Blind Mumbling

A compilation of writings that never got anyone excited.

Name:
Location: N. Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, United States

Former teacher, co-editor of Total Football and the author of more than 20 books and over 200 articles, most about sports history. His credits include Pro Football: When the Grass Was Real, The Hidden Game of Football (with John Thorn and Pete Palmer), Baseball Between the Lies, The Importance of Napoleon, and the Battle of Stalingrad. He is presently Executive Director of the Pro Football Researchers Association.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

THE TAKEN ROAD

"Never," I said. "Not ever."

"Not even once?" Maizy asked.

"Not even once," I said firmly. "I never copied an answer or sneaked a look at a crib sheet."

"What about --?" Maizy began suspiciously.

"No, I never whispered psst! to the guy in the next seat and then made a subtle finger movement to ask whether number twenty-three was a, b, or c. Not me."

"So you’re the most honest grandpa in the whole world," Maizy said, sounding just a wee bit sarcastic. She folded her test paper with the big red zero and tucked it between the pages of her history book.

"No, honesty had nothing to do with it. I didn’t cheat because I was too conceited to cheat," I explained. "I thought I was too smart to need to cheat."

"What did you do, Smart Guy? Study all the time?"

"No more than anybody else," I insisted. "Less than some. A couple of times I got bushwhacked on pop quizzes. I had a few bad grades, but I was a good guesser on multiple choice and true-false,."

"Maybe you were just afraid of getting caught."

It wasn’t easy to explain. "Say I ended up with the highest grade in the class -- I wouldn’t have any pride in it because someone else might have done better. You know, I get a 95 that should have been 85. What do I say to the kid who got an honest 93?"

Maizy shrugged. "You wouldn’t have to tell them."

"I just couldn’t feel the same pride about myself. I would have felt like, I don’t know, like I was letting myself down."

I didn’t mention another reason. I was never really up against it. There was never a time when the roof would collapse if I failed a test. Had I been in one of those fail-this-and-I-fail-forever fixes I’m not sure what I would have done. It’s easy to be moral when the stakes aren’t that high.

"Did you ever help other people?" Maizy asked.

"You mean like giving them answers?" I said. She nodded. "Okay, you got me. I did that sometime."

"Ah-HAH!" Maizy chirped.

"I meant I never cheated to help myself. I don’t count the times I let someone look over my shoulder at my paper."

Maizy stared at a far corner of the ceiling. "My teacher says the one who gives the answer is just as guilty as the one who gets the answer. She marks them both zero."

"There are worse things if you get caught helping. Do you know what a parody is?"

"My teacher says that’s when you just repeat what someone else said."

"That’s parroting," I corrected. "A parody is usually written. It copies something, but in a funny way by making slight changes. Like ‘Four beers and seven shots ago, my father brought forth on this bar a new cocktail dedicated to the proposition that all drunks are created tipsey.’"

"What?"

"It’s a parody of the ‘Gettysburg Address.’ You know, ‘Four score and seven years ago?’"

"Oh, yeah," her eyes lit up.

"You get the idea. Well, one time --"

Maizy had a pencil. "Wait a minute. Say it again."

"I’ll go back later. Let me tell this first. One time our tenth grade teacher assigned the class to write parodies for the next day. I’d gone to a different elementary school from the other kids, and my sixth grade teacher taught us about parodies, so I was all set. In no time at all, I wrote three of them"

"That wasn’t fair," Maizy decided.

"So I had two left over. A couple of kids asked if they could hand in the ones I wasn’t using. Then some other kids asked. Well," I said with some pride, "I ended up writing nine parodies for other kids. But the very best one – the tenth one -- I saved for myself."

"Like what?"

"I can’t remember them now," I admitted. "One started out ‘Oh say, dare you ski when the rocks stick out there? For if badly you fail, your blood will be streaming.’"

Maizy was mystified. "What’s that?" she asked.

"The National Anthem!" I sang it. Maizy wasn’t impressed. She wanted to hear the one about four beers again.

"One of our teachers was about to retire. He was an old guy who always took the first five minutes of class to take roll. Well, there was this poem that Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote when they were going to dismantle Old Ironsides." Maizy looked blank. "The ship from the War of 1812. Holmes’ poem helped get the ship declared a national monument. You can visit it today in Boston."

"I’ve never been to Boston," Maizy said.

"Anyway, the poem begins ‘Ay, tear her tattered ensign down! Long has it waved on high, And many an eye has danced to see that banner in the sky.’ So I wrote, ‘Aye, throw his tattered gradebook down, long has it taken roll, and many a kid has wondered if his grade would rise or fall.’ It saved the ship, but the teacher still retired."

Maizy’s eyes were beginning to glaze.

I hurried on. "So when it came time to hand our parodies in, I’d actually written ten of them – not the copies that were handed in, of course. I remember there was one on ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ and one on ‘The Raven.’"

"What was the one you kept for yourself?"

"There’s this great poem called ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost.’ It goes ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow –‘"

Maizy nodded. "So this poem by Jack Frost was the best one you did?"

"Robert Frost. ‘Two roads diverged –‘"

Maizy stood up. "Nobody reads poems anymore," she said.

"Maybe, but it could be a song. You can write parodies of songs. Just so long as people can recognize the source. ‘Two roads di –‘"

"Really? So how’d your poem make out?"

"So the next day, we got our parodies back. The nine others got A’s and I got a C."

Maizy laughed. She began fooling with her cell phone. "Can you make me a copy of that beer one?" she asked.

"Actually, I think the teacher knew I’d written the others. She couldn’t prove it, but she wanted to teach me a lesson. See, even when you cheat for others --"

Maizy was lost on her phone. "Sarah? Guess what! We’re going to write a parody for extra credit. Bring over your rap album – the one with all the lyrics on it."

I said, "I think ‘parody of a rap song’ is a non sequitur," but she didn’t hear me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

ON THE INJURY LIST

All things considered, I’ve been lucky. I probably should be knocking on a carload of wood when I say this.

I’ve never had a broken bone. Generally, I haven’t gone out of my way to get any part of me busted. Not only have I never broken a bone, I also have only once suffered an injury that required stitches. And then it was only three of them.

I was nine. It was a beautiful April Saturday morning. It had rained during the night, and a whole gang of us kids were enjoying throwing bricks into a big puddle in the alley behind my house. The bigger the brick and the more powerful the throw, the greater the splash.

The alley was paved with bricks from the year One. It was filled with loose bricks and broken bricks. The puddles were in the places where the bricks used to be. One particular puddle about the size of a bedsheet was halfway down the alley. It was deep enough so that when we threw a brick into it, the brick would stay submerged.

When Mickey threw brick, he’d yell "Woosh!" He was getting mud all over himself. I told him his mother would be mad. He laughed and tried to rub some mud on me, but I jumped back.

I was being careful. I only picked up small broken bricks. I could handle them so that I wouldn’t get any muddy gunk on my new sweater. It was tan with green panels on the front. Actually I didn’t like it much; I thought the panels looked sissy. But my mother had just bought it so I had to take care of it for a while.

I decided I could get a better angle for my next throw if I moved over to th --- WHAM!

I think before I felt anything, I saw a big brick spinning up from behind me, over my head, and falling toward the puddle. Just for a second the thought crossed my mind: "That’s a funny thing for a brick to do."

Chuckie, the biggest kid there, had unleashed a whole brick toward the puddle just as I walked in front of him. Had any other kid thrown that brick, it would have hit me in the shoulder, but Chuckie was tall enough that his brick caught me right in the back of my head.

"Ouch!" I said. Or "Yipe!" Or "Eek!" Actually I was too busy feelng the hit in my head to remember exactly. I do recall I turned around and glared at Chuckie. And then I felt a steady tapping on my shoulder. I was bleeding.
The taps were coming fast.

The kids took me home. I managed to keep from crying. If I was brave about it, my mother wouldn’t panic. My mother was in the kitchen. She immediately put a towel on my head and pressed it there while she took me a block up the street to where a doctor had his office. My Aunt Nell came along for support.

The doctor I saw when I had the measles was a friend of the family, but he lived in another part of town. The doctor we went to was close. He was also about a hundred years old. When we got there, he was talking with a lady who was probably a patient. He seemed a little annoyed like I could have picked a better time to get hit in the head. Nevertheless, he stopped with the lady he was treating and and looked at my wound.

"He was hit by a brick," my mother said so he’d know that my head was not normally in that shape.

"Ummm," the doctor said. He began laying a batch of vicious-looking instruments of torture on a table in front of me. They had blades and points all over. There was a tart, mediciny smell. He sponged some stuff on my head. I thought it was going to be water, but it burned like crazy. "Oww!" I told him.

"Hold still," he ordered.

He put some steel thing against the wound on my head and pushed. "Yowl!" I said.

The doctor sat down. "I can’t do anything with him," he said. "He’s hysterical. Take him up to the hospital."

I still can’t understand how "Oww!" and "Yowl!" amount to being hysterical. There I was, bleeding like Niagara Falls, I say "Yowl" and suddenly I’m hysterical?

My mother and Aunt Nell didn’t believe it either. They walked me five blocks to the hospital, complaining about the doctor all the way. I was still being brave, Not a tear. I wasn’t bleeding much anymore, but my head was beginning to hurt a lot. At the hospital, I thought I got four stitches, but it turned out that the pain I felt for one of them was the removal of the clamp the old doctor had put in.

By then, my tan sweater was completely ruined, but my mother didn’t complain. I guess the hole in my head meant she’d let me slide.

Billy fretted a lot more the next year when he fell off the school fire escape. His four stitches were on his forehead. He told me, "I’m afraid a scar will ruin my good looks." I thought having a scar would be great. My dumb luck, my stitches were in the back of my head and were soon covered by hair. I’d have to wait until I was old and bald to show my scar.

Three stitches were a big deal for a nine-year-old., but the part I remember most was the doctor saying I was hysterical. That was an insult! I never even cried! Hey, guys with scars don’t get hysterical.

When I’m brave, I expect to get credit for it.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

ACTING REAL

Miss Tissuer liked to read to the class, and she was very good at it. When she was going on about Augustus or one of those knights of olde, I could shut my eyes and it was almost like listening to the radio without the commercials.

What made Miss Tissuer a better reader than the other teachers was that she didn’t overdo it. When all the other teachers read to us, their voices would zoom up too high and drop down too low. They sounded fake, like they were talking to pet puppies. Even worse was when they would come down hard on a word to be sure all the kids in the room got it. The teacher would be reading along, sounding almost normal, and suddenly come across a word like "dishonesty." First there’d be a little pause, and then the word would be said about ten percent lower and twenty percent louder than any other words around it. "DIS-HON-ES-TY!" How dumb do you have to be to miss that?

Miss Tissuer let you notice "dishonesty" and yet make it sound like an ordinary word.

One day I found out why she read so well. During Study Time, she called Billy and me up to her desk. "I don’t know whether you’ve heard," she said. "I’ve been cast in a play for the local Little Theater."

And that explained it. She was an actress! No wonder she could read better than the other teachers. I hadn’t caught on because when I thought of actresses I always thought of the beautiful girls the heroes kissed in the movies I went to on Saturdays. Miss Tissuer wasn’t like that. She looked like someone’s mother. All at once I realized that there were other actresses in movies. Some of them played mothers.

"Do you boys know what a play is?" she asked. Billy and I both nodded. I’d never seen one, but I knew it was like a movie only alive. "Would you be interested in being in a play?" Again we nodded.

She held up two pieces of paper. "In this play I’m in, there’s a role for a boy just about your age. When you go home," she handed us each a paper, "you must ask your parents to look at this paper and sign if they give permission for you to be in the play."

"What’s the name of the play?" Billy asked.

"It’s called ‘On Borrowed Time.’ It’s a famous play. One of the main actors is a boy. If it’s all right with your parents, I’d like you two to try out for the part tomorrow. I told the director that one of you would be able to do it well."

I thought I understood. "You mean Billy and me will read to you? And you’ll only pick one?"

"The play’s director will be here. He’ll decide." Miss Tissuer gave us some more papers. "Tomorrow you’ll read this scene. The character is named ‘Pud.’"

When I told my parents that night, my father thought Pud was a funny name. My mother said I shouldn’t be disappointed if Billy got the part.

I wasn’t worried. I knew I had a big advantage over Billy. I’d heard him read out loud in class. He read like a kid with his voice going too high and too low and hitting some words too strong. I knew that when the director heard me read kind of flat and normal like a real person, he’d choose me.

I practiced at the kitchen table with my mother. "That’s fine," she said, "but don’t you think you should put a little emphasis on some of the important words?" She explained what ‘emphasis’ meant.

I told her about reading like a kid. I even showed her how Billy sounded. She didn’t think it sounded so bad Billy’s way. I don’t think my mother had ever been in a play.

The next day just after arithmetic, a tall man with a moustache came into the room. Miss Tissuer had Billy and me come up to her desk where she introduced the man as the director of the play. She took the other kids outside for recess while Billy and I stayed in the room to try out.

Billy read exactly the way I said he would. On my turn, I read perfectly my way. Then the director asked me to do it again, a little less "muntone," whatever that meant. If anything, I kept my voice even flatter than before. I sounded just the way people really talk.

"Did you read over that scene last night?" the director asked. "You kind of read like you’ve never seen those words." Right then I knew I’d get the part. When people are really talking, they don’t see the words they’re going to say first. The director was telling me how real I sounded.

Miss Tissuer brought the class back. She and the director talked by the door for a couple of minutes. Then he left. Billy asked her about the play, but she said to wait until school was over. I was so excited I don’t even know what she taught us in the time left. Maybe spelling.

Finally, all the kids were gone. Miss Tissuer had lined them up and marched them out while Billy and I sat in our seats. Before she came back, Billy wished me good luck, so I wished him the same. I meant it about as much as he did, but it was a nice thing to do.

Miss Tissuer came back in and sat down. She clasped her hands in front of her and called me to come up to her desk. I noticed she had a little lace hankie in her hands. She seemed a little sad.

"You read really nicely," she said. "The director told me that you have a good, strong voice. But –"

But?

"Sometimes they pick an actor for a part just because they want a certain look. The director felt that Billy looked more like Pud. I’m sorry."

I smiled and told her I really didn’t want to do it anyway. It would have been all kinds of extra trouble, and besides my mother wanted me to start helping more at home. Then I turned and told Billy congratulations. I was halfway home, walking along perfectly normal, when for no reason at all I started running as hard as I could and didn’t stop until I was in my room.

A couple of weeks later, Billy asked me if I wanted to come see his play. I told him I’d ask my mother.

But I didn’t.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

TODAY I ARE A ARTIST

The question of nature versus nurture is as old as Ally Oop’s mother – certainly older than my kid brother Chic. Just because he majored in chemistry and became one of those scientists, Chic thinks Darwinian. He says it’s all nature. Personally, I don’t even know how many petris you can put in a dish, but my experience says what you end up being is mostly because of the experiences you – uh – experience.

Recently, Chic went the Roots-way and started tracing the family history back beyond Grandpa. I figured he’d uncover a horse-thief and quit. Instead, he discovered that one of our great-great grandads on Mother’s side was a successful artist-photographer back in the days of President Grant. Chic, the chemist, dabbles in photography so now he’s sure he knows where he got that urge. He also tried to foist his theory off on me.

"You majored in art," he reminded me. "And then you taught art in high school, you know."

Of course I knew. I’m older than he is but I’m not senile yet. "Okay," I admitted, "and I also taught art to first-graders. That inflated my ego ‘cause I was the only one in the room who could name all the crayons in the box."

"And didn’t you do some illustrating?" I confessed to illustrating a half dozen books. I’d even sent him copies of two of them about ten years ago.

"And I will read them when I get the time," he promised. "But my point is that you inherited your artistic talent from our great-great grandfather. You got his art genes."

"No."

"What do you mean, ‘No?’" he yelped.

"There’s an Art Gallery, an Art Nouveau, and an Art Linkletter, but there’s no Art Gene."

Chic gave me one of his get-serious! looks. "Then how do you explain your wonderful artistic talent.?"

"For starters," I explained, "my talent doesn’t reach the level of ‘wonderful.’ The quality of my work is halfway between a stick-drawing of the warden scratched on a cell wall by some felon and one of those sacharine pastel images of flowers created by girls in proper eighteenth century finishing schools. In other words, my talent is ordinary, but by practice I learned to make fair pictures."

"You’re an artist!" Chic insisted.

"Whatever I am," I said, "I remember exactly when I became it. Back in kindergarten. It was all because of Mrs. Rice."

Mrs. Rice was the most beautiful, wonderful, redhaired kindergarten teacher in the world. At the time this occurred, the significance of the word "Mrs." was not clear to me. I planned to grow up and marry her. When we played games, I always tried to win for her. When we drew pictures, I always used the crayons she recommended. When she read us stories, I hung on her every word.

One day, Mrs. Rice read to us about Abraham Lincoln and how he worked in a grocery store. He was very honest, and when he discovered he had accidentally overcharged a customer by three cents, he walked seven miles through the snow to return it. After she finished, Mrs. Rice gave each of us paper and crayons so we could draw a picture about the story.

Most of the kindergartners drew a stick-figure Lincoln standing behind the grocery store counter. That way they only had to draw him from the waist up. I was going to do that until I realized that I’d have to put some boxes on the shelves behind Lincoln. Drawing boxes was okay, but how could I label them? I couldn’t spell! I didn’t want Mrs. Rice to learn that.

I decided to draw Lincoln walking up to the cabin where he would return the three cents. I put Lincoln over on the right of my paper. You could tell it was Lincoln because I gave him a beard. At the end of his hand, I drew three tiny circles for the pennies.

On the left of the paper, I’d almost finished drawing a cabin with brown logs when I noticed our class had a visitor. A man and Mrs. Rice were talking earnestly at the door. I wondered if he was a teacher in one of the big-kid classes upstairs. Just before he left, the man leaned forward and kissed Mrs. Rice. On the lips!

The little girl sitting next to me at the table whispered, "That’s Mr. Rice."

I felt like I was falling. I should have understood the meaning of Mrs. before then, but the only grown-up women I’d ever been introduced to were friemds of my mother, and they were all called Mrs. I’d assumed that Mrs. just meant grown-up.

"May – maybe it’s her brother," I said to the little girl.

No such luck. The little girl said she and her mother had met the Rices out shopping. It was true. Mrs. Rice hadn’t waited for me. I began to feel betrayed.

I’d get even. Before me was my great drawing of Abraham Lincoln returning three cents. She would have loved it. But, I thought viciously, when he got to the cabin – it was on fire! What do you think of that, MRS. Rice? I grabbed my yellow crayon and began scribbling fire in the cabin’s window. Burn, Baby, burn!

"And what do we have here?" Mrs. Rice said as she reached over me and scooped up my drawing. I waited in anger for her to see the flaming windows. Maybe she’d cry.

"Look here, Children. Look what was done here." Here it came. Oh, boy! "See the windows?"

And then she said something amazing.

"He’s made the windows yellow to show how warm and toasty it is inside the cabin. Abraham Lincoln has just walked all those miles through the cold snow. Brrrr! We can tell how cold it is outside because we can see how warm it is inside. See? This is just wonderful." She took two pins and stuck my picture on the bulletin board. Then she clapped her hands and the rest of the class joined in.

"And that’s what made you an artist?" Chic said doubtfully.

"From then on, drawing – art, if you will – stopped being something to do and became -- I don’t know -- my personal thing. It was a way to feel good about myself."

Chic laughed. "You mean it got you compliments and praise."

"Which made me feel good about myself."

"What would have happened if you’d used a red crayon on the windows?" Chic asked.

"Maybe I’d have become a chemist."

Thursday, August 11, 2005

IF ANIMALS SENT E-MAILS

Friends:
Hey, I just heard there’s a big holiday coming up where everyone gets together for dinner and gives thanks. Maybe we should all meet at someone’s coop for a big meal.
---- Tom

Joe:
Personally, I’ve never had a Christian. Up to now, I’ve been quite satisfied with gnus. However, as you said, they are becoming hard to find, and no gnus is not good news. :) You may be right. This could be a good time to expand the old diet.
---- Simba

Boss:
I’m all for seniority, but I’ve been in the traces here for a lot of years myself. Isn’t it time I got paid as well as Donner, Blitzen, and the older guys – all of whom, I should remind you, follow MY lead? Don’t forget I got extra expenses what with batteries and all.
---- Rudy

Desk:
This is important, so I’m depending on you. I need a wake-up call. Don’t forget. February second. Sunrise. If I don’t pick up right away, keep ringing until I wake up.
---- Punxsutawney Phil

Old friend:
Hope all is well back home. Surprisingly, I found being outsourced a good thing. Yes, I remember fondly those lush meadows in Wisconsin. I was particularly fond of clover. The fields here in India are not so green, but we have other perks. What I like best is the respect we receive. It’s almost religious.
---- Elsie

Everybody:
Run! A terrible thing is about to happen! The end is near! Wear helmets!
---- C. Little

Friends:
Not to bend your ear, but for ten years this place was great. Lots of food and sleep. Once in a while fetch something. Then all of a sudden last week my master wants me to roll over, sit up and beg, jump through a hoop, and I don’t know what all else. I’m too old to learn that stuff! It’s been hell!
---- Rover

Henri’s Furs, Inc.
Gentlemen:
Please be advised you sent me the wrong garment. Mine has small spots against a tan background. As you will see, the one I’m returning has very large spots. I do not wish to change my "look."
---- A. Leopard

Honey:
Not now. Busy, busy, busy.
---- Buzz

Monday, August 08, 2005

TERROR AT GOOEY FALLS

"How do you get your clothes so dirty?" my mother asked.

I explained, "There’s no grass in Mickey’s yard."

That was true but wasn’t the reason for my filthy clothes. If I told her the real reason, it would have scared her to death.

My mother was afraid I’d get run over by a train. She ordered me never to go to the tracks to play baseball. I think she thought I’d go running back for a fly ball and get smack in front of the Super Chief.

Actually, it had been a long time since she brought it up. I guess she figured she’d told me when I was in third grade and I would remember two years later. Two years was long enough that I could have forgot. Certainly I could claim I forgot if I ever got caught.

The Tracks were a siding on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. The B & O ran along the shore between the Ohio River and the city. There was a wide spot just below our school where for about 300 yards two extra tracks lay alongside the regular track. Freight cars could be pulled off trains and onto one of the sidings to be unloaded. I never saw them get unloaded, but every once in a while big crates or steel beams would show up on our playing space between the first and second siding. If I wanted to get hit by a train, I would have had to run fifty yards to get to the main track.

Telling my mother that I was playing on the tracks would have just upset her. With my father still in Germany enjoying his victory over Hitler, my mother had enough worries, so I didn’t tell her for her own good.

A better reason to avoid the tracks than getting hit by a train was the chance of running into Clang-Clang. I don’t know if my mother knew about him. The bigkids said he was a crazy bum who lived by the tracks. They said if you saw him and yelled "Clang-Clang," he’d chase you. No one knew what would happen if he caught you, but no one wanted to find out either.

Once I saw a man walking along the tracks way off in the distance. I told Mickey about it.

"Did you yell," he asked.

"No"

"I would have yelled," he said.

The Tracks were not an ideal ballfield. It had no fence to hit home runs over, of course, but also the siding tracks themselves were too close together. We put first base on one of the ties for the first siding and second base on a tie on the second siding. Any ball hit outside either siding was foul. That gave us a very narrow field of play. Instead of spreading 90 degrees from home plate, our field spread only about 60 degrees. The worst part was the dirt. It wasn’t normal soil but more of a greasy, black ash.

I always worried that my mother would be suspicious of the greasy, black stains I brought home on my clothes. Fortunately, she never used any forensic tests on what I wore to compare my dirt with Mickey’s yard.

One day the game ended early when Ross had to go to the dentist and Chuckie had to go someplace with his mother. Mickey and I went exploring by the river. If my mother had known I was going down by the river, she would have been afraid that I’d drown except she would be sure I would be hit by a train first.

Exploring along the river was actually kind of boring. Most of it was just a long, muddy place with weeds. I honestly can’t remember seeing anything interesting that had washed up. No dead bodies, not even animals. The closest thing was a muddy Raggedy Ann doll.

The only sight really worth looking at was Gooey Falls. Whenever we explored along the river, we always took time to check Gooey. That was what we called a large sewer that emptied a small but steady stream into a pool about the size of a bedsheet. As the stuff flowed out of the pool, it carved a ditch we called Yuck Canyon that meandered through a couple of S-curves to the river.

The pool surface had what looked like gray, dirty soap suds covering every inch. They bubbled up where the sewer drizzled into the pool and disappeared as the stream ran into Yuck Canyon.

What was great about Gooey Falls was that the sewer flowed out of a big concrete cave. We could sit on the ledge above it and bomb the pool with rocks. The suds would fly up in the splash and look like a real explosion.

Mickey and I took turns trying to make the best explosions. Then we ran out of rocks.

"You ought to climb down there and get some rocks," I suggested.

"Who broke your legs?" Mickey asked.

It was not an easy climb so I said, "It’s an easy climb. We don’t both have to go."

"Right. So you go."

"Why don’t we flip a coin?"

Mickey didn’t have a coin. I had a quarter in my pocket. "Okay," I told him, "heads I go; tails you go."

I flipped the quarter in the air. It came down in my palm. Bounced. And spun over the ledge toward the Falls.

"Oops!" I said.

Mickey and I looked over the ledge at the suds-covered pool below. "I’m not reaching in there," Mickey said.

"No, look!" I said, pointing. I spotted the quarter partly buried in the mud a few feet from the pool.

"Your quarter," Mickey said. As I started down, he reminded me, "Bring back some rocks."

The way down was steep. I was halfway when I began to think I should have tried to use a long stick to poke my quarter out to a flatter place. The only way I could keep from tumbling was to hold onto the weeds.
Suddenly Mickey yelped, "Omigosh!"

Forget the quarter! I started to scramble up the bank. A clump of weeds that had been so sturdy coming down pulled loose. The next second I was standing thigh deep in Gooey Falls.

For a couple of seconds, I stood stock still as though that would keep any more of the goop I was in from touching me. Then it occurred to me that the goop might eat right through my trousers and begin dissolving my legs. I decided to head for shore.

I couldn’t. My feet were stuck in the goop. I was within reaching distance of the shore but I couldn’t get there. "Mickey!" I screamed. But he was gone. I was stuck until someone sent out a search party. An awful thought crossed my mind: did rivers have tides? I imagined Gooey rising higher and higher until it reached my mouth.

"Ugh!" I had to get free. "Mickey!" I yelled again.

And then I looked up to see a shabby figure standing on the ledge above. He was unshaven, his hair was uncombed and his clothes were worn and messy. "Help me," I called. In a way, I thought, this was wonderful. The "crazy bum" that everyone made fun of would be my rescuer. It was like some story we read in school.

He looked down at me and smiled. "Clang-clang," he yelled. Then he laughed and walked away.

About five minutes later, Mickey came back. He got a branch and together we got me out of the Falls. I didn’t even try to make up a story to explain to my mother why I was covered with foul-smelling muck from the hips down. Sometimes honesty really is the best policy when you can’t think of anything better.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

WHADDYA MEAN, NICK?

I saw a TV show about the 100 Greatest Movie Lines. They got it all wrong. Forget "Play it again, Sam" or "Rosebud" or even "Frankly, Scarlett." The greatest movie line ever was "Whaddya mean, Nick?"

That was the gospel according to Robbie.

Robbie had been my first friend back in the days when we played with toy soldiers in my yard, but then my family moved and he ended up going to a private school, and we lost track. When we were freshmen in our high schools, we ran into each other downtown at a sports store where we were both mooning over a Bob Lemon baseball glove. It turned out we were both Cleveland Indians fans.

We talked about how different our schools were. For one thing, he had to march around and wear a uniform. At my school, we could wear jeans, and we got to bring our lunch in a bag. For some reason, he thought his school was better. Despite our school differences, Robbie and I had a lot in common in addition to our mutual devotion to the Cleveland Indians. We started to hang out together.

On a Saturday evening, I’d go over to his house and he’d spin some 45’s. He had a terrific collection, but we always ended up listening a couple of times to Les Paul and Mary Ford do "How High the Moon." We’d both air guitar being Les Paul.

Later, we’d walk downtown to a movie and after that go to a teen dance at St. Matthew’s. We both understood that if either of us got involved with a girl there, the other one would disappear. That never happened, but if it had, we’d have been prepared.

After the dance, we’d go to DeCarlo’s for a couple of pizza slices. We’d sit in a booth and discuss the girls at the dance and the night’s movie in depth. We liked little known character actors. Certain supporting actors were among our all-time favorites – Lyle Bettger, William Conrad, and Casey Adams. No doubt it was their obscurity to most moviegoers that made them heroes to us. We felt like insiders! We knew who Arthur Hunnicutt was!

Every movie had a line or two that we decided was memorable. I don’t remember many of them now. They all had a sameness – ordinary statements that would have passed unnoticed into the ether had we not anointed them. Lines like "Wait in the taxi" and "This looks suspicious." Right away we grabbed "Too quiet" when a movie soldier said it after another one said, "It’s quiet out there." But then we heard somebody else use it so we stopped.

"Whaddya mean, Nick?" was perfect, but it had close competition in its own movie. I felt strongly about "The second one got him." Robbie and I argued about it at DeCarlo’s.

The movie was "The Racket," a pretty good film noir from 1951. Robert Mitchum is an honest cop against Robert Ryan, a crime boss named Nick. William Conrad is a cop named Turk who’s playing on both sides of the street. It’s when he’s trying to understand some scurrilous instruction from Ryan that he utters those immortal words "Whaddya mean, Nick?"

"Anything anyone says in a Robert Mitchum movie is automatically worth remembering," Robbie said.

"No kidding," I agreed, but ‘The second one got him’ was also in the same Mitchum movie. Moreover, both lines were said by William Conrad. Almost anything William Conrad said was a likely winner for Best Line of the Movie. He almost won the competition in "The African Queen," and most people don’t even know he was in it.

"But ‘The second one got him’ sounds like a movie line," Robbie argued. Obviously it lacked that common touch. When we said a movie line, we didn’t want everyone else to get it. Like today if someone says "Loving means you never have to say you’re sorry," eveyone laughs. Our best lines were just shared with a few friends.

"’The second one got him’ is perfect," I insisted. It’s the close-out line in a Mitchum movie, and it’s spoken by William Conrad while he’s taking the empty shells out of his pistol after he shot Robert Ryan."

I never cared for Robert Ryan in those days. Too many wrinkles in his face. Then a couple of years later I saw him in "The Set-Up" on the TV Late Show, and he was terrific. Funny thing, Ryan made "The Set-Up" two years before he made ""The Racket." I’m not sure I would have enjoyed him getting shot as much if I’d already seen "The Set-Up."

George was with us that night. He was the one who immortalized "Hey Joey, I got your pigeon" after we saw "On the Waterfront." I asked George what he thought but he just wanted to talk about a girl he’d danced with at St. Matthew’s. I’d probably have more to say about the dances if I ever learned to dance.

None of which ended up mattering. Robbie won me over by showing that "Whaddya mean, Nick?" was more versatile. "You can use it almost anytime," he said.

"I can think of lots of times when you couldn’t use it," I said.

"Whaddya mean, Nick?"

"I mean –"

"For ‘The second one got him’ to work, you have to have a second one."

"Okay," I admitted, "but lots of things come in twos. Like shoes!"

Robbie sighed. "But then they have to stop. Kerplop! They can’t go on to three or four. Or more."

"That’s numbers," I said. "Everything in the world isn’t numbers."

"Whaddya mean, Nick?"

"Well, like Mitchum. There’s only one Mitchum," I said.

Robbie smiled in triumph. "So how can you use a line like ‘The second one got him’ with Mitchum? Mitchum is Zeus atop Olympus."

They didn’t teach Greek myths in my school. I fell into the trap. "What do you . . . mean . . . ahh, hell!"

"See!"

Actually, it was the third one that got me.