Saturday, August 27, 2011

Miss Taras - Part Two - The Rest of the Story

part two of two parts. Link for part one.

Miss Taras, the second grade teacher of St. John's was a ruthless disciplinarian. Enduring a year in her class was to have looked terror directly in the face, and survived.  It made one stronger, and gave us something to talk about later in life.

Over the course of the year, she told us stories of her childhood, and the more I think about these, the more different it was than the childhood of her typical student. (with some exceptions).  She had two sisters, and grew up in a very strict household, in the Great Depression (the one in the twentieth century, not the Obamanation) in a very poor section of town. (which town? possibly Watertown, WI? we never found out)  Her stories of her childhood were populated by dangerous late-night walks home, "tramps", "darkies", and various unsavory characters that God and the Angels protected her from.  

All her life, Miss Taras lived with her two sisters, until they died. She never married - teaching, the church, and her sisters were her entire life.  

I remember one night when we were in high school (our grade school class stayed together and played together through the Lutheran Youth Group).  I noticed that the light was still on in the 2nd grade class room.  I ventured up there, to see what was going on.  Miss Taras was in there, working away at re-organizing a cabinet in the back of the classroom.  After I accounted for myself, very respectable after all those years, I noticed that she was crying.  I asked if there was anything I could help her with, noticing boxes on the top shelf of the cabinet.  She said that she was trying to get a box down, but the chair kept sliding.  I told her to hold on, I was the right man for the job!  Got the box down, and we talked; she asked me if I might be interested in working for the church library, which she oversaw.  I loved the church library, with all those old concordances, Horatio Alger stories, and German books. And, so I became an assistant church librarian, one or two nights a week. 

As the years went by, I went off to college, Miss Taras got closer to retirement age.  There were factional disputes about a Synod reorganization at the time, and the church was never quite the same - a faction detached itself and started a new congregation.  Many of the people I knew went to the new church, and, in the whole mess, it came time for Miss Taras to retire.

I remember the "retirement party" Pastor Kay had for her.  After a Sunday morning service, as some of the congregation was already leaving, he announced that Miss Taras was retiring, blah blah blah, and would she please come forward at this time to receive a token of our appreciation.  She walked up, slowly. Years of working on her feet had made it difficult for her to get around.  She received her PLAQUE, and turned to the congregation, and stood in the aisle.  Pastor Kay didn't even offer her a damn microphone.  Her closing remarks I could barely hear, delivered in the soft low voice that I remembered from the classroom, but people jostling out the door made it inaudible.  Not even a sheet cake in the school basement. Good bye, Miss Taras. Thanks for all your faithful service.

More years passed.  I came home for a weekend from college.  My mother told me that Miss Taras was in Beverly Terrace, a skilled-care center, recovering from a broken bone.  I talked my friend Norman, who was also in her second-grade class, into going with me.  Miss Taras was delighted to have two visitors from the past who thought of her. We stayed for hours.  Here is part of Norm's account of the visit:

"She told us a bit about growing up in a strict home, her dad, explaining WHY she'd been so strict.  It's all so Twilight Zone.  But I remember losing all my resentment that day, and feeling sorry for a woman who had lived her whole life in service to the church....and children most of all.  The day was a gift. There was more to the woman than a seemingly bitter child hater.  And who also knew that we had been wrong about her.  But as 7 year olds we never got the facts."

One thing Miss Taras said, as best as Norman and I can construct the exact wording:  

"...looking back, I've only got one regret that, 
I think I could have been a little less strict with my students" 

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Miss Taras Part One - The Brown Uncle

part one of two parts

Jesus Savior wash away
All that has been wrong today
Help me every day to be
Good and gentle, more like Thee

At the end of each day of Miss Schoenicke's first grade, we would "put the day to bed" with a song and a prayer.  It would give me a peaceful feeling, in the cool green tree-filtered afternoon classroom sunlight, imagining that we could start over tomorrow, with a clean slate. And that glorious first year at grade school came to a close with a play we wrote and staged, presented to the entire student body, in which we all let our talents and imaginations soar. So, the following September, we all returned to school full of renewed anticipation for the joyful work of education to continue.

Within minutes of our arrival at the second-grade room, we each realized that things were going to be drastically different from now on.  The harsh eastern sunlight blazed through the glass block and the whole room was dazzlingly brilliant with the new reality.  And there were now many more of us.  Our A through M first-grade class had been merged with Mrs. Otto's N through Z first grade class - there was only one way through second grade, and there were now thirty-six of us in the merged class. Before long, we got acquainted with those in the last half of the alphabet, because there is security in numbers.  And we needed lots of security, for we were in the second-grade class of the legendary Miss Taras.

Miss Taras was slight and tall, fast, and strong.  Miss Taras had an unusually low speaking voice, about the same pitch and timbre as a large dog's low bark, And an amazing range of volume - you didn't want to hear that voice yelling at you.  When she explained something, she'd sometimes end a sentence with a drawn-out "Yes?" accompanied by a mirthless grin that was terrifying.  Sometimes when excited, she would speak so fast, that you didn't wholly understand what it was that she had said, but you just knew that you'd better be nodding when she said "Yes?" with that grin ...

The chalkboard on the side of the classroom was reserved for the names.  In chalk squares would be various headings, and under the headings were the penances.  It was never good to have your name on that board.  If you didn't complete an assignment on time, your name went up there, and then there were the various punishment writing assignments..  "I should obey." - 100 times was the most common.  Other writing requirements for other circumstances, all with that persistent mind-numbing repetition, If your name was on the board, the work had to be done, or you  had to stay after school to finish it.  Only when your name was erased from the board could we "wash away all that has been wrong today".

Turns out, however, there was more to obedience than writing "I should obey" 100 times on sheet after sheet of blue-lined yellow newsprint.

As we descended into the routine of the new regime, we discovered that relentless discipline was now the new norm. Miss Taras had no favorites, and the offenses she singled out followed no discernible pattern - best just to tow the line, look straight ahead, and keep a low profile.  There was no telling what would set her off.  Inattention, whispering in class, gum, distractions - it didn't take much for that low growl to become a thundering bark.  You never knew who would get scolded next.  Once, she mentioned casually that if someone was really disobedient,.the "Brown Uncle would come out, and we wouldn't want that - Yes?" (again the heart-stopping ice-in-your veins bleak grin).  Thoughts were racing. Who was the Brown Uncle?  How did he know when to come out?

You always remember the first time.  One brilliant morning, Miss Taras was demonstrating an arithmetic problem on the blackboard.  It had been a relatively un-turbulent morning, only a few new names on the board.  Suddenly, she stopped in mid-sentence. Without another word, she walked very fast over to her desk, and opened the lower drawer.  A cellophane crackle from things in the drawer, and then - a thin brown leather belt.  Holding it doubled over above her shoulder, she moved very quickly to the first row of desks. The room sat in stunned silence - 36 of us, and not a sound.  Unable to move, our hearts stopped in the moment, we watched.  She grabbed Ron Kopp (not his name) by the arm, and pulled him to his feet.  Punctuating - each  - word with a blow to his backside, she said, in words I'll remember forever "Ron - Don't - Do - Silly - Things!"  Those five, and Ron was slammed back down into his seat.  In the ensuing silence, the Brown Uncle was returned to the drawer.  What went on for the rest of the morning, or for the entire day, for that matter, I do not and can not remember. (My hands are trembling as I write this - didn't realize how potent a memory can be.)

We were clenched in a state of outright terror for the rest of the school year. But she had hit us with her best shot, and we weren't beaten down, not altogether.  Our main objective, as a class, was to keep from setting her off.  As the year wore on, though, hardly any of us eluded her deadly and unpredictable aim. There was no schadenfreude, no gleeful delight at the discipline of another student. None of that.  We were all together in this, and when the Brown Uncle came down on one of us, we all felt it.  There were various escapes, contrived illnesses, and some real ones attributable to the tension of the rigid discipline, reticence at home, but, for the most part, the ordeal made us stronger, brought us closer to one another, and made us more appreciative of subsequent teachers.  One of our cosmic rewards was the sixth grade, a particularly harmonious year, all of us with Mr. Gottschalk (another story another time), that showed us how close we really were to one another, sharing joy and growing up together.

I don't recall us ever speaking to one another about discipline outside of the classroom, or at home.  Perhaps it was different for other students, but for me, what happened in the classroom stayed in the classroom.  Mainly, because repercussions from parents would have only made it worse. Things were different in those days.

But, lately, through the miracle of social networking, some of us have been getting together and sharing our experiences, those vivid memories of St. John's Grade School.  A hug for all my old friends. Love You all.

part one of two parts - part 2 scheduled for tomorrow

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cabinets Without Words

A week and a day ago, my wife and I went to Schaumburg, Illinois, although the thrill of traveling has by now somewhat subsided.  The toll roads took their toll, and we saw more traffic barrels than we could ever have imagined.  We came back with an entire mini-van full of cabinet kits, which, we hoped would be assembled into a cash-wrap counter for Joyce's store. 

As I unpacked the 64 packages of materials, (yes i counted), I noticed that, although I had hundreds of pages of instructions, among the hundreds of pages there were only about eight words.  The rest was all pictures - complex pictures that required long periods of contemplation and meditation before understanding would dawn.
Here to help me was my little Scandinavian assistant - a little white Ikea guy with lots of willingness, but, sadly, no hands.  First he regaled us with "If I Had a Hammer" and the second verse was "If I had Two Screwdrivers", but, while he was cheerful, he was unable to lend a hand, because he had none. He was not that much help at figuring out what was going on with the assembly..

When he started pitching in, that's when things started to go wrong.  He broke the corner of the box, and he felt bad about that, but poor fellow had only those flippers, and couldn't get much of a grip.  I told him not to worry about it, but, on the other hand, not to touch another goddam thing.
He was sad to have disappointed me, and picked up his accordion to play a sad little song from the old country about the enigmatic injustices and inequities between willingness and abilities.  Of course this left me a mournful feeling for having been so hard on the little fellow.  And I had all the assembly to do myself.
He encouraged me wherever he could, and admired it whenever I got two or three pieces to fit together. That sort of cheered him up.-
But then he got on the phone, and well, that's kind of the last I saw of him. He must have been recalled by the factory.
Well, the next thing you know, the zombies came, either out of the boxes, or little Flipper left the door open and they walked in. One of them had only one leg
They seemed to want to work, and they were very strong. However, I don't think their vision was that great - well, what do you expect of zombies, anyway?  It was like watching an Air Screwdriver competition, turning fasteners that only they could see. Aren't zombies really dead or something awful like that?   I left the windows open.
I found that if I led them to the work, they would keep at it until the job was done.  Required a lot of supervision, but I managed to harness most of the Zombie Power available to me.
But, they were kind of clumsy on their own, and lots of things got broken.  One of them broke off a cabinet leg, and almost dropped the cabinet on someone's finger.

As the job was almost done, some of the zombies got into the refrigerator, and drank all my beer.  That's when they started grunting around, ape-like, lurching into things.  They picked up the cabinets and started spinning them around in the air... Drunken zombies can be very strong, and utmost caution must be employed around them.
Finally, I put my foot down.  I got out a can of Zombie-B-Gon, and brandishing a menacing white spritz, I chased them all out, so I could finish the job myself.
 So, now we have a huge faux wood homemade complex of cabinetry with drawers, doors, shelves, and countertops.  This is a deluxe setup, with door dampers, drawer dampers, and a kick-board around the base.  A black onyx top and some beautiful brushed aluminum handles finish it off.
The Missus approves, and that's all that matters to me. That's me in the red shirt.
Yup, I love her.

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Stop the Vacation - I Need Some Rest!

We had been looking for a Cash Wrap for Joyce's store.  A year ago I didn't even know what a Cash Wrap was, but in the world of store fixtures, it's a simple two-level checkout counter, with a little work table on the clerk's side, and a higher level on the customer side.  The Cash Wrap is very hard to come by as a used fixture - the ones available are very beat-up or very expensive.

So, we decided - how hard could it be?  Joyce got a few estimates from contractors, who wanted thousands of dollars, many of these dollars in advance to build us one.  Well, how hard it could be? 

This week I've been off of work all week from the day job, just a relaxing vacation in Milwaukee, weekend was kinda busy with a simultaneous musical engagement and class reunion, but the rest of the week was gloriously free!.  But, within hours of my arrival on Friday night, Joyce had a brilliant idea - "Let's get some components from Ikea, and make our own Cash Wrap".  So, first thing Monday morning the three of us headed off to Schaumburg, Illinois.  The three of us -  me, Joyce, and the GPS.  Joyce and the GPS lady argued most of the way there, and I was ready to turn around and come back home, but by then I'd already paid my first tollbooth, so I decided to stick it out.  Recalculating...
The short version - we found the components and returned after dark with sore feet, and exactly 63 packages of parts.  Count 'em!

I spent every day on the floor assembling, and trying to decipher the various manuals, which are written in a remote dialect of Idiot.  There are hardly any words in the manuals, only pictures.  In our home-made assembly are two base cabinets, two wall cabinets modified into base cabinets, leg assemblies, drawer assemblies, door and hinge assemblies, and two counter-top slabs.

Our grand project has over 40 hours in it already, not counting the night I spent helping the Chinese move their freezer, but the materials cost us less than a third of our lowest contractor estimate.

So, now it's late Friday night, my fingers are full of tiny infected micro-slivers from forming and drilling 3rd-world particle board, my vacation is gone, and I'm exhausted.  But almost done.  I think it will look grand..

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Another Summer Rerun
Originally posted January, 2010
under the title "5 & Dime Beginnings"

One of my first jobs in high school was as a stock-boy in Woolworths. At $1.40 per hour, I knew that I had made the right choice quitting the $1.10/hour hamburger place. I'm still haunted by this delightful nostalgic dream-world - i can still hear the creaky floors, and smell the intoxicating combination of lunch counter, candy counter, and pet department.

4th and Main, Five and Dime in Watertown, Wisconsin, Fronted by the canonical curved red corner background with gold letters and diamonds. The front of the store had a red and white striped canvas awning, The manager cranked it down in the morning, and I cranked it back up in the evening. But that was just one of my duties....

The F.W. Woolworth 5 and 10 cent store had departments competing with every other store on Main Street. We had hardware, housewares, men's and women's clothing, fabrics, paint, pets, candy, and toys.  The Woolworth's Experience while Evie was cutting your window shades to custom lengths, Esther could tint you a gallon of paint to just the right shade, and Betty could notarize your documents, while you relax at Merla's lunch counter for an incomparable home-cooked meal. Then wander over to Angie's candy counter for a handful of those Brach's maple nut goodies that look like mushroom caps. Get the latest Simplicity patterns in Lorraine's department up in front, and then go to Gertie's department to get the fabric to implement the pattern. There were greeting cards, phonograph records, books, parakeets, cacti - simply everything you'll ever need was right there.

But I was a dweller in Woolworth's underside. The entire basement was a dark maze of rough wood shelving, arranged in the same layout as the upstairs, with many mysterious side passages. Items entered the Woolworths System through a door which opened up in the sidewalk. Cartons slid down a metal chute into the basement. If the cartons jammed up on the way down, Roger the Baptist was sure to mention it to me as soon as I arrived. Roger never wanted to get dirty. He would check the merchandise in, and stock it on the shelves in the basement. The ladies picked their restock orders off of these shelves, and laid them in the aisle in cardboard trays called "X-90 boxes" (i hope i don't get in trouble for revealing these infrastructure secrets). I brought the X-90 boxes up the creaky wooden stairs, each to its proper department, and the ladies would price and restock the items. Nearly everything upstairs had its counterpart downstairs in backup stock. One thing you never heard at Woolworth's : "If you don't see any there, we don't have any."

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chinese Night Watch

Last night about 11 pm I was making the final rounds, all the locks, security cams, etc,,  It had been a busy day, even though I was on vacation from the day job.  We got a cash register counter for Joyce's store, ,and some assembly was required.  There were  59 packages of parts.  So after a day of assembly, one hopes that I could get to bed on time.  But, of course, something was definitely going on, just when ya need it.  A moving van was parked in the street, and the sidewalk was full of . . . .full of . . .  But before I could comprehend the entire picture, I heard Katie's voice "Gary come help with the freezer!" 

Oh, no. The entire sidewalk was full of restaurant booths, cushions, chairs, cardboard packing material, and for some reason, a new mattress set.  And, on the back of the truck was a huge, white commercial freezer.  There were about 8 people milling around measuring doorways and yelling to each other in Chinese.  The van driver was waiting impatiently with his clip board, for someone to sign for the delivery.

Katie is the boss of the Chinese restaurant in our shopping center, and one of the few people there who knows English.  But she has a certain authority in the way she uses English.  When she tells me to do something, I tend to do it without question.
The freezer on the end of the truck is 8 feet long, 39 inches deep, and 6 feet high.  It weighs about 400 lbs. So, I pitched in, since the people inside the truck were already pushing it off the edge.  It was frightening, to be supporting so much weight, and not knowing whether the Chinese guy was saying "put 'er down" or "she's gonna explode, everybody run!"  .  Well, we got it down on the sidewalk, and started walking in the door with it.  We put it down, because it wouldn't make the bend between the inner and outer door.   Although the freezer was inside the building at this point, it completely blocked the entrance, and Katie's husband was trapped behind the freezer in the foyer.  We decided to move it again, because Katie loves her husband, and didn't want to leave him there.  Besides, how would the customers get in?

A contrivance made of plywood, wet towels, and a small-wheeled food cart appeared.  We balanced the freezer atop the improvised moving cart, and wheeled it around to the back of the building.  Luckily, the neighbors were still up, and I could speak English, so we took it up their stairs, through their garden gate, and up to the back entrance to the kitchen.  In the kitchen, the entourage was met by an elderly Chinese gentlemen - a very territorial cook, who started screaming orders to rearrange his kitchen so that the parade could be accommodated.
We brought the freezer into the preparation room, and got it finally up against its wall. The new booths would not fit through the front door, and would probably need to be disassembled.
By morning, all the booths, cardboard, and those mysterious mattresses had all disappeared.
Since Jacky didn't want me to take her picture unless I paid her, I told her there was no film in the camera anyway... Well, true's digital.

One O'Clock and All is Well!

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Year Book

Through an outrageous schedule conflict, I'm scheduled for a music performance engagement that begins at the exact same time that my 40-year high school class reunion starts. The reunion is being held at the old Riverside Park within an annual River Festival from 5-11 pm.  I'm going to the festival in the afternoon, in hopes of maybe running into some old classmates, but unfortunately, I have to leave before the announced time of the reunion.  I'm sorry.

I haven't been to a high school class reunion since Year Five, so missing the high school reunion is not unusual for me.  But lately, I've been thinking a lot about the ones I went to grade school with, so long ago.  It was a parochial Lutheran grade school in Watertown, Wisconsin and there were 35 or so of us who were together for 8 years before high school.  We were always a sort of separate "secret society" contained within the high school class, and I believe it kept us true to ourselves.  Lately, the miracle of social networking has brought many of us back into contact with one another.

Our grade school year books were usually issued after the school year ended, so we never got a chance to write in each other's books.  

Year Book - 1966
so many more, apologies for all the omissions

When I play back those grade school days in my head, the sounds I hear are those of the playground - all those rhythmic chants - jump rope verses, singing on the bus for class trips, to cheerleader cheers. And yours is the voice I hear, leading them.

Our class Socrates. You had a way of phrasing the most profound questions in the simplest of words which baffled all the teachers

When I think of you, I remember that soft-spoken unconditional kindness that you had for everyone.

You kept us laughing all the time.  An irrepressible sense of humor that no cheerless teacher could contain.

The master of schoolyard trades.  The first to own a BIC 19 cent pen.  I heard that you had become a successful Madison businessman.  Who deserves it more?

Always cheerful, an unsinkable personality. Thanks for the times you cheered me up without even realizing it

Our mothers were old classmates, so we were friends even before there was grade school. You came to our family funerals, and it meant a  lot to me.

And you!  Ach du lieber!  Soul-mates to this day!


Wednesday, August 10, 2011


summer rerun - originally posted in 2010
The Man in the Moon as He Sails the Sky

Max Wincell was kind of scary. I was in 3rd grade, and Max was now in his second year of 3rd grade. Previous encounters with Max had involved Max hitting me. Once we had met him in a park downtown, my sister and I, and he had hit us both. But now, I was almost home, safe on my block, when Max called me by name. How had he remembered?? I was paralyzed by fright when Max ran up to me.

"Hey, I just moved in over on Davis Street" (2 blocks away) "Aren't you that kid who plays piano?"

-- gulp --- Oh, no! my short life flashed in front of me, in a nightmare vision of a future filled with daily poundings. But this was different. He was new to the neighborhood, and now, things had changed. Now, I was now one of "his people". The incidents of the past had been forgotten, as if they had never happened. certainly wasn't going to remind Max of those.

We played together, hung around together, and then he did a shocking thing. He politely introduced himself to my mother. Max wasn't the sort of person you mentioned to your parents. He was more of the sort you snuck out to hang around with when you were being rebellious. My mother was bowled over by the hospitality, and if Max were around on Saturday, she'd invite him to stay for lunch. He certainly knew how to play the "nice boy" when necessary.

Max, it turned out, didn't have much of a home life. He'd always had to seek his friends one by one, which was hard when his father kept moving from place to place. Max had no mother that he spoke of, and his father was not home much. His house was a cheap wooden pre-fab, and his father's current live-in girlfriend (Max called her "the housekeeper") didn't want us hanging around the house.

Max was smart, although he didn't have very good grades. He never did homework, because he wasn't welcome at home, but he remembered everything we learned in class. He was especially fond of a song Miss Schlueter had taught us in music class. We'd sing it as we roamed the streets after dark, looking for trouble.

"Oh the Man in the MoonAs he sails the sky
is a very remarkable skip-per

But he made a mistake
by attempting to take
a drink of milk from the Dip-per!
a drink of milk from the Dipper.

He dipped it into the Milky Way
and slowly and carefully filled it 
but the Big Bear growled
and the Little Bear howled
and frightened him so that he spilled it

and frightened him so that he spilled it.
I think of these nights when summer's gone, and the air is crisp with fall, and a faint smell of leaves burning somewhere. I think of when Max showed me how to howl at the moon.

Thanks for listening and contributing. On Twitter, they call me @dimbulb52.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


It was almost time to leave and catch the plane.  Joyce's brother was coming to drop us off at the airport. After I had gotten dressed, I went back down to the theater to work for a few more minutes while I waited.  The stage set was built from painted hollow-core doors, styro blocks, and whatever our "acquisition manager" Bob Kohl found "curbside".  The Renaissance Faire production had just ended, and from the ruins of the Renaissance would rise the Haunted House set.  As soon as we returned from this trip, we'd be holding auditions, and rehearsals would follow shortly thereafter, for opening in mid-October.
In our haunted house, the audience sat in the center of the room, and all around them, aside, behind, and in their face - our cast of 15 highly-trained professionals launched an intense 45-minute barrage of twenty to twenty-five tightly produced multi-media vignettes guaranteed to shock and horrify. This format was so different from other "haunted house" exhibitions in the area, that it was successful for many years.  The spectacles had sleazy names such as "Fortress of Fear" and "Temple of Terror" and we scared the bejeepers out of the audience.  There were vampire stories, burials gone awry, witch-burning, psychics, the undead, terrible accidents, psychotic evangels, each vision lasting less than a minute, followed by a nightmare even more horrible than the last.

Oh, and did I mention, the Haunted House script had not yet been written?  We were about to embark on the annual Voyage of Creation.  This formula had actually worked for us three years running.  A flight to Las Vegas could be purchased for nearly nothing in those days, on Midwest Express, and a five-night hotel stay would bring our total bill to almost five hundred dollars for the two of us.  And, we would usually win that amount back in the casinos, because we know when to fold 'em. . . .
Las Vegas is where we wrote.  With just a slight twist, the excesses and sins of Vegas furnish a virtual dungeon full of glittery nightmares and desperate nightmare people who practically jumped onto our pages.  For example, there's that guy standing in front of the Four Queens Casino trying to lure you in with a free spin on his glittering overly-large video poker machine.  Cast him as a carnival barker presiding over an unspeakable sideshow of horribly deformed freaks! We'd study him, his sleazy mannerisms, his way of speaking, and - - viola! One down and twenty-some vignettes to go...

Every morning we'd sleep as long as we wanted, and then starting over coffee in the room, we'd write in our notebooks until about 4 in the afternoon, have a luscious buffet meal, and then go out to play, and gather material for the next day's writing.  We'd always return to Milwaukee with a show all ready to type up on the old 486 (no laptop in those old days), and sometimes, we'd even have some cash to spare.  Sometimes, we'd even have a few leftover vignettes for the following year!
So - time to go!  I climbed down my ladder, and we loaded the suitcases into the car, and got on the plane, a late-afternoon flight.  After we'd been aloft for awhile, I noticed something jabbing at me from my pocket.  Horrified at what I found there, I whispered to Joyce my predicament.  Should I be up-front and tell them?   I'd already gotten through security with it, and would probably not be checked again.  We decided to say nothing.  In my front suitcoat pocket was one of my foremost stagecraft tools - one of those plastic disposable utility knives.  We returned to Milwaukee on September 6, 2001.  Five days later, this tool would be referred to forevermore as a box cutter.    And the following year, we had a box-cutter vignette in Merciless Mansion.

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Angel of Death

I went to a funeral this morning.  It was a joyous occasion.

I worked at Holy Name as an organist for over 10 years, in the 1990s.  At that time, the services were conducted in Polish and English, with traditional early-20th century Polish hymns and liturgy.  The Polish music is different from the traditional American church fare - a collection of music from the heart of the land that gave us Chopin.  But, when the Polish heritage of the neighborhood gave way to the Hispanic tradition, the church lost most of its membership, gained a new membership, and the music changed.  The regular services are now conducted in Spanish, with music provided by electric guitars, rhythm boxes, a keyboard, and such, and an organist is no longer required.   That was three years ago.

Celeste (not her name) had been one of the old members, and the old liturgy and traditional Polish instrumentation was needed.  So, the family called me (I took a morning off from the day-job) and they called Angelo, the tenor (he's between gigs this week).  I picked up Angelo on the way so he wouldn't have to stand waiting for the bus.  He'd just injured his leg in a shopping accident, and we wanted to sound our best.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a five-foot Christmas wreath hanging from the organ pipes in the loft, an eerie touch for the stifling 90-degree summer temperature up there.  My old church organ was buried under an army blanket amid the rock-band-like setup.   I rolled up the cover, and sat down and fired it up.  The tones sounded a little weak and squeaky at first, but by the second hymn, my faithful old instrument had found its old sweet sounds again.  The preset switches were just as I had left them four years ago.  The organ seemed happy to have me back again.

There is always some joy in music, even for a sad occasion such as a funeral.  The element of joy lends poignancy to the sorrow, and offers comfort.  It was so good to be working with Angelo again, and Father was just as unpredictable as ever in following the script of the liturgy.  So we had fun, Angelo and I trying to find out where our cues were.  The congregation sang some Polish standards - Serdecna Matko,  and In Thy Protection; Angelo sang The Holy City - a beautiful and uplifting piece from about 1900, and we did Schubert's Ave Maria, the Lord's Prayer and at the last minute, during the confession, we finally located the score for How Great Thou Art one of Father's on-the-fly requests from the altar.  And a beautifully comforting cradle song - Guardian Angels, written in the 1920s by Harpo Marx, of all people.

The family thanked us afterwards - the music had done its healing work.  So we all shook hands and went our ways, until the next time the Old Angel of Death flaps his wings over Milwaukee. . . 

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

God's Wild Youth - Shoot the Piano Player!

more summer re-runs! 

originally posted in November 2009 under the title:

Bach No More - God's I-Pod Part 2

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Grade School - I was the little fat kid who played the hymn accompaniments on the piano for the class to sing. Most of the elementary teachers couldn't play piano worth a dam, one finger with lots of mistakes was typical - they were all too glad to have me in their class. I could sight-read those suckers. For morning devotions, and right after lunch, I'd have to pick out a hymn - there were 660 of them in the Lutheran Hymnal to choose from. I'd write it on the chalk board, and walk over to the piano to lead the hymn.

In a past post, I've told you about the "Bringing In the Sheaves" incident - how Pastor Kay took me in his office and told me that God didn't like that sort of thing - He preferred the hymns in the Lutheran book, and things written by Bach and Buxtehude. I kind of liked the strong march tempo for a recessional - getting everyone out of the church as fast and efficiently as possible. But Pastor Kay assured me that any organist who liked his position would play something that God liked.

But then as we got into High School in those '60s, God had a change of heart. For awhile, I continued to lead the hymns for the teenage Youth League gatherings, until one fateful day. Somehow, in a way I to this day do not understand, God descends to the level of a stoned hippie. The Synod required the pastors to attend retreats focusing on How To Reach Our Youth - as if The Youth were some foreign species. Prayers have to be crude, halting, self-indulgent. The Service, re-done for Youth, is stripped of all elements of tradition, the chants, responses, hymns -- all scrapped. Rows of chairs? Too straight for God. Let's arrange them in a circle - now we've got God surrounded! Or, let's just dispense with chairs altogether- what the hell, let's sit on the floor. And of course, of the 660 hymns we had all practiced all our lives - none of them is appropriate for Youth Worship.

And, the music! Oy, how God has changed his mind about His musical tastes. Now music must only have two chords, and one of them has to be E minor. Acceptable instrumentation is a badly-played guitar -- that open-string E minor is still whanging in the back of my head whenever I think of Youth Music. No more joy. No more praising God in a major key with an ever-changing palette of chords and intricate harmonies. It's all Kum Ba Ya from here on out. Now we're singing Negro Spirituals, calling on the Lord as we did back in the days when we worked in the cotton fields. (ironically, at the same time, blacks had moved on to Gospel music based on the more traditional hymn forms.)
Well, in the end, I was Kum Ba Ya'd out of a piano playing job. After many discussions with the minister, and failed attempts to indoctrinate me, I was left as an incurable curmudgeon at the age of 17, and I remain one to this day.