Game On!

After the divorce, the Gray Menace seemed pleased with my wife’s absence. He would hiss at her, and she would whack him with a broom. Not the happiest relationships. However, with my nose buried in books much of the time, he grew bored. We were city apartment now, and the opportunities to terrorize small rodents and hang around with other tough cats were lacking. The oxymoron controlled chaos, best-described life with him anyway. But, now he was bored. A bored Clancy J. Bümps was a dangerous one.
Board games provided the answer. I was as poor in grad school as I had ever been during my Folkie years. But board games were cheap and available. After studying, I’d pull out a game and play against myself. Randomizing moves with game spinners and dice, I could be a very dumb opponent.
The Gray Menace began to take notice. He’d sit on the other side of the table and watch. Eventually, I began to talk to him about the game. Then I’d set him up as the opponent and ask him what his next move would be. One day a friend gifted me with a war game based on Napoleon’s campaigns. It had hundreds of tiny pieces of cardboard representing the units involved. Clancy paid close attention to the movements, so I let him play Napoleon. At one point, I got up to get a beer. On returning, I thought that some of the units seemed out of place but couldn’t specifically tell which; dozens were on the board. Clancy sat there erect, innocent, and waiting for me to make my move.
After a few beers, I needed a trip to the bathroom. Once again, the board seemed just a bit different. “Have you been moving pieces?” His glare seemed to say, “I the mighty Napoleon cheat? You defame my honor!”
After another trip to get a snack, it was clear that my forces were in retreat. “You stinking cheater!” I yelled. He instantly transformed from my cat into the Grey Menace. Reaching out a paw, he swept the pieces onto the floor and stalked away. I could see the French flag and Imperial Guard following him. As Napoleon noted: “In war, the moral is to the physical as ten to one.” I lacked the gumption to pursue.
Years later, I watched the first Bill and Ted movie. There is a scene where the character playing Napoleon is faced with a complicated chess problem. In a fit of pique, Napoleon takes his baton and sweeps the chess pieces to the floor. Hmmm, great minds think alike.

Kedging

The slight sway and swing of a boat at its mooring and the very first blush of the morning those have to be among any sailor’s happiest memories. But, I’ve spent the first night aboard dreaming about the diesel. The Cap’n refused to have it serviced before the cruise. “It’ll do for the little jaunt we have planned.” Cranky but reliable when kept serviced, the faithful servant had pooped out as we were picking up our mooring last evening. “No problem,” quoth the Cap’n,” we’ll kedge out in the morning.”

Somewhere I had heard that term, maybe while reading the Hornblower series of books. It was the way my father-in-law smiled at me as he said it that convinced me that it meant extra duties as assigned for the crew, me.

So there I was in the morning rowing the skiff and trailing a long line. The stern was low in the water because it held the anchor to which the line attached. The idea was that I rowed out dropped the anchor, and then those aboard winched the line in pulling Psyche closer to the mouth of the cove where the light breeze was blowing. The skiff usually had no stability issues, but today I had to be careful to place my body weight forward of where I’d typically row. There was the uncanny moment when I had to go aft to hoist the anchor over the transom. All the weight was concentrated in a small area aft with nothing to counterbalance it forward. 

On the Psyche, my wife and brother-in-law were busy raising the mainsail and jib, ready for the moment when the sails caught the breeze. Then came one of those puffs of wind that belie the light air that barely ruffles your hair. Aboard Psyche, the sails rapidly fill, the person who should be at the wheel and main sheet – the Cap’n, is way forward in the bows drinking coffee and smiling. My brother-in-law is diving for the main sheet to control the sail, my wife is grabbing at the wheel, and Psyche is rounding over to port as the sails fill. For me, this is all happening in slow motion – Psyche rounds to port, the line between Psyche and me stretches, in the stern of the skiff holding an anchor, I feel the inevitable tug of the boat on the anchor. Into the water goes the line, anchor, and me. On Psyche, the Keystone Cops are running around.

I was scared to let go of the line and frightened of what could happen if I continued to hold on. I had heard of whalers pulled from their boats by the harpooned whale, and this reminded me of that.

I decided to let go and start swimming for the boat. As I got hauled aboard, the wind died. The Cap’n has by now recovered his dignity and has pulled out his pipe. Looking directly at his son, he says, “I guess someone will have to go back out and kedge again.” This statement is met with sullen silence by all the crew. For once, the “happy” team aboard the Psyche is united; there’ll be no more kedging today.

Crew and skipper were saved from mutiny by the return of the wind. We got underway, and no further mention was made of kedging until an evening game of Scrabble several nights later. the Cap’n proudly completed the word kedge. He laughed. I was next, and everyone looked towards me as I added to the word keel the letters for “haul.” “keelhaul,” I pronounced, glaring pointedly at the Cap’n, ignoring the looks of my wife and brother-in-law.

The Parlor

Aunt May lived in a sizeable white-clapboarded house not too far from the waterline at the cove. It was the house her maternal grandfather had built so he could keep an eye on his vessels. His granddaughter now lived in it alone since becoming a widow.
Her brothers watched over their sister and the house. All that was inside was Aunt May’s domain. The only thing outside the house that was within her mandate was the roses outside the kitchen window. She’d proudly tell you that they were her grandmothers. They were a gorgeous deep red, and the canes reached towards the window. Grandfather had brought the roses back from one of his voyages. Over tea, she’d elaborate, proud that the only care they needed was the same her grandmother had provided. Every evening she’d open the window over the kitchen sink and dump the soapy water over the roses. Aunt May appeared to be a quiet, retiring widow, who was the image of a demure older lady.
Aunt May’s house came complete with a selection of antimacassars in the rarely used parlor. I found out the hard way that one did not sit in the parlor without permission. My snafu happened on a hot day in summer. The Cap’n, my father-in-law, had detailed me to do the annual painting at May’s house. The house was a rambling wreck of a Victorian Fancy. It was large enough that we painted one side of the house each year in a rotation. That day I had just finished scraping and priming the north side. I was looking for a quiet, relaxed place to write some of my field notes. I may have been working at Spinney’s boatyard, crewing on the Capn’s ketch, and painting, but I was still an anthropologist attempting to do fieldwork. The notes really could not wait.
I had just finished annotating yesterdays’ notes when Aunt May came into the parlor and proceeded to rip me a new one in a seamanly fashion. Was this was the shy retiring aunt May? May who deferred to her brother’s every wish. I now realized that this was also the May who was the granddaughter, daughter, and sister to ships captains. The lady had a persuasive tongue in at least four languages. Being the son of a Merchant Marine Engineer and former Navy, I found myself in awe of her command of the lingua franca of the sea. The cleanest word to emerge from that sweet tongue was the word lackadaisical. She grabbed me by the ear, twisted, and dragged me forth from the sanctum.
Once in the kitchen, she effortlessly slipped back into the sweet old lady mode, asked me if I wanted iced tea, and sat me down with a plate of molasses cookies.
I never went near the parlor again, and I never underestimated aunt May.

The Mallet

The bottle was said to contain the very elixir of creativity. Triple distilled from the best ingredients. It sat encased in a bit of a glass box. On the plaque beneath the box sat a small golden mallet and a legend scrawled on parchment.
If you looked very closely at the parchment, you could see the spidery script. The script read: “Open only in great need, drink only in despair, and abandon all hope afterward.”
This bit of a puzzle sat gathering dust on an upper shelf in the corner of Warburton’s crowded studio. Unlike my craftsman’s workshops, Warburton occupied an artist’s studio. Warburton was not my master but more my mentor.
Whenever I was in Baltimore, I’d find myself walking into the cavernous studio space near the waterfront. It had been a few years since I had visited, but the only thing that had altered was the thickness of the dust that covered everything but his workspace and tools.
Warburton poured me coffee and asked how my anthropology career was going. “Rough,” I said, “I am at my wit’s end with the new job and have no idea where I’ll go from here.” He just looked at me and pointed towards a stack of freshly delivered mahogany planks, “sort those out, rick them in the back and make sure that you sticker them well. I don’t want any twist or cupping because you’ve forgotten what I taught you.” I was rather pointedly transported back to 1967 when I had walked in looking for plank ends and scraps to practice my carving on as a youth. Right after sweeping up, I was taught to stack and store wood properly.
As he always had, he paid no attention to me while I set to the job but gathered the tools he’d need for the work on the bench. About an hour later, he called me over. “I rather suspect that this may be our last time together. So here’s your last lesson from your master. Get me the glass box.”
I fetched a stool, climbed up, and then brought him the box with the bottle. ” Been drinking heavily, haven’t you? I can see it in your face and smell it on your breath. So I’m going to give you this.” Then he explained that many artists, musicians, and craftsmen had sought after this as the wellspring of creativity and grit. “Am I supposed to use the mallet to break open the box?” “Nothing that complicated. Just open the box and take the bottle out, open it and drink. What’s in the bottle doesn’t matter. It’s whatever cheap brandy you’ve been drinking.”
I was puzzled, “Then what’s the mallet for?” He gave me that look that said I was thick-headed again. ” It’s not the bottle that’s important. It’s the mallet. Read the parchment and decide if you need the contents of the bottle enough to drink it. If not, use the mallet to break the bottle.”
I woke up on the day after Thanksgiving with horrible back pain, a terrible taste in my mouth, and a delicate stomach. And I’d had another of my “visits” with the dead dreams. Warburton had died years ago. I had been trying desperately to cease drinking for the past six months, in part because my new job was so toxic that I knew that doing it and continuing to drink would kill me. Whether I actually talked to Warburton or just had a drunken dream, I don’t know, but I resolved to use the mallet that day.

Dictionary

She looked up from the dictionary of obsolete usage, smiled at me, and said, “you are a smiker.” Not sure how to react; I didn’t. She elaborated with a bit of a lecherous grin, ” a person who looks amorously or wantonly at me.” “Oh, guilty as charged.” I didn’t remove the smile on my face as her intentions became clear. I bent over and kissed her. She slowly removed the agate necklace as a promise of what was to come.
She could indulge herself with the dictionary often, I thought, if it has these results.

In Between

Did you ever notice how much time gets spent “in-between?” We travel, and most of the time, it is neither departure nor arrival. I tend to amalgamate stories and journeys – I was in Boston, Coastal Maine, Philly, Baltimore, or DC. There is nothing nefarious in my doing this. It’s just a bit of discomfort dealing with the sort of things that happen when you are not there yet – between.
I used to take journeys solely to get in between; it was a special place and a mindset. Being there meant set expectations, people, and actions. Being between, well, anything could happen. You could meet someone who suggested a new destination, or your mind could wander into what I used to call Travelers Mind, and you’d whip off on tangents of thought unimpeded by destinations and arrivals. Rarely, you might find yourself where you weren’t going. And that might become a new destination.
Being between is not something you can borrow from someone else. You can’t reprise “On The Road” that was someone else’s journey.
You have to be fluid, find your way, and be unprepared for where you may wind up.
As we age, we stiffen up. And I don’t just mean the body. The mind can ossify, and we repeat the familiar long past its expiry date.
Yesterday I was passing a ceramic artists shop. The artist was outside in the sun, creating beautiful landscapes with colored acrylic pens. She had started this adventure with a granddaughter but discovered a new artistic avenue for herself as well.
Spend some time in between; who knows where it may take you.

Playing With Fire

One of the Baltimore friends had spent, or misspent, a youth working in carnivals and small circus’. As a sideshow side job, he’d dabbled in ( his words not mine) swallowing sharp objects and flame swallowing. He said his favorite tricks were cigarette lighting and something he called the Moonshot, where you’d shoot the flame straight up out of your mouth. 

He neither spoke about this part of his life nor offered to demonstrate it when the whole bunch got together. No jocularity was involved in his response to requests. There were enough hell raisers and jackasses in the group who’d get drunk and say, “I can do that!” While the group would be amused by the antics of someone desperately trying to avoid getting burned, our friend had a near-violent aversion to spending time in Emergency Rooms explaining to the staff how this idiot acquired severe burns in their mouth and throat. When requested, he’d laconically reply – “ain’t going to happen.”

Except, one night, he did. He had met the love of his life while working as a Carny. Dolores was an expert in running games and fortune-telling. Her favorite was a fractured gag mentalist routine where she revealed risque items about people’s lives. One night Dolores decided to dust off her old act for the group. After she had left most of us holding our sides from the laughter, she encouraged her husband to do part of his old act. Guessing that this might happen, he was equipped with his props. But first, he cautioned everyone about how dangerous playing with fire was. He lit up, went through a brief routine, and then impressively ended with a moonshot, followed by extinguishing the flames by giving Dolores a passionate kiss.

the party was on the edge of madness, and then our friend Bob picked up his guitar and started singing:

You shake my nerves, and you rattle my brain!

Too much love drives a man insane

You broke my will, but what a thrill!

Goodness gracious, great balls of fire.”

Caution

If you were me in the ’60s and early ’70s, you always walked with one shoulder higher than the other. The weight of the guitar and its case dragged one shoulder down. The guitar traveled wherever I went. Some of this was practical. I frequently had no fixed abode to bide in, so my most crucial possession had to come with me for security’s sake. A few nincompoops who attempted to part me from the guitar came to rather tragic ends. You may have heard the term ” double stomp that groin”; actually, I did much worse. I had learned in a hard school: the IRT subway at 4 am. People would try to roll you for whatever you had on you. You couldn’t be too bashful and survive. A guitar case is a fine weapon. Yeah, going home from Greenwich Village could be as enjoyable as performing there.
The occasional fool at a coffeehouse would start asking you to play the Beatles or some silly Rock & Roll. You’d sadly explain that this was a Folk house, but being that it was, 2 am if they came up on stage and sang some of the lyrics, you’d play along. Ten minutes later, the house would be howling as the drunk, at last, realized he was being played for laughs. It was one way to inject some variety into a dead Monday.
Issues also developed when someone became grabby with the guitar or the person of a performer. Unless it was an absolute screamer, the Fuzz (police to the noninitiated) stayed away. They’d show up to harass the manager or shake someone down ( look for a bribe), though. So we had to rely on our wits. Sometimes it was as easy as inviting them over to the Minetta Tavern to ease their parched throat with a bottle of beer. Other times it got interesting.
During the spring and summer, you’d linger with friends in the park, an alley, or backroom. You’d sing, sip at a shared bottle, and wait for the sun to rise. The end of another day-night- and you’d head over to the IRT to travel home; safer now that day shifters were filling the subway cars.

Relationships

While in the Navy, I served with a former professional bull rider named John. He described a bull ride as the most dangerous eight seconds in sports. But, he said, it paled in comparison to his weekly Saturday night fights with his wife, Lucille.
John had me write a song about Lucille. I thought comparing your life with a woman as a bull ride was awful, and only with great trepidation did I perform it for Lucille with John standing next to her. Watching them melt into each other’s arms, cooing in love, opened my eyes to the strange range of possibilities in human relationships. Lucille later told me that the song was positively bodacious and captured their love perfectly. So it goes.
You can’t wave a wand, say magical words, and get a good loving relationship. Except in the movies, and I’m tired of perfect relationships forged in the fires of three scenes in a Hollywood potboiler. John and Lucille had wooed and wed on the rodeo circuit of the 1950s. John said that before Lucille, his favorite bar weapon had been a tall neck bottle of Budweiser. With Lucille, he had found sobriety, a lasting relationship, children, and Saturday evening knockdown and drag outs with the “missus.”
John and Lucille may negate an entire generation of Television relationship counselors. But for them, it works. If you happen to be in Lubbock on a Saturday night, listen for them, and say hi from Wes.

Seagulls

A cat can be a fearsome opponent. Ounce for ounce, an enraged feline can do more damage than most other beasties two to three times their size. Clancy J. Bümps, the Gray Menace, had demonstrated this on several occasions. His zenith had been foiling and bleeding, a thief attempting a break-in at the old loft building where I had a workshop.
When found in the morning, the thief was crying for mercy. The police had never seen anything like the career criminal reduced to tears by a “kitty.”
If the cat wore a cap, that escapade would have required a plume to denote the elan, flair, and bravery of the achievement. And where to get such a plume? Why from one of those noisy seagulls that habituated the railroad tracks that ran below our loft building. However, his human servant, me, was unappreciative of his need and kept a firm watch on him. As usual, humans lacked an understanding of a cat’s duty – their thirst for achievement.
He snuck out one morning just before dawn for a patrol along the tracks. when I woke up, there was no screaming and yelling for breakfast; that wasn’t normal. A check of the area showed no lineup of the night’s dead mice, another oddity. By chance, I noticed the seagulls slowly strolling as a group further and further away from our building. Then the entire flock seemed to take a short hop of flight before resuming the stroll. Appearing just above the top of a rail was the tip of a grey tail. The cat would lunge for a bird, the flock would hop out of range, and the cat would pursue.

Running down to the tracks, I had a job corraling an angry cat and avoiding disturbed seagulls. On the way back to the workshop, I picked up several discarded seagull plumes. I combined the plumes at the shop with a bit of woolen duffel, twine, and catnip into a toy that mollified the great hunter. But every time he played with that toy, I swear I could almost hear him saying, “I was that close to getting the whole darn tail. Bloody useless humans!”

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