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.

Clearing the Bad Vines

     Today I did my biennial strangler-vine hacking, to clear the white cedars along Virginia Rd. (I didn't know that word, too; it means once every 2 years.) These vines are the ones with the orange-red berries, that proliferate in the semi-swamp, and will eventually kill trees by shading and strangling. I used a hedge clippers, and also my modified machete, which I made specifically for this job: I ground and sharpened a hook into the end of the machete blade, and spliced the blade to a 1-1/2 foot section of ax-handle. Then I checkered the grip end of the handle, using a 3-cornered file, so it doesn't fly out of my gloved hand. Though it still does sometimes when I'm getting tired: not good; if it slips, it wants to boomerang back at the operator, so situational awareness and a firm grip must be maintained at all times when hacking with it.
      But I got the job done for another year or two, chopping and removing the sinuous clusters of stems that were twining themselves up into the branches, and the trees are looking good. These trees stand along a wooded stretch of road on National Park Service Conservation Land now, though the boundary didn't include this area when I started doing this, twenty-five years ago. When I first saw the beautiful cedars, they were on abandoned private land, and some of the trees were stunted and twisted by the vines: almost dead, and some of the vines had 3-inch thick stalks. The severed remains of those stalks can still be seen, partially engulfed now by the recovering trees.
     As I was doing my unauthorized job today, a few people came by, walking their dogs or biking.
All they saw was the man working, so that was all right.

Hold-Up Man

     I really don't like to bother anybody, let alone to hold up an entire train. But here we were, immobile for two hours so far, and the mood of the people had gone from simple curiosity, to an agitated buzz like a hive of bees that's been stirred up with a stick.
    "Why are we not going?" the people were asking, but no one knew. I circulated among them, going from dining car to coach and back to my cabin, nodding to everybody and listening to their excited murmurings.  If you had been me in that situation, I'm sure you would have done what I did. What I did, was to say nothing.
     No, I hadn't pulled the emergency brake or something stupid like that. I was having a problem, and I was as concerned as everybody else, but for a completely different reason.   

    I was a passenger on that train, returning to Boston from performing a show in Chicago. Thanks to my gracious sponsor, I was traveling in a first-class cabin, and I had been enjoying the restful luxury of it on the return trip. The ride had been like a dream, gazing out the window at the endless miles of factories in the outskirts of Chicago, rolling along under a fantastic sunset.
    The next day, for some reason we had stopped at an unscheduled station in NY state. I had just been thinking of settling down for a nap after lunch, and I was taking off my shoes when I looked out the window onto the platform. There, gray in the drizzling rain, I saw a baggage cart came wheeling by my window, heading towards the front of the train. The baggage cart was piled with luggage, including some very large distinctive cases. They were my cases, containing all my hand-made instruments. This was a very bad sign.
    The cabin I occupied was in the first car of the train, right behind the locomotive. Way back at the rear of the train was the baggage car, in which all my instruments had been carefully stowed. So why is my stuff now being pushed forward on a cart, through the rain, at this unscheduled stop?
    All thoughts of napping were now banished as I feverishly put my shoes back on. I ran out of the cabin and dashed forward down the aisle to the end of the car, unhooked a chain and made an unauthorized exit out the door onto the platform.
    I ran up to the retreating cart, now heading forward past the locomotive. "Where are you taking this?" I panted. "This baggage is supposed to be on the train."
    "We're losing our baggage car here. These will have to be transferred."
    "These cases contain my homemade instruments. It was clearly stated in my contract that these were to arrive in Boston along with me. I made sure of it."
    "Don't worry. These will go out with the next train that comes along."
    What next train? "No." I said, "That won't be acceptable." I had already engaged a van to meet me when the train arrived in Boston, to bring all my stuff home from the city. This sudden development wasn't just an inconvenience; it brought up a vivid memory of a previous trip, in which one of my cases had been misplaced and had been lost for three days. I was never going to risk having that happen again. Plus, it was raining, and I was quite concerned that everything was getting wet. It's a lucky thing that I had looked out the window when I had!
    Meanwhile, the conductor had come out into the rain to inform me, "Sir, no passengers are allowed on the platform."
    "These cases have to come back aboard with me."
    "There is no place to put them."
    "My contract says they have a place. That's what we arranged. Why are we losing our baggage car?"
    By this time, more men had congregated in our little group, and anxious conversations were being conducted into big wireless devices that looked like walkie-talkies from a World War II movie. I suggested that we could bring my instruments into our cabin car; there was enough room. The suggestion was not considered. Soon we were told that another baggage car could be switched to our train from a yard only about a mile away.
    "Sir," the conductor insisted, "you'll have to re-board the train while we wait."
    "Can you please put my instruments under cover? These cases are not waterproof."
    That would never have occurred to them. One man pushed the cart down the platform and under a very scant overhang in a baggage area., while I reluctantly allowed myself to be ushered back onto the train. From there, I uneasily peered back through a window towards my precious cargo, which was only partially protected by the overhang, and still getting rained on. We waited.
    After a while, I sought out the conductor, and asked for a progress report. "We're working on it." he told me. Then again, somewhat later, "It looks like we won't be able to get that baggage car."
    "We have to find a place on this train," I told him. "What will we do?"
    "I don't know yet, sir."
    Meanwhile, I had been trying, in my anxiety, to get back out of the train to go over to the rain-blown cart with my instruments on it, to try to move it to a dryer place. But now I found that all the doors to the outside were locked. I had gone up and down the whole train trying doors; seven or eight long cars with a door at each end. It was in these wanderings through the train that I had heard the people voicing their curiosity and concern at our delay. None of the officials had told the passengers anything about the reason we weren't moving, and that's all everybody was talking about: trying to figure out what was going on. As I mentioned, I certainly wasn't going to tell them.
    Now and then, I could see men moving along the platform outside, sometimes talking into their walkie-talkies. I had made the conductor swear several times that he would not let the train leave the station until we had this sorted out. Everyone was in a fine buzz.
    At last, what they decided to do, was to bring my large cases into the passenger car where my cabin was. That's what I had suggested in the first place; but no, they had said it wouldn't do. Now they decided it would do; although it did mean stowing them in the aisle itself, and partially obstructing it, though not badly. At this point, we had been at this station for over two hours; we were over two hours behind schedule.
    The passengers, seeing these cases coming in to our cabin car, were naturally curious. So was the steward who served my cabin, and whom I had gotten to know a bit. Now he was surprised to notice that as the cases were coming aboard, I was helping to handle them myself.
    "You seem to have some direct knowledge of what this delay has been all about." he ventured.
    "Yes, I do," I told him, as I wiped down the outside of a case with a towel. I felt a bit awkward, but I was greatly relieved to get my instruments out of the rain and safely aboard again.
    "Yes I do; it was all about me."

Occult Knowledge

   Sometimes I find myself in the same position as the native who found the rifle.

    The native knew what the rifle could do; he had seen it work, and now he was trying everything in his power to make it do that thing. He carefully twisted wads of grass, cuts of bark, and stuffed them into the chamber. He tried using stones, earth, a burning ember; he used incantations and interpretive dance; he prayed; he anointed the rifle with sacred dust, with purified oil.
    The persistent native spared no effort or ingenuity, but it was all in vain; nothing would induce the rifle to utter its terrifying lightening and thunder: the deadly magic which could slay from a distance and provide meat for his lodge, or cause his enemies to flee in terror.
    The native's considerable experience of the world was not sufficient to unlock the secret, even if he spent his life studying the inner workings of the rifle. The simple mystery of gunpowder would forever be concealed, in a parallel reality separate from his.
       
     This scenario is from a story I came across many years ago. I sometimes feel that it is a metaphor for my own life, as I stumble forward in darkness.

Drawing of Geodude, by L. Solomon

I Said, Beer!

    When my son was about 3, he expressed an interest to taste some beer, as I was having a bottle. So I let him try a spoonful.
    Apparently, he liked it. A few days later, our family was eating in a restaurant, and I ordered a beer with my dinner. When it came, my little son asked if he could have some, and I told him I didn't think it was a good idea this time. To my astonishment, he began reaching over the table, and calling loudly, "Beeyoo, beeyoo!' in his piping little voice. Many heads in the restaurant turned to see what was happening.
    My son is a good, biddable lad, and this outburst took us all by surprise; it was quickly quelled by a stern word or two by myself and my wife, but not before I was mortified to notice the expressions on the faces that had turned towards our table: "Just look at that little boy having a tantrum; calling for beer!" they were frowning sternly; "Now, that must be a nice house."

Requiem for a Rat

-Peter Solomon, Guinea Pig-
     I had the mournful task today of cleaning up and putting away all of Peter's things: the kibbles, the hay, the wood shavings, the cage itself; all the reminders of the life of the family guinea pig. For seven years the "little rat" had been with us, with his charming little ways.
     The impatient rodent had a way of yanking rhythmically at his hay hopper (it sounded like someone was knocking at the door), if someone had the discourtesy to begin making coffee in the morning before attending to him: a little orchard grass, a piece of carrot, a few scratches behind the ears. He would purr like a cat when you would stroke his soft furry head.
    At dinnertime, as soon as someone would open the vegetable drawer in the fridge to get something, Peter would again begin chewing and yanking on the metal bars of his cage. Watching him with amusement, I would comment, "He has very well developed nose parts" (from all that energetic yanking). I would wait just an extra minute before giving him the carrot, or broccoli trimmings.
    "He loves those metal bars," I would tease. "The metal must be really good for him."
Or, "He's trying to tell us something! What is it, boy?" He would chew and yank with renewed frustration. Then I would hand him his treat, and he would make a soft murmur of satisfaction as he took it.
    But, you know, if I ever offered him my finger to bite, he would only nibble it very gently. He was a generous and sweet-natured creature, in spite of all my teasing. There's a lesson.
    He lived a long time for a guinea pig: seven years. For the last few years he was with us, every time I would buy a big bag of wood shavings, or kibbles, or hay, I would think to myself, I wonder if most of this is going to end up not getting used? Well, that's just another thing that I found strangely moving at the end: there wasn't much left over in any of the bags; we had used up pretty much all the current supplies.
    When we first got Peter, we couldn't agree on what to call him: Jaw Pickle, Poop Kitty, Stoopid;
we got him for our young boys, and to begin with, I resented having one more thing in the house that I would have to take care of. Well, if I did, it's a burden that I will miss. I keep thinking I hear knocking, and I reflexively look over to where his cage had been. I thought it was going to be a luxury to not have to do anything; but then why do I feel a pang when I look over and see no cage, no little animal that needs my attention?     
    Well, Peter is with his ancestors now, in that great meadow-grass place in the sky, where no hawks are. He crossed the bridge peacefully in the night, after a brief illness in which he stopped eating. For two days, he just muttered to himself once in awhile, and whimpered occasionally, and refused even his beloved carrots.  But even right before the end, I could just hear him purring softly when I stroked his little head.
    "Never give your heart," sadly advised Kipling, "to a dog to tear."
    Who knew a little rat could do it?

Hugging the Bowl

    I've been hugging a toilet bowl, on and off, for two days. No, I haven't been sick, or drinking.
    Let's say your toilet was leaking underneath; it was dripping through the floor and making a puddle in your basement, and you wanted to fix it. You would have to disconnect things, take off the tank, unbolt the contraption from the floor, and at some point you would have to lift it up to move it off the spot. Have you ever tried to lift a toilet bowl? It's damned awkward, actually: you have to sort of hug it. Now you're getting the idea.
    When you're putting it back again, having settled it carefully on its wax seal after getting the wobbling bolts to go through their little holes without falling over underneath, you also don't want to over-tighten the nuts because the porcelain is very brittle. I knew this, but even so, as I was carefully snugging down the nuts the first time, I felt a sickening feeling as I turned the wrench; a sudden slackness. It wasn't the porcelain cracking: it was the flange on the ancient cast iron pipe underneath, crumbling away. The bolt was free as a bird.
    I was strangely calm. Well, I did swear a blue streak, with a rising note of hysteria in my voice that was a little frightening, but if there's no one there to hear you, did you actually make a sound? But then I thought, I can take a piece of steel bar stock, and with a hacksaw and files, I can make a flange to fit under what's left of the broken cast iron rim of the pipe. So that's what I did, and it worked; it took me about 2 hours. But I must mention: in the meanwhile, since you've lifted and moved the toilet away from its place, there is the dreadful menacing 4 inch hole in the floor; the pipe that goes straight down into the netherworld of the septic tank far below. This hole was just inviting me, for instance, to fumble and drop a tool down it; never to be seen again, or something worse. Your instinct bids you to cover that hole, so I did; I cut a plastic cover out of an old piece of tupperware, and I used it to seal the hideous hole while I was working on the broken flange.
    Now, before I relate how I came to install the toilet bowl not one more time, but two more times, I will mention another good reason for keeping the pipe covered while you are working: septage flies. These interesting creatures actually live in the fetid subterranean darkness of the septic tank, flying around above the liquid in the underground chamber, and communicating with the outside world via the vent pipe on the house roof. And you thought you had a bad job. Perhaps you can understand that I didn't want any of these little denizens of the dark to visit me in my world. And in fact, as I worked, I would occasionally see one of these small flies flying around under the cover for a few moments, perhaps contemplating the wondrous light that he could see through the translucent plastic.
    When I was done making the new flange, I reformed the squashed wax seal around the hole in the bottom of the toilet, buttering it around with a putty knife, like frosting a cake. When I was satisfied that the wax ring was well formed and would seat properly, I carefully lowered the toilet bowl down over the hole for the second time, getting the bolts to go through their holes without knocking them over. It took a couple of tries, but I got it done, and I felt the satisfying "give" of the wax spreading out and sealing the joint. A perfect job, and I would be very careful tightening down the nuts this time. But something was nagging at the back of my mind. Think carefully, I told myself; is everything shipshape? It ought to be, but think...
    NO! That's right; maybe you guessed it: the tupperware cover was still in its place down under there! Not as perfect a job as I could have wished. One more time, I get to bend my back to this fascinating job, and hug the toilet bowl. Off it comes again, and although it's too late now to make a long story short, I finally made an end of it, and as of this writing, there's no more puddle under the pipes in the basement.


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Grammar Test

When I was in grade school, we would get questions like the following:

- Correct the error(s) in the following sentence -
"Jack seen Fred fix them cars hisself."

    I would always think, who could ever get these questions wrong?  Everyone knows where Fred ain't smart enough to fix no car by hisself!

Mystery Fish

    Nobody could figure out where the sardines were coming from. They just kept appearing, as if an evil sorcerer were at work.
    I was living in a house with a group of people, and we shared a communal pantry.  A lot of people came and went in that house, and it wasn't always clear who bought what.      
    One day, a great stash of sardines appeared in the food closet; there were about 20 cans of them. Nobody claimed responsibility for having bought them, and it was strange to see so many. I shrugged my shoulders along with everyone else.
    So a couple of cans of the fish were sampled by several people. My friend Gene was the first. His nose wrinkled as he opened the can; he had a doubtful look on his face as he peered at the contents, but he cautiously tried a bite.
    "These sardines are spoiled!" he pronounced, and he just left the remainder on the table for someone else to deal with.
    Another person tried opening a new can, with much the same results. It soon became clear that none of the cans were any better; the fish was unpalatable. So the several opened cans got discarded; a stinking mess in the garbage can.
    But in the pantry, there remained the large and mysterious stacks of unopened cans. About 20 of them sat around on the shelf for a few weeks. In spite of all the hungry mouths around that house, no one had anything further to do with those sardines. 
    The question eventually arose of what to do with the stacks of cans; nobody seemed to own them and certainly no one wanted them. I hate to see food get wasted, but we finally agreed that they would just have to be thrown out. This was done with little fanfare, and the mystery was soon forgotten.
    But a few days later, what a commotion ensued when an even greater mountain of cans of the same dismal stuff appeared back in the cabinet! Everyone became greatly excited, and questions were flying back and forth.
    "Who is bringing this stuff? Was it a friend of yours?"
    "Is it a well-wisher, or an evil doer?"
    "Can we just waste this food?"
    "Even the cat won't eat it. I tried giving him some."
    Without much more discussion, the pile of cans went out in the garbage a second time; this time I watched it go. I even saw when the garbage truck came and picked it up. As I watched the truck trundling off, I was grinning a secret smile that nobody noticed.
    Several days after this, the mystery took on sinister proportions, when, incredibly, there was a third appearance of Manna from Hell in our food pantry; the biggest pile of cans so far: about 50 of them.
    This was truly a profound study in human perplexity. The people were buzzing around like a hive of stirred-up bees. 
    "They're here again! This is incredibly strange!"
    "This is freaking me out."
    "We should start locking the front door."
     The only problem this time was, as hard as I tried, I couldn't keep a straight face. I was cracking up, and suddenly all eyes were on me.
    "Solomon, what do you know about this?!"
    The high drama was completely spoiled; I had cracked under the pressure. Yes, I was the culprit;
I myself had been the unwilling recipient of a "gift" of several cases of very old sardines, which had been purchased by a traveling friend from a cannery several years previously. As the aging fish were becoming inedible, she had begged me to take it all, in hopes I would find some use for it.
Well, I told her I'd see what I could do.

More Allen Stuff

    I've been observing the interesting behavior of my friend Allen, since we were small boys more than 60 years ago.
        When we were 9 or 10 years old, our family was over at his family's house for dinner. Just as Allen was sitting down at the table, his younger brother Gene pulled his chair away, and Allen landed with a thump on the floor. He immediately flew into a shouting rage, sitting there on the linoleum, and his mother Charlotte drew him up onto his feet and gave Gene a sharp reprimand. Then she tried to soothe Allen. He was raving in anger, and nothing she could do would stop him, so she finally just grabbed a dishtowel, balled it up and stuffed it into his mouth. She pointed, "Go to your room!"
    Without a pause, Allen continued to shout a remarkably fluent stream of invective at Gene and the world in general, but now his raving was in a strangely muffled howl through the dishrag. He toddled angrily but obediently out the door and down the hall, still flailing his arms and shouting through the gag. I thought it was very peculiar that it didn't occur to him to pull the rag out of his mouth.
    The noise receded and abruptly stopped, with the slamming of his door. Charlotte shook her head with a helpless but amused grin, "That's my boy!"

    On the kitchen wall, there was an office phone for the family's landscaping business. This phone was right next to the house phone, and the two looked identical, but their rings were different to distinguish incoming calls. It occurred to my wicked mind one time to switch the receivers on their hooks. The switch wasn't obvious to look at, because the long cords hung down side by side. It seemed like a harmless prank, and then I forgot about it. A few days later I was there again, and I noticed that the receivers had been put right, so I switched them again.
    A few minutes later, I was in the next room and I heard a phone ringing. Allen picked up, and I could hear him saying, "Hello… hello…?" Then, to my mortification, he became furious, and began swearing. "The #&*#-ing phone is &#%-ed up AGAIN!! NOTHING ever works around here!!" He slammed down the phone in a fury.
    There was another person in the kitchen with Allen, and I could hear him trying to calm things down. "It's all right," the friend was saying. "The phone's not broken. See? Someone just switched the receivers here."
    "Is that all it was?!" Allen shouted, cursing some more. "What kind of IDIOT would keep switching the receivers?! How can we run a *#%-ing business?!"
    I slunk away, quite abashed. Of course, the business caller on the line would have been able to hear Allen cursing and shouting, because before Allen hung up again, the live receiver was sitting right there on the other phone's hook. I'll be tortured in hell for this stunt, or sooner, if Allen ever reads this.

    Allen nourishes a myth about me, that I will eat anything. This is actually not true at all; I'm very particular about what I eat. The myth began because of an event one day when he came over with our friend Brady, to visit me in my workshop. Earlier that day, I had been eating a peanut butter sandwich, and I had put the half eaten sandwich on a plate near the table saw. Then I did some cutting with the saw, which of course throws up some dust.
    When the guys came to my shop a little later, I spied the half-eaten sandwich on the plate. I picked it up, blew off the harmless sawdust and resumed eating it. Then I noticed Brady's reaction; he was green with disgust. His impression was that I had found some ancient moldy food in a corner and had begun carelessly devouring it, after having blown off the accumulated filth. The next day, Brady and Allen excitedly related this story to others, with some interesting embellishments, and thus the myth was born. Whenever Allen would introduce me to someone, he would be sure to tell them, "Solomon will eat anything!"  So I would encourage him, saying, it's no big deal.
    Allen conceived of a dare; he thought he could stump me by proposing that I eat a tuna fish ice-cream sundae. If I ate it, he would pay for it. That didn't sound so bad to me; it was really no challenge to say, "Sure!"
    Accordingly, we went out with some friends to an ice-cream parlor. When the waitress asked me for my order, I said, "I'll have a chocolate banana split, with a scoop of raspberry, a scoop of tuna fish salad, and a scoop of... um..."
    The waitress interrupted me, before I could say, "vanilla"; she completely ruined my comic timing.
    "Tuna fish?!" she frowned at me.
    "Yes. Tuna fish, and... um... a scoop of vanilla."
    "You're not serious!?"
    "Yes, I am."
    The waitress refused to go along with it, and after a little more discussion, she ended up bringing over the manager. The manager listened to the case, and finally responded by saying,
    "If she brings it, you're going to have to eat it!"
    "No he won't." Allen broke in, excitedly. "No he won't. He'll just have to pay for it."
    So the manager gave the nod, and the waitress clamped her mouth tight, and wrote down the order, obscurely annoyed.
    Everyone was eagerly watching as the tuna fish sundae was brought out and set before me. By this time, the entire restaurant was alerted, and watching me with rapt attention. I had made sure that I was good and hungry before we went out, and to tell the truth, the sundae didn't taste bad. I've tasted better combinations, but there was nothing disgusting about it, and I ate it up.
    But somehow, to Allen this was all very remarkable, and he gladly paid for the sundae. This event gave them all something to talk about for a while, and the myth remained intact, with no very great effort on my part.

    Allen's wife affectionately refers to him by the title I gave him once: the "waddling encyclopedia".
In some ways Allen is a lot smarter than me, but, as with all enduring friendships, there's a balance there.

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. The house was an antique colonial 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; and the fieldstone foundation had a crumbling hole on one side. I felt it was only my civic duty to make a tour of inspection of the historic building, and so I contorted my way through the badger-hole in the foundation wall, and I entered 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 with your sleeve. That's what I was hoping to find, of course, but it must have been too cleverly hidden. Also, I didn't even find an alcove that held a moldering oaken chest, bound with iron bands and a hand-forged padlock, filled with minted silver.
    None of that, but what I did find, in the cracks between the stones, was an encrustation of powdery  grayish-white material; with here and there some translucent brownish crystals. I found it more where there was mortar between the stones, and not as much where the stones had been laid dry. Examining the powdery deposits 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; the king's men would periodically rove through the countryside, breaking open stone walls to collect the saltpeter that accumulates inside them. I also remembered Poe's story, "A Cask of Amontillado," in which two men are deep within the catacombs of 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 was interesting too.
     So, I crawled back out of the hole, and I returned with some jars for collecting samples. I collected about 1/2 cup of the crystalline powder from between the stones, and then I headed back to my lab for some experiments.
     To refine the samples, 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, let the sediment settle, and then filtered the liquid through a coffee filter. Then I put the clear liquid back into the pot, 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 the brownish powder.
    The easiest way I had to find out if the material was in fact saltpeter, was to go ahead and try to make gunpowder with it. If the material was something else, the worst that would happen is, I'd waste my time making mixed dirt.
    First I made some charcoal. Using a propane burner, I heated chunks of willow wood in a covered clay crucible, monitoring the crucible until it stopped off-gassing, then keeping it sealed until everything cooled. The third ingredient of gunpowder is sulfur, and for this I had to cheat and use store-bought from a lab supply, because I don't know of any natural deposits of sulfur in my location.
     After grinding the ingredients separately in a 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 of finished powder. This is about one hundred grains, in firearm parlance; enough for a musket-load, with some 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 gunpowder 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, and squeezed the trigger. When I felt that pistol kick and heard the boom, I was quite pleased; 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 I have always admired.


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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."

   Whose voice is this, calling me "you"?  And whose voice is it, answering "I"?  Conversations with oneself are mysterious. I fixed my concentration on the walkway that I had just traversed; the outside edge of a RR trestle, with a 25 foot plunge to the river just inches from where my feet would be moving.
    "Yes, I can," I answered myself. 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 cause me great anxiety. 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 wouldn't be so bad. But this was one of those times when I got the urge to probe my limits, to try to overcome my fears, so as I had been strolling along the tracks and arrived at the trestle, it had occurred to me that I was going to make myself walk the edge, just to prove that I could.
    But the contradiction about walking such a path is that the danger must be completely ignored, even while it is acknowledged. The artist Dali described "the exquisite anguish of the empty void." This is what attracts me to, and at the same time repels me from, heights. This "exquisite anguish" is the very thing that I cannot allow myself to appreciate, if I am to successfully negotiate this walk before me.
    So that is what I did; I ignored it completely, as I walked the 100 feet 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 blocks of wood, making the walkway 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 making the walk, 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 was thinking, to "unlearn" the irrational vertigo that attacks me in such places; to allow myself more freedom to enjoy the 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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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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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. The novelty items that one could obtain there, were more interesting than those available today. For instance, by saving ten cents from one's milk money, one could purchase a little tin of cigarette loads. These were slivers of wood, covered in a white powder (it was highly toxic lead azide, as I found out years later). 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 inhaled the exploding gasses.
    However, what we did know 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 shredded bits of tobacco and paper 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 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 by my second grade teacher, to reprimand me.   My teacher, Miss Skidmore, 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 that morning to present my latest crime before the principal.
     Here is what I had done: each morning before class, we would recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, and after that we would bow our heads, 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, with my eyes closed I had been attempting to point with my finger at my girlfriend Carol a few rows away. The idea was, when I opened my eyes I would see how closely I had aimed my pointing finger at the object of my adoration.
    However, what I was not expecting to see when I opened my eyes, was the glowering, outraged face of Miss Skidmore standing right in front of me. She had observed my peculiar gesture (as a matter of fact, my finger was pointing at her), 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 slightly tinged with bewilderment. 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; telling me I must never do such a thing again, etc., and 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 would assume that I would never do such a thing as mischievous as putting itching powder on his chair. But even so, that's what I did, and here is how it happened.
    It was in 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 had no idea if it worked; I certainly wasn't going to test it on myself.
    So, before class one day, I sprinkled a liberal amount of the 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 day that Eric did not show up for school, and his chair remained vacant. Then, about 15 minutes after class started, our teacher Miss Lane announced that Mr. Stouter would be visiting our class for awhile, 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 bad luck, 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 had 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; as far as she knew, I had done nothing but reflect credit on her class.


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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 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, by one of our housemates returning home late at night, and scaring off the intruder. We had found all my tools piled in boxes by the back door, ready to go.
         You can imagine what I felt seeing that: "Sure, 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, just a week after this event, I saw a suspicious character sneaking between the houses across the street at two in the morning, and I became furious; my heart instantly began pounding with adrenaline.  I was wearing only 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 except 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 stay concealed at this point if I still wanted to follow him, and 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 coiled snake. The first thing he said was, "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 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 to stop calling me "little toad"; I told him I understood what I was doing, and that I was just trying to stop a crime, because this was my neighborhood.
         We went back and forth in this way for a while. We were both still quite heated, although the dangerous intensity had relaxed a little. 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. So I made up a story, telling him I was an auto mechanic. I told him my shop had been broken into, and that all my equipment had been stolen. I said I was now completely busted; I worked hard all my life and now I can't even pay my rent. It was the best 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. 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."
         So I asked him, "Well then, what would you do if you came home someday and you find that your mother has been hurt? Some punk knocked her down, cut her purse and ran away with it. All her money gone, and she got hurt when she fell down. How would you feel about that?"
         "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. 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. Now, how do you feel?  How do you feel, knowing that there are people out there 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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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 - inconvenient - became 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, through a frustrating misunderstanding. I had met another student when I was a freshman in high school, and we hung around that day. We had a lot to talk about: music, guitars, visions of grandeur. He asked me for my phone number so we could get together after school.  When I informed him sheepishly that we didn't have a phone, he found it so unbelievable that, in short, he didn't believe me. We had just met; he had no idea that my mother had a tendency to run up a large phone bill, and then be unable to pay, so that our phone service would 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, 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, 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 long section of red fuse sticking out the end. This time 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 where 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. They hardly looked at me. 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 didn't get stopped at all, and 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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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 to begin with I was completely dumbfounded. Then 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!
    It was a frigid snowy winter night here in Massachusetts, and the usual flying and crawling critters, suitable for frog food, were all socked in until spring. I could leave a banana on the counter for two weeks at this season, and no fruit flies would appear. So where do I get anything to feed a tiny frog, in winter? He is counting on me now, even though that was surely not 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 profundities. He didn't seem much impressed by me, anyway.
    I clapped the frog into a little glass terrarium I had, misted him with some water, and then thought about what to do. The first thing was, wash the kale again, anyway.
   
Eating kale:
    Crunch crunch, crunch crunch, >squish<
    "Say... I wonder what that was?"
    No, thankfully, that didn't happen.

    But how do I feed the frog? I remembered one cold winter a few years ago, I had been looking for something in the back shed and I turned over a wheelbarrow. Inside the wheelbarrow, I had found a number of adult mosquitoes clinging motionless to the underside of the metal. They winter over under such shelters, moving very slightly if they are 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 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. I really hoped the frog was appreciating all this, but 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 discovery of the frog, but he didn't eat until two days after that. 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 it was there.
     Jake replied, "Papa, suppose you were staying in a really nice hotel with a pool. How would you like it if the housekeeper came and grabbed you 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, seemingly content.
    But the sad thing about Bruno the Leetle Google-Eyed Tree Frog, is that he will never get married and have a family, unless Bruno is a she, in which case, she never will. Because there's only one of him/her. But considering where he might have landed, he's one lucky frog to have landed 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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