Lies

Since lying, and its many forms, has lately become a national topic of conversation, I think this would be a good time to write down my take on the practice. So what is lying? For the rigid and strict, any deviation at all from the exact truth is a lie. Truth becomes so elusive as to be non-existent. Everything is a lie, differing only by intensity. Being a storyteller, I reject this persnickety view. My stories are, for the most part, true renditions of what happened, but I will admit to a bit of embroidery here and there just to smooth the flow. Our old Labrador, Lady, didn’t vent great clouds of malodorous gas all the time, only at a few inopportune moments. But which makes for a better story?

I learned to lie at an early age. At first, I wasn’t very good at it.

“Timmy, did you draw on the wall with a crayon?”

“No. I didn’t do it.”

“This is your coloring book and your crayons right next to the drawing on the wall.”

“Uh… Lewie did it.”

Needless to say, I got the swat on the butt, not Lewis. But every now and then, I’d get away with something. I’d swipe unauthorized Oreos out of Mom’s secret cookie stash or get the teacher to believe that I actually did lose my homework. And I was kind of shocked when there were no repercussions. I began to play with the beginning lessons of a life of crime – create an alibi, don’t leave clues, only take a little and it might not be noticed. If Mom was saving a big chunk of chocolate cake, don’t just hack off a piece, but neatly cut a small, horizontal portion out of the middle, then heal the wound with icing. It gives the “I didn’t take any. See, it looks just the same” deception some credibility.

I think the main reason I didn’t develop into a sneak thief and out-of-control liar was that I was pretty happy with what I had. I didn’t envy kids that had more than me and I didn’t look down on kids who had less. I did have a fear of physical violence and dreaded the day when some tough kid would “beat me up.” But I quickly found that it was easier to tell jokes and funny stories to turn around a bad situation than it was to BS my way out.

I got my first real lesson in the Power of the Lie when I was in high school. I was taking a Speech class and our teacher, Mrs. Mabe, was teaching us Debate. Teams of two students would take turns arguing for or against the National High School Debate Topic. In 1963 it was “Resolved: That the United States should promote a Common Market for the Western Hemisphere.” One team was Pro – meaning they were in favor of the proposal, and the other team was Con – they were against it. Not only did you have to construct valid arguments for your side, but support those arguments with quotes from experts. You were expected to root around in the bowels of the library to find these quotes, write them down neatly on 3 X 5 cards, and file them in a little box for easy access.

My Debate partner was a good friend named Steve. We were assigned the Pro side of the question and were given a week to prepare. One session in the library one afternoon showed us the futility of our efforts. Virtually no one – either expert or crackpot – believed at the time that a Western Hemisphere common market was a good idea. That weekend we drove down to Colorado along with some friends to drink 3.2 beer at the State Line Tavern. Under the gaze of a moth-eaten moose hanging on the wall, we formulated a desperate plan. We would lie! We scrounged up a pencil and paper and created four fictitious bureaucrats – two Americans, a Mexican, and a Brazilian – who were very much in favor of a common market for the Western Hemisphere.

In the ensuing debate, the two girls assigned the Con side put up a valiant fight, but we mopped the floor with them. How do you rebut the considered opinion of the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Trade? We were given A’s. But I couldn’t bring myself to feel good about the grade. I had lied and cheated and was getting thumped on the back for it. It was an oddly unpleasant feeling that I didn’t feel like ever repeating. I know there are some people in the world that get an extra thrill when they win this way. I am thankful that they are few.

My next close encounter with contrivance and fabrication came a few months later. A new kid had shown up at Laramie High School. We had a couple of classes together and fell into an easy friendship. His name was Jack and he was from somewhere on the East Coast. I liked him because he was smart, he had an easy laugh, and he was interested in a lot of the same things I was – girls, silly jokes, and the Beatles. As well as all that, he had, in his eighteen years, done some pretty amazing things. He had spent more than a month hitchhiking around Europe. On this trip, he’d lost his virginity to a thirty-five-year-old Italian woman in Rome. Back in the US, he had learned to sail his own little sailboat around the Chesapeake Bay. And he said he had an Uncle who lived near Toronto and trained racehorses. When the Wyoming winter had finally turned to spring and Graduation was nearing, Jack told me he’d written to his Uncle and asked him if he could use two more exercise boys for the horses that summer. And his Uncle had agreed. I was pretty excited about this and got concerned about fixing up my old ’57 Dodge so it could make the trip.

For extra money, I was working at an appliance store as a delivery boy after school. I couldn’t quite figure out why Jack was reluctant to set a date for the trip, but I believed him when he said he had to first work out some things at home for his father. Then one day an older fellow came into the store looking for an inexpensive TV and I overheard him use an unusual, but familiar to me, last name. I introduced myself and asked him if he was Jack’s father. He was, and we had a very interesting conversation. Jack, it turned out, had never been to Europe, had never owned a sailboat, and had no Uncle living in Canada.

How would you feel if you found out that someone you like and trust had been steadily lying to you for months? These were not minor fibs or small distortions to make a true story sound a little better, these were bald-faced lies. I felt totally betrayed. When I confronted Jack, I can’t remember if I was icy and judgmental or loud and angry, but I did make it clear that our friendship was at an end. Punch me in the nose, kick my dog, insult my Mother, but don’t make me feel like a fool. Some things can never be forgiven.

Since that time, with the watchfulness of the once-bitten, I examine even the most harmless statements for accuracy. If you post some accusatory political meme and get back a Snopes fact-check link as a comment, it has probably come from me. Or if you put up some lovely picture on the Internet only to be told that it is obviously Photoshopped, I’m most likely the guy that pointed that out. I pride myself on being the bane of crackpot conspiracy theorists. I may have lost a few friends because of it, but I will never again be anybody’s fool.

The Birthday Pie Tradition

Nearly twenty people had gathered at the house in Denver where I was living. It was my birthday and I had reluctantly agreed to celebrate. Some people adore their birthday and look forward to having their Special Day complete with cake, ice cream, and friends bearing gifts. I am not among them. If I have worked hard to achieve something, when I finally get there I’ll happily dance and sing and blow my own horn. But my birth was a shock to me, rude and unwanted. Here I was floating peacefully in warm amniotic fluid and the next thing I know I’ve been squeezed out into the cold and loud. Then some huge, faceless beast holds me up by the heels and slaps my butt. And I’m supposed to remember this with fondness?

But anyway, there we all were – laughing, drinking, telling stories, and eating far more sugar than was good for us – when someone yelled to me that I had a phone call. This was in the days when there was only one phone in the house and it hung on the wall in the hallway to the kitchen. I picked up the phone and said “hello” but the only sound was the buzz of the dial tone. An arm suddenly shot out at me from around the corner. It was holding a large cream pie.

“Whupp!”

The pie hit me in the face so hard that globs of filling sailed past my ears and speckled the baseboard on the far side of the dining room. As I wiped the stuff out of my eyes, some onlookers were worried that I had a bloody nose but it turned out to be the cherry that had been sitting on top of the pie was now smeared across my upper lip.

I should pause here to explain the tradition of the Birthday Pie.  When I was in my twenties, I began to wonder what being a grown-up man was all about and when, if ever, I was going to get there. I was no longer a boy, but what the hell was I? I decided it was time to cut loose all those childish things. One of the first to go was my birthday. Without making a big deal about it, I just mentally erased “my birthday” from that square on the calendar. I was hoping that it might start a trend – that all the guys who didn’t like having a birthday would all get together for a party every year on Super Bowl Sunday. We’d eat cake and ice cream, give each other joke gifts, drink beer, and watch the game.

I had managed to go for several years without a birthday and I was feeling rather pleased with myself. When the subject came up I’d say’ “Oh, next spring. It’s a long ways away.” So it was with a certain smugness that I drove, on my birthday, from Denver up to Cheyenne to visit some old friends. This get-together had spontaneously turned into a small party with other folks we knew showing up. I remember sitting in an armchair in the living room, discussing Paul Simon’s new album when Jean came sauntering out of the kitchen holding what looked like a small armload of laundry.

“Hey, Tim,” she said, “when exactly is your birthday anyway?”

“Oh it was a couple of months ago. I guess I missed it.”

“That’s not what we heard,” she said as she whipped a dish towel aside. She was holding a lemon meringue pie.

“Happy Birthday!” she yelled as she pushed the pie into my face. Everyone laughed uproariously except her four-year-old daughter Morgan, who started crying.

“It’s not nice to hit somebody with a pie on their birthday!” she wailed.

For several years after that, smacking the honoree with a pie became a necessary part of any birthday celebration in our group of friends. And, of course, one good pie deserves another. If you got one in the face on your birthday, it behooved you to retaliate. The only rule was that you had to wait until the thrower’s birthday to exact your revenge. This required some planning, subterfuge, and a little sneakiness, but the astonished look on your target’s face made it all worthwhile.

At one birthday, my friend Margo surreptitiously slipped a pie out of a secret flap in a gaily-wrapped gift box and smacked me in the face with it. A year and a half later, at her own birthday party, she was laughing with some partygoers in her kitchen when I slipped out of the shadows near the back door and put one in her ear.

It was Margo’s brother Mike who drilled me with that whipped-cream number with the cherry on top. The bizarre thing was that he and I were total strangers at the time. He was visiting his sister and she told him about my upcoming party and the pie-throwing thing. He couldn’t resist the opportunity. Just like me when I walked into Lou’s Sport Shop ten years before,* he just had to hit somebody in the face with a pie and only a relative stranger would do.

It was eight years later and eight hundred miles away when I sneaked into Mike’s birthday party and pushed a chocolate cream pie in his face. Revenge truly is a dish best served cold. And with a nice, crushed Oreo crust.

As for Jean, several years had passed for her and her husband, Jim. They had purchased a house on the north side of Cheyenne and were getting settled in July of 1979 when the first tornado to ever hit Cheyenne roared right through their living room. No one was home but the cat, which hid in the basement and survived, but little more than a couple of walls were left standing. The roof was in the back yard and the garage had disappeared completely. 

When the shock had subsided, they moved what little they had left into a FEMA-provided apartment and began the rebuilding process. Several of their friends who were in the building trades, myself included, were hired to help Jim put up a new house. We slept in the still-intact basement of the ruined house, but ate our meals and hung out in the apartment.

One day in September, Eric, who was doing the plumbing, mentioned that Jean’s birthday was coming up in two days. And I saw my chance to finally retaliate for that original lemon meringue pie that started it all.

“Wait a minute!” my bleeding-heart, do-gooder self spoke up. “After all she’s been through, are you seriously going to hit her with a pie?”

I gave that do-gooder self the Bronx cheer, pushed him into a mud puddle, and went off to buy a frozen vanilla custard pie. Two days later Jean was out buying groceries, the pie was well-thawed, and I was standing next to the front door of the apartment.

She walked in the door carrying grocery bags and saw nothing but onrushing pie. With a good, solid “Whupp!” the debt was paid.

***

*Go to the right-hand column and click on A Pie for Lou

Brother Donald

It is the solemn duty of every older brother to amuse himself by making his younger brother’s life a living hell – or at least as close to that as possible without running afoul of parental concern.  In other words – don’t leave any marks or bruises. For example, if you hold your little brother down and tickle him until he turns funny colors, use your fingertips on his rib cage and not your knuckles.

My little brother Donald is, and was, a pretty even-tempered guy with a sunny disposition and he managed to run this gauntlet of older-brother cruelty relatively unscathed. In fact, I think this positive attitude was probably the best defense for him. The usual older-brother games like “quit hitting yourself” and “follow our pal” rarely resulted in the hoped-for and very rewarding angry blow-up. Don usually enjoyed the attention more than he hated the frustration.

The one truly exploitable area in Donald’s personality was his tendency to believe anything his older brothers told him. We were, after all, his closest blood relations. We wouldn’t be so mean as to tell him outrageous stories and get him to fall for them just for our own entertainment, would we? Well of course we would.

Our pranks on Don were sometimes verbal and at other times they were physical with just enough story to get him to buy in. For example:

“Hey Don, we saw this neat trick on the Ed Sullivan show.It’s a way to make this egg disappear. But we need an assistant. You want to help us?”

“Sure.”

“Great. Get behind this door so nobody can see you. Now put your index finger and thumb through the crack.”

“You’re not going to slam the door on my fingers, are you?”

“No. We promise we won’t do that. So put your fingers through… good. Now I’m going to secretly hand you the egg, you’ll pull it through, and the audience won’t know what happened. Ready? Allikazing, Allikazam! And the egg is gone! Don? You were supposed to pull it through.”

“It won’t fit. It’s too big.”

”Oh I see. Well, don’t drop it, whatever you do. Mom will have a fit. We’re going to go into the kitchen and try to figure it out.”

Fifteen minutes later, Don’s fingers are cramping and we’re in the kitchen saying loudly, “Oh look! Chocolate cake!”

This sort of ploy, with variations, worked equally well with an empty aluminum pie tin held against the ceiling with a broom (“Here, hold this and don’t drop it. There’s an angry black widow spider in there”) and a funnel stuck into his belt (“Betcha can’t let this penny slide off the end of your nose so it drops right into the funnel”). While he is concentrating on the penny he can’t see the pitcher of warm water that is being poured into the funnel).

When he was a few years older, there was a game that he was always eager to play, despite the fact that he never won. It was “Who Can Escape.” We’d get lengths of clothesline cord, rope, or whatever was handy and first he would try to tie me up, then I would escape. Then it was my turn to tie him up and because I was better at knots than he was, he could never escape. How he didn’t realize beforehand that he would then be tickled, taunted, or have imaginary bugs put down the neck of his shirt I’ll never know.

One summer day he came up to me with a length of cord in his hand and a desire to tie me up to the point of helplessness burning in his eyes. I suggested we go outside on the lawn. Although he did his best, it only took me about five minutes to wriggle out of the ropes. Then it was his turn.Despite the fact that I was a Cub Scout dropout, I did learn how to tie a square knot and a bowline. In a few minutes I had him trussed up like a goose.

“Wait a sec,” I said. “There’s one more thing.”

I picked up the sprinkler hose from the other side of the lawn, dragged it over and wrapped him up in it. A sprinkler hose is a twenty-five foot, flattened, plastic tube with pin-holes in it every few inches.

“Okay,” I announced, “escape!”

While he struggled, I mosied over to the water spigot and turned it on full. Brother Donald suddenly became a writhing, squealing water fountain. I admit, I laughed so hard I nearly wet my pants. The chewing-out I got from my mother for soaking Donald was well-deserved and totally worth it.

The other brand of tomfoolery we enjoyed (and he didn’t) was to tell him a ridiculous lie and get him to believe it. One evening, for example, Lewis and I sauntered into his room just as he was getting ready for bed.

“Hey, Don, are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Oh, good. ‘Cause we’ve heard there’s a rare disease going around and you’ve been looking kinda pale.”

“I have?”

“It’s probably nothing. Unless you can see little red blood veins around the edges of your eyeball.”

“Don runs to the bathroom to check. “Oh no.”

“You weren’t playing in the park today were you?”

“I was looking for four-leaf clovers.”

“Uh-oh. There were tsetse flies infesting the park today.They’re so small you can hardly see them and you don’t even feel it when they bite, but they can give you Sleeping Sickness.”

“Sleeping Sickness?”

“If you have it and you fall asleep, you might sleep for days. You might not wake up for weeks! Quick, pull up the legs of your pajamas. Oooh noo! Look. There’s the bite mark!”

What can I do? I don’t want to have sleeping sickness.”

“The only thing you can do is to stay awake. If you don’t go to sleep, it can’t get you.”

When I went to bed a couple of hours later, Don was still sitting up in bed, yawning and squinting, reading comic books, trying desperately to keep himself awake.

When Lewis and came into the room the next morning he was fast asleep, sprawled on top of a couple of comic books that had been under him when he fell over.

“Wake up, Don, wake up!” we shouted as we gave him a good shaking.

“Huh? What…?”

“Oh, thank God you’re finally awake. You’ve been asleep for two weeks! You slept right through Valentine’s Day!”

Don ran to Mom, in tears, to see if anyone saved his valentines for him.  Once again, we were in trouble.

Several months later, the family was planning to take a trip to see relatives in Southern California. Donald was so excited to go to Disneyland that he could not stop talking about it. Not having learned our lesson at all, Lewis and I barged into his room early on the morning we were to leave.

“Don, Don, wake up! We just heard on the radio that Disneyland has burned to the ground!”

My poor mother. Not only was she in the midst of last-minute packing, she had to deal with a crying five year-old. And two giggling older brothers.

Several years later, when Donald was in second grade, Lewis and I were eating breakfast when Don came upstairs. He was still in his pajamas and looking sleepy. I don’t remember if we had planned something in advance or we were just winging it, but one of us said, “Why aren’t you in school?”

“There isn’t any school on Saturday.”

“Well it’s Friday. Saturday is tomorrow,” Lewis said as he went to the wall calendar and tapped it. “See? Friday.”

Since Donald had not yet learned how to read a calendar, he could only accept that as being the truth.

He was beginning to look worried as he asked, “So how come you guys aren’t in school?”

“The Junior High is having teacher conferences,” I lied glibly. “We have the day off.”

“Oh no. What am I gonna do?”

“I guess you’d better get dressed as fast as you can and run over there.  Maybe your teacher will let you into class. Who is your teacher by the way?”

“Mrs. Kettlehut.”

Lewis and I looked at each other and said, “Uh-oh.”

Within minutes Don was dressed and running out the door with the mittens that were clipped to his coat sleeves and his untied shoe-laces fluttering in the breeze. Since Beitel School was only a block away, Lewis and I had about twenty minutes to giggle into our cereal bowls before the front door opened and a downhearted and sniffling Donald entered.

“What happened?” we asked. “Wouldn’t they let you in?”

“The doors were all locked. I went around the building to my classroom and looked in the windows, but nobody was there. So I thought they must have gone to the gym. I put my ear to the gym door and I could hear them singing in there.”

Tales from the Woodbutcher’s Trade

There are several ways to learn the skill of Carpentry. One might involve having a father who swings a hammer for a living. You start by sweeping up and carrying boards around the job site after school.  Eventually, if you don’t run off to join a punk band, you’ll learn the rudiments of the trade.  Or you can join the Carpenters Union (you’ll need a Sponsor) and be an apprentice for a number of years. If you have the cash or are willing to go into debt, you can find a Trade School that’ll teach you the basics.

Or you can do what I did. I read a couple of books on building, got myself a used tool belt and filled it up with various hand tools, and then bought a power saw and taught myself to use it. I finally walked onto a construction site in Denver with a fictitious resume and applied for a job. It took them a few days to figure out I was lying and to fire me. But in the meantime, I had been keeping my eyes open and learning all I could. By the second or third try, the Foreman decided, however reluctantly, to let me stay and I spent the next forty years cutting up chunks of wood and nailing them back together.

Over the years I worked as an employee for a few small outfits and for a few big commercial companies, but most of the time I worked by myself as a freelance contractor. I’ve partnered a few times, the most notable being in Iowa where Kelly, Glenn, and I formed our own construction company and called it “Pigs in Space Construction.” Kelly and I came up with the name a few years earlier when we were working together building balconies on an apartment complex in Denver.  One day we had just been laughing about a segment on The Muppet Show called Pigs in Space. I climbed up on a temporary handrail to grab an electric cord when the rail broke underneath me and I dropped about fifteen feet into a mudhole. Kelly leaned out over the edge of the deck and intoned, “Pigggs inn Spaaace!”  Three days later, he was climbing a homemade ladder when his foot slipped between the rungs and he dropped head first into a similar mudhole. This time I had the honor – “Pigggs inn Spaaace!”  By the time we got together in Iowa and added Glenn, the name was a foregone conclusion.

Construction partnerships have about the same shelf-life as rock ‘n’ roll bands, and a few years later when Pigs in Space had faded into legend, I moved to Chicago. I got a job doing finish work for what was probably the only gay-owned construction company in the city. Tad had gotten his degree in veterinary science, but decided to give up his practice when a milk cow took a couple of casual sideways steps and crushed his assistant up against a barn wall, breaking two ribs. Since Tad was allergic to cats, he decided to go into upscale remodeling and he quickly found his services were in high demand in the gay community. I think his customers were relieved not to have to take down their favorite artworks and “butch” up the place because the carpenters were coming over.

I was comfortable working in that environment because I already had several gay friends who seemed to take special pleasure in telling me the most perverse stories and then laughing at my reaction.* Over the course of my career, I worked for many different types and varieties of people, but my favorites were gay couples and black people.

Gay couples were appreciative, didn’t care so much about price as long as it looked good, and –  I’ll take the risk of stumbling over the line into stereotypes here –  they invariably had great taste. The only problems I ever had were when each one of a couple thought that they had a better eye than their partner. One would say, “You know those little medallion things on the mantelpiece that Kevin sketched up? Do you mind kind of forgetting to put them on?” Then Kevin would take me aside and say, “Don’t forget the medallions on the mantelpiece, okay?” I had to ask Tad to make them sit down and talk to each other.

I spent fifteen of the twenty years I was in Los Angeles installing kitchen cabinets. There was, and still is, a business in Culver City called The Kitchen Store. They will take your kitchen measurements and design an entire kitchen for you and order the cabinets. They do not have in-store installers, instead they hand you a business card for an independent installer and say, “We recommend you call this guy to install your new cabinets. He’s bonded, insured, licensed, and has done a lot of work with us.” For those fifteen years, I was one of the six or seven guys whose card was handed out.

Unlike some of the other installers, I was always pleased to be referred to a black family. I did have a few bad experiences with customers (we’ll get to some of those in a bit), but never with a person of color. The first day or two on one of these jobs was always a little stiff and formal but once the ice was broken, I became family.  “Would you like something to drink? Some sweet tea or something?” and “My mama and I are going to watch Judge Judy. Let us know if the volume is too high. Or take a break and come and watch. This girl took care of her boyfriend’s dog for a week, shaved it like it was a poodle or something,  and now she won’t give it back.”

Probably my favorite kitchen installation for a black family was in a large house in Carson, California. Mrs. Conrad’s husband had passed away five years before and left her enough money to buy the house. She needed a large one because she had a large family. There were adult children, teenagers, friends of the teenagers and grandchildren going constantly in and out. My assistant Jon and I were there for two weeks and we were never sure how many people actually lived there. But it was a jolly crew that would wander into the kitchen to swap jokes, make fun of the music we listened to (jazz), or tell on a little brother who’d done something heinous. Mrs. Conrad was my favorite. She’d bring in her friends in to watch us work and they’d tut-tut, and nod their heads, and tell us how nice it looked.

One day we came to work and Mrs. Conrad was angry and yelling at the kids. Evidently, there had been some kind of rebellion earlier and choice words and punishments were being handed out.  Afterward, she came into the kitchen to apologize for the uproar.

“I blame my husband,” she said with some heat. “He just up and died on me, leaving me all these mouthy kids to deal with. Sometimes it makes me so mad I just want to dig him up and kill him again!”

Most of my customers were middle-aged, white, housewives whose husbands had said, “Go ahead and do whatever you like, just don’t spend too much.” There were a few outliers like the college roommates  whose dog had chewed the corners off every reachable cabinet in the kitchen and asked me “Can you fix it so we can get our deposit back?” My answer: “No.”

But the banes of my existence were young, A-type, businessmen on the rise. When I went to a job and met one of these, I knew it was going to be trouble. Guys like this are very status-aware. They want to make sure I knew whose territory it was by metaphorically peeing on every post and rock around the perimeter. I could accept this if the fellow knew anything about carpentry or construction, but he usually did not. One guy, for instance, called me up after the job was complete and demanded that I drop everything and come over to correct some mistakes. After making me wait for nearly an hour while he talked on the phone, he finally told me what the problem was – he had discovered, behind a roll-out drawer in the back of a cabinet, a pile of sawdust.  It took me all of three minutes to vacuum it up.

And then there was Ralph. Ralph was a “Licensed” Contractor. I use the quotes because of the California system of granting licenses to building contractors. To get a license one must take an extensive test to, ostensibly, weed out those people who don’t know which end of the nail to hit with a hammer. In response, there arose a cottage industry of “Construction License Schools.” For several hundred dollars you go to a two-day class. They pass out sheets of paper that list all the questions that will appear on the tests along with the correct answers. The “student” spends the next two days memorizing. Hence, we have General Contractors like Ralph. He was not only clueless but had a tender ego that wouldn’t allow him to admit he was clueless.

So it was Ralph who got concerned that during an earthquake the island cabinets might tear loose from the screws I was using to anchor them and hop around the room. He insisted that I put eight-inch lag bolts through the bottoms of the cabinets and into the floor joist below. I told him that if there was ever an earthquake with that much force, the customers were going to have a much bigger problems than their island cabinets hopping around the floor. But he insisted and I put in the lag bolts. On other points, I just couldn’t let him have his way. He was disturbed that when he opened the drawers and looked at the inside of the drawer face, there were two different colors of screws – the screws that held on the outer face were brass-colored and the screws that held on the handles were chrome. He was also sure that the system I used to attach the wall cabinets to the wall was not strong enough and the cabinets would someday fall.

A couple of months after finishing the job, I got a phone call from Ralph. “Just as I predicted,” he said, “the cabinets are falling off the wall. You have to go and fix them.”

The next day I dropped by the house and asked to look at the kitchen. I was proud to see how nice it looked with all the finishing details. All the wall cabinets were tight to the wall in exactly the places I had installed them. The only problem was that when I had installed the crown molding, I had snugged it up against the ceiling. Now there was nearly a ½” gap that ran all the way around the room. I swiped a couple of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, drove home, and that evening called Ralph.

“Tell me, Raph,” I said. “You bought the two by twelves  that your guys used to frame the kitchen ceiling from Home Depot, right?”

He said he had.

“The big framing lumber they sell is still green – heavy with moisture. Once installed, the joists dry out and as they do, they shrink. My cabinets are exactly where I put them, the shrinking joists just pulled the sheetrock up and away from them. That kitchen ceiling is now about half an inch higher than it was.”

After recommending that he wait for a few more months for the framing to finish drying out, then hire a plasterer to fill the gap, I hung up and then grinned at my phone feeling just as smug as smug could be.

***

*Look at the right-hand column and click “Boscamp.”

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Kid

When we’re young, we want a lot of things for ourselves. As we age we realize the absurdity of those desires one after another and let them go. I had to come to grips with the knowledge that I would never own a pair of spring shoes that would enable me to leap over the garage. It also became obvious that a boy with a hefty fear of heights would not ever become a jet pilot. But there is one desire I hung onto for years. Despite repeatedly falling on my face, I always thought that someday I could be a good musician. Not a “great” musician, that would be out of the question, just “good” or even “passable.” There were only a few minor problems with this – my manual dexterity wasn’t very good, I had little or no sense of rhythm, and I couldn’t bring myself to practice.

On the other side of the vacant lot* from our house stood the large brick house of Fauniel Fellhauer. She was a piano teacher. Her house had been designed with piano instruction in mind with a large living room – perfect for recitals. It had a raised platform at one end on which stood a grand piano. There were two rehearsal rooms with upright pianos in the basement. When I was seven my mother enrolled me in piano classes. After three or four months of very slow progress, Ms. Fellhauer came down to a practice room to see how I was doing and found me asleep on the floor behind the piano. It was decided that I needed a little more maturity before I could try it again.

After that, there were minor flirtations with the saxophone (that lasted about two weeks) and the ukulele (a month or so) before I came face-to-face with the upright double bass. And that was because of 8th Grade gym class. The rule in gym class was that you first had to climb a twenty-foot rope to the top before you could play basketball or volleyball. Every class became four other nerds and I taking turns hanging from the damned rope while we grunted and struggled to climb it. Meanwhile, all the other kids were having fun and snickering at us. Then I heard that if you joined the school orchestra, you could do that instead of gym class. My only question was, “where do I sign up?”

I had several reasons for choosing the bass as my instrument. I liked that deep sound that an upright bass makes, you can kind of lean on it as you play, and it doesn’t require a lot of nimble finger work. While the violin is flying through some multi-sixteenth-note arpeggio, the bass has to produce a single, “zoooom”. When I realized that the bass was so big I couldn’t take it home to practice (darn!) I was sold.

Over the next year and a half, I learned to play the upright bass. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was a Junior High School orchestra and I was no worse than anyone else. If you’ve never heard a Junior High School orchestra play, and if you like things that are simultaneously painful and hilarious, by all means, go. At the end of the school year, I was promoted to the new Laramie Senior High School on the other side of town. They had an orchestra, but being a member no longer excused one from gym class. So I gave up the bass and went back to standing with the other nerds and weaklings while everybody else played basketball and other sports. Instead of having to climb a rope, we were required to climb a peg board.

I might never have gotten another swing at being a musician if it hadn’t been for the machinations of my older brother Chuck and his friends Dean and Gary. Dean played drums, Gary played electric piano and Dean’s alcoholic father played the saxophone. All they needed was a bass player and Chuck, who knew his way around the guitar, was quite willing. What he needed was a bass – or rather a more portable electric bass guitar. And Dean’s Father’s Music Store just happened to have one of the new Fender Precision Basses in stock.

Having sunk all his money into a hot rod that wouldn’t go faster than forty miles an hour without vibrating so bad your fillings would fall out, Chuck had to try to find a way to get my parents to pay for the new bass. Here was the pitch: “Tim played the big double bass in Junior High, but now he can’t. How about buying it for both of us and we’ll share.”  Having been primed beforehand by Chuck and Dean, I lied and told Mom and Dad that I had a couple of friends who were putting together a rock ‘n’ roll band and would love it if I had a bass to play. The instrument was purchased and Mom even threw in some lessons for me.

An old World War Two veteran named Mel Orlick had been a big-band drummer in the 30’s but lost a leg in the war. He and his wife lived in a tiny house in Laramie and he gave music lessons. After the first couple of lessons, I had learned just about everything that he knew about playing the bass which wasn’t a lot. But I kept going back because I liked the guy and enjoyed his company. He would sit on his bed, play the guitar, sing, and beat time with his stump. We’d play “Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown”, “Pennies from Heaven”, or “We’re in the Money” then we’d take a break and he would tell a rousing story about him and his fellow sailors getting in a fist fight with Marines in a Pearl Harbor bar. We’d hoot with laughter, then he’d pick up his guitar and we’d play another old song.

About that time my good friend Charlie, who played guitar and knew a fellow named Dwayne who’d just bought an electric guitar, started talking to me about a rock and roll band. My lies had become prophetic. Although Chuck was playing with Dean and Gary’s foxtrot-style band most weekends so the bass was not always available, Charlie and Dwayne and I were able to put together about an hour’s worth of music. We had no drummer, nobody sang, we didn’t even own a microphone, so we learned instrumental songs like Telstar,  Green Onions, Walk Don’t Run and others by the Ventures. We weren’t very good but since we were available and we were cheap, we managed to book a few gigs around town.

At one of these gigs, a dance in the Laramie High School cafeteria after a football game, a kid was standing against the wall in the dark and studying us. His name was Dennis Woods. I don’t know if Dennis already owned an electric guitar or that we inspired him to buy one, but by the time I finished high school and went into the Service, Dennis had begun organizing and rehearsing a band. When I got tossed out of the Service a year and a half later, Dennis’ band was going strong. When they had come to that question that every band comes to – “what the hell do we call ourselves?” – they decided they wanted something that sounded “Space Age”. They settled on the name The Retros. It wasn’t until they had spent money on posters and publicity material that they found out that “retro” meant “backward”.

It wasn’t long before The Retros broke up, as teenage bands invariably do.  And Dennis – everybody knew him as “Woody” – began putting together a new band. My old friend Charlie was now in the Navy but his younger brother Don was as good a picker as Charlie was and Woody asked him to play lead guitar. Max, one of the most cheerful and good-natured men I ever knew, was to be the drummer. Woody recruited me to play the bass.

After a month or two of rehearsals, it became clear that my simplistic Mel Orlick-inspired bass patterns were inadequate for rock ‘n’ roll and instead of asking me to buckle down and really learn to play the bass, Woody strongly suggested that I buckle down and learn to play keyboards. His younger brother George had just bought a bass guitar and was already better at it than I was.

After some wheedling with my parents, they agreed to cosign a loan. I in-turn agreed to look for a job to pay for the loan and ended up at a local furniture store delivering console TVs.  So I found myself the proud owner of a Farfisa Portable Organ.  Now all I had to do was learn how to play it. With a book titled “Learn to Play the EZ Way” and what I could remember from my Fauniel Fellhauer lessons, I was able to play background chords for simple things like “Louie Louie” and “Little Latin Lupe Lu”. But when I tried to play any tune that required a modicum of complexity, my fingers would bump into each other and I’d quickly get lost.

So when we played I mostly stood behind the keyboard, played the tambourine, and sang backup. On some songs, just to change it up,  I would stand off to one side, play tambourine and sing backup while Woody played my keyboards. But I was cute, back in the day, and could sing a little, so my bandmates put up with me as long as the band was together. Some friends of mine told me they once had a teenage band in Evanston and they tossed a guy out of the group by stacking his equipment on his front porch, ringing the doorbell, and driving away. At least I was spared that kind of humiliation.

Before we had actually started to play in public and after much discussion, we settled on the name “Mes Amis” which means “My Friends” in French. That meant that most of our audiences had no idea what our name meant and the few that did, hated it because it reminded them of the French classes they despised. Back then I preferred “Woody and the Ax Men”.  I still do.

People who believe in reincarnation will tell you that it’s the secret and strong desires you hold in your heart that will dictate the circumstances of your next life, though what you may have to put up with to get there could be truly awful. If that’s true, then next life look for me in a stinking bar on a back street on the bad side of Old Rangoon. I’ll be the piano player.

***

*Go to the column on the right and click The Vacant Lot

Patchouli Oil Blues

I took my first hit on a marijuana cigarette in September of 1968. I was at a small party with some friends who played in a rock ‘n’ roll band and I noticed what had to be a joint smoldering its way around the room. When it got to me I thought, “What the hell?” I took a long drag then held the smoke in my lungs for as long as I could, just like I’d watched other people do. I’d like to say that I immediately saw God and had an instantaneous understanding of the workings of the universe. But I didn’t. I didn’t really feel anything. It must have been four or five joints later when I took my umpteenth hit that I realized I was well and truly stoned.  Everything was suddenly warm, fuzzy, and very funny.

And so I began. I liked the feeling so much that I swore off drinking. At least I did until I found out how good a beer tastes when you’ve been smoking pot. Then someone introduced me to cheap red wine and hashish and the prospect of hanging out in dark alleyways with other winos suddenly wasn’t as repellant an idea as it had once seemed.

Near the end of October, a bunch of us piled into an old van and traveled down to Boulder. There may have been more hippies in Denver at the time, but per capita, no place was hipper than Boulder. I can’t remember if we had any other reason to go to Boulder other than to just congregate with as many Flower Children as we could find. So we went to Central Park on the corner of Boulder Canyon and Broadway. We were not disappointed.

The park was crowded but the weather was cool, so instead of clothing being optional – as it probably was in the summer – clothing was pretty much mandatory. But what amazing clothing it was. The vibe was part Thrift-Store and part DIY creative. As long as it was brightly-colored and it flowed, it was acceptable.

Those of us who had come down from Laramie found a spot of grass and sat down. We talked, smiled at people going by, flashed peace signs now and then, and tried to look totally blasé about it all.

“Hey Tim,” my friend Randy muttered. “Take a look at these two. About ten o’clock.”

I casually turned my head and looked back over my shoulder. A couple of big-time hippies were strolling together down a path that was near to our group. When I say “big” it was, about the guy at least, true. He could have tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds. A mass of wavy hair and a lumberjack beard hid most of his head. He wore a pair of blue denim farmer’s coveralls with large triangles of red bandana material let into both sides of each leg, turning them into bell bottoms with shoulder straps.

His “Old Lady,” which was a term of endearment at the time, also wore bell bottom pants, but hers were so big and so long that they dragged almost continuously on the ground. She wore a white leather jacket with long fringes on the arms and across the back and around her head was a lengthy tie-dyed silk scarf, the ends of which undulated in the air behind her.

There was a slight cross breeze and as they passed our little group, a terrible smell assaulted my olfactory lobes. A nauseating odor, it was as if someone had found a two-weeks dead opossum next to the road and dumped half a bottle of air freshener on it. It was a long time after the couple had passed before the smell finally dissipated and an even longer period of thought before I came to a couple of decisions. The first was, “If a person does a lot of drugs and doesn’t take a bath, this must be what their body odor smells like.” The second decision was, “I don’t ever want to smell like that.” So the obvious conclusion had to be, “I’ve gotta remember to always bathe.”

A couple of months later, I found that this was a scent that people voluntarily put on themselves. They, in fact, even paid for the privilege. The flowers of the patchouli plant – a native of India – were steamed, dried, and then made into Patchouli Oil. The hippie subculture originally started using it because it’s sharp, sickly-sweet, gamey odor would cover the smell of marijuana smoke. It soon became fashionable among the “far-out” – the people we disdainfully referred to as “tweeks.”

We weren’t always so cynical. For myself and my friends, for about six or eight months, everything was peace and love and flowers in our hair. Then a young man named Rusty came into our lives.  He’d grown up in Riverton and Kent, one of our crowd who was from there, brought him along to several parties.  Rusty was tall, long-legged, and hyper-kinetic. Talking a mile a minute with one foot bouncing wildly up and down, he’d tell us elaborate lies and then make fun of us when we believed him. For example, one day he came strolling into our house and told us that he’d just seen a whole busload of Scottish senior citizens in downtown Laramie. Their tour bus driver had let them out and then gone into the Cowboy Bar and drunk himself into a stupor. Now there were old men in plaid skirts stomping around the streets and shouting at people unintelligibly. We all looked goggle-eyed at him and each other, trying to stumble through a drug-induced mental fog to try to make some sense of it. Suddenly he started laughing maniacally and miming a fisherman bringing in a big catch.

“Wow! Look what I’m reelin’ in! Tell Cookie we’re havin’ tuna tonight. I just caught a whole school of ‘em!”

This strange game quickly caught on until nobody would believe anything they were told for fear of being “reeled in” and made fun of. The second game Rusty taught us was to be very suspicious of anyone trying to be “hipper than thou.” If somebody new casually laid a story on us about being “on the Haight” and “hanging with Kesey” they’d be labeled a “hopeless tweek” and the butt of sarcastic jokes for days.  

One weekend Rusty and his friend Kip were back in Riverton and asked a young friend if he could score a lid of grass for them. The fellow said he’d do it but wouldn’t tell them the Dealer’s name. Finally, under pressure, the kid agreed to tell them but they had to agree not to get violent. Rusty and Kip said okay and the guy told them the only name he knew the dealer by – “Captain Mind Candy.” Rusty and Kip had to get out of the car and walk up and down the street several times just to cool off. When they finally came back they gave the kid twenty bucks to make the buy for them but said if the bag had a peace sign drawn on it or smelled of patchouli oil, the deal was off.

Now we come to my old friend Dave. Dave loved to argue. I can remember standing in front of a fish tank with Dave and having a loud, emotional argument, complete with ad-hominem attacks, about the relative intelligence of guppies. So it will come as no surprise that when Debbie, a fellow philosophy major, invited Dave back to her apartment for tea and a talk about a class they were in, the discussion quickly devolved into a debate about some obscure philosophical point. Dave got so involved in presenting his side of the disagreement, along with his usual disrespectful eye-rolling and loud interruptions, that he didn’t notice Debbie’s roommate, Jane, sneaking up behind him. In her hand was an open bottle of – you guessed it – patchouli oil.

Jane had sprinkled nearly half the bottle’s contents on his head before Dave realized what was happening. He left the two hysterically laughing women with some well-chosen epithets and went home. He later said that he had to take three showers and shampoo his hair six times before he could feel like he’d gotten rid of most of the smell.

Two days later, Dave dropped by Kip and Rusty’s house for a visit. No sooner had he sat down than the two began to sniff the air experimentally. Without a word they picked Dave up, Rusty taking his wrists and Kip taking his ankles. They carried him outside and threw him in the garden. Then they calmly walked back inside and locked the door.

A Pie for Lou

In the summer of 1962 I was working at Alexander’s Fine Jewelry in their original Laramie store on Ivinson. I cleaned display cases, swept the floors, and tried to teach myself how to use the engraving machine. As I worked, I day-dreamed about throwing a pie into someone’s face.

During the summer, the ABC television network had revived the Saturday morning kids show “Lunch with Soupy Sales,” re-titled it “The Soupy Sales Show,” and put it on as a late night program. The format was almost exactly the same as before, except they had adult celebrities on as guests. I watched this show whenever I could; not because I liked the cringeworthy jokes, not because I enjoyed seeing a paw-puppet grunt at Soupy from behind his window jamb, but because invariably Soupy, or his guest, or both, would get hit with a pie.

Pies would come at Soupy from every direction. Most usually, it would be a full in-the-face shot, leaving Soupy to look into the camera and slowly scoop the pie filling, and chunks of crust, out of his eyes. But sometimes a pie would drop on top of his head, sometimes it would be two pies – one in each ear. One time he dodged one pie, only to turn around and walk face-first into another, stationary, pie.

I became obsessed with the idea of throwing a pie into somebody’s face.

A block west of our house on Kearney Street stood a white, two-story house. This was where the Schilt family lived. When I was a kid, as far as I knew only two boys lived there. I never saw, or at least noticed, any adults on or about the property. I remember there was a garden out back so somebody must’ve been working it. Maybe they only came out at night and spent the daylight hours peeking through the blinds, who knows?

But their youngest son I was quite familiar with because my brother Chuck and he were the same age and got into trouble together frequently. The boy’s given name was probably something like Elmer or Clarence, because everyone knew him as “Corky.”

There’s a story about Chuck and Corky that has very little to do with my main point, but I think it needs to be told, so I’ll put it in here.

Because an old friend of my father’s owned a Pontiac car dealership in Cheyenne, every couple of years my mother would load the children into the old Pontiac station wagon and drive to Cheyenne. We’d visit with their family, go to a little café and eat cheeseburgers that came in a plastic basket, and then drive back home in a new Pontiac station wagon.

My brother Chuck was practically born clutching a steering wheel. Whenever we’d take these drives, he’d sit up front and watch and study everything that Mom did to pilot the Pontiac down the road. He must’ve finally decided that he had it all figured out, because one day both Chuck and the car were missing.

I don’t know if Chuck had plucked the keys up out of the little dish Mom kept them in, or if she’d left them in the ignition. The latter wouldn’t surprise me. This was Laramie, after all, and nobody ever locked anything.

A few minutes later, one of the local Policemen came upon an odd sight. A Pontiac station wagon was puttering down the road at fifteen miles an hour. The driver’s small head came up barely high enough to see over the dashboard and his skinny little arms were spread out wide to grip the wheel. The Policeman flipped on his red light and the station wagon pulled over and stopped.

The cop opened the car door to see Chuck, who was kneeling on the seat, look over at him with an expression made up of equal parts of guilt and wonder. On the floor where he had been working the pedals with his hands, was Corky Schilt, grinning happily.

Corky had an older brother named Lou. Lou Schilt was nearly ten years older than Corky which made him about fifteen years older than me. When I was sixteen, I was sure that any man over thirty, especially if he was bald, already had one foot on the first step of the Old Folk’s Home. But Lou acted differently to me and my friends than any other undoubtedly adult man in Laramie. Looking back, it was obvious that it was a clear business decision for him to be so friendly. He had opened Lou’s Sport Shop on the corner of 3rd and Grand only a few years before.

There were other places in Laramie one could buy sporting goods, but it was obvious that the prim older ladies and paunchy, cigar-chomping guys who waited on you had never oiled a baseball glove or tried to ski down a mountain in a snowstorm without goggles in their life. This was not the case with Lou. He remembered your name and what sports you were interested in and made jokes about “Johnny Unitas” as he rang up that new football you were buying. He knew who his market was and he made us feel like we were pals.

So, back to pie-throwing. I can remember discussing it with my friend Steve. “I’m really feeling like I’ve gotta hit someone in the face with a pie.”

“How about Glenn?” he suggested. “We could go out to the Frostop for root beers, and you come in when he’s not looking and POW!”

I thought about it for a bit, and then said, “Nope. I think it’s gotta be an adult – someone with some dignity to lose, but someone who’ll get over it pretty quick too.”

Lou Schilt seemed like the prime candidate. The morning of “P-Day” I bought a frozen lemon cream pie and left it in the back seat of my car when I went to work so by lunchtime it was well thawed. I took the pie out of its box and put it in a larger generic cardboard box, then met Steve and together we walked to Lou’s Sport Shop.

I was not, normally, a fearless kid. It would take me fifteen minutes of screwing my courage up to call a girl and ask her to go with me to the movies. Even after I picked up the phone I’d briefly consider hitting myself over the head with the receiver before dialing. And yet, here I was walking into the store with no hesitation. Lou was in the back near the register talking to two or three of his friends.

“Hi Tim, Steve,” he smiled at us. “What’s up?”

“”We got in this cool display over at the jewelry store,“  I said. “I thought you might like to take a look at it.”

I set the box down on the counter. Curious, he leaned in to see. I slipped my hand into the box, holding the flaps up to block his view, and then pulled out the pie and hit him square in the face with it. All I noticed as I turned to run was that pie had squished under his glasses and he couldn’t see.  When he met me later, Steve said that Lou did try to chase me, but he slipped on a blob of pie filling and nearly fell.

It didn’t end well. Lou didn’t quickly get over it. He called up my mother threatening a law suit and scaring her so badly she went immediately to bed with an asthma attack. I had to go apologize to Lou, and then spend several hours on my knees shampooing the carpet in his store. After that I was grounded for two months.

But you know what? It was worth it!

Fat Tuesday

 During my first forty years on this planet I had made numerous stabs at being a writer and had given up in frustration each time. I could not touch type. Nothing would choke off the flow of ideas like having to stop every eight or ten words, roll the paper up, and erase or white out the dumb mistake I just made.  The cry of anguish usually came when I rolled it back down and typed another mistake right across the remains of the first one. Everything I wrote ended up with holes erased through the paper or blobs of White-Out every other line.

But then someone or some group of people invented the Word Processor. Hallay-freakin-looyah! Like the most understanding of lovers, a Word Processor will always say, “I forgive.” Until they put up a Temple of Gratitude somewhere, I will continue to put rosebuds and gumdrops on my personal homemade shrine to the Word Processor.

When I first moved to Chicago in 1987 I took with me a gaggle of ideas for a Musical Play called Charlie and Cinderella. The basic idea was that a young would-be writer is sitting in the audience of the play Cinderella with a notebook making changes to the story. And the play goes all wonky because anything he writes, the characters have to deal with. So the Fairy Godmother casts a spell, goes out into the audience, and drags him up on stage by the scruff of his neck. She tells him he has to deal with all of his own changes himself and still make the story come out with a happy ending. As I started assembling the pieces into a script (I had a computer called an Amiga with an “amazing” memory of 256K) I went looking for a Composer.

A friend of a friend knew a musician named Elizabeth Doyle who was interested in writing songs for the stage. She read some of my work, I listened to some of her music, and we decided to give it a go. Using what we had done together on Charlie and Cinderella as an audition, we entered the New Tuners Musical Theatre Workshop as a team. After we completed the Introductory Program we were asked to pitch an idea for a new production that New Tuners would put up. The catch was that it had to be a brand-new post-Intro Workshop idea, and therefore Charlie was out.

At first we liked the idea of adapting an old drama called Death Takes a Holiday. But before we could even try for the rights, we heard that it was going to be remade into a movie. The film that eventually came out (and bombed) was Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt. So, it was back to the proverbial drawing board. Elizabeth found a Victorian Era mystery novel called The Woman in White. By Willkie Collins, it is considered to be the first mystery novel ever written. The Villain was a wonderful character – a huge, charming man, he was cultured and witty and rotten to the roots of his well-manicured fingernails. But the novel moved around from one place to another so much it was practically a road movie. A play needs to be done on a limited (meaning cheap-to-build) set.

After considering and ultimately rejecting several other ideas, we came upon the faint outlines of a plan that just might have legs. “What if we took the character we liked so much from The Woman in White and dropped him into a Death Takes a Holiday-like situation?” Then another concept waddled up and sat down – “Instead of Death, what if he turns out to be The Angel of Death?” Just this simple change and the character took a big side-step further away from being The Villain. He became The Messenger.

We knew we were getting close, but we were still missing one crucial part – where to set it. Our thought was “If we are writing a show that features a visit from the Angel of Death, where do we set it?” Death takes a Holiday was in a wealthy man’s mansion. But we wanted upbeat singing, dancing, and all manner of colorful craziness to contrast against our serious subject. I don’t remember which of us first conceived it, perhaps it was a simultaneous brainwave, but we realized it had to be New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras is the biggest continuous party on the North American continent. Outrageous costumes, drunken revelry, and all kinds of wildly immoral behavior go on for more than a week. All of this culminates on Fat Tuesday (the English translation of “Mardi Gras”). The next day is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent and six weeks of abstinence and repentance. The metaphor is unavoidable.

Elizabeth and I pitched the idea for Fat Tuesday to the New Tuners in 1992. They strongly encouraged us to get to work on it.

According to our signed agreement, Elizabeth would be the Composer and I would be the Lyricist and Book Writer. The “Book” is dialogue and plot – everything in the musical that is not a song. The other two job descriptions are pretty much self-explanatory. Each Composer-Lyricist team on any given musical has their own way of producing a finished song. Here’s the workflow that Elizabeth and I settled into. First, we would discuss where a song was needed and what it needed to do to carry the plot forward. Then we’d talk about an emotion or mood we wanted the song to convey, and then finally we’d spitball phrases or verbal hooks.

For example, we wanted a fun, upbeat rouser to open the show. Elizabeth remembered seeing the French phrase “Laissez le bon temps rouler!” in connection with Mardi Gras. It means “Let the Good Times Roll!” When the show opened several years later, the first stanza of the Opening Song went like this:

“Down there by the banks of that old muddy rollin’ river,

There’s a mighty message that the river can deliver.

Listen closely and you’ll hear it say,

Laissez le bon temps rouler.”

When we had agreed on a possible song, Elizabeth would spend some time working on a tune. When she thought it was right, she’d play the song into a cassette recorder and sing the lyric pattern as la-la-la-la. After getting the cassette from her, I’d replace the la-la-la’s with words that were clever, told the story of the song, and rhymed perfectly. Of all the different kinds of writing that I’ve done – screenplays, short stories, novels, straight plays, blog stories – the most difficult, by any measure, is lyric writing. It’s like trying to walk barefoot and blindfolded through a roomful of mousetraps. It’s slow, tentative, and painful.

How difficult, or easy, is it to write the music? I haven’t got a clue. I am a man who has many talents. I can grab hold of my toes and hop over a line on the floor without letting go, I can touch the end of my nose with my tongue, and I can make a mean potato salad. But I’m a musical moron. I take cold comfort in the fact that a huge majority of human beings on this planet are just as musically illiterate as I am.

Here’s my theory – I think that on a certain late summer morning a very select number of young kids are awakened by a tapping at their window. They open it to find an owl holding a letter for them in its beak. They are invited to Treble Cliff, a secret school that will train them to be musicians and composers. They learn to perform magic while the rest of us Musical Muggles are left with a few Ocarina lessons in sixth grade.

Here’s a quick story to illustrate my point. One day Elizabeth and I were sitting together in the Workshop listening to a discussion about someone else’s project. During the break we had talked about a point in our show that was crying out for a song. A group of people, strangers to each other, have gathered in the lobby of a small hotel in New Orleans. They have all come to Mardi Gras, each with his or her pressing reason. Then a huge ebullient man wearing a top hat, cutaway coat, and diamond stick pin breezes into the room and bids them all welcome. He announces that their hotel bills have all been paid, that they are his guests and that a costume, in the correct size, has been selected for each of them and is hanging up in their separate rooms. He disappears into an elevator, leaving them with their mouths open in disbelief.

“If that happened to you what would be the first thing you’d think of?”

I answered, “Who in the Hell was that guy?”

Later, in the workshop, Elizabeth’s eyes took on a faraway glaze, and she quickly opened a loose-leaf binder and got out musical notation paper. She would close her eyes; arrange her fingers on the edge of the binder; and play what she was thinking, then write it down. Or her fingers were making the notes come alive in her brain. Like I said, it’s just freakin’ magic. The resulting song, “Who in the Hell was That Man?” became one of my favorites in the production.

Anyway, just because a song is finished doesn’t mean it will have a place in the show. Elizabeth and I wrote something like thirty five songs to get the fourteen that Fat Tuesday opened with.

In February of 1995, Elizabeth and I flew down to New Orleans and spent two or three days in the French Quarter during the height of Mardi Gras. We felt that it was ridiculous to write a full Musical about the event without ever having been there. We put on costumes (I had a long gown, a feather boa, and a wig – all of which set off the full beard I was wearing nicely), we caught strings of beads, and we watched young girls on balconies pull up their tops and wave their breasts at cheering crowds of men down in the street. Many of the things we saw and participated in made their way into the show.

After three years, we had our musical written. Singer/actors were found and we did a reading of the show in front of the Decision Makers at New Tuners. The good news was that, yes, they wanted to produce Fat Tuesday there at the Theatre Building. The bad news was that they felt the show needed a Page One rewrite. In other words, “Throw out pretty much everything you’ve written and start over.”  

After taking a few days to absorb the blow (and me wondering why I ever gave up drinking), we got back to work. We had about nine months to do what had originally taken us three years. We tossed out whole scenes, changed character’s motivations, and rewrote dialogue and lyrics as we went. We wrote several new songs and plugged them in. We grieved as many things we were quite proud of were made to walk the plank. By February of 1996, when the show was to begin pre-production, our tentatively approved script and score were ready.  We could sit back, relax, and enjoy the process. Or so we thought. We were invited to sit in on auditions, watch rehearsals, and give a few notes to the Director. Then during the last week of rehearsals, we were summoned to a meeting with the Producers, the Director, the Music Director, the Choreographer, and several other people who had something to do with the show (I wasn’t sure what that was) and who had an opinion. By the time we reeled out of that meeting we had a list of requested changes three pages long, single space.  It wasn’t a Page One rewrite but it was close. And we had a week to complete it.

Some of the things on that list were, I thought, awfully nit-picky – “Shangri-La” doesn’t perfectly rhyme with “Mardi-Gras” so that whole verse has to be replaced. While others were of the “That’s so obvious, why didn’t we catch that long ago” variety. One problem still bothers me to this day. A character is forced to tell the woman who has loved him for years that he has an incurable disease and is likely to keel over at any time. But he also has the strength and agility to dance and sing right up to the time of his demise. What affliction could he be suffering from?

I took most of that week off from work and wrote furiously. Since most of the notes we got were Book or Lyrics-related, Elizabeth could only watch and cheer me on. The Producers even hired another writer to help me out on a few things. Even so, all the way up to Dress Rehearsal we were bringing in new pages. Finally, mercifully, the show was locked.

Fat Tuesday opened on April 10th, 1996. The reviews were, as the saying goes, “mixed.” The critics loved the Music and thought the Lyrics were okay, but most of them didn’t care for the Book. Despite this, and due to New Tuners’ publicity efforts, the show played to mostly full houses for the next six weeks.  A musical is a very expensive thing to produce and only turns a profit if Public Demand is strong enough to keep it running for a long time. Six weeks is not a long time. Because we had a Contract that stated that the Creative Team got a small percentage of the box office, Elizabeth and I got about $825 each. I think the Producers lost money.

My wife Michelle and I had both decided, even before Fat Tuesday went up, that our road did not run through the theatre community of Chicago, but through the film and television business of Los Angeles. Two months after the show closed we packed up a U-Haul truck with our two cats and everything we owned and headed west.

***

If you live in Chicago or if you are planning to visit there, I would urge you to find out where Elizabeth is playing and singing and go take in her show. She writes a wonderful blog – http://www.elizabethdoylemusic.com/blog/ – and in it lists all of her upcoming gigs as well as tips on restaurants, books, films, and whatever strikes her fancy.

Kitchen Boy

In the summer of 1962 I got my second full-time job. The previous summer I had worked on the nearby Red Ladder Ranch*. But this next year, when I was fifteen, my friend Tom called me up and said that the University of Wyoming was hiring Kitchen Boys to work at their Recreation Camp.

The Camp was located about ten miles northwest of Centennial, Wyoming. It consisted of a dozen guest cabins, staff cabins, meeting rooms, and a dining hall with a commercial kitchen. It was nestled in the edge of the forest in the foothills of the Snowy Range Mountains.

The Camp did not offer programs of its own but it was rented out to various clubs, teams, and groups looking for a place to hold a retreat. No matter who was renting the place, they all needed to eat and a Cook and an Assistant Cook were hired to provide the necessary victuals. Forty to sixty campers can produce an awful lot of dirty dishes – not to mention food-encrusted pots and pans – so a couple of young boys were required to clean up after the cooks. And Tom and I got the job.

When we first applied for the job, Mr. Watkins, who interviewed us, told us that once the breakfast dishes were done, we could relax for an hour before beginning to work lunch. After the few lunch dishes were washed, we would have several hours to do whatever we wanted until it was time to go in and help with Dinner. For this we would get Room and Board, plus a check totaling Seventy-Five dollars every month. The previous summer I had been paid a total of $25. Of course, I had run an expensive piece of farm equipment into a fence post and bent it – but to my ears, which were clearly still-wet-behind, $75 seemed like a princely sum.

One of Tom’s first duties was to drive the old, green Chevy truck into Laramie and pick up Mrs. D, who was to be the Cook. Mrs. D was in her 60’s and morbidly obese. When she climbed into the cab of the pickup, the springs squeaked in quiet process and the truck leaned noticeably to the right. Mrs. D in her youth must have been a strong, strapping woman because after being coated in a thick layer of adipose tissue, her arms were enormous. Tom discovered one downside to this when, on the road out to Centennial, a wasp flew in an open window and Mrs. D, in Tom’s words, “started flailing those giant arms around and about wrecked us.”

My old friend Dave once told me his theory of institutional food. He said there were several huge underground vats near Topeka, Kansas that contained a light gray, gelatinous substance. Numerous pipelines ran from these vats to every large institutional kitchen in the lower forty-eight states. All those cooking stoves and refrigerators in university kitchens, hospitals, and assisted living centers were rarely used and mostly there for show. What was constantly in use was the pipeline terminal and the various molding, shaping, and coloring machines. These turned the gelatinous substance into green bean casserole, lemon meringue pie, and tuna surprise. There were no flavoring machines, hence the taste of the food. After the meal, all leftovers and scraps were scraped into another machine that turned it all back into gray gelatinous substance and pumped it back to the vats under Topeka.

Mrs. D. must have spent most of her working life running those shaping and coloring machines, because cooking was not an actual talent that she possessed. She covered this lack by using as many pots and pans as she could, frequently burning the contents, and leaving it all in stacks on the stainless steel tabletop next to the sink. Even without that, the job would have consumed a lot more time than Mr. Watkins’ sunny picture. But add Mrs. D’s proclivity to use five pans where two would do the job, and we were going into the Kitchen at 5:30 in the morning and not stumbling out until somewhere north of eight o’clock that night.

As well as the long hours, I had one other problem to deal with – the raging hormones of puberty. In a few short years, girls had gone from something to be teased or ignored, to these strange creatures who were simultaneously terrifying and enchanting. The Recreation Director, Gordon, who shared a cabin with Tom and I, had a record player that he’d let us use. Among the offerings in his small collection was Johnny Mathis’ Greatest Hits. I played this record over and over, memorized most of the lyrics, and began to sing along to the drippiest ones. Tom quickly came to hate the song “Misty.” He still does.

The first few groups that rented the camp had lots of attractive women to admire/ogle. The secret to ogling – especially when you are fifteen – is to not ever be caught in mid-ogle. A kitchen is naturally darker than the dining hall that it fronts on, so back in the shadows behind a post next to the potato peeler was a perfect spot to watch the girls eating the last of their lunches. Those first few groups, however, afforded no opportunities beyond ogling. The Church Campers were far too religious, the Square Dancers were far too old, and the Cheerleaders were far too unapproachable.

Then in late July came Band Camp. High School musicians came from all over Western Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming. In the mornings they would gather in the dining hall, the meeting room, even some of the cabins to practice. In the afternoons they would go out in the Camp’s grassy field to march.

On the Band Camp’s first morning, as I was carrying a full garbage can out to the collection area, a pretty little blonde girl carrying a leather case asked me how to find Cabin Eleven.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said as I put down the can and hung my apron up on a tree branch. “Why don’t I show you the way?”

As we walked I learned that she was from Alliance, Nebraska, that she played the clarinet, and that, yes, she would like me to give her a little tour of the Camp after dinner. On the way back to the kitchen I could hear Johnny Mathis in my head singing “Wonderful Wonderful” as I told myself I must be the smoothest guy in Southeast Wyoming.

 The next couple of weeks were actually perfect for a budding, teenage romance. We could only find spare moments to be together and consequently didn’t have to actually talk to each other very much. There are desert plants in Wyoming that only thrive on a little sprinkle of rain now and then. This young infatuation was like that. We held hands and even shared a couple of brief-but-sweet kisses, then Band Camp was over and we parted with promises to write that we didn’t keep.

As summer lurched into August, we had a few days off. On one of these days, Gordon showed up with several old inner tubes that we inflated with a bicycle pump. We jumped in the camp truck and drove up Highway 130 to the top of the Snowy Range. Up there, rising up from Libby Flats, is Medicine Bow Peak, the highest point in southern Wyoming. The Peak has a steep, rocky cliff-like face, but at the Western end has a more rounded appearance – like a shoulder. It had been an unseasonably cool summer up at the top of the mountains and there was still a long patch of snow and ice remaining in a protected corner of this shoulder. 

There are people in this world who love to climb up the sides of mountains, who need no other reason to do so than, as Sir Edmund Hillary famously said, “Because it’s there.” I am not one of those. I much prefer to sit in a comfortable folding chair at the base of the mountain with a cold drink in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other. And yet, there I was, trudging up the side of that slope with an inner tube under my arm, quite willing to exchange a half hour of effort for fifteen seconds of sheer terror. Repeatedly.

As we saw our summer beginning to slip away, and we looked at the schedule, we realized that there were only going to be a few days at best between the end of this job and the beginning of school. And it didn’t take a math-whiz to figure out that we were being paid about fifteen cents an hour. The temptation to tell Mr. Watkins and the University of Wyoming where they could put their coolie-labor job was very strong.

But after mulling it over, I decided to stay and finish out the job. I’m not sure exactly why, probably equal parts of “I made a commitment and I’m going to see it through,” and “If I bag out now the Old Man will never let me hear the end of it.” After the last camper had left, I stayed an extra day or two to help winterize the place and get it ready for opening the following June.

Looking back through the softening lens of many years, I have come to the conclusion that after all the sweat and aggravation, that summer had been well worth it. I got to spend nearly three months in a beautiful pine forest, I experienced my first teenage crush, and I learned that when you’re mashing fifty peeled and boiled potatoes with a long-handled masher, it’s nearly impossible to get all the lumps out. Which is a good thing because all the vitamins are in the lumps.

***

                                                                                         Thanks to Tom Denniston

*Look in the Right-hand column for Tim vs. the Tractor

Jim Bridger 2 – Red Iron

If you ask me to hazard a guess, I’d say that Chip, my Foreman, had never read Edgar Allan Poe.  It was the autumn of 1973 and I was working as a Laborer on the Jim Bridger Power Plant near Point-of-Rocks, Wyoming*. One of the main responsibilities of the Labor Union’s members on that job was to sweep dust off the framework of the building before the Painters’ Union members could spray on a new coat of rust-resistant paint.

The framework of the building was made of steel I-beams that had been painted with several thick coats of scarlet paint and was therefore known as “Red Iron,” as in, “Hey, Pelton, I’m gonna need y’all and Swede to go up on the West end of Level 4 and sweep off the red iron on the walls and ceiling. The Painters’ Foreman will meet y’all up there and show you what needs to be done.”

Chip was from Alabama and his thick, Southern accent seemed to have a difficult time making its way past the wad of Red Man tobacco in one cheek and the smoldering stub of a cigar stuck in the other. At one point, he must have decided that he knew me well enough to start calling me by my first name. That would have been fine but he, despite me gently correcting him, consistently called me “Tom.” I only had to say, “Okay, Chop,” once and he went back to calling me “Pelton.”

One day Chip assembled his crew, there were about eight of us, on the Sixth Level of Building One. He walked us over to an outside wall that showed a narrow opening where a piece of sheet metal had been removed.  There was enough dim light inside the wall for me to see that it was hollow. A thirty inch gap between the inside and outside walls had been created by an intricate frame of eight inch red I-beams.

Chip said, “Sparky’s just about finished setting lights.” (All Electricians on a construction site are known as “Sparky”) He paused and dropped the butt of his cigar on the floor, stepped on it, than spat tobacco juice on it to make sure it was out. As he did so, an Electrician emerged from the opening paying out a long extension cord.

“All y’all have got safety belts on, right? So you climb up inside the wall up to the fire blocking on Level Nine, then work your way back down to here, sweeping off the red iron as you go.  When you get back down here, there’ll be a vacuum to clean up. Got that?”

One-by-one, the crew, carrying brushes and brooms, disappeared into the opening. I was the last, and as I stepped in I turned to Chip and said, “For the love of God, Montressor.”

Chip looked at me like I was insane.

“You know – Edgar Allan Poe. The Cask of Amontillado?” I looked for some sign of recognition. “A guy seals another guy up into a wall…”

“Get your ass in there, Pelton. Jesus.”

***

The one part I hated about that job was when I had to sweep off the large horizontal I-beams that spanned empty, open spaces. If you follow this blog, you probably know that all my life I have had to deal with basophobia . This does not mean fear of fish with large mouths, but fear of falling.** When asked to sweep off one of those big girders I would have been perfectly within my rights to beg off. But then I would have been assigned to one of the shovel crews digging ditches down on the ground. It was an interesting decision – did I want the relatively easy but scary job? Or the safe grunt work?

My decision was obvious because there I was – straddling an eighteen inch I-beam. My butt was on the top six inch wide web; my boots were on each side of the bottom web. Trying not to look down at the forty foot drop below me, I’d sweep the beam in front of me with one hand while I clung to the steel with the other. When I’d gotten about as far as I could reach, I slowly scooted forward a foot or two, then continued sweeping.

I felt the vibrations of footsteps and I looked up to see a Boilermaker Foreman coming toward me. He was walking along the top of the beam like it was a sidewalk. He looked up from his clipboard and saw me directly in his way. I don’t know if it was the pallor in my face or the white of my knuckles where they gripped the red iron, but he just rolled his eyes, said something like, “Aw shit,” turned around and walked back the other way. If I thought this display of nonchalance about height was impressive I had only to wait a few weeks for the real show.

In the meantime, I heard one day that The Laborer’s General Foreman wanted to see me. With some trepidation I sought him out and he told me that Chip had decided to drag up. In the parlance of construction workers, to “drag up” was to quit your job, pack your bags, and hit the road, usually for another construction site with greener pastures. In Chip’s case, he came out to his truck one morning and had to scrape a layer of ice off his windshield.  The next day he was on his way to a nuclear plant being built in warmer and closer-to-home Arkansas. Since Swede had also left the week before, I was the senior man on our crew and he asked if I’d take over being Foreman.

As I put those little vertical orange stripes on each side of my hard hat, I found I had two things to be pleased about. I would be making an extra thirty five cents an hour, which would make it that much sooner that I myself could drag up and head for Transcendental Meditation Teacher Training. The other thing is that a Foreman is not expected to do any actual work, which would mean I could tell other people to scoot out there on those big girders and clean them off while I remained on solid footing. With hand rails.

From then on, once I had the crew all lined up with that day’s jobs and the various paperwork done, I could take a little time and go stroll around the project for some sight-seeing. There were four units in total planned. Each Unit contained a huge coal-fired boiler that created enough steam to power a massive turbine generator. At the time I was there, the first unit was well along in construction and would come on line in about a year. The second unit was about half-built; and they were still fitting the skeleton of the third building together with tall cranes moving enormous steel beams around like pieces in a jumbo erector set.

The buildings that house the boilers are over 250 feet tall. I was very curious as to how they joined the ends of those beams together. I couldn’t really make out the process from the ground and there were no windows in the steel sides of Unit 2. Then I noticed that there was an exterior fire escape on the side of the Unit with doors at every level. Each door had a good-sized reinforced glass pane installed in it.  If I could make my way to the particular door that was the same height as the upper reaches of the frame across the way, I would have a ringside seat.

I first checked with my crew to make sure they were okay, and then went up to take a look. I was expecting to see a good-sized team working on an elaborate system of temporary platforms, scaffolding, and jacks. Each beam represented tons of steel swinging through the air and I felt it would take some engineering brilliance to corral it, position it perfectly, and then attach it. What I saw was one iron worker wearing a tool belt with deep pockets sitting at a L-shaped joint in the frame.  A crane was lifting what I guessed was the next horizontal beam toward him.

I found out later that this guy was a member of a particular subset of the Ironworkers Union. They are called “Connectors”.

The Connector, using only hand-signals to the crane operator, guided the end of the beam into close proximity. When it was within inches, he locked his legs around the steel he was sitting on and wrestled the new beam into position. He pulled a spud wrench out of his tool bag and shoved the pointy end through the bolt holes, lining them up. Then he put in about three of the necessary twelve bolts, capped them with nuts, and then took out two more long-handled wrenches and tightened the bolts down. Then he stood up and walked along the twenty foot length of the new beam to the unconnected joint at the other end. Even from my window I could see that the metal he was standing on was slowly swaying in the wind. In between him and the dirt below was nothing but 180 feet of thin air. He calmly sat down on the end of the swaying beam, twiddled his fingers to get the crane operator to drop it a couple of inches, then wrestled the two pieces together and repeated the bolting process.

When the Ironworker relaxed and lit a cigarette while he waited for the next piece, I realized I’d been holding my breath and let it out with a whoosh. I was cold with sweat and my heart was hammering. I have been to circuses and I’ve seen high-wire acts with spotlights and drum rolls and all the slathered-on faux-drama the management can muster, but I’ve never been as terrified-from-a-distance as I was by that one Connector just doing his job.

***

*Go to the right-hand column and click Building Power Plants for America.

**Go to the right-hand column and click Crazy Bill.