Temple would wander the movie world as a homeless child until an arguing couple or a misanthropic hermit adopted her.  She would instill warmth and humanity in her new household and gradually coax her caretakers to take on more positive outlooks.  She achieved miracles and changed hearts with thoughtful gestures and chipper song and dance routines.  She relentlessly delivered the message that life is worth living if you make up your mind to greet each day with a smile.

But the sunny times only lasted so long.  A misguided social worker sporting thickly-rimmed glasses and spinster clothes would steal her away, or a cruel governess would lock her in a cold garret and deprive her of necessities.  These slashes in the tapestry of bliss usually occurred somewhere near the end of the second act.  Shirley would cry out in tears as she was torn from the arms of a loved one: “Grandfather!  Grandfather!” or “Captain, don’t let them take me away!  Please Captain!  Please!”

My father knew that Shirley would find a way in the third act to return to her improvised family.  But he would start shaking at the shoulders during the traumatic scenes.  He lowered his head, sniffled just a bit, and then retreated to the bathroom.  He returned just in time to witness Shirley put a clever plan into action.  He sat back and relaxed as Shirley rejoined Captain January or her Grandfather or her M.I.A. father in the last scene.  Folks would burst into song as the little mop-top led everyone in a tap dance extravaganza down main street to celebrate yet another happy ending!

Dad’s mouth would twitch in a flicker of a smile as the camera zoomed in on Shirley Temple’s twinkling eyes.  America’s sweetheart had ventured forward in time to win yet another victory, and Dad had given himself away.

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The Kindly Sinner: Great Aunt Mary

Wayne Avenue runs downhill from Belmont to downtown Dayton.  Great Aunt Mary lived in a building halfway down the slope in a neighborhood that had once been pleasant.  We three kids climbed vinyl treaded stairs to her second floor apartment, knocked gingerly and waited.  She opened the door with a big smile and invited us in.  She had snow white hair, laugh lines, and a hoarse, rasping voice.  She returned to a large oak table in her dining room, picked up a kitchen knife and cut dough into thin strips.  I asked her what she was doing, and she said, “Making egg noodles”.  She finished quickly, wiped the table and washed her hands.

Time for a tour.  I saw a painting hanging in her living room, a winter scene of a snowy lane, a haloed moon, and frost covered trees.  Beside it hung a still life of roses in a vase.  Aunt Mary saw me looking at them and said, “Those were painted by a nun who used to teach at St. Mary’s parochial school.  She came from Germany and spoke with a thick accent.”

Aunt Mary sat us down on a sofa and asked us questions:  how do you like school?  what do you like to watch on TV? what position do you play on your baseball team? She smiled and listened as we answered and never glanced sideways as if hoping we’d stop talking.  (My grandmother, Aunt Mary’s older sister, had limited patience for me and my brother.  We learned to keep our thoughts to ourselves in Grandma’s presence.)

Aunt Mary fed us supper, and we sat down in front of her black and white television after we finished.  She asked for suggestions and turned the dial to Channel 7.  The Sonny and Cher Show came on.  Aunt Mary seemed bewildered by the odd commotion of the program, but she beamed at us as we pointed at the screen and laughed.  She pretended to like it too.

We knew that Grandma carried a grudge against her sister, but no one explained how it started and why it was so one sided.  Aunt Mary shrugged off Grandma’s snubs and pointed remarks and never struck back.  I asked Aunt Mary one day if she felt hurt by that treatment.  I had been on the receiving end of my grandmother’s spite on a few occasions and feared doing anything that would make her wrath permanent.  But Aunt Mary said, “Oh, your grandmother doesn’t bother me.  She’s always been that way.”

Mom and Dad took us to our grandparents on Sunday nights to visit.  Talk inevitably turned to family history and gossip.  Aunt Mary became the main topic one night.  I heard that she had had an affair with a married man for years and years.  My great aunt and the man were Catholics, and the man refused to get a divorce even though his marriage had long grown cold.  Aunt Mary never made any demands.  She understood that she and “Bill” would get married if the estranged wife died.

Bill suffered a heart attack and exited this world well before his wife.  Aunt Mary never took up with another man, and years later remarked, “To hell with the Church.  I should have married him while I could.”

Homecoming

 

 

 

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Homecoming, graphite and colored pencil (in progress).

 

1989

I took a trip to visit a gallery in Wilmington, Delaware to show my dealer new work and discuss an upcoming show.  I sidetracked to visit a grad school friend and didn’t return home until sunset.  My wife Judy and daughter Annie happened to be outside when I pulled in.  Annie was about 18 months old.

She had fine golden brown hair, and the setting sun crowned her with a shimmering halo as she ran to greet me.  I knelt down, swept her into my arms and carried her back to Judy.

Judy always said that our girl was happy when she was with either of her parents, but loved having all three of us together.  Then all was well in her world.

Alan came along in 1990.  He was a happy baby who smiled and cooed when he woke up from a nap.  He began to explore as soon as he could crawl.  We would put him on the carpet in the living room while we ate supper, and after five or ten minutes I’d get up to find him in the bathroom.  He liked to lay under the sink and stare up at the shiny pipes.

1992

We bought a house in Winter Park in a working class neighborhood.  We’d been living in a tiny rental house in an iffy neighborhood on the south side of Orlando.  Judy and I gave the kids a tour, showed them their bedroom and an addition at the back designated as their play room.  They both looked excited as if they had discovered possibilities for new adventures, and Alan began to run from one end of the house to the other.  He had so much more space now and wanted to extend himself back and forth across it.

A few years later we took Annie and Alan out for a treat. Annie had recently turned six and had just performed in her first dance recital.  A drug store near an Italian ice stand sold toys, so we bought the kids ice cream and little stuffed animals.  Alan chose a panda bear,  and that night he held it tightly in his hand as he fell asleep.

1991

Judy and I slumped exhausted after a long day.  Annie chattered and chased fire flies. Alan, who was teething at the time, sat on a blanket on our front lawn.  He kept crawling to the edge to search for something to stick in his mouth, and I kept vigilant watch to prevent him from gnawing on a twig or a stray piece of gravel.

A fiftyish woman and her husband passed by on their evening stroll. We didn’t know them and exchanged perfunctory greetings.  Folks in the neighborhood held back from getting acquainted as the four of us lived in a rental in a college town–we wouldn’t be there for long.  The couple nearly reached the next yard, but the woman turned back to study our little family.  Her expression turned rueful, perhaps bitter, and she said, “Some day you’re going to look back and realize that these are the best days of your lives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Football at Cape Howl: Blame It on the Band

 

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TV station vans parked near the football field at Cape Howl High School twice in October 2005.  I saw them when I took my son to marching band meetings before football games.  On the first occasion, a reserve linebacker had died that morning in an accident near the school.  He had been riding a motorcycle, and a collision cost him his life.  Mini-cam journalists hoped to coerce heart tugging statements from teammates, cheerleaders, teachers…The second news infestation occurred after police arrested the football team’s head coach for having sex with a sixteen year old girl, a student in one of his classes.  Deputies found a memory stick loaded with pictures of their liaisons.

The team limped through the rest of the year under the guidance of a school dean.  The pool of in-house coaches had been drained earlier in May when an officer walked into a park’s men’s room and discovered an assistant coach gratifying another man with his mouth.  My son reported that opposing fans catcalled the band and the team during away games.  The abuse focused on Cape Howl’s apparent culture of perversion.

A coach hired a few years later decided to turn the program around.  The football team, even when not distracted by hovering news crews, leaned hard toward ineptitude on special teams.  It had become something of a tradition for Cape Howl to allow opposing teams to run back opening kicks for  touchdowns.  They lost a game in the fourth quarter when the Cape Howl long snapper bounced erratic two-hoppers to a kicker on a punt and to a holder on a point after attempt.  Both screw-ups lead to touchdowns for the other team.

The new guy had to come up with a plan to unite his team, to revive flagging spirits.  He didn’t quote military heroes, didn’t call on players to summon their inner fortitude, didn’t shame or threaten them into trying harder, didn’t profess his deep allegiance to higher moral standards.  Instead, he encouraged players to blame the marching band.

His players fumbled, failed to cover kicks, couldn’t protect the quarterback, seldom ran the football for more than two yards, and rarely stopped an opponent with a goal line stand.  Most years they managed to win one or two games.  But none of that was their fault.  The geeks with the instruments were the real culprits.

The band received orders to quit playing music in the stands when Cape Howl had the football.  The coach singled out band members in his classes for humiliation…The first bold steps on the path to victory had been taken…

The team won half of their games that year and qualified for a play off tournament.  No news crews appeared in the parking lot near the football field, and the band no longer played “My Girl” when Cape Howl threatened to score.

Win!  Win!  Win!

 

Fat Ass the Cat: A Feline at Large

An itinerant cat periodically raided our garbage cans back when I was a teen in Dayton, Ohio.  It made a good living.  Evidence:  its padded belly nearly dragged on the ground.  He sauntered slowly from yard to yard, the self-satisfied master of his realm.

We gave him good sport whenever we heard a crash in the garage and found him rummaging in a tipped over can for discarded meat trimmings, potato skins, and chicken bones.  We ran him off, and, if he dared to return to the scene of the crime, sprayed him with squirt guns to disabuse him of his cherished belief that anything within his range was his to eat.

My brother, a born sprinter with a competitive edge, once engaged Fat Ass in a race.  The cat sat across the street with his weight resting on his haunches and  belly.  He groomed himself nonchalantly as if nothing in the world could touch him, and Tony decided to shake up the kitty’s presumptions.  Brother slowly approached, and Fat Ass stopped licking its paw.  Tony crouched in a half stoop and suddenly bolted forward.  The cat paused a beat incredulous that he had become the pursued, and finally lumbered into a sloppy lurching gait as my brother rapidly bore down on him.  Tony got within three feet before disaster struck.  Fat Ass juked to the left, and Tony swerved to follow.  The course correction made him lose his footing on a wet patch,  and he wiped out.  The cat smugly studied Tony as he lay on his side.  Brother eventually sat up to examine his torn jeans and bleeding knee, picked himself off the ground and limped home.  (I tactfully did not ask Tony what he planned to do if he’d caught the cat.)

One winter morning I kept hearing whining and crying outside.  Stray toddler?  The noise came from the garage, but I saw nothing and no one when I stepped out into the cold.  The crier called out more loudly as I poked around among the tools, the shelves stacked with old newspapers, and the pile of lumber my Dad had haphazardly stacked in the middle.  I lifted up a board to shift the pile, peered into the shadows underneath and saw Fat Ass.  He had somehow wedged himself between the boards and couldn’t get out.  I pushed a sheet of plywood off to the right and lifted a few two by fours to free him.  But the cat just stared at me.  Perhaps he mistook me for Tony and mistrusted my intentions.

The garage was below zero, and I felt my toes and fingers turning numb as I waited for the cat to accept my offer.  Finally, I turned my back to it and lifted the two by fours higher.  I saw a blur pass through my legs and was about to drop my load when Fat Ass suddenly made a U-turn and darted back under the pile.  He wedged himself in a tight crevice and began to mew sadly at me.  Perhaps he had come down with a case of agoraphobia and preferred a cramped prison to freedom.  Perhaps the whole situation was a con.  Maybe he thought we would adopt him if he acted pathetic (or witless?) enough.

I considered the possibility of leaving the cat trapped in a jumble of lumber until it froze to death. I didn’t want to catch pneumonia trying to convince it to accept the only assistance I was willing to give. But I knew that it would rot in place, and that someone (probably me) would get drafted to clean up the mess when spring arrived and the remains thawed.

I blew on my hands and stamped my feet.  I cursed the cat, shook the boards, lifted and turned my back once more.  Fat Ass shot between my legs and kept going out into the yard.  I retreated inside, put on three sweaters and sat by a heat vent.

A family across the street adopted Fat Ass the next spring, and his girth filled out until he resembled a stubby sausage.  He still considered himself a feline at large, and sometimes stalked prey.  One day I saw him hunkered down as he crawled toward a large gray rabbit.  The bunny nibbled on clover with its back to the cat and seemed unaware that danger lurked nearby.  Fat Ass paused, lifted a paw and took another step closer.  The bunny’s left ear twitched, but it kept munching.  Fat Ass delicately lifted another paw and inched forward.  Bunny’s right and left ears twitched, and he sat upright and thoughtfully chewed. Fat Ass made his move, and the rabbit zigzagged and plunged through a shallow hole under a chain link fence to exit to safety on the other side.  Fat Ass, outmaneuvered and unable to force himself through the gap, pawed on a link and meowed.  Bunny sat a few feet away, clipped off a clover bud, and blandly ignored his former pursuer.  The rabbit’s contempt was palpable.

The Digital World

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A college buddy had a ’68 Rambler with a slant six engine.  He opened the hood and told me, “I love this car.  There’s a foot between the inside frame and the engine on all sides.  I can reach everything…Easiest car to work on ever!”  I studied the motor and identified the distributor cap, the carburetor, oil cap, plugs, generator, and  the coolant hoses.  I didn’t know how to fix one damn thing but had hope that I could learn.  Everything was clearly displayed.

That hope died in 1989 when I bought my first car with front wheel drive, fuel injection, and a computer guided motor.  I pulled over one day when the car began to crawl along at a maximum speed of ten miles per hour.  I opened the hood and scanned a densely meshed jumble of wires, hoses, and vaguely formed metal shapes that filled the engine compartment.  I could barely find the engine housing, and little else looked familiar.

I took the car back to the dealer, and the mechanic told me that my computer chip had decided, for unknown reasons, to go into “emergency creep mode”.  I had bought the car two weeks earlier for three thousand, and a replacement chip the size of a postage stamp cost me an additional two hundred.

My wife bought a p.c. around 1995.  She taught me a few functions, and then let me figure out much of the rest (I was an impatient student easily angered by the eccentricities of a machine I intended to use as a glorified typewriter.).  The computer confronted me with cryptic messages from time to time.  I hated “bad command” the most as any attempt to deliver a “good command” would inevitably lead me into a maze of contradictory and obscure instructions.  A friend of mine followed these instructions on her computer until she erased the hard drive, so I knew better than to trust the intentions of computer designers and code writers.  My response to “bad command” became a short message inviting the computer to perform proscribed sexual acts upon itself.  The computer predictably responded with “bad command”, but I felt satisfaction in knowing that my last action truly warranted censure.

A student walked into the first class this semester thirty minutes late. She didn’t join the group gathered in the middle of the room, but leaned against a table and pulled out her phone. Her face settled into a familiar smug expression: she had entered her digital domain where her preferences were anticipated and reaffirmed. My explanations about items in the syllabus became a distant yammering that she easily tuned out.

I came to a class policy banning the use of cell phones for texting, surfing and video streaming, and paused to watch the late arrival punch buttons on her phone. I said, “Tardy students should pay attention to instructions and put their phones away.” The woman didn’t look up. I said a bit louder, “And late students should learn how to take a hint.” She ignored me still. I muttered, “Well, I guess not.”

 

 

 

Do It Yourself Wedding (With Help)

DSC_0410 (2)34 Years Ago

My wife and I did most of the work getting ready for our wedding.  Judy’s parents lived 12 hours away and couldn’t offer assistance on the spot.  So, Judy and I found a priest happy to marry us, booked a church and reception hall, hired a baker and chose a design for the cake.  Judy went solo and bought a dress she spied in a shop at the Dayton Mall.  We scavenged east side thrift stores for bud vases, located a restaurant supply store as our source for napkins, paper plates and table cloths.  Judy made her bridal veil and arranged bouquets using flowers from our garden.  She also picked Black-Eyed Susans for table decorations.  I designed the wedding program and folded forty origami swans.  (We placed the swans on the tables beside the flowers.)  We didn’t write vows, but picked out Bible passages, a poem and music for the service.

It felt like we did most of the heavy lifting, but we got a lot of help.  Jack, my groomsman, helped us get supplies and set up the hall the day before.  My Dad stepped in and paid the caterers at the reception.  Jack’s wife, Patty, shot the official wedding pictures as a present, and my brother-in-law, Dan, acted as a DJ at the reception.  My grandfather, Joseph Reger, sang a hymn at the wedding ceremony.

There were a few tense moments as we rushed around getting ready.  But Judy and I didn’t argue much.  We were caught up in the excitement of our first mutual enterprise.  And while we wanted the day to go well and to please our friends and relatives, we looked ahead with anticipation.  We reached forward for the real prize of spending our lives together.

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