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Brother-Hood: Another Steeltown Story

3 Jun

 If you ever had a big brother like mine you are familiar with the horrors of nuggies, paralyzing punches in the shoulder, the Dutch rub, and the dreaded Indian burn. The Communist Chinese had nothing on my brother Norman. But where he really excelled was in the area of psychological torture.

Many of my earliest traumas relate to my brother and food. For example when I was about five years old, I learned that eggs come from chicken’s rear ends or as he put it– “butt-holes”.Normantaught me this, just as I was sitting down to breakfast. My mother believed that an appropriate  stick-to-your-ribs breakfast consisted of two eggs, four pieces of bacon, and about half a loaf of buttered toast, all washed down by a heavily sugared cup of milk with a teaspoon of coffee added so that I would feel like a grown-up.  I ate this breakfast with relish for several years until that fateful morning whenNormanexplained to me where eggs came from. While his anatomical knowledge of poultry may have been limited, it was close enough for me and I stopped eating eggs for the next 15 years.

Norman also taught me that mustard was harvested from dirty diapers. This lesson came one day while I was eating a mustard and bologna sandwich.Normanalso went on to tell me how health inspectors had found rats crawling in root beer bottles as well as tiny white worms   in my favorite candy bar. Wally Cleaver would never tell the Beaver such things. It   dawned on me that I was stuck with Eddie Haskell for a brother.

When I switched from root beer to cola,  Norman described how the company that made my favorite cola had a terrible accident one day, when a worker fell into a vat of cola and drowned. Of course the carbonation dissolved the poor fellow’s eyeballs and the company didn’t discover the body until the entire batch was bottled and shipped out. Bottles from this batch remain on grocers’ shelves to this very day. My mother must have wondered if  I was developing anorexia by this time.

In the  days before convenience stores, Steeltown have several  corner stores. My favorite was an establishment about two blocks from my house. It was called Baxter’s and they not only carried Superman comic books, but also served Chapman’s ice cream. Kindly old man Baxter would puff on his pipe patiently waiting for you to decide on what flavor you wanted. Baxter’s was much friendlier than Pepper’s Confectionery, where the paranoid owners treated everyone like a shoplifter. One day I was eating an ice cream cone, whenNormanarrived home from one of his frequent  delinquent forays. He was riding my black Schwin bike and as usual he jumped off before it stopped and the bike continued on, crashing into the side of the garage.  He had already ruined his own bike doing this and was well on the way to demolishing mine as well. “Didja get that cone at Baxter’s?” he asked. “Yeah”, I admitted reluctantly. “You know why those cones taste so good, doncha?” “Oh, no!” I thought, “I don’t want to hear this.” “It’s because old man Baxter slobbers pipe drool all over the ice cream.” “Oh Yeah?”, I said, without much conviction. “See for yourself.” he grinned.   I never finished that cone as I could swear the vanilla ice cream seemed to develop an aromatic tobacco tang.   The next time I was in Baxter’s I carefully kept an eye on old man Baxter scooping the ice cream, while I pretended to look at the comic books. Damn it if  Norman wasn’t right.

My parents often went out on Friday nights, leaving me completely at Norman’s mercy. He insisted on watching the Spook Spectacular movie—  a television show consisting of  old Universal Studio’s horror movies that completely terrified me. One stormy night, when I couldn’t stand to watch another second of Frankenstein strangling a little girl, I retreated to the back bedroom where I hoped I could avoid hearing the grunts and screams. I crept into the back closet and shut the door. This was an odd closet that had a window that overlooked our back porch. I opened the window wide and stood in the darkness, glad I couldn’t hear the television. 

Except for the lightening,  it was pitch dark.Normanmust have though I went to bed. About 15 minutes later, he strolled out on the back porch to smoke a cigarette, so my parents wouldn’t smell it in the house. It was so dark thatNormanstood right next to open window where I was standing, not six inches away, but failed to see me. Looking jumpy he lit his cigarette and anxiously scanned the stormy skies. The movie and the piercing thunder must have unnerved him too.  I knew I’d never get a chance like this again so I waited until next loud crash of thunder and leapt through the window yelling and grabbing atNorman. He dropped his cigarette– screaming in terror, like a little girl. When he recovered enough to realize it was me, he started chasing me through the house, swearing and threatening to kill me.  I ran into the bathroom and locked the door.Normanswore at me and pounded violently on the door until my parents finally came home and grounded him for a week for keeping me up so late and having a cigarette burn on his shirt.Normantried to play dumb saying he didn’t know where the cigarette burn came from. Maybe it came from an Indian burn that backfired, I suggested.

Pomp and Circumstance

15 Apr

                 

                      Last year  I attended a double graduation and sat through  four hours of national anthems, platitudinous advice, and the mispronunciation of names. The four hours were only interrupted by a brief foray into the blazing hot sun to take pictures of sweating graduates. I would rather have attended a double murder. This large public university held four separate graduation ceremonies in one day to process all the graduates. I attended the first two. Although I suppose such rituals are necessary  to help people mark major life transitions, this is one passage I  would have  just as soon avoided.

            Graduations are intensely emotional  events. It’s like attending one of  those old Moonie  weddings with a thousand  brides and grooms. Feelings of joy, relief, and anxiety intermingle  while vague despondency charges the air. The faculty and staff share these feelings but mostly seem fatigued and can hardly wait for the ordeal to end.

             As each graduate’s name is  read for their ten seconds of immortality,  their personal  mini-fan club  erupts in applause, yelling, or even stomping. I  wonder about the students who get a real loud response. Do they have exceptionally large families? Are they very popular? Promiscuous? And I always feel sorry for those who don’t get any fuss made at all. What’s with them?  Do they feel rejected or upset?  At college graduations the people are so loosely connected, that even surrounded by thousands of revelers, each celebration  is still private.

            The first of the two graduations I attended was the liberal arts and sciences crowd. As a group they were serious and pretentious. Their featured commencement speaker was a fading local politico who tried some standup comedy and  superficial sensitivity — like Jay Leno meets Rod McKuen. I felt embarrassed for him, since he obviously didn’t have the sense to feel embarrassed for himself.

            Hundreds of nurses and social workers graduated in the next group. They were a  much rowdier bunch. It was as if they actually knew and even liked each other.  The crowd booed vigorously  when a stick-in-the-mud  security person  removed the giant beach ball that had suddenly appeared and was  batted around during the speeches. At one point of high emotion the nursing student section erupted into a massive free-for-all of silly string and confetti.

            The guest speaker this time was a feckless social services bureaucrat who was also a big shot fund-raiser for the university. In his precise introduction the university president diplomatically neglected to mention that this man was also a notorious slumlord. This bozo didn’t bother to make any sense at all. I wasn’t even embarrassed for him, just annoyed.

            Despite the inane speech I liked this ceremony better. The students showed more spirit  and the faculty  sported more dramatic threads. Some faculty wore silk gowns of  bright gold and red and most of them wore those classy soft caps, instead of the usual mortarboards.

            Several years ago at my graduate school commencement, my elderly advisor appraised the rakish university president, decked out in a color coordinated brown velvet cap, and said, “Damn, I got to get me one of those hats.”  I hope he did.  The chic president was fired about a month later for putting massage parlor bills on his state credit card. I can only imagine what he would have done if he didn’t have a Ph.D. The story was so popular  in  all the local newspapers that  when I told a colleague that I  had just shook the  president’s hand at graduation,  he said I should have worn a rubber glove.

             No medieval rite of passage would be complete without some old fashion humiliation.  Throughout my life I’ve been  repeatedly embarrassed about my gender bending name– “Terry Lynn.” Like Johnny Cash’s  mother, mine  had an odd sense of the appropriate. My nominal distress culminated at graduation. I thought it was pretty impressive as the hung a hood on me, until  the  announcer said, “And now will Terry Lynn Stawar and her advisor come forward.”  Even the largely indifferent crowd found this mistake highly amusing and it’s something I will remember always—Graduation Day.

Wayne and the Mayor: Another Steeltown Story

15 Feb

             

               Like many local politicians in Steelyown, it wasn’t exactly clear how Stan Mayer made his living but it had something to do with insurance and real estate, although Stan never seemed to actually transact any business. He spent mpost of his time in back booth at the Trojan Cafe. Wayne Flynn was a harmless and delicate  delinquent and Steeltown’s number one Beatles’s fan.  He was basically too intelligent to work for the cityand annoyed everyone by roaring around town in a silver Corvette he had tricked his father into buying. The deal Wayne made was that in the unlikely event he graduated from high school, his father would pony up for the ‘vette’. 

            Wayne had spent less time in high school than Abraham Lincoln, but somehow   graduated anyway. For four years he never knew his locker combination, which was fine because he didn’t know where his locker was anyway. No one knows how he managed to graduate. The day after graduation he got the silver corvette. He had a local sign shop paint a discreet “Loner” on the back fender and became a local legend.

            The summer after graduation Mayor Stan spotted him in Glik’s Department Store and asked,  “Well Wayne, have you found any honest employment yet?”  Reflexively Wayne replied, “Nope, have you?”

            Despite the  bravado,  Wayne desperately needed a job to pay for the expensive car insurance the fiberglass corvette required, so he went to the Illinois State Employment Office, with his Steeltown High School diploma proudly in hand. Wayne’s diploma would have been more functional if it had been printed on the back of a shop towel. 

            The State Employment Office people took one look at Wayne and quickly sent him to a green block building on the outskirts of town. Inside were dull-eyed men who were taking long metal rods and putting them into a machine that bent them into 90-degree angles. On the other side of the building another group of zombies were taking long metal rods, that were already bent into a 90 degree angle, and putting them into a machine that straightened them out. Wayne didn’t like the looks of the place at all and immediately roared home and and spent then next two weeks listening to the Beatles’s Magical Mystery Tour.  Later he told us  it must have been some sort of government job.

Terry Stawar Semi-Finalist in 2010 Robert Benchley Society Humor Writing Competition

11 Feb

February 9th the Robert Benchley Society  announced the  it’s Top Ten Semi-Finalists   in it’s 2010 Robert Benchley Society Humor Writing Competition. Among this illustrious group is Terry L. Stawar of Georgetown, Indiana, for his piece entitled The Strange Case of the Wayward Beef Roast. At last some of the fame and recognition he hungers for.

Backyard Diehard: Another Steeltown Story

1 Feb

We were a typical blue collar family in Steeltown. We lived in a very modest three-bedroom brown-shingled house on the corner of Fourth and Ewing, just down from the Russian Orthodox Church with the gold onion-shaped spire.

My father worked as an electrician at the steel mill, but somehow that was never quite enough for him.  It would have surprised his coworkers and the other volunteer firemen to know that he had played the violin in a band, had a failed career as a watchmaker, played chess, invented various electrical devices, and love to read Scrooge McDuck comic books.  Some people might have thought my father was pretentious in some of his aspirations. For example, he had the notion that our backyard could be transformed into a Garden of Eden of sorts. Despite the pollution and terrible soil quality in Steeltown, he optimistically planted an apple tree, cherry tree, apricot tree, and strawberries. Then sat back waiting to enjoy the bounty.

After producing a single apricot, the apricot tree just gave up the ghost for no discernable reason. It just seemed to have lost the will to survive in our yard. The apple tree, however, grew but always seemed degenerate.  The apples were small, green, extremely hard, and usually contained some type of  horrifying insect. When the apples would fall from the tree,  they always seemed to be covered with flies, almost immediately. The apple tree trunk was stippled with holes that boring insects had created and the whole thing wasjust unwholesome. My mother once made an inedible  apple pie using the demonic fruit from the tree.

The cherry tree faired a little better, but yielded extremely sour cherries.  Whenever he had been drinking, which was quite often, my father would prune the cherry tree. It soon looked like a bonsai tree. In the hot summer our backyard would be full of intoxicated birds that had been eating the fermented sour cherries. Taking my lead from the birds, I once tried to make cherry wine, using sugar, gallon jugs, neutral grain alcohol, and a sour cherry mash. Supposedly the wine was ready when the corks popped out of the jugs. One jug exploded and our basement was covered in a sweet sticky fluid.  It had a very strong alcohol smell.  We were all afraid to drink the wine that survived. My friend Bert Armour, a Steeltown connoisseur of aldut beverages, volunteered to test it for us. His main qualification for  this task was that when the  polka band had played   “Roll out the Barrel” in the high school talent show, Bert was the one selected to roll an empty keg  of beer across the stage. I handed him the wine,   he took a big swig,  and then seemed struck speechless. 

The viscosity of this wine was about the same as the popular oil additive STP,  so for about 10 minutes,  Bert was physically unable to open his mouth. When the wine dissolved enough that he could speak, he said it had a good taste and was rather smooth. He declined to drink any more, fearing it might permanently glue his lips together.

My father  seemed jealous that my mother could grow terrific tomatoes with hardly any effort at all. Once she randomly  threw out some pumpkin seeds   and  the next fall, to his dismay, we had a yard full of large attractive pumpkins.

Like most yards in Steeltown, ours had a large porch swing for the adults and a swing-set for children. Only in our case my father had built the swing-set himself out of heavy-duty pipes. It was a bit dangerous because of the many sharp and protruding bolts. He hand made wooden seats and built a rather creative pipe teeter totter.  He painted the swing set battleship gray and we kids  played on it for years.

The backyard  also held a large brick barbecue pit that my father had built. He salvaged some firebrick from a demolished coke oven, and used them to line the pit. So basically our barbecue pit could withstand temperatures of over 2000 degrees.  The only problem was that he built it next to the ash pit, where we dumped our garbage and burned trash. Thinking it unsanitary, my mother flatly refused to have anything to do with it.

Occasionally when no one was burning trash, my father would grill ribs. We would get the ribs form the butcher’s shop just down the alley.   This entire establishment was contained in a meat cooler.  There was sawdust on the floor and year round the old man, who ran it, wore a flat green hat and a thick green sweater with a mosaic of  blood stains on it. Once when I was sent  to buy ribs,  he held two slabs together and told me that ribs came from eagle wings. I was very young and naive enough that it sounded reasonable to me. Intrigued with this new information I told my brother Norman, who called me an idiot.

My father really loved his small slice of Steeltown.

Another Steeltown Story: The Emergency Room

7 Sep

My first visit to the hospital emergency room took place when I was in the second grade. At the time I had a very young and very nervous first-year teacher, Miss Dole. And a few weeks into the new school year I was to add to her anxiety. Not being particularly precocious, I was easily influenced when someone suggested we play “slot machine”, using the nickels intended for the purchase of chocolate milk. I was suppose to put several nickels in my mouth, then someone would pull my arm down, I would roll my eyes, and spit out the nickels— Jackpot!

As I said I was not particularly advanced, so after putting the first nickel in my mouth, I immediately swallowed it. I decided that I should probably tell Miss Dole. Knowing how jumpy she was, I spoke in a very quiet voice. I had to repeat myself several times. When she finally comprehended what I was saying, she screamed, grabbed me, and carried me from one end of the hallway to the other several times. Her worse nightmare had come true. No one seemed to know what to do. The school nurse suggested that I eat a piece of Wonder Bread®. I was in no discomfort only curious about what was to happen next. Eventually they called an ambulance and I rode to the emergency room along accompanied by the truant officer. The driver was very nice and let me turn on the siren and flashing lights. At the hospital they said the nickel was lodged (probably in Wonder Bread®) , but didn’t constitute any danger, so after receiving a massive dose of radiation from a fluoroscope, I was whisked back to school.
Curious why I wasn’t very hungry and why I glowed in the dark when I got home, my mother asked me what happened in school. I thought she was going to faint when I told her an ambulance took me to the hospital and I had a note from the school nurse I’d forgotten to give her. Despite my hope for instant celebrity, an ingested nickel turned out to be small potatoes in our family. When that show-off Norman was in the second grade, he managed to swallow a bullet.
My second visit was a few years later. My dad was very frugal and believed that nails should be recycled. So I would pull old nails out of boards and then flatten them to be used again. On this occasion I had a large nail, in the workbench vise that I intended to straighten. I hit the nail with my hammer and a piece of it struck me right in the middle of the throat. Again I felt no pain, but blood was gushing out, as if I had severed my jugular. My mother almost fainted when she saw me, but we slapped a handkerchief over the wound and rush to the emergency room. They x-rayed me and called my pediatrician. Dr. Berman was a large, affable, cigar-chomping doctor from the old school. He breezed into the emergency room, scanned the x-ray and casually asked, “Who shot you Terry?”, as if that were not surprising. On the x-ray, the nail piece resembled a tiny bullet. He probed for it for a while and then decided it was harmless where it was. He explained about shrapnel and just left it there. To this day whenever I go through metal detectors, I worry the nail will set them off.

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.