Tag Archives: Midwest

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.


War of the Wasps

4 May

The hedges in the back yard are out of control and we can’t see through any of the windows. All is a blur of variegated green and white. My wife blames me, but the real culprits are those devious wasps. I knew they were there ever since I saw a few dead ones floating in the pool. Their thick papery nests were stuck to the soffeting and I repeatedly shot them down with the hose. I thought they had left.

I heard nary a buzz until the day I bought an electric hedge trimmer at a garage sale. I was determined to finally clip those overgrown hedges. After running the extension cord through a window, I started cutting the hedge nearest the dinning room. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, the air gradually thicken with wasps, until suddenly I was in a cyclone comprised entirely of wasps. Only then I noticed that my electric hedge trimmer was three inches away from an enormous wasp’s nest right in the middle of the hedge. That’s were they had gone. They did not seem to appreciated the violent shaking the trimmer created. Before I could apologize or retreat, I felt five simultaneous stings on my arms and back. I jerked up on the trimmer, cutting clean through the extension cord.

In panic I abandoned my equipment and made for the house. I could see the wasps buzzing around the decapitated extension cord in a frenzied dance of victory — the little bastards. Of course this meant war. I dressed my wounds and took a handful of Benadryl as I started swelling up like a bratwurst on a hot grill.

I sat in the dinning room studying my enemy through the window. My helpful and comedic wife, amused by my humiliation, suggested that I dress up like a giant wasp to fool them– a tactic once employed in a famous Donald Duck cartoon about honey bees. Although I rejected that plan and its accompanying sarcasm, it did suggest another strategy– I would make a bee-keeper’s suit and teach those wasps a much needed lesson.

I went out to the garage and concocted a spray bottle of the most deadly insecticide ever devised. The environment be dammed, this was war. Then I took my heaviest winter coat and fortified it with two sweatshirts. I pulled on two pairs of sweat pants over my bluejeans. And then I took my son’s pith helmet and put a double layer of sheer cloth over it, tucking the ends into the coat. Old thick leather gloves completed the insane ensemble.

Barely able to see and dribbling virulent poison all other the house, I made my way out the sliding glass doors, towards the hedge. The pathetic wasps were overwhelmed and soon saw that they were out of their league. In keeping with my scorched earth policy, I stumbled to the hedge with the wasp’s nest and pumped enough poison into it for it to be toxic for the next thousand years. My revenge, however, was short lived.

I had made just one fatal miscalculation. I forgot it was July. With the ambient air temperature like a sauna, the internal temperature of the improvised bee-keeper suit was about the same as the fiery furnace into which Shadarach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown. My profuse sweating interfered with my vision to such an extent that I tripped and spilt the venomous insecticide all over my ersatz bee-keeper suit, which now resembled a portable gas chamber.

I started choking and things were going dim as I struggled to get to the house. Had I really poisoned myself or was it the Benadryl kicking in? With my last reserve of strength, I peeled off the malignant clothing and crawled into the shower. Through the window, I could see the surviving wasps rejoicing — They were sure they had gotten me this time.

As I lapsed into semi-consciousness, I wondered if the EPA Superfund would pay for cleaning up my house and if a shish-ke-bob skewer would work as a stinger for a wasp costume.

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.

The Three Labours of Stawar

3 Jan


        Amidst my constant brooding about money matters, I recently came up with the scheme for refinancing our house, to take advantage of the rock bottom interest rates. I surprised myself, since generally I just talk about such things. Actually doing them makes me feel like a take-charge kind of guy but also incredibly anxious. I filled out the mortgage application papers like I was in a trance and had to face the trauma of looking at credit scores and listing all my bills. There was, however, one thing, I hadn’t counted on and that is the mortgage company insisted on having the house appraised. The thought of someone poking around our house, taking note of all my neglect, was enough to make me reconsider the whole thing.

             My wife Diane said she would go along with the refinancing, but she established two conditions. First, I had to be the one who was at home when the appraiser came to our house. I admit that I usually foist such embarrassing jobs off on her. When electricians, plumbers, or other repairmen come to our house, I conveniently have a very important meeting at work that I just can’t cancel. She has to face their embarrassing questions as they look over various aspects of my shoddy workmanship. If I see a repair truck in the driveway on my way home from work, I usually decide that maybe we need some milk from the store. Shepherding the appraiser through our house would be sort of a token payback for all the times Diane was stuck with that dirty job. Diane’s second condition was her insistence that I, for decency’s sake, clean up the basement and make some minor house repairs that I had been putting off for years. She had only asked me last week when was I going to straighten up my work bench. I was intimidated and reluctant, but that fixed 4% called to me in a siren’s voice. Diane had just sprained her foot so it was also made clear that these jobs were mine alone.

             The task before me began to assume mythic proportions in my mind. I remembered how the Greek gods require Hercules to complete a series of nearly impossible tasks to atone for his past misdeeds. But Hercules only had to slay some monsters, clean stables, and steal a couple of apples. Compared to my jobs, Hercules’s labors were a piece of cake.

Labor 1: The Cleansing of the Basement Hercules’s most humiliating assignment was to clean the Augean stables in a single day. King Augeas was known for his famous stables, which were the largest in the world. The livestock, housed there, were supernaturally robust and produced an enormous quantity of waste. Furthermore, the stables had not been cleaned in many years. However, if you ever saw our basement, I’m sure you would agree that the Augean stables had nothing over the Stawaran basement, which due to my procrastinating had not been thoroughly cleaned in nearly a decade. Hercules accomplished his task by cheating. He rerouted the course of two rivers so that they flushed out the stables. It would have probably been easier to redirect the Ohio, but I used plain old elbow grease. Although technically I wasn’t required to slay any giant monsters, cleaning the basement did involve tackling several horrendous spiders and something that may have been a slime creature. The job took two full days, dozens of trash bags, and a lungful of dust and debris. There was also some psychological cost to the task, since it involved sorting through our youngest son’s old toys. He is the baby of the family and although he’s been away from home for almost six years, his absence is still hard to accept. All those Legos and Star War toys evoked a flood of bittersweet feelings that didn’t make the task any easier.

Labor 2: The Spackling of the Bathroom My second task was to repair a hole in the ceiling of the guest bathroom. I forget how long ago the hole was made by a plumber looking for a leaky pipe. The leak had long since subsided, but the hole remained. Most of our guests have had the good manners not to inquire about this hole, but lacking any such social inhibitions, visiting children always point it out. Even babies having their diaper’s changed in this bathroom have gestured upwards towards the ceiling in an accusing manner. I managed to cut a piece of drywall and nail it to the ceiling and fill in around it with spackling compound. Since the ceiling had an “orange peel” plaster finish, the smooth drywall piece didn’t blend in very well, even after I painted it. About a day before the scheduled appraisal, I decided to get a large spray can of plaster texture to try to apply a surface, similar to the ceiling, on the drywall. A friend at work told me I didn’t have to put up masking tape since any spillover would easily wipe off. Just to be safe I taped a few sheets of newspaper to the walls anyway. I shook the can vigorously to mix the texture. When I pushed the button, it was like a plaster bomb detonated. I must have swallowed about a pound of plaster and the overspray covered everything in the room including the sink, walls, the chair I was standing on, and the shower curtain. About the only thing that did not get a coat of plaster was the piece of drywall, I was aiming at. It took me hours to clean up the mess.

Labor 3. Weedwacking the Pathway We have a small outbuilding about 100 yards from our house. Since I wanted the house to appraise for as much as possible, I wanted to make sure the appraiser could see it. Over the summer the pathway to the building had become overgrown, so my final labor was to clear it. For over twenty minutes I tried to get the line trimmer going, by pulling the starter cord. I finally discovered I had dialed the wrong settings, which would have prevented it from ever starting. By the time I got the thing started I was already exhausted. The pathway had many painful thorny branches blocking it, but the trimmer was able to mow them down. In a green cloud of flying thorns and poison ivy, I cut a pathway to the building, completing my final labor.

               The appraiser went over the house with a fine tooth comb. Just my luck that since the mortgage crisis, banks are very wary of inflated appraisals. I survived the ordeal and am waiting for the results. If the appraisal isn’t high enough, my next scheme may involve fetching a Golden Fleece.

Orginally published in the New Albany Tribune/Jeffersonville  Evening News

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 tribune.com

I Do Not Like Green Eggs and Salmon Croquettes

18 Sep


               I wouldn’t call our three year old grandson, Oliver,  a picky eater, although from year one it was clear he didn’t want other people to feed him. Even now he wants to maintain control over things. When we recently went to the movies, he was determined to supervise  the popcorn. He would share, but insisted on giving me one kernel at a time and he had to thoroughly examine each one before he would let loose with it.  Perhaps that comes from having two bossy big sisters.

            When she was a little girl, Oliver’s mother was, at times, too good of an eater. To our mortification she would literally lick her plate clean when we ate out in restaurants. 

            But I, believe it or not,  had the reputation in my family as being an incredibly fussy eater. I rejected almost everything. For a while I would only eat the yellow part  of eggs. Later I switched and would only eat the white part. Comedian  George Carlin says that “fussy eater” is just a euphemism for “Big Pain in the Ass”. As I grew older I would rarely eat anything but hamburgers and chocolate milkshakes.  Dr. Berman, my jolly, rotund, cigar-smoking pediatrician, told my mother not to worry.  He said that I could get along just fine on this diet, which I now suspect was pretty much the same things he ate.   

            About 20% of children are fussy eaters. Two factors contribute to this rejection of foods:   “food  neophobia” and picky eating. “Food neophobia”  is  the reluctance to eat unfamiliar foods.  New foods are often rejected by children solely on the basis of their names.   George Carlin says he would never eat food with names like squash, wheat germ, or  horse radish when he was a kid. Picky eaters are children who eat a very limited variety, because they reject both familiar and unfamiliar foods. On average, picky eaters are lighter and shorter than their  peers, but still within the normal range for their age.

            In some instances picky eating is matter of imitating parents or older siblings. For example, my brother Norman disliked cucumbers.  Once when we all went out to dinner, he and his two daughters acted liked they had been poisoned when they discovered cucumbers in the salad.   In other cases it is some characteristic of the food, itself, that leads to its rejection, such as taste, color, or consistency.  For instance foods that are hard,  mushy, gooey, or chunky are often summarily rejected.

            In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin asks his mother if he has to eat the “slimy” asparagus.  Calvin hates mushy vegetables, but when his mother tells him that they’re really monkey brains, his weakness for grossness overcomes his resistance and he’s happy to eat them. Picky eating is seen throughout popular culture. Who can forget Dr. Suess’ classic  Green Eggs and Ham.  There is also the episode of  Leave it to Beaver,  in which  the Beaver’s  refusal to eat Brussels sprouts almost causes him to miss the  trip to Mayfield to see the big game. 

            Cultural factors also play a role in food rejection. In Japan kids tend to hate carrots and green peppers. In one episode of Pokemon,  the Misty character  says the three things she  hates most in life are “bugs, carrots, and bell peppers”.

            Picky eating is not confined to children. You might remember that President  George H.W. Bush   created quite a stir when he announced that he  didn’t  like broccoli.  University of Pennsylvania  anthropologist Jane Kauer surveyed over  500 adults regarding their eating habits. She found that one-third of them described themselves as “unusually picky eaters ” and  about 20%  had  an extremely narrow range of acceptable  foods.  

             Kauer also discovered that about  60% of adults clean their plates at mealtime and about half  eat the same breakfast nearly every day.  Many of us won’t drink while we eat or eat food that has any sort of filling (ravioli, pirogues,  blintzes, etc.).   About 20%  of us abhor the jellied consistency of  raw tomatoes and routinely avoid  unfamiliar foods. One of our kids always ate things sequentially and made a big fuss whenever foods touched each other on his plate. To desensitize him, my wife Diane would always serve him his hamburger with one baked bean on top of the bun. 

            Kauer and others have found that fried chicken, chicken fingers, French fries, chocolate chip cookies, plain cheese pizza, and Kraft macaroni and cheese are among the small number of food items that are almost universally accepted. These comfort foods are   familiar, bland,  and obvious  in regard to their make-up.   At times picky eaters are   almost paranoid about what is in the food they eat. There is a lack of trust about ingredients,  and in more extreme cases, preparation.  I once had a boss who flatly refused to eat ethnic foods, fearing they were tainted in some way.   Kauer says, “We all know what’s in fried chicken…   …even if we get it from some place we’ve never been before.”  And George Carlin neatly summarizes the issue saying, “I only eat things I can immediately recognize. I came to eat, not to make inquiries.”
            Extremely picky eaters displayed more obsessive-compulsive and depressive  tendencies,  expressions of disgust,  and avoidance of unfamiliar foods than non-picky eaters.  In taste tests,  they also subjectively rated sweet and bitter flavors as being more intense. As a group they weren’t food-haters, they just saw themselves as “highly selective”. Never-the-less, mental health experts are considering adding a classification  called “selective eating disorder ” to the American Psychiatric Association’s new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

            So the next time I won’t eat a salmon croquette with that yellow stuff on it, remember,  I’m not being “picky”–  just “highly selective”.

Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (http://newsandtribune.com/)

Why I Am Not Handy Around the House

4 Feb

I have always wondered why I am not very good with tools. When it comes to tasks around the house, I am definitely mechanically challenged. Worse yet, I cannot bring myself to hire professionals who know what they are doing, until the situation becomes critical. Reflexively I have bizarre unrealistic expectations regarding the expense, knowing that this is the act what will finally drive us to the poor house. All this neurotic thinking drives my wife crazy.
I would like to blame my father, at least in part. Like many people who grew up during the depression, he believed that you should be totally self-reliant. Only the Vanderbilts and Astors actually hired people to work for them. Dad was also the one who always talked about being driven to the poor house. I was always scared to death of going to the poor house, although I don’t think I ever actually saw one. Hiring craftsmen was a foolish waste of money, perhaps even un-American, and a sure rod to the nebulous poor house.. My father was a good electrician, and he thought he could do any sort of skilled work. He couldn’t and neither can I, although that strong expectation is still present.
I never had the same relationship with tools as my father. He would get furious when he found his best screwdriver rusting away in the pile of dirt where I left it. It was probably the same feeling I get when I see my son using one of my books as a coaster.
I’ve analyzed the situation and have identified four main factors that account for most of my ineptitude in home repair.
1. Lack of Adequate Tools. Yes, it is a poor workman who blames his tools. But since I am a poor workman, I’m entitled to this excuse. I never have the appropriate tool. But since I always purchase the cheapest tools possible, (imported ones on sale at the discount store) even if I have the right tool, often it is of such poor quality that it doesn’t function properly. A related problem, of course, is just finding my tools in the first place. If they aren’t laying in their usual location, in a heap on the garage floor, I’m in trouble. “Now where is that wrench, I ‘m sure I left it in a pile of dirt in the backyard on Saturday.”
2. Task Transformation. No matter what the job start starts out to be, it always mutates into some other task I must complete first. If I’m not looking for some tool, I’m trying to replace a crucial part I’ve manage to break or lose. I must spend at least 95% of the time looking for lost screws, sockets, or patience. Just replacing a switch cover can turn into an endless quest to the hardware store, beginning with trying to find my lost car keys, wallet, and watch and then stopping for cash, gasoline, and Prozac before I even get to the store.
3. The Hemorrhage Factor. A third major stumbling block is the bloodletting that invariably occurs at some point during the project. I’ve managed to injure myself with wrenches, tire tools, glue guns, and assorted sharp objects. This distraction leads to the obligatory trip to the emergency room for the embarrassing explanation and requisite stitches, tetanus shots or neurosurgery. Even minor injuries take a great deal of time. “Where is that peroxide. I know I left in the backyard last Saturday when I was fixing the fence.”
4. The Humiliation Factor. Perhaps the most important obstacle, this involves trying to avoid telling other people the idiotic things I’ve already done. For example, I hate taking my car into the shop and hearing the mechanic say “Hey who tried to tape this engine together and what’s this coat hanger doing here. You shouldn’t mess with this stuff. You could hurt yourself.” Good advice, but I already hurt myself ( see factor #3).
And I don’t like explaining to the hardware store clerk that I need the spare part because I stripped the threads or dropped the spring down the drain. “Gee I don’t have any idea what happen to it. It was that way when I got there. Maybe one of the kids messed with it.” That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
I suppose I could go to the community college and take some courses in home repair or see a therapist for a few sessions, but that probably cost so much I’d end up in the poor house.

Auto Enmity

11 Jan

I hate cars. Any remainder of my adolescent infatuation has evaporated and and abiding hatred of all things automotive has filled the void . It started at James Monroe Senior High summer school, June 1966. The first day of driver’s education class I’m waiting for my name to be called as the roll is read by assistant football coach, Cedric Kamper. “Smith, Linda… Smither, James… Stark, Denise… Starnes, Roger…” “Good ole Roger Starnes –he’s been in line in front of me for the last 10 years. I’m next and I’m sure this jerk’s going to mispronounced my name and embarrass me.” “Stuh… Stuh…” (“It’s pronounced Stay War. Stay !War! Idiot!” ) “Stuh… Stuh… Strawberry… Strawberry, Terry… Terry Strawberry here?” Everybody busts out laughing. My face turns as red as a strawberry. I wish I was dead. No, I wish he was dead. I should have known then and there that oil and strawberries do not mix.
Mr. Kamper ploughed through the book stuff –power trains, carburetors, tire pressure, and stopping distances –lickety split. We watched a few gruesome flicks about drunk drivers who end up impaled on steering columns with axles rammed up their noses and mysteriously learner permits are bestowed upon us and we’re ready for the open road.
My driving cohort consisted of Mr. Kamper, Wilburt Jasper, Sandy Richards, and me. Wilburt was a thin nervous black boy who was an excellent alto saxophone player and very mediocre basketball player. He wished it was the other way around. Sandy was more academically inclined but her real claim to fame was that she once wrote a letter of complaint to the Continental Baking Company about how Hostess Cupcake wrappers stick to the icing and three weeks later a Hostess truck pulled up to her house and delivered a free case of cupcakes. Mr. Kamper had earned a reputation as a teacher to avoid. His real calling in life was football and he viewed teaching as a necessary evil. He taught basic science and driver’s education and his lesson plans were pretty much the list of movies he intended to show. He also had a mean streak and would cull out vulnerable students to hound unmercifully I was afraid he had my number after the strawberry incident.
The driver’s education car was a big white Chrysler with a large “Student Driver” sign on top. It had an extra brake pedal for Mr. Kamper to stomp on if it was necessary to save our lives. One late June morning Wilburt was chauffeuring us around a state park when Mr. Kamper says, “Let’s see how you do under pressure.” Wilburt winces but is afraid to avert his gaze from the road. Mr. Kamper produces a 4 inch firecracker, balances it on the dashboard, and lights it. Now, I knew it was fake, being somewhat of an fireworks expert. My dad was a volunteer city fireman and every Fourth of July the city cops would roust local teenagers and confiscate their fireworks. They would take the fireworks down to city hall, where other policemen, firemen, and city employees would take them home for their own kids. Well either Wilburt was no expert or he was already anxious just being in this car full of white people that he was unable to see through Mr. Kamper’s lame joke. As the fuse started sputtering, Wilburt started swerving and only by luck escaped ploughing into the largest man made object in North America, the great Cahokia Indian Mound. Mr. Kamper jammed his brake pedal, delighted to claim another victim and have a finally have an opportunity to use the brake. I felt sorry for Wilburt, but I was really glad it wasn’t me.
As if to make up for it, Mr. Kamper took the wheel saying, ” Now, I’m going to teach you punks something really important.” and winked conspiratorially. He pulled out a cigarette, matches, and a Coke. “Here’s how you light a cigarette while drinking a beer and steering the car at the same time.” Speeding up to 65, he put the Coke can between his legs, the cigarette in his mouth and managed to ignite the match while steadying the steering wheel. He light the cigarette, flipped the match out the window, snatched the Coke, and took a big slug. Wilburt was still pouting over the firecracker, Sandy had closed her eyes, and I was unimpressed. Although Mr. Kamper was good, I’d routinely seen my dad do much more dangerous things in the car and in a much more debilitated condition. Mr. Kamper didn’t even have a suicide knob for goodness sake.
Despite Kamper’s shenanigans, I passed the class, but flunked my driving test. I was terrified of parallel parking, but I didn’t even get that far. I blew it before I even started. I was so anxious that when the license inspector said, “Go.” I took it literally and shot across the parking lot into the street, completely ignoring a stop sign. He said excitedly, “Didn’t you see that sign?” I said “Sure but I thought I was suppose to do exactly what you said and you said go.” He looked at me with a mixture of amazement and disgust like I had just soiled my pants or something. He officially concluded that I needed a little more practice, but the truth is he thought I was too dim-witted and dangerous to drive on public thoroughfares.
I got my license three weeks later when my dad took me to the state driver’s license bureau. The inspector there was more relaxed, probably because he didn’t have to test 35 teenage boys high on driving hormones. The inspector was so fat he couldn’t buckle the seat belt, so one quick spin around the block and I was finally street legal.
Getting your license and getting a car were two different things in my family. After a traumatic experience with my older brother, my dad wasn’t about to have his car insurance cancelled or his rates doubled again, so I was banned from the family Impala and began a quest for my own car.
I owned two cars that I never actually drove. The first was a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere that I bought from Burt Franklin for 25 dollars. It looked fine and the motor ran, although it didn’t have any brakes. Burt towed it into my backyard and I worked like a Trojan for two months fixing the brake hoses. Then I parked it on the street next to our garage. This got my mother off my back, who was mad because the brake fluid had killed most of the grass in our backyard. Without insurance, I still couldn’t drive the car, but I could work on it.
About two blocks from where I lived a guy named Dave Sukowski built and raced drag racers. Every evening until midnight there would be a crowd of super cool guys hanging around his garage drinking beer, checking out his Super Stock Dodge Super Bee, and talking about motors. To the consternation of neighbors they would periodically fire up the engine which sounded like Krakatoa erupting. I decided that I would shoot for a piece of this celebrity with the younger and more naive crowd.
Using spacers I jacked the back of the Plymouth three feet in the air, painted on a racing stripe, and fashioned a spoiler from auto body putty. Through Hot Rod Magazine advertisements, I ordered decals for Hooker headers, Thrush mufflers, Valvoline motor oil, STP oil treatment, Holley carbs, Hurst shifters and Isky cams. I plastered both sides of the car with decals (strategically covering rust spots) and damn if it didn’t look like a race car. The Plymouth had a black roof and an antique Egyptian white body with extra wide fins, a hydromatic push button transmission, and a 318 cid engine desperately in need of a ring job. At nigh I would lean over the car like I was working on it and suddenly guys I didn’t even know stopped to talk to me. Daily I would start the 318 and drive 10 feet up the street or back again so the cops wouldn’t tow it in as an abandoned car. Each time the engine started, it produced enough thick white smoke to kill all the mosquitoes for a three block radius. Although it was a good summer, it really wasn’t the same as driving. And then there was that sad winter day when my dad called O’Dell’s Junkyard and had the Plymouth permanently put out of its misery. In my attempt to remedy the smoke problem I filled the crankcase with high viscosity STP which was fine in summer but once the temperature dropped, the stuff solidified and the pistons stuck in the STP like pickled pigs feet in gelatin.
That next spring I acquired the second automobile that I would never actually drive. It was a french import —a Renault (pronounced in the Midwest “Renn’-Alt”). It originally belong to my older brothers’s girlfriend’s parents who sold it to him for sixty bucks and which he then sold to me for 75$. You could use a manual crank to start it — just the thing for a cold Illinois winter.
The Renault was kept in the garage and one weekend when my parents were out of town, I was messing with it with my friends, Mickey and John. We talked about how it was a shame that it wasn’t a convertible so we could put the top down and attract girls. Mickey had a younger brother, Pat, who was kind of crazy and worked for an auto repair shop sweeping up the red stuff they throw on oil stains on the garage floor. Pat stopped by with his equally crazy friend Bobby (who had a head shaped like a football hence his nickname Bobby Footballhead) and tried to convinced us that we could easily convert the Renault into a really cool convertible using only a chisel and hacksaw. We were still discussing the possibility when impetuously Bobby Footballhead and Pat started hammering and sawing away. There was no turning back and within an hour the car’s top was completely chopped. Pat’s knowledge of structural engineering was a bit faulty and as soon as the roof was removed the entire car collapsed in upon itself like a jellyfish out of water. When my Dad got home he called O’Dell’s Junkyard to tow away the imploded Renault, making me 0 for 2 in car acquisition game.
My next car was bought at a car auction when I was a senior in high school. It was a 1960 Chevy Corvair with a three speed transmission. I customized it with two racing stripes, rear hood scoops, and a spoiler. I put baby moon hubcaps on the front wheels after painting them metal fleck blue and chrome reverses in the back. I even had insurance and could drive it. I really loved this car, but right away it started to betray me. On my very first outing I learned three things about Corvairs: 1. A Corvair can really go ninety miles an hour. 2. The Corvair has only one long fan belt that runs the oil pump, alternator, and pretty much everything else, and 3. This fan belt is very likely to break, especially if you are going 90 mile per hour and that’s why you should always have a spare fan belt.
I drove the Corvair to senior high school skip day and after dropping off my friends, I backed up over an abandoned gas pump island ripping a major hole in the oil pan. My friend Larry opined that it looked like a thousand dollar’s damage (I only paid $500 for the car). The car did freeze up from lack of oil on the way home, but I obtained a junker’s oil pan from O’Dell’s and it worked fine. But new complications arose as the car develop an insidious electrical short. The horn honked in cadence with the windshield wiper cycle, the defroster stopped working and the headlights went out whenever you stepped on the dimmer switch.
I borrowed my older brother Norman’s car to go on a date I and traded him my Corvair, forgetting to brief him on its eccentricities. Norman was driving down a very dark road when he was confronted by a driver who refused to dim his high-beams as he approached. Norman as was his custom aggressively stomped on the dimmer switch to teach the offender a lesson and terrified the other driver and himself when the Corvair’s headlights went out completely. Norman ran off the road into a horseradish field and spent 15 minutes figuring out that he needed to hit the dimmer again to turn the lights back on. He was furious at me when I returned his car. He said, ” You should take that damn Corvair, paint it black, and use it for a coffin.”
Once the Corvair began making clicking sounds whenever I made a right turn. This went on for a few weeks and then one day I was making a hard right turn in front of Schemers’ Supermarket and the clicking got louder I turned the wheel quickly and suddenly it spun all the way around and the steering column came detached from the gear box and I could pull the wheel up about two feet up in the air. I was heading directly for the front display window which contained a pyramid of Campbell’s Pork and Beans. Fortunately the brakes still worked and I skidding to a halt just short of the window.
The Corvair limped along for almost more 2 years. I finally sold it after I hit some loose gravel and slid into a drainage ditch on the way to school at Southern Illinois University. The president of the student body was driving behind me at the time and gave me a ride in his Corvette. He said he was impressed that I didn’t flip the car over. Having my eyes closed at the time, I wouldn’t know, but I voted for him anyway.
Not being able to part with the chrome reverses when I sold the Corvair, I temporarily stashed them in my mother’s basement. They were auctioned off along with everything else in the house 35 years later when my mother slipped off a new kitchen chair while reaching for a chocolate pie, broke her hip, and had to go live in a nursing home near Chicago.
My next vehicle was a Bell Telephone van that was sold because it had over 100,000 miles in mileage. It burned a lot of oil and always smelled like flatulence. Parking was a terrible problem at college but I found that I was able to park the van anywhere I wanted, as long as it was close to a telephone pole. This lasted until an inconveniently situated state trooper gave me my first ticket for not having a valid truck inspection sticker. The trooper insisted that I cover up the Bell Telephone decals, ending my parking scam. I also had to get the van inspected. I knew the van would never past inspection and for a while I drove around with a counterfeit sticker that I had traced and colored with crayons to look like the real thing. I finally took it in and to my surprise it barely passed (Thank God there were no emission inspections in those days.). I got a can of K-Mart gray primer paint and reluctantly sprayed over the Bell Telephone emblems. To compensate for the loss I stenciled “Stawar Enterprises” on the side in bright yellow letters. People were always asking me what business I was in. A few weeks later I traded the van for a metallic blue 1966 Ford Fairlane which I later sold for three hundred dollars when I went away to college that fall. I got three new crisp hundred dollar bills for the Fairlane and I kept one of the bills in my shoe the whole time I was away at college as a pecuniary security blanket.
When I graduated college and lined up a job, I bought my first real new car— a 1973 MG Midget, that cost $2,700. On the day I drove it home from the dealer I parked it over at my brother’s house. I got into his station wagon to run an errand and backing up, I crashed into my own new car, denting the grill. The dent remained as long as I owned the vehicle as a perpetual reminder of the price of unbridled impatience.
My mother’s initial comment was that the MG, “Looked like a damn roller skate.” But I was too excited about my “sports car” to be discouraged. The car had a clutch about the size of a tea saucer and I found that it needed to replaced semiannually if you habitually rode the clutch as I did. I had successfully changed the Fairlane’s clutch and despite a box of left over parts, it ran, but the Midget’s metric motor was beyond me. You had to be a left-handed, double-jointed Australian marsupial monkey to work on that car. The engine had to be pulled just to change the oil. Three clutches later I became closer than I ever wanted to be with Harold, my English mechanic, although I rather liked telling people that I had an English mechanic and Harold certainly enjoyed taking my Yank money.
One night my friend Al and I took the MG to a dive in Memphis — Bad Bob’s. We saw Jerry Lee Lewis pick a fight with some guy at the bar and decided it was a good time to leave. On the way home I hit a slick spot in the road skidding into a very soggy field. The Midget was buried in mud up to the windows and we had to take the top down just to get out. We woke up a farmer and paid him 10 bucks to pull us out with his tractor. The tractor had a cotton planter gizmo attached to the front which scratched the right front fender of the Midget, but it was worth it to get out of there. My feelings about cars were beginning to change
A year later I moved to Florida and driving the Midget through Tallahassee on my way to visit my future wife, Diane, I noticed rain drops on the windshield. I turned on the wipers and they smeared the drops which were not rain at all, but motor oil. Motor oil drops on your windshield is usually a very bad sign. Suddenly all the idiot lights went on and the gauges went berserk like a slot machine hitting the jackpot. The MG had thrown a rod and needed a complete engine transplant. I was real upset. From at point on autos became objects of fear and loathing.
Three weeks and $500 dollars later, I took the bus to Tallahassee to pick up the car. Diane rode back with me to Daytona and two hours outside of Tallahassee the MG started making a roaring sound. I discovered that the muffler had worked its way loose when they replaced the engine. We pulled into a gas station that was attended by a couple of goofy adolescents and talked them in to letting me use the service bay to fix the muffler. It was getting late and I worked frantically on the muffler, burning my arm. A local Lothario cruised by, checking out the MG, and especially Diane who was asleep in the Midget. I was oblivious to everything except the muffler and when the guy walked up and said, “Looks like she’s about had it.” I assumed he was talking about the MG, not Diane and I said, “Nahh, a little tightening and she’ll fine.”
The Midget gave me one final embarrassing moment when I drove my boss to a psychologists’ convention in Washington. DC. Halfway there the car suddenly lost power and wouldn’t go any faster that 40 miles per hour. When we got to DC we were constantly worried the car was going to stop completely and leave us stranded on one of the streets full of hookers and pushers. Prayers and threats prevailed and when we got home, Harold said the MG had a blown head gasket. My boss said a lot of other things and I never lived this down.
By this time my hatred of automobiles had crystallized. In the years that followed this feeling was further aggravated by experiences with other misfit cars. There was the “Cheese Car”. My kids christened it that because of a funky cheesy smell that we endured until the car’s engine burned up two years later. My new mechanic, Chuck, bought the car, replaced the engine and sold it at a big profit. I often wondered if he had anything to do with the engine burning up in the first place.
Next was the “Pumpkin Car”, so named because of its large size and bright orange paint job. One day while shifting gears it gave a cataclysmic shudder and oily pieces of broken gears were strewn about the road. I called the local junkyard and they towed it in giving me 25$ for the remains.
Briefly we owned a large green Chevy van. It lost two side windows while I was driving down a particularly bumpy dirt road through an orange grove. It had chronic carburetor problems requiring the butterfly choke to be forced open once it started. I drove around for three months with an English bayonet stuck in the carburetor. My dad had bought the unsharpened bayonet at the Army Depot in East St. Louis when I was eight years old. It finally came in handy.
This van also had fan belts that slipped and made terrible screeching noises. Once we were driving down a dark foggy street and saw some pedestrians walking ahead. I told my oldest son, Saul, “Watch me scare the crap out of those guys.” I am ashamed to say I snuck up on them slowly, put the van in neutral, and gunned the engine, generating a gigantic squeak which had its desired effect. All ahead squeak factor nine.
Next there was the oil leaking AMC Concord whose engine fire was extinguished by a state trooper who for once was appropriately situated. I drove the car home later when it cooled down, but I had to keep the heater running even in the middle of the Florida summer to prevent the engine from overheating. Once the incontinent Concord overheated and I pulled off the Interstate and parked under the expressway next to a pond. Within minutes a battalion of homeless vagrants were all over the car helping to carry water and giving me the benefit of their automotive expertise. So it seem that all men, regardless of socioeconomic status, are authorities when it comes to cars. The Concord gave way to the Japanese van that could turn on a dime but had to have three alternators replaced in one year.
Last year our station wagon that had its transmission replaced only to burn out again while we on vacation. We were stuck outside of Nashville at a roadside store that specialized in towels and Elvis souvenirs. I called my transmission shop and was told to contact the local warranty dealer. Arrangements were made and we all piled into a tow truck (Diane, our two youngest boys, the station wagon and me) and off we went to see Mr. Transmission. The driver suggested we stay in town a few days to see the civil war battlefield and tour the local machine gun factory. Instead we immediately rented another car and continued on the vacation from hell, like the Pony Express, shooting one lame horse and saddling up another. I thought this year things would be different but the week before vacation the car developed a severe shimmy, prompting Diane to sing “Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Puff” ever time we bounced down the street. The new tires and front end work wiped out our meager vacation savings and so another reason to despise autos.
God intended for autos to be feared and hated. They are obviously beyond the comprehension and control of most mortals. They are nothing less than malevolent entities bent on mischief and I have the physical and psychic scars to prove it.