Category Archives: humor

Dunbar

Ah Dunbar. From our perspective, so much of life resembles a broken play in a football game, or a broken forecast for the weather man or herding cats, which is a lot like breaking the balls in the first shot of a pool game, or even riding a pig backwards across a parking lot while the Amishmen fight to remain standing because they are laughing so hard at the silly Englishman who even presumed to give them such a show. Yet if we take a moment to stand back from our foibles, perhaps possibly and just maybe we’ll realize how entertaining life can be. As Judy is fond of saying, I had the choice of laughing or crying. I picked laughter. For me, it’s the sheer absurdity. Life indeed resembles theater of the absurd[1]. See, it was like this….

Liz who was Stell and is now hyphenated, Judy who became Melville and joined my conspiracy, Sue who was Smith but is now Zahradnick, and I who am Melville and as far as I can tell, will always be so, arranged to go rafting on the Youghiogheny, commonly known as the Yough only it’s pronounced “Yock.” The whole adventure occurred back in the days when all the four-wheelers had CB radios so they could learn, and pretend, to talk like the truckers who used them for such legitimate purposes as dodging Smoky the Bear, and since Wayz hadn’t been invented yet (hell, the PC hadn’t been invented), radidios were handy for keeping tabs on traffic and beavers and other necessary things. Of course, the first order of business was for all of us to actually get to the Yough.

For whatever reason, Judy and I picked up Liz who was Stell but is now hyphenated, and headed up I-70 from suburban DC. See, we lived in Pennsylvania and Liz who was Stell but is now hyphenated lived in DC, which is really not on the way from here to there unless you choose to go that way. After all, unlike Pennsylvania where you can’t get there from here, if you go to DC first, you actually can get there from here. Consider it a glitch in God’s plan. But anyhow, it was already dark when we picked her up, and the Yough was most of four hours away. We weren’t going to be early getting to the campground in the state park.

The late evening summer air had conspired with the hollows and valleys to conjure some most excellent fog, with the effect that when the highway was on a high ground hilltop everything was peachy and you could see the twinkle of town lights 20 miles away. But when you dropped down a grade into the hollow of the valley, the fog set upon you like thieves and just as quickly. So it was that the CB radio crackled.

“I can’t see.” It was said by a twangy voice reminiscent of George Jones, the Country singer. It was either a trucker or a very well-practiced four-wheeler. The comment went unanswered. The airwaves were silent for a moment.

“I still (pronounced steel) can’t see. Apparently he found himself in a long low spot. Another period of silence. We popped out of the fog onto a highground hilltop.

“I can’t see she-it.” This was long before the first Gulf war, when the national news alerted us to the fact that the fine folk of hot ‘Lanta expressed confusion as to the proper response concerning news of Shiite Muslims, being unsure if it was OK to talk like that in polite company. The trucker, unaware of such unborn nuances, rumbled into the night. Really, the rest of the trip was uneventful except for the deer bounding over the car, the flat tire and the guy who decided an alternative view of the universe would serve him better and so chose to breakdance his car down the highway on its roof in a shower of orange sparks. Small potatoes.

The Yough is in southwest PA, and though, for tax purposes, it is indeed a part of the Keystone state, culturally it is a northern extension of the land of the Hatfields & McCoys. Sally, who used to be Smith but is now Zahradnick lived up in “da Burgh,” i.e. Pittsburgh, about an hour and a half away. In those days, we had to use folded paper maps of whatever state we were in, except unless if we had a Rand-McNally road atlas, most famously known for putting little grey roads in areas where there weren’t other travelable roads. Call it artistic license. We consulted our foldy map and discovered that we could cut half an hour off the travel time up to da Burgh if we took this little blue road, the foldy map’s equivalent of Rand McNally’s grey roads. Just go out of the campground and instead of turning left towards Ohiopyle, go straight. After some twists and wiggles and some unmarked side roads that didn’t even warrant blue status, it seemed we should pop out over on US 119, a little south of Connellsville, south of da Burgh. The roads suggested themselves. Where there was a fork that didn’t appear on the map, we took the one more traveled. Hah! Take that, Walt Whitman! We knew things were going as planned when we came into this little nub of a town just before we hit 119. The sign said Village of Dunbar in gold letters on a blue background with a Greek key squiggly pattern outlining the sign. Just a little black dot on the foldy map.

We headed north on 119, which is the direction to go if you want to get to Pittsburgh the short way. If you turn south, it’s 23,950 miles, which is a lot longer than 50, and there’s this small problem of a couple of oceans and getting across Antarctica. Besides, we wanted to go rafting the same day. As we went up the highway, we passed used equipment dealers with old, dead, non-resurrectable mining equipment: steam shovels with no bucket or tracks, old Cats, so old they used a cable and winch system instead of hydraulic cylinders to raise and lower their blades. That didn’t seem like much of a problem, because they lacked engines and other seemingly necessary bits commonly used for the operation & mobility of such dinosaurs. There were used car lots where cars were missing headlights or windows or other things the rest of the world considers essential. But, see, in West Virginia, that’s still a “good runner.” You could almost get the idea mining had left, and nothing came in to take its place. The resulting vacuum spoke of hard times. Even the used equipment dealers and the used car lots had barbed wire fences and padlocked gates. I guess they didn’t want to lose any more headlights.

We picked up Sally without incident. We took the correct left turn to whip into Dunbar, came up to a tee in the road. Turned right. Then left. Some wiggles. Another turn. We followed the road more traveled, and in a jiffy we were in Ohiopyle, ready to get swamped, drenched, chundered and all the other fun stuff that goes with whitewater rafting. The water level was nice, not too high, not too low, sort of a Goldilocks kind of level. The air was warm. Birds were claiming their stake in their annual mating rituals (singing). In the best tradition of the movie Deliverance, what could possibly go wrong?

Now if you’ve ever watched Deliverance, you’re aware that there was some, um, tension depicted between the city slicker river rats and the locals. That dynamic was real. Not only that, I fit the part of typical river rat: a lanky hippie-looking kid of 20-something who (unless you knew me) could easily be judged as one of them mara-je-wanna smokin’ liberals bent on the destruction of society as we know it. Hey Pony tail, you know you look like a girl? Hmm. Let me check. Yeah. And my sox don’t match either. I was way ahead of my time. But that’s for later. We launched the raft below the falls. The park guys got kind of pissy if you ran the falls. Maybe that was because they called it illegal. What’s a 35-foot waterfall. Schmaterfall.

We wound our way down through the first section, known as the loop. I steered. They paddled. Everything was going great. We were singing “Oh what a beautiful morning” until we took the hydraulic in Railroad rapid sideways, which is a recipe for disaster. We were only a little sideways. It didn’t care. The hydraulic grabbed the tail of the raft and, in the best tradition of guide and passenger ejection, pwanged (or is that pa-wanged?) Judy out of the raft.

They say you shouldn’t run any rapid you wouldn’t want to swim, because sometimes you wind up swimming whether you planned to or not. The guidebook warns that the hydraulic there in Railroad, which hydraulic is known as Charlie’s washing machine, is not a good one to swim. There’s something about “if you swim this hydraulic, you will know what it’s like to get flushed down a toilet.” It’s not a keeper, one of those hydraulics that recirculates you again and again. Getting recirculated really isn’t that pleasant. The river has this game: it knows you like your air. So it dunks you. Then, as you’re coming up towards the surface, it whispers “quick! Get a breath while you can” And as soon as you open your mouth for a gasp of air it invariably smacks you directly in the mouth with a smack of water and chuckles as you sputter. Needless to say Judy, who was liminally afraid of water to begin with, was not amused by the hole’s treatment of her. Sort of took the shine off her day. Of course, it’s always more fun watching someone else get trashed than it is to do it yourself.

Naming rapids is a long and colorful tradition. Cucumber… because it’s shaped like one. Railroad is called railroad because there’s a railroad bridge just downstream of it. Stunningly original. I’m going to go way out on a limb and speculate that somewhere in the distant past, a fellow named Charlie got famously abused in the hydraulic that today bears his name. River’s end… the river takes a hard left behind a gigantic rock and it really looks like there is no more river. Of course like an episode of Star Trek, you know Kirk is going to squeak out of whatever jam he’s in. The river and the show both continue. Dimples, or dimple rock, has a darker side to it. In the early days of whitewater paddling, aluminum canoes were the weapon of choice. Never mind that the soft aluminum caught on rocks in such a manner as to throw the passengers through the windshield. That was in the days before seatbelts, when you could still go through the windshield if you wanted to. Aluminum canoes were also really good for gift wrapping rocks, which was a simple enough trick for a rookie. Get sideways to the current. See the rock downstream. Lean upstream in an intuitive effort to avoid said rock. Ship water. Fill with water. Impinge on the rock you were trying to avoid. Glub. [Rock’s] mission accomplished.

Here it is important to realize that a canoe full of water weighs about 2,000 pounds (908 kg for those of you playing along at home with enquiring minds which need to know). You get it going a couple of miles per hour, just add rock, and voila! Nice shiny wrapping on a rock. Only this was even more sinister (left-handed, if you must know). Dimples rock was undercut, so that when the unfortunate paddlers capsized, the bottom of the river swallowed their boat. No one ever admitted to being the boat’s owner. It was found late in the low-water summer by some Folboters out for a hike because they didn’t want to tear the canvas on their Folbot which was a kayaky thing with a wood frame that folded up sort of compactly when you wanted to transport it, and a rubbery canvas skin that stretched over the frame. The aluminum was still shiny, to some degree. The water rippled and shimmered. The boat’s name was dimples. The name of the rapid memorializes that fact. Shoot, it would almost be worth losing your boat to get a rapid named after it. Nah.

Half a bony mile below dimples rock is swimmer’s rapid, sort of the final insult  because if you capsized at dimples, and the current played pinball bouncing you off the bony stones for that half a mile, the hydraulic at swimmers was going to give you one final nasal enema before the slack water. This is such fun. I’m sure you can see why we do it. Then came double hydraulic.

As the name implies, it was a double hydraulic, one right after the other. That very self-same guidebook that enlightens prospective victims about the toilet-flushiness of Charlie’s washing machine, drolly notes that the first one (hydraulic, also known as a hole for obvious reasons if you’ve ever spent time in one) slows the prey down. The second one captures it. There’s a nice eddy below the rapid, where we pulled out to eat lunch.

What to our wondering eyes should appear but a raft full of turkey boaters, which is a kind way of calling them inept. They either didn’t read the map the outfitter gave them, didn’t know where they were, couldn’t control their raft, or possibly all of the above. While they took dainty little paddle strokes like they were sipping tea at brunch, the current directed them directly towards the two holes. And just as the guidebook predicted, the first one slowed them down and the second one stopped them. While the hole didn’t capsize their raft (as holes are prone to do), it wasn’t about to let them go, either. They were there, as Flo used to say in her Texas accent, on the sitcom “Alice,” for the duration pronounced as two words: doo-ration. And so they were. The hole spun them around. It munched on the upstream tube, like a cat with a vole. The turbulence of the water tore the bottom out of the raft and one by one it sucked the turkey boaters out of the raft like you’d slurp a strand of linguini. Finally there was one lonesome, terrified rafter left spinning round & round when another raft committed the same error of the first hole and the second hole and bumped the lonely rafter out of the second hole. Then they were stuck. Sort of a river version of rinse & repeat. It was the best show we’d had in many a trip. It’s always good, even if there but for the grace of god go I, when turkey boaters get munched. I even think it brightened Judy who became Melville and joined my conspiracy’s spirits a little. Being flushed down a toilet was apparently pleasant (in her mind) compared to the fate of the turkey boaters. I think she enjoyed the show.

Back at the campground, we regaled each other with tales of rocks vanquished and feats of extraordinary wateriness while we burnt tofu burgers on the fire grate. The thing about days like that, though, is that dirt would taste good. Hungry and alive and relaxed and exhausted. Anything tastes good. Sadly, Sally who was Smith but became Zahradnick had to be returned to her home in Da Burgh. Sally, Judy, and I, piled back in the ’68 Corona and plied the trail back that way. This was the third trip on those roads more traveled. The horse knows the way and all that other trite stuff. Only by now it was dark. And sometimes it’s the things your brain thinks it knows but doesn’t really that get you in trouble.

We dropped Sally who used to be Smith but is now Zahradnick off at her ‘rents house a little after eleven, got out of Squirrel Hill and followed the signs for Connellsville. It had gotten late. Traffic was sparse. There was reason to believe that what traffic there was originated at either the Legion or the VFW, endowing the drivers with a certain undulant narrative. Anyone who hadn’t been to a watering hole was most likely looking for headlights.

We spotted the turn for Dunbar, a nondescript township road with no street light and no sign. As an official nub off the highway, it didn’t even rate for a borough sign. No road sign. It turned inky dark. We came to a T. Which way? Left seemed the most traveled. Left it was. Driveways branched off, left and right. A township road to the right. Another to the left. Two more to the right. The road most traveled got a little narrower. The yellow line disappeared. It had only been a single stripe, but it was a stripe nonetheless. Now it was gone. The hardtop turned to gravel, then dirt, and ended in the side yard of a ramshackle farmhouse. An old Ford pickup up on blocks presented its tailgate, verifying the end of the road, both figuratively and literally. Weeds, even small trees, were holding a vigil around it. The yard was mostly red dirt, where it wasn’t stones. The rump of a Farmall M strained to support a splay-doored shed. It was about midnight, but there was a light on in the upstairs room. There was hope for directions. Being a warm summer night, the sash was open. I beeped the horn as quietly as possible. Their hound bawled.

A woman in a nightgown pushed the shade aside. She was a lot older than us, sort of saggy in the places younger women aren’t, her hair the color of iron filings.

Yes?

Um, we’re kind of lost. We’re trying to get to the state park. Bad call. It pegged us as river rats. Or maybe it was a ruse & we were going to rob them. Either way, it earned us about as much grace as someone looking for a gas station during the1974 gas shortage.

How did you get here? Twenty questions.

Pittsburgh… off 119… trying to get to the state park…wrong turn… lost… directions? Please?

Yer not one of those hippy-types, are you?

No Ma’am. Extra polite.

About that time I saw the kitchen door open. There were lights over the counters, and a pole light in the yard. A man- -without reason I assumed it was her husband- -was coming toward me. He wore boxer shorts and a muscle man shirt known colloquially as a beater – short for wife beater. He had at least a three day beard, stubbly and grey, and a stain of chewing tobacco juice at the corner of his mouth. He walked like a bulldog. He wasn’t overly large, but there was no way I was trusting him. I noticed that he held both hands cupped at his sides. His arms hung stiffly. His carriage seemed unnatural, artificial. I began to back away. There was a glint between his thumb and forefinger in the shine of the pole light. A flash of revelation. He was sloppily concealing a Derringer in the palm of his right hand. Yikes!

I held up both hands.

What’re you doin’ here? Really? Nothin’ funny. Don’t nobody come back this road this time of night lest they’re up to no good. His voice was as stubbly as his face.

Sir, you give me directions back to 119 and you’ll never see me again. Hippies and guns aren’t really such great friends. Just think of Dennis Hopper at the end of Easy Rider. He brought the gun into plain sight and put his finger on the trigger. With a barely audible grunt, he motioned toward the car. The only directions he gave were a wave of the gun and the words “that way.”

For some reason that I’ve never really been able to pin down, I was a little rattled. Maybe it was the three-day silver grubby stubble, or the beater, or the way his wife (presumptuous as that might be) acted as a diversion while he crept out the kitchen door. Or the gun. I’d never been on the receiving end of a gun before. I put as much distance as I could between me and him as I could as quickly as possible. The Corona leapt over rises in the road that weren’t even noticeable as less than light speed.

Unbeknownst to me, they organized that little nub of a town in a series of interlocking circles. Twenty minutes later, we were back at the pole light. The upstairs light wasn’t on any more. We turned around and left as quietly as we could. No shots were fired.

We got the scenic tour of that little burg. It even got to the point where we recognized certain corners, but the road over the ridge to the park refused to show itself.

It was about this time that the smoke began rolling out from under the hood of the car. I stopped and flipped it open. The rag I kept on the firewall for wiping the dipstick when I checked the oil had fallen down on the exhaust manifold and was smoldering. I reached back in the car, grabbed my coffee and poured it on the rag. That at least cooled it off enough to grab the rag and evict it from its subhoodian residence. Fortunately for me, that crisis happened in front of another house where the light still burned. Was that a smirk, or a chortle I heard from Judy who joined my conspiracy and became Melville?

This was a more prosperous residence: a ranch house with vinyl siding, wrought iron columns on the front porch. The yard was grass. Mowed grass. There was a lamp post at the end of the driveway with a cute little manicured flower bed and a couple of rug-junipers and a garden gnome. It seemed the risk factor wasn’t near as high as the first place we stopped.

The TV was on. The doorbell button glowed to the left of the door. The tones chimed inside after I pushed the button. From inside I heard

“Just a minute.” The door opened. The man was dressed. Button-down shirt in uniform blue, with “Clyde” on the left breast pocket. (It’s amazing how many people know your name when you wear that shirt. Then again, perhaps it’s more amazing how many people still don’t know your name). Perhaps he worked second shift and was just winding down at one in the morning.

My gaze wandered from his face to his shoes. In between, his hand held a nice Colt .45 with a 12 inch barrel. There it was in the open; no attempt at sneaky concealment. It was pointed at me.

Can I help you?

We’re lost. We’ve been looping around this little town for an hour. We can’t seem to find the way back over to the state park.

“Ah, well. This place is like that. Just go back this way,” he said pointing down the road with the gun. “Take your next left. That’s the road.”

I thought about telling you we got lost again and this time we found a guy who pointed a 12-gauge shotgun at us, but that didn’t happen. I wouldn’t want to be accused of making this kind of stuff up.

Next morning, Liz who used to be Stell but is now hyphenated asked us, over Cheerios, in a polite and conversational voice how our trip to Pittsburgh was. I guess she didn’t hear us roll into the campground at 2 in the morning. Somehow she didn’t cue into our blurry red eyes. I’ll never know how or why. Maybe that has something to do with why her last name isn’t Melville.

 

[1] Waiting for Godot is a favorite of mine.

Smokin’ Rats

Smokin Rats

Note: no rats were harmed in the writing of either this story or the song. Some events in this story are actual. Others are fictional. I apologize if anyone is offended. The attempt is to bring into view the absurdity of daily life through humor.

Smokin’ Rats is the song. I’m no professional musician… still, I think it works. Through the miracle of technology, I can both whistle and accompany myself. Smokin Rats Story is an audio version of the following essay. Friends seem to enjoy hearing the stories.

It’s been many years at this point, since we bought our first house, just mom & dad, Elise and me, Jenny. It was over the mountain, in Milroy, an was an old grey farmhouse we bought from Matterns. I don’t think its goal in life was to be grey. It started out as a drafty plank-sided house insulated by old newspapers. Then I guess, in an attempt to reduce the draftiness, Matterns put blue aluminum siding on, but the blue oxidized to grey and that’s how it stands today.

The house had a dank basement with rows and rows of shelves for canned goods. The foundation wasn’t dry-laid, but there were more chinks between the stones than there was mortar. It was the sort of pace that was terrifying to my sister because, as John Prine sang, “The air smelled like snakes[1]….” It wasn’t the cucumberiness of copperheads. It was more like the sleek blackness of rat snakes, an impression given all the more credibility by the 5-foot long pair seen slithering gracefully up the Keefer pear[2] tree just off the corner of the back porch. Where there be rat snakes, there be rats. Equally terrifying for a six year-old sister. Fascinating for a nine year-old me. The imagined rats (for we knew of their presence only from the presence of the snakes. Everybody knows that the snakes are there because the food’s not far away) were the basis of little stories I made up about their families and how the daddy rats went off to work in the morning and how the mommy rats fed us kids breakfast and sent us off to rat school while they stayed home and watched rat TV and crocheted a new throw for the back of our ratty couch. There were other stories where the mommies went off to work and were moguls and stuff like that, too. They were an endless source of inspiration.

The upstairs walls were horsehair plaster, and I used to imagine the outlines of countries following the cracks in the walls and on the ceiling as I lay in bed on summer mornings, waiting for the alarm to go off. My sister, Elise, on the other hand, imagined armies of spiders emerging from the cracks. The steps creaked when no one was on them, and sometimes when the winter wind howled in the eaves the whole house seemed to moan. She was sure there were ghosts. Even if I thought I knew better, these were notions I did my best to bolster. After all, what are sisters for?

Dad always told us to treat each other as people, not sisters. It wasn’t until we became adults that we would have any inkling what he was driving at. We did understand, however, that he wanted us to quit digging and jabbing each other. For instance, we’d be going somewhere in the car. “Da-ad. She’s in my space. She’s touching me. She’s making faces at me.”

“So ask her to stop.” And some words were said to that effect in a sing-songy voice and the period at the end of the request was a stuck-out tongue. Ah, the subtleties of internecine warfare. Follow the form for peace-making while continuing the provocation. The tongue was returned by a kick to the shins, which in turn was rewarded with a bop on the head. Howls ensued. Dad gave a look to mom that said ungracefully “shut them up.” She turned around, burned a hole through the back seat with her gaze, and proceeded to calmly, in a measured voice, to inform us that we’d best behave or we’d find ourselves walking home. It was her most extreme version of the old saw “don’t make me stop this car or there’ll be hell to pay,” and usually it was sufficient to at least lower the level of poking and prodding to some liminal amount. There was, I have to admit, the time we united as sisters there in the back seat and escalated the conflict into a full-fledged nail scratching, hair-pulling full-howl brawl. The car stopped. We were ordered out. The car drove away. We looked at each other in disbelief. After some recrimination concerning whose fault the present situation was, we both had one of those moments of revelation. We knew on some level that mom & dad were not prone to making idle threats. Sometimes it is best not to play “poke the ogre,” or at least recognize when it’s time to quit. In the best played game of “poke the ogre,” the time to quit is while clemency is still available, just before they stop the car. We had found out what happens when we “made them stop the car.”

All that aside, I was (mostly) daddy’s girl and Elise was mommy’s. I loved the outdoors. I helped him with the firewood and building sheds and mowing the grass and the vegetable garden. There were rocks to flip over searching for newts. The compost pile was a great place to dig for worms to go fishing in Coffee Creek, a quarter-mile from our house.

There was the abandoned house next door. Sometimes Elise did play out doors. She was sure the house was haunted. The game was to demonstrate nerves of steel as follows: burrow under the bottom strand of the rusty barbed wire fence that separated our houses, sprint to the house and touch it, and be back on our side of the fence before you could say “boo!” or the ghost got you, whichever came first. Elise watched, but no amount of dare, double dare, double dog dare or any other kind of insinuation and character assassination was motivation enough for her to even burrow under the fence, much less touch the house. She was sure I would “get mine,” and was more than willing to let me take the risk. On some level, it was the nonchalant game of “kick the chick out of the nest,” with the intent of getting more devotion from the parental units. I wasn’t afraid of that old house.

You just never knew what sorts of adventures lay waiting on summer mornings. The rooster might be out. The goat might be standing on top of mom’s car. The pigs, well you can read about the pigs elsewhere. That’s a whole ‘nother story. The neighbors might be burning their trash which was a time-honored tradition and competition (competitive trash burning. Next Olympic sport), which doesn’t sound all that adventuresome, except they tended to include the aerosol cans with the trash. When the cans blew up (as the inevitably did) the formerly smoldering trash erupted into flame as it gasped enough air while soaring across their back yard. It was pretty harmless fun. I think the worst I ever saw come of it was when Jones caught his compost heap on fire.

Daddy told me that different animals have different ways of showing interest in what the news man would call current events. Horses put their ears forward. My aunt’s cockatoo raised its crest. So, one Saturday morning I was riding around on the lawn tractor with daddy when our ears went forward and our crests went up. Jeff Shockley, our other neighbor across the alley had a dog kennel that sat next to his garage. He worked at the fertilizer plant over in Burnham. He had a good beer belly going. If he’d have been a woman, we would have called him frumpy. But really, we were what you’d call “waving neighbors.” Dad knew Shockley enough to wave at him. I knew him less. I never knew the dog, never even saw it in the kennel. He’d take food out in the evening, and in the morning it’d be gone. This morning he was on some sort of mission. Apparently he had a rat problem, and not enough rat snakes.

What put our ears forward and raised our crests was this: He was walking around the outside of the kennel with a gallon can of gasoline. Every so often, he tilted the can and poured out some gas. What was he up to? Mot wishing to gawk too much, we mowed the same patch of grass about four times. His rats had burrowed in from the perimeter of the kennel. Sort of a reverse Hogan’s Heroes, where they burrow into prison instead of out. When he tilted the can, the gas went down their holes. We figured that he figured to “gas them out.” We were correct in a way. However, we misunderestimated his determination in the matter. His next step took us both (all?) by surprise. He lit a match. He tossed it. The fumes ignited. The holes, as we soon found out, emerged under cover of doghouse. Bawoom! The ground shook! The collective oomph from all those holes underneath, lifted it more than a foot off the ground. As the dog house returned to earth, the explosion vented itself in the other direction, around the edges of the kennel. We congratulated ourselves for our patience in mowing and re-mowing that patch of lawn for the reward of such a show. It paled next to the finale.

As mentioned, it was not uncommon to see flaming garbage sailing across a yard. This finale was both horrifying and entrancing. Like tracer rounds or contrails, a dozen or so smoke trails arced across his back yard. It took a moment to comprehend. We looked at each other quizzically. What was that? From whence cometh the smoke trails? Realization dawned. The human cannonball of circus fame, in multiple, rattine form.  Smokin’ rats.

The lead story (memorialized in song) on rat TV News at 5: Explosion at Relief Mission Kills Twelve. Investigators have determined that a gas leak was responsible for the deadly explosion at the Dog House Kitchen….

 

The song…. Smokin’ Rats

There was a man

Who had a dog

That lived behind his house

And every day he’d take that dog

And bring him out some food

And every night them rats come out

And steal that doggie’s food

‘the man got mad and one day he said

I’m getting rid them rats

 

Smokin rats, O smokin rats

Shootin’ ‘cross the yard

Smokin’ rats them smokin’ rats

Life can be so hard

Smokin’ rats them smokin rats

All they’s tryin’ ‘do

Was eke them out a little livin’

Just like me and you

 

Well one day that man came from in his house

with gallon can of gas

He poured it down those rattie’s holes

And touched it with a match

The boom was a loud, and then the ground shook too

The flames flew out, the man just smiled

And out came smokin’ rats

 

Refrain

 

Now the dog house leapt up off the ground

At least a foot or more

From that ‘splodin’ gas-o-line, like I said before

And the rats left little trails of smoke

As they sailed across the yard

The man knew then full, good & well

Those rats won’t steal no more

 

Refrain

 

Now in this life there’s lots of folks

Who’ll try to steal your bread

And you might be one of them

Just remember what is said

There’s some who think that eking out

A living is plumb wrong

But when the ground shakes and the flames fly out

You’d better be long gone

 

Refrain

 

Alt. Last verse:

Now in this life there’s lots of folks

Who’ll try to steal your bread

Or you just might be one of them

Remember what is said

There’s some who think that stealin’s wrong

And those who just get by

When the ground shakes and the flames fly out

Your judgement day is here.

 

[1] John Prine, “Paradise.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vC65_cq0Js

[2] Known as a “winter pear” because they could be stored for the winter. When they fall from the tree, they’re hard as rocks and not very sweet, but they get a little tastier as the winter goes on. Mostly they get raked up & fed to the livestock or thrown in the compost heap today.

Parade

I think it’s safe to say that it’s unique, or at least unusual, among July 4th celebrations. It’s one parade among many, perhaps thousands, on Independence Day. This one is less formulaic, more freewheeling. At only 20 years old, the memories of it intermingle as streams of water do when they join.

Take, for instance, the story of its origin. One version would have it that the first parade came into being spontaneously when two cars got stuck behind Farmer Ralph’s tractor and manure spreader. Ralph had gone to spread the load on a field some distance from the farmstead. Our roads are sort of narrow: two cars can pass, but the bushes on the roadside will brush the mirrors. You get in the tractor with the radio going, bouncing rhythmically up and down as you drive, and you get in the zone. It’s easy to forget that you’re not going as fast as some people want to go, or even that someone or two someones might catch up and want to pass. And so you wind as the road winds on your way to do your work, thinking about how to get the hay in between the July thundershowers and whether the shoats you bought at the sale last week are gaining weight as they should, and the kids, and the warm embrace of your wife. Someone in one of the cars recognized the moment for what it was: a celebration of our nation’s glorious history and accomplishments. Two cars and a manure spreader (make of that what you will). A tradition was born. Next year, a hot rod, a bicycle with red, white and blue crepe paper woven through its spokes , a John Deere “A” tractor with a flag on it, and two cars (one with a cannon on the roof) spontaneously lined up down by the lake entrance.

One of the fun things about this little part of Pennsylvania is that our roads go around in loops. Before there were road signs and GPS and spoilers like that, people would get back in here and go around for hours, trying to get through the mountain the back way or back out to the main highway, either. The park might only be ten miles from you as the crow flies but fifty miles by road. Stop and ask directions, you’re likely to be greeted with a pensive look, maybe a seemingly blank stare, a shake of the head and a sincere “No. This is Pennsylvania. You can’t get there from here.” Confusing in those days, yes. But it makes for a great parade route. I digress.

There is another tale, some might call it a legend, concerning the parade’s origins. The editor of The Courier, that paragon of yellow journalism (motto: if we don’t have the facts, we’ll make some up), lived back here in the corner at the farm with the stone fence. One July fourth, he challenged some friends, allegedly saying “Let’s get on our four-wheelers and go house to house and see how many beers we can get.” So in this version, the first parade was a beer run (or perhaps more accurately, crawl).

There are certain facts that do indeed serve to corroborate (not corroborated cardboard, either) this version. In the early years, the parade remained untamed. The fire department tanker would wantonly drench parade-goers. Likewise, the parade-goers kept their garden hoses at the ready, just in case someone in the parade looked hot. Vodka Jello shots were freely available. Purveyors of fine alcoholic beverages (mostly Bud Light) continued to drive against the grain of the parade, offering libation to anyone in need of such.

But as is too often the case when too much fun is being had, the fun police showed up and quashed the whole thing. It is unclear whether the firehose or the alcohol was to blame, but Mary Jane took a tumble off the back of the hay wagon serving as parade float for the day. She incurred a closed head brain injury or some medical thing like that. And while she’s fine today, the fact that the ambulance had to be called resulted in a visit from the state police who, in their sternest, you-don’t-mess-with-Texas manner were about to haul the whole bunch of us lawless reprobates in for drublic punkenness and being generally, well, lawless and reprobate, even though none of us knew what any of that meant.

Fortunately for all of us, the judge got wind of these goings on. He was one of the parade organizers, and not afraid of a little fun. Unbeknownst to us, he was also practiced in Jedi mind tricks (or maybe it was more like police whispering). He managed to explain that these were not the paraders they (the staties) were after and while the staties were compliant, they used their own mind tricks and whispering to make it clear that things needed to change. The whole thing was like a subsonic growling match between dogs over a food dish. Nobody went to jail, and without any further words, the place of alcohol in the celebration was suddenly quietly minimized.

While it could be argued that the inhibition-lowering function of alcohol was responsible for some amount of the, um, creativity displayed in the parade floats, we all rose to the occasion and continued the nascent slightly wacky tradition. As mentioned with Mary Jane’s incident, hay wagons served as a popular (you might say) platform for floats. So when the Fish & Boat Commission drained the lake because they said the dam was leaking and that was unsafe, one popular motif was the kiddie pool with a fisherman or some other version of a lake-user sitting beside it. On the side of the wagon was a banner to the effect of “Save Colyer Lake.”

There was a guy who drove his log skidder one year, an otherwise white horse painted as a flag, a guy on a recumbent bike. There was social commentary (via float) on the richness of rural life: guns and hunting, motor heads, beer, hard work, family. Because we’re a short distance east of a large university, there was commentary on the absurdity of academia. There’s this odd intermixing of who we used to be (a farming community) and who we’re becoming (a bedroom community for said large university). Usually the fire truck joined the festivities. Several years, there was a Civil War reenactment group. They’d stuff their cannon (mounted on a hay wagon, what else?) with black powder and the proverbial wad (about to be shot) and give us all a loud ba-woom! and a cloud of smoke. There also was always room for a good play on words. Such was the case with the drill team.

Bridgette was a drum major in high school. Batons and such, shiny, high boots with pom-poms you know? She rounded up some young (and not so young) ladies. They all scrounged cordless drills. They took tinker toy bits and chucked them up in the drills. Bridgette showed them how to take a Tinker Toy hub piece and stick little American flags into the holes around the rim of the hub to make a spinny pinwheel. When she hit the drill’s trigger, the flags spun around. The whole bunch of them got dressed up in shiny leotards and marched the parade route, drills in hand, flags spinning. They had the whole thing choreographed to patriotic music, with Bridgette as drum major. They practiced. When she blew her whistle or twirled her baton, the team responded to the cues with classic cheer moves. At one point when the parade came to a standstill (which it did with some frequency), they formed a pyramid. In formation, they whirled their tinker toy flags with a squeeze of their drill’s triggers, dismantled the pyramid, and moved on. Behind Bridgette, two women carried a banner: Colyer Drill Team.

In the early years, when the parade finished the route circuit, we all milled around at the end like there should be something more. The answer was a picnic. In the best patriotic tradition of such things, a committee was formed. Tom B. agreed to take care of the beer (top priority). Tom W. procured memorabilia: hats and t-shirts commemorating the parade and its legacy (at less than 5 years old, the parade already claimed “legacy.”) Tom P[1]., a lawyer, said he’d take on negotiations with the Fish Commission so we could gather at the lake, and get a permit from the township so we could clog up the local roads for a couple of hours. It used to be that you didn’t need a permit to do anything. Those days are gone. When people move here, they want it to be like where they came from. They expect paved, pothole-free roads and then complain when people drive “too fast” (more than twenty miles per hour). They want, as one wag noted, streetlights and sidewalks. They want zoning and rules so they can make their neighbors behave. You could see the effects of their encroachment. Everything had to be organized, I’s dotted and T’s crossed. A little randomness in life is a good thing. On the other hand, some battles are not worth fighting, and organization is not inherently bad. Just so it doesn’t crimp creativity.

Tom P. was successful in his negotiations with the fish folk, so the next year the picnic was held at the boat launch (the lake was still a lake). But the fish guys ordained “no alcohol on the premises,” in direct conflict with the parade’s axiom “beer is good,” and the fish wardens have broader power here than the staties who, as noted above, have their own mind tricks and are not to be trifled with. The upshot, in the best tradition of civil noncompliance, was the covert consumption of the beer. There were cozies and flasks. There was the London Fog with the interior breast pocket suitable for holding the beer. There was the Camelbak with mouth tube (usually for mountain biking, you know) filled with beer. All allowed for discrete consumption. Even at that, though, there were those who were uncomfortable with the necessary deception. So the next year, the whole affair moved across the road like a swarm of honey bees to Braun’s cattail swamp which, in a show of generosity, he had mowed. But it was stubbly and swampy and had prickly dewberries growing down in amongst the stubble. While the site did allow for the consumption of beer, it was deemed unsuitable for other reasons. The search resumed.

Fortunately for us, Jonesey came forward and said we could use his manicured field next year. He lives up at the top of the hill amongst a group whose highest priority in life is maintaining a minimum of five acres of weedless ecological desert known as “lawn.” It is a nice place for a picnic. Its only shortcoming is a complete lack of trees for shade, trees and perfect lawn being largely incompatible. The committee rented a tent for the covered dish food line to compensate for the lack of shade. Several of the rest of us had canopies and tents. Nevin borrowed a bunch of tables from the VFW. Cloyd came up with chairs from the Bretheren church. Now when the parade is over, we all have the chance to share a meal and catch up with our neighbors.

For a couple of years, there was an awards committee, but there were accusations of favoritism (covered in full color by The Courier) and they just laid the whole thing down as not being worth the fuss and aggravation. To raise money for the food tent and beer and ice (life’s true priorities) they cut holes in the top of five gallon spackle buckets that say “Dryvit” on the side and posted signs above the buckets with “Donations” and an arrow pointing down to the bucket. There’s a trash committee, and a set up committee and a tear down committee and a food committee. The parade has “grown up,” some would say. The crazy wild hare-ness has mellowed. It’s still a good time. It’s just more like a block party than a trappers’ roundup.

[1] It has been documented that we have a statistically significant population of Toms here.

Pizza Reflection

There’s a new pizza place in Spring Mills. They named it Pizza Heaven. I’m sure they were trying to conjure images of the best pizza that could possibly be. My mind, being the associative menace that it is, reflected on that name. I mean, where do we go when we die (if you follow traditional religious belief)? Heaven, of course! Naturally it follows that pizza heaven is where dead pizzas go. Remember all those dead pizzas from your single days? They laid around your house or apartment or car until they could have earned you an “A” in microbiology. Now perhaps when they get to heaven, those pizza bones are “made new,” but I didn’t get there. My understanding of a pizza heaven was more like a pizza graveyard.

Much to my surprise, that evening  I found myself sandwiched between my granddaughters, 6&9 years old, headed for… Pizza Heaven. I explained this all to them, there in the back seat. The six year old is kind of fussy. Not maybe a neat freak, but she did warn Judy that “Um Grammy? You might not want to eat that. It’s moldy.” When Judy was fixing to have some blue cheese & crackers. It was plain that the idea of having dinner at this repository for dead pizzas made her uncomfortable. I provided her with an alternative. After a pensive moment, I confided “well. You really wouldn’t like the live ones. They scream when you bite them.”