LISTENING TO A DISRESPECTFUL INNER CHILD

This one was written about 15 years ago. When I wrote it, I promised myself I would never do it again, but who knew I would live this long?

Trouble is, I’m in the throes of home re-decorating. The project keeps me pre-occupied and turns me into a raging bore. Unless you want to discuss track lighting or the advantages of berber carpet over plush, don’t talk to me.

Between the newspaper and my grandchildren, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to the re-do of the “flat house.” My grandson, accustomed as he is to the tall village houses of Granville, christened my new abode the “flat house,” and the name kind of stuck. It’s really a 60s ranch on a lot of flat land. The lady who lived here before me left the house in perfect, spic and span condition. That was 10 months ago; sadly, the same cannot be said of its condition as of even date. It’s now strewn with paint chips, ladders, uninstalled fixtures, and the remains of a life put on hold while the place is re-done.

The how-to books say you’re best off sitting in a house for at least a year before you jump into redecorating. Although not quite a year, I mulled it over as long as I thought necessary before I climbed the ladder and starting stripping wallpaper.

During the mulling time, I noticed that the previous owner had everything set up for low maintenance. The whole place is carpeted, even the kitchen and bathrooms, in a color that doesn’t show dirt. The walls are off-white and the woodwork is non-paneled and natural.

There’s an industrial strength air filter. It’s the only house I ever lived in that won’t get dirty. One can clutter it up to a faretheewell, but it will stay dust-free no matter what. So, my primary dilemma was this: do I want to pull up and replace ugly-color-but-non-dirt-showing carpet and cover the plain-jane-but-disappearing walls with fragile wallpaper? Why do I want to make work for myself? What’s wrong with me?

I spent the entire month of January while I was sick with bronchitis thinking about it. By February I knew what I had to do. The ultra conservative decoration had to go. It just wasn’t any fun. My Inner Child was screaming at me the entire time. It’s her fault that I don’t seem to be able to do anything unless she thinks it’s fun. The blandness of our new surroundings is anything but.
Cautiously pulling up a corner of the ugly carpet I found, to my surprise, genuine oak parquet flooring. Pulling it up in one of the bathrooms, I found lovely white tile.

“We’re having some fun now,” shouted Inner Child at the discovery.
My fear-of-upkeep protestations caused her to pout and chide me, “Just as I suspected. You’re a closet conservative!”

To appease her, I started stripping the patternless beige wallpaper in the foyer and hallway. The house was built in 1965 and the paper has been there since. There’s bare wallboard underneath. “Probably would have lasted another 35 years,” I grumbled to Inner Child.

She ignored me.

Now, after six weeks, the hall and foyer walls are finished. I told you I can’t spend all my time on it. Where once there was forgettable but easy-care wallpaper, there is now pewter and bronze-sponged green paint. At the ceiling line there is a border of my favorite flower, the Iris (Tennessee’s state flower), done in green, salmon, and metallic trim.

This week I hope to get around to removing the carpet and refinishing the parquet flooring. Maybe I’ll even stain it to match the reddish woodwork.
There’s one difficulty I might have to deal with. Inner Child is easily bored. She’s already accusing me of taking too long to finish the job.

“Do you plan to make this hallway your life’s work? We’ve a whole house to redecorate. Get on with it!”

Now, she’s pestering me about lingering over this column. She says it stopped being fun three paragraphs back. Guess I’d better end it and move on to something else.

When Freud discovered our Inner Children, I wish he had figured out a way to shut them up.

Advertisements

Hurricanes I Have Known

The autumn of 1988 brought with it hurricanes that literally tore up Florida, where we were headed in our maiden voyage aboard our 32-foot Freedom Sailboat, Bosky Dell. I have great personal knowledge of hurricanes, but they are nonetheless frightening. Charley 2004 is tied for scariest with Donna 1960. Hurricane Keith 1988, although potentially the most dangerous, turned out to be a pussycat as we rode it out in the boat.

I can’t help but think of all the Sunday sailors heading south whose boats are being blown into plate glass windows on the main streets of coastal towns.
When we spent our time on the bounding main, we learned a great deal about anchoring and tying up. We had to take tides into consideration, figure out the prevailing winds, and calculate which anchor (we had a choice of four) to use given the conditions.

Many an hour was spent leaning against a docked boat discussing ground tackle (that’s “anchors” to you landlubbers).

Last Husband spent weeks learning how to sail safely in treacherous waters, and the proper procedure to follow during a hurricane. Though he had his faults as a husband, John was a wonderful sailor who believed in safety first no matter what.

Much to our surprise most of our fellow sailors didn’t worry themselves with such boring book-learning. Many didn’t even own a tides directory. How they dared tie up or anchor without one was a mystery to us.

The tides near New Jersey can reach 12 feet every 12 hours. That means if you throw a short line over a dock post at high tide and go to your bunk, by morning your boat will be on its side and so will you.

Even more alarming, many first-time live-aboards didn’t even own a set of charts. They had no idea how much water was under them until it was too late.

“We’re hard aground,” we would hear them frantically shout to the Coast Guard over the radio. Really? Imagine that. That’s what usually happens if you run your boat with a five-foot rudder through water that is only three feet deep. Of course, not having a chart, you don’t know that.

As for hurricanes, the method was pretty straightforward. If you had time, you were supposed to find a protected creek narrow enough to securely tie the boat to large trees on either side. You were then to drop an appropriate anchor taking the bottom of the creek into consideration. Here again, without a chart you had no idea what was on the bottom. The anchor should be heavy enough to hold the boat in strong winds.

Our biggest anchor was called a “Luke.” We would only use that if the hurricane expected was a level three. This was a big trade-off. There was no problem getting the Luke over the side. Getting it back on board was something else again. It had to be hauled out hand-over-hand; it was much too big to be stored in the bow anchor compartment with the other three.

Fortunately, by the time Hurricane Keith reached us it was a tropical storm, so we didn’t think it was necessary to throw over the Luke.

We did use the third heaviest, the name of which I have long since forgotten. To be on the safe side, we lugged the Luke to the cockpit and had it ready just in case Keith grew stronger.

We were anchored between a row of condominiums and a mangrove mound at New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Having prepared for the hurricane most of the day we were dead tired when darkness fell. Feeling fairly safe, we decided to turn in.

There were three or four sailboats in our anchorage and just as we were about to go below we discovered that one of them was floating aimlessly in the freshening wind. Its owner had abandoned it earlier in the day without leaving it properly anchored.

One of us had to stay up and fend it off when it came too close to our boat. Mother Nature didn’t pose much of a problem with her hurricane that night, but a careless sailor certainly did.

I couldn’t wait to give him an earful the next morning, but we pulled out before he arrived. Too bad. I had developed and practiced a really expressive salty vocabulary. I never got to use it.

I do have a funny story about anchoring. It wasn’t funny to me when it happened, but in the fullness of time it gave me a bit of a chuckle.

The first night we anchored was our fourth night away from our homeport in Sackett’s Harbor, New York. John studied the books for hours before we approached a rather large stream feeding into the Erie Canal. It was to be our anchorage.

Carefully maneuvering the boat into position, we dropped the correct anchor and fell exhausted into our bunks. Somewhere in the books I read that when anchoring, one should pick an easily visible spot on the shore and line it up with a spot on the boat. Reason being if one happened to look out one’s porthole during the night, one could easily ascertain whether or not the anchor was holding. If the two spots lined up, all was well. My shore spot was a V-shaped tree. It being my first night at anchor, I put enough pillows around me to be in a position to just open my eyes and peer out the porthole. I hardly slept at all.

Just before dawn after 7,000 position checks I fell sound asleep. As the sun rose directly into my eyes, I suddenly woke up. Horrified, I immediately looked out the porthole to line up my two points. The V-shaped tree was gone. In fact, the shore was changed completely. The horizon was different, the water’s edge was in a different place; everything was out of place.

I screamed into John’s ear, “Wake up, we drifted, we’re probably back out in the canal, we’re going to be run over by a barge, get up!” He jumped up and dashed into the cockpit where he immediately sat down and buried his head in his hands.

“What? What?” I shouted.

“I forgot to tell you the boat turns completely around when the tide runs the other way. I thought you knew that. We’re just fine.”

And we were. The V-shaped tree, formerly on the port side of the boat was now on the starboard side. I figure that experience took a few months off my normal lifespan, but that’s nothing compared to the years the entire boating life took away from me.

So, with Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jean, et al, beating up on all the boats headed south right then, I’m happy to be here on dry land. Our ornery midwestern weather is a light breeze compared to winds with names.

Thank Goodness for that.

WELCOME TO THE MERRY MONK

The best Pizza in Long Beach
Featuring Millie and her guitar
This week, 9 pm to 1 am.

The above was a large, lighted sign out by the street in front of the establishment, where I worked. It had a cartoon rendering of a monk in his brown monk outfit with a rope tied around his middle. Both hands led the way into the parking lot in front of the The Merry Monk. The owner was going to post both my first name and my last name, but there were not enough Ms in his box of letters, so I was just “Millie.”

I wondered and I do so to this day if I fall into ruminating mode, if no one in the entire State of California ever met anyone with a southern accent. There is a huge naval base there, and it’s impossible that all the sailors were Yankees. But from the reaction of my folk club audiences in the four places where I worked over a period of two years’ time, you would have thought I was not only southern, but a visitor from South Mars or from the southernmost ring of Saturn or maybe from the south of the moon.

“Don’t sing any more, Darlin.’ Jest sat up thar and talk to us.” There would then be hearty laughter as I blushed and prayed for a hole to open in the floor and swallow me. If it got too loud and raucous, the manager would come onstage and say, “Okay, that’s enough. We paid this little lady a hefty sum to play her guitar and sing, and that’s what she’s gonna do. Ignore them, Millie. Go ahead and sing.”

The hefty sum he paid was the going rate for folk singer newbies anywhere from Los Angeles to San Diego: For a 45 minute set, we collected $5.00 and all the beer we could drink, plus dinner if the place served it.  When I was the only performer, I brought home a total of $20 as payment for four sets. I hated beer (still do) so that made me a slightly less expensive entertainer than the norm. I sang 12 songs per set. They were listed on a cheat sheet taped to the top of my guitar. I sang three sets and then repeated the first set for the fourth set. Most of the time, the clientele had changed, as we almost never had the same people there from 9 pm till midnight.

It was boring at best and downright dangerous at worst. The first place I worked after auditioning and being hired to begin that same evening was noisy and rude. They did the usual about the adorable southern accent. When I complained to the manager, during my first break, he told me if I didn’t like it to quit. The only food the place served was peanuts in the shell. If the audience didn’t approve of the singer, they threw peanut shells at him or her. The guy who came on before me asked the crowd to be careful not to hit his guitar. They took more careful aim then. That’s more careful aim AT the guitar. At the end of his set, he told the manager he was quitting.

“Sure, quit, but you had one more set to do, so I won’t be paying you for it,” the manager told him. “I also won’t be paying you for the set you just finished.” This creep was terrible. I was going to quit as well, but I desperately needed the ten bucks for two sets. It was my intention to see if I could get some work at a place down the street called “The Other Place.” I’d heard they were hiring. I also heard they treated their singers with a little more courtesy.

I had hung out at all kinds of places that hired guitar players. I knew what to expect. Unless it was an actual folk club, nobody listened to the singer. Some were better than others, but I knew not to take it personally when nobody listened to me. I played the guitar poorly, and that’s the best thing I can say about it. My children and I had no place to live. We stayed with Howie, whom I had met in Nashville. Howie and I were sure we were made for each other. Maybe we were. Maybe we’ll never know. But at any rate the story is too long and too sad to tell here. I’ll save it for the book.

Someone beat me to The Other Place, so I had no choice but to go back to work at the peanut-throwing emporium. I went back for a three-set night. “By the way,” said Mean Manager Man. “When a customer buys you a beer, you’re supposed to drink it. It looks bad when the beers are lined up on the edge of the stage.”

That did it. I had as much guff from this mouth-breathing bottom feeder as I felt necessary.

“Well, that’s just too bad,” I said. “You drink it or I’ll pour it out for you. If I drink it, you’ll find your high-class peanut chuckers covered in puke, to put it as genteel as I can. No offense.” Whereupon I switched on the voice mike and welcomed the scruffy crowd, promising them a bawdy good time. I switched on the guitar mike and broke into a too-loud, way-too-fast chorus of “This Land is My Land.” The audience stomped their feet and yelled. They loved it. Being quick learners, they picked up the lyrics and sang along with me. A lot of them got up and danced and a few tried to jump up on the stage with me. Even that was too rowdy for this place. The bartender grabbed them by the back of their collars and dumped them on the floor.

This was not my first professional gig. Howie and I went to New York the previous summer. Howie wanted me to sing in Greenwich Village. He was sure as soon as someone heard me, I would be offered a month-long gig and a recording contract. I knew that wasn’t going to happen. You couldn’t take a walk in the Village without stepping on a guitar player. Everybody wrote their own songs, sang quite nicely, and played the guitar like an angel. The only thing I had going for me was a voice, which I couldn’t even take credit for. I inherited it from my father, or Daddy, as I called him throughout his life.

Daddy taught me to sing and to harmonize on road trips. I hung my head on the back of his seat and sang. If I missed a note, we came to a full stop, and he made me practice until I sang whatever I missed correctly. I could harmonize by thirds when I was 4 years old. Daddy had a beautiful Irish tenor voice. I loved to sing with him.

In New York, Howie dragged me into The Bitter End on Bleeker Street. I was so impressed I could hardly speak. The Bitter End! I couldn’t believe it. I was hired for the night and I sat on the stool my idol, Mary Travers, had sat on to have my all-time favorite singers, Peter, Paul and Mary, photographed for their album cover. I was in heaven. In those days, the folk clubs didn’t serve alcohol. All you could order was Cokes and ice cream. So there were no disgusting drunks to deal with. I sang a song Paul wrote and Mary sang called “No Other Name.” It became my theme song. I must have sung that beautiful song and played my guitar badly to accompany myself thousands of times before it was all over. I also sang, “Come to my Bedside,” which is an ultra sexy song written by another folk singer, Eric Andersen. I had just learned “Gentle on my Mind,” written by my dear friend, John Hartford, who taught me to play it. There were some others, but they are lost somewhere in my memory weeds.

But that was New York, and we’re now in Long Beach, California. Too bad. I would have stayed in Greenwich Village for the rest of my life.

One night a big guy named Jerry came into the place where I was singing. Everyone seemed to know him. He walked up to the stage dodging the peanuts and said he wanted to talk to me at my next break. When it came I sat down at a table with him, and he said Mike, the owner of The Merry Monk had heard about me and wondered if I wanted to sing at the place. Yes, sir, I did. Even the money was better. A big $8 per set. Yowzee! Jerry said I could start the next night, and I told him I would be there. When I finished my next set, I had the wonderful pleasure of telling Mean Manager Man I quit. He was quite surprised and said everyone seemed to like me. If they did you’d never know it. I had peanut shells in my hair to prove it.

So, I came to The Merry Monk. It was a big place. They served pizza and the usual beer and other libations. Jerry was the bartender and the manager. Mike, the owner, wasn’t there all the time. I met him the first night and he said he had heard we had no place to live. He said he was living with his girlfriend, and he had an apartment near The Monk, and I was welcome to it, because everything he owned was at his girlfriend’s.

Life was looking up. I had a better place to work and the girls and I had a genuine furnished apartment to live in. The crowd at The Monk was way more polite. Lots of times they even listened to me. Some of them came to have favorites, which they would request, and I sang them. It played havoc with my scheduled songs, but I didn’t care. Sometimes I alternated sets with a boy and girl duet that were really good. There was also a stoner named Milo, whom I also liked. He did a solo and played the washboard. One night when he was really high, he played his entire set on the washboard. Before he finished, everyone was booing and Mike told him not to do that again.

Things went along swimmingly. The crowds grew and we all had a good time. One night, I noticed everyone was listening to me. The place was packed and the audience was quiet and most appreciative. Sometimes they requested a song, and they sang along with me. During my break, a large group of people at the biggest booth asked me to come sit with them. They were very nice and told me how much they liked my singing. It felt wonderful. About halfway through the second set, Jerry came on stage. He just stood by me till I finished a song. Then he came closer and whispered to me, “Mike wants to see you.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll go see him in his office when I finish this set.”

“No,” said Jerry. “He wants to see you now, right now.”

“Before I finish this set,” I asked.

“Yes,” said Jerry. “Right now.”

I was mystified. I told the audience I would be right back, and followed Jerry off the stage.

Mike was seated at his desk.

“What’s going on, Mike,” I asked.

“Millie, you are a wonderful singer, and your audience is very attentive, but do you know why we’re in business,” he said.

“Sure,” I answered. “Same as any business. To make money.”

“Right,” he said, “Do you know how much money we’ve made during your two sets tonight?”

He didn’t give me time to answer.

“None,” he said. “Zero. It’s a great compliment to you, but Millie, you’re bad for business.”

“Do you mean I’m fired, because people are listening to me?”

“Exactly,” he said.

I was thunderstruck and speechless.

“Business has been falling off ever since we hired you and tonight the only money we’ve taken in is during your break. I’m sorry. I know you need the job, so I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m not happy with the pizza cook, so I’m going to fire him and I’ll give you his job.”

“But Mike,” I said, “I don’t know how to make pizzas.”

“Sure you do. It’s easy. I’ll show you, and I’ll also pay you minimum wage. You’ll make more money.

So, he showed me. He was right. It was easy. And I made more money.

My folk-singing career in Long Beach was finished, and my pizza cooking life began. Two months later I left for Los Angeles and did some brief stints at the folk clubs there.

And that, dear reader, is how I was fired at the height of my success. I never held a crowd like the audience at The Merry Monk ever again.

So, I left home a folk singer and came home a pizza cook. Go figure.

GET THAT MULE OUT OF MY CHRISTMAS TREE!

This is a Christmas addendum to the following story about my cousins’ homes in the country. I promised my Cousin Jimmy I would write it the morning of Christmas Eve, but things kept getting in the way and now here it is at 12:28 AM, Christmas morning.

Jimmy remembers hearing about the incident, and I remember living it as though it were last year instead of 75 Christmases ago.

It was our custom to go to the country to select our Christmas tree. We always went the Sunday before Christmas. Daddy didn’t like having a tree in the house. To tell the truth, he really didn’t like Christmas very much at all. But more about that in another story.

On the appointed Sunday in 1941, we traveled to Aunt Hazel’s house to have dinner. Afterwards, Daddy, Uncle Melvin, Jimmy and I went into the woods to select a Christmas tree. In those days almost everyone I knew had a cedar tree. We were no exception. As usual, Daddy chose a tree much too short to suit me, and I let it be known that a taller tree was a much better choice. We had the same argument every year. We finally reached a compromise, and he chopped the tree down. He and Uncle Melvin dragged it to our car and tied it on top.

It was after dark when we left to go home. Daddy drive, of course, and Mother sat in the passenger seat holding my baby sister. I was in my favorite spot in the car when we were on a longish trip:  on the little shelf at the top of the back seat, where I could watch the stars go by. Remember, there were no seat belts in those days. We tooled down the blackness, and I was loving every minute of it. Christmas was only a few days away, the stars were close enough to touch, and everything was right with the world. I was brimming over with four-year-old wonder and joy.

Suddenly, Mother screamed and Daddy slammed on the brakes. Standing crosswise in the middle of the road was a big, shaggy, brown mule. There was nothing Daddy could do. The car hit it right in its middle. There was a frightening thud, and the windshield view was obliterated by a mass of brown hair that disappeared in an upward direction, followed quickly by another sound on the roof of the car and then a thud behind the car. When we hit the mule, it sailed up to the top of the car and rolled over the roof, Christmas tree and all. Daddy leapt  from the car and ran toward the spot where the mule had probably landed. Just as he did so, the mule got to its feet and went galloping off across a nearby field, apparently not hurt at all.

Shortly, Daddy returned to the car. I was thunderstruck, and Mother was still kind of whimpering. It took us a while to gather our composure to continue our trip home.

We lived in the big house with all our extended family at the time, and when we arrived, everyone came running out to see the Christmas tree. The three of us all talked at once telling about our adventure with the mule. I was very unhappy about the tree, because I just knew it was crushed and ruined. We would never get Daddy to go back and cut down another tree.

But Dooley, my grandmother, and the others looked the tree up and down and declared it may have been a bit smushed on one side, but never mind. We would turn that side to the wall. The Christmas tree was to be set up in a corner of the living room, and it would be just beautiful.

We took the tree inside, and Dooley leaned it against the wall in the corner. The decorating was set for the following evening. I think I was still in a state of shock. I was sent to bed right away, and the grown-ups continued to discuss the mule experience in the living room. I could hear them, and it scared me. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t like it one bit.

The next night after supper, the family gathered to decorate the tree. I usually gladly took part in the festivities, but I was quite uneasy being close to the tree. Someone teased me and asked if I thought that mule was somehow still in the tree, and everyone laughed. Of course, I didn’t think any such thing, but there was something about it I didn’t like and mostly didn’t understand. For years I asked myself why was I afraid of that tree. I don’t know. To this day, I can still work up a little shiver thinking about it. There’s no doubt in my mind it was a feeling of fear, but I have no idea where it came from.

It did, however make the Christmas of 1941 prominent in my memory. I guess you could say my personal ghost of Christmas Past was a big, brown, shaggy mule.

So, there it is. I hope if you have a mule experience with your 2014 Christmas, he was there by invitation only, and that your entire New Year is free of ghosts, past, present, and future.

Thanks for reading.

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO MAKING MAPLE SYRUP

When the leaves begin to fall and the weather turns a bit nippy, I always think about the experience I’ll tell you about below. It is one of many from this particular “life,” not all of which were pleasant, but unforgettable nonetheless.

During the early 70s there was a great movement in this country to “go back to the land.” Much to the dismay of my two daughters, my husband and I decided to join it. We spent the summer building a cabin on 13 scruffy acres in Upstate New York, and prepared to settle in for the winter. We would study and learn self-sufficiency.

Come spring, we looked forward to tapping our Maple trees and making our own syrup. Consulting my homesteaders’ handbook, I was surprised to learn there are several varieties of Maple trees, but only the Sugar Maple’s sap has a high-enough sugar concentration to make the process worthwhile. Silver and Red Maples, which grew cheek by jowl with the Sugar Maples in our woods were never tapped for syrup-making purposes.

Although the pictured leaves indicated only subtle differences I was confident I could tell them apart when the time came. However, further reading indicated the leaves would not be on the trees when it came time to pound in the taps sometime in early March. Now, what was I going to do?

I took my tree-identification book to the woods to examine the tree trunks. Inspecting the tree bark by holding the book against each tree I suspected might be a Sugar Maple was disappointing. The results were inconclusive.

Finally, inspiration struck. I would simply take a spray can of neon paint and mark the Sugar Maples while I could still identify them by their leaves.

In the woods down a hill from the cabin, I peered high in the treetops to identify the Sugar Maples. To double-check I carefully examined the leaves under the tree. Thus assured, I spray-painted a large “X” on the side of the tree trunk facing the cabin, reckoning I would be lugging my sap collection apparatus (a minor detail not yet figured out) from that direction.

After marking 20 trees, I started back to the cabin and turned to admire my handiwork. I discovered, much to my horror, I had misidentified the first tree. From the angle I now approached it, I discovered it was a Red Maple. Fearful I couldn’t remember which tree was mistakenly marked six months later, I had to do something to stop me from tapping that tree.

Taking the spray can in hand, I drew a straight line through the “X” and underneath wrote in huge letters the word, “NO!” I could now welcome winter with no fear of the leaves falling too soon, knowing we would enjoy the fruits of my labor on our pancakes next spring.

The leaves indeed fell, the brush disappeared on the 100 yards or so down the hill where the woods began,  and there in full view of our cabin were now revealed 19 trees marked with huge reflective “Xs” and one tree shouting from the forest, “NO!”

The kids laughed, their friends laughed, my friends and neighbors laughed and then their friends and neighbors came to see and stayed to laugh. When the snow fell, the sight was even more impressive. All those brilliant red letters contrasting with the white snow made for a striking visual experience.

One day a hunter came to the door. He wanted to know why all those trees were marked in the forest. He had, he said, hunted in those woods all his life, and he had no idea anyone lived here. I assured him that yes, someone did live here, and if he didn’t get off my land, I’d set the dogs on him.

The opportunity to say that comes along but once in a lifetime if that, and I seized on it. We only had one dog, but it sounded more threatening to imply the plural.

Yes, he said he would go, but first would I tell him about the markings. No, I most certainly would not I said as I turned to whistle for the dog. The hunter skedaddled, but not before he, too, laughed.

As it turned out, the maple syrup experience didn’t go as smoothly as the homesteader handbook indicated. We tapped the trees in March and boiled down the sap over an outside fire. When the liquid started to thicken, we were instructed to pour it off into a saucepan, and finish it inside on the stove. Each time this crucial point was reached, something invariably happened to divert my attention, and the syrup proceeded from golden amber to black tar before I could say “Mrs. Butterworth.”

We tried tapping the red Xed trees the next year, and this time we managed to produce less than a pint of dark Grade C syrup that any self-respecting maple syrup maker would have thrown out before it even reached the bottle. We called it quits after that.  In time we left the cabin in the woods; the “Xs” and “NO!” were still there bright and glowing as ever. I suppose they’re there to this day.

All of which brings me to the moral of this story: never spray iridescent paint on anything you don’t plan to live with for the rest of your life. Believe me. The only way to hide it from your constant view is to move away from it.

AN UNFORGIVABLE BREACH OF FIFTIES RULES

When my best friend, Robert, retired several years ago, his niece prepared a scrapbook for him. She asked me and some of his other friends to write a memory of Robert to be included in the book. Here is mine.

When people have known one another for more than 60 years, said people accumulate many memories. Some of us have zip for long-term memories; others have trouble with short-term memories. Some have no memory at all, but I’m not naming names.

Since Robert and I met in the 6th grade (he says the 7th grade) and we’ve spent much time with one another starting way back then, I thought I would plod through my recollections, knowing it would be difficult to select the best one for his scrapbook. As it turned out, it wasn’t hard at all. One memory so stands out from the rest, it was easy to choose.

The event I shall relate landed us in the soup, to say the least. Today it would be a minor misdemeanor, but in the 50s it was a felony punishable by death or at least being sentenced to a year of dish washing.

Here’s what happened:

Once upon a time around 1953-1954, Robert invited me to go with him on a hayride and cookout. He attended the Nazarene Church, which sponsored the event. I can’t remember who thought of it, but the idea appealed to both of us.

We would find some way to obtain a bottle of vodka, with which we would spike the chaperones’ Big Orange drinks when we arrived at our cookout destination. Nehi orange soda pop was stuck with the “Big Orange” appellation in those days because of a popular Andy Griffith monolog in which he referred to the drinks as Big Orange. At least that’s where I think it started.

One of our best friends was Joyce Schurman, who was the minister’s daughter. We ran the idea by Joyce, to test the waters, so to speak, to find out what she thought about it and how much trouble she thought we’d be in if we got caught. To our surprise and delight, Joyce thought it a splendid idea and asked if she could join us. So, there were now four of us, counting Joyce’s unsuspecting date, Charles, who would go along, but didn’t wish to take an active part. Never mind; more was better if it became necessary to spread the blame around.

Having no earthly way to find vodka, it seems to me we really thought we wouldn’t be able to secure it, making the caper impossible to actually fulfill, but fun to talk about. Little did we know just how easily it would fall into our hands and make our daring escapade doable.

My sister’s best friend was from a big drinking family. When my sister told her friend about our plan, she immediately took us to her mother, who obliged by filling a small bottle with vodka and sending us on our way.

That night when we gathered at the church, I had the bottle secreted in a blanket. Robert, Joyce and I referred to the blanketed vodka as “the baby.”

“Let me hold the baby.” “Would you take care of the baby for a while?” “Be sure to keep the baby covered up.” And so on.

Riding in the hay wagon, we giggled all the way to our cookout destination. When we arrived the chaperones (of which there were many, in an abundance of Nazarene caution) they began to set out fixings for a wiener roast, et al. To our giddy delight, we saw the Big Orange drinks opened and lined up on a table very near the edge of the dark woods.

It was the work of only a second to figure out how we were going to do the deed. We crouched behind the table, hidden by the trees and the darkness. One of us served as lookout while the other two grabbed a drink and poured some of it on the ground, replacing it with vodka. No one saw us, and after a while, we were able to give the drinks yet another shot of the booze. By the time the Big Oranges were to be drunk, we had completed our mission.

We stayed where we were in order to gauge the chaperones’ reaction. To our surprise and amusement, one of the drinkers said, “I think this orange drink is the best I’ve ever had.” The revelation caused us so much mirth, we had to clap our hands over our mouths for fear of being discovered.

We were very pleased with ourselves for pulling off the practical joke of the century. I think the hayride was on a Friday night, but I’m not sure about that. It was Sunday afternoon when Robert called me.

“The whole church knows about the baby,” he said feverishly.
“They’re going to make me apologize to the congregation.”

“How did they know it was you?” I asked, terrified. “How did they know it was booze?”

“I guess they tasted it. We put a lot in those Big Orange bottles. But I don’t know. Joyce said one of the girls told on us. She’s grounded for a week for her punishment. And listen to this. They know I had another girl accomplice. They also know she’s a Baptist, and they want me to tell them your name, so they can tell your church and your mother about it.”

“You didn’t tell them, did you?”

“I think it’s going to go worse for me if I don’t tell them,” he said. “If they know you go to the Baptist Church, they’ll find out it was you, so I might as well tell them.”

“No-o-o-o,” I stage-whispered into the phone. My mother was in the other room, and I tried to drag the phone into my room and close the door. The cord wouldn’t stretch that far.

“Please, please don’t tell them,” I begged. He desperately tried to convince me we would get off easier if he told them who I was, on the condition they wouldn’t tell my church and my mother. “Even if they do go for that, you will have to come to my church and apologize to the whole congregation.”

So, there it was. Damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I pleaded with him. Some of Mother’s friends went to the Nazarene Church, and she would surely get wind of it. And after she heard about it, she would kill me.

There were many whispered conversations on the phone that Sunday. I was able to talk Robert out of telling them my name, and I didn’t want to even whisper about it further. That sucker had to be buried alive or dead. I don’t remember how it turned out, but I think he was forced to apologize. I escaped with my “good girl” reputation intact.

But the episode wasn’t over. I was not discovered, but I wound up confessing it to Mother anyway.

Mother had a mental list of “Boys Who May Not Be Dated.” At the top of the list was — I’ll call him –- Bob. Patricia, my sister, had been explicitly forbidden to go out with him for some reason now forgotten. But Patricia had subterfuge in her soul as well. Bob would send a friend to our house to pick up my sister. She would then be delivered to Bob, and when they came home, he would let her off at the corner, and she always said whomever he was had a deadline to get home, and he was running late.

I worried about her telling those lies, and I thought I had to let Mother know what was going on. I knew if I told on her, my sister would tell Mother about that damned “baby.” There was nothing for it but to tell Mother myself what I did, so I could then reveal my sister’s deception freely, and she would have no such power over me.

Mother, of course, had a conniption fit! She and her family were world-class criers. This time, I thought she was never going to stop crying. She wept buckets and paced the floor while I just stood there totally taciturn.

“No wonder Mrs. Young won’t speak to me,” she wailed. Mrs. Young, a Nazarene, was our next-door neighbor. “I’ll never be able to hold my head up again. I’m ruined. You’ve disgraced the whole family.”

When the tears slacked a little, I broke the news to her about my sister.

More tears. More anguish. More consternation. But what was this? She wasn’t upset about the Bob lies. She was still furious with me.

“You should be so ashamed of yourself to say those awful things about your sister. Don’t you tell your daddy that, and don’t confess your own sin to him. It would kill him. Oh, where did I go wrong?”

A deluge. More tears. More threats. More accusations. More everything.

On further reflection, perhaps I should have fessed up to the Nazarenes with Robert. It might have gone down better, and by then I would have come out smelling like a rose.

But it was not to be, thanks to my postponing my just desserts; it was my lying, no-account sister who was smelling like a rose. I was stinking to the high heaven, into which my mother said I would never see.

Sinners of my ilk were drop-shipped directly to the devil himself.

“OKAY. WE’LL GO.”

        I planned another story for this week when I happened upon this one, and I wanted to share it with you. I am in the process of organizing hundreds of stories kept from my newspaper days. It is an awesome task, but I hope it will be worth it when I finally see them once again in print. I shall never forget the man I interviewed for this story. It was originally written in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, which was the beginning of the end of World War II. It is an interview with Robert L. Mathias, who insisted on my calling him “Bob.” He was one of the one million soldiers who invaded Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944.

*****************************************************

It was the worst weather in four decades. Rain pelted the region for days on end, and the heavy seas of the English Channel were a watery death trap.

The army meteorologist in England forecast a 36-hour break in the weather. It wouldn’t be clear sailing, and at best the Channel would be treacherous.

Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, called the leaders of all the armies together and asked their opinions. They stared at the table in front of them and said nothing. Eisenhower knew the final decision rested only with him.

“Okay, we’ll go.”

Those three words spoken on June 5, 1944, launched the most massive invasion by any army in the history of the world. This week is the 50th anniversary of that invasion.

Beginning in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the Allied Army landed forces on the beaches of Normandy; they would number a million men by July 1. The attack marked the beginning of the end of World War II.

One of those men was Bob Mathias from Granville, Ohio.  He was detached from his tank unit to the invading army as a chemical warfare expert. “We didn’t know what we would run into,” says Mathias, remembering The Longest Day.

“They wanted a man in each unit who understood chemical deterrents in case the Germans were using mustard gas or something like that.” Mathias worked in a chemical plant before he was drafted in 1941, and the army made use of his civilian training in assigning him a military job.

As it turned out, there was no evidence of chemical warfare in Normandy, but Mathias saw plenty of action anyway. His tank unit rolled onto Omaha Beach, where the bloodiest battle of the invasion took place.

“The first troops landed at 4:30 in the morning on June 6. My unit came ashore at around 10:30. After six hours of fighting they had only pushed inland about a quarter of a mile. There were bodies everywhere. The mortuary crew hadn’t even had time to. . . .”

His voice cracks and he looks away. The gruesome picture seen by the young technical sergeant is still sharp, now seen by the mind’s eye of the aging veteran 50 years later.

After a moment he continues. “They had to remove the bodies from the beach, so the tanks dug a long ditch five or six feet deep and pushed them, Germans and Americans together, into it. They put the soldiers’ dog tags in their mouths. It wasn’t until much later that the mortuary crew could get in there and put them into caskets. They notified the German Army where to find their dead.”

By the next day, June 7, Mathias said the Allies had managed to advance only four miles inland. The beach was fortified with miles of steel and concrete barriers and bunkers. To disrupt enemy communications, Eisenhower dropped paratroops inland behind the reinforced beachfront embankments. Along with the 5,000 Allied ships that pushed onto Normandy that morning, airplanes towed gliders that were released to float inland and deposit more troops behind the lines.

The Germans, led by Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt, had foreseen such a strategy and erected tall metal posts just behind the barriers. As the wide-winged gliders were set free from the aircraft, most of them crashed into the poles.

Sergeant Bob Mathias saw it all, being constantly on call to inspect each German stronghold for lethal chemicals as it fell to the Allies. Ironically, he only found poison gas one time during his four years in the armed forces. “It was two days before the war ended,” says Mathias. “We were making our way across Germany. They knew we were coming, and they abandoned the towns as we approached.

“We came into one village that was full of green canisters marked with three rings around them. There were pipes running all over town hooked up to the canisters. The German army had left one officer behind with instructions to turn on the gas when we pulled into town. He couldn’t do it. He said he just couldn’t bring himself to kill all those people.

“We didn’t know what the gas was, so we named it Three Ring Green. Some of it was sent back to the states to be tested, but we dropped most of it a mile deep in the Blue Danube. I guess it’s still there today.”

By this time, Mathias was back with his old tank unit that was part of General George Patton’s famous Third Army. He was a gunner in one of the Sherman tanks that rumbled from the beaches at Normandy to the Rhine River, liberating Europe and conquering Germany. He was with Patton at the Battle of the Bulge.

He was wounded once when the turret was blown off his tank. “I was the only guy who made it out of that one alive, and I just broke 11 ribs. I had the straps off my helmet and wasn’t buckled in my seat. When the explosion happened, I was thrown out the top of the tank. The other boys were strapped in;  it broke their necks.” He pauses again, and looks away as he takes a deep breath before he goes on: “I was lucky.”

Bob Mathias was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism and outstanding service. He came home just before Christmas in 1945. Listening to his graphic descriptions and heartfelt memories of World War II, one feels a strong sense of being incapable of grasping even the faintest notion of what it was like for Bob Mathias and the million soldiers who fought on the beaches of Normandy.

“Yes, I was scared,” he answers when asked if he was afraid on that morning so many years ago. “But you can’t think about it. You know you have to keep going and do whatever you have to, or you’ll wind up like all those other boys lying around you.”

Or as General Patton put it in a letter written to his grandson on the evening of June 6, 1944, “The most vital quality a soldier can possess is self-confidence, utter, complete and bumptious.”

Robert L. Mathias had all that and more. He was truly an American hero. Mathias died in 2002 at the age of 90.