Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mr Wizard

As my fellow boomers well remember, the decade following Sputnik was the "Space Age". Back then science was the magic key that would unlock wonders untold. Mom, keen on her sons' devotion to Don Herbert's "Watch Mr Wizard" TV show, foolishly bought us educational toys for Christmas. Joel, #1 son (as Charlie Chan would have called him), got the chemistry set. Roy, #2 (which in the context of this story is not merely his birth order), got the weather station. I don't recall what I got, maybe Chinese Checkers (or are they Asian-American checkers already?), but that's beside the point. The "major award" during the Christmas of 1960 was the chemistry set - hands down.

The manufacturer had provided saltpeter as one of the compounds of Joel's dazzling "Mr Wizard"-like scientific feats, though I'm pretty sure the toy maker had the good sense to leave out the requisite sulphur and charcoal. But even lacking the rest of the gun powder's components, one could still make a pretty impressive "poof" with just a sprinkle of potassium nitrate. Still Roy, having long since set up his weather station and captured all the weekly rainfall that El Paso has to offer (of its 7-inch yearly average), was not impressed.

"Heck, that's nuthin!" Roy scoffed.

"Oh yeah? Can you make a big flash like that with your weather station?" Joel mocked.

"Heck, I can do better than that."

"Can not."

"Can too!"


"I could build a bomb."

"Suuure you can. So how do you build a bomb?"

Roy, never at a loss for a smooth line of BS, answered without hesitation, "Gasoline burns, right?"

Joel, "Yeah."

"And oil burns, right?"

"Yeah ..."

"Well, if you mix them together, they explode!"

Joel bit the hook, "Really?"

Roy, "You bet!"

So as I'd done before, Joel stored away for future reference one of the amazing (nay, incredible) facts that Roy had shared. But more about my gullibility at some later time.

A few weeks after Roy let his bomb-making formula slip, Joel and a neighborhood kid named Carlos decided to put their new knowledge of explosive ordnance to the test. They poured off half a quart-sized can of use crankcase oil and filled it back to the top with gasoline. The pint-sized EOD team then equipped their device with a rag fuse and began searching the back yard for a test target. Our old couch (the one Mom had finally quit patching with our worn-out blue jeans) hadn't yet made it over the fence into the alley where the garbagemen (er, I mean, sanitation workers) would pick it up, so in the minds of Albert Einstein and Tonto, this looked like an expendable item. One with the added advantage of a high back that would likely shield the house from the full force of the detonation.

The two budding scientists gingerly set their bomb on the center cushion, lit the fuse and ran around the corner of the garage, expecting massive destruction to ensue. Just as Joel and Carlos were plugged fingers in their ears, Roy walked up.

"Wucha doin?"

"Blowin up the couch," came the hushed answer.

Roy looked around the corner and, upon seeing flames beginning to lick the back of the sofa, decided that this was something Mom might be interested in. Without comment Roy went into the house and did as all good children should do when they see other children misbehaving.

"Mah-ahmm! Joel 'n Carlos are blowing up the couch in the back yar-erd!" he bellowed.

Now understand, my mother wasn't a high-strung woman by nature, but apparently (with five children age five and below in the house) she didn't take well the news that her outside children were playing with explosives. By the time Mom had disengaged herself from the suckling masses, Joel and Carlos were busy throwing dirt on the couch. Mom grabbed the garden hose and gave it a thorough soaking, but for several days the sofa's soggy stuffing smoldered. Thus the only thing that got exploded that day was Roy's inventive formula for WMDs. As I remember it, Joel got more than a harsh reprimand. Roy? Well, I don't recall his getting punished, but my memory may be flawed. My memory probably is, since as Roy tells me: (1) nothing even remotely like this ever happened; and (2) I got all the details wrong.

On the Downside of Middle Age

The running joke around our house is that neither Joyce nor I can remember anything. Here's the actual text of an email exchange between us. Is there any wonder I love this resouceful little minx?

From: Joyce
Sent: Thursday, February 22, 2007 10:36 AM
To: Bob
Subject: howdy from home
CM left a phone message---wants us to call him back. I don’t want to forget to tell you. Hence, this email. Love, Joyce


From: Bob
Sent: Thursday, February 22, 2007 10:47 AM
To: Joyce
Subject: RE: howdy from home
I don’t want to forget to call, so hereby I’m notifying you to remind me to call him back. (You don’t need me to remind you to remind me to call him, do you?)


From: Joyce
Sent: Thursday, February 22, 2007 10:54 AM
To: Bob
Subject: RE: howdy from home
No problemo. I sent ya an email to your home account, and left another penciled note on the counter---hopefully we'll trip over one of those.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Fortunately ... but Unfortunately

All three of our sons had Mrs F as their first-grade teacher, a very proper lady whose straight spine and large hair were equally stiff. Each year, sometime during the spring semester, Mrs F religiously gives an assignment called “Fortunately ... but Unfortunately ...”. In this exercise Mrs F presents each child with a folded piece of 8.5x11-inch card stock with the word “Fortunately ...” written just beneath and on the outside of the fold. Opening the fold reveals the words, “but unfortunately ...”. The assignment for the child is to write two short sentences: one on the outside under the word “Fortunately ...”, and the other on the inside under the category “but unfortunately ...”. Each child is free to write and/or illustrate whatever strikes him as things fortunate and unfortunate. The assignment is intended to encourage creativity and critical thinking in the child, plus it lets each child practice and demonstrate the penmanship and spelling skills he has acquired under Mrs F’s tutelage. Fortunately, this assignment is perfect for its intended purpose, but unfortunately it fails to take into account the kind of humor that six-year-old boys are prone to.

And lo into Mrs F’s elementary class matriculates my middle son James, a young man with neither guile nor shyness, a boy who feels it his calling both to bemuse and to be amused. James thinks hard (though not wisely) about Mrs F’s instructions as he stares at his folded canvas. Inspiration suddenly strikes, and with fevered strokes he sets about crafting the most memorable submission Mrs F will ever receive in all her forty years of teaching first grade. Within the hour the assignment is completed and handed in. James is pleased; Mrs F is not.

So onto the stage enters the matriarch of our household. My wife Joyce is a volunteer worker at the elementary school and is presently in the copying machine room assembling scrap paper that will wend its way through classrooms and into homes, where it will ultimately end up as crayola’d refrigerator art or mounds of paper with too much sentimental value to be used as kindling, but not enough to earn its place in the baby book. Just days ago Joyce has handled a special order of “fortunate, yet unfortunate” card stock for Mrs F. The wheel of life comes round, and over the public address system she hears, “Mrs W, please report to Mrs F’s classroom.”

Turning the corner into the first/second-grade hall Joyce spies the very rigid Mrs F looking down (both literally and figuratively) upon a very disheartened little boy named James. When my beloved arrives at Mrs F's door, the stern little frau hands Joyce the unfortunate object of this hallway reprimand, along with the admonition, “We simply can not tolerate this kind of bathroom humor in class.” Looking at the folded card stock Joyce reads:
Fortunately ...
I have a bodm

Opening the fold she reads:
but unfortunately ...
I frtid

Stifling a laugh, Joyce promises Mrs F that she completely understands her distress, and that James's father will speak to the boy that evening. Poor James is now convinced that his life is near its end.

That evening at supper Joyce (who has somehow managed to keep her composure all this time) hands me James's handiwork with an indignant, "Just look what your son did at school today." Expecting to have to issue a stern lecture, I glance down at the offending item. James looks at me with a mix of terror and mortification. Then I snort as I read his set-up line. I explode with laughter at his killer punch line. "Well done, James."

This being Wednesday night, we head off to church for our weekly Bible study where I share James's accomplishment with everyone we see. The verdict is unanimous, the boy has a bright future as a comedy writer. Though James seems pleased that he has somehow redeemed himself, he's just as perplexed about what he's done right as he had been about what he'd done wrong earlier that day.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Free Lunch

Smackin dust from hat'n boots just 'nside the cafe door,
I stomps to th'counter with m'dime, coffee wages 'n nothin more.
Sits m'self at the sleeve o' a Meskin - a poco boracho so he seems.
Waitress brings m'cup - still there he sits, astarin at his beans.

A day ago I filled m'gut, 'n that were just some jerky chili.
While I eyes that heapin bowl, in my mind'er thoughts: "Danged silly,
"Silly!" them thoughts protest, "a drunken Meskin awasting food galore."
So speaks them thoughts, and says to him, "Might I finish that, Seenyor?"

Without even alookin up, he shakes his head and says to me,
"Help jorself," and slides the grub - so now I has a meal fer free.
As beans is filling up m'carcass, pure sweetness's fillin up my heart,
"Them Spics ain't all so bad!" I thinks (that 'n, "Pintas makes me fart").

Then I spies the mouse's head, eyein' me atop m'spoon.
'N sudden comes the backerds flow, awhence to bowl it left so soon.
Leanin close, my compadre speaks some words well worthy of a chew,
"How'ju like jor lunch gratis? 'S'bout as far as I got, too."