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Banishing Black Friday

22 Nov


The   day after Thanksgiving  also known as Black Friday, has traditionally served as the start of the holiday shopping season since the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924. So it’s time to snap out of your turkey-atropine induced stupor and head for Wal-Mart, the mall, or at least fire up the laptop. The term, “Black Friday” can be traced back to the 1960s, when policemen and bus drivers in Philadelphia used it to refer to the terrible traffic jams cause by the rush of holiday shoppers.

The phrase also harkens back to 1929 when “Black Tuesday” was the day the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression, which is maybe a little too close to home this year. “Black Friday” also suits the day because many businesses depend so heavily on holiday shopping to make their year profitable and being profitable is referred to as being “in the black”. Black ink was traditionally used in bookkeeping ledgers to record gains while red ink was used to record losses. Black Friday is often thought to be the busiest shopping day of the year, but this is not always true. While it has been among the top 10 shopping days for the past 20 years, it has risen to first place only a couple of times. Days towards the middle of December usually rank higher. When I was growing up in St. Louis, I remember a well-known local radio DJ getting in serious trouble for saying that this is the day when the merchants downtown dance around their cash registers, singing What a friend have in Jesus.

In 2005 the National Retail Federation coined the term “Cyber Monday” for the Monday following Black Friday, to mark the beginning of the on-line shopping season. Like Secretaries’, Bosses’, and Emergency Medical Technician’s Day, Cyber Monday is essentially a marketing ploy, intended to whip us up into a buying frenzy, as if we needed one. Even so, Cyber Monday is not the busiest on-line shopping day of the year. This also takes place later in the season, when we start to feel really desperate. With greater broadband availability, many people start their on-line shopping Thanksgiving Day itself or earlier. For some, on-line shopping has taken the place of the traditional Thanksgiving walk, nap, football watching, or family argument. Many on-line retailers have responded by offering their sales a day earlier. For the past few years has created a special Black Friday website ( You can find out what promotions are taking place in stores, as well as get access to items that are available online, at the same or better price. There are lists of the hottest toys, electronics, household items, and latest fashions. as well as exclusive coupons. You can even compare bargain hunting strategies on one of the discussion forums. So what is the outlook for today? According to Deloitte’s annual survey, more than half of all consumers plan to reduce holiday spending this year and the average reduction is about 14%. People blame higher food and energy costs and job uncertainty for the cutbacks.

About one in ten say they are still paying off last year’s holiday debt. People plan to cut in the areas of home improvement, household furnishings, clothing, charitable donations, and entertainment. Spending on gifts showed the smallest planned decrease (only 6.5%). Shoppers plan to spend an average of $532 on gifts this holiday season and buy around 21 gifts (down about 2 gifts from last year). This year’s shopping strategies include buying lower-priced goods and sale items, consolidating shopping trips and using coupons whenever possible. And the top gift this year? – same as the last five years– the gift card. Retailers love these things. Last year the Tower Group consulting firm estimated that unredeemed gift cards totaled nearly $8 billion annually, about 10 percent of all purchased. It is like tithing to VISA. Over a quarter of us have had at least one gift card expire before we could use it. Although I’ve personally given a lot of these cards, I’m still not sure I understand it. Sure it’s easy, especially since you can get almost anything at the checkout counter of the grocery store. Most of us were taught, however, that giving cash was lazy and impersonal, but somehow retailers have convinced us that if we convert our cash into a plastic card decorated with a holiday theme, then its okay to give it as a gift. We can pretend it is really a dinner, shower curtain, or maybe a book. Shoppers are somewhat concerned that stores might go out of business before the gift cards can be used. I should mention that the phrase “Black Friday” achieved special recognition a few year ago. Along with words such as “perfect storm”, “webinar”, “water boarding”, and “surge”, “Black Friday” has made it onto Lake Superior State University’s 2008 list of banished words. For the past 33 years language experts at this school have complied a tongue-in-cheek list of words, that they say should be “banished from the Queen’s English for misuse, overuse, and general uselessness”. Also making the list this year are “organic”, “wordsmith”, “give back”, “Blank is the new blank.”, “sweet”, “decimate”, “pop”, “throw under the bus”, and “It is what it is.” I would say the list is awesome, but they banned that word in 1984. “Black Friday” probably made the list because it reflects our country’s current obsession with the economy. Also many pretentious columnists run this phrase, into the ground thinking it makes them sound more knowledgeable and cool.

All this reminds when I was in high school and our freshman English teacher told us that there were two words that never should be used– one word was “nice” and the other was “swell”. So, of course, someone immediately asked, her, “So like, what are the two words?”


Psychoanalyzing your Christmas Cards

8 Nov



Did you do the Christmas card thing this year or did you just e-mail “Happy Holidays” to everyone in your address book? Maybe it’s technology or just the times, but people don’t seem, to take Christmas card giving as seriously as in the past. Banishing someone from your Christmas card list was the ultimate in social rejection. Lists were carefully saved and even passed down from generation to generation. Ironically most of the cards I get now come from companies wanting my business.

Over the last several years, the number of Christmas cards sent by Americans has declined, probably due to communication technology and increased social isolation. Some of the personal touch remains, however, as a number of people include messages, or their annual Christmas letter, in their cards, bragging about their latest family triumphs in order to get one up you. Last night Diane wouldn’t open the card from her cousin before dinner because she said she did want to ruin her appetite.

Christmas cards began in London in 1843, the same year Charles Dickinson’s “Christmas Carol” was written. This current holiday season the Greeting Card Association estimates just over two billion greeting cards will be sent.

Christmas cards do have some appealing features. They connect us to others, help us put our emotions into words, and provide a tangible keepsake to preserve memories. Most of us feel inspired to reciprocate if we receive a card.

In one of the few scientific studies of holiday cards, Karen Fingerman and Patricia Griffiths from Pennsylvania State University found that people who received many cards believe that a large number of people are thinking about them and feel less lonely. Also people reported having a significant emotional reaction to about one-third of the cards they received, sort of like Diane. Younger adults view cards as a way to establish new social ties, while older adults see them as a link to their personal pasts.

Dr. David Holmes, a psychologist from England’s Manchester University says the choice of a specific Christmas card inevitably gives away an awful lot about the personality of the sender. Psychologists just love to interpret things-inkblots, dreams made up stories, drawings, and also any decision you make (or don’t make). It’s sort of an occupational hazard and analyzing your Christmas cards may be going a bit too far.

Anyway, Dr. Holmes says people who find it difficult to express their feelings often hide their timidity behind the humor of a comic card. Introverted people are drawn to cards that picture Christmas trees, especially those that are devoid of baubles or presents. Winterscapes are sure signs of loners, as are cool colors such as silver, white and blue. Holmes also suggests people who value tradition; tend to send the same sort of cards their parents sent. They often prefer Victorian or cozy fireplace scenes that evoke the past.

Snowman lovers tend to be very sincere softies with keen intellects, while penguin fanciers demonstrate taste, style, sophistication and a good sense of humor.

Even card shape may be meaningful. Square cards suggest practicality, while tall, slim cards suggest concern with style and an artistic flair. People who send round cards are the most unconventional, often in a chaotic sort of way.

I am not convinced about this, but below are some of my interpretative guidelines that I thought might help you this holiday season as you look at you cards.

• CANDLE: Suggests warms feelings, but a tall candle can be interpreted as being a show off.

• DOVES: Unconsciously thinking about chocolate when they bought the card.

• ELF: Suggests small but highly industrious features, sort of like Switzerland.

• FROSTY THE SNOWMAN: Drove by Wendy’s before choosing the card.

• GEESE: Possible goosaholic. Do their front steps have plaster geese dressed up in red capes?

• GINGERBREAD MAN: Suggest fear of being “consumed” by others, tendency to avoid situations by running away as fast as you can.

• GOLD: May have attention problem and is attracted by shiny objects.

• MUSICAL CARDS: This is the sort of person who would buy your kid a drum- significant latent hostility.

• NUTCRACKER: The scary teeth and military uniform add up to oral aggression in my book.

• CHRISTMAS PRESENTS: Generous, but maybe be a bit materialistic. The actual meaning may depend on the choice of wrapping paper, but let’s not get into that.

• SANTA: Jolly, but some possible paranoia (“He knows if you have been bad or good”). “Making a list and checking it twice” also suggests possible obsessive-compulsive issues.

• TOY SOLDIER: These are adorable, cute and smiley characters that are packing heat –denial of aggressive impulses.

• STARS: Stars are distant, aloof, impersonal, and grandiose- sort like our cat.

• STOCKING: Suggests some fetish possibilities that are best not discussed.

• TEDDY BEAR: The Teddy bear is the international symbol for cuteness. On the positive side, if some person sent you this card, maybe they think you are cute.

• WREATH: With no beginning or end, the wreath suggests a well-rounded personality.

How do your friends and family stack up? Is someone lonely or in need of cheering up? Do you want to cheer someone up? Maybe you should consider sending a last minute penguin.

(Based on an article  appearing originally  in the  the New Albany Tribune)


Can displays of Christmas decorations actually hurt people psychologically?

30 Nov

Can Christmas decorations actually hurt people’s psychologically?  Can  they damage self-esteem, depress mood or engender  feelings of alienation and exclusion?  Check out this link for the answer:

What to do with those Thanksgiving leftovers.

23 Nov

Check out Terry Stawar’s Column in the Evening News and Tribune the day after Thanksgiving at http://newsand

Happy Franksgiving America

29 Oct

We are only a month away from Thanksgiving Day — the holiday that more than a quarter of Americans claim is their favorite. My exhaustive research shows that families gather together to give thanks in the manner of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans’ harvest celebration of 1621. My source? None other than that repository of all knowledge: the Weekly Reader magazine. It’s a sort of Huey, Dewey and Louie’s Junior Woodchuck Manual for us baby boomers.

But according to sociologists Melanie Wallendorf from the University of Arizona and Eric Arnould from the University of Colorado, Thanksgiving also serves multiple social functions as a “collective ritual that celebrates our material abundance through feasting.”

They contend that our elaborate Thanksgiving Day meal is a way of reassuring ourselves that we have the ability to more than meet our basic needs. We stuff our turkeys, as well as ourselves, to show how well we’re doing. Perhaps that’s why we add so much butter to everything. When I was growing up, my family only served real butter at Christmas and Thanksgiving time.

Since this abundance ritual — in its basic form (turkey, stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie) — is widely shared, it also serves to binds us all together and increase social cohesion. But unlike the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, those of us born since World War II come to believe in a “permanent abundance.” We aren’t sitting in clover just because it’s harvest time or because we had a particularly good year. We view continually increasing material abundance as a defining feature of what it means to be an American.

These days, however, the unpredictable price of energy, rising food and health care costs, the mortgage credit crunch and the stock market meltdown have challenged this cherished belief. In a Newsweek cover story titled “A Darker Future for Us,” business writer Robert J. Samuelson says that fundamental changes in our economy have put us on the cusp of a new era, in which continually increasing prosperity cannot be counted upon.

Conservative columnist George Will has recently emphasized the historic link between Thanksgiving and the economy. He pointed out how President Franklin Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to extend the Christmas shopping season to help battle the Great Depression. Back then, it was unthinkable to advertise Christmas merchandise before Thanksgiving. Will says that FDR did not defer to the calendar any more than he did to the Constitution, even though over 60 percent of the country disapproved of his actions and the public was outraged. FDR’s critics mocked the early Thanksgiving by calling it “Franksgiving.”

Unless it gives them a three-day weekend, Americans just don’t cotton to anyone messing with their traditions. Jeffersonville Mayor Galligan recently learned this after his attempt to change the date of Halloween, or as they now call it in Jeffersonville — “Tommyween.”

Over time, major corporations have become integrated into our traditions. So despite our stated preference for the “old fashioned” and “homemade,” most of us are preparing to eat our Butterball turkeys, Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and Pepperidge Farm stuffing. While those three companies seem recession-proof — with strong annual earnings from Ocean Spay, a new corporate headquarters for Butterball and Pepperidge Farm being the most profitable division of the Campbell Soup Company — many other corporate icons have fallen on hard times. Like many Americans, in recent months the companies that handle my mortgage, retirement fund, insurance and major credit card have all faced serious fiscal difficulty. Even R. H. Macy & Company, the sponsors of the New York City Thanksgiving Day Parade and the setting for The Miracle on 34th Street, filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s and the brand only survived through a series of mergers and reorganizations. As recently as early October, the reconstituted Macy’s slashed its 2008 profit outlook, due to the softening economy that has consumers scaling back on spending.

So what do we have to be thankful for this year in the present era of mortgage foreclosures, dwindling retirement accounts and trillion dollar bailouts? I asked a number of people and there were many of the customary responses: faith, family, friends and health. Many people were also thankful simply to be Americans, with all the freedoms we enjoy. Others were thankful for the election outcomes; even those whose candidates lost were at least glad that the long campaign is finally over. A surprising number of people said they were thankful for their “jobs,” perhaps in recognition that the unemployment rate just hit a 14-year high.

In the field of mental health in which I work, the watchwords of our profession are “hope” and “recovery” and such an ideology of optimism is more relevant today than ever. When FDR said we have nothing to fear but fear itself in his first inaugural address in 1933, the Great Depression had reached its greatest depth. FDR was the man for those times, precisely because he could convey the those optimistic values which are at the core of the American character.

In the same speech, FDR also said these words that may be more relevant today than they were when he first said them. “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.” Or as John and Paul (The Beatles, not the apostles) put it for us baby boomers — “We can get by with a little help from our friends.”

What Does Your Halloween Costume Say about You?

27 Oct


Check out Dr. Stawar’s  Column on Decoding the halloween costume.

Santa’s Christmas Cat?

24 Sep

Claus, our two year old cat seems to be on a rampage over the holidays.  He won’t stay away from the artificial tree and  when I went into the family room the other day  the real Christmas tree was   laying on the floor. The rug was soak with water from the tree stand and Claus was nestled in the branches, denying any knowledge of how it could have possibly have happened. Although a very attractive cat, Claus unfortunately is an inveterate liar.  
For example,  all winter he keeps insisting that he wants to go outside. He is a very vocal cat—  not a desirable trait in a feline. He sit by the door for hours,  whining about how he needs to see a man  about a rodent or something.  But no sooner than you let  him out than he is on the other side of the door complaining about how cold it is outside.  You would think he could at least go to the bathroom while he was out there, but noooo,  that might  be too uncomfortable for his majesty. He saves it up,  apparently preferring his litter box that I have to clean
The other day my wife Diane let him out the back door and then went down to the basement where she immediately met him again.  Evidently Claus has learned to dematerialize and  reappear in  our basement at will.
Diane and I constantly compare him to our previous cat, Hobbes.  Poor Claus is like   the second wife in Daphne du Maurier ‘s  novel Rebecca,  who must compete with the memory of  the beloved  first wife.  Hobbes was one in a million:  an elegant gentleman cat  and Claus, I am afraid to say, is no gentleman.  Unlike the noisy and disconcertingly human-sounding Claus,  Hobbes only meowed  his orders once and expected and usually received  total  obedience. If we didn’t rush to  open the door at his first command, Hobbes would simply  walk away and act totally indifferent, there was none of this pedestrian  squalling.  Also Hobbes always did his business outside, bless his cat soul.
Of course, we have a selective memory when it comes to  Hobbes. He wasn’t perfect either,  if the truth be told.  As a kitten he ran up our  Christmas  tree and batted at every ornament  he saw.  
There was even one Christmas when the  great Hobbes totally disgraced himself.    Against our better judgment and express wishes, our oldest  son   brought another cat into our  house. This new  cat, Clawdy, was a female who had shared an essentially feral existence with a bunch of  college boys.  Clawdy immediately took  possession  of Hobbes’ favorite   place  our bedroom. Hobbes was too much of a gentleman  to evict a lady and besides Clawdy had become  terribly ferocious,  competing  with   college boys for   pizza scraps and having to use a filthy litter box that was hardly ever changed— much like the boys’ apartment bathroom if I remember correctly. 
Thus having both gender and territoriality issues,  Hobbes apparently  wanted to make certain that everyone in the house  knew that the  shiny presents under the tree were his property, which caused Diane, an obsessive compulsive wrapper, to almost have a seizure.
Last winter Claus was outside during an  ice storm and managed to get severely injured. We don’t know  exactly wheat happened,  but he managed to drag himself up the porch steps and to lay next to the dog.  Fortunately our son-in-law, Jeff is an emergency veterinarian near Cincinnati  and managed to patch him back together. We are also  lucky that cats have great recuperative powers. Jeff says if you throw two pieces of cat  in a room,  they will grow together into a cat. Claus was in intensive care  at my daughter and Jeff’s  house for several months, while my granddaughters nursed him back to health. I am not sure Claus truly appreciated all the attention, wearing a baby bonnet,  or riding in the doll stroller. Except for the indignity of having several inches removed from the tip of his tail, he recovered  remarkably, given the extent of his injuries. And he can still catch a mouse, he would like  you to know.
Claus was  named by our middle son after friend of his from Germany, but we still think of him as a Christmas cat. At the restaurant at Holiday World there are several paintings of Santa’s workshop  and many of them contain a cat that   has the same unique markings as Claus. We told our granddaughters that the paintings  prove  that Claus is related to Santa’s cat. They just smile back at us skeptically and humor us,  as if we were completely insane, much the way our  children do.  

Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (

Halloween Howlings

13 Sep

  Halloween is just around the corner.  This is the  holiday  when Americans  typically buy the most candy.  Like a lot of kids, a major part of much of my  childhood was essentially  a quest to acquire  as much candy as I possibly could get my hands on and Halloween  was the Holy Grail.

I loved dressing up and trick-or-treating. My mother devised a spectacular witch’s costume  that never fail to win a prize.   Both my brother and I won   first place  at the annual junior high school contest with it.

  With more than a little irony,  my mother  had used a black dress and shoes, belonging to my grandmother (her mother-in-law)  as the foundation  of  the outfit.  She added a cape with a jack-o- lantern emblazoned on  the back, a tall witch’s  hat,  the wartiest witch’s mask she could find, and a wig fashioned from an old  mop. My father never cared for the costume,  possibly because  the  final product was basically  a mildly exaggerated  caricature of  my actual grandmother (his mother). Given the relationship between my mother and grandmother,  this was undoubtedly  how  my mother envisioned her.

The witch’s costume was too elaborate for trick-or-treating, so  I wore those   commercial costumes that came in a box. I never liked how they  had a picture of the character you were portraying  displayed across the  front. Even I knew that Zorro never wore a shirt that had a picture of himself on it.   They also  had  those uncomfortable hard plastic masks, that were impossible to see through and  made breathing difficult. They were  held in place  by   flimsy black elastic bands with metal clips on the ends,  that never seemed to  make it  past the front steps.

Every year there were always rumors that  some big kids would knock you down and take your candy— kids like my archenemy, Marlin Hutchingson. Marlin and his gang of thugs always dressed  like hobos. These were popular costumes  among children whose  parents grew up during the depression. I never saw a real hobo, but I knew what they looked like,  thanks to Red Skelton’s portrayal of Freddie the Freeloader. The classic hobo costume was made up  of raggedy  oversized clothes, a rope belt, a battered fedora, and a stick with a red bandana bundle. To   appear as if  you hadn’t shaved,  you’d smear    cork soot on your face. Marlin, who   looked like he needed a shave,  since  the third grade,  could forgo this step. While most of us carried cute little plastic trick-or-treat  bags with black cats them, Marlin and his ilk  preferred ratty king-sized pillowcases, which could double as  giant blackjacks, when needed.      

Back  in elementary school,  Marlin’s  lunch always came  from the candy machine. I shouldn’t talk since   in high school a  root beer and Butterfinger was my standard bill of fare.  But even as a young child,  Marlin was constantly eating candy,  so I wasn’t surprised when a recent  study in the British Journal of Psychiatry showed that children who ate sweets and chocolate every day were much  more likely to be violent as adults.  Ten year-olds who ate candy daily were significantly more likely to have been convicted for violence crimes at age 24. The relationship  between sweets  and violence remained even after controlling for other factors. According to  lead researcher Simon Moore,  “Giving children sweets and chocolate regularly may stop them learning how to wait to obtain something they want. Not being able to defer gratification may push them towards more impulsive behavior, which is strongly associated with delinquency.” 

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel at Stanford University gave four-year-olds a marshmallow and promised another, only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Only about a third of the children could wait.  As adolescents,  the children who could wait,  were  rated as better adjusted and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.  This is an enormous difference.  Chidlren who were future oriented,  benefited tremendously more  from their education that those who focused on immediate pleasure.  A similar experiment, using presents,   found that children who could not delay gratifications were routinely described   more   “irritable”, aggressive, and whiny”,   while those showing restraint,  were rated as more  “intelligent”, “resourceful”, and “competent”.

In Walden II,  psychologist B.F. Skinner’s book about an ideal society  based on the principles of behaviorism,  young children  were given   lollipops, dipped in powdered sugar,  to wear around their necks,  to develop self-control. They were told that they could  eat the lollipops later, but only if it hadn’t  been touched.  These children   were expected to learn  to ignore the temptation of the candy.  Skinner’s protagonist  says  “Some of us learn control, more or less by accident. The rest of us go all our lives …  blaming our failure on being born the wrong way.”  Of course  such training  would never work with  kids like Marlin, who would just  jerk your  lollipop from around your neck, saving his own for later.

Forbidden lollipops may not be the answer,  but we indulgent parents and grandparents, who  enjoy immediately giving our children everything they desire, have to think twice  about  whether we are actually doing this for our own benefit and are inadvertently putting the next generation at risk. 

Besides candy bullies, I remember  being afraid of  crazed neighbors,  who might hide foreign objects in apples or contaminate candy with deadly poisons. We all heard the urban legend  about the kid who, in the dark,  grabbed some  candy right out of his trick-or-treat bag and ended up biting into a Gillette double edge razor blade.

Sociologist Joel Best, from University of Delaware, researched  major newspapers back to 1958 and found fewer than 90 cases of alleged candy  tampering.  There were only a dozen reported cases over the past 20 years. Most turned out to be false alarms or  hoaxes,  like the recent story of boy in the  runaway helium  balloon.

Best did identify   five suspicious  deaths, initially believed to be related to tampering. In  three cases,  investigators found no evidence of foul play. In one case, however,  a  father was convicted and eventually executed for  lacing his son’s  candy with cyanide. In the last instance,  a  family covered up a child’s accidental ingestion of an uncle’s drug stash, blaming it on tainted Halloween candy. So despite all the psychopathic killers lurking about, the greatest danger, it seems, unsurprisingly comes from our own families.

All this doesn’t mean that such things can’t happen,  and a little prudence never hurts. The Red Cross  recommends  having adults inspect all candy  and advises discarding any open or  unwrapped items.

  Of course, the greatest Halloween dangers are the average parent rushing home to spend the holiday with their children  and  distracted  drivers texting on the road. This year make sure your kids are alert to these potential Halloween monsters and have a safe holiday.

Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (

American Pyro

12 Jun

My family always went over board on holidays– like the Christmas my electrician father installed 200 red and green 100 watt light bulbs around our front porch. He thought it lent that special holiday magic. My mother said it made the house look like a sleazy tavern. The Fourth of July, however ,was a time when things really got out of control. One year my older brother constructed a working carbide cannon out of 6 foot length of sewer pipe. Dressed like a revolutionary war soldier, he pulled the cannon down main street to advertise his new barbeque stand, which specialized in pig snouts. This was the same brother who had once fashioned a hot tub out of a cattle feeding trough.
The fourth was a major event in the small town where I grew up. People would cross state lines just to buy illegal fireworks, even though the local cops were highly skilled at confiscating them. These fireworks would turn up at the town hall where city employees would take them home for their kids. I didn’t mind– my dad was a volunteer fireman. I occasionally regained possession of my own contraband fireworks this way. As in prohibition times, there was no way to quench the public’s thirst for bootlegged fireworks. There were black cat and atomic firecrackers, cherry bombs, Roman Candles, fountains, pinwheels, helicopters and the dreaded M-80s (advertised as an eighth of a stick of dynamite). There were even tiny firecrackers called ladyfingers that kids would dare you to hold in your hand while they exploded. I wasn’t that stupid, even then.
Like today, parents encouraged younger kids to play with sparklers. For some reason these molten metal spewing flares, that exceed 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, were considered harmless. When they burn out you’re stuck with a red-hot piece of wire– the perfect plaything for a barefoot five year old. I personally managed to eliminated the spent sparkler disposal problem by inventing the exploding sparkler when I was 9 years old. You simply attach a M-80 to the bottom of the sparkler and shove it in the ground. A few minutes later there is an immense explosion and the white-hot wire is hurled into the stratosphere. My mother didn’t think much of the invention.
One year I threw a cherry bomb in the middle of the street. It appeared to be a dud, but before I could do anything a state police cruiser came screaming up and parked right on top of the still-glowing explosive device. The surly patrolman said, “Hey kid, you see any punks around here playing with fireworks?” A fleeting vision of a police car engulfed in a ball of flames, a 10-25 year stretch in Statesville, and possibly a boyfriend named Buster raced through my mind. I must have sweated enough to extinguish the water proof cherry bomb.
The highlight of every Fourth of July, however, was the city fireworks display. This always took place at the fairgrounds where they held the carnival and fish fry. Every year I’d drop a bundle on the pan game. The local Catholic church ran this roulette-like concession. It was played with deceptively innocent looking, multi-colored muffin pans and a volley ball. One year I devised a fool-proof betting system that cost me 6 month’s allowance, but greatly advanced my knowledge of statistics and probability.
At nine o’clock I would take my prized seat to watch the show. Since my father was a fireman, I got to sit in the emergency fire truck, which was parked about 50 yards ahead of the police line that held back the rabble and lowly civilians. While the fire chief was distracted by a side of barbecued ribs, my father and the other firemen would fill up the truck’s huge hubcaps with Falstaff beer and ice. These would come in handy later.
I always preferred the ear-piercing aerial bombs, but the crowd went wild when glowing debris would fall to earth. One year to almost everyone’s delight, a burning chunk actually fell on the roof of a nearby house. Fortunately it was early enough in the evening that the firemen were still sober enough to put it out. There’s nothing like a little old fashion pyromania to make you feel patriotic and proud to be an American.

The Blue Blanket of Embarrassment: Another Steeltown Story

21 Jan

The start of a new school year always reminds me of my older brother, Norman. He was one of those larger than life characters, who thought ordinary rules didn’t apply to him. Norman would invariably show up the first day of school not wearing a belt and his shirttail hanging out. Mr. Dant, the principal, would lurk by the front entrance just to throw Norman out, like the first baseball of the season.
Once Norman was kicked out of a physical education class because he was wearing purple gym shorts. School rules clearly stated that gym suits must conform to the school colors of green and white. No other colors were allowed. Outraged, that night Norman acquired a pair of green shorts and a white T-shirt. Never one to leave well enough alone, he painted large white polka dots on the green shorts and large green polka dots on the white T-shirt. He thought that technically he had won, but they threw him out of class anyway, citing the school rule about not creating a nuisance — that was one charge Norman could never beat. Norman and Mr. Dant locked horns for Norman’s entire four years of high school. I am not sure which one was happier at graduation.
My own educational career in Steeltown had an equally unpropitious beginning. Although I couldn’t stay within the lines very well, I enjoyed coloring the heavily line pictures of pumpkins and corn. I especially like the playground, even though they had reduced the monkey bars to half size, after a first grader fell and suffered a compound fracture of the arm. The playground had a large wet low area that would freeze over and kids could slide on it. Also everyone took pleasure in using the long cement banisters on both sides of the front steps as sliding boards.
Mrs. Cook was a kind kindergarten teacher and my fellow classmates, while not friendly, where at least not as unpleasant as my older brother. As the Christmas holidays approached, sliding on the playground mini-pond was excellent and some of my classmates even started talking to me. They seemed excited about Christmas and talk quickly turned to putting on a Christmas program — a nativity scene perhaps? I was told by some of the popular kids that I could even be a wise man.
Of course, I would need a costume — something like a bathrobe or maybe a blanket. I could pull it over my head and use it as a burnoose. I immediately told my mother about it and insisted that I get a blanket and some cord to wrap around my head. I was taking no chances in impressing my new buddies. Plans for the program were discussed every day and eventually a date was set for the big program– just a few days before Christmas break. On the appointed day I arrived at school with my cardboard box in hand, containing my blue blanket, some gold cord, and a small package wrapped in gold colored paper. As I put my stuff in the cloakroom I thought it was curious that no one else seemed to have brought anything — how could the show go on like this? In class Mrs. Cook asked me in front of the other children why I had brought a cardboard box to school. I said for the Christmas program of course. She asked ominously, “What program?” It was then I smelled a rat. Before I could say anything one of my new buddies said, “Look!! Terry brought a blanket to school. What you gonna do? Sleep in the cloakroom? This set off a flurry of laughter with a dozen kindergartners repeating, “Yeah, what you gonna do? Sleep in the cloakroom?”
I was mortified and not for the last time in Steeltown schools, I wished I was dead. The only redeeming aspect of this disaster was the fact that I had not actually worn the blanket to class, as I had originally planned.
Denying the obvious truth, I would still like to think it was not a total setup. Maybe it was just kid talk that got out of hand. Had I not want to be part of that crowd so bad, I might’ve be more curious why the teacher wasn’t involved in planning the program.
For the rest of the year I had to endure constant comments about sleeping in the cloakroom. Kindergarten was pretty much ruined for me and only the blessing of summer vacation gave any relief. Over the summer I almost managed to repress the whole sordid affair. I would not have been so carefree that summer, had I known that that I would have to face the meanest first grade teacher at Steeltown Elementary in a few months.
From the start first grade was nearly unbearable. My new teacher, the infamous Miss Cobb, obviously could not stand me or my extremely sloppy penmanship. She seemed to take it as some sort of personal insult. “What did you write this with? A dirty fingernail?” She would say. “This isn’t writing, this looks like chicken scratching.” I started missing the teasing about the cloak room.
In those primitive times, self-esteem hadn’t been invented yet, so no attention was paid to children’s pathetic little feelings. And with no rules about taking universal precautions, Miss Cobb was known to jerk intransigent pupils around her classroom by hooking her finger in their mouths and pulling on their cheeks like they were carp.
Towards the end of first grade I got in big trouble for accidentally smearing some grape jelly in a school library book. For a week I was subjected to a daily public castigation for my sloppiness, much to the amusement of my disloyal classmates. I thought the whole ugly incident had finally ended, when I gave a book report a few weeks later. I had read a picture book about a girl named Janet who lived on a farm. After relating the simple story and surviving a few tricky questions from Miss Cobb, the other pupils where then allowed ask questions and make comments. Much everyone’s delight, Charles, my so-called best friend, shouted out, “How much jelly did you feed her, Terry? Even then, I didn’t think I could take ten more years of this.