Two of the selections here, "I Don't Do B and E's", and Laundry Bag, Pipe Bomb", are from the book, "Papa, Did We Break It?"
(Which you should buy: http://bellowphone.com/writings.html)

The rest are stories that I add and change up in no particular order, so check back now and then, and scroll around. Leave a comment, for cryin' out loud.

Besides the poems and the obvious parodies, all the experiences that I relate here happened just as I tell them, as near as I can remember.

Primitive Powder

Originally published in Muzzle Blasts, March, 2007  -- 

    I made a very exciting discovery while poking around in the basement of an abandoned house, in a historic old town. The house was an antique colonial with a fieldstone foundation, dating from around 1810; it was nominally owned by the Park Service, but in fact it had been unoccupied and unattended for many years. The ancient place was in a state of disrepair; for one thing, there was a crumbling hole in the fieldstone foundation. I felt it was only my civic duty to make a tour of inspection of the historic homestead, and accordingly, I contorted my way through the crumbling badger-hole in the foundation wall, and I made my entrance into the dank earthy basement. What I found among the rough stones of the inside wall, gave me a shiver of excitement.
    No, it wasn't a brittle leather sack stuffed with gold coins that gleamed when you rubbed them off with your sleeve. Of course, that's what I was hoping to find behind a loose rock, but it was too cleverly hidden. Also I didn't even find a moldering oaken chest stuffed with tarnished silver, hidden in an alcove and bound with rusty iron bands and a hand-forged padlock,.
    None of that, but what I did find, in the cracks between the stones, was an encrustation of powdery material; grayish-white mostly, but in some places translucent brownish crystals. I found it more where there was mortar between the stones, and not so much where the stones had been laid dry. The discovery immediately caught my attention in the beam of my pocket-light; I thought, "Can this stuff be saltpeter?"
    I had some sketchy notions of how saltpeter had been obtained in colonial days, for its use in the manufacture of gunpowder. I knew that the king's men would periodically rove through the countryside, breaking open stone walls to collect the saltpeter that accumulates inside them. Another reference I had, was from Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado," in which two men are deep within the catacombs underneath an old European city, and one man mentions the white webwork of "nitre" which they could see encrusting the damp stone walls. Nitre is the ancient name for saltpeter, or potassium nitrate. I thought it was a pretty good possibility that that's what I had just found. Gold would have been better, but this actually struck me as interesting.
     So, I crawled back out of the hole, and I returned not long afterward with some jars to collect samples. I collected about 1/2 cup of the powdery crystalline material from the ancient wall, and then I headed back to my lab for some experiments.
     To refine my collected sample, I put a stainless steel pot on the stove with about a quart of water, and added the powdery material. I boiled and stirred for a few minutes to dissolve out the soluble salts, then decanted and filtered the liquid from the sediment. Then I repotted the clear liquid, and boiled it away, which took about fifteen minutes. I was left with a brownish white crystalline residue in the bottom of the pot. This would be the saltpeter, if that's what it was. I scraped the stuff out of the pot with a wooden spatula, and I ended up with about a teaspoonful of brownish white powder.
    The easiest way to find out if the material was in fact saltpeter, was to go ahead and try to make gunpowder with it, so that's what I did. If the material was something else, the worst that would happen is I'd waste my time and make mixed dirt.
    First I made some charcoal, by heating chunks of willow wood in a covered clay crucible. You monitor the off-gassing of the wood until it's done, and then make sure to keep air from getting into the crucible until the charcoal cools. The third ingredient of traditional gunpowder is sulfur, and here I had to cheat and use store-bought from a lab supply, because I don't know of any natural deposits of sulfur around here.
     After grinding things separately in the mortar and pestle, I weighed them out in the correct proportions, mixed in a few drops of water, and ground the resulting paste in the mortar. Then I spread the black paste on a sheet of glass and left it to dry in the sun for a few hours. When the paste was dry, I lightly crunched it up into granules, about the consistency of very coarse salt. I ended up with about 6 1/2 grams, which would be about one hundred grains in firearm parlance, of finished powder. This is enough for a medium musket-load, with enough left over for priming.
    Now came the moment of truth. I put a small amount of this stuff on a metal dish, applied a flame, and Foomph! It flashed up! It wasn't as fast as commercial power, but it actually worked!
    In commercial production, the ingredients of the powder are milled together for several hours, always being kept moistened to prevent accidental ignition. I milled my batch for only a few minutes, but it performed well enough for proof-of-concept. The samples I had collected  in the old basement probably contained a combination of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, because my powder burned with a softer, yellower flame than ordinary powder: a sign of sodium.
     For my final experiment I wanted to load up my big .68 caliber flintlock pistol to try out the powder, but I didn't have enough powder left for a proper load in that. So I used a .45 cal. caplock pistol, which would work better with a smaller charge, although I would have preferred the flint ignition. I loaded the pistol with about 25 grains, a little under 2 grams, of my concoction, (most of what I had left), then wrapped a .44 lead ball in a greased cotton patch, rammed it down over the charge, and placed a percussion cap onto the nipple.
    With the loaded pistol on half-cock, I carried a couple of phone books outside, and propped them against a stump. Then I presented the piece, brought the hammer to full cock, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. When I felt that pistol kick and heard the boom, I experienced a thrill of exultation; I had made functional gunpowder from found materials! I felt I was one step closer in kinship to the ancient ways of our colonial forbears, whose self-sufficiency and resourcefulness we all admire.


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New Doors

    My friend Dave called me to do some work on the cabinets in his kitchen; he had some new doors that needed mounting and whatnot. I put a few tools in a box and headed over.
    After showing me everything, Dave started right in with the kibitzing; he was worried that the wood was hard, and he thought my screws might crack it if I didn't drill the right size pilot holes. "These are new doors." he reminded me.
    I told him, "Dave, I have every size drill from a human hair, up to two inches, and that's not counting the hole saws. I think I'll find something that will work for the pilot holes."
    "But how will you line the holes up, to get the doors on straight?" he wanted to know. "They have to look good."
    "Oh! You're right; that is a good point," I agreed. "I guess I'll have to measure stuff."
     "No, I'm serious; I mean, how will you do it?"
     "I'll clamp the doors to the brackets, and mark the locations of the holes very carefully,"
I reassured him. "You don't have to worry about it."
     "I don't know about using clamps," he told me doubtfully. "Do you have a type of clamp that won't damage the doors?" This was starting to get on my nerves.
    "I'll pad the clamps, of course. And I'm not going to do this job unless you go into a different room while I'm working."
    So Dave went into the other room with his laptop, to watch ebay and see how his paintings were selling. Back in the kitchen, I fumbled a clamp, and it made a noise. "Are you OK?" shouted Dave from the living room. "How's it going?"
    "Don't talk to me, or I'm leaving," I shouted back.
    "OK. I'm just checking." Dave subsided back to swearing at the computer, where the ebay people were certainly underbidding his goods, the morons. "Those bastards," I heard him muttering angrily.
    I kept working as silently as I could, although the pivoting arms of the corner cabinet were puzzling me. They had a motion that I wasn't familiar with; I couldn't get the clamps to fit, and I wasn't sure how I was going to locate the screw holes. Dave's radar picked up on the silence. "Can I do anything to help?" he called a few moments later.
    Now he's finally got me rattled; I can't figure this out. "I can't do it!" I admitted. "I'm going home; you'll have to get someone else; there must be a template or something that they use."
     Dave instantly came pattering into the room, full of concern. "You can't figure it out?" he asked. Yes, he had known all along, it would be too tough. "It's OK," he told me. "We tried." Nothing ever works right; Dave knew that much. "I'll have to hire a cabinetmaker," he concluded, with a deep sigh. "It'll be expensive. I'll call Ted."
     Ted! I worked for Ted sometimes, too. He's a brilliant cabinetmaker, a mentor to me in that line. I could picture Ted coming into Dave's kitchen, and looking at my unfinished job. Ted would be shaking his head sadly, and he would be thinking, "Leonard, Leonard…  " That image was too much for me. By gum! I suddenly decided. Ted's right! I can do this!     
    I picked up my measuring tape and my square, and I went back to the problem, this time with determination. But now Dave was not so easy to convince. Disaster is always right around the corner in Dave's world. "No, Len. We tried, OK? I don't want you to screw it up. You don't have to do it."
    "I'm fine. I'm OK now. Go back in the other room and check your computer. I think they're really screwing you on ebay."
    "No, Len. You'll mess it up. These are new doors. You know how expensive these cabinets were?"
    I finally persuaded Dave to go away, though he was now extremely uneasy. "What could go wrong?" I shouted cheerfully. That didn't help. I went ahead with my measuring and marked the holes, confident at this point that I had them correct. From the other room, I heard Dave explode with a string of expletives in his Brooklyn accent; apparently, things on ebay had just taken an ugly turn. I began drilling the holes. I knew Dave could hear the sound of my drill, and I could feel him wincing.
    "What if you put the holes in the wrong place?" he began wailing.
    "I'll patch it up, don't worry!"  I kept drilling.
    "No! Those are expensive doors!"
    "What do they say again?" I called with demonic glee, "Measure once and cut twice? Oh, damn!"
I went on, "I cut this same board three times, and it's still too short!"
    "What board? What are you talking about?" Dave is hardly ever in the mood to laugh, and this certainly wasn't one of those times. "What do you mean, 'cut the board' ?"  He came running into the room.
    "Never mind." I had screwed the mounting brackets onto the doors, nice and snug, and now I wrangled the doors into position in the corner cabinet, then I screwed the pivoting arms onto the brackets. Now came the moment of truth! I swung the doors closed, and they lined up perfectly.
    "Cut the board three times and it's still too short!" I cackled, way more relieved than I cared to admit to Dave. "Still too short; get it?" No he didn't get it, but it didn't matter.
    "You did it!" he said. "They're perfect! How did you figure it out?" For one moment in Dave's life, all the stress was forgotten. "How did you do it?"
    "I have no idea," I told him.


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Current Optical Theory

    It is well known that one cannot see as well at night, as one can during the day. What follows is a theory which may help to understand this phenomenon.
    During the day, the optical beams emitted from the eye pass easily through the rarified aether, and upon reverberation back into the eye, an image is formed. However, as nightfall begins, there is a cascading descent of myriads of darktons (this is, literally, the fall of night). These descending particles being dense, they render the aether into a viscous medium which inhibits the passage of eye-beams. Ergo, one's vision becomes less keen at night.
    The fall of darktons slows and stops by midnight, and the particles are gradually absorbed by the ground and and other objects (this accounts for why it is impossible to see through a rock). The rising of the sun, with its powerful rays, completes the dissolving and absorption of the remaining darktons, and one's eye-beams can once more penetrate through the aether without impediment.


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Jan's Psychotic Plants

     I lived for a few years in a group house with seven other people, in Cambridge, MA.
My housemate Jan, an older woman, had her room next to mine on the third floor of the old Victorian. I loved to spend time with Jan in her room; the place was filled with life; caged birds and a dog, and a luxurious profusion of tropical plants everywhere. I often watered Jan's plants for her when she was away, and I took care of the birds.
    It happened that I had some friends visiting overnight one time, when Jan was to be away, and she offered us the use of her room. I agreed with Jan that I would sleep in her room, and that I would let my friends use my own room for the night. Jan seemed pleased with this arrangement, and I was too; I felt that it would be an interesting experience, to sleep in a jungle among all those plants. I felt a slight, momentary uneasiness about the idea, but I dismissed the feeling.
    As it turns out, my night in Jan's place was filled with hellish nightmares: the plants were gruesome and hostile; they bent over the bed in my tortured visions, writhing and emanating a demonic energy; they were jealous of my intrusion, commanding me get out of that place, or die.
    First light the next morning didn't come too soon. I took the hint, and I got out of there. Before anybody else woke up, I spent a groggy morning drinking coffee and letting the unpleasant reverberations slowly dissipate.
    I never told Jan that I had had such a dreadful night in her bed. She was my friend: a very sweet person, and we got along well. I never perceived any sort of negative energy from her, so the whole thing was strange and a bit embarrassing; and that's why I never mentioned it to her.
    Some time after that, I had another friend visiting. Again Jan was going to be away, and she offered the use of her room for the night. I had no wish to try the previous experiment again myself, but I thought there was no reason not to let my visiting friend Allen use the room. Allen is a plant person; his avocation is cultivating rare plants, and I felt that he would be delighted in the variety and profusion of plants to be found in Jan's "jungle". Physically, Jan's room was also the nicest one in the house; a very elegant room filled with arched windows, air and light. So I decided I wouldn't mention to Allen about the peculiar reaction I had experienced when I slept there. Perhaps a shadow of a doubt entered my mind about letting Allen try it, but I'll have to admit, I was curious to see how he would like the room.
    Strangely enough, Allen was not amused. When I met him in the hall the next morning, to my complete amazement, he looked shattered and wild-eyed. "That was the worst night I've ever spent; I hardly slept at all!" he exclaimed accusingly. "I was having horrible nightmares all night!"
    After that, I became really curious to know what Jan would make of all this, but still I thought it best never to mention it to her. And I never did.



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Mind Trestle

    "Now, you have to do it again. Walk back across."
    "What? I have to do it again?"
    "Yes; this time with your other side facing the abyss. just to make sure you didn't miss something important."
    "Oh, G-d, look how far it is; I can't do it."
    "Yes you can."
    I fixed my concentration on the walkway before me; the outside edge of a RR trestle, with a 25 foot plunge to the river just inches from where my feet would be moving. Whose voice is this, calling me "you"?  Whose voice is answering "I"?  Conversations with oneself are mysterious.
    "Yes, I can." I started walking back across.
    The foot-wide ledge along the outside of the tracks was not a highwire, but it was high enough to be scary; it was also high enough to kill me if I stumbled and fell. The rusty iron edges of the trestle abutment were just under the water, 25 feet below me.
    Of course, a foot-wide path is not physically hard to walk, but if one edge of it is a potentially fatal drop, then a misstep seems much more likely. In fact, the empty space seems to exert a mystical sideways pull, making a faltering step seem more probable.
    Why not walk down the middle of the trestle between the tracks? The spaces between the ties gave a view straight down to the water, but that wasn't so bad; the spaces were too narrow to fall through. But this was one of those times when I got the urge to probe my limits, to try to overcome my irrational fears, and so, when I had arrived at the trestle during my stroll along the tracks, it had occurred to me that I was going to make myself walk the edge, just to prove that I could.
    But the frustrating contradiction to walking such a path, is that the exquisite anguish of the empty void cannot be appreciated; it must be completely ignored. So that is what I did, as I walked the 100 feet or so of the trestle, along the outside of the rails just inches from the edge. The spaces between the ties along the edge were filled with short blocks of wood, making a flat, though uneven surface. As I walked along it, I thought of nothing but carefully placing my feet with each step, until I was safely across. Only then did I allow myself to look back and contemplate what I had just traversed.
    But after I got safely across the first time, to my dismay it occurred to me that I was going to make myself do it again, back the other way. Maybe it would be possible, I thought, to "unlearn" the irrational vertigo that attacks me in such places; to allow myself more freedom to enjoy an expansive vista, instead of shrinking from it.
    No; I discovered that that would not be possible. It was not any easier the second time; once again I had to clamp on the mental "blinders", as I carefully traversed the ledge; I concentrated on each step, and thought of nothing else. 
    But I did it; I didn't faint, stumble, or get sucked wildly sideways by a mystic force. It was all over, sooner than I expected, and I stepped with relief onto the solid ground.


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A Surprising Visit

    Years ago, I was sleeping at the home of a friend, in the historic Colonial harbor town of Marblehead, MA. On this night, I had a vivid dream.
    I dreamed that I woke up in the bed, where I was actually still lying on my back, asleep. In my dream, I heard some people outside the bedroom door, and I turned my head to see the door open, and admit a man who walked briskly toward the bed. As he strode towards me, I was aware of every detail of his clothes and person: the square shape of his face, his short bristly salt-and pepper beard, his strong frame in a loose blue sweatshirt and canvas pants, the clear impression that he was a seafaring man.
    In three steps he was at the bedside, leaning down with his face inclined towards mine, and I thought, "He's going to kiss me!" I recoiled, startling in the bed, and at that point he saw me clearly, and he recoiled backwards as well, straightening up with an astonished look on his face. In that moment with our eyes fixed on each other, my eyes flew open in reality, and I came abruptly awake.
    Now fully awake, I found that I was still looking at the man; his eyes were wide in dismay and confusion. I was thinking, "I'm awake. How can I still be looking at him?" I watched, unmoving, as his frozen image slowly faded away and disappeared.
    I lay in quiet amazement for a few more moments. My friend, in whose home I mentioned that I was sleeping, was in fact lying next to me in the bed; her name was Nancy. I turned over and looked at Nancy, assuming that she would also be wide awake at this point, since I had physically startled, and probably cried out "Hey!" just moments before. But she was sound asleep. So I didn't disturb her, and after awhile I fell back to sleep myself.
    The first thing next morning, I told Nancy about my experience. She listened to my description with grave attention, and she said, "That sounds like my Bestefar; [Norwegian for] my Grandfather. He passed away years ago, but he comes to check on me from time to time." I felt a little mortified as she told me this; we weren't married, and the man had not been pleased to see a stranger in his granddaughter's bed. "We have a family tradition that he comes to visit us now and then, to make sure I'm all right," she went on. "I would normally be sleeping on that side of the bed."
    Later, Nancy showed me a picture of her Bestefar. He was dressed exactly as I had seen him, he had the same square face, but no beard. "He grew a beard and wore it later in life, after this picture was taken," she told me. "He was a sailor all his life."


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Unexpected Vacation

     This morning, coming sleepily down to the kitchen in my pajamas, anticipating nothing but my first cuppa coffee, I turned on the hot water in the sink, only to have the faucet handle shear completely off in my hand, blasting a steaming geyser of water onto the ceiling and beyond. It was a beautiful living replica of the famous Old Faithful.
     Surprise! is a pale way to describe my reaction; I instantly dashed down to the basement to shut off the house water, coming back up to a dripping steaming mess. Then amongst the dripping waters I poured myself a cuppa hot coffee (thoughtfully provided by Lauren before she left), and I contemplated my next move. I won't get to practice music this morning apparently, but on the bright side, it had actually been quite a lovely sight; like suddenly being transported on vacation to Yellowstone Park.



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Green Side Up

    That was the joke, when I worked for a lawn crew one summer at Leisure Village. (We called it Seizure Village.) Besides cutting grass, we installed sod for new lawns, and to relieve the tedium we would shout, "Green side up!"  to each other, as we rolled out the sod.
    We were also in charge of maintaining existing lawns, and the way we zipped around on those big Gravely tractor-mowers, we would sometimes give ourselves more work installing fresh sod, because in an instant, you could scalp a nice patch of grass right down to the gravel. And being kids, we might tend to laugh like idiots if we would do that. However, the homeowners didn't see it our way; they were neurotic about their lawns, and competitive with their neighbors about the slightest wisp of crabgrass or heaven forbid a dandelion. They would get furious if we left the least little irregularity, let alone a huge black patch of dirt where grass used to be.
    So, knowing that, you might assume that if the front end of one of these big mowing machines, where the exposed edges of the massive knives whirled just inches behind the open cowl, if this machine were to crash into a prize rose bush in full bloom, completely shattering and mulching the trunk and spreading shredded roses everywhere, this would no doubt cause some dismay to the property owner.
    Here's the way it happened, and the way I narrowly avoided getting seriously maimed. My friend John Brady was driving the big Gravely that day, and towing the sweeper behind him. We had to leave the lawn looking like an immaculate green carpet, so naturally we had to sweep up the unsightly clippings left by our mowers. That day I was operating the trimmer, just an ordinary gasoline push mower, to trim around the bushes.
    In the middle of the lawn of this one house, there was a garden which contained the magnificent rosebush in bloom; the pride and joy of the resident, as we had been warned. I was trimming the bushes next to this garden, and now there were fresh clippings on a section of the lawn where Brady had already mowed and swept. As he came around the house for his next pass, I motioned with hand signals, over the roar of the tractor, that he should make one more pass through here, so his sweeper could clean up my fresh clippings. Brady didn't understand what I meant and motioned to me that he had already mowed there, and he continued on his path around the outside of the garden. As he approached I kept signaling: "No, this way, this way- go through here."
    At the last second, too late, he panicked and heaved the big machine over, to try to go the way I was motioning. Unfortunately, his maneuver swung the machine directly towards me, and in that split-second I leaped up and sideways. I'm not exaggerating to say that the huge cutting maw of the machine chopped past where my feet had just been, while I was still in the air. In any case, there was a loud rending crash, the roar of the machine was suddenly choked off, and I looked back to see the tractor hanging at a forty-five degree angle on top of the wrecked rosebush, and Brady hanging over the handlebars amidst a swirling dust cloud. My impression was that Brady's eyes were actually rolling around and around like in a cartoon. In any case, he had a most unusual shattered look, worse even than the rosebush; his panting mouth hung slackly open, his eyes were staring and he looked demented. Having just narrowly escaped getting my feet chopped off, I probably had an odd look myself, but all I could think of was how funny Brady looked hunched over the ruin, and I began to laugh uncontrollably.
    As I doubled up in my fit of laughter, Brady continued to stare blankly right through me, completely in shock; but gradually his eyes focused, and finally a grin spread across his face. We had just averted what could have been a much more serious disaster, and presently, he too was laughing uproariously. So there we were, cracked up like our wits were astray, as our supervisor came around the corner to find out what all the commotion was about. He froze for a moment at what he saw; his icy look taking in the situation. This quickly put a chill upon our hilarity.
    The only thing he said was, "Get the hell out of here before Parker sees you." Parker was the big boss. So we slunk away quickly, to occupy ourselves somewhere else. Our long-suffering supervisor presumably made some story to Parker, and Parker presumably made some sort of restitution to the homeowner. What it was, we never found out, nor did we ever ask.
    Amazingly enough, Brady and I weren't fired, but I don't think we shouted "Green side up!" so much, for a while.


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Suds

    I got voted "Did Most To the School" by my high school senior class, with a corresponding picture in the yearbook. Toms River High School, class of '69.
    This title was awarded to me in part because of a prank I had pulled, in which I had poured a quart of bubble bath into the courtyard fountain. I can't remember what gave me the idea to do this, but I bought the large bottle of bubble bath the previous night, poured it all into a wide-mouth jar (to ensure a quick deployment when the time came), and I carried the jar to school under my coat the next morning. Ducking out of lunch period early, I dashed to my locker, then I contrived to walk briskly through the school's outdoor courtyard when no one else was there, dumping the scented goop into the gurgling basin of the fountain.
    In a short time, the fountain was foaming up beautifully, and when classes changed after the next period, there was a minor riot outside as students frolicked and threw the billowing foam at each other. Due to these unplanned revels in the fine spring sunshine, many students ended up being late for next period's classes. Not me, though. Mum's the word. Although I did manage to be "passing through" after the following period, and I noticed sadly that the foam seemed to be slumping a bit. Even so, the event created something of a buzz that day.
    I had a confidant or two, (or three; I would not make a very good intelligence agent) and I suppose that one of them must have been blabbing, because towards the end of the day, some fink who should not have known anything, ratted me out to Mr. Smith (Earth science and Biology teacher). Mr. Smith himself, with the help of his Earth Science class, was the one who had lovingly designed, built and maintained the fountain project. So Mr. Smith came storming into my last-period class in front of my astonished teacher and classmates, and hauled me down to the office, to be judged and sentenced by our stern principal Mr. Donald.
    My [fitting] punishment ended up being that I had to stay after school, and bail out the fountain with a paper cup.
    This I did, under the baleful glare of Mr. Smith, carrying each cupful of suds a long walk out to the woods behind the school. Eventually, he relented and brought me buckets, mops, squeegees and sponges, to do a proper workmanlike job of the cleanup.

    So when graduation time came on, I got the nod for the previously mentioned distinction, according to vote. (My lovely confederate in the photo, Patti, never gave me any specific reason for why she got voted to share our title, just that she was "sometimes rowdy". Apparently she would make a better intelligence agent than me.) The yearbook staff let us know that they wanted to take a photo, and I got the idea for the set-up that you see in the above shot. I made the "detonator" out of a shoebox, painted black. Not quite visible in the photo, the detonator cable is going under the door, which bears the title, "John Donald, Principal". The old bulldog had a good sense of humor.
    One more thing: notice in the second sentence of this story, the phrase "in part" because of a prank..  Yes, but that would be a whole other story.



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Road Band

A reminiscence from earlier days-

    The big Indian lunged at me, with a sudden wild swipe which would certainly have laid me flat like a busted reed, if it had connected. I am hardly built for such swipes, but fortunately I am built for speed, and I twisted backwards and away as the maddened lurch missed me by a whisker. As is usual in such cases with me, I then broke into hysterical, adrenaline-fueled laughter, which did nothing to soothe the savage breast of my antagonist. He fairly roared, and hurled himself after me, but his game was fled and he knew it; I was too quick for him. After a halfhearted lumbering attempt to catch me, he gave it up; his baleful glare being the worst damage he was able to do.
     Still grinning like an ape, but keeping out of the hostile perimeter, I resumed carrying the heavy amps and other band equipment off the bar stage, and out to our truck. The evening was over, and my band mates and I were roadies as well as being the main attraction. And in that part of Idaho in the 70's, drunk Indians, not to mention drunk cowboys, were just part of the territory for a road band.
    There was a large reservation out in the lava desert near by, Blackfoot and Shoshone, and everything around that was the wide open ranch country of the real Out West. On a Saturday night, the towns would see a large influx of men with nothing on their mind but to find a little excitement. Our job was to keep them dancing, and keep them drinking, and to remind them, don't forget to tip your waitress. And don't throw bottles at the band. Southern Idaho was a wild enough place for a kid from back East, just out of college, and it seemed like more fun than being a music teacher.
     This particular encounter with the drunk Indian was nothing; the hulking fellow had been trying to pick a fight with our lead guitar player, Kevin, for no other reason than that Kevin was a big man; this wasn't unusual. Kevin was trying to ignore him, but when the fellow resorted to shoving, I stepped in. I came up behind the man, reached up and tapped him on the shoulder and began circling my fists like an English pugilist, all the while chanting, "C'mon, c'mon!"  My intention was joking; I was half his size, and just trying to make him laugh and leave Kevin alone. But to my surprise, he exploded with rage and lunged at me. Yikes!  But no harm done, luckily, and he did forget all about Kevin. He kept his eye on me for the rest of the time we were loading out; each time I passed near him, he would swing his head around drunkenly, and make a feint or two to keep me alert, but he wasn't really mad anymore.
     This was one of many towns that we played in our circuit; bars were numerous and bands were few in those days. On a Saturday night in some of those places, driving on the sidewalk was not just a metaphor. At least once I actually did see a car bump up onto the curb, narrowly miss a building, and then reel off swerving back onto the road and away.
    A bar band in Pocatello in the early 70's didn't have to worry about much besides keeping the tempo upbeat, once the people started to dance. If you tried to play a slow ballad at the wrong moment during the evening, the people could get ugly in a real hurry. One night, early in the evening when the people had all left their tables and were just starting to get sweaty and rowdy, I decided that I was in the mood to play a slow number that we had just learned. My bandmates assured me that this was the wrong time for it; we needed to play another dance number, but for some stupid reason I insisted. About half a minute into the song as I was crooning, the people were standing and glaring at us with increasing hostility. We cut that nonsense very short and went back to what they wanted; boogie-tempo. Kevin gave me a significant look. I was learning who was making who dance, here.
    Our lifestyle was interesting, for awhile. We were a four piece country-rock band, working full-time. When we really got cooking on a night, and all the bodies on the dance floor would be moving frenetically to our rhythm, I would reflect that there were worse ways to be making a living. Here we were, getting paid for doing what we would probably have been doing anyway, right about then. The four of us shared a house in Pocatello; one hundred bucks a month split 4 ways, and the living was easy. When we weren't working, we were always practicing, and there were always people coming over to hang out at the house to listen, to party, to eat whatever food we had, to leave their empty beer cans lying around. I was the house maid (as well as playing 2nd-lead guitar, as we called it), and I was always trying to keep the house in a condition something like what a civilized creature would live in. When I grumbled about it, everybody would always protest, "Lenny, we'll help you clean the place up! Relax. We'll help you tomorrow." Uh-huh.
    There were some hard cases that would hang at our house, when we weren't away on the road. There was one guy that we called Klauser, who looked like he shouldn't still be breathing. He was a generous fellow, and would always offer to share whatever he had going, for instance the case of morphine ampoules he had just lifted from a hospital. I was a little too straight at the time to fully appreciate this sort of generosity, but the other guys didn't mind it. One night I bought a mess of beets, turnips, spinach, celery, potatoes, and I cooked a huge pot of vegetable soup. Klauser gratefully accepted his steaming bowl of broth and vegetables, with a kind of awe and reverence. I don't think he had seen something like that since he had been a child, if even then.
     One night, Fleetwood Mac came to Pocatello, to play in the somethingDome at the local college. They were kicking off a nationwide tour in our little backwater town, and it was a really big event for the town. A great many people went, and since it was a night off for our band, we went too. I was excited that I would get to see Christine McVie, who I thought was very fine. The other girl-member of the band, Stevie Nicks, was actually drunk during the concert. She disrespected the audience; she didn't seem to care about the show, just because we were hayseeds or hicks or something. During the show, she kept leaning drunkenly on my love Christy, who shrugged her off several times, and at one point gave her a very angry look right on stage. It was clear that it was important to Christy to do a good show even if we were just ignorant cowboys, and I loved her even more for it.
    My friends and I didn't pay to get in to the concert; we just walked in during the long set of encores. And it has to be admitted that we had all had a few drinks ourselves that night. For my part, I stood transfixed by the sight of beautiful Christy McVie, consummate musician and singer, live right in front of me. As they were taking their bows after the last song, I just started walking towards her, as the crowd was dispersing. I was only half-conscious of climbing over a barricade as I moved forward towards the stage. I only had eyes for her; I wanted to speak to her, touch her hand.
     As I dream-walked toward the stage, I suddenly felt myself become airborne. Literally. I was up in the air and moving sideways, my legs paddling the void like a turtle's when you pick it up by the shell. It was a very curious sensation. A giant security guard had come up behind me and lifted me as you would a child, and set me back down on the other side of the barricade with my legs still moving. So I just kept them moving in the direction he put me down, towards my laughing friends hooting and shouting at me. Christy never even glanced my way.
     So the boys and I lived at our house, and we rocked the little bars in town for three or six weeks, and then we traveled on our circuit, through great expanses of panoramic mountain scenery to different towns, to rock the little bars in those places.
    In two years of driving around Idaho, I did see some interesting things. Our bass player, Kuta, was a local boy, and he knew the parents of Evel Kneivel, the stuntman. Kuta showed us their hometown once, and the parents' little grocery store, Kneivel's. We drove out to an awesome stretch of the Snake River Canyon, at the spot where Evel had tried to jump his bike over the canyon for his last big public stunt. For that stunt, the bike was rocket assisted up a ramp; as Evel launched off the ramp into the canyon, he blacked out, which caused him to release a safety lever that triggered an emergency parachute. He sailed over and into the gorge, and smacked into the far wall as he swung down on the parachute, breaking a few bones as usual.
    Awesome canyon views, and then we were off to Sugar City to play for another week in another local bar; another five nights of boogie-woogie all night long. As most boys in a band do, we had big dreams at first. Kevin and I had been best friends since 4th grade back in New Jersey, and we had had visions of glory since we were boys. Al Hat our drummer was also an old NJ friend, and we had often discussed the logistics of getting rich and famous. But in reality, our present routine had gotten monotonous. We were always getting to another town much like the last one, staying at motels or campgrounds for a weekend, a week, or two weeks, and then we would be off again, down the long road to the next place. Not much pressure; not much satisfaction either.
     I started to miss my home. I would think of my old grandparents and my mom, still living near where the big farmhouse used to be, back in New Jersey. For how much longer, would they still be there?
    So much for the glamour of rock and roll; I was lonely. We had had a few shining moments now and then, but it was going nowhere. So at last, having a few hundred of my frugal dollars in the bank, the fruits of my brief rock and roll career, I changed them to traveler's checks, and told my mates of my decision to leave. We knew that had been coming.
    I gave my dear little Volkswagen bug a careful tune-up, changed the oil, and packed my guitar and few belongings into it. Then I pointed East, and was gone.



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Luck 'o the Green


    A leetle google-eyed pilgrim, an American Green Tree Frog,  jumped out of a bunch of kale I had put in the sink to prepare for dinner. The kale had been in our fridge for three days, and who knows how many days had passed since it was picked, stored and shipped from its origin in Florida, to arrive at our store here in the frozen Northeast?
    The teeny green, golden-eyed hopper, as big as the end of my finger, looked healthy and was quite active, in spite of what must have been the awkward accommodations of his trip. I first saw him hopping along the counter behind the kitchen sink, and I was completely dumbfounded, until I thought of the kale I had just finished washing and chopping up.
    I cornered the little critter and got him to climb onto my hand, with his little splayed sticky-toes, and he sat for a moment and then leaped onto my face. Why, I take that as friendly!
    Here in Massachusetts, it was a frigid snowy winter, and the usual flying and crawling nuisances, frog food, were socked in until spring. You can leave a banana on the counter for two weeks at this season, and nothing will happen. So where do I get fruit flies to feed a tiny frog, in winter? He is counting on me now, even though that can hardly have been his original plan.
    I dangled a scrap of chicken on a toothpick, and made it twitch enticingly like a bug within striking distance of my unexpected dinner guest. The frog continued to look stonily into space, meditating on who knows what profound realities. Whatever I was doing, it certainly didn't seem to impress him much. I clapped the frog into a little screened glass terrarium I had, misted him with some water, and then pondered the possibilities. The first thing to do, was wash the kale again, anyway.
   
Eating kale:
    Crunch crunch, crunch crunch, >squish<
    "Oh...  I pray I never know what that was."
    No, thankfully, that didn't happen.

    But how do I feed the frog? I remembered one cold winter, I was looking for something in the back shed, and I turned over a wheelbarrow that had been leaning inverted against the wall. Inside the wheelbarrow I found a number of adult mosquitoes clinging motionless to the metal, wintering over under the shelter. They would move very slightly if touched.
    Mosquitoes would be a perfect size for the frog, so I suited up now, and took a flashlight out there to see what I could find. It actually didn't take me long to find several mosquitoes in a similar situation as before, under a plastic bucket. I picked them off with a tweezers and plopped them into a a plastic box and brought them inside. They were moving around within a few minutes of warming up, and before they started to fly, I dumped them into the frog's terrarium. One landed and was twitching right in front of the frog. He ignored it. Presently, I had a nice screened terrarium filled with buzzing flying mosquitoes, in my living room. The frog might not have been hungry, but the mosquitoes certainly seemed to be. Who in the world would be going through all this for a frog? After a few hours the mosquitoes seemed to have all died, stuck to the moist glass inside, and I hadn't seen the frog eat any of them.




Two weeks later:
    Bruno the castaway tree frog is doing well, eating two little crickets a day. I've set his terrarium up with a nice pool, a bed of live moss, a branched frond of spruce to climb, and an electric warming rock from the pet store. This same pet store provides little crickets that are conveniently bite-size for the frog. When I dump in a couple of crickets, the fierce predator looses no time in pouncing on his prey, with a lunge that is almost too swift for the eye to follow. I got the crickets the day following my discovering the frog, but he didn't eat until two days afterward. However, he is now settled in and doing fine. He dug himself a cozy hutch among the damp moss, and I see his golden eyes peering out.
    When I first set up the cage with the pool, I never saw him go near the water. He's a tree frog, but frogs like water. I thought that maybe he didn't know the pool was there, and I mentioned to my son Jake that maybe I should put the frog into the pool, so that he would know.
     Jake said, "Papa, suppose you were staying in a really nice hotel with a pool. How would you like it if the housekeeper came and threw you into the pool, in case you didn't know it was there?"
Good point. Anyway, a few days later, I saw the frog climbing out of the water.
    But the sad thing about Bruno the Leetle Google-Eyed Tree Frog, is that he will never get married and have a family, unless it's a she, in which case, she never will, because there's only one of him/her. But all things considered, he's one lucky frog to have landed, of all places that he might have, in my kitchen.

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You can watch a short video of Bruno catching a cricket:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5MBwn14zR4



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Wing and a Prayer

    A year and a half ago, I broke my leg. It's not that uncommon for people to do it, but in my case, it was fairly humiliating as well as being a major ouchie; my last words before the accident were,
"What could go wrong?"
    One bad thing about slipping sideways while demonstrating an extreme cornering maneuver
on your bicycle, even with all the skill that lots of practicing will give you, and the thrill of being on the performance edge and having no fear, is that now, after one simple minor mistake, now you will have fear and will always have fear, instead of the feeling of exhilaration and invulnerability you used to have when you were riding. I used to like to see how tightly and efficiently I could take certain corners. The idea was to maximize the distance I would coast without pedaling after the turn, so I could gauge how well I had taken the corner, compared to my previous attempts. At 60 years old, I suppose it was inevitable that I would screw up eventually.
    Well, I wiped out while giving a triumphant demonstration on one of my practice courses, while my wife was watching. Then I was on my back, aware that things in my hip area were not in their usual places. I figured by the feel of things, that I had dislocated my hip joint, and I pushed my leg back into place as well as I could.
    "Should I call 911?" asked my slightly horrified wife.
    "Call 911," I told Lauren. That's the first time I've ever said that, but I had a good reason. I had tried to move my leg, and it had just flopped over; a really bad feeling to experience.
    Lying helpless on my back, staying as motionless as I could manage; ambulance coming, being shifted from stretchers, to gurneys, receiving rooms, down long cold corridors to x-ray rooms.
    "No," I was finally told by a nurse, who had a sympathetic smile, "No, you're not going home tonight. You better forget about that idea."  Where I was going, was surgery; which finally happened about 30 hours after the accident.
    The good surgeon went in there, bound up and trussed my snapped thigh bone using metal rods and cords, and at last I was put in a recovery ward. I found myself among old people who had broken their hip doing things like turning around a little too fast when the phone rang, and losing their balance. Well, these are my people now, and it turns out that my body breaks just the same as theirs did.
    But soon I found out that the accident cases weren't the predominant thing in this place; most of these people were here because they had come in for elective surgery; they were not emergency cases, they were people who had made plans to be here. Consequently, the place was set up like some grotesque vacation resort.
    I've got to give the staff credit for trying to keep the mood cheerful for people in pain, but the social worker assigned to my case might at least have read my chart, before she gently chided me one morning, saying they had not seen me much in the social room at their scheduled activities. Well, what I knew and she didn't know, is that I had been in survival mode for the past several days; not really in a partying mood at all. Having to use a walker to painfully make my way to the bathroom, hadn't been in my wildest imaginings a week ago. Biking, running, doing my comedy shows (which I had to cancel), hopping, juggling: these were the things I had planned.
    Two weeks I was in the ward: needles at 6:30 in the morning; no privacy; loud voices perpetually discussing medical issues; TV's playing everywhere; a stoic attempt at cheerfulness on my part. On the morning of my discharge the social worker bustled in, and gave me a pen with a big pom-pom on the end of it, and a parti-colored guest book to sign, and she brightly asked me, "Had I enjoyed my stay?"
    This was an unexpected question. Considering that this had been the most grueling two-week-long nightmare of my entire life; that I was eternally grateful that I was finally leaving here and going back to my home; the answer would have to be: not that much.
    But I replied, "I'm truly grateful for the compassion and skill of all the wonderful staff here. I couldn't have made it without their care." Her face fell a little, in confusion; she left the book with me and bustled out. I read some of the entries in the guest book; they were all very upbeat, and I wrote something like, "Keep up the good work!" Then I laid the pom-pom down on the ribbon-bedecked book, and got ready to leave.

    I got back on the bike in a little over two months, before I could walk very well yet. I had just gotten off crutches and I could hobble for short distances with a cane. I really missed biking, so I tried it, carefully, and I found I could go a few miles the first time out. It really felt great, though I couldn't push much with the injured leg, and I didn't do any extreme cornering (ha ha). I felt like I was flying.
Flying slowly, with the immediate possibility of crashing and burning, but still, back in the saddle again.


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You Break It, I Buy It

    For $2, how can you pass up a vintage West German chiming mantel clock, even if it's busted?
    I was at a yard sale, and this handsome wood-case brass clock caught my eye, with its
"$2, Needs Work" sticker. I thought, it's the rare clock that can stump me for long, and the problem is usually something so simple that I often feel guilty for keeping someone's once-treasured timepiece, after I've gotten it running again. Especially if the whole job takes me only 20 minutes.
    As I was giving the man my 2 bucks for the clock, I happened to mention my experience that the trouble was usually something easy to find and correct. My big mouth: the man's eyes lit up with a wild, wistful hope, and he said, "Do you really think you can fix it?"
    Nutz; I wanted this clock, but the thing obviously meant a lot to him; I began to feel that I wasn't going to be able to keep it, if I could get it repaired. The man went on to tell me it had been a wedding present from his mother, many years ago. "Eventually it started running slower and slower," he told me, "and I thought that if I kept winding it harder, I could fix that." I listened to all this with a sinking feeling, for several reasons; this clock has been abused, and I'm still going to have to fix it, and I really can't keep it. When I mentioned the usual necessity for periodic cleaning, as well as oiling to keep a clock running well, the man was surprised.
    "I didn't know that," he told me with interest.
    Well, for starters, I could see that the clock needed more than just a cleaning. The mainspring had let go and come down with a violent run, and the clock couldn't be wound anymore; it just went "kek, kek, kek" when you turned the key. I didn't press for details of how that had occurred, because the man had already given me a pretty good idea, and he didn't feel good about it. I gave him the two dollars, and I took the machine home to operate.
    The first thing I did was to remove the brass works from the wooden case, and then I disengaged all the chiming works from the main clockwork. I opened the mainspring drum, and I found that the end of the spring had been bent so it couldn't hook onto the shaft anymore. I re-formed the spring around a mandrel, and get it to hook up again, but then I found that the ratchet that's supposed to keep the spring from unwinding, was also bent. I fixed that too, and now I could wind the clock. But before I did, I reached in with some little tiny paint brushes and solvent, and I cleaned all the gunk from every pivot point and all the gears and pinions; then, using a toothpick I put a tiny dot of clock oil on each spot that requires it. Just the right size drop will stay put with surface tension, and it will keep the end of the shaft (the pivot) lubricated. Too much oil, too big a drop, will end up giving you less oil, because the drop will run and the oil will drain off. And you don't want oil running here and there, collecting dust and gunk that can eventually stop the gears.
    So all this took me only an hour or two, and now I was ready to see how the clock would run. The machine ticked weakly, then stopped. I got it to run for a few more minutes, feebly, and then it wouldn't run any more at all. Now it was obvious that serious surgery was going to be required, but what was the problem?  I put the clock on the shelf for a few days, pondering these questions. Eventually, two things occurred to me: 1. I was resolved that this was not my clock, and I wanted to return it in working condition. 2. It was going to be a big job. 
    I've tinkered with a number of clocks, but one thing I had had never done yet is to separate the two plates that hold all the gears. Once you do that, you could end up with a mare's nest of chaos and confusion. All the numerous shafts and gears will teeter and fall this way and that, and to get it all back together, every teeny shaft has to be lined up with its tiny hole in the opposite plate, all at once. How is that possible? But unless I was going to give up, I was going to have to take the plunge, and hope that Yoda would show up in a vision or something.
    I went ahead and unscrewed the vital nuts, and then I separated the plates: the dreaded plates. Clicketty-ticketty: there went all the little wheels; now there was no turning back. I extracted the escapement mechanism; this is the delicate back-and-forth piece that makes the clock go tick-tock. I needed to remove only that piece, so I could run the gear train around and find out which part was not running free.
     It turns out that it really wasn't as hard to reassemble everything as I had feared. You just work your way from one side to the other, carefully guiding each shaft into its hole, while gently squeezing the plates together just enough to keep the ones in place that are there already. I got everything back together after removing the escapement mechanism, and now I could analyze the gear train.
    It didn't take me long to find the trouble, and it was serious. When the mainspring had sprung loose, it had kicked back so hard that it bent one of the gear shafts. Once I found it, it was obvious. The bent shaft had turned as far as it could when I was first trying to get the clock to run, and then the shaft had reached the jamming point and would turn no more.
    So I removed the bent shaft from the works, and I fixed it. I made a bending and truing jig with a square block of aluminum accurately drilled to hold the wheel, and an aluminum bar, also drilled, to use for a lever. Using the block and lever I carefully straightened the shaft, levering it little by little until the shaft would turn in its hole with no wobbling of its gear. Then I reassembled all the gears back into the plates, and the whole train ran beautifully with no binding at all.
    Then I put back the escapement assembly, and got all the other parts reassembled into the clock and adjusted; then I wound the mainspring just a little. The clock started to run, ticking cheerfully. It was now so well cleaned and efficient, that the balance wheel wouldn't stay still, no matter how carefully I tried to stop it; it would start itself again, ticking with a solid quiet murmur like a beating heart.
    I also cleaned and adjusted the chime and strike mechanism, and it all ran properly, chiming on the quarter, striking the appropriate hour, and keeping excellent time. The whole job was a full day's work, plus a little more.
    As of this writing, the clock has been running for three days (it's a 31 day clock) and it's running as accurately as can be. I've hardly had to adjust the balance wheel at all. (The wheel has an ingenious mechanism for doing that: a pair of weights on the wheel moves in or out, adjusting the speed of oscillation the way a ballerina will make herself spin faster by pulling her arms in closer to her sides.)
    But, also as of this writing, I have not returned the clock. The man has no idea that I even mean to. But when I bought his clock a week ago, one of the last things he said to me was, "Do you think you will be able to fix it?"
    I did think so. But will I be able to return it?



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Piano Man

    I accompanied my friend John to his afternoon gig playing piano in the elegant lobby of the Red Lion Inn at Stockbridge.
    For three hours I sat and listened with great enjoyment, as he played through his endlessly varied repertoire of jazz, ragtime and classical pieces. I love John's playing. But the patrons filed past without a sideways glance: the full-length mink coats, the impeccable Italian suits, being ushered to their places at tables accoutered for the cream of American privilege.
    John played on, and after he finished his last set, he shut the piano and went off to the bathroom. Then I sidled over and gingerly sat down on the gleaming bench, opened the piano, and hesitantly began to play a rendition of my one Scott Joplin piece, Maple Leaf Rag. I was eager to try out the beautiful Steinway instrument, but I felt awkward to touch it in that place, after John's creative and masterful playing. 
    So as a result of my reticence- fear, actually- my playing was lukewarm at best, and in the second movement of the piece I lost my place altogether. In a controlled panic, I faked along dismally for a few bars, and when I managed to find my way again, my only thought was to conclude as gracefully as possible and get out of there. Which I did, finishing with a conclusive phrase, in what would ordinarily be the middle of my arrangement. I never felt the music at all; just embarrassment.
    After I was done and had shut the cover of the piano, John returned, and we were chatting as we put on our coats to leave. A lady came over to us from an adjacent sitting room around the corner, and she walked up to me, ignoring John completely. She said to me, "I loved your Scott Joplin."
I never blinked, but I thanked her, and she walked on.
    Probably, the lady had just arrived, and hadn't been there when John was playing, but it was still pretty funny. The master plays his heart out for three hours and is pretty much ignored, and then this bum sneaks in and plays a hideously stumbling rendition of one-half of a piece, and then the bum gets the glory. 



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Two Show Stories

A Nice Tip -

    A young boy was watching me set up before a show, and his conversation was somewhat rude: skeptical and confrontative: 
    "What is this for?" "A kid I know can do that!" "Why do you have horns?"
    I was nice to him, although busy, and I told him that he would see how everything works, once the show started; not to worry.
    So I played the show, and afterward the boy was completely changed. He came politely up to me and asked, "Do people ever give you money after you play?" I explained to the boy that when somebody decides that he wants me to do a show, he'll talk to me beforehand, and we'll make an agreement of what I'll get paid to come and do it. 
    The boy said, "That's not what I meant. I mean, do the people who watch you ever give you money after they see it?" I said no, not really. He said he wanted to give me some money, and he solemnly presented me with a nickel.
    I accepted the nickel, and I put it in my pocket with sincere thanks.

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Rescue -

    This happened before another show, a very large summer school show. I had finished getting my stuff set up and ready on the stage, and I was pacing back and forth in an empty hallway behind the performing hall, waiting till it was time to go in. I could hear the hectic noise from inside, where the teachers were wrangling all the kids into their places; there were over a thousand young boys from two parochial schools, and maybe 150 staff and teachers, all men. So as I was pacing back and forth out in the hallway, I saw a little boy huddled against the wall by himself, crying. I went over to him and asked what was wrong, why wasn't he inside?
    He said, "I lost my ticket." The tickets didn't cost anything, but all the kids had been given one, for some reason of keeping the event organized.
    The boy was trying to put a brave face on it, but he was clearly in deep distress, and he had snuck away out of the line somehow. I said, "Come on, I think we can get you in."
    I brought him inside and found a teacher in the hubbub, and explained matters, and asked if this boy could be let in without his ticket. The teacher said, "Of course," and he took the boy and went off with him to find his class.
    I performed the show, and it was fun in its way, but it was one of the really challenging situations; the kids started storming the stage more than once, grabbing props and stuff, and all the teachers had to run among them shouting and trying to restore order. This was summer school, with discipline a bit less rigorous than regular session, but it was still a bit shocking. I never let it rattle me, but I kept everything happy and upbeat, and pretended that this happens all the time. I guess, for these people it does; they're used to it. (Earlier, when I had been negotiating the show over the phone, the teacher had commented that they could stop the show at any point if I needed it, so they could discipline the kids. These comments puzzled me, and caused me some uneasiness. Why would he be telling me that?) As it turns out, everything went better than they expected, and the teachers were thanking me profusely after the show. 
     But as for that little boy that I found in the hallway, I never even asked his name, or found out where he ended up sitting; in the hurry of spirits before the show, I neglected to do that. I'm not even sure the boy was aware, at the time, that I was "the guy".
    Well, I hope he liked the show. I did feel a real bond for him; he reminded me exactly of the sort of thing I might have done when I was his age.


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I Don't Do B and E's -chasing down a midnight burglar

         I once made a man cry. He was a big tough guy, a punk, and he was on a crime spree. At first glance, he was not the sort you could picture breaking down and blubbering like a baby. 
         I was in my thirties at the time, living in the city, and I spotted this man out my window at about 2:00 in the morning. He was moving like a pale ghost in the shadows between the buildings. Burglaries were common around where we lived; as a matter of fact, our house had been burglarized just the week before. Fortunately, that job had been interrupted in the very act. One of our housemates had returned home late at night, and had frightened off the intruder. We had found all my tools piled in boxes by the back door, ready to go.
         What a feeling I had seeing that: "Sure, help yourself!" I had thought. "Take whatever you want; it's all free!" I was working as a cabinetmaker at the time, and these tools were my livelihood. Plus, I had been collecting tools since I was a boy, and this was a very personal violation to me.
         So, it's not hard to imagine what I felt when I saw a suspicious character sneaking between the houses across the street at two in the morning, just a week after that incident.  I was furious, and my heart instantly began pounding with adrenaline.  I was clad only in shorts, a T-shirt and slippers, but I had no time even to grab a jacket. I slipped silently out the front door into the cold darkness, in pursuit of the pale figure which had slipped out of sight around the corner.
         I followed him down the block, keeping within the shadows myself, as I watched him darting into alleys and inspecting locked windows. I had no thought other than to keep him in sight, and maybe to dash back to my house to call the cops if  I saw him enter a building.  
         This was the situation as we reached the end of the street, and he crossed the brightly lit but deserted intersection. I saw him crouch down and examine the lock of a bicycle which was chained to a lamppost. I had no way to remain in concealment at this point if I still wanted to follow him, and now I had all the proof I needed that he was up to no good.  So without really thinking about what I was doing, I strode across the street right towards him and said, "Nice bike."
         As I approached him he stood up and fixed me with an intense and venomous look of hatred. He seemed suddenly to tower over me, his eyes an ugly red and his body tense like a viper poised to strike.  His first words to me were something to the effect of, "If you called the cops on me, I'm going to beat the **** out of you while they watch."
         I started talking fast. I told him to relax; I didn't call the cops, but I just couldn't let him do what I saw him doing. He kept calling me "you little toad"  and telling me how stupid I was and how little I understood my danger. I told him, stop calling me "little toad";  I understand what I'm doing, but in some small way you must respect that I'm only trying to act like a good citizen and stop a crime, at personal risk to myself.
         We went back and forth in this way for a while. We were both still quite heated, although the dangerous intensity of the first encounter had relaxed somewhat. I wanted to get through to him somehow, and I began to spin a little yarn.  I didn't want him to know where I lived, so I didn't tell him that we had been broken into just last week. Maybe he was the very one that did it. So I made up a story, telling him I was an auto mechanic. I told him my shop had been broken into, and that ten thousand dollars worth of tools and equipment had been stolen. I said I had no way of replacing the equipment and was now completely busted; ruined.  I was a hard working man, I said, and now I can't even pay my rent.  It was the best story I could come up with on the spur of the moment.
        "How do you feel about that?" I asked the man. 
         "I don't give a **** about that", was the man's response. " It was your fault for leaving the door unlocked." 
         "I didn't leave the door unlocked,"  I said.  "The guy broke the door in."
          "I don't do B and E's" the man told me.  I told him it doesn't matter if you do breaking and entering, you're still a thief and you're hurting innocent people. Doesn't that matter at all to you? 
          It didn't matter to him. Nothing seemed to matter to him. We had been talking a long while, and I was running out of things to say, when the man suddenly got quite emotional and blurted out, "I don't care about anyone but myself. Myself, and my mother."
         That was all I needed. I asked him, "What will you do if you come home someday and you find that your mother has been hurt? Some punk has knocked her down, cut her purse and run away with it. That was all the money she had, and she got hurt when she fell down. How would you feel about this?"
         "I would kill the **** who did it.  I would kill him."  he told me passionately, the red light burning in his eyes again.
         "No you wouldn't,"  I told him.  "The thing is, you never find the guy who did this. By the time you find your mother hurt, it's already three hours since she was attacked, and you never find the guy who did it. He's gotten clean away. Now, how do you feel?  How do you feel, knowing that there are people out there that you can't stop, who don't care about you or anything, as long as they get what they want?"
         It was at this point that the man started crying. He just literally broke down in great heaving sobs, telling me he would be good some day, he was just too angry, he was so sorry but he would be good some day. 
         All of a sudden, reaction set in with me as well. I started shivering. I looked up and realized it was getting  light out. The man was sobbing and calling out after me,  but there was nothing more I could do. I was freezing there in my shorts in the cold light of dawn, and I ran home.




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Niagara Rime: oops; the cops again

Last winter, 2011-

    I had a very interesting conversation with 2 state troopers in the bitter cold pre-dawn hour this morning, on an ice covered walkway overlooking Niagara Falls. First they asked me, was that my van? Then, what was I doing there, and had I not seen the barriers that I had gone past in order to get to this spot?  I quickly pointed out that I had not crossed the barriers; I had entered the area by the road that said "No Entry: Park Service Vehicles Only." It was a logical choice at 4:30 in the morning, upon arriving at the park after a long drive, only to find it closed due to icy conditions.

    It was well worth the trespassing. There was a vast plume of fog and mist billowing down the echoing chasm, with the falls thundering through it, and all the trees on the rim of the gorge had a thick coating of rime-ice. I found it perfectly enchanting. But then the officers arrived, and they were skeptical.

    "Are you sure you didn't come here to hurt yourself; something along those lines?" one of them kept asking me. He wouldn't come right out and say what he was insinuating; anyway, I kept saying of course not.
    Finally, after the third or fourth question and answer, I gazed out over the yawning edge of the precipice, and observed, "If I had come here to hurt myself, I would be dead now."
    This was the wrong answer. "Why do you say that?!" the officer barked in alarm, all his suspicions redoubled. The other fellow was giving me an intense squint.

    "Look," I told them, "I came here to view the Falls. I love Niagara Falls; I would never dream of doing anything to harm this park, or myself."  Finally, they relaxed a bit.

   "You understand why we have to ask these questions," one asked me. I assured them, very apologetically, that I did understand. I implored them to let me be an honorary Park Service Vehicle, just for 20 minutes, just this once.

   "Why should I do that?" the officer asked. He was softening up.

    And thus began our interesting talk. The conversation had been preceded by the usual, "May I see some identification," and then the other routine questions about why I was there at that unusual hour and season. Didn't I know that I could be liable for some serious fines for what I had done?  Why, the van was even pointed in the wrong direction on a one-way avenue! (Deserted though it was.)

    My situation, as I explained it to them, was that I was driving all night on my return trip back to Boston from Cleveland, where I had driven my son to his college, and I had not been expecting anyone to be stirring at this beastly hour: the dark hour before dawn in the ghostly fog. However, as they explained to me, at this time the night watch at the park happened to be on high alert for suicides. Unstable characters were drawn to this place frequently, especially at this season, and there had been an unpleasant event right on this spot a mere week ago.  A man had illegally entered the park (imagine that!) at much the same time as this, and he had disappeared without a trace: presumed dead over the falls. And without question, my present activity certainly fell into the category of "irregular." However, they ended up letting me drive away, which I considered terribly decent of them.

    "Be careful," one said. "This place is a sheet of ice. I fell down investigating your van." I didn't press him for further details about that; I told him I would be careful. They even directed me to the one viewing area that was still open to public access, with a parking lot within walking distance of one of the finest overlooks. It was awesome: you could walk right up to a railing at the icy edge of the thundering torrent; swirling mist, bitter cold, and a faint gleam of dawn beginning. I went and stood for awhile, immersed in the roaring thunder, on the verge of infinity.
    I'm sure they were watching me from concealment, and I'm sure they were relieved to finally see my taillights; to find out that I was not a jumper after all.




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Web Design for Spiders

    While sitting at the kitchen table, I noticed a tiny yellow spider poised in midair below the ceiling light fixture. I pointed it out to my son Jake, and we both watched it. The spider was the size of a pinhead, or a fruitfly, and it was dangling motionless on its silk thread, about a foot below the light. As we watched, the spider swiftly descended another inch, another two inches, paying out its silk, and then it paused again. It still had more than six feet to go before it would reach the floor, and establish a guy-line for constructing its web.
    I looked at the scale of the tiny spider, and the relatively enormous distance it still had to go to reach the floor, and I decided that the scale of distance was too great in this case; it wouldn't be practical to use all that silk. But the spider can not see how far the distance is; its vision is good, but only at very close range. When starting out to make a web, the spider has to investigate a possibility like this by making an attempt, and finding out what happens.
     The spider pays out its gossamer lifeline by squirting liquid silk through an array of nozzles, or spinnerets, on its abdomen, and the extruded liquid hardens almost instantly into a strong thread. The spider clings to this thread with the claws on its hind legs, walking itself down as the thread is paying out. Quite a little miracle in itself.
    But decisions of economy have to be made, for the supply of silk isn't endless. I could see that the spider had probably miscalculated in this case, and the attempt to reach the floor with a strand was not going to be practical. As we watched, the tiny arachnid let itself down another couple of inches, then paused again, motionless on the nearly invisible line. There was still a vast gulf between it and the floor.
    All at once, the spider's sensorium, or brain, reached the appropriate conclusion and it suddenly began to climb back up. The silk it had expended on its downward exploration was gathered back in as it climbed, to be ingested and reprocessed into more silk for later use. The spider ascended rapidly, hand over fist, and it didn't pause until it regained the ceiling light fixture, there, presumably, to formulate a new plan.



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Reformed Pirates -an earlier adventure

    It was Michael, the eccentric hippie renegade, who collared us and made us return the canoe that we stole.
    Well, perhaps "stole" is too strong a word for what Dave and I did. We only snuck into Camp Albocondo under cover of midnight, lifted one of the red fiberglass canoes from the racks, found some boards which we could use as paddles, and hauled everything down to the river and put in. Then we shoved off downstream into the darkness.
    All right: stole.
    But we did intend to bring everything back in a few weeks. When you are 16 or 17 (it was in the late 1960's), sometimes moral distinctions can be a little fuzzy. We reasoned: hey, they're a camp; they're rich; they won't miss one canoe. How wrong we were, as you will see.
    It was early winter and there was a pretty good nip in the air, but we were bundled up and we had physical exertions to keep us warm. I paddled stern, guiding us down the swift current of the Toms River, deep in the piney woods where the stream is narrow and twisty. My friend Dave was in the bow, and he couldn't do much more than fend off with his board, as we would come around a sharp bend and get caught by an unseen snag across our passage. Obstacles would loom up quickly in the starlight, and Dave had only his right arm to wield the paddle; he was carefully favoring the left, which was in a cast and still tender from having been recently broken. That's right, and don't ask me what we were thinking, but I believe we had been planning this escapade for awhile, previous to Dave's accident.
    I don't remember if it was cloudy or clear, but there was enough light to see a little. It was an enchanting passage through the winter woods, taking on a dreamlike quality after about two hours; Dave hunkered in the bows, fending off with his makeshift oar, and getting progressively colder; his broken arm beginning to hurt more. I steered as carefully as I could, surging with the current around snags and bushes if I could manage it, as they hove into view in the dimness.
    The dream was abruptly shattered by an ominous glow and a gushing sound coming from up ahead. We emerged around a bend into an open reach of water with no trees, and a baleful glare of floodlights around us, as the current propelled our boat straight into and through the gushing effluent from a huge 6-foot outflow pipe, dumping liquid waste from the nearby Toms River Chemical plant. The horrid gloop was brown and foamy, and stunk violently. (This dumping was illegal even back then in the 60's; the plant, known then as CIBA, was always in legal battles, although the outflow pipe was a pretty long way from the camp, and it's likely that campers seldom or never came this far. Not at night, anyway.)
    The stench and globs of brown foam stayed with us the rest of the way downriver. Surging along on the dark, swift current winding amongst the trees, mile after mile, we were afraid to splash even a drop of the now-stinking water into the boat.
    As dawn was breaking, we reached the river's mouth by Toms River town, where the stream opens out into the expansive reach of water that turns into Barnegat Bay. Our destination at this point was about a half mile further across the open water, to a grassy point of land where we intended to hide the canoe. Then from there we would hike to our homes, before our parents were even aware that we had been out.
    We made this last stretch paddling straight into the teeth of a horizontal blizzard of light snow, that had sprung up from dead ahead. We forged into it across the open water in the pale light of dawn, the frigid wind-driven wavelets breaking against our bows, and Dave helping to paddle as well as he could. We made it across to the point of land, drew up into the long grass and hid the canoe. We were exhausted, freezing, and exhilarated. We had done it. Now we parted, and hiked to our respective homes and a few hours of bed.
    So that was that. But who is this Michael, how did he find out about our caper, and what happened next?
    Michael is David's older brother, and, simply answered, Dave told him what we had done. As I mentioned, we were more proud than ashamed of it. But Michael was a deep-eyed, evangelistical hippie who believed in Truth and Justice; his long penetrating gazes straight into my eyes would make me begin to squirm, and wonder why he didn't look somewhere else for awhile. But what we had done was Wrong; we would not be bringing the canoe back in a few weeks under cover of darkness: we would be bringing it back now; this very hour, and confess to the faces of the camp owners.
    As of this point, the canoe had been hidden in the snow-dusted long grass out at the point, for several days. We hadn't felt like venturing out into the winter blasts again, to use it.
    But whether or no, Michael was insistent; we lashed the boat onto the top of his car, and drove it back out to the camp up in the woods.
    There were people in the camp office. They saw their canoe drive up. They were astonished; it belonged to a private member, who had been combing the river up and down for days, bereft at the loss of his prize boat. Where had we found it?
    Dave and I were led forward by the noses, as it were, and forced to produce our tale. The man's jaw dropped, between gratitude, anger, and plain bewilderment. Anger won out, to be replaced again by gratitude, and finally, a helpless loss for words. He just couldn't figure out what to say. We left him with his property; we being much reddened about the ears as we sheepishly left the office, carrying with us a deep lesson that has endured. And my belated thanks to Michael, for helping us end it right.




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Laundry Bag / Pipe Bomb -unusual adventures of a 14-year old

    Can you picture a 14 year old boy getting stopped by the police, for suspicious behavior? What might he have been doing?
    The boy had been riding his bike one-handed down a main road, with a large canvas sack perched on his shoulder. This was an ordinary routine for the boy, and so he was quite surprised when a cruiser pulled him over with its lights flashing. The interruption was inconvenient, but it was more amusing than alarming.
    It became even more amusing when the boy dumped out the contents of the sack, at the insistence of the officer. This revealed nothing more than piles of soiled socks, T-shirts, underpants, and the like.
   "I told you it was just my laundry," the boy was telling the now bewildered cop.
    The boy himself found nothing unusual in carrying his sack of laundry down to the local laundromat, for he was used to being a bit out of step with other boys his age, and I know this because the boy was myself.  My mother was who knows where at the time, possibly off on one of her weekend jaunts with her acting troupe or perhaps just working late at her hat check job in the local night club.
    I  got used to not seeing my mom around, a lot of the time.  Starting back when I was about twelve, I can remember my brother and I finding a note and some money on the kitchen table, and taking our bikes down to the food store and coming back with TV dinners and ice cream pops. It was all just routine to us.
    It could lead to problems though. I once lost a friend due to my unusual circumstances, and it wasn't through prejudice, it was through misunderstanding. My new acquaintance was another student I met when I was a freshman in high school, and we hung around that day. He asked me what my phone number was so we could get together after school.  When I informed him sheepishly that we didn't have a phone at home, he found it so unbelievable that, in short, he didn't believe me. We had just met; he had no idea of my mother's tendency to run up a large phone bill, and then be unable to pay, causing our phone service to be shut off. This happened periodically, and we were sometimes without the phone for extended periods of time.
    I tried to explain it but he thought I was trying to trick him or fool him; his feelings were hurt and he was suspicious of me from then on. We drifted apart and never became friends. The thought still rankles me. 
    Probably most boys feel at some time or other that they have no one that they can tell their problems to. In my case, it must have happened a lot, for I developed some unusual leisure time activities, such as making large firecrackers, and pipe bombs. I used to set off explosions in a vacant lot near my house late at night, just to hide in the woods and watch all the lights in the houses go on, up and down the street. I just wanted people to know I was there, even if they didn't know who I was.  It sounds kind of stupid to say it now, but I meant no harm.
    Now, can you picture a boy getting stopped by the police, carrying, not a bag of laundry this time, but a thick chunk of iron pipe with a ten inch section of red fuse sticking out the end?  I was 15 years old, walking down the street with my friend Dave, in about the same place where the laundry incident happened.  There was a large vacant gravel pit behind the the shopping center where I did my laundry, and that's where we were heading, Dave and I. We had not a care in the world, just joy of our newest pipe bomb and anticipation of the huge boom it was going to make when we got it out to the gravel pit.
    Now, the cops in my town at that time during the early 60's were actually pretty suspicious. It was a time of national unrest, and local crime, and I was not unused to being stopped and questioned. Sometimes it just happened when I was riding my bike late at night. Sometimes it was just because I looked like a hippie and they wanted to find drugs. But I never took it personally, and I never got busted for anything.
    David, on the other hand, had a real grudge against the cops. For instance, one time we stopped to investigate a local disturbance. A man was raving and yelling and it turns out he had been sniffing glue and was acting threatening. Dave and I were watching from some way off, having stopped our bikes by the road, and we got approached by two cops. Of all weird things, they searched Dave and confiscated his pocketknife, and he ended up never getting it back. Stuff like that was always happening to Dave, and he was mad at all cops.
    Me, I didn't mind 'em. Even when I was carrying a large explosive device, it never occurred to me to worry. 
     On this occasion, Dave said, "Len, could you please stick that thing up your sleeve? What'll you say about it if the cops stop us this time?  'Oh, nothing, officer. Just an ol'  bomb.'" 
           Well, Dave was right, there.  It couldn't hurt anything to stick it up the sleeve of my coat, so I did, and we had no trouble. We had a lovely time setting off the bomb, back in the gravel pit. It shook the ground with a profound thumping boom, accompanied by a plaintive whining hum of shards of iron spinning away into the distance. I thought, "I bet they heard that one!"
    Unusual experience, perhaps, in the life of a young boy, but all just routine to me.



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Itching Powder- a very improbable mistake

     Who put itching powder on their principal's seat when they were in grade school? Just me?
     Well, the fact is, I would never have done it on purpose.
     In our town, there was a little corner store called The Spot. At that time, the novelty items that one could obtain were somewhat more interesting than those available today, and by saving one's milk money, one could purchase, for instance, a tin of cigarette loads for ten cents. These were slivers of wood, covered in a white powder: highly toxic as I found out years later (it was lead azide, I learned). It did say on the tin, Do Not Put in Mouth, but it didn't mention why, or that the powder was poisonous just to get on your fingers (which it easily did). Not to mention, toxic to your victim when he gasped in the exploding gasses.
    However, all we knew at the time is that the loads worked swell. You would insert one into the end of a cigarette, and when the unsuspecting smoker applied the match, the load would explode with a ringing crack, shattering the end of the cigarette. I only tried this on my mother once; the confetti-bits of tobacco and paper shreds were still fluttering in the air when she rounded on me; she was very free with the back end of a hairbrush for lesser pranks than this, but it was (almost) worth it this one time.
     Another item that could be purchased at The Spot, besides whoopee cushions of course, was itching powder. I have no idea what this material was made of; probably asbestos, or shredded fiberglass, but it, too, was very effective, as you, dear reader, shall see. On the package, the powder was recommended to be dropped down someone's shirt.
    Now, the principal of our school, Mr. Stouter, was a kindly, balding man who always had a smile for us children when he saw us in the hall. He seemed to always be on our side, whatever might happen.
    For instance, one time Mr. Stouter was called upon to reprimand me, by my second grade teacher, Miss Skidmore. She was a crabby, cross-grained old lady who was always finding something to lose her patience over, and she hauled me down to the office one morning to present my latest crime to the principal, that we might hear his judgment.
     This is what I had done that morning. Before class began, we would recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, and then we would bow our heads, close our eyes and recite the Lord's Prayer. I was respectful of these customs, and I would obediently perform them, but on this one morning during the prayer, I had been attempting, eyes closed, to point with my forefinger at my girlfriend Carol a few rows away. The idea was, when I opened my eyes I would see how closely my pointing finger had been aimed at the object of my adoration. This was very wicked of me, I know, but I was a reckless child.
    However, what I was completely unprepared to see when I opened my eyes, was the glowering, outraged face of Miss Skidmore standing before me. She had observed my peculiar gesture, and had interpreted it as some devilish sort of blasphemy.
    "Let us see what Mr. Stouter has to say about this!" she intoned ominously, taking me roughly by the ear. With my face burning with shame and terror, she marched me down to the office.
    When we were standing before the Presence, she commanded, "Tell Mr. Stouter what you were doing!"
    I told him exactly what I had done, and his face took on a look of serious concern. But the concern was mingled with puzzlement. To my secret relief, I could see that he didn't share Miss Skidmore's high degree of indignation over my behavior, but it was also obvious that he had to support her for the sake of discipline. So he did his best to give me a speech; I must understand that I must never do such a thing again, etc.; then he dismissed me back to class. He and I understood each other better than Miss Skidmore ever suspected.
    So, considering my liking and respect for Mr. Stouter, one can assume that I would never do such a thing as mischievous as putting itching powder on his chair. But even so, I did exactly that, and here is how it happened.
    It was the following year, third grade. There was a certain kid in my class who had the unfortunate gift of being the one who always gets picked on by the class brats. So naturally, he's the one I picked on to test a bag of itching powder that I had recently acquired. I was too shy of the stuff to test it on myself; what kind of a dope would do that?
    So, before class one day, I sprinkled a liberal amount of itching powder on the chair of my classmate Eric, and I sat in my own seat to watch and wait. Unfortunately, of all days, this was the one on which Eric did not show up for school, and his chair remained vacant. Then, about 15 minutes after class started, Miss Lane announced that Mr. Stouter would be visiting our class for awhile to observe us, and we were all to be on our best behavior while he was here.
    Presently Mr Stouter arrived, beamed his smile of greeting upon the class, and of all confounded peculiar coincidences, he chose Eric's desk to sit at, among the several vacant ones in the back of the room.
    In helpless dread, I watched as his posterior settled into the anointed seat. After a short while, he began to shift uneasily in the chair, and his expression became somewhat preoccupied. OK, so the stuff seems to work, but this was not good. I could hardly bear to look at him, between guilt, fear and remorse; mostly fear.  I did manage a few covert glances, and it was obvious that he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, trying not to twitch.
    But being the deep old file that I am, I gave no hint that I was aware of anything unusual going on. Miss Lane was perhaps a bit surprised when Mr. Stouter's visit ended up being shorter than she had expected; however, he soon rose from his seat, gave us a brief smile, and briskly took his leave.
    All of us noticed that Mr. Stouter hadn't said much on this special occasion, which people found puzzling, even though it did seem that he had approved of our general conduct. In any case, Miss Lane had no reason to find fault with my best behavior on this day; to her, I had done nothing but reflect credit on her class.



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