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

Dirt Clods and Snowballs

When I was growing up in the little Wyoming town of Laramie, the kids in my neighborhood liked to throw things at each other. Some things were harmless – handfuls of leaves in the fall, grass clippings in the spring, cut weeds in the summer,  fluffy snowballs in the winter.  But for the most part, if whatever you had in your hand didn’t have the potential to do at least some harm, it was hardly worth throwing.  If you threw a slushball – a wet snowball with some hard chunks of ice in it – and were lucky enough to bounce it off your friend’s head and make him yell, you felt like Dead-Eye Dick for the rest of the day.

There was, however, a fine line, an unspoken agreement, not to throw anything specifically meant to wound. Rocks, for example, were never thrown. If you threw a rock at someone, it was an admission that although you wanted to hurt them, you didn’t have the courage to walk up close and throw a fist. The same went for pieces of metal, broken bricks, glass, and chunks of concrete. Tears were expected, even hoped for, but blood was not.

High on the list of ammunition-of-choice were dirt clods. Dirt clods are the by-product of digging a hole in Wyoming soil. Whether the digger was a nine-year-old boy excavating a foxhole in the vacant lot*, or a whole crew of men digging a foundation for a new house, when the hole was finished there would be a pile of dirt next to it. Some of the dirt was just that, dirt. But much of the soil still clung together in clumps. These, especially the ones that were between the size of a golf ball and a grapefruit, were God’s gift to boys intent on defending their side of the vacant lot from the kids on the other side.

An ideal throwing dirt clod has enough fine roots in it to hold it together in flight and embedded within it are enough small pebbles to sting if it hits its target.

Since our neighborhood was a relatively new one, there were new houses going up every year from the time the ground thawed in May until it got too cold to work the following December. And since we were in Wyoming, nearly every house had a full basement and for good reason. To keep your foundations from heaving, you had to put their footings below the deepest frost level. That required digging a hole at least six foot deep. As long as you were going that deep, you may as well go a couple of feet more, put in a full basement, and double your usable space. The result of this was a large pile of dirt sitting next to every foundation hole. This pile just sat there, beckoning to the neighborhood children, until the house was nearly built. Then some of the pile was used to backfill the foundation walls and the rest was hauled away.

In the meantime, after school and on weekends, that dirt pile was “Pork Chop Hill.” Two or three kids would start on each side of the pile and start climbing to the top, flinging dirt clods over the summit as they went, hoping to deter the other side from getting there first. Once you got near the top, you stopped throwing and started grabbing and shoving, hoping to make the other guy fall over and roll down the pile. “Pork Chop Hill” quickly became “King of the Hill” as teammates were forgotten and every boy was fighting only for himself.  Afterward, sporting various scrapes, nicks, and fat lips, we all walked home together. We’d stop periodically to empty the dirt out of our shoes and congratulate ourselves on our hand-to-hand combat skills.

In the winter, when the ground is frozen hard, dirt clods are forgotten and a young man’s thoughts turn inevitably to… snowballs.

Here’s an interesting question for you. If it had snowed in Galilee, would Jesus have gotten into snowball-throwing trouble with the kids his age? I don’t mean just lobbing a few softly-packed snowballs in somebody’s general direction, but pressing and shaping the snow into a compact sphere about the size of an apple, then winging it at a passing merchant, hoping to knock the turban off his head. Would He decline and risk being mocked by his friends? It’s hard to build a ministry when you’re known as Jesus the Weenie. I suppose He could throw and intentionally miss, but wouldn’t this entail a bit of out-of-character duplicity? I like to think He’d choose a more forthright approach by rearing back and drilling the old guy right in the ear, then falling to His knees to beg for forgiveness and absolution. Perhaps this is the reason God chose that part of the world to incarnate his only son – it doesn’t snow and the soil is too sandy to make a decent dirt clod.

On a winter morning in Wyoming, when a kid wakes up and finds it has snowed the night before, the first thing he wants to know is how much came down, and the second is how wet is it? If it is light and dry, it will be easy to shovel, but won’t pack into a snowball that’s worth half a horse patoot. On the other hand, a heavy, wet, early-spring snow can be easily pressed into a hard ball that would make Whitey Ford pink with envy. The drawback to that wet snow is that it will break your heart trying to shovel it. And shovel it you must.

I would bet that every young Wyoming father’s first thoughts as he looks lovingly down at his newborn son are, “I’ll only have to hang on eight or nine more years and then I’ll never have to shovel snow again.”

As the family’s designated snow remover, you may be able to put off shoveling that newly-fallen wet snow off the sidewalk for a few hours, but as soon as you get home from school the job will be waiting. All day long, passers-by will have been tromping the snow into slush.  This is not fun to shovel, but at least it moves off the concrete. If you duck out and leave it unshoveled, it will freeze to glare ice overnight that will have you fighting back tears of frustration as you chip away at it the next day.

Oops. I seem to have wandered off-topic. What were we talking about? Oh yeah – dirt clods. I think every neighborhood in America that has kids in it also has the Neighborhood Grouch. This is the guy who comes out on his front porch and yells, “Get off my lawn!” or who chains his dog up on the front porch on Halloween Night to keep the trick-or-treaters away. In our neighborhood, it was a woman named Fauniel Fellhauer**. She had, at some point, married a rancher named Tony.  But she was evidently miserable on the ranch and vocal enough about it that Tony built her a house in town. After that, they were rarely seen together. Although she did make a few appearances in a bathrobe out in front of her house yelling at kids, more often she was on the phone to the Police.  If the Laramie Police Department had a list of cranks who’d call them up at the drop of a propeller beanie, I’d be surprised if Fauniel Fellhauer’s name was not at or near the top.

It was a nice summer afternoon and Tommy Denniston and I were standing in the vacant lot pitching dirt clods at some empty pop bottles twenty or thirty feet away.  In our imaginations, they were Commies just peeking their heads up over the edge of their foxhole and getting ready to charge. Suddenly, Tommy pointed up in the sky and I froze in mid-windup. A large airplane was in the air high overhead. A rumor had gone around that Spring that if you saw such a plane it might be a Russian bomber preparing to drop the A-bomb on our little town.  The only way to know was to study the plane. If you saw a flash of light from its belly, then you had about fifteen seconds to live. After a few minutes, the plane had gone by. No flash, no mushroom cloud. If it was the Russians, then they had decided to avoid Laramie, fly on over the hill, and flatten Cheyenne. And who really cared about that.

During the pause, the bloodthirsty Commies had turned back into pop bottles and we had to either reset the game or come up with something new. Then I caught some movement from the corner of my eye.  I turned and stared.

“What is it?” Tommy asked.

“I think I saw something up on Fellhauer’s roof.”

After a few seconds, it moved again.

The vacant lot was on Kearney Avenue right in between our house at 1717 and the Fellhauer’s at 1713. The Fellhauer’s house was made of brick – two stories in the front and a single story in the back. The kitchen was in the back of the house on the vacant-lot side. All houses have various kinds and sizes of pipes that stick up through the roof. There are plumbing vents, water heater vents, furnace stacks, and, above the kitchen stove, the exhaust hood vent. Tony Fellhauer must have had trouble with the wind blowing cooking smoke back down the vent pipe because he had equipped their hood exhaust pipe with a wind-directional cap. It moved on the pipe whenever the wind changed a little. Of course, as a nine-year-old, I could grasp none of this. But I had recently seen Bill Holden in Submarine Command and I knew what I was looking at.

“It’s a periscope.”

“What?”

“Up there!” I pointed. “She’s looking at us.”

As we studied the mechanism the wind shifted slightly and it was pointing directly at us.

I can’t remember if I yelled something like, “We’ve gotta knock it out!” or if we both just spontaneously started heaving dirt clods up on the Fellhauer’s roof. After a couple of minutes of this, the wind shifted again, the vent turned away, and we decided we needed some Kool-Aid. Twenty minutes later we were in my house setting up the Parcheesi board when my brother Lewis came in and said there was a Police car out in front of the Fellhauer’s. We went to the window and could see Fauniel out next to her house gesticulating angrily to a pair of policemen. There were dirt clods scattered around on her kitchen roof.

We decided it would be a good afternoon to stay inside.

***

  • *Go to the right-hand column and click Kick the Can.
  • **Go to the right-hand column and click The Rock and Roll Kid.

Video Symphony

We’ve been out of them for eight years now and I still don’t know how to refer to the first decade of this century. The “aughts?” or the “twenty-ohs?” or maybe the “zeros?” All these terms have one thing in common –they sound wrong.

Anyway, back then, about ‘04 or ’05, I was in my usual work position – down on my knees on someone’s kitchen floor – when I tried to stand up. And I couldn’t do it. My knees were not willing to comply. I had to use the line of cabinets I had just installed as a kind of monkey bars in order to pull myself up to my feet.  That was when I started thinking that it was time to look for a new occupation. But what?

In my spare time, I had been writing screenplays – as was every other person in LA. Despite a few minor successes, a couple of free options here and a Producer/Director who liked my work there, nothing was really happening. So even though I liked writing (and, obviously, I still do) I was not going to make a living with a comfy chair and a word processor.

So for months my wife and I made lists, did research, and talked it over. As we did so, I continued to work in people’s kitchens and my knees kept reminding me that my days of crawling into cabinets were numbered. The ironic thing was that as the certainty of the end grew larger, I was getting better at the job. People were saying that they didn’t want anyone working in their kitchen but me and even the term “Master Carpenter” was being thrown around. Even though I had raised my rates a couple of times, I was still booking six weeks to two months out. Of course, these were the heady days before the Great Recession dropped out of the sky and flattened everybody in the housing business.

In the midst of all this, I made my decision. I would learn to be a Video Editor. This job seemed like it was custom-made for me. It was a sit-down job that required a lot of computer skills (which I didn’t have but could learn) and a generous helping of creativity (which I flattered myself that I already possessed). And being so right-brained that it’s surprising I don’t list to starboard when I walk, it was not surprising that I was attracted to such a visual skill.

“Age?” said the salesman in answer to my question, “No, it’s really not a problem. In other areas of the business, yes it’s a factor, but in the Editor’s chair they like to see somebody older, somebody with the calm and steady attitude you only get from years of experience.”  With me being nearly sixty at the time, this was cream for the cat.

We had found several trade schools that taught Video Editing. This one, Video Symphony, was the closest to home. It was also, bigger, flashier, and more self-assured than their competitors. It had been setup as a high-end training facility while the other places we looked at seemed more like, ”Yeah, we put in a school in the back room.” Video Symphony had more than eighty computer workstations divided among eight large classrooms. When they told me that they had set up a program dedicated to working people and were offering classes on evenings and weekends, I was patting my pockets for a pen.

Thirty thousand dollars in school loans was, admittedly, a huge pill to ask my wife to swallow. I guess she bought my argument that once I had a job as an editor I’d be bringing in enough money that we could make the payments on the loans and still not have to move into a cardboard box under the underpass. Either that or she looked into my big, pleading eyes and just couldn’t say no.

Once again, I became a student. When you’re sixty and going back to school, your approach is very different. When you look speculatively a nicely-tanned, attractive female classmate, it’s only because you’re wondering if she understood that part about “drop frame rates.” Instead of wondering if you can skip a class without missing too much, you’re wondering when you can come and do some extra hours on a workstation just so you can keep up with some of the young hotshots in your class.

The principal software that Video Symphony trained people on was Avid. At the time, and probably today, 98% of studio feature films are cut on Avid. Ditto with high-end network television. It’s a big, expensive software package that will only run on big, expensive computer work stations. We also learned Final Cut Pro, but at Video Symphony it was treated as the red-headed stepson of Post Production Software.

Editing, to me, was just another form of construction. When one begins to build a house, all around the lot there are piles of boards, plywood, nails, siding roofing materials, windows, doors, and a myriad of other things. The builder cuts boards to the exact length needed, attaches them together, stands them up in the proper place, and moves on. An Editor is, essentially, doing the same thing. Every scene has been filmed or videoed, in its entirety, four or five times. All from different angles. The Editor takes a moment from here at this angle and a moment from there at that angle tweaks them back and forth to get both the audio and the video to work seamlessly, then goes on to the next set of moments.  One of the main differences is that, in construction, you don’t have the Architect and the Interior Designer sitting on a comfortable couch right behind you and watching you work. “Can we see this room again only with that wall three inches longer, and this window opening six inches to the left.”

One thing the school, the teachers, and a little bit down the road, the students had to contend with was the constant innovation of technology.  When I began in 2006, for example, everything arrived in the editing room on tape cassettes. The higher the quality of the show, the bigger the tape cassettes got, not to mention the size and price of the tape decks needed to capture all the video and sound. We were taught, retaught, and drilled on the workflow to digitize those tapes and get them into the computer’s memory and the Avid’s usable files. By the time I’d completed and passed ingestion of taped media, production houses and studios were trading in their old tape cameras for ones that shot on hard drive. Within six months of my graduation in 2009, tapes and tape decks were as out-of-date as flip phones and CRT monitors.

I had been in the school for a couple of years before someone finally came out and told us the truth. Graduates of Video Symphony were not being hired directly out of school as Editors. The few that were actually editing were working on no-budget indie productions for “exposure.” The paying jobs that we were eligible for was Assistant Editor.

Going back to our Construction analogy, the Builder has minions working for him that cut, code, and stack all the raw materials and get everything ready so when he walks onto the job site he can start whacking things together immediately. The Editor has Assistant Editors that spend all night ingesting all the dailies into the Computer’s memory, going through them and throwing out all the blown takes, then precisely coding each take at each angle and ingesting these marked clips into the Avid’s files, ready for cutting. A one-hour show might need five to seven hours of raw footage in clips. Then the next day the Editor saunters in, cracks his knuckles, and begins putting the show together.

During my last year of school, 2008-09, I had taken on as many small freelance editing jobs as I could squeeze in. The bottom had fallen out of the kitchen remodeling business and I had more free time than I wanted so I did what I could to build up my resume. Then I went looking for work.

After I had been sending out resumes for only a couple of weeks, I got a request for an interview with a small production house that was looking for Assistant Editors. I interviewed with the boss and, with a big grin and a handshake, he offered me a one-month Internship. I would work there for free for a month, and after that, if they liked my work, they would pay me fifteen dollars an hour. This was about what restaurants were paying experienced dishwashers.

I turned it down. This offer had come so quickly, I told myself; surely others that were a little more reasonable would soon follow. Au contraire, mon frère. This would turnout to be the closest I ever got to a regular Post Production job.

In hindsight, I had three things going against me; any one of which could have, by itself, swamped my canoe. Together they were like taking a torpedo amidships just below the water line. One was the Recession. Everyone was feeling the pinch, even the entertainment industry. Financiers and Producers were suddenly looking for ways to save money by downsizing. The second blow was the advent of Final Cut Pro. This software was relatively inexpensive, ran on any regular computer, was fairly easy to learn, and could do almost everything Avid could do. Kids across the country were buying a copy of FCP, a laptop, and an instruction book. Shortly thereafter, hordes of them began showing up in LA willing to work for minimum wage. The third, and maybe the biggest blow, was that most people in the Los Angeles area who were looking for an Assistant Editor were men or women in their thirties. And nobody wants to hire their Dad to be their assistant. Somehow, yelling out, “Hey, run down to craft services and get me a cup of coffee and a bagel, wouldja? And this time don’t put so much damned sugar in it!” at a nice old guy with gray hair just makes the yeller look and feel like a jerk.

After many months of banging my head against that particular wall, I threw in the towel, stopped mixing my metaphors, and went back to the kitchen cabinet trade. People who needed their old cabinets repaired because they could not afford new ones began calling. It wasn’t much, but I was able to pay a few bills and start chipping away at those ridiculous school loans. With luck, ibuprofen, and steroid injections, I was able to make my knees last for another seven years until I could finally retire.

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