Tales Out of School (and Elsewhere)

The Secret Life of Centerboro book coverOn this page you will find glimpses into the lives of some of the people you have already heard about at this site and in Mr. Brooks's Freddy series. But some of these completely true stories (unlike most of Brooks's) are about folks I'll wager you've never heard of...unless you're from Centerboro or nearby, of course, which you are not likely to be. The tales here come from memories of long ago which I seem able to recollect better than what I had for breakfast this morning. I'll probably be recording more tales of the until-now hidden life of Centerboro here, but I don't know when. You see, I don't know how to write stories down any more than I know how to draw hands. We never learned how to write stories in school, so I just do my best. It seems to take me forever to get my memories and ideas down in writing, especially when my gout flames up or I get one of my bad headaches, so you'll have to check back once in a while to see if I have been able to publish any more of my recollections here. Mrs. Underdunk has told me that I should write all this stuff down for a book (as long as I don't tell too much about her), and, you know, some day I might try that. The stories here at my site are just sketchy little things, but she said that if I keep at it and elaborate the details, I might catch somebody's eye at a publishing firm. I told her that I'd probably have a better chance publishing The Truth™ about the Martians, but maybe there is something in what she says. We'll see. These stories are no doubt more significant to me than you. After all, you were probably not born and raised in Centerboro as was I, and although you evidently enjoy Brooks's fictions about the town and its inhabitants, you may not enjoy these true stories nearly as much. Well, poop-poop-a doop! I'm going to continue to publish my tales here anyway, and if you don't like them...why, you can go read Freddy the Detective one more time!

Well, in any case, every little town has its everyday happenings and everyday people--just like in Bedford Falls, for instance. There are always a Main Street and a Church Street, aren't there? And streets named after trees and people, like Elm Street and Clinton Street. Along these streets stand the houses of ordinary folks, folks just like you and me, and they all have their stories. Some of these stories are nice stories. We like to hear them because they are so much like the nice stories we make up and try to believe about ourselves, and this allows us to buy that old saw that "people are people," no matter where or when we meet them. Yes, we're all basically the same, little buds on the branches of the human tree, and, gosh-darn it, when you get right down to it, there isn't anything that really separates all us nice people except for a few little personal idiosyncrasies or superficial things like preferring red wine to white, clams to calamari, democracy to totalitariansim, or...well, you get the picture, I'm sure. That's what the nice stories do for us. They warm our hearts. They buoy us up when life gets stormy. There are plenty of them in Reader's Digest. However, there are some stories which are not so ordinary, stories that make us think that perhaps there are some folks who will always be set firmly and forever apart from us normal people. And isn't just one of these not-so-ordinary or not-so-nice stories, particularly when well written,  much more interesting than all those nice heart-warming stories put together? Of course it is! And so....

I am going through my scrapbooks and checking all kinds of sources at the courthouse, the vertical files at the Centerboro Public Library, microfilms of past issues of the Sentinel and Guardian, etc., etc., with the intent of presenting to you some of these stories from the hitherto unrevealed history of Centerboro. This project will take some time, and it will be presented in installments. If you are a member of the Friends of Freddy mailing list, you will hear from me whenever a new story has been published. Until then, you'll just have to patiently bear with me. In the meanwhile, why not peruse some of your old favorite pages from my site? Or why not visit some of the splendidly amusing or useful sites on my links page?

Contents of Tales Out of School
Scroll or click as you wish for...

"Herbie and the White Paste"
"Herbie, Petey, and the Kishka"

"Bees in a Jar"
"Louis Doberman and the Bowling Shoes"
"The Sean McMurty Incident"
"Running Away"
"Harriet Peebles Blows Her Top"
"All the Marbles"

"Herbie and the White Paste"

You've all heard the story of Herb Garble and the mucilage, but you haven't heard about Herb and the white paste unless you were in Mrs. Peppercorn's fifth-grade class when he and I were. Brooks got the story of Ella Tingley, the bag of gum drops, the mousetrap, and the glue right. He never could pass up an opportunity to insult or humiliate Herb in his books (I'm beginning to appreciate this side of Brooks now), and when he found out about that incident, it must have been like a prospector discovering a gold nugget the size of a thumb among the pebbles of a stream! Well, I won't go into the details of the mucilage story because they are already spelled out in Freddy and the Men from Mars, a book otherwise riddled with half-truths and outright lies. To the business of the paste, then...

I don't know how many of my readers are old enough to remember the big tubs of white paste we'd use in elementary school art class way back in the 1930s. They've gone the route of the "Big Chief" writing tablets and inkwells and cardboard pencil boxes. Kids today use those glue sticks in art class if art hasn't been eliminated from the school budget because of angry, fed-up taxpayers or cost-cutting bean counters. Anyway, the paste we used resembled nothing more than stiff, white lard, but it didn't smell too bad unless you flung some of it onto the hot steam radiator, and then it smelled pretty awful. The flat sticks-- tongue depressors, I think--we used to pry the paste out of the tubs made perfect catapults. Of course, if Mrs. Peppercorn caught anyone catapulting gobs of paste around, it was a couple of good licks on the palm of your hand with a ruler and a clobbering at home after she sent a note to your parents, which she never neglected to do for the slightest misbehavior because it was also her job, she said, "to produce character in you odious little worms."

One day Herbie got it into his head, who knows why, to eat the paste even though the story was that it would stick to your liver the way chewing gum was supposed to when you accidentally swallowed it, and it would just as surely kill you over a period of time. This didn't matter to Herbie, who cut little squares of paper from his writing tablet, made paste sandwich dainties with them, and hid them in his desk. When Mrs. Peppercorn wasn't looking, he'd sneak one out and bolt it down. It would be fair to say that he became addicted to his paste concoctions. He'd squeeze his eyes shut and make ecstatic "Mmmmmmm" sounds, and pretty soon other kids sitting around him started asking to try one of his sandwiches. Before long maybe a dozen kids were hooked on white paste.

One day after recess, Mrs. Peppercorn finally got wise to what was going on. Our class filed back into the room, took our seats, and got ready for spelling. But Herbie, who had eaten about ten of his sandwiches during recess, had run around like crazy in the hot sun, and had drunk about a gallon of water at the fountain outside the room before coming in, just put his head down on his desk and didn't move. Suddenly we all heard a sound like a hand pump splashing water into a tin bucket. That was Herbie getting sick all over himself, his desk, and Richard Albacore, the class bully, who sat right in front of him in the first row. Today we'd say that Mrs. Peppercorn "went ballistic"! At first she didn't know what had happened and thought that Herbie had an upset stomach, but when she saw the contents of Herbie's discharge and grilled some of the other students, the truth emerged and so did a large knot on Herbie's head where she whacked him hard with her ruler. After that, no one ate paste sandwiches, although during art when Mrs. Peppercorn wasn't looking, the addicts, including Herbie who rarely learned a lesson, would get a quick fix by sticking their fingers into the tub of paste and licking them off.

For the rest of the year, Mrs. Peppercorn made the most of this incident. Whenever someone did or said something stupid, she'd point to Herbie, now the object of the kind of mob contempt that rises up so easily in children, and sneer: "Well, now, that's the kind of thing Herbie would do" or "Well, now, that's just what Herbie would say." Some of us felt sorry for Herbie. He'd just sit there, quietly seething and staring at his desk while Mrs. Peppercorn went off on him. To this day I think of Mrs. Peppercorn as the very worst sort of teacher. She was the kind who would make you stick your chewing gum on the end of your nose. Who knows what long-term effects her ridicule of Herbie had on him. Not being a qualified psychologist, I can't say for sure, but I'd probably be safe in saying that it didn't do him any good. The other thing that happened as a result of the paste episode was that Herbie made a permanent enemy of Richard Albacore, a really tough kid from what nowadays would be called a "dysfunctional" family. Back then they were just known as "those Albacores."  Herbie spent the rest of the year looking over his shoulder and cringing at loud noises in anticipation of a beating from Richard. And the next year, too. This story reminds me of another incident involving Herbie and "food,"  a story I call "Herbie, Petey, and the Kishka."

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"Herbie, Petey, and the Kishka"

Petey Muszkiski, Herbie, and I were great and inseparable friends right up to the age of twelve when Petey's father got a good-paying job in a steel mill near Buffalo, New York, and Petey had to move away. You know Petey's uncle Stanley from the Freddy books. Stanley Muszkiski owned the big theater in town and the bowling alley. He'd always let us in the Saturday movie shows for free. He was a great guy, but once Petey moved, the free ride was over, and we had to pay or sneak in just like everyone else. Petey's Gramma and Grampa Muszkiski were a really old Polish couple who could barely speak English. They lived on Chestnut Street down at the south end of Jackson, and Petey used to stay overnight there whenever his mother and father went out Friday nights to this Polish "social club" in Plutarch Mills to drink bootleg gin and beer and to dance all night. Being so old and nearly deaf, Gramma and Grampa (which is what everyone called them) didn't hear very much of what was going on around them (or maybe they just ignored it), and Herbie, Petey, and I could stay up all night when we all stayed overnight together. We'd say goodnight to the old folks who were nodding off in the parlor and climb up the shoulder-crowding, steep back stairs from the kitchen to Petey's room.

Petey's room was really dark and creepy. The light from one dim overhead bulb barely reached the corners. Shoved against an outside wall was an old wrought iron bed that one person could barely fit on, it was so narrow. The mattress was old and sunk in. When someone stretched out on it, it looked as though the mattress were swallowing him up. Petey always slept there, and Herbie and I would grab some blankets from the top shelf in the closet, double them up, and camp out on the floor. The walls were covered with several layers of wallpaper, the latest being dark and flowery. The more you stared at it, the more demon faces and snarling animal heads you would imagine you saw. The only other furniture in the room was a massive dark dresser hunkering in a corner on claw feet. On top of it was a big windup alarm clock with two bells and a plain white wash basin and pitcher. The only decoration, if you could call it that, hung over the bed. It was this big picture in a golden plaster frame of Jesus on the cross with his eyes rolled up to heaven and blood running down his face and out his side. Once we holed up in this hideous room, we could talk, joke, laugh, and holler all we wanted, and Petey's grandparents never yelled at us to pipe down or to go to sleep. After we quieted down it was always hard for me to get to sleep. The silence would settle upon me like a thick suffocating quilt. I'd glance over at the claw feet on the dresser and be reminded of the stories Petey's grandparents had told us about the witch Baba Yaga and her hut that would walk around on chicken feet. I'd glance up at the Jesus picture and think about how awful it must have been for him to hang like that against the black sky, all that time surrounded by angry-looking and, for some reason even worse, completely bored Roman soldiers. Eventually I'd doze off, but I never really got a good night's sleep there.

One Saturday morning, we all woke up at exactly the same time just before the alarm was set to go off.  A tantalizing smell had drifted up the back steps from the kitchen and reached us all simultaneously. I had never smelled anything so good in my entire life with the possible exception of my mother's kitchen on Thanksgiving day. Herbie and I looked over at Petey. He smiled, winked, and said, "Kishka for breakfast!" Petey was a winker. Probably still is. It was as though he were in a perpetual conspiracy and always glad to have you join. Herbie asked, "What the hell's  'kishka'?" Petey just grinned and said, "Just wait. You'll see." Well, we got dressed in a hurry, splashed water on our faces in the wash basin, and ran down the back stairs. There was Gramma Muszkiski at the stove, an old woodburner that had been convereted to gas, with a huge long-handled iron skillet full of scrambled eggs and "kishka." Grampa Muszkiski was already at the table with his napkin tucked under his chin. Naturally, Gramma served him first, and he dug into it as though it were his last meal. We stood there with our mouths watering while she cracked a half dozen more eggs into the skillet and threw in these hockey-puck-sized pieces of "kishka." She told us,"You'se kids get plates and siddown dere," and we didn't wait for a second invitation. Before long our plates were heaped up with the eggs and "kishka" and we tore into breakfast just as Grampa had.

I had already become a little suspicious when Petey told Gramma,"No kishka for me. Let the other guys have it all." It might have been that he was just being polite.. It might have been pure politeness, but knowing Petey, I had my doubts. There was a semi-evil side to him. So I ate all my eggs first while Herbie was wolfing everything down as fast as he could load his fork. He cleared his plate and then sat there with a funny look on his face. He started wrinkling his nose and licking his lips and making smacking noises. You could tell something hadn't agreed with him and wasn't likely to begin agreeing with him anytime soon. He looked over at Grampa and asked, "Say--what is 'kishka' anyway?" Well, Grampa didn't understand him any more than a fence post would have, so Herbie leaned over the table and asked Petey. Petey smirked and told Herbie what "kishka" is. Herbie couldn't make it all the way up to the bathroom in time, and Grandma made him scrub the back stairs with scalding water and lye soap. After that Herbie would never eat anything Polish at the Muszkiskis', no matter how great it smelled. Now, I promise I won't tell any more stories like this one and the paste story because they are rather disgusting. I apologize for any discomfort they may have caused you, but I think these stories about Herb were just too good to keep under my hat.

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"Bees in a Jar"

This is a Petey Muszkiski anecdote which has nothing to do with gastric distress, honest! It happened on one of those sultry summer days when the best thing to do is to curl up under a shady tree with a sweaty glass of cold lemonade and watch the clouds drift by. That's what Petey and I should have done that afternoon, as Joey Doberman, who lived a couple of doors down from Petey, would probably have not wound up in the hospital because of us. Well, Petey and I were sitting on the steps of his back porch. Memories of school and Mrs. Peppercorn had dissolved away just like a bad dream in the morning light. The new school year seemed infinitely far away as it always does when you're young and just a couple of weeks into summer vacation. So far we'd played dozens of sandlot ball games, swum in the Beans' duck pond nearly every day, played hide-'n-seek in the Big Woods, built a tree house, played marbles and cards...you know, we played like kids used to play before crappy television and demonic marketing and advertising geniuses turned American children into mindless junior consumer-cult members who have to have video games and $100 sneakers to make themselves feel happy. I see that I'm getting started here, so I'd better return to my story. Petey and I felt kind of played out, if you know what I mean, and were uncustomarily at a loss as to what to do. Our conversation had gone from "Hey, whadda ya wanna do?" and "Got me. Whadda you wanna do?" to an unusual and uncomfortable silence. We had started picking at some loose paint on the porch in the desultory manner of boys with nothing better to do when a bee detached itself from one of the hollyhock blooms next to the porch railing and buzzed lazily around Petey's head. He swatted it away, but it came back, buzzed angrily back and forth between us, and took off around the corner of the house. Petey stared after it, and I could see an idea hatching behind his narrowed eyes. He jumped up and ran into the house without a word. I continued with my paint picking until Petey dashed out with a large canning jar, announcing on the run that we were "going to get us some bees."

We headed for the school playground, a good place to catch bees because it was covered with clover. Petey explained that the object of this game was to get as many bees as we could into the jar and then see what would happen. It sure beat sitting on the porch, so I was game. Petey was good. He'd sneak up on a bee on a clover flower, scoop her up, and cover the jar with the lid in about two seconds flat. Getting seven or eight bees into the jar without any of them escaping wasn't too hard, but the more Petey scooped in, the harder it got to keep them all contained. Pretty soon the jar was full of really angry bees--I think there were a little over twenty--and Petey was afraid to open it again. He didn't say so. What he said was, "I think that's enough bees for now," but that's what he meant. Well, we stood the jar up on the ground and lay down on our stomachs to watch the bees for a while. It was actually interesting for about two minutes. The bees were very agitated, but didn't sting one another. They just milled around, bumping and bouncing against the walls of the jar and the lid. The novelty of bouncing bees wore off pretty quickly, and we decided to go for a bike ride downtown, but there was the matter of the bees. Petey thought I should open the jar and let them out since he had taken all the trouble to catch them. I thought that since he had invested so much energy in catching them, that he should have the pleasure of letting them go. It was one of those stalemate situations that kids solve by walking away from, and that's what we did. We left the bees in the jar on the playground, ambled first to Petey's and then to my house to pick up our bikes, and then we hightailed it downtown to the soda fountain.

About two hours later we were back in Petey's yard playing mumblety-peg. I had just done a perfect underhand double flip with my Barlow knife when we heard Mrs. Doberman scream "Omigod! Omigod! Help! Somebody help! Call the doctor!" We ran around the house to the front and down two doors to the Doberman house to see what was the matter. Already there was a mob of neighborhood adults and kids crowding around the Dobermans' front porch, craning their necks to see what Mrs. Doberman was screaming about just inside the house's battered old screen door. Before long, Mrs. Doberman ran out with her youngest son Joey in tow, followed by Mrs. Moore, who was their next-door best friend. We knew it was Joey only by his size because we couldn't see his face owing to a big wet towel wrapped all around his head. The crowd parted and they ran to the Moore's driveway where they jumped into Mrs. Moore's car and drove off. Everyone just stood there, mumbling and shuffling, waiting for someone to tell the rest what was going on or for one person to say, "Well, there's nothing we can do here" so they could all leave. Eventually Petey's dad said something like that and the whole neighborhood went home. You could almost see question marks and exclamation points in little white balloons over the heads of everyone as they drifted away.

It was just before dark when I'd have to pedal home that Mrs. Moore's car pulled up and she and Mrs. Doberman stepped out, but without Joey. Anyone who was out sitting out on their porches moseyed on over to where Mrs. Doberman and Mrs. Moore were quietly talking in the Doberman front yard. Petey and I did, too, and the more we heard, the more scared we got. I can still remember how the sound of my pounding heart and panicky, racing mind fragmented the conversation into little pieces, some of which I remember word-for-word today: "...some goddam fool..."; "...a jar of bees on the playground of all places..."; "...oughta have his head examined for chrissakes..."; "...until they're sure he'll be all right..."; "...not on purpose, you don't suppose..."; "...if there's anything we can do...." Petey and I stood there like pole-axed cows. When we could bring ourselves to actually look at each other, we saw that the adult guilt detectors would soon be clanging loudly unless we got out of there pronto. We slunk off to a dark corner of Petey's backyard and agreed that if things didn't look better by noon the next day, we'd hop a train and take our chances somewhere on the other side of Detroit, which for some reason we considered the outpost of Western civilization. We didn't try to blame each other or even blame Joey for being stupid enough to open a jar of furious bees. We knew darn well that we had been the stupid ones, and that's all there was to it. However, if there were the slightest chance of getting away with this one, we'd lay low and wait for it to materialize, but only until noon.

As you can imagine, I didn't sleep well that night. Several times I was tempted to knock on my parents' bedroom door and spill the beans about everything. Once I even made it halfway down the hall, but I just couldn't bring myself to face them. I'd get a good thrashing from Dad first (painful, but over and done with quickly), then angry words and exclamations of disbelief and bewilderment ("What ever possessed you?"; "How could you be so stupid?"; "Did we raise you to do something like this?") and then the worst. Mom and Dad would give me the cold shoulder for the next day or two, letting me wallow in shame and guilt for having disappointed them once more. I'd been through it before. I knew it was survivable. Eventually they would forgive me and maybe even begin to trust me again. Even if the story got out somehow, it would blow over after an initial period of my being eyed suspiciously by all the neighborhood adults every time I left my porch--usually no more than a week or two. But I just couldn't 'fess up. Petey and I had an agreement. Mum was the word.

As it turned out, Petey was not able to live up to the terms of our agreement. His father came over to our house way before noon. Petey had started crying almost immediately after I had left for home the night before, and his parents had the whole story out of him in a jiffy. His father related the whole sorry story to my stunned parents as I stood trembling there in my rumpled pajamas, having been dragged downstairs by my ear to hear his account of our incredible stupidity. Petey had already gotten his licking and been confined to his room where he would remain for the next two weeks until he might be trusted to behave like a civilized human being again. He could leave only to go to confession and church. The conversation among my parents and Mr. Muszkiski went on for some time. He never looked at me once (I had the feeling that Petey had told him it had been my idea to catch the bees and then leave them for Joey to find), and when he left...well, what I told you would happen did,  plus I had to go apologize to the Dobermans and buy a get-well gift for Joey with all the money I had been saving up for a new baseball mitt. The upshot of it all?  Joey had to stay in the hospital for three days, but once the swelling went down, he came home and was fine. Petey and I started to drift apart after this incident. We'd still say "Hello" when we met each other riding bikes or walking downtown, but the days of sleeping over at Gramma and Grampa's and picking each other to be on the same team were over. This also was when my parents thought I needed to start music lessons.

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"Louis Doberman and the Bowling Shoes"

This is a shorter (but not much shorter) tale and it concerns not only Louis Doberman, but also Herb and me. The Dobermans were a poor, but proud family, and Louis taught us just how proud they were. Mr. Doberman had lost his job at the shoe factory when it folded like so many other businesses back then. He was pretty handy, though, and the Dobermans got along--but just--on what Mrs. Doberman made taking in laundry and on what he could make as a jack-of-all-trades. For instance, he replaced the screen in our screen door when Lulu went through it to get at a squirrel in our yard, but he couldn't afford to fix his own door. Now, my father could have fixed our door himself, but he wanted to help the Dobermans out. The Dobermans never accepted charity, so if you wanted to do something nice for them, you had to think of some job for Mr. Doberman to do so he could feel he had earned the money or whatever and hold his head up. Even when the doctors at the hospital said they'd fix up Joey's bee stings for free, the Dobermans wouldn't hear of it. Instead Mr. Doberman cleaned and fixed up the doctors' cars for them in payment. That's the way he was, and that's the way most people who had fallen on hard times back then were.

The Doberman kids had it a lot tougher than most of the rest of us. They never had new toys or clothes. Louis, the oldest, got his clothes from some Catholic church society, but the Dobermans thought that was O.K., because no matter how poor they were, they always put something in the collection plate at Mass. Then when Louis outgrew those used clothes, they'd be passed down to his younger brothers. By the time Joey got them, you could practically see through them.

Now even though Herb and I are having our problems, and I've taken a couple of shots at him here, to be fair I'd have to say that he was a pretty decent kid. He and I and Louis were all in the same class in elementary school, which meant that we'd moved along together from grade to grade. When Mr. Doberman lost his job, we noticed that Louis rarely brought a lunch to school that amounted to more than some butter or lard spread on really thinly cut bread and maybe a piece of hard cheese. He'd open up his father's old lunch pail (which Mr. Doberman didn't use anymore) and that's all that would be in there, day after day. When he got done eating, he'd just sit there and watch the rest of us eat. Every time someone would offer Louis a cookie or maybe a piece of cake, he'd just shake his head and say, "No thanks. I'm saving room for dinner."

It was just before Thanksgiving of the year we were in seventh grade when Herb noticed that Louis had big holes in the soles of his shoes. Louis had knelt down to retrieve his pencil which had rolled under Robert Diamond's desk, and Herb, who sat a couple seats in back of Louis, spotted the holes which were as big as silver dollars. Herb told me later at recess what he'd seen and that it looked like Louis had cut some cardboard to size and placed it inside his shoes to stop up the holes. Herb said it was "a cryin' shame" that Louis had to wear crummy shoes like that, especially with winter coming. I could hear the wheels going around in Herb's head. We walked around the schoolyard without talking for a couple of minutes, and then Herb's eyes lit up. "Hey, I got an idea," he said, but he wouldn't tell me what. He just said to meet him in front of Muszkiski's bowling alley at four o'clock.

Naturally I wondered all the rest of the day what Herb had in mind, and I rode up to Muszkiski's and parked my bike right at four o'clock. Herb came out of the bowling alley's front door and motioned me over. He said that he'd talked to Mr. Muszkiski about Louis. Talked about what, I asked. I thought maybe Herb had asked Mr. Muszkiski to give Louis a job setting pins so he could buy shoes, but Herb said no--and besides Mr. Muszkiski would give a job like that to some unemployed adult first so he could support his family. So I said, "What gives?" Herb told me that he knew that every once in a while the alley threw out all its used bowling shoes, so he had just asked Mr. Muszkiski if he could get some of those shoes for Louis, and Mr. Muszkiski had said, "Sure, go ahead, kid." We went into the alley and asked to see the shoes they'd be getting rid of. We sorted through the pile, picked out the two best pairs in the size we thought would fit Louis the best, and put them into a paper bag. We rode over to Louis's house, knocked on the back door, and asked if Louis could come out to play. When he came out, we told him we had something for him and handed him the bag. He looked inside and then looked at us with a puzzled expression. "These are bowling shoes," he said flatly. "What are you giving them to me for?" We stumbled through an explanation bout his shoes and the coming winter and Mr. Muszkiski while he just stared at us. When we were done rattling on, he pushed the bag into Herb's hands and said, "Wear 'em yourselves." He didn't say it in a nasty manner, and you could tell that he wasn't angry and kind of appreciated what we had intended. Then he turned around and went back into the house without saying anything more.

Herb looked really crestfallen, and I probably did, too. We didn't understand what had just happened. When I asked my parents about it later, my father sat me down and explained the Dobermans and the way they lived and conducted their lives. Of course, any adult would understand exactly why the Dobermans were the way they were, but it was hard for me to grasp at the time. My father's explanation did help me understand why Louis wouldn't give me and Herb the time of day for the rest of the year, and I didn't hold it against Louis.

A funny thing happened, though, years later. Of my little circle of friends, most had gotten through school, gone into the service, and come back to Centerboro to start our lives for real. Herb and I were having coffee in Dixon's one Saturday morning when Louis walked in. We had heard he wasn't hurting. He'd married, had a couple of kids, and gotten a good job in construction. He was back in Centerboro visiting his folks that weekend and had come downtown to the diner to say hello to some of his old friends and acquaintances. When he spotted us sitting at the counter, he came right over and shook our hands. The first thing he said to us was, "Remember the bowling shoes?" The first thing! We wouldn't have brought that up for the world, so Herb ventured a cautious, "Yeah...?" Well, Louis proceeded to tell us that the bowling shoes story was one of his favorites, and that he always brought it up when people got around to swapping the "We were so poor in those days that..." stories. He thanked us with a big grin, slapped us on our backs, and moved down the counter to talk to someone else. Herb and I turned to each other with "What the hell?!" looks on our faces. I guess it goes to show that you never know the extent of your influence on the people around you, but you probably already figured that out yourself.

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"The Sean McMurty Incident"

Remember Richard Albacore, the class bully, from the story of Herb and the paste?  Richard inspired terror in just about everyone. When we went to school, I was "Eddie," Herb was "Herbie," Peter was "Petey," but no one called Richard "Richie" or "Rich"; to do so would have suggested a measure of friendliness between the speaker and Richard, and no one was Richard's friend, not a soul, not in school, and not ever as far as I know. There was only one student whom Richard himself feared, and that was little Sean McMurty. After the Sean McMurty incident, Richard walked five blocks out of his way home from school to avoid passing the McMurty house and the McMurty neighborhood. If Richard were standing on a street corner on a Saturday afternoon and heard someone say, "Hey, here comes Sean," his eyes would get big, he'd pull his head turtle-like down into his shoulders, and the next thing you saw was Richard's back as he sidled off down the street, trying to look casual and as though he had someplace better to be. But we all knew that anyplace far away from Sean would have suited Richard fine, even his own crazy house.

Richard came from a bad family. Where they lived was known as "that house," and they were known as "those Albacores." You could always count on some new, horrific Monday morning story following a weekend at the Albacores'. Richard's father did most of his heavy drinking starting Friday afternoon and ending Sunday evening. He had little difficulty getting enough alcohol to keep himself in a semi-permanent fog even though Prohibition was the law of the land. Centerboro was a kind of regional distribution point for bootleggers running their booze down from Canada and up from New York, so if you knew the right people or had enough money, getting the goods was a cinch. People speculated that Mr. Albacore was directly involved in the bootlegging, since he didn't have any kind of steady work and wasn't independently wealthy like the Camphors. But that was never proven. He was the kind of drunkard who looked sober even when in his cups. If you ran across Mr. Albacore in the market or just walking along the street, he wouldn't be stumbling or slurring his words. He walked ramrod straight and said little, but his eyes were always looking off into the middle distance or boring right through you as though you weren't there. There were always terrific rows at the Albacore house which intensified during the weekends. Although no one except maybe the Centerboro police knew exactly what sorts of things happened inside the house, it wasn't hard to imagine the chaos and craziness that must have swirled about inside its walls. All you had to do was see Richard or one of his brothers come to school with a black eye or bruises on his arms on Monday. Or notice that Mrs. Albacore had no friends among the neighborhood women. Or try unsuccessfully to figure out just how many children actually lived in the place. It was a mess and a scandal and a shame.  

Well, that's the brief background on Richard. In retrospect it's easy to see why he was a bully. Even to us kids it wasn't exactly a mystery. To get to the McMurty incident then, I'll begin by noting that Richard spared no one. Today we might call him an equal opportunity bully. He picked on all of us boys, of course, cursing, tripping, punching, gouging, stomping, and spitting on us in a joyless, methodical way, moving through the boy population of the school the way a threshing machine traverses a wheat field. He wasn't ever physical with the girls, but his nasty comments about their sizes, complexions, and reputations no doubt hurt them just as much as did one of his perfectly-delivered punches right between the shoulder blades designed to knock the wind right out of us boys. He was sly enough to torment us when the teachers weren't looking, and none of us dared to squeal on him, fearing certain and terrible retribution. Richard delighted especially in harassing boys smaller than he, and when Sean McMurty entered as a new student about mid-way through the fourth grade, Richard didn't take long to size up the fresh victim. Sean was small for his age, but his smallness belied a wiry strength and agility that none of us imagined he had until Richard tried his stuff on him.

Miss Pottle had left the room after telling us to please stay at our desks and behave for just five minutes. We all loved Miss Pottle, as kind and caring a teacher as there ever was, and there was a tacit agreement among the class that she was to be respected and obeyed. Even Richard would stay in his seat. But this time, unable to keep his thuggish nature reigned in until recess to jump Sean, Richard didn't. As soon as Miss Pottle cleared the door, Richard lumbered up out of seat and went over in back of Sean's, whereupon he commenced to rap the top of Sean's skull with his knuckles. Now, this was the first time Richard had gone after Sean, and he hadn't done much more than rap him two or three time and call him a "dirty Mick" when Sean turned around, looked Richard square in the eye, and said, "That's just about enough out of you, pally." Richard barked out a mirthless laugh and began jabbing Sean hard in the chest. Sean gave Richard a disbelieving look, a kind of "I thought I told you" look like none of us had ever seen before, and then he did the likes of what no one had ever seen before. He shot up out of his seat and climbed up the front of Richard like a monkey scrambling up a coconut tree. He wrapped his legs around Richard's middle, grabbed both of Richard's ears, and clamped his teeth around his nose. Richard, caught off guard, went down hard. He rolled around trying to dislodge Sean, pounding Sean's back with his fists as hard as he could and pulling at his arms. But it was no use. Sean hung on like a pit bull. Then Richard started yelling for help, for his mother, for us even to get Sean off him, but we stood there paralyzed, our mouths hanging open and our eyes bugged out. Finally hearing the commotion, Miss Pottle rushed into the room, rushed out, came back with the janitor Mr. Boyd, and the two of them managed to pry Richard and Sean apart. Sean, as calm as could be, wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and said, "I told him that was enough," as though that should have served as sufficient warning to Richard, sufficient in the sense that a rattlesnake's rattling is sufficient. Richard stood there doubled over, blubbering like a baby, blood pouring from his lacerated nose. Mr. Boyd took the combatants to the principal's office to sort things out, and Miss Pottle made the rest of us go out for an early recess while Mr. Boyd cleaned up the mess in our room. Stunned, we milled about the playground with our circles of friends, whispering among ourselves, trading our observations of the recent mayhem, speculating on what course the day would now follow. Some were of the opinion that Richard had finally gotten his and his reign of terror was over. Others were not so sure. They ventured that Richard's defeat would make him even more vicious and that we were really in for it now. This theory cast a pall over everything, and when Miss Pottle called us back to class, it was a glum-looking group that meandered in. Neither Richard nor Sean were there, nor were they for the next couple of days. Richard had been sent to the hospital to have his nose stitched up and bandaged, and Sean had been suspended until the principal had fully investigated the incident. Well, during his investigation it came out what Richard was like, and although the principal wouldn't condone what Sean had done, he shortened his suspension considerably.

Now, I hope you're not expecting a miracle here. Richard was still a bully. He continued to pick on everyone with one obvious exception. But if Sean were around when Richard was harrying some defenseless soul, all Sean had to do was give Richard the look, and Richard would back right off. Sean got to be very popular. I once tried to give Richard the look when he kept poking me in the ribs, but Richard knew I was no Sean McMurty, and all he did then was poke me in the eye.

Life's funny, though. Sean wasn't a fighter and he didn't wear his toughness on his sleeve. He was just a no-nonsense, resolute guy who wasn't afraid to stand up for himself and others. Right after high school, Sean went to Christ the King Seminary near Cooperstown and became a priest. I heard that his first assignment was to some parish in a rugged neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts. I'd be willing to bet that he fit right in there. And if toughness counts for anything in the Catholic church hierarchy, he's probably a cardinal today.

I don't know what happened to Richard Albacore. One Monday morning in the summer before eighth grade, a neighbor noticed that all the doors and windows in that house were wide open and that the whole family was gone--lock, stock, and barrel. The only things they left behind were two filthy, snarling, half-starved mutts penned up in the back yard. But a funny thing happened here, too. The dog catcher took the pitiful creatures to the pound where they would have been destroyed, except for Frieda Coubos, who got wind of it and took those two dogs to her dairy farm. For years, you couldn't get to Frieda's porch without a friendly, handlicking greeting from those two. She had cleaned them up, fed them properly, and doted all over them, and darned if they hadn't turned out to be two of the finest farm dogs around. Too bad no one could have done at least as much for the Albacore kids.

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"Running Away"

Who hasn't at one time or another dreamed of running away? I'll bet you do right now if you're squandering the precious, fleeting seconds of your life in a pointless, futile job. Or if your day-to-day encounters with your spouse play out before your mind's eye like the struggles of a fly in a pot of glue. Or let's say that not too long ago your mind was a fertile little nest filled with delightful sky-blue eggs that promised to hatch into melodious, soaring creatures--and now you've discovered that some dreadful cuckoo has plundered your nest and the hatchlings are not yours, but its horrid, clamoring offspring. Having dislodged all the hopeful, spirited thoughts of your youth, that cuckoo has deposited in your mind the peace-destroying images of your maxed-out credit cards, your messed-up children, your myriad physical ailments, your miserable boss, your meager salary, your...well, you know what I mean. That cuckoo is simply life itself, isn't it?

Ah, but you can still daydream of escape. Imagine now that you've won the lottery despite the twelve million-to-one odds! Now you can tell that martinet of a boss of yours to go pound salt in his rear end! Dame Fortune has turned her mighty wheel in your favor, and there you are in... Provence!, sipping a delightful Chateauneuf-du-Pape while the hoi-polloi toils away in the gray and joyless coils of their desperate little lives. Ah, yes, we all can dream....

There are times, though, when escape must go beyond the daydreaming variety. There are times when we must really run away, as Herbie and I had to when we were thirteen. It was a perfect October Saturday. The foliage had just caught fire with the glorious colors of an upstate New York autumn and the tree-covered foothills of the Adirondacks to the north were ablaze. So, too, was Herbie's garage. Oh, what a disaster! And it had all started out so innocently, if anything involving boys and matches could ever be innocent. During that week, Herbie and I had been assiduously collecting the crushed cigarette stubs--except the ones with lipstick on them--from the ashtrays in our houses. Since no store in all of Centerboro would sell us cigarettes, we capitalized on our parents' bad habit and simply rolled our own from their leavings. We'd sprinkle the precious crumbs of our scrounged tobacco into the creases of little rectangles of newspaper, and, as was our Saturday ritual, light up in Herbie's garage using the old Ronson lighter we had found behind the bowling alley and which we now kept stashed in the back of the garage in a nail barrel full of doorknobs, hinges, springs, and assorted other junk. Well, the tobacco crop had been pretty slim that week, our mothers having been particularly tidy, so our haul of tobacco was on the sparse side--enough for only two cigarettes apiece. Chatting and laughing, we had just started puffing away on our first cigarettes when Freddy Bean, attracted by our voices and the aroma of cigarette smoke as he was passing by, invited himself in and hunkered down next to us.

He immediately demanded a puff from each of us, which we grudgingly spared, and then he stood up, stretched, and began to saunter around the garage, taking it all in. Even then, Freddy had an air about him--an air of owning whatever place he happened to be in, an air of control and domination. And yet he wasn't a bully My neat-o Iver Johnson bicycle!like Richard Albacore. He had a way of inviting you into his confidence and making you feel like a buddy, a pal, a member of his private club. Just the previous year, there had been stories circulating abound Centerboro about Freddy's involvement (at the age of twelve) in some botched bank robbery in town. (The stories were true!) Being typical boys, we naturally gravitated toward the wickedness and contrariness that Freddy thus embodied, and we were ready to listen to whatever he had to say and, perhaps, join in some new lark he might propose. All we'd planned to do after our smoke was to cruise Main Street for the thousandth time, I on my trusty old Iver Johnson and Herbie on his ancient CCM Cleveland. (I still have that old bike of mine, by the way. Here's a picture of it to the left. It's still in pretty good shape, just like me!) Anyway, that morning we looked to Freddy for some novel alternative to our usual routine, and he didn't let us down. From his pants pocket he pulled out a little object and held it under our noses in the palm of his hand. We scrutinized it and Herbie said, "It's a thread spool and rubber band. Big deal." Freddy grinned and said, "That's right, Herbie; it's a thread spool and rubber band. Now watch this." From his pocket he produced a kitchen match, and with the non-working end he poked the rubber band down through the hole in the spool. Then he pulled the band back a little and inserted the match back in the hole until just the tip was showing as in the diagram I've drawn below.

Guaranteed to work!

Herbie and I caught on immediately. It was an ingenious match catapult. Freddy promptly demonstrated its effectiveness by launching at close range the loaded match at a cinder block under the workbench. Upon striking the box, it flashed into satisfying brilliance in the darkness under the bench, and Herbie and I were instant "match gun" enthusiasts. Freddy let us test his launcher's accuracy and power until his supply of matches was gone. For his trouble and expense and the pleasure of his company, he demanded our remaining two cigarettes, which we forked over only after insisting he give us the match gun in return. The deal was closed after an appropriate amount of bickering so we could feel we had gotten the best of Freddy and vice versa.

Naturally, even before Freddy had left Herbie's yard, we were already in the kitchen pilfering a fistful of matches from the cupboard drawer, and before Freddy had reached the corner, we were back in the garage with our new toy. I was particularly excited to have such a dandy weapon, puny as it was, as I had recently been disarmed and rendered relatively harmless by Officer Oglethorpe, a Centerboro cop universally known as "Straight Arrow" by all the Centerboro kids.

He'd come by that name owing to his customary admonition to any young person not involved in purposeful, legal activities. Even if you were just standing on a street corner minding your own business and shooting the breeze with one of your friends, you were likely to get a "You'd better walk the straight 'n narrow path, Bub" from Officer Oglethorpe if he were passing by on his motorcycle. Earlier that summer he had caught me shooting tin cans with my cherished Quackenbush #2 airgun (made right in nearby Herkimer) within the town limits. Everyone knew that was a 100%, instantly punishable deviation from the "straight 'n narrow," and everyone knew what the punishment was. Without a word or a fuss, Straight Arrow motioned me over, took my gun, and bent it into a V with the help of a nearby telephone pole. He handed it back to me with his usual warning. Later, heartbroken and teary-eyed, I complained bitterly to my parents, but my father snorted and said, "What's the matter? You don't know the rules?" and my poor mother just shook her head, something, I now regret to say, she did with considerable frequency back then.

Well, a match gun was certainly no Quackenbush, but it was a welcome divertissement for Herbie and me, incipient arsonists that we were (and that I believe most boys are). At first we continued to fire away at the cinder block, but getting bored with that, we turned our attention to a big, flat metal plate leaning against the back wall of the garage. We chalked a crude bull's-eye on the plate and stepped back five paces or so to commence a target shooting match. At that range, the accuracy of the match gun was pretty dismal, and most of our shots went wide of the mark, glancing off the plate without igniting or missing it entirely. We moved one pace closer without improving our scores any. Finally we moved to within a yard of the plate, lay on our bellies on the garage's hard-packed dirt floor, and fired from the prone position. We kept this up even after one of the flaming matches ricocheted directly back off the plate and nearly landed in Herbie's eye. It would have been wise for us to have taken that as an ominous portent, but of course we didn't and continued firing away.

We were down to our last few rounds when Herbie came up with a new slant on the game. Why not light the match before launching it and then shoot it across the garage? A brilliant idea, I agreed. Since it was Herbie's idea, he would be the first. I held our trusty Ronson lighter ready as Herbie loaded the match gun and pointed it at the garage door. At his signal, I ignited the match and Herbie let it fly in an erratic arc across the garage. It must have traveled a good fifteen feet before it bounced off the door and onto a nearby rag pile where, we thought, it went out. We took turns launching the rest of the matches and then, growing tired of our sport, walked out the door to grab our bikes and head downtown. We stood with our backs to the garage for a few minutes planning our itinerary when I happened to glance back and see smoke seeping out from under the garage door. I said, "Hey, Herbie...look at this," pointing at the the smoke curling up the door. He gave me a look that said, I hope what I think is happening isn't happening. We ran to the door, yanked it open, and were met by a roiling inferno that had already climbed the front wall and was now licking the bottoms of the exposed rafters. (This is why they tell you not to leave gasoline-soaked or oily rags lying around. It's because half-witted dolts will find the rags, set them on fire, and burn your part of the world down.) After its many unpainted years in the elements, the grey, weathered garage was little more than well-seasoned kindling, and it couldn't have been more than a minute before its entire front end was a solid wall of flames. Herbie and I stood there dumbstruck for maybe a whole minute before our befuddled brains managed to get a message to our legs, and then, with what little presence of mind we had, we ran right into Herbie's house and called the fire department. Now Herbie's father worked Saturday mornings at Siebring's, and his mother was out doing her Saturday grocery shopping, so we lucked out in two ways. First, they were not around to collar us--we could make a clean getaway; and second, the family car wasn't in the garage to explode when the fire reached its gas tank. We didn't even bother to bundle up any personal belongings to take with us. Herbie ran upstairs to his bedroom, grabbed his genuine leather wallet with the profile of an Indian on it and his entire life savings in it--about five dollars--and then we ran for our lives, the wailing of the fire engines' sirens dogging us as we sprinted to the bus station on South Main. 

Herbie and I had previously come up with a general, all-purpose evacuation plan should we ever get ourselves into really serious trouble. We had learned the hard way that it's always smart to have an escape plan by suffering the consequences of not having had one in any number of our numbskulled adventures that had ended in disaster. Well, this incident definitely qualified as "really serious trouble." We had come up with the scheme of hiding out at the bus station until luggage was being loaded onto a soon-to-depart bus and then crawling in the luggage compartment under the bus when nobody was looking. And that is exactly what we did. The bus we stowed away on happened to be heading for Buffalo, but by the time it stopped in Syracuse, we had had enough of the dark, cramped compartment, being banged around every time the bus went over the slightest bump, and the exhaust fumes. When the driver opened the compartment door, we wriggled out and tried to stammer out an explanation, but he was having no part of it. He hauled us into the terminal office, and the man behind the ticket counter promptly called the Syracuse police.

My father came to pick us up. I think Mr. Garble would have killed us on the spot there in Syracuse, so he had stayed home to deal with the fire and then get his temper (which was pretty bad) under control before he saw Herbie. When we tried to explain the whole story to my father, he just growled, "Shut up." It was a long, silent ride back to Centerboro, punctuated now and then by a bout of fearful blubbering.  My father dropped Herbie off at his house. The firetrucks had gone. The firemen had done their best, but the garage was a smoldering wreck. All of Mr. Garble's tools and and all the other stuff he had stored in the garage were ruined. He was really mad about his big, new table saw. As Herbie told me later, there was a hell of a scene after my father and I left. Poor Herbie got a terrible thrashing and was grounded for a month. Even his sister, with whom he squabbled and fought regularly and almost habitually, felt sorry for him. My father didn't have quite the temper of Mr. Garble, but I couldn't sit down for the rest of the day and I was out of circulation for two weeks. This time, we really did learn a lesson. The next time we used a match gun, we did it outdoors.

To this day, I believe that Freddy, ever the shrewd judge of character and cleverly manipulative even as a thirteen-year-old, had known that Herbie and I would do the most stupid thing possible with the match gun, and, relying on our inherent lack of brains and weakness of character, had deliberately steered us in the direction of the destruction of the garage. I imagine, although I can't prove it, that he must have waited around for the flames to rise and then had a good laugh on the two of us.

Now, as I end this story, I feel compelled to state the following. I know that the Internet is full of dangerous information, some of it potentially destructive of human beings and property. So I warn you that although the easily-constructed match gun looks harmless, it can cause its share of destruction when in the hands of idiots (as illustrated by this tale). If you make one of these, please exercise good sense and launch matches only under the most controlled and safe conditions out-of-doors, and have a bucket of water or a fire extinguisher handy to put out any accidental fires.

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It was 1931, and my pals and I had gotten wind from Petey that yes, it was true--the moving picture Frankenstein most definitely was going to be shown in Centerboro at his Uncle Stanley's theater. When shortly thereafter the lobby poster appeared in the theater's Main Street showcase one Saturday afternoon, we all immediately fell into a state of feverish, blabbering anticipation--a mixture of delicious, galloping fear and boyhood braggadocio. Would you like to see the poster that stirred up so much excitement among us? You would?  Well, here it is...


Frankenstein movie poster

Pretty tame stuff by today's standards, isn't it? However, if I were typical of all the boys in my crowd back then, and I'm sure I was, my heart bounded in irrepressible dread at the very word "monster" itself and at the hideous visage of the monster, flat and unanimated as it was on the poster, and yet I simply had to be the one to issue the mandatory challenge: "I'm going to see Frankenstein! Are you going to see Frankenstein? It doesn't look scary to me!" Grandstanding thusly, I established myself as the boldest of the lot and got the ball rolling. No one would now dare utter the least reservation about being in the same theater with the ghastly Frankenstein monster without risking instant mockery as a chicken-hearted sissy. Without two nickels to rub together, even Louis Doberman would not, simply could not, gamble on his poverty being an allowable excuse to avoid confronting the monster. Somehow, he'd have to come up with the price of admission to save face, which is so important among boys--and men.

As the day approached, a disturbing rumor radiated quickly throughout the juvenile society of Centerboro. At first it was just a faint buzzing like that of a cicada in the top limbs of a far-off tree. But soon it buzzed loudly in the midst of small bands of flabbergasted boys on street corners, playing fields, and in backyards: Mr. Muszkiski would not be allowing anyone under eighteen to see Frankenstein. No one knew the source of the rumor, but Petey intimated that, knowing his uncle, it might be true. Knowing his uncle? What did this mean, we put to Petey, who proceeded to tell us the bad news. Uncle Stanley, he said, was of the opinion that children must be protected from the horrors of the world as long as possible to ensure their happy and healthy futures. Frankenstein, in his judgment, would not be fit for tender, young minds, minds which would most certainly be severely and permanently injured by the terrifying contents of the movie. Therefore, only adults would be allowed to enter the theater and partake of what we believed would be one of the greatest events of the century--the spine-tingling account of the man who made a monster.

Petey, Herb, and I formed an ad hoc delegation to reason with Mr. Muszkiski, but he, not wishing to encourage our boyish appetites for the grotesque and weird, flatly refused to give in to any of our pleas. There was to be no Frankenstein for us, and that was final. Can you imagine our disappointment? Not only would each of us miss what would be perhaps the most thrilling monster movie ever, but we would also miss out on an opportunity to demonstrate our fearlessness before our peers, an important, almost daily issue among us boys.

Disheartened but not yet licked, Petey, Herb, and I retreated to our stronghold, the pre-inferno Garble garage, to contrive a way to see the movie. Perhaps we could disguise ourselves as older kids, Herb ventured. Maybe we could simply sneak in past the ticket seller at her little window and the ticket-taker, too, old Mr. Gatz, who also ran the projector, I thought. Could there be a trapdoor or secret passage somewhere? Petey speculated. We discussed the merits of these and other even more far-fetched ideas and dismissed them all. For the moment, we were stumped. It seemed hopeless. Well, we couldn't breach the theater with a frontal assault, that was for sure, and since the theater was sandwiched between two other buildings, that left the roof or back as the only possible approaches.

We raced up to Main Street, over to Washington Avenue, and then down a driveway to the small yard in back of the theater. We scrambled to the top of the rusty iron ladder there and peered out over a flat expanse that showed no likely means of entry. We then checked over the back of the building. There was a locked rear exit door, but we concluded at once that that couldn't possibly suit our purpose. Even if we bribed some older kid to let us in through the door, we'd be spotted right off and thrown out. Besides, it was a rule as universal and true as the law of gravity that you could never trust older kids to live up to their end of a bargain once you paid them off, and they always insisted on payment first. We then checked the shuttered window through which coal was dumped into the bin in the basement. This looked like an excellent prospect. Why hadn't we come up with this obvious approach before? It was so simple! Petey had once led us through two dark and dingy rooms in the basement to the furnace room where we watched the copiously sweating and grunting Mr. Gatz shovel coal into the great furnace from which cylindrical ducts projected octopus-like in all directions. Naturally, the window was locked on the inside, and unless we could get our hands on the latch, the only way into the basement and then up into the theater would be to break the window, something we liked Mr. Muszkiski enough not to do despite our desperation to see Frankenstein. Could it be done without raising suspicion? Petey thought so. It would be a mere matter of going to the last movie show before the debut of Frankenstein, leaving one's seat in the dark, getting into the basement through its doorway in the corridor which led to the lavatories, unlatching the window, and then returning to one's seat to finish out the show, mission accomplished. On the day Frankenstein was to be shown, we could then enter the building through the unlatched basement window and sneak up into the theater. It would be a cinch. After taking tickets, Mr. Gatz always left the lobby, climbed the steep, narrow stairs to the projection room, and never came back down until the last reel of the movie had been rewound. The ticket seller would not be able to see us sneaking across the lobby. She would be completely occupied perusing her magazine in her little wicket, guarding the Main Street door against ticketless intruders, and selling advance tickets for the next show. Petey, certain to gather praise and gratitude for the exploit, nominated himself as our secret agent. We then decided to limit our expeditionary force to just the three of us plus Louis and Bobby Bakierxrynski (who was Petey's cousin and whose family later changed its name to Baxter so his father could get a management job at the knitting mills). Recollecting the layout of the basement as best we could, we drew a completely unnecessary map, and if we had had watches, we would have synchronized them. We were ready.

It was almost too easy. All the preliminaries went off without a hitch. Just before the opening day matinee of Frankenstein, our select group plus one met in back of the theater. To our original five we had been forced to add Bobby's friend Marvin Thorpe, who had found out about our plan from Bobby and who had promptly threatened to give us away if we didn't count him in. What could we do? Marvin was in. Squatting in a tight huddle by the furnace room window, we reviewed the scheme. We honored Petey by letting him be first man in. It was about a six-foot drop to the mound of coal in the bin, and once he had landed, Petey would lend a hand to the rest of us as we scrabbled in, feet-first, face down. The only light switch in the basement was at the top of the stairs that led to the lavatory corridor. The furnace room was dimly and creepily illuminated by what light filtered in through the window, but the two rooms between it and the staircase were utterly dark. So, once assembled in the furnace room, we'd light the candle I had been designated to bring and thread our way through the darkness beyond and up into the lobby and from there to the inner sanctum.

Marvin was dispatched to spy on the lobby from the other side of Main Street, while we crawled into the basement. It wasn't long before he spotted Mr. Gatz heading for the projection booth. He raced back to the rear window, inched down to join us, and breathlessly announced, "Old man Gatz is gone. Let's go." We went.

In less than a minute, Petey stood on the landing at the top of the stairs, his ear pressed to the door. Lined up behind him on the staircase in the eerie illumination of the flickering candle, our hearts pounding, our feet nervously shuffling, we waited for his signal that all was clear. He soon whispered, "I don't hear anybody," and then opened the door a crack and peeked down the corridor into the lobby. "I don't see anybody, either. C'mon! Quick!" I blew the candle out and we were on our way. Just as planned, the lobby was deserted. We made a quick right where the corridor met the lobby, and cracked the door to the theater just enough to squeeze in. There was a kind of half wall in the back of the theater that separated its seats from the main exit aisle. We crept along this wall on our hands and knees, silently turned its corner, and, our luck still holding, slipped into the seats in the middle of the vacant back row where we hunched down to make ourselves as inconspicous as possible.

The film started within a minute. An ominous, though well-dressed and rather prissy gentleman appeared on the screen and proceeded to introduce the movie. Here are his exact words:

"How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels that it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold...the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image...without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation--life... and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even...horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now is your chance to--ah--well, we've warned you."

Now, of course I didn't remember this preface verbatim after all these years. I had to rent the movie to get them. But I do remember how Marvin, sitting in the middle of us, whimpered and fidgeted uneasily in his seat when he was so kindly given that chance to...well, scram before the thrilling, shocking, horrifying movie began. Bobby and Louis who sat on either side of Marvin furiously shushed him and wouldn't let him leave. And I still remember the credits superimposed on a background of eyeballs swirling around a demonlike face. The movie was all we had hoped and dreaded it would be, right from the foreboding opening scene in the graveyard to the fiery death of the monster in the windmill. I recall how we cringed at the zapping arcs that Dr. Henry Frankenstein generated with his electrical paraphernalia and at the thunder and lightning storm that raged around the laboratory at the birth of the monster. When Henry shrieked insanely, "It's alive...alive..." we covered our eyes to avoid seeing the unearthly creature rise up off the table to murder everyone in sight, and then resumed breathing again when it didn't. And when the creature backed into the room and turned slowly to reveal in a series of jolting closeups its vacuous, malevolent face...well, it was all we could do to keep from fleeing to the exit. But, we stuck it out. We had to. Grimly gripping the armrests of our chairs, occasionally covering our eyes and plugging our ears, we withstood the sinister capering of the demented dwarf Fritz, the full-throated screams of the heroine, the inarticulate growling of the monster on his murderous rampage. But, no one could afford to chicken out and scramble for the door--an act so craven that it would result in the coward's immediate demotion to the rank of Pantywaist First Class. All the brave blustering we had done before the movie now came back to force us to remain squirming in our seats for the entire picture. Just before the end of the closing scene, we skedaddled for the lobby, nonchalantly wandered out onto Main Street under the puzzled eye of the ticket taker, and ran over to Madison Park to debrief.

You can probably imagine our conversation--how keen the monster was, and wasn't that a dandy ending, and "didja see when...," etc. Of course, we also had to stagger around monster-like, stalking each other with groping arms extended stiffly before us, re-enacting the most gruesome scenes from the picture. We kept at it for what was left of the afternoon, and then, one by one, we drifted off alone to home and dinner--and the approaching darkness of night and our solitary beds.

None of us ever discussed the terrors of his first night after seeing Frankenstein. The unbreakable Code of Deportment for Boys simply forbid it. Gone was the mutually sustaining company of friends, and each of us was left alone with his imagination. Who could admit to cringing beneath the sheets or bolting upright in bed at each creak and clank from the basement? Not I. Would I expose my cowardice by ever admitting that I had to pee out my bedroom window because the monster was waiting to grab me on the way to the bathroom. Not until all these years later. The familiar snoring and mumbling and shifting about of my sleeping parents--so often a comforting reminder of the closeness of protection and rescue in the middle of a dark night--was translated in my agitated half-sleep into the furtive approach of a freakish abomination, a relentless, unappeasable, murderous creature with a criminal's brain all because that stupid Fritz dropped the normal brain! And so on throughout the night....

I emerged bleary-eyed from my twisted, sweaty sheets long before my parents awoke. Heartened by the early morning sun, I got dressed, splashed water on my face, and went downstairs to grab a quick bowl of cereal and a glass of milk. Then, as I stood stretching on the front porch, cheered by the early-morning chorus of birds, a great surge of confidence filled me, and I pooh-poohed my night terrors. How stupid I had been. It was only a movie, for Pete's sake. And as the day went on and the five of us monster buffs (but not Marvin who never came around us again) gravitated together, we overlooked the obvious signs of the sleepless night we had each spent and gloried in the great caper we had pulled off.

As I recollect this episode, I think of the real monsters the human species has produced from among its members, and I must say that I long rather desperately and rather hopelessly for the days when the the most frightening thing in my life was a flickering image upon a screen.

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"Harriet Peebles Blows Her Top"

You may wonder if all that business about birds and hats in Freddy and the Popinjay could possibly have been based on real events in Centerboro. I mean, doesn't it sound like a completely grotesque and asinine idea to wear a bird upon one's hat or as a hat?  Given the epidemic and intransigent stupidity of the human race, you will probably not be surprised at all to find out that it was not considered an outlandish idea once upon a time. As a matter of fact, the adorning of ladies' heads with bird parts and whole birds was all the fashion for a considerable period of time. Of course, something so bizarre could have been driven only by the fashion sense (?) of the upper-class and upper-class wannabes (i.e., the miserably envious and perennially pretentious middle class, of which there was a fair representation in Centerboro), one facet of whose millinery weirdness stemmed from the belief that wearing dead animal parts made them appear elegant and chic and maybe even sassy. I ask you to examine this picture and ask yourself if it creates such an impression.

A hideous Harriet hat

This preposterous abomination is one of Harriet's "exclusive" creations made of a bird's wing and the remains of some beady-eyed little mammal, the beady eye of which you can clearly see staring out at you in a most pathetic manner. It was this very hat on display in her little shop window that raised an issue with the Ladies Literary Society of Centerboro and caused so much of a ruckus at a meeting of that society and throughout the ranks of the fashionable females of Centerboro. But before we get to that, here's a bit of background which will help you make as much sense out of what is essentially senseless as you can.

Now, the business of obtaining bird parts of the kind you see in the picture above inflicted a huge toll upon the poor bird population, naturally enough. Long before Harriet blew her top, editorials in the men's magazine Field and Stream in 1883-1884 complained about the atavistic ferocity of women, whose enslavement to the demands of silly fashions resulted in the needless and wholesale destruction of hundreds of thousands of songbirds. Many letters to this magazine called for legislation to protect birds such as your basic songbirds, swallows, orioles, egrets, and terns. The American Ornithologists' Union did the same in 1886. Even royalty, as dim-witted as its members are after years of inbreeding, saw this stupid and cruel fashion fad the same way as the A.O.U. and readers of Field and Stream. Queen Alexandra, for instance, declared in 1906 that she would no longer adorn her hats with wild bird feathers. In like manner, Queen Mary threw out all her feathered hats in 1911 before a jaunt to India. Wasn't that nice of them to be so royally considerate of birds?

Our august neighbor to the north, splendid Canada, banned the import of all plumage (except for that of ostrich and garden fowl), but even so, some tasteless femmes still decorated their hats with bird remains as reported by Dr. C. Gordon Hewitt, a distinguished Canadian entomologist, who described a most disturbing sight in 1916: "Only the other day, in an electric car, I happened to look down at the hat of a lady in front of me and imagine my disgust to see the skins of two chickadees, one of our most beautiful, most useful and most widely distributed birds, 70 per cent of whose food consists of injurious insects; those beautiful and useful native birds had been sacrificed simply to satisfy the thoughtless and wanton craze of fashion."

To back up a little, the 1880s and '90s saw women begin to wear whole birds such as Birds of Paradise on their hats. Frank Chapman, a noted ornithologist of that time, reported counting 40 different species of native birds decorating the hats of over 75 percent of the 700 women he counted in New York City. Another account notes that a stroller through Manhattan in 1886 counted 542 exotic birds, all of them stuffed and mounted on top of women's hats. I do not make these statistics up.

You might guess that the first Audubon societies had something to say about this issue, and of course they did, protesting what they called an "abominable" habit and joining the ranks of those who encouraged the passage of laws to eradicate feather fashions. It was not just royalty, sportsmen, and scientists who raised their voices to protest the decking out of women in animal and bird parts. Oh, no! Socialites, too, joined the protesters. Notable among them were Harriet Hemenway who with her cousin Minna Hall started the Audubon Society chapter in Massachusetts. She had looked out her window one day in 1896 to see a woman wearing a stuffed Artic Tern on her hat. Now she was no doubt disgusted by the sight and aroused to pity for the poor bird, but she also realized that for women to be taken seriously in a man's world, they simply could not parade about in public underneath dead creatures mounted upon their apparently empty craniums. Therefore, she and her cousin mounted a campaign to discourage this repulsive practice. They organized tea parties and pushed the idea of wearing ribbons and flowers upon the female head instead of dead birds. They promoted boycotts. They gleaned names from the Boston Blue Book and mailed circulars which solicited membership in an organization to protect our feathered cousins from the fashion industry. Within six years, like-minded people in twenty-six other states formed their own Audubon Societies, and a curious alliance of socialites, sportsmen, and scientists worked together to protect little birdies from being sacrificed in the name of fashion.

I must mention another notable champion of birds here because she has a slight connection to Centerboro. Florence Augusta Merriam, born in 1863,  grew up in upstate New York in Locust Grove, a very small town about 31 miles north of Rome, NY. You'd take Route 46 north out of Rome and pass right by Centerboro on your way! Florence took an keen interest in the wildlife surrounding her home, especially the birds. When she went to Smith College, she developed a passionate interest in studying living birds, rather than their skins, bones, and feathers, and thought that binoculars were a better tool for bird study than shotguns. She was horrified by the slaughter of up to five million birds per annum to supply the fashion industry, and by 1885 she was writing articles about protecting birds from becoming millinery ornamentation. She organized the Audubon Society at Smith College and continued to work for the protection of birds for the rest of her life. I am not certain, but she may have been an early member of the Ladies' Literary Society of Centerboro, as there is a possible reference to her in the transcript of the meeting, a part of which I quote below, during which Harriet blew her top.

Isn't this all quite fascinating? I'm sure you think so, and for your further edification, here are two articles which address the very issue that resulted in Harriet's forcible removal from an LLSC meeting and very nearly her subsequent arrest.

"Feathers or Flowers" from Birds, Vol. III, No. 5, May, 1898 (A. W. Mumford, Publisher)

Touching the question whether the beautiful Terns and Gulls, with their soft gray and white coloring, were to be popular, it was said that they would not be used as much as formerly. One salesman said that he would try, where a white bird was requested, to get the purchaser to accept a domestic Pigeon, which was just as beautiful as the sea and lake birds named.

The milliners all agree that the Snowy Egret is doomed to extermination within a short time, its plumes, so fairy-like in texture, rendering its use for trimming as desirable in summer as in winter.

As to the birds of prey, people interested in our feathered friends are as desirous of saving them from destruction as they are to shield the song birds. There are only a few of the Hawks and Owls which are injurious, most of them in fact being beneficial. Hundreds of thousands of these birds were killed for fashion’s sake last fall, so that this coming season the farmer will note the absence of these birds by the increased number of rat, mouse, and rabbit pests with which he will have to deal.

It is a matter of congratulation, then, to the members of the Audubon Society to know that their efforts in Chicago have not been wholly fruitless, inasmuch as the majority of dealers in women’s headgear are willing to confess that they have felt the effect of the bird protective crusade.

Dr. H. M. Wharton, pastor of Brantly Baptist Church, Baltimore, has always been a bitter opponent of those who slaughter birds for millinery purposes. “It is wholesale murder,” said he, “and I am delighted that a bill is to be offered in the Maryland legislature for the protection of song birds. I have commented from the pulpit frequently upon the evil of women wearing birds’ wings or bodies of birds on their hats, for I have long considered it a cruel custom.”

“Birds are our brothers and sisters,’ aid the Rev. Hugh O. Pentecost before the Unity Congregation at Carnegie Music Hall, Pittsburgh, a few weeks ago. “If we are children of God, so are they. The same intelligence, life, and love that is in us is in them. The difference between us is not in kind, but in degree.”

"Fashion's Clamor" from Birds and All Nature, Vol. VI, No. 5, December, 1899 (A. W. Mumford, Publisher)

JUDGING from late millinery creations, and the appearance of windows and showcases, women, in spite of the efforts of the Audubon societies, still elect to adorn themselves with the stuffed remains of rare or common birds.

A live bird is a beautiful and graceful object, but a dead duck, pigeon, or gull peering with glassy eyes over the brim of a woman's hat is, to the thinking mind, both unbecoming and repulsive. In deference to "sentimental" bird lovers and at the same time the behest of Dame Fashion, wings and breasts are said to be manufactured out of bits of feathers and quills which have all the appearance of the original. Wings and breasts, yes, but never the entire creature, which the bird lover — in a millinery sense — chooses above all other adornments for her headgear. Apart from the humanitarian side of the subject, one cannot but marvel that such women cannot be brought to regard the matter from the esthetic point of view.

"Esthetic," repeats my lady, glancing admiringly in the mirror at the death's head above her brow, "esthetic point of view, indeed! Why, the point of view with most women is to wear whatever they consider becoming, striking, or outre. Now I flatter myself in selecting this large gull with spreading wings for my hat, that I attained .all three of these effects, don't you?"

"Especially the outre," muttered one of her listeners, at which my lady laughed, evidently well pleased.

Five women out of every ten who walk the streets of Chicago and other Illinois cities, says a prominent journal, by wearing dead birds upon their hats proclaim themselves as lawbreakers.

For the first time in the history of Illinois laws it has been made an offense punishable by fine and imprisonment, or both, to have in possession any dead, harmless bird except game birds, which may be "possessed in their proper season." The wearing of a tern, or a gull, a woodpecker, or a Jay is an offense against the law's majesty, and any policeman with a mind rigidly bent upon enforcing the law could round up, without a written warrant, a wagon load of the offenders any hour in the day, and carry them off to the lockup. What moral suasion cannot do, a crusade of this sort undoubtedly would.

Thanks to the personal influence of the Princess of Wales, the osprey plume, so long a feature of the uniforms of a number of the cavalry regiments of the British army, has been abolished. After Dec. 31, 1899, the osprey plume, by order of Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, is to be replaced by one of ostrich feathers. It was the wearing of these plumes by the officers of all the hussar and rifle regiments, as well as of the Royal Horse Artillery, which so sadly interfered with the crusade inaugurated by the Princess against the use of osprey plumes, The fact that these plumes, to be of any marketable value, have to be torn from the living bird during the nesting season induced the Queen, the Princess of Wales, and other ladies of the royal family to set their faces against the use of both the osprey plume and the aigrette as articles of fashionable wear.

If this can be done in the interest of the white heron and osprey, on the other side of the water, why cannot the autocrats of style in this country pronounce against the barbarous practice of bird adornment entirely, by steadfastly refusing to wear them themselves? The tireless energy of all societies for the protection of birds will not begin to do the cause among the masses so much good as would the total abandonment of them for millinery purposes by what is termed society's 400.


What follows are passages quoted from the actual transcript of the secretary's notes from the meeting of the Ladies' Literary Society of Centerboro at which my ex-wife Harriet blew her top. The ellipses indicate blather, tripe, and boring twaddle (of exactly the sort one would expect at a ladies' club meeting) which I have skipped over for various reasons.

President:--Ladies, what is your further pleasure?

Mrs. O.--Madam President, I move the adoption of the following resolution which expresses the passionate interest of our late sister Florence who campaigned so mightily against an offense against nature:
Resolved, That it is the sentiment of this club that its members should wear no birds on their hats this spring.


President:--It is moved and seconded that the following resolution be adopted:
Resolved, That it is the sentiment of this club that its member should wear no birds on their hats this spring.

Miss B.--Madam President, I move to amend by striking out "this spring."

Mrs. U.--Madam President, I would like to add to Miss B.'s amendment, and so I move to further amend Mrs. O.'s motion by striking out "its members," and inserting "women."

President--Mrs. U., since we're following standard parliamentary usage, your motion cannot be entertained at the present time. You'll have to wait your turn.

[Miss B.'s motion is discussed, and put to a vote.]

President--The motion is carried. The question is now upon the adoption of the resolution as amended. Are there any remarks? Mrs. U., I believe you had a motion you wished to introduce.

Mrs. U.--Madam President, I move to amend by striking out "its members," and inserting "women."


President--The motion prevails, and the question is now upon the adoption of the resolution as amended. Are there any remarks?

Miss P.--There certainly are, Madam President. This resolution as amended is the result of  pure spite on your part and Mrs. U., and Miss B., and Mrs. O. If Mrs. U. hadn't thought I made her wait too long in my shop to see that stupid hat she saw in my window, she wouldn't have made such a big stink about it all over the place and wouldn't have thought to launch this personal vendetta against me in this meeting. It is really too despicable, isn't it. I mean who does she think she is. And we all know that she put her little toady Mrs. O. up to making the original motion, now don't we?

Miss B. I rise to a point of order, Madam President.

President--Miss B. will please state her point of order.

Miss B.--The Ladies' Literary Society of Centerboro certainly does not engage in spiteful conduct, being, as it is, a society of ladies, as Miss P. should ought to know. I would ask that the President caution Miss P. against further uncalled-for outbursts of this sort, which have no basis in fact and which cause an unpleasant upset to the customary decorum of our meetings.

President--Miss B.'s point is well taken. Miss P., I must caution you about raising your voice or impugning the character of any member or members of our society. 

Mrs. R.--Mrs. President, will you please state the motion again?

President--The secretary will please read the resolution.

Secretary--Mrs. President, shall I read the resolution as offered by Mrs. O., and the amendments that have been made?

President--No, simply read the resolution as it now stands.

Secretary--Resolved, That it is the sentiment of this club that women should wear no birds on their hats.

President--All those in favor--

Mrs. S.--Mrs. President, I move to amend by substituting the following:
Resolved, That it is the sentiment of this club that no woman should wear any bird or feathers of any bird, except those of the ostrich, on her hat.


Mrs. T.--Madam President, I move to amend by substituting the following:
Resolved, That it is the sentiment of this club that women should not make use of birds or the feathers of birds for personal adornment.


President--The motion prevails. The question now recurs upon the motion to substitute the resolution offered by Mrs. T, for the resolution as read by the secretary. Is there any further discussion?


President--The motion prevails. The question is now upon the adoption of the resolution.

Mrs. U.--Madam President, I move the previous question.


President--The motion is lost. The question is now upon the adoption of the resolution.

Mrs. D.--Mrs. President, what resolution do you mean? Haven't we just voted on the resolution about wearing birds' feathers?

President--The vote just taken was upon the motion to close debate. The resolution has not yet been voted upon.

Mrs. V.--Mrs. President, I move to lay on the table.

Miss P.--I'll lay you out on the table, you little...

President--Order, order please! Miss P., if you cannot conduct yourself in a proper manner, I shall have you escorted from the room.

Miss P.--You and who else, you cow! Why, for two cents I'd come over there and knock you over the head with that too stupid gavel!

President--Will the sergeant-at-arms please show Miss P. to the door immediately.

Miss P.--Never mind! I'll show myself to the door, but there's no parliamentary procedure out on the sidewalk, Madam President, and I'll be out there waiting for you.

President--Is that a threat, Miss P?

Miss P.--Well, now, just how stupid are you? Of course it's a threat! I'll pluck you like chicken, you old &(^@#!

This marks the end of the interesting part of the meeting, probably the most interesting meeting in the annals of the L.L.S.C. Miss Peebles did indeed lay for Madam President that day, but did not engage in a punch up with her or anyone else, as the police had been contacted before the end of the meeting and Miss Peebles driven to her home and issued a stern warning to keep away from the officers of the L.L.S.C. and to attend no further meetings. Naturally, she was drummed out of the group and thereafter lost all social standing she may have enjoyed in Centerboro. It is a terrible thing, is it not, to fly in the face of the powers that be, especially when those powers are wielded by otherwise powerless women. I find it fascinating, don't you, that Harriet and Mrs. U. crossed swords in this disgraceful display of female ferocity before I married (and divorced) the one and later became the other's paramour.


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"All the Marbles"

When he was about eight or nine years old, Jinx's most prized possession was a wondrous marble in which was embedded a silver lion. He never played it in any of our great day-long tournaments of those days for fear of damaging or losing it. He kept his treasure carefully wrapped just so in a square of red flannel in a little leather pouch with a drawstring that his mother had made especially for the marble. He seldom brought it out into the light of day, and he would but rarely let anyone else touch it. It was a sacred amulet, an object of worship and power to him. Sometimes you might see him carefully unwrap the marble and peer into it, holding it up and turning and turning it against the light of the sky. One wonders what went through his head at those times. There was not one of us who did not covet that marble, and many a time we tried to sweet-talk and wheedle him into putting it into play, but he was adamant, and it seemed that the lion marble was forever beyond our clutches.

Here's a picture of Jinx's marble. How I am able to present this splendid image here will become clear presently.

Jinx's marlble

Is it no wonder then that Jinx's spectacular marble became a kind of grail to the rest of us, the focus of much daydreaming and scheming. We had just about given up on ever wresting it from Jinx, when one late July afternoon a set of circumstances arose that finally tempted Jinx into playing it in a game.

Our usual crowd was out at the Bean farm that day. It was a real scorcher. For most of the morning Herb, Louis, Petey, Bobby, Jinx, and I had been splashing around in the duck pond, but around noon it had become too hot for us even there. Our brains boiling in our skulls, we stumbled into to the shadow thrown by the barn and sagged listlessly against the splintery wall. Mrs. Bean caught sight of us sprawled and panting there like so many barnyard dogs and brought out a pitcher of her tart sumac berry brew which we gratefully gulped down . She raised an eyebrow and warned us to keep out of the sun if we knew what was good for us. Unmindful young boys, she said, had been known to suddenly collapse in such heat and have to be carted off to spend a week at the Lying-In Hospital. Would we like that, she asked. No'm, we chorused, and meant it. She nodded, satisfied that we were either too sensible or too heat-exhausted to contradict her, and went off to her afternoon chores.

For a while we watched a few chickens scratch and peck in the dirt yard between the house and the barn and made bets on which chicken would peck at another's head first. When they moved out of our line of sight without incident, we turned to other diversions: telling all the good jokes we had heard in school; gossiping about teachers, girls, and the odder residents of Centerboro; planning a tree fort up in the Bean woods. Finally the conversation turned to the marble tournament we had been staging for the past three summers on the last day before school started. The big game was slightly more than a month away, but all of us had been working on our shooting techniques for weeks in anticipation of the contest. I myself had mastered the art of "knuckling down," and was ready to sweep the ring.

Well, those days we seldom went anywhere without a bag of thirty or forty of our lesser marbles, prepared for any quick pick-up game that might get going. Of course, we saved our favorite shooters and our prized marbles for the big one at summer's end. No one played in that one who wasn't prepared to put up his best marbles for grabs. But for now it was permissible to enter any game with your seconds and thirds--we all knew these games were just for fun and practice. Having nothing better to in the sweltering heat, we started up a little game we called "die shoot." In this game, we'd balance an ordinary die on an old clay marble, of which there were still plenty around. In turn, each of us became the "keeper of the die." Before the first player took a shot, everyone made a one-time deposit of two marbles to the "bank." Then any player who wanted a shot would pay the keeper one marble per shot, stand off behind a line drawn about six feet from the die, and shoot. If he managed to knock the die off the marble, the keeper would pay him a number of marbles equal to the dots on the topmost face of the die. We played this for a while, no one winning or losing any great number of marbles, and then went on to a game we called "Bouncers." This was more a game of luck than skill and it was played like this. We'd stand about five feet away from a wall and toss a marble so that it would bounce off. All marbles stayed right where they landed until one player's marble hit any of the ones on the ground, whereupon he'd get all the marbles that had been thrown before. It was a nerve-wracking, frustrating game that never lasted long before we turned to another game which required more refinement and finesse, "Dead Eye"-- the game in which Jinx lost both his judgment and his lion marble that day.  

We drew a one foot circle in the dirt and each of us placed one marble in the center. The idea behind "Dead Eye" was to stand over the circle and drop a marble from eye level (and no stooping or bending!) into the circle. If you managed to knock any marbles out, you got to keep them. If you didn't, your marble stayed in the circle and the turn passed to the next player and the next until all the marbles had been won. Now this was a game that Jinx was pretty good at. He was a foot shorter than the rest of us which gave him an automatic advantage, and he had a good eye. Playing "Dead Eye" with Jinx guaranteed you were going to go home a few marbles poorer.

(To be continued someday when I feel motivated.)

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Tales Out of School (And Elsewhere)
© 2006 by Edward H. Anderson

Except in the case of brief quotations in totally uncritical, completely complimentary articles and reviews,
no part of this work may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of Edward Henry Anderson.



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