Monthly Archives: July 2010

Radio Daze

Joan Ryan submitted this poem in a comment, but I thought I’d “raise” it into the evanescent present. I have fond memories of peering into the back of a radio and seeing that mysterious orange cathode glow.

Radio Daze

1940’s

Inside appeared a magic city

With glass high rises. Very pretty.

A futuristic cool fantasy view.

When one high tower tube grew dark,

No light, no power, not a spark,

You had a perfect plan for what to do.

Pull out the tube and take it down

To a repair shop in the town.

They would replace the bulb with one brand new.

2010

It’s 2010, Surprise! Surprise!

We’ve all become transistorized.

Small radio in 55? Who knew?

Now you would need a microscope

And microchips,

You’d be a dope

Attempting a repair today. Oh pooh!

Till you’re instructed by the Gods

In fixing puters and Ipods

And radios, you’re more than likely through.

Unless you know how to replace

A circuit board in some weird space

It’s best to give it up and buy anew.

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A Machine of Antiquity

Yesterday morning I had just returned from a bicycle foray into town — I’d settled into the porch swing and returned to a novel by Edith Wharton, “The Custom Of The Country”. Only a writer as virtuosic as Wharton can interest me in the social intrigues of the wealthy classes in New York City during the 1920s (or any era, for that matter!).

As I reflected upon a particularly deft passage in the novel I happened to notice a typewriter sitting on a folding chair nearby. It hadn’t been there the day before; it was as if it had fallen from the sky, perhaps discarded ballast from a passing dirigible.

I examined the machine, an IBM Selectric typewriter. It’s armor-like case had a matte-green finish and its power cord dangled into a coil upon the concrete. When was the last time I’d seen one of these machines, a relic and survivor of a pre-digital age? I remember seeing these machines in innumerable institutional and commercial offices. Selectrics were innovative machines during their brief time, as the magically-rotating typeface ball with its intaglio letters could be quickly popped loose and replaced with a ball with an entirely different font, a feature which must have seemed wondrous before the advent of word-processors and their drop-down menus of fonts.

A few hours later I asked Doug about the machine.

“Where’d that typewriter out there come from, Doug?”

“Oh, I was helping out a neighbor and he asked me if I wanted it. I thought it might be fun to see if I could get it running.”

I should mention that Doug has the Magic Touch when it comes to machinery. He has an intuitive feel for devices and their maladies. After the recent flood I watched with admiration as he revived two waterlogged push lawnmowers, using only a a pair of pliers, a screwdriver, and a crescent wrench. Doug grew up on a farm and from boyhood has worked on the numerous internal combustion engines modern agriculture relies upon.

I said “Y’know, I’ve always wondered how those Selectric typewriters worked. I’ve never seen the insides of one.”

Before long Doug and I had the relict machine upended. Doug said “I can’t figure out how the bottom of the case is attached!”

We tugged and pried, as there were no evident screws holding the case together. Patience is the crucial factor when dealing with machines, and we finally got the bottom off. We found feathers mixed with birdseed filling all of the cavities of the typewriter. We pulled out a couple of gallons of what looked like chicken feathers and at least a quart of birdseed, mainly millet and milo (a nicely alliterative phrase).

Evidently a clan of mice had made the Selectric its home. A scene from an imaginary Disneyesque cartoon briefly flitted through my mind:

A rather hungry-looking family of mice is clustered around a table made from a saucer perched upon a wooden thread-spool. The mice sit upon chairs, each chair being nothing but a styrofoam peanut. Two bold-looking mice with tiny packs upon their backs, kerchiefs tied around their heads, and staffs made of cocktail skewers enter the mice’s kitchen.

One of them exclaims “What luck we’ve had! In the shed out back we found a hollow human contrivance, a pillow full of feathers, and a bag of seeds! We’re set for the winter!” The mice all cheer…

After the mouse debris was scattered on the ground we saw an impressive sight: the innards and guts of a Selectric, an awesomely-complicated maze consisting of hundreds of mechanical and electrical components. Those IBM engineers of yore had essentially reinvented the typewriter; seeing this sight was like peering into the layered and interlocked gears and pawls of an eighteenth-century ship’s chronometer. The machine looked like it was designed to last for centuries; it’s a shame that two decades later it was completely obsolete.

I noticed a sticker affixed to the inside of the upper case. The name of a Huron, South Dakota office supply company was printed on the sticker, along with an intriguing penciled scrawl:

“Serviced June 19th, 1971”

Yep, that was during the Selectric’s heyday. But how did the typewriter get to Hannibal? An unlikely but entertaining scenario blossoms in my mind:

The Selectric was bought new and used for several years by a secretary at a thriving insurance agency in Huron. After an office equipment upgrade the machine passed through a succession of businesses, each one less prosperous than the one before. It was just chance that caused the typewriter to move farther east with each new owner. It ended up in the window of an office supply store in a small town in Minnesota, perhaps the farthest north of the numerous river towns along the Mississippi.

A young writer lived in that town. His ambition was to write novels; his head was teeming with stories. He had just received a small inheritance from an uncle, and he saw this windfall as a message from his muse. He booked passage on an excursion riverboat which would take him downriver to St. Louis. Perhaps with the green Selectric typewriter he had just purchased he could use the leisurely cruise to write his first novel!

The excursion boat docked for a few hours in Hannibal. The young writer was nearing the end of his monetary resources by this time, but he had a promising first draft of a novel all typed out, a thick sheaf of paper in a manila envelope. He wondered if perhaps there might be a pawnshop in Hannibal. Selling that Selectric would give him money enough to survive until he reached St. Louis, where surely a literary agent would gasp in wonder after reading his manuscript and post haste find him a publisher.

The typewriter ended up at the Rags To Riches pawnshop — the year was 1978; after three more owners it ended up in a shed as a winter dwelling for mice, and then under my scrutiny and Doug’s.

So what happened to the writer? He went on to become a moderately successful author of mystery and suspense novels… but wait… the man is a figment of my imagination, and I’m a benign literary deity; I’ll give him a better fate. He went on to become a revered writer of forty novels, beloved by critics and readers alike, and eventually died in his sleep during the fall of 2045.

Pardon the divagation… I got carried away!

After the feathers were cleared away Doug and I peered into the electro-mechanical maze. Doug went to get an extension cord and I noticed a most intriguing detail; there were two 45-degree-angle gears which looked remarkably like miniature versions of the gears in an automobile differential.

Doug came back and we plugged the typewriter in. Nothing happened, but Doug noticed that the small cylindrical drive motor had heated up. So it was getting current; Doug removed the cogged drive belt from the motor and it silently revved up. The motor was remarkably quiet and vibrationless. I unplugged the cord. It’s surprising that neither of us received an electrical shock.

We found some pockets of corrosion doubtless caused by mouse excreta. I doubt that the typewriter will ever run again, but it was diverting and interesting to explore its innards!

Larry

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Surrounded By Floodwaters

I’ve been on the periphery of flash floods before, but never before in the midst of one. It was a fascinating natural event to witness.

Early last Tuesday morning, just as dawn was tinging the eastern sky with hints of blue, I was awakened by thunder and the sound of rain beating against my west-facing bedroom window. I’m an early riser, so I got up, made some coffee, and peered out of the trailer door.

Water was beginning to pool out in the yard as the rain began to come down harder and faster. I turned on the radio and heard the first of many flash flood warnings. The storm was making me restless, but I managed to focus well enough to play the mandolin for a while.

At about 6:30 I couldn’t resist the urge to take another peek out of the front door’s window. I was amazed at the sight I beheld. Each trailer in the park was now an island surrounded by turbid, debris-laden water which had an evident current. My curiosity and wonder compelled me to wade out there in order to see how deep the water was and check the rain gauge.

I was barefoot and had my jeans rolled up as I gingerly waded to the blacktop lane. The water was about eight inches deep and seemed to be surging from the Bear Creek bridge about a block from here.   I wondered if I would see a catfish or gar swim by.  I wondered where this water was going, impelled as it was by that inexorable law water always obeys: Seek Your Own Level!

Once back inside the trailer I knew I had to wake up Ava and Doug. You don’t see such a sight every day! Of course there was a possibility of property damage and even evacuation. I knocked on their bedroom door and resumed my vigil at the front door. Was it possible that the water level was visibly rising?

Ava and Doug normally aren’t early risers, but one look out of the window dissipated their drowsiness. Before long the three of us were wading out in the lane and talking with neighbors. The water was now a foot deep and tree branches and barbecue-sized propane tanks were gliding by.

Then Ava exclaimed “I hear those kitties under the trailer!”

A feral mother cat had had five kittens in a tarped boat next door some weeks ago. She had moved the kittens under a trailer across the lane, then a week later had transferred her brood to a spot underneath Ava and Doug’s place. The feeble mewing of the kittens could be heard from an area where the trailer skirting had been undermined and fallen flat.

I was pretty well soaked by this time so I volunteered to rescue the kittens. Privately I thought that the best outcome for all concerned would be if those kitties drowned, but I kept that pragmatic opinion to myself.

“Oh, well, here goes!” I thought as I gingerly squatted in the roiling water and peered beneath the trailer as Ava held a flashlight. I wished that I had been wearing shoes — I was thinking of such objects as shards of broken glass or wickedly sharp pieces of sheet metal lurking in the mud.

The wet kittens were perched on a floating chunk of hollow plastic which once had been the base of a basketball pole and hoop. The mother cat was nowhere to be seen.

Ava held a styrofoam cooler and, one by one, I plucked the bedraggled kittens from their plastic island refuge and deposited them in a mewling heap in the cooler. The last kitten was the only one to show signs of resistance or defiance. I’d left it for last because it was hissing and spitting at me. It was only six inches long, though, and I doubted whether it had the strength to put up much of a fight. I admired its spirit as I plopped it into the cooler.

The water began to subside, falling as quickly as it had risen. By 8:00 that morning only a few puddles remained. One virtue of such a flood is that the water functions as an enormous level, allowing one to see relative elevations, high spots, and low spots. Floods also have a cleansing effect, floating away debris and disturbing moles.

That morning about five inches of rain fell during just two hours. The trailer park had never been known to flood before, not even during the Flood of ’93, the most significant flood event during the past few decades in this area.

This summer has to have been the wettest since 1983. Last Saturday night we had another two inches of rain and Bear Creek briefly rose again and flooded the roads.

As for the kittens, they were taken to the Humane Society, while the disconsolate mother cat, her full dugs drooping, can still be seen slinking from trailer to trailer.

Larry

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On Learning To Read

Ava, Doug, and I rolled into the trailer park early this morning in Doug’s 1975 Ford pickup. Earlier Saturday evening I had been eating a fine meal and playing music at Rob and Cindy’s place south of town, a combined social gathering and band practice. The musical energies were waning when I got a phone call from Ava.

“Larry, are you coming to the drive-in with us? Doug and I made popcorn, and we have cold cream sodas!”

I’d been wanting to go sometime to that drive-in movie establishment, which is located a few miles south of Barry, in Pike County, Illinois. I gave Doug directions to Rob and Cindy’s rural home, and after playing a few more tunes with my musical cronies, I gathered up my instruments and waited by the gravel road.

It was a pleasant night for a drive. With both pickup windows open, the three of us eventually arrived at the drive-in, probably the only one still in business within a radius of two hundred miles. Fifty or sixty pickups were lined up before the screen and people had brought lawn chairs and blankets. It was a real slice of Midwestern life. Unlike the window-mounted speakers I remember from my youth, the audio at this theater is broadcast on an open FM channel and can be heard on the vehicles’ radios.

Doug sat in a folding chair in the bed of the pickup, Ava reclined on a cushioned mat atop the truck’s transverse toolbox, while I sprawled out on the tailgate with a pillow against the pickup bed’s side.

All three of us snoozed from time to time. The movies were of the sort which don’t demand undivided attention. I spent some time gazing up at the brilliant stars, trying to identify constellations. Cygnus, the Northern Cross, was directly overhead, as always accompanied by that sportive trapezoidal dolphin Delphinus. I tried to locate that beautiful arc of stars known as Corona Borealis but never did make it out.

Bear with me, kind readers. I admit I have a tendency to approach post subjects tangentially. There is an admittedly tenuous connection between the above account of watching cinematic stories and the following tales of early experiences reading stories.

It occurs to me that a possible reason for the enduring popularity of the personal memoir genre is that a writer’s recollections can bring to the surface neglected memories of the reader’s. An example from my own experience follows.

A passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory caused to slowly rise to the surface of my mind some memories of my own. Here’s the passage, Nabokov writing of some childhood experiences:

I learned to read English before I could read Russian. My first English friends were four simple souls in my grammar — Ben, Dan, Sam, and Ned. There used to be a great deal of fuss about their identities and whereabouts — “Who is Ben?” “He is Dan,” “Sam is in bed,” and so on. Although it all remained rather stiff and patchy (the compiler was handicapped by having to employ — for the initial lessons, at least — words of not more than three letters), my imagination somehow managed to obtain the necessary data. Wan-faced, big-limbed, silent nitwits, proud of the possession of certain tools (“Ben has an axe”), they now drift with a slow-motioned slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory; and, akin to the mad alphabet of an optician’s chart, the grammar-book lettering again looms before me.

[…]

…On later pages longer words appeared, and at the very end of the brown, inkstained volume, a real, sensible story unfolded its adult sentences (One day Ted said to Ann: Let us –“), the little reader’s ultimate triumph and reward. The magic has endured, and whenever a grammar book comes my way, I instantly turn to the last page to enjoy a forbidden glimpse of the laborious student’s future, of that promised land where, at last, words are meant to mean what they mean.

This Nabokovian memory caused my recollection engine to rev up. I thought back to my first grade experiences at Wright School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Back then the Dick and Jane readers were still in use, but the stories were so rudimentary that it was hard to stay interested — “See Spot run” may have been one of the more exciting passages. I really wanted to learn to read. My parents were readers and there was alway an abundance of reading material around the house. I made efforts to try to make sense of books I’d pick up but I just didn’t have the necessary vocabulary.

By the time I entered second grade I had come across an old edition of Collodi’s Pinocchio, and it was almost comprehensible. I struggled with this book but certain words threw me for a loop. One word in particular puzzled me to no end. What could a “tawn-goo” be? Each character seemed to possess one, and from what I could deduce the word referred to a part of the body, possibly located on the head.

Finally I asked my mother. “Look at this word, Mom! I keep reading it and I can’t figure out what it is!”

My mother laughed. “Larry, it’s pronounced “tung”! She stuck out her tongue at me and suddenly I realized that English spelling could be quite illogical.

I eventually finished Pinocchio and heaved a sigh of relief.

Towards the end of second grade the reader stories became more interesting. I had checked out a book from the class library shelves and, for the first time, became totally engrossed in a written story. The book was about a family on vacation and I just slurped it down. After I read the final page I was overwhelmed with a desolate feeling. I had invested quite a fund of attention, identification, and imagination in the adventures of that fictional family, and now I was left hanging. What happened next? Will I ever meet these fascinating characters again? In a way they had seemed more real than the flesh-and-blood people in my life. This was my first experience of the power of the written word.

Larry

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A Swiss Governess

My Library of America edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s shorter works which contains the author’s memoir, Speak, Memory, is rather untidy-looking these days — scraps of paper serving as bookmarks curl forth irregularly from the mass of thin pages. I come across particularly well-written passages and think “I want to show this to someone!”

Here’s yet another example. The wealthy Nabokov family, soon to be exiled to Paris due to the exigencies of the Russian Revolution, had hired a new governess:

A large woman, a very stout woman, Mademoiselle rolled into our existence in December 1905 when I was six and my brother five. There she is. I see so plainly her abundant dark hair, brushed up high and covertly graying; the three wrinkles on her austere forehead; her beetling brows; the steely eyes behind the black-rimmed pince-nez; that vestigial mustache; that blotchy complexion, which in moments of wrath develops an additional flush in the region of the third, and amplest, chin so regally spread over the frilled mountain of her blouse. And now she sits down, or rather she tackles the job of sitting down, the jelly of her jowl quaking, her prodigious posterior, with the three buttons on the side, lowering itself warily; then, at the last second, she surrenders her bulk to the wicker armchair, which, out of sheer fright, bursts into a salvo of crackling.

[…]

In our childhood we know a lot about hands since they live and hover at the level of our stature; Mademoiselle’s were unpleasant because of the froggy gloss on their tight skin besprinkled with brown ecchymotic spots. Before her time no stranger had ever stroked my face. Mademoiselle, as soon as she came, had taken me completely aback by patting my cheek in sign of spontaneous affection. All her mannerisms come back to me when I think of her hands. Her trick of peeling rather than sharpening a pencil, the point held towards her stupendous and sterile bosom swathed in green wool. The way she had of inserting her little finger into her ear and vibrating it very rapidly. The ritual observed every time she gave me a fresh copybook. Always panting a little, her mouth slightly open and emitting in quick succession a series of asthmatic puffs, she would open the copybook to make a margin in it; that is, she would sharply imprint a vertical line with her thumbnail, fold in the edge of the page, press, release, smooth it out with the heel of her hand, after which the book would be briskly twisted around and placed before me ready for use. A new pen followed; she would moisten the glistening nib with susurrous lips before dipping it into the baptismal ink font. Then, delighting in every limb of every limpid letter (especially so because the preceding copybook had ended in utter sloppiness), with exquisite care I would inscribe the word Dictée while Mademoiselle hunted through her collection of spelling tests for a good, hard passage.

It really doesn’t matter how much of the material in these passages is composed of actual memories and how much was added later. The character description is just wonderful — V.N. has vividly brought back to life an anonymous woman of the early twentieth century.

Larry

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On Matters Slinkish

I’ve been living here at Ava and Doug’s place for a week or so now.  Their home is about two miles from downtown Hannibal.

The past few days I’ve been surveying the local area on my bicycle. One thing I like about Hannibal is that, due to the hilly terrain, isolated “pocket” neighborhoods abound. Typically there is just one entrance, and the far side of such a neighborhood is a creek, steep bluff, or a ravine.

One such neighborhood lies along the north slope of a quarried bluff which looms over the nearby animal shelter. Five mailboxes at the terminus of a gravel road indicate how many households likely are arrayed along that steep road. I was mightily intrigued by the name on the first mailbox: Slinkard.

What a name! It sounds so archaic, and it carries the negative connotation of the word “slink”. And the “tard” suffix! Generally, words which end in that suffix are negative. “drunkard”, “stinkard”, “retard”… can you think of any others? An imaginary bit of medieval invective bubbles to the surface of my mind: “Thou vile slinkard!”

“Slink” is an interesting word. Entities which slink or are slinky are usually up to no good. There is an implication of furtiveness, although cats while slinking in search of prey don’t seem to care who is watching.

“Slink” got a new lease on verbal life during the 1960s, when the Slinky toy was introduced by the Wham-O toy company. Who wasn’t charmed by the simulacrum of conscious intent when observing for the first time a Slinky sinuously stepping down a staircase! Slinkys were fun for a while but I suspect most had short lifetimes, victims of sibling squabbling. Once a Slinky suffers a bad kink its fate is sealed; the trashcan awaits.

Before concluding this short dispatch I’ll mention that the Wham-O company had an enormous effect on the idle youth of my generation. All through the late 1950s and the 1960s the innovative firm produced one incredibly cool toy after another. The Hula Hoop, the Super Ball, the Frisbee… I’ll write more about this company and its products after I’ve done some research. My curiosity is aroused!

Larry

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Will The Drama Never End?

I’ve been kicked out of Myrlene’s house, where I had been renting a room the past couple of weeks.  I truly don’t understand what has happened, but after much pondering I’ve come to the conclusion that the girls, led by 18-year-old Bobbie, had begun to resent my presence.  I was continually trying to bring a semblance of order to this squalid house, doing dishes and picking up dog-chewed debris,  and this tendency of mine, I surmise, made their lazy ways appear worse in contrast.

My friend Doug (Ava’s fiancé) has volunteered to bring his pickup truck by this morning and help me move my stuff back to my building, which still lacks power and water.  I really don’t want to return to that oven of a brick building, but I simply have no where else to go.  To top off this seemingly unending chain of bad luck, my cell phone endured a full wash cycle along with my laundry.  I’m hoping I can dry it out.  I may be off the net for a day or two; my next post might well originate from rural New London.

Wish me luck!

Larry

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