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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, which sold much more interesting novelty items than you can get today. By saving my milk money for two days, I could take the two nickels and buy a tin of cigarette loads. These were little slivers of wood, covered in a white powder (which 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. Or, that it wouldn't be so good for your victim either, when he inhaled the exploding gasses.
    However, what we did know, is that the loads worked really well. 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. In the instructions 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. The teacher, Miss Skidmore, was a crabby, cross-grained old lady who was always finding something to lose her patience over, and this morning she hauled me down to the office to present my latest crime before the principal.
     Here is what I had done: after the morning's recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, and during the Lord's Prayer, when our heads were bowed and eyes closed, I had been attempting to point with my finger at my girlfriend Carol a few rows away.
    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, 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 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 never found any reason to find fault with my best behavior, on this special day.

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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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