Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Master of the Candy Hunt

On a rainy day in early spring, a few of my Catholic high school classmates and I are hiding small bundles of candy that have been wrapped in aluminum foil.

We’re in a room that’s on the top floor of the school, which houses students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The room isn’t used often, and if it were more cluttered it might qualify as an attic. There are some chairs and a piano, but otherwise there aren’t many places to hide small bunches of candy that have been wrapped in aluminum foil.

We were originally supposed to be doing this in the schoolyard, which is a hill about the size of a parking lot, with enough trees and other hiding places to pose a real challenge.

But I did tell you that it was raining that day.

And you’ve probably guessed that I was in charge of this event. And you’re right.

Perhaps you also think that I volunteered for this. And you couldn’t be more wrong.

A few days earlier, my homeroom teacher, whose idea this was, had placed slips of paper into a container and asked one of the other students to pick one, and my name was on it. To this day I can’t help suspecting that all the slips of paper had my name on them.

I suspect this because my homeroom teacher always seemed to be volunteering me for something. A few months earlier, she had chosen me to narrate a Christmas pageant, and although the word didn’t exist yet, she surely taught me the meaning of “micromanagement,” insisting that I read the script her way: “This (pause) is the story (pause) of the first Christmas.”

On another occasion she showed me a speech she wanted me to give at some point. I took it home, read it and thought it was corny. Eventually I brought it back to school, hid it in the cloakroom and, thank God, she never (pause) bothered me (pause) about it (pause) again.

But now I am stuck. I am the Master of the Candy Hunt.

I’m sure my homeroom teacher thought the plan was foolproof: Hide the small bundles of candy in the schoolyard. Have the third-grade teacher bring down her pupils. Tell the pupils to find a bundle of candy and take it back to the classroom, where I would let the first five kids in and shut the door. The lucky quintet would be eligible for a drawing for a chocolate Easter bunny.

Unfortunately, my homeroom teacher never thought to call the weather bureau.

So now all the candy has been hidden, and it’s time for me to go down and get the third-grade teacher and her pupils.

But I see that the third-grade teacher and her pupils are already heading up the stairs.

Hmm. Well, that’s OK. (Callow teenager that I am, I don’t know an omen when I see one.)

When they reach the top of the stairs, the teacher hands me the key to the classroom. (Why did she lock it? It’s not as if there’s anything valuable in there. When was the last time anyone tried to fence a box of 64 Crayola crayons — with built-in sharpener?)

The pupils are let loose, and I begin to amble down the two flights of stairs to the floor that contains the classroom.

I’m probably not halfway down the stairs when I hear a noise.

It sounds like thunder. But although it’s a rainy day, it’s too early in the year for a thunderstorm.

Then I realize it isn’t thunder but a thundering herd of third-graders stampeding my way.

I scramble down the rest of the stairs and down a hallway to the classroom. Then I try to unlock the door. But the lock and the key and the entire building are old enough to have been dedicated by Calvin Coolidge, and there’s no way I’m going to get that door open in time.

So I have what I think is a brilliant idea: Take the first five kids and put them on the left side of the door and keep the rest of the kids away.

I might as well try to stop the Johnstown Flood with my bare hands and divert it to Peoria.

So there’s an overflow of kids on the left side, and all I can do is try to figure out which of them were the first five. Do I guess right? Probably not, especially considering that I can still remember one boy whose face was almost hysterical with tears.

I have written the finalists’ names on pieces of paper, and I ask the teacher to pick one. She doesn’t seem eager to do this, but she does it, and for better or worse we have a winner.

But even now, half a century later, I worry that one day I will look at the headlines that incessantly zip across the bottom of my TV screen and see “Mass Murderer: ‘That Chocolate Bunny Was Mine!’”

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

A piece of my ancient history

I am sitting at my desk in the front of the classroom as the nun who teaches American history to 11th-graders stands inches away from me.

Sister Francis, who is also our homeroom teacher, is angry — not at me, but at the class as a whole.

The end of the school year isn’t far away. At the beginning of the year I had looked forward to taking her course; I had heard she was an excellent teacher, and I hoped to learn more about the story of our country.

So I was greatly disappointed when I found out that instead of giving lectures, she would write a history question on the blackboard almost every day. We students would then go to a wooden bookcase in the back of the room and spend the rest of the class using the books to research the answer.

“They might ask this on the Regents!” she would say. And say. And say. The course didn’t seem to be about such silly things as the people, philosophies and events that shaped our country; the main objective seemed to be to get us to pass the damn exam.

At one point the wooden bookcase wasn’t good enough for her. One day she brought in a do-it-yourself bookcase with metal shelves, and during the first period she had a few of the guys put it together for her. As I recall, it had three metal shelves, and it was suspended — yes, suspended — by means of strings that were fastened to the wall.

During the lunch period that day, as Sister Francis was out of the room and talking to another nun across the hall, a group of us stood around the bookcase. One of us — a guy named Louie, who was always stumbling into trouble — gently poked one of the books on the middle shelf.

The bookcase swayed inward a little.

Then outward a little.

Then inward a little more.

Then outward a little more.

Then inward a lot more.

Then outward a lot more.

So that by the time Sister Francis returned to the room, bringing the other nun with her so she could show off the wonderful new addition to her classroom, the entire contraption had collapsed, leaving the books in a heap on the floor.

But that was months ago. That is not why Sister Francis is angry now.

She is angry about something that just happened while she was showing slides of her trip to India.

Everyone at the school knows about her trip — how she traveled to India, rode on an elephant and even met Indira Gandhi.

Yes, everyone knows about it, and they’re sick to death of hearing about it, not to mention the slides.

During the slide show a few minutes ago, she showed a picture of herself. Then she showed a slide of an elephant.

“Guess what the next slide shows,” she then said with more than a hint of coyness.

A guy yelled out, “The elephant on you!”

And now Sister Francis, who was a drama queen years before the term was invented, is Very Angry.

And she’s standing right in front of me.

“That’s it! I’ve had it! All during this school year I’ve worked hard — very hard — to see that you pass the Regents exam! I’ve worked my fingers to the bone! And what do you do? You make fun of me! Well, that’s it!

“AS FAR AS I’M FINISHED, I’M CONCERNED!”

No one dares to make a sound. I myself don’t dare to look up at her face, to see if she realizes what she has just said. I look straight ahead, at Sister Francis’ midriff, as my front teeth dig so deeply into my lower lip that I wouldn’t be surprised if I struck oil.

I can’t remember what happened after that. I do remember that we did indeed take the Regents exam some weeks later, and it was easy. Ridiculously easy. You would have aced it. Your cat or dog would have sailed through it. Even your goldfish would have passed it swimmingly.

But I still don’t know that much about history.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Holy Week in the composing room

It’s Holy Week, and on this particular night, about 30 years ago, I am filling in as makeup editor in my newspaper’s composing room.

The job has nothing to do with lipstick and rouge, though it does involve working with a few people who I sometimes think — in my less charitable moments — deserve the kind of facial makeover that Estee Lauder never envisioned.

Most of the people in the composing room are nice to me; they dutifully cut and paste up the type after it comes out of the film processor that has replaced the Linotype machines. But a couple of them are incompetent and incomparably rude. One of them can’t be trusted to cut type correctly — his nickname is “Chainsaw” — and when he puts type on a page it’s often crooked. The only way he could consistently put it on straight would be if his shift coincided with a major earthquake.

And there’s the production manager, whose duties consist of sitting in a little office, reading a newspaper and chewing gum, then coming out to the newsroom to chat with the managing editor, then going back to his office — and more gum! — then, as deadline approaches, coming out to the composing room and harassing already harried editors.

The makeup editor job is basically troubleshooting: cutting stories that are too long; finding ways to fill space because a story is too short; looking for stories and pictures that are missing. And when I’m not doing all this, I’m trying to anticipate problems as the clock keeps ticking.

This being Holy Week, the paper has been running a daily series that retells the Easter story.

A small picture goes with it — an artist’s rendering of the face of Jesus Christ.

And it’s missing.

I know that every morning someone from the newspaper’s library comes into the composing room, collects the pictures from that morning’s pages and brings them to the library to be filed.

So I hustle across the building to the library.

Over the years the library has improved. It used to be that if you went in there looking for, say, a picture of Julie Andrews, you had to look in a file cabinet and find a small folder with her name. This would direct you to a large manila folder in another file cabinet, a folder marked with a number, such as 4537.

Upon opening the drawer in the bigger file cabinet and finding Folder 4537, you would be likely to find a few pictures of Julie Andrews — but only after sifting through pictures of the Empire State Building, a circus elephant, a guy in a hard hat pointing at something, a kindergarten class from a local school, the same guy in the same hard hat pointing at something else, and about a dozen other unrelated images.

You know that theory that says that if you take 20 monkeys and sit them at typewriters, one of them will eventually type “King Lear”? I am reasonably sure that one of the 19 other monkeys invented this filing system.

Luckily for me, the filing system has been revamped. Unluckily for me, I can no longer dive in and find something myself. Instead, I’m now required to ask a clerk to find it for me.

Tonight the clerk is a guy named Bob. He’s an older gent and one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.

And he has a hearing problem.

Bob used to be assigned to a night shift in the wire room, where he didn’t have to deal with people much; he spent his shift collating stories from the wire service machines. But those machines have been replaced by a computer system, and he has been reassigned to the library.

Whenever you talk to Bob, he looks at your lips, even though he wears a hearing aid. Having dealt with him a lot, I know enough to enunciate when I tell him that I’m looking for a picture of “Jesus Christ.”

But I can tell that he’s not understanding me, and I am sympathetic; “Jesus Christ” can’t be an easy name to lip-read. So I try again, a little louder, as if that would help much.

“I’m looking for a picture of JESUS CHRIST!”

He’s still not getting it.

“JESUS CHRIST!”

By now I’m worried that he thinks I’m yelling at him. But he finally understands me, and he walks to one of the file cabinets, opens a drawer and pulls out a small cardboard folder.

On the folder is typed “Jesus Christ.” In the folder is my Holy Grail of the moment, the drawing of the Savior Himself, complete with crown of thorns.

But there’s no time for champagne — I have to rush back to the composing room with my find and await the next crisis.

I’m sure the wait won’t be long.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Still Henry after all these years

When I was a kid, Sunday mornings were a sacred time.

A time when my siblings and I would gather around the most venerated object in our house.

Our TV set.

And at 9 a.m. we would watch the Sunday morning movie on Channel 3.

And we would watch it until our parents almost forcibly pulled us away so we could attend this thing called Sunday Mass.

But it didn’t matter much because we knew that Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule would prove triumphant and things would turn out all right for whatever young couple they were trying to help. (Of course, the Universal contract players who played these couples would go on to have fairly undistinguished careers before fading out completely, but Bud and Lou could do only so much.)

Although I enjoyed all these folks, there was one other component of the Sunday movie rotation who meant more to me.

A guy whose movies always began with his mom calling to him in a voice that was one-tenth mother love and nine-tenths Armageddon:

“HENRY! HENRY ALDRICH!”

Henry, played by a young actor named James Lydon, was Charlie Brown years before Charlie Brown was Charlie Brown.

Henry was the world’s most incompetent high school student. There was nothing he couldn’t screw up.

And although I was much younger, I could identify with that. Sure, I was somehow able to read at a very early age, but ask me to tie my shoes? Or ride a bike? No sir. I was all thumbs. (I was probably all toes too, but no one ever asked me to do anything with them.)

So I sympathized and empathized as Henry, always a well-meaning sort with the purest of intentions, would get into a bit of trouble, then a dollop of trouble, then a tractor-trailer load of trouble, until he would finally, somehow, and unlike me, emerge victorious in the end.

Only Henry Aldrich would form his own band, then manage to run afoul of crooks and gamblers. Or swallow a serum that somehow caused him to enter a supposedly haunted house, where he surprisingly didn’t run into Bud and Lou or Red Skelton, who at the time were plowing similar cinematic turf.

Then there was the time that Henry, as editor of his school paper, was suspected of setting a series of arson fires that he himself was covering. The real pyromaniac was caught, but the real mystery — how a high school kid was allowed to cover real crime news — was never solved.

I thought about Henry a few weeks ago while I was watching an episode of “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” the vintage western that catapulted Steve McQueen to fame. In this episode, a woman hires bounty hunter Josh Randall, played by McQueen, to find her husband, who has fled after being falsely accused of murder.

Randall eventually finds the guy, brings him in, and justice prevails.

The guy was played by James Lydon — Henry Aldrich! Still getting into trouble!

Just a few days later, I watched an episode of “Trackdown,” the vintage western that catapulted Robert Culp to fame. In this episode, Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, played by Culp, is confronted by a woman who says she can provide an alibi for her boyfriend, who is in the town jail, accused of murder.

It turns out that the woman is lying, but the real killer, who heard about her story but doesn’t know she’s lying, tries to kill her, muffs it and gets gunned down by Hoby.

So the boyfriend goes free. And he’s played by — all together, now — James Lydon, Henry Aldrich!

The show (which, surprise surprise, was produced by the same company as “Wanted: Dead or Alive”) never goes into the question of what happened to James/Henry’s wife from “Wanted.” Did she die? Or, more likely, did she finally get fed up and divorce him?

Perhaps we’ll never know. But I am happy to say that, as of this writing, Mr. Lydon, who also had a distinguished career behind the camera (he was one of the people behind TV’s “M*A*S*H”), is still with us at the age of 94.

I hope that he is well and that finally, after all these years, he is keeping out of mischief.

But I’m not uncrossing my fingers.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Newsroom Memories: The Fantastic Mr. Fah

It’s a Monday night in the newsroom, about 40 years ago, and with nothing else to do I pick up an obituary to edit.

The paper has no assigned obituary writer. Obits are written by interns or by whichever reporter is lucky enough to pick up the phone when a funeral director calls to dictate the death notice.

Most obituaries get a 14-point headline with just the person’s name. This obituary, for one Walter J. Fah, has a 36-point, two-column, two-line headline, which means that Mr. Fah had some claim to fame.

Upon examining the obit, I find that Mr. Fah was once mayor of one of our regional communities.

Editing the obit seems like a simple enough job, but I notice that Mr. Fah’s two sons have a different last name.

Well, it’s possible, I think. But of course I am duty-bound to call the funeral director and check.

Our conversation goes something like this:

“Hello, I have a question about the Walter Fah obit.”

A pause.

“You mean ‘Smith,’ don’t you?”

“No, Walter J. Fah.”

“You mean Smith — Walter J. Smith!”

Then I remember that the two sons are both named Smith.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “Was this guy a former mayor?”

“Yes! Mayor Walter J. Smith!”

“OK,” I say, and the conversation ends soon after, or at least my side of it does. For all I know, the funeral director is still grumbling about it, and who could blame him?

I finish working on the obit, then walk up to the managing editor and tell him that we almost had a headline saying “Former Mayor Fah Dies.”

He is not pleased.

I then talk to the night city editor, who is in charge of the intern who took the call.

I then see him walk up to the intern, whom I hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since.

The night city editor eventually gets back to me.

He gives me the same explanation that I have often heard from reporters in similar — if not quite so blatant — situations:

“He says that’s the way they gave it to him over the phone.”

Fah, Smith. Yeah, anyone could get those confused.

And the phone excuse is ingenious because phone calls in the newsroom aren’t recorded or otherwise documented.

At least reporters who take obits over the phone are usually accurate. But as the years pass, the interns come and go. Granted, taking obits is a good test of whether a student or newcomer can master the basics of newswriting, and some interns turn out to be good.

But over the years I will see such things as:

“He was a Full Bright Scholar.”

“He worked for Floor Shine Shoes.”

And my favorite:

“He was a veteran of World War II, having served in Pernissia.”

When I saw that one I walked across the room to someone who was part of a follow-up crew after the Normandy Invasion.

He never heard of Pernissia either.

So I called the funeral director. Luckily, as I recall, it wasn’t the same guy who helped shepherd ex-Mayor Fah -- I mean Smith -- to his final resting place.

And now the answer you’ve been panting for:

Tunisia.

Well, at least Tunisia and Pernissia sound a little bit alike.

The good news is that the paper eventually assigned a full-time employee, a capable J-school grad, to write obits. The bad news is that a) after some years this guy moved on to another job at the paper; b) the obituary job was assigned to clerks who didn’t have the news sense that God gave an ostrich; and c) someone had to go and invent the fax machine.

This means that instead of having to take the time to dictate obits over the phone, funeral directors everywhere could type up an obit and fax it anywhere.

So we were flooded with obits from all over about people whose links to my area were hazy at best, and the clerks typed them up in full and sent them directly to the copy editors.

At one point, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see an obit for someone who merely drove through my hometown.

And I found myself spending as much as two hours a day working on obits before getting to the other news of the day.

Finally, relief came from an unexpected source: the ad department. There were so many obits coming in, and they took up so much space, that management decided to make money from them. This meant that all obits had to go through the ad department, and the folks in the newsroom weren’t allowed to touch them. Oh happy day.

From unhappy personal experience I have learned that the newspaper’s obits can be quite costly.

But if you retired from the newspaper, as I did some years ago, you get a free obit.

It’s always nice to have something to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Big Delete

Many years ago a friend of mine had an idea that he said might someday benefit his survivors.

When the time came, he said, the survivors could place the following prerecorded greeting on his answering machine:

“Hello, this is Lou Rappaport. I can’t come to the phone right now because I am dead.”

I think there was more to the greeting, but I’ve forgotten it.

Back then the idea would have been simple enough to carry out; this was before answering machines — and seemingly everything else on the planet — went digital, when both the outgoing and incoming messages were recorded on easily replaced cassettes.

At that time, “audiotext” services were the new thing — you could call a number and find out all sorts of information, sometimes for a nominal fee.

Lou hoped that his recording — truly the ultimate in outgoing messages — would turn into a fad, especially among college students (“Hey, let’s call the dead guy!”) and that the nominal fees forked over by these folks would provide at least a nominal nest egg for his survivors.

Lou’s plan never went beyond the idea stage, but I thought of it not long ago when a little sign on my landline phone (yes, I still have a landline) told me that there were too many messages on it, and if I didn’t erase them I wouldn’t get many more messages.

So I went to work — hitting the Play button, then erasing one message after another.

Then I came to a message from Lou.

I remembered it. He’d left it a few weeks ago. He’d taken care to assure me that nothing was wrong — we’d reached the stage in our lives when phone calls more and more often meant that something bad had happened to one of our former colleagues. Lou said he’d just called to chat.

After I received the message I called him back, partly because we hadn’t chatted in a while, and partly because — you guessed it — I wanted to let him know that someone we knew had died.

And now, after hearing his message again, I paused before hitting the Delete button.

Normally I would have just hit it and gone on to the next message. But it felt strange to hear his voice again, even though there was nothing unusual about it.

Less than two days after leaving the message, Lou himself died unexpectedly, apparently of a heart attack.

I wished that his message had been on a cassette. I could have removed the tape, replaced it and saved it.

After a moment, some instinct told me to hit the Delete button and move on.

I really wish Lou had followed through on his money-making scheme.

It sure would be nice to hear from the dead guy again.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Happy 10th birthday to whatever this is

Ten years ago this week, I shot an arrow named Murphy’s Craw into the blogosphere.

I did this some months after accepting a buyout from the newspaper job I’d held for 30 years.

Although I was a copy editor at the paper, and although I still do freelance editing and proofreading, I’ve always considered myself to be primarily a writer.

In my youth I was inspired by folks like Robert Benchley, who had worked at newspapers and magazines. From Benchley it was a short trip to the worlds of S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, E.B. White, Dorothy Parker and many other folks.

And even before I made Mr. Benchley’s acquaintance, there was Rob Petrie, who wasn’t really a real writer but a character played on TV by Dick Van Dyke. Rob was able to hang out all day with other funny folks like Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell. Gee, writing sure looked like fun!

During my time at the paper I was occasionally permitted to write humorous articles that sometimes were published. This made me feel even more like Benchley and his colleagues.

So after I left the paper, I figured I’d start this blog, and I figured that it would function like a newspaper column.

Has it worked out that way?

Well, not quite.

I found out that it’s hard to come up with something new to say every day. Or even just three times a week. This unpleasant insight gave me a new respect for the columnists whose stuff I’d worked on at the newspaper.

Take 47 weeks (assuming five weeks off for vacation), multiply it by three times a week and and multiply the result by 10 times a year, and you have 1,410 newspaper columns.

During that same period, I’ve produced 362 blog posts, including this one.

And this year alone I’ve produced only four posts, again including this one.

So there’s obviously been a whole lot of slacking going on.

Of course there is a difference. The folks whose columns I edited had considerably more motivation — namely the fear of starving.

But that’s really no excuse.

Nor is the fact that I had a really bad summer, which included a catastrophic accident and the resulting death of someone very close to me. Not to mention that since that someone’s funeral, three close friends have also passed away. I guess as one gets older, life seems more and more like a deadly game of dominoes.

My relatively paltry output raises the question of whether Murphy’s Craw should continue.

I invite your opinions on this.

In the meantime, I’d like to think that I have more to say. Then again, is it a lot more, and is it worth saying?

I can’t tell you because I don’t have the answer yet.

So for now I’ll write on, blogging against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past — which is where I get a lot of my ideas anyway.

Thanks again for listening.