Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Past is Not Past - Part 1

I'm reading a book by one of my favorite historians, Lynne Olson. It is "Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England." It was written in 2007 but could have been written last week. It is a highly impressive work of research and writing.

I'm only part way through the book, but had to stop to share with you some relevant items. The situation, simply, is Chamberlain is Prime Minster of England, a small number of Members of Parliament oppose him, Hitler is overrunning Europe, and Chamberlain has returned from Munich and told the British people there will be no war, that there is "peace with honor" - because he gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler without a shot being fired.

Here are some excerpts. 

"At a time when British newspapers were enjoying a golden age, when more papers were reaching more people than ever before, the British people were starved of real news about the growing international crisis. They were told little or nothing about the deplorable state of British rearmament or the divisions within the government over Chamberlain's appeasement policy. ... 'When it came to news coverage, the real power rests with the government,' said Chamberlain's ambassador to Washington in 1939. 'We decide what to do, and then send for the newspapers and tell them to sell it to the public.'"

"(James Margach, a veteran political correspondent for The Sundays Times) 'From the moment Chamberlain entered No. 10 in 1937, he sought to manipulate the press into supporting his policy of appeasing the dictators...In order to cling to power, Chamberlain was prepared to abuse truth itself. He made the most misleading and inaccurate statements, which he was determined to see published so as to make his policies appear credible and successful. Quite simply, he told lies.'"

"The government did not directly censor the press... What Chamberlain and his government could, and did, do was prod the press to censor itself. During a meeting with Joseph Goebbels in 1937, Lord Halifax agreed with the Nazi head of propaganda about the need to keep 'the press in either country from making mischief.'"

"Hypersensitive to any criticism, Chamberlain deeply resented questions from journalists that he regarded as implying criticism of himself or his policies. Sometimes, after being asked such a question at a briefing, he would pause and, in an icy tone, ask the offending journalist which newspaper he represented. Everyone present recognized the query for the intimidation it was meant to be."

And finally:
"Chamberlain was particularly incensed by allegations that he was becoming authoritarian. Once, trembling and pale with fury, he summoned Margach and a few other top political reporters to Downing Street to complain about some such attack. 'I tell you that I'm not dictatorial, I'm not intolerant, I'm not overpowering!' the prime minster shouted as he repeatedly pounded the table. 'You're all wrong, wrong, wrong, I tell you! I'm the most relaxed and understanding of people! None of you, I insist, must ever say I'm dictatorial again!"

I invite you to make your own comparisons and draw your own conclusions.
More to come at a later date.
Thanks to Lynne Olson for granting me permission to quote from her book.

"Troublesome Young Men" by Lynne Olson

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Debbie, Donald and Gene: A True Story

This is the story of a book. Not just any book, but a special volume signed by three special people. Right now it sits on my shelf in the hallway, where it's been for the past several years. I hadn't looked at the book for quite some time, but recent events caused me to take the book off the shelf, blow the dust off, sit on my couch and revisit those three signatures.
The story begins over forty years ago, in 1974. Gene Kelly was in St. Louis to open the new season at the Muny Opera in "Take Me Along." Kelly had been - and still is - one of my favorite entertainers - actor, dancer, singer. Gene and movie musicals were the gold standard of entertainment, for me and for most of the nation. One night during that week he was here, I went to see the show. I brought with me a book I had bought the previous year, “The Films of Gene Kelly.” I belonged to a movie book club and bought most of what they offered. I had a steady income in those days.

When I was in high school, I worked at the Muny as an usher, so I knew the manager, Ed Steinhauer. He was a friend of my dad. Ed was not an outwardly friendly man. He seldom smiled, seemed distant, yet made sure I always got good seats. During intermission on this particular night, I found Ed standing at his usual post on the ramp where the customers enter the seating area. I asked him if he would have Gene sign my book. He said he would try, and I could get the book after the show. 

After the finale, and a standing ovation for Gene and the cast, I hurried to Ed’s station. He was there. No book in his hand. Before I could say anything, he said “Come on back.” He led me backstage, to the dressing room, and introduced me to Gene Kelly, who was in the process of changing clothes, wiping off makeup, and sweat from his performance and the St. Louis humidity. We shook hands, I mumbled something like “You’re terrific” or “This is a real honor” or something equally inane. To this day I have no idea of what I said. It didn’t matter. He took out a pen - with green ink - signed my book, and said something like “Thanks, kid” and handed it back to me.


I don’t remember anything else about that night except holding the book very tightly until I got to my car. That, I thought, was that.

Jump forward now about twenty years. Sometime during the mid-’90’s, while working at D’Arcy Advertising, I got involved with the Variety Club of St. Louis telethons and wrote the outlines and scripts for a few of them. Mike Roarty, head marketing guru at Anheuser-Busch, was a key member of Variety and responsible for bringing in many big-name stars. Mike loved show biz as much as he loved the beer biz. This one particular year he brought in Donald O’Connor.


On the day before the Telethon, we had a run-through at the Chase Hotel Khorassan Room. Donald was very relaxed and approachable. I had brought the Gene Kelly book with me. During a break in the rehearsal, I sat at a round dinner table next to Don (I’ve gone from Donald to Don, you’ll notice), we talked about his house in Sedona, Arizona - which he had just moved into - and how he felt about being so far removed from Hollywood and the film community.

While listening to him, I had this strong feeling that I never wanted the conversation to end. I just wanted to sit next to him, for as long as possible, and listen to this remarkably talented man. During a lull in the conversation, I slipped the Kelly book out of the envelope, slid it over to him, and told him I got Gene to sign it. He said, “Where’s your Films of Donald O’Connor book?" and laughed. I was trying to come up with a humorous response when he added, “Don’t worry. There isn’t one.” Then he picked up a pen, opened the book, and said “Where do you want me to sign?” I told him page 134. The “Singin’ in the Rain” page. He signed it. He also signed a 5x7 black and white photo of himself, stuck it in the book, and slid it back to me.

Two out of three!

Now came the third and final step: Getting Debbie Reynolds signature. This part of the story begins in Las Vegas. In December of 2000, my wife and I were in Vegas for 3 or 4 days, staying at the MGM Grand. I saw an ad in a tour guide for the Debbie Reynolds show at the Orleans Hotel. Of course I hadn't brought the book with me, never thinking that she might be in Vegas. We didn't go see her show, I'm sorry to say. At the time there were other shows we were more interested in and time was short. But I had to get her to sign the book. So I wrote her a letter, on MGM Grand stationery, explaining the situation, where I was staying, when I was leaving, and included my home address and phone number. I went by the Orleans and left it at the desk for her. Two days later I returned to St. Louis, having heard nothing from Debbie. Weeks went by. Nothing.

A couple of months later, I was sitting at my desk at home, working on my iMac. D'Arcy was a thing of the past. I was gone and so was the agency, in that order. Free-lance writing now took up much of my days. The possibility of getting a response from Debbie was very distant. I was looking at the gray February day outside my window when the phone rang. 
I answered. 
      A woman said, "Gerry? Is this Gerry Mandel?" 
     "That's right," I said, figuring it was some fund raiser or cruise line. 
     She said, "This is Debbie Reynolds." Sure, I thought. Obviously a gag from a friend. 
     "Debbie Reynolds," I said. "Okay. Seriously, who is this?"
     She laughed, the delicate sound of music in her voice. "Is this the Gerry Mandel who wrote a letter about signing a book?"

I don’t remember the rest of our conversation, but it was something along the lines of her saying, "I've been very busy but want you to know I'll be happy to sign your book. You can send it to me.” She gave me her home address, in North Hollywood, and asked me to include a return envelope. I had the book in the mail the next day. Double-wrapped, insured, tracking number, signed receipt, etc etc.

Then I waited. And waited. A month went by. Another month. Oh, great, I thought. She wants to keep the book. Or somebody else took it. Or she spilled a cup of coffee on it and is embarrassed to return it. I mailed her a note, politely inquiring if she got the book. A week later the phone rang. No, not Debbie. Some man. Her assistant or helper or pool boy. He told me “Miss Reynolds has indeed received the book, has been very busy, but will get to it immediately.” He wasn’t lying. A few days later I received the envelope with my handwriting on it. Inside was the Gene Kelly book, signed by Debbie. Also included was her autobiography, which she signed, as well as an ad for her show at the Orleans, which she also signed. And a lovely note.


In January of 2017, two weeks after Debbie and Carrie left us, TCM released “Singin’ in the Rain” in theaters across America, to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the original release. I saw it twice, the first time with a group of friends who made the night even more special. The movie was better than I ever remembered.


There was a time, a few years back, when I had considered selling that book. On eBay or AbeBooks or a Hollywood auction site. I figured it might get a few hundred dollars, maybe more. But I didn’t do it. And I won’t. Unless the offering price is so outrageous it could put Mary Lee and me in a condo in the Bahamas and maybe a Bentley. Yes, everybody has their price. But until that offer comes in, the book stays on my shelf. Protected by a vicious golden retriever and a hi-tech security system that plays "Good Mornin'" very loudly.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Spike, Harry and Enos at The Chase

January is a good month to search for old stuff and get rid of it, maybe even sell on eBay. Which is what I had planned for a menu I found in my files but now I think I'll keep it.



The menu is autographed by 3 famous people, one on the front, two on the back..famous to many anyway. I think the year is early 1951, although there is no date on it.



This is the Chase Club, at the Chase Hotel in mid-town St. Louis, still a highly regarded hotel just across from Forest Park. My parents used to go to the Club almost every Sunday night. This particular night, they took me to see Spike Jones and the City Slickers. I was a big fan of Spike - still am, really - and loved seeing him in his plaid jacket, along with Doodles Weaver, George Rock, and the rest of the crazy gang. Spike's autograph is on front of the menu.

Here's an idea what was offered on the menu and the prices.
- Lobster cocktail $1.90
- Hot Deviled Chicken Livers Rolled in Bacon $.95
- Mock Turtle Soup .50
- Lobster ala Newburg  2.75
- Broiled Lamb Chops  2.30
- Choice Tenderloin Steak w/French Fried Onions   4.50
- Spike Jones Special: Spaghetti w/Meat Balls   2.85
and for dessert, Chocolate Cream Pie   .35
Almost forgot: you could get a cup of Sanka for 30 cents.




As I was considering whether to put this up for grabs on eBay, I looked at the back of the menu. There are two autographs there, lightly written in pen or pencil, I'm not sure which. One is Harry Caray. The other is Enos Slaughter. So I know it was a Sunday night, the Cardinals weren't playing, and there must have been other players at the Club that night. And there must have been a couple of babes at the table with Harry and Country Slaughter, but that's just a guess. 


Many years later, I would work with Harry in advertising. He had moved to Chicago and was the voice of the Cubs. We needed a Budweiser campaign for Chicago, so Harry became our "Cub Fan/Bud Man." My son Gregg was there for the shoot. Harry sold a lot of beer for us. 














But that was to come later. This night at the Club, he was the voice of the Red Birds, Enos was 5 years past his famous dash from first to home on a hit by Harry Walker in a World Series game against the Boston Red Sox, and Spike and his City Slickers had a hit with "Cocktails for Two." 


If it hadn't been for this menu, I probably would've forgotten about that magical evening with mom and dad, meeting Spike, Harry and Enos, and enjoying a big slice of Chocolate Cream Pie.



Monday, December 26, 2016

A Guy Named Chuck


I Thought I Knew a Guy Named Chuck

Occasionally a name appears in the obituaries that triggers a memory, a face looks out that is faintly recalled, a forgotten connection is restored. The deceased may not have played a significant role in your life, yet he or she shared a part of your past. You may not even recognize the photo next to the name. Frequently the family pulls a picture from an album or a dusty frame that shows him "in better days." Yet there is an echo, like a song or a voice, faintly distinguishable but impossible to ignore.

Such a name showed up not long ago in the local papers. Charles "Chuck" Murphy. I knew a guy named Chuck Murphy. Played senior softball with him, years ago. But I didn't recognize the small, square photo. A young military man, he wore what looked like a Navy cap, the dress kind with a bill and, on the front, an anchor, the Navy symbol. This was not the Chuck I knew. This guy was a kid, barely old enough to shave, a smile and a look that held all the promise of a bright future. An American flag headlined the short obituary that began "Beloved husband for 70 years to his soulmate..."
Truth be told, I'm not in the habit of reading the obituaries. I think it's a lousy way to start the day. I don't want any reminders that my name and photo will be in there one day. Hopefully not next Thursday. But sometimes, when I'm standing in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to perk, the water to boil, or the toast to pop up, I'll skim the dearly departed. It's like a treasure hunt where you hope you don't find the treasure.

I read the complete obit, maybe 180 words, including information about the memorial service coming up on the following Sunday. This was Thanksgiving weekend, certainly a time to give thanks for being alive. What I learned about Chuck in those few words made me realize how little I knew about him.

The year I met him was 2000. I had discovered the Senior Softball League at Kirkwood Park. You had to be 65 or older to play. I had barely made the cut. So I tentatively stuck my bat into the sport I had been absent from for many years. In fact, I didn't have a bat. Or a glove. Or the right kind of shoes. I had nothing but curiosity and maybe a modicum of ability. I would be one of the young players. I signed up at the Community Center. Games were to begin in two weeks. My next stop was Sports Authority for a fielder's glove, a can of Neatsfoot oil, and black shoes with plastic cleats. The bat came later, when I discovered that most players brought their own bats.

Of the 30 or 40 guys who showed up two or three days a week for the morning games, one of them struck me as supremely gifted. He hit the ball solidly - to right, left, or up the middle. Anyplace he figured they were playing him too deep or too shallow. He ran the bases with a deceptive speed, often stretching a single into a double, beating out a ground ball on a slow throw from third. But it was his dominance of left field that made the greatest impression on me. He was graceful. In the same way that Joe DiMaggio had been graceful in the Yankees' outfield.  At the crack of the bat, Chuck had a sixth sense where the ball was going. He immediately knew where he had to be, how quickly he needed to move to get there, where to hold his glove to snare the ball. He scooped up line drives, chased down long balls hit between him and the center fielder. No hesitation, no false steps. Just a sureness as beautiful to behold as Joltin' Joe. If you were on the opposing team, the word was "Don't hit it to left."

I knew very little about Chuck beyond his athletic skill. He wanted to win but not at the expense of friendship and fun. One day, someone mentioned to me that Chuck was 81 years old. I was astounded. Eighty-one belonged in the upper tiers of life. On the softball field it achieved even greater importance. Age, they say, is only a number. For Chuck, it was a number to be ignored, not even given consideration.
I didn't talk with Chuck much. No conversations, at least nothing any deeper than the play of the moment.  The only words we exchanged were "Nice catch" or "Good try" or "Way to go." Sincere but expected phrases revealing very little of either one of us.

No, I didn't know Chuck. After reading his obituary, it hit me just how precious an opportunity I had let pass by. In that short column in the paper, I learned that Chuck was a four-sports varsity letterman. That was evident on those summer mornings in the fields of Kirkwood. What wasn't evident was that he had served as a Navy pilot during WWII. That he had won many medals in the Senior Olympics. That he loved jazz. That he travelled extensively.
Right there were two of my favorite areas of interest: the War and Jazz. I wondered, What did he fly? Where was he based? Did he see combat? How did he end up to be a fly-boy in the Navy? Would he be willing to let me do a video of his stories and life? Questions I would never have an answer for.

And jazz. What kind of jazz did he like? Who were his favorite artists? Did he like big bands, or small groups? Did he ever see Benny Goodman or Louis Armstrong in person? Where did he go to hear jazz? Could we go out together some night to hear jazz? I was too late. The sounds had faded.

I loved the last sentence of his obit, a strange place to find poetry. It said, "He was a man of his generation: honest, kind, generous, ethical and responsible."
Those seem to be qualities more rare these days, attributes that should be imbedded in our DNA if we are to succeed as a nation and a race.

I am now 81 years old. I still play softball. I sometimes stand where Chuck stood. But not with the grace and talent of Chuck. I'm sure no one looks at me with awe. But that's not the point. Here's the point. We know so little of the people we think we know. We don't take the time or trouble to learn more. Only at their passing do we realize what we have truly lost, what rich and interesting lives are no longer available to us to absorb, to fascinate, to make us revel in the full wonder of what life can mean to us. And to others.

So what do we do?  Maybe all it takes is a word, a question, a shift of focus from yourself to that someone else. Perhaps it's as simple as listening for that small detail in someone's life, like a partially open door that leads you into an incredible room where you finally see what that person is all about, where their life journey has taken them. Quite possibly, you may find one or two items in there that compels you to know more about them. In fact, you might just meet one of the most interesting people you've ever known. You will have enhanced your world. Then you won't have to read about what you missed.



(I took this photo of Chuck in 2001, when I was photographing many of the softball players for an exhibit at the Kirkwood Community Center. It remains one of my favorite portraits.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

That Sinking Feeling, or Bad Day at Blackwell

This story lies somewhere between comedy and tragedy. Depends on your sense of humor and your outlook on life. For me, it was closer to tragedy, bordering on horror, taking me dangerously close to outrage and even vengeance. But you decide.
     It began innocently on a Friday morning in mid-October. Mary Lee and I and Lexi, our ever present Golden Retriever, piled into my 2010 Honda Insight. I mention the car by name because it's an important player in this story. The weather was unusually fine for this time of year, maybe even a touch warm, an excellent day for a nature hike. So we headed to Washington State Park, about an hour away. We arrived about one o'clock, found a trail head, and hiked for almost an hour. We were the only ones on the trail, which ran along a small creek through the woods. It was fairly easy walking, so calling it a hike is a bit of an exaggeration. We were the only ones on that trail, a peaceful escape from traffic and internet, bringing me closer to the very essence of our being, a connection to the wondrous forces of nature, a glimpse into the eternal, and all with my iPhone  off. 
     We returned to the car, headed out the park onto Highway 21. A service station sat just a couple hundred yards up the road. We both decided it'd be a good idea of use their "facilities" before heading home. That bottled water kind of goes right through you. So I headed up 21 and...now follow this closely if you will. There were two driveways into the station. I pulled into the first one. In retrospect, my life would have changed if I had chosen the second driveway. But I chose the first. The building with the rest rooms, the dollar hot dogs, the racks of candy and stale donuts - really some of the worst products our culture has developed - that building was at the other end of the service station area. A line of pumps stood between me and the building. A rope barrier was strung between a couple of the pumps. Nothing to do with me, I thought. So instead of pulling back onto 21 and heading up to the second driveway, I went straight ahead, intending to drive around the pumps. 
     Have you ever had the feeling that something has just gone drastically wrong? That you've made some kind of error but aren't quite sure what it is? Have you ever had a sick feeling deep in the pit of your stomach that you've just taken the wrong fork in life's road? Then you know how I felt when I drove straight ahead into a pit of freshly poured concrete. This wasn't just a patch, where your tires might get a little grimy. No, this was more like driving into quicksand. Not that I've ever driven into quicksand, but now I know how it feels. This was deep.
     My car began to sink into this large section of concrete. I tried to back up. Immediately. No traction. I tried the recommended rocking motion we've all learned to get out of  snow. No traction. And sinking deeper. I looked around. There had been no markings to indicate work in progress.  No rope, barricade, construction cone, sign. Several guys in their Ford F-150's and Dodge Rams at the pumps stood there pumping, smiling and enjoying the show. I could read their minds.  "Look at that old fart stuck in concrete." "Bet he can't get out." "I feel kinda sorry for the dog." 
     Finally two guys came over, worker types in jeans, boots, tees, tattoos, stood in front of my car, shook their heads. 
     "Can you help me?" I shouted out my car window. I wasn't about to open the door and step into the muck.
     "Ain't no way to get you out without a tow truck. And there ain't no tow truck here."
     "Then push me out." 
     "No way we can get a car to push you out," said the other one.
     I pointed frantically to the front of my car. "Then maybe you can get in there and push me out."
     They looked at each other, shook their heads, and stepped into the goo up over their boots, pushed me, hard, harder, as I spun the wheels, flinging more and more concrete up into the underside of my beautiful Insight. Finally I was on solid concrete. I got out of the car and said, rather pissed at this point, "Why the hell didn't you put up some signs or ropes or something?"
     "We wasn't through yet," said the first guy. 
     I looked at my car, wet gray concrete covering the wheels, bumper, the entire bottom of the car dripping with that stuff.  
     And that's when my brain shut down. What I should have done at that moment was take out my iPhone and take pictures. Take a video of the area without any signs, of the guy who had pushed me now frantically smoothing the concrete over before it dried, to make it look nice again. I should have called the cops or state police or whoever the hell is responsible for law enforcement in Blackwell, Missouri (that's where the station is located, I discovered later on). I should have talked to the owner, gotten names of witnesses, taken their pictures. I should have, I should have, I should have. That was my mantra as I tried to fall asleep the whole week.
    But I didn't.
    "You better get over to a car wash," said one of the guys in the concrete boots. "Before that gets hard." He had already started scraping off his boots. 
     "A car wash," I thought. Yeah, I'd better get to one. Then everything'll be okay.
     So, not compiling any evidence of the crime that had just taken place, we hit the road, headed towards DeSoto, Missouri, found a car wash. The do-it-yourself kind, where you hold a sprayer, put money into a machine, dial if you want soap or polish or just water or whatever. For the next twenty minutes I sprayed the car. Huge slabs of wet concrete slid off. I crawled partway under the car, sprayed underneath. And that was a forceful spray. Four minutes worth for only two bucks. I spent eight bucks. Got off all the concrete I could.  
     Then we hit the highway, headed back home. "I think we're okay," I tried to tell myself, but not believing it. Especially with the car feeling suggish. Ten minutes later the car began to vibrate when I hit 50 mph. It was a long, torturous ride home, never getting any smoother. And every mile of the way I knew I was doing more and more damage to the car. I could feel that ugly mixture grinding its way deeper and deeper into my Honda's soul. 
     Finally, after what seemed like hours creeping along the highway, we arrived home. I spent another half hour with the garden hose, sprayed more gray chunky goo from under the car. All the while thinking, I should have, I should have. I called the service station near me, told him what happened. They were just closing up. "Bring it over Monday morning," he said. "We'll knock that concrete out of there." That gave me a bit of a lift to carry me through the weekend.
     Come Monday morning, it was on the lift at the station. "Wow," said the guy. "Never seen anything like that before. I can't do anything." He gave me the address of a car repair place that maybe could do something. They couldn't. The guy at that place looked at the car, bent over, said, "I don't know. It'll take a lot of work." I asked how much, rough idea. "Oh, four, five thousand. Don't hold me to it, though."
     I didn't. I drove home with a heavy heart, an upset stomach, an approaching migraine, and a sadness brought on by the certainty that my Insight was running its last miles. It was. By the end of the week, the insurance company, reading the report from one of their car repair shops, gave me the bad news. It had been totaled. Repairs, if possible, were estimated at $6000 and climbing. Which meant I could take their payment - 75% of market value - and they'd have the car carted off for scrap. Or I could take a little less payment, keep the car and take care of the repairs. The guy at the repair shop said, "It'll never be right. That estimate will go higher. We wouldn't know until we take everything apart."
 

     









They kept the car. I took the payment. I drove a rental for a week, a Chevy SUV, twice as big as my late, great Honda. I'm in the market for a car now. A used car. Here's what I'm thinking. Maybe this concrete episode was a sign. My first car was a convertible. A 1956 Chevy Bel Air. All my other cars that followed were convertibles: '60 Corvette, '65 Olds Jetstar, '72 Dodge Dart (one of the worst cars I ever owned), kept the Olds for a long time, then an '88 Mazda RX-7. I kept that until 2004. And have been without a convertible since then.
     So the answer is obvious. It might be time for a convertible. Maybe something good has yet to come from that unfortunate day in Blackwell, Missouri. Great name for a town, right? Blackwell. I don't plan to return anytime soon. Unless I find a really good deal on a used convertible there. Like a '60 Corvette for under five thousand dollars. 


Monday, October 17, 2016

The Fearful, Haunted Road to My House

Warning: This is not for the faint of heart. There are dangerous creatures that lurk within this post. Proceed at your own risk.

Okay, Halloween is almost upon us. In most neighborhoods that means a scattering of kids knocking at your door, showing off their marvelous, creative costumes, and then proceeding with a "knock knock" joke or a "Why did the whatever do whatever?" line of questioning.

I've got it much better than that, thanks to my neighbor Leon. He treats Halloween as seriously as most people treat Christmas - with a display of assorted monsters, ghosts, witches.... just about every twisted being you can think of - except politicians. (Some things are just too horrible to behold.)


All the photos you see here show the result of Leon's efforts. As you turn off Ballas Road, about a mile south of West County Shopping Center (Sorry, no clown masks for sale this year), you enter the Hue Vista neighborhood via Rayner Road. And that's where the traffic slows. For the little ones in the back seat, and mom and/or dad as well, to see what evil lurks in the heart of Hue Vista.

Leon, I believe, started this about eight years ago. That's when I knew for sure I had a neighbor who was my kinda guy. You see, Halloween is possibly my favorite holiday. I overcame an embarrassing childhood centered around this holiday to fully come to terms with the possibilities of pretending to be something you're not: a gangster, a gorilla, a pirate, a raggedy-ass Superman (cape dragging the ground), even a silent film comedian with derby and cane. (no, not FDR). 













About my childhood: My mother dressed me as a girl one year. I went door to door, trick or treating, playing a tune on the piano for my act, ("Country Gardens"???) and hearing a lot of "Oh, what a darling little girl you make." I survived that. I think. I gave up wearing dresses in high school, but couldn't give up the nylons. Still can't. But I digress.

The other childhood misfortune was a costume party at the temple where we belonged. I went all out to become Al Capone. Hat, cigar, pillow stuffing in my black suit, big ring on my pinky, a "gat" in my pocket. She took me into the temple for the party that evening - and, surprise: I was the only one in costume. Yes it was a party. No, it wasn't costumes. Halloween was still a week away.

But I recovered. Jump forward many decades, I'm married, have two kids, live in Westwood Forest, and I knock myself out decorating our house with spooky stuff on Halloween, putting a Hi-Fi speaker in the bushes with spooky 
sounds, chains, howls, werewolves, growls, commercials for used car dealers. That was yesterday.


Today it's the Fearful, Haunted Road designed by Leon. And I love it. This last photo is what I put up at our house this year. Not much. A $9.99 scarecrow from Home Depot, and a very old rubber mask wearing one of my Rooster ties. Like I said, not much, but it makes me feel good. Now if only someone brings me a Mounds bar. Or a Midnight Milky Way. Even a Three Musketeers. I'll consider the night a success.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Behold the Mighty Toothpick




It’s a slender stick of wood, about two and a half inches long, thin enough to slip between your teeth and dislodge a morsel of meat or a crust of bread. Yes, how well you know the toothpick.

     But you may not be familiar with its power to transform. I discovered it one day recently when I was driving to Home Depot. As I sat at a red light, a long line in front of me, I was  into my usual bored, impatient mode. The car radio, connected to my antique iPod, was playing an old Billy Joel tune about the lights going out on Broadway. I dug around in the coin tray. Maybe I’d find an interesting receipt or forgotten note, anything to fill the waiting time.
     That’s when I found the tooth pick. An old one. No telling how long it had been there. It didn’t matter. Here was a much-needed diversion. I put the toothpick in my mouth, rolled it around a little with my tongue, then clenched it between my molars. Lightning! I was transformed. I segued from an old guy on a boring chore to a tiger on the prowl, a gunslinger on the streets of Laredo. A Man on a Mission. Renewed confidence surged through my veins. the years dropped away, frailty gave way to muscle and sinew. I was ready to rumble, all because of that wooden sliver.
     I switched the toothpick from one side of my mouth to the other. My tongue moved it to various angles - up, down, forward. My eyes became steel gray beads of intimidation. I turned off the radio. Billy Joel singing about New York didn’t with with my new persona.
     The light changed. I tore through the intersection, my hands relaxed on the steering wheel but ready to snap into action instantaneously. I was King of the Road, my six-year-old Honda Insight now a new F-150 Ford pickup. 
     The Power of the Pick.




How often have you seen a character in a movie with a toothpick? Usually it’s a bad guy, mulling over administering a foreclosure, another ten lashes, a nod to the hangman. However a toothpick also works for the good guys. Gregory Peck. Matthew McConaughey.  Paul Newman in “Hud” or “Cool Hand Luke.” I’m not sure if he even had a toothpick, but he could have. That confident smile that says, “You can’t keep me down.” Maybe Robert Redford as Sundance? Possible. I hope so.

     There’s a great toothpick scene in “Rain Man.” Dustin Hoffman asks for a toothpick, the waitress opens a box and drops them on the floor. Dustin counts them, in his head, quickly, comes up with 246. Tom Cruise asks how many in the box. The waitress says “250.” He says “Close.” Dustin repeats, “246.” As they walk away, the waitress says, “There’s still four in the box.” And Dustin puts one in his mouth. The Granddaddy of all toothpick scenes I think. 
     This whole thing probably started out as an oral hygiene device. But it has assumed more meaning than that, from “Boy, that was a good meal” to “I’d love a cigarette but I quit.” The toothpick is a personality statement, a sign, clear as day, that says, “I know things; I’m extremely capable and sure of myself. Don’t mess with me.”
     Now I keep a stash of toothpicks in my Honda. Whenever I feel a little unsure of myself, I reach for one. All it takes is that comforting feeling of the wood between my teeth, the tip just peeking out between my lips. A quick maneuver from the right side to the left, a slight smile to the world and I am unconquerable.
     Maybe that’s the next Superhero. Toothpick Man. No cape, no ring, no metal claws or iron wardrobe. Just a slender sliver clenched between the teeth. Maybe this Halloween I’ll go to a costume party as Toothpick Man, see if anybody recognizes the new Me.