I was in Florence, Italy on my honeymoon. We had rented a flat overlooking the Piazza della Repubblicca which had a nice kitchen. I wanted to cook our dinner this one night instead of eating out – chicken piccata. I found this really small butcher shop run by a elderly husband and wife team. Without reading any of the labels on the cuts of meat on display, I instead brandish my trusty English-Italian dictionary and work out how to ask for “Two chicken breasts please” – due seno di pollo. The old lady immediately bursts into a howling guffaw, and the old man turns beet red and looks very angry. He storms out from around the counter and angrily points into the display case in the area of the chicken and affirms, “petti di pollo, PETTI di pollo!” The old woman quiets down and her husband storms off into the back of the shop. She starts bagging the chicken, still looking very amused. I’m confused but I count out some money ond put it down beside the cash register. She places he bagged chicken down and rings me up. Before I leave, She leans over the counter and while looking directly into my eyes, cups both of her generous busoms with a rubbing motion, gives me a wink, and slowly whispers,Senoooo. It was at that moment the penny finally drops. I give the old bird a laugh and walk out feeling a little violated.
Mark was my best friend in High School, and like many guys our age, he had a very strong desire for a certain kind of car. We were both seniors and he had been saving up. If you didn’t know Mark back then, you might have guessed he was after a Camaro or a Mustang GT. If you did know him, his choice would have made perfect sense.
Slow down ladies, there’s room for everyone.
Make no mistake, the 1974 VW Camper Bus was an extreme car. The excellence of its interior design was matched only by the maliciousness of its mechanics. By the time Mark acquired his “Tic-Tac”, it was 1988 and the vehicle was held together mostly by hope and luck. The engine was in back, where it quickly heated the mattress of the lower bed nearly to charring. The channels which ran air from the engine to the heating vents in front were too long and narrow, making it a miserable ride for winters in New England. It had lots of storage space however, and it was perfect for our primary hobby that year – SCUBA diving. In our part of New England, the coast is mostly rocky, which makes for great shore diving, and you can catch your own lobsters. We were diving 2-3 times a day every weekend that year, and it was all enabled by the Tic Tac.
One particular weekend in autumn began and proceeded the same way the last few of the prior summer had. We left on Friday afternoon and arrived at Fort Wetherill Park by nightfall, popped the camper top, and fell asleep. The Fort was as a popular spot for SCUBA diving, and back then it wasn’t fenced or policed, so spending the night in the parking lot was a carefree and cheap way to sleep to the sounds of the ocean. We rose by the crack of dawn and had bacon and eggs for breakfast, cooked over the propane burners on the range, which was just above the mini-fridge. We aided our digestion by walking around the Fort grounds observing the tides and currents, then made our way back to the bus by mid-morning to don our SCUBA gear. Struggling into a wetsuit is always a comical challenge, but I always thought I looked the most awkward clambering down the rocks carrying my fins and the 50+ pounds of metal strapped to my back and waist. As we settled down into the water, we let go of a few sharp comments in response to the initial icy shock we felt as the sea spilled in past our cuffs and collars. It was time to start and we submerged into each our own roiling vortexes of escaping compressed air. I’ve always enjoyed the noisy transition from the air to being underwater. As my vest deflates, the bubbles catch the glass edge of my mask and fill my vision. During that moment of distracted disorientation, it can seem like you’ve stepped into a kind of teleporter to another world. One minute everything is normal, then a moment of chaotic blindness and noisy deafness, and then you are breathing underwater, exploring.
We spent the first dive of the day just looking around. The cove we entered dropped to -60 feet fairly quickly, and there was a nice rock wall to the right of the entry point which was covered with resplendent anemones and urchins, probing for food in every available direction. In the more shallow areas there were rock beds teeming with lobsters, but each one had its own hole whenever we got near. After an hour or so we resurfaced to cook a lunch of hot dogs with mac and cheese, and then relaxed for a few hours chatting about what we had just seen. By mid-afternoon it was time for our second dive, and the plan was to get some of those lobsters. We forced our bodies into our now-cold wetsuits, geared back up and went back down the rocks, this time with yellow netted bags.
Lobsters are never caught by surprise. Their eyes have a nearly full range of sight and those long antennae are sensitive to every little disturbance in the water around them. The moment you get within a few feet of one, he scuttles away with a flash of his tail and a puff of silt. You have to follow them to the hole they settled into, butt-first. If you are lucky, your prey will be in a shallow hole or one with some clearance around the body of the bug. As soon as you get face to face with a lobster he’ll wedge his rostrum into the top of this hole and brandish his claws. When he’s like this you can only rarely pull him out, so you usually have to use some tricks. An unwound wire coat hanger was a favorite tool of mine. I found that if you bent a small hook on the end of it and then slid this into the top of the lobster’s hole, you could poke him on the tail with the tip of the hook. This would make the lobster think another potential threat was behind it, and it would jump out of the hole far enough to un-wedge his rostrom, offering me a short window in which to grab him.
Mark and I caught maybe 6 or 7 lobsters each that day, but we only kept the two best before we clambered back up the rocks to the Tic Tac. We stripped our suits off as the water in the pot heated and then warmed our hands over it as our dinner was boiled alive. It was September in New England. Our shadows got longer and our appetites more sated. The crickets started to chirp over the low clapping of lazy waves on slick rocks, and it was time to head home.
Getting the Tic Tac started was usually a challenge. Mark and I had fiddled with lots of things that could have caused the problem, but eventually we figured out that the engine had difficulty gaining and maintaining pressure, and it leaked about a quart of oil a week. More than once Mark and I had to spend the night in the Tic Tac for no better reason than that we could not turn the engine over and lacked the daylight or immediate resources to fix it. Several rounds of RRRrrrrRRRrrr -click- RRRRrrrrrRRRRrrrr -click- went by, but Mark finally did manage to get it running after maybe the 7th or 8th turn of the key. It was dark by the time we were on Route 4, south of Providence, and it was getting chilly. As useless as it was, we turned on the heat and tried to remind ourselves that as New England boys, we were impervious to cold. We had just entered Interstate 95 in Warwick and were feeling pretty happy with life in general. Mark and I were probably talking about the girls at school or about how strange cicadas look, when we were interrupted by a thunking sensation from the rear of the bus, more felt than heard. The Tic Tac suddenly lost some power and exhaust smoke started streaming in through the heating vents. Without discussing it we both rolled down our windows, and tolerated the cold blast of autumn air. We briefly considered and then rejected the idea of pulling over to stop. We both knew that doing so likely meant we’d be spending the night in the break-down lane of the interstate. So we kept going, even though the bus had slowed to a max speed of about 60 mph. We hadn’t even made it to Providence before we both started to suffer from splitting headaches and the first shivers against the cold wind coming in from the open windows. Mark had an idea.
When resurfacing after an enjoyable SCUBA dive, it is common practice to leave no less than 500 pounds per square inch of pressure in your tank as this prevents salt water leaking into the body of the cylinder and consequent corrosion. At normal atmospheric pressure, this is enough compressed air to breathe for maybe 30-45 minutes. We were about 35 minutes from home. While Mark continued to drive, I went into the back of the bus and assembled our tanks and regulators. I also took off my shirt and jacket and put on the top half of my cold and slimy wetsuit, initially unpleasant, but quickly warming. Mark and I did a hot swap for the driver’s seat at about 55 mph in weekend city traffic, so that he could do the same. We hot-swapped again, rolled up the windows to prevent the cabin from getting any colder, and began breathing from the remaining air in our tanks. Emissions were not a great concern in the year the Tic Tac was built, and it did not take long before the toxic exhaust filled the bus like bellows on a wet campfire. Our eyes began to burn and so the windows went down one more time, but only for long enough to clear the air so that we could wear our diving masks. By the time we arrived in mid-town Providence, we were again warm, breathing, and able to see well enough to continue driving home, now at a max speed of about 45 mph in an orange bus filled with hazy blue smoke.
I liked to imagine the Jones family was returning from an enjoyable day visiting the Rhode Island Children’s Museum. They may have had dinner at a local Italian place and began the relaxing ride home in Dad’s Volvo station wagon. They had not been on the interstate long before they began to smell burning oil. They soon came to a bright orange VW camper bus moving very slowly in the far right lane, the likely source of the acrid smell. Dad slowed down a little to see if the driver might need any help. Mom and the kids were curious too. The moment came and we all exchanged glances. Mark and I noted the four confused faces of the family in the Volvo. The Jones family regarded the two teenagers with SCUBA masks and regulators on their faces, wincing to see through the smog in the vehicle. We gave them a friendly wave and they accelerated, but not before I thought I saw Mom mouth the words, “what the fuck?”
By the time we arrived in our home town the bus had slowed to a max speed of 35 mph, and we knew that it would stall at the first stoplight. Rather than driving home and risking that outcome, we instead headed for the auto shop at which Mark was now a regular. We had only one light to worry about. It was red as we came to it. Mark declared, “I’m going to run it” and I prepared for a collision. By some turn of forgiving luck, the light turned green just as we crossed the intersection. Mark had tapped the brakes ever so slightly a moment before though, and the bus stalled. We rolled in silence for a few hundred more feet at about 20 mph, the auto shop now in sight. We pulled into the lot, and rolled into the one open parking spot, directly in front of the lot entrance. The bus came to a stop in the spot on the last draught of its natural momentum. I fell out of the bus in relief and changed back into normal clothes, now stinking of oily engine smoke. Both of us had about 30 psi left in our tanks. After stowing the gear and locking the bus, we walked the short way back to Mark’s house feeling very amused with ourselves, having finished another day we’d never forget. The Tic Tac never ran again.
I was 14 or 15, a freshman or sophomore in high school, when my stepfather decided he wanted to finish the basement of our raised-ranch home. He was pretty handy and got a great start to it with the framing and sheet rock. He got me involved in the work and I was only unhappy about it at first. By the time we were putting up the last of the sheet rock panels on the ceiling my grandfather was interested enough to get involved too. For a week it was just Grampa and I screwing sheet rock into the basement ceiling, and I really enjoyed working with him. He was a fairly serious old guy who would crack a smile when everyone else was in hysterics. He was typical for most first-generation Irish who grew up in south Boston in the early 20th century. He’d put up with oceans of shit and never say a word about it, unless he felt it directly threatened his family. He was my role model for what a family man should be, and I was excited for this chance to get to know him a little better.
We had worked out a pretty good system. By that age I was strong enough that I could steadily hold a full sheet of the gypsum to the ceiling long enough for Gramps to drill in as many screws as were needed to secure it, which was about a third of what we needed to keep it in place permanently. This would have been the early 80’s so we didn’t have any sonic stud-finders or other high-tech tools to aid us. Instead we did it the old fashioned way with lengths of chalked string to mark predicted stud positions as measured by their intended distance from the wall. We were often wrong with our measurements, and for that reason I became pretty good at patching with the spackle knife and sander. Despite that, we worked well together and learned how to communicate efficiently.
It was a weekday, and I had just gotten home from school. Grampa had just arrived at the house shortly before me, but my mom and stepdad were still at work. Both Grampa and I were excited to get started because this was the day we knew the sheet rock would be finished. As I recall we only had maybe three panels left that afternoon. The first one went up without any hassles, but the second one gave us trouble. It wasn’t even a full sheet but rather a half-sheet cut to fit the short hall towards the back door. For some reason we simply could not get our measurements right and all the screws kept going straight through the gypsum without anchoring into a stud. We put so many holes in that sheet we had to start over and cut another one, which made us impatient. We were so close to finishing that having trouble now was a greater annoyance than it should have been, and we started getting a little snappy with each other.
We eventually got the new piece cut properly, and the screws along the two opposite edges went in fine, which meant I didn’t need to hold the sheet to the ceiling and could instead help with the screws. If I was near an edge, sometimes I would forgo the measurements and the chalked string, and instead use my body’s natural ability to touch fingers together in the same place, even with my eyes closed or my visibility to one or both fingers blocked. With a pencil in one hand, I would take my other hand and place it inside the rafters and find where the stud I wanted met the sheet rock, and then touch the pencil to the spot where I knew it would have met my finger, thus marking the point where my next screw would find the stud. This technique had worked pretty well for me over the rest of the basement, and I was using it now. My Grampa was also rushing it, but he didn’t have my technique, and so he kept missing the center stud. I was done with all the sections I could reach with my own ladder, so I offered to help him with his section. There was no way he was going to let me drill the screws in his section for him, so instead I told him I had a quick way to mark the stud positions accurately, so that he wouldn’t have to make a third hole in the sheet without anchoring.
After explaining it to him, he agreed to the idea. So I climbed up the other side of his A-ladder, put my hand in the ceiling above the sheet and at the edge of the rafter, and marked off the spot. Grampa brought the cordless drill up, fit the screw bit with a new drywall screw, and zip, in it went. Grampa could tell this one had sunk solidly, as he began to bang on the spot to be sure of it. However about a half second earlier I was reminded by a very sharp, alarming pain that I had forgotten to remove my thumb from next to the rafter stud above the ceiling sheet rock. Before I could even comprehend the action, I swiftly yanked my thumb away from the pain and brought it to my face for inspection.
There was my grandfather’s drywall screw, drilled neatly through the bone of my thumb, entering right at the base of the thumbnail with the point having just barely broken the skin on the other side, just above the knuckle and just below the fingerprint. Small bits of gypsum dust and paper still clung to the bottom of the screw head.
“Oh ya, that one went in really good” Grampa said as he thumped the outside of his first against the screw hole in the ceiling.
“That was a good idea to mark the stud that way” *Thump Thump*
“Let’s do the next one just like that” *Thump*
My pleas finally sunk in as he moved his attention from the ceiling to me, “What?”
I held my thumb up between his face and mine, his focus shifted, and a second passed while his comprehension crystalized, “Uh oh.”
Now he was clearly looking nervous, which was interesting to me, because I had never seen Grampa nervous before and my instinct was to reassure him. This guy had been a rock my entire young life, and now he seemed like he had no idea what to do, as was evidenced by what he said next.
“Should we unscrew it?”
I admittedly had no idea what we should do next either, but the last thing I expected was to have him asking me a question about how to solve the problem before us. My thumb was in pain, but surprisingly not in enough pain to cloud my thinking or cause me any more stress than the tenderness after a stubbed toe. The throbbing sensation was strong, but also oddly reassuring. There was no blood or discoloration, my thumb not only felt like a wood stud but acted like it too.
“Maybe we should go to the hospital?”
My grandfather grew up in a time and a place where hospital visits were generally reserved for people who were going to die. In the short silence that preceded his reply I recalled an anecdote he told me about why he has worn denture replacements for his upper four front teeth most of his life. He and his buddies had created a very fun winter game where they would sneak behind the rear of cars at stoplights on unplowed snowy streets and hang on the bumper. When the light would turn green they would attempt to boot-ski along the road as long as they could before losing their balance and skidding to a stop after the fading car ahead of them. I don’t know how long he and his friends had been doing this but the game ended when this one particular car had accelerated too fast with the light change. The car began fishtailing into the light post on the opposite side of the street, causing it to come to an abrupt stop. Predictably, my grandfather and his friend beside him both smashed their faces into the rear of the car. According to my grandfather, his friend broke his nose and fractured his skull, rendering him with a proclivity for bloody noses thereafter. My grandfather was luckier, having no more medical care than a warm saltwater rinse after every meal for a few weeks but passing a year or more before being fitted for dentures. I was relieved when Grampa responded, “Oh ya, the hospital, ya, that’s what your mother would want us to do.”
So off we went. On the ride we speculated a little about what procedure the doctors might use to to remove the screw, and I had to reassure my grandfather that anything so severe as amputation was unlikely. Other than that, Grampa was back to his familiar self. He was a talented whistler, and I was happy to have him whistle a song to calm his nerves. I think I began testing the mobility of my thumb to a Bing Crosby tune. It wasn’t too impaired, I could bend my thumb, but about halfway through the motion it would “click” and snap to its fully bent position with only a little bit of added pain. Extending the thumb was trickier, and required help from my other hand. Twice more and I had enough of that exercise.
Grampa dropped me off at the entrance to the hospital, and while he went to look for parking I strolled into patient admissions. The only free admissions nurse was clearly evaluating me as I approached, guessing to herself the reason for my visit. As I was an obviously healthy (and might I add, ravishingly handsome) young man, I detected from her an air of barely curious contempt. Having a little fun, I was sure to keep my left thumb tucked behind my fingers to shield it from her view as I sat down in the little chair beside her booth.
“Can I help you?”
“Maybe, do you think there is someone here that could remove this for me?” as I held my thumb up between her face and mine, just as I had done with Grampa.
Nurses are ironic creatures. They are often utterly disinterested in the healthy and the young, sometimes to the point of hostility. However, when they are presented with someone in genuine need, they instantly transform into angels, eager to restore you to the state they find so uninspiring. I was delighted to see this nurse’s expression change from bored, mild disdain to instant, bright amusement.
“Oh! Ha! Yes I think we might be able to help with that.”
And so I gave her all my necessary information and was joined by my Grandfather who by this time the nurse was already referencing as “the culprit”. From a payphone, Grampa managed to get in touch with Mom and she thankfully managed to arrive at the hospital just before they were about to give me a sedative. I don’t know what the general anesthesia they gave me was, but it was my first experience with powerful narcotics. I wasn’t so high as to be confused, but I was feeling pretty good. I watched the doctors cluster around my hand, extended out on a long movable section of the bed, perpendicular to my body. They injected a local anesthetic directly into a nerve at the base of my thumb, and then another in my wrist. At some point a gowned janitor came into the room and presented the head doc with something wrapped up in tin foil. I watched the doc unwrap his gift; a very clean and apparently freshly sterilized phillips-head screwdriver. This got me chuckling, and then laughing, and then I just couldn’t stop. So they hit me with more of the drugs. After that it made me sick to move my head, and the world moved around me in freeze-frame cut images. I didn’t think anything was quite so funny anymore. Someone asked me if I wanted to watch TV and I must have responded positively because on it came. The show was a re-run of that time Elvis sang some concert in Hawaii in a sparkly white suit, during his fat days. I thought I couldn’t understand anything Elvis was singing because of all the drugs I was on. It was years later when I saw the special a second time that I realized it was actually because of all the drugs Elvis was on.
My view was blocked by an intern, but I could feel the screw coming out of my thumb, turn by turn. The drugs prevented it from being painful, but the friction was easily felt. With every turn my thumb shuddered a little, as if it were trying to hold the screw in place and didn’t want to let it go. The docs put a little wick in the hole that remained and wrapped my thumb up in a big bandage with instructions to not unwrap it for several weeks. They were very clear about this. They wanted my body to absorb the wick before unwrapping the bandage because they felt that if the wick were removed before then, I would be left with permanent scarring. Unfortunately our health insurance company would not reimburse my mother without having one of their in-network doctors inspect the work about a week later. I was as assertive as I could be as a teenager passing along the surgeon’s instructions, but this idiot unwrapped the bandage anyway. It hurt like hell when that wick was pulled out of the hole and it started bleeding all over him. I could tell he knew he fucked up by the look on his face but it didn’t matter as the damage was done. He wrapped me back up and I lived scarred, but happily ever after.
I have an appreciation for things with a story behind them. Way back in the 1930’s at the dawn of the atomic era, some clever chemists at the Homer Laughlin Company found that one could make a uniquely beautiful, orange-colored ceramics glaze from the oxide of a newly understood metal called uranium. Uranium oxides had been used for ceramic glazes since pre-history. In later times it was extracted from pitchblende, a side-product from silver mining, which was predominantly used in glass making to impart green or red colors. But let’s get back again to the chemists at Homer Laughlin. These guys worked out a way to concentrate the uranium oxide from pitchblende to a high enough purity to make plates vividly orange-red colored, and that was cool. They knew uranium was radioactive, but it was not understood at the time that radioactivity was dangerous.
So several thousand families received these lovely Fiestaware sets as gifts for weddings and baby showers. They then proceeded to raise families who would all eat dinner off of these plates, every night. The Homer Laughlin chemists also had not anticipated that the emissions from the uranium oxide would over time degrade the integrity of the glaze, causing it to become more gritty and sandy feeling to the touch. If they ate off of these plates long enough, these families would eventually be eating fine particles of uranium infused glaze with every meal. Untold numbers of people got cancer. I personally met someone who grew up eating off these plates who had Leukemia at the age of 8. Ironically it was World War 2 that halted the sale of these plates as the US government redirected all uranium supplies to the Manhattan Project. In the late 50’s, the Fiesta-red line was reintroduced but now with depleted uranium instead (you know, to be safe). It wasn’t until the late 70’s that industry began to understand that uranium probably should not be paired with dishware and the lines were entirely discontinued.
Of course, that does not mean these ceramics disappeared. As families aged, they often donated their old dishes to local thrift stores or divested them through estate sales. Many of these antique ceramics would find their way into antique stores, and that’s where one of my hobbies began to blossom. There were several imitations of the Fiesta-ware line that were difficult to distinguish from the real thing. Some time ago I bought an old 1950’s era Geiger counter of the kind normally kept in fire and police stations for civil defense after the commies attacked. If in my travels I ever came across an antique store which I had not previously visited, you could be assured I would be there for a visit the following week with my Geiger counter in a knapsack. One experience I had at an antique store across from Eastern Market in DC was representative.
The store was small, very cluttered and poorly organized. Low quality pantings were stacked 6 or 7 deep on the floor in places, old dresses and uniforms were in other places thrown in piles. Antiques shelves lined every wall without any regard to the placement of windows. The shelves were crowded with Hummel figurines, small toys, tchotchkies, souvenirs, junk and of course, glass and dishwares. By now I knew that most antique store owners were vaguely aware that some of the Fiestaware they carried was radioactive, but none that I had encountered ever thought much of it, having never been presented with direct evidence.
“Hello, I’m looking for any red Fiestaware you might have. I heard some of it is radioactive and I think that’s an interesting story.”
“Oh yes sir, very interesting, I think we have some toward the door there, and maybe some more in back, would you like me to get it?”
“Yes, that would be lovely, thank you. I would also like to ask if you mind if I test it.”
“Yes, you see, I have a Geiger counter in my backpack here, I would like to use it to ensure it is the kind I’m after. I understand imitations have been made which are not radioactive.”
At this point the reactions were universally similar. They would smile with mild amusement and curiosity when I took off my knapsack and produced my scary Geiger counter, looking like something directly out of a Godzilla movie. I once was asked to sell my counter, itself an antique.
I went about my business scanning things in the store but with the counter speaker off so that I could be alone in my awareness of what was and wasn’t radioactive by the dial pinging off the red Fiestaware. Regardless of sticker price, I gathered all the highest quality items in the store, by intensity of radioactive emissions and by aesthetic appeal, and brought them to the front counter. At this store the proprietors were a classily-dressed middle-aged woman who fit in well with that part of the rapidly gentrifying Eastern Market neighborhood of Capitol Hill and a younger guy, dressed in work clothes who was obviously there to do all the heavy lifting of antique furniture. After having watched me for a while and hearing nothing of concern, they still had an amused expression but now tinged with a certain smugness – all part of my plan.
I waited until they were about half done tallying the total before I placed the counter next to my haul with the speaker still off and asked, “So, would you like to know what I’ve found?”
“Nothing that will turn us into little green monsters I hope, ha ha”
“I”m not so sure.”
I switched the speaker on.
The tell-tale screeching of high-frequency clicks all running together in a steady stream that speaks of high-tech danger is a sound I will always cherish for its ability to transform those half-smug expressions to ones of pure, shocked alarm. I made sure to keep my eyes fixed on their face, as this was where my amusement began, at the expense of theirs ending. The ovals of the older woman’s eyes did not relax too much before she managed to compose herself enough to finish the tally.
“Uh, that will be 170 dollars… are we safe standing here in front of these?”
“Sure, so long as you wash your hands after you are done touching them. I wouldn’t suggest keeping these under your pillow either.”
I took my wallet out as she turned to the younger fellow, “How long have we had these here?”
“I don’t know, they were all here when I started six years ago”.
It was time to execute the last part of my plan, “Oh shoot, I forgot to go to the cash machine, I only have 40 bucks on me, I guess I’ll have to put some of these back”
“Oh, uh, you know what? That’s fine sir, we’ll let you have it all for 40. Would you mind using that machine of yours to scan the rest of our stuff which you think might be radioactive? We’ll let you take that too for no extra charge if you like.”
“Oh I couldn’t, that’s too generous of you.”
“Don’t think anything of it, we’re a community store. I’m sure they will be better with you than with us.”
And that’s the story of how I relieve antique stores of all their radioactive dishware at steep discounts so I can add to my odd collection. These days I just keep most of them in a box in the garage until my daughter gets a little older and I can feel confident she won’t be compelled to touch them. If you come over for a dinner party and ask nicely, I might take them out and let you give them a scan with the counter for fun.
It was my first year in college and I had just gotten the weekday midnight to 3-am slot on my college radio station. I shared the spot with my buddy Rich and we had a funny little tag-team show going where we would tell jokes and talk too much between songs. Most nights there was a small pile of new releases waiting for us to play at our discretion. We were told to never play anything we hadn’t already listened to so as to avoid taking risks the FCC might frown upon, but at that time slot we usually didn’t care and were never supervised anyway. I liked the album art on a new vinyl called “Pretty Hate Machine” by some band that had a name that sounded like the lead singer was a tranny – “Nine Inch Nails” – so sassy. I started unwrapping it while Rich and I were making fun of a song we had just played off of Moev’s album “Yeah, Whatever“. We speculated that we might crucify each other as a mercy killing for having listened to that entire album. Eventually Rich got around to a segue and in his best fake DJ voice said something about having some fun with a freshly peeled album. He put the needle down on the first track and faded the mic.
Then we lost our minds.
By the time the song had finished Rich and I were sweating from jumping around the booth punching each other. We managed to get back on the mic panting but hadn’t prepared another song to switch to, so we just let it go to the next track, and then the next. I think we finally switched over to “Everyday is Halloween” by Ministry after “Kinda I Want To” finished.
What a great night.
[…presently continuing from last week]
We have continued on and Phil bein’ an amazin’ wood carver, has developed a real good method of staining wood without the harsh appearance of chemical products from the store. It’s also good in the clutch when you have no available funds for such items as wood stain. He makes a solution from hardwood ashes and water. It’s as simple as that. Your stepdad learned how to do this from Phil so he dug into our trusty woodstove, Two Sticks, (so named due to his ability to warm the entire house at 20 below with 2 good size chunks of wood) and placed the ashes in a bucket, then he covered them with about 3 inches of water. This was all stirred up and left to set overnight.
Next morning we got out 2 sponges. Your stepdad had taken one of our handiest tools, the turkey baster (we understand that our lesbian friends these items for artificial insemination, how much more versatile can a kitchen tool be!) and decanted the water precipitant from atop the settled ashes and squirted our ready solution into a large bowl. I finally made a contribution (besides putting up with Robin’s tales of woe on the phone about how misunderstood she was in Akiak) as we dabbed and wiped on 6 coats of wood ash. After that we had to take the table downstairs to the utility room in the company of the furnace, hot water heater and the well pump, where she was turned over carefully and set down on a large clean piece of cardboard. Your stepdad, Phil and I then signed our 3 names with a wood burning tool.
We then went to town on applying 5 hefty coats of polyurethane to the entire table, including shelf and legs. After that, your stepdad brought her upstairs but not without a fair amount of grunting as he was being headstrong that day and didn’t ask for any help. I heard him and came running from the study where I was slavin’ before the computer as usual. We then took her out to the front porch where she had the final 2 coats put on her with a spray application of polyurethane.
The final task was to have Phil come up to our house and drill the holes for the screws to attach the shelf to the table leg cross bars. This involved getting out the portable drill and carefully placing the 2 shelf boards on the bars in the correct configuration. They were cut and made to accommodate any possible future swelling so they could not just turn her over and screw away.
Your stepdad and Phil turned the table on her side after they had secured the shelf placement with two cardboard shims and then they drilled 5 pilot holes for each end of the shelf, 3 on the wider board and 2 on the narrower board. After that they drilled the actual holes with a different drill bit and then put the screws in. The date of completion for her is March 28, 2003. The deck of cards was purchased on March 24, 2003 at the Brooks Drug Store in Montpelier when I had to go get a couple of prescriptions refilled and your stepdad, ever the wanderer, scouted the store for a pack of cards with large numbers, most likely in anticipation of the day when we will all play cribbage together and we will be able to see the numbers OK.
Today, March 29, 2003 we are packing her up and taking her to the Mailboxes, Etc. store where a guy named Art will be called to come and crate her up for delivery to you via Emery Air Freight to Maryland. Of course a debate has begun regarding whether or not you will be able to fit her in the backseat of your Honda or on the roof or what. Your stepdad favors that you won;t be able to get it home with the Honda side, but I know you really really well and I favor that you’ll get it home with the Honda or else side.
Well as all things go here in the North Country, we still have the table in our possession and it is now March 31, 2003. Last Saturday we set out to town, the usual 16 mile trip, and when we arrived there we had 3 tasks to complete. Since we are effectively between sources of income at present, we have been taking any little jobs that our basket business provides. We were to meet a man from Burlington who had me fix the cover of a large round basket from Africa. We were also to meet a UVM student from Burlington who wanted to purchase 20 pounds of moose meat from us. And finally get the table, who was standing up proud in the back of the SUV (you try drivin’ up our driveway in the middle of winter with your little front wheel drive Volkswagon!) and looking fine.
It just so happens that Saturday was the most popular day of the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier. The guy with the basket cover said he’d meet meat 3:45 and the student said she’d meet me at 3:30. No one had arrived by 3:55. By the way I stood in the wind and driving rain waiting for these folks for a good 45 minutes. I finally spotted the basket cover guy going into the city hall across the street instead of meeting me in front of the theater as promised. So I ran around the corner to where the car was parked, got the cover, ran across the road, up the many sets of stairs to the city hall theater and was promptly turned away by a stern woman who said the movie had started. Rats!
I trudged down the stairs and when hit the street a strange looking hippie guy approached me and asked if I was there to sell moose meat. Visions of the big bust on the farm entered my mind but I shook them off and proceeded to take the guy and the woman he was with back across the street to the car and the moose meat. When I asked the student if she had her money she looked at me sheepishly, blinked the rain drops out of her eyes and said, “gee no it’s back at the car”. I told her through clenched teeth, just go to your car and I’ll meet you there. After I jumped in our car I told your stepdad what had just transpired and his only comment was, “Is everybody stoned today?”
We went over to her car and she finally wrote me a smeared check in the rain. Your stepdad and I decided to wait for the basket cover guy who was still watching a sad, lesbian movie that only lasted an hour. So we went an ate Nacho’s at Julio’s, the worst Mexican restaurant on the planet. After that we went back to the city hall theater and met the guy coming down the stairs and processed back out tot he sidewalk only to transact more business with another soggy check. we figured we would go straight to the bank machine and we deposited our take, $80, a great amount for a wet day’s work in Montpelier.
Our final task loomed ahead, take the table to Mailboxes, Etc. We had even called ahead to ask that we be allowed to come through the back door. We pulled into the parking lot normally reserved for people on Jury Duty for the court across the street, but this Saturday, we got to pull in an block the dumpster. Your stepdad popped out of the car and said to the two women standing on the stairs smoking if this was the correct back door for Mailboxes, upon which one replied it is but we’re closed. I begged her and beseeched her, don’t say that! What a sadist, she just smiled and said again, we’re cloooossseddd. Okee dokee then, we took the beautiful table home in the SUV and noted that all the while we had driven around there was not a peep from her. Your stepdad ever the witty one, explained that she hadn’t even barked because we took it all off of her. Sigh.
When we got back home it was still raining and blowing to beat the band and we brought her back into the house. Since we are pretty good at making lemonade from lemons, your stepdad decided to do some touch up on her and applied two more coats of polyurethane. Now she shines good to blind you and we hope you will be able to see the game boards for her brilliance.
Last night it snowed about 8 inches and this morning its back to winter. As I have sat typing the sequel to your table saga, the sun has returned and we are readying ourselves for another trip to town and another shot at shipping her off to you. If this is where the journey part ends you will know that we were successful.
The Oral tradition We Expect You to Remember!
Now you may be wondering why a game table for a Wedding present? So here is the sentiment behind it. When your stepdad and I first got together we started playing cribbage, mostly because I did not know how to play Chess. I still don’t know how and have no desire to learn. Anyway, we played Cribbage together for 2 solid years before I could beat him. I lost every game as faithfully as the sun comes up in the morning.
I had to deal with all those losses as best as I could and I only threw the cribbage board once. Your stepdad will of course tell you that he was a graceful loser, but he really was pretty peeved with your stepdad for handing him a pretty quick defeat. I saw it all and I remember it clearly because I knew that you were figuring on polishing the game off rapidly. You will deny this, and that’s OK we understand completely.
Upon the event of your stepdad meeting your Grandmother Bertha, we played cribbage with her and your Grandfather. I was as usual too slow for your Grandmother and she kept on grabbing my pegs and counting for me. When I would reprimand her she would always stick her tongue out at me. As a result I could only dub her style of play as “Cutthroat Cribbage”. She became known as the Queen of intolerant cribbage players but she always made us laugh to the point of tears and occasional incontinence.
We invite you to actively use your table as a way to keep your family together. We need all the social glue we can get and so your table is our Titebond, keeping us all connected no matter how far we all are from each other. When we return from our tour of duty in Nome, Alaska or even when we may come to visit before we finish our work there, we must all play cribbage and Chess and Checkers and Backgammon and keep our senses of humor well exercised and show our love for one another while someone counts for someone wand we sip iced tea or coffee and feel totally grateful for our table experiences and each other. We will tell tales of those who have gone on to the spirit world in our family and we will plan for the coming of brand new little ones who will learn about the journeys of ancestors from places like Ireland and Italy and France and those who have lived in North America for thousands of generations.
We have a multicultural United Nations of a family and we will keep all our ancestors happy as we play our multicultural games on a the table from a beautiful valley in north central Vermont where our legacy will live on in a log house, many many trees and the acres of land we preserve for futures of children. May you always remember your roots and have a helluva good time beatin’ each other at the game table.
By: your mother and step-father
Your handmade family table began its life as a Sugar Maple tree in East Calais, Vermont. We estimate the birth of the tree at about the year 1899. This tree grew in a steep mountain valley with a sharp slope, akin to a small gorge. It clung to the side of the hill for 100 years. Most likely it escaped the logging saws due to the difficulty of accessing such a tree on steep terrain.
At the time we thanked it for becoming a wood product; we harvested it with the help of a man named Jeffery Doubleglen, Jr. who has been a lifelong resident of Calais. He stands at 6 foot 3 and weighs around 350 pounds, all of it muscle. He fills an entire doorway when he comes to see you. He is a local Paul Bunyon and has earned a living from the woods all his life. A chain saw poses no problems for his beefy hands. He is also the man who poured the foundation for our log home.
Once Jeff cut down the tree his good buddy, Peter Boyne III, another longtime woodsman hauled it out with his skidder. He is a man given to language more common in a bygone era. He is also the man who excavated the land for our log home to be built. His comments upon measuring the exact location of the house foundation were that he guessed we, “slithered her over as far as she’ll go”. and that upon the occasion of inclement weather and a long winter, he will tell you that, “we cahn’t stand too much more of this snow or we’ll all be a weepin'”. His nickname is simply Petey and he plows our driveway faithfully all winter.
It was the Spring of 1999 when the maple tree made its debut in the lower valley, in Abenaki the Pasedena, “long narrow valley”. Yes that is an Abenaki word; it is not from the Spanish. Anyway, she looked like a beauty at first blush. 32 inches diameter and fit for the making of high grade lumber to be sold on the market. But when Jeff cut off the butt end of the tree, it was found that she had seen too many winters and her core had begun to die. As it was we took her at a good time so she didn’t continue to suffer through a long old age with countless woodpeckers pounding away at her to release the hidden pests who would crawl all over her bark.
The decision was made to see if a large slab couldn’t be cut from her to make a table of some kind. Perhaps a coffee table? And so Mark Mackinley, another lifelong Calais resident arrived in Pasedena with his brand new Woodmizer portable saw mill. A Mercedez Benz of a mill with a hydraulic lift for placing the logs in the carriage for sawing. The maple yielded a single slab, 52 inches long by 21 inches wide and a full 2 inches thick. A beauty of a slab, while sadly all the rest of her wood went to make us warmer in winter.
As is customary after sawing there is a time for standing around and talking with those who drink beer, sipping away from cans, while the rest of us watch their moods change. During this process it is a requirement that opinions are opined, particularly regarding the debate over the length of time it will take to dry out the slab of wood to make it suitable for use as a table top. In addition, you must also state the pros and cons of drying the wood in the “bahn”. Most there that day held firmly to the notion that the wood could not withstand the strain and most likely a large split would spread its way the entire length of the slab. The rest of us quietly gave up trying to entertain positive ideas in consideration of the amount of beer consumed.
Well she was placed in Mitch and Phil Roy’s “bahn” and she sat there until March of 2003. It wasn’t an easy life. From time to time she was shat upon by the various birds inhabiting the “bahn” and she witnessed the time that Phil shot a hole with his .22 through the second stomach of Lacy the cow in an effort to kill a marauding fox. Phil’s second attempt to kill that fox wasn’t much better as he only managed to shoot the chicken directly out of the fox’s mouth. All this the table top saw and could do nothing to help.
She dried real nice though and she proved all the valley drunks wrong and she didn’t split but a little at each end. She was bound and determined to be your table.
It was exactly march 10, 2003, well into the 21st century when your stepdad lovingly carried her from the bahn, well actually carried her with Phil Guy’s help. She is pretty hefty after all. They brought her up to our workshop and your stepdad started to sand her smooth. A debate ensued regarding whether or not to leave the bark on the sides of her. It was decided after 3 days to remove it as it was beginning to peel anyway. A second debate then commenced regarding which side would be the top of her. She also resolved that issue on her own when it was discovered that there were sections of slightly pulpy wood on the wider surface so she was turned over to reveal a more uniform and narrower top.
The sanding began with a newly purchased belt sander from the Aubuchon Hardware Store in Montpelier, VT. It was I who completed this task, never an easy feat being a female buying power tools in a hardware store, but fortunately there are now enough men who are men and women who are men in Vermont that it isn’t as much an oddity as years ago.
Suffice it to say, the sanding involved the use of first a 50 grit paper. This is a rough grain used to take down the largest imperfections. Next came an 80 grit paper to start the smoothing, followed by 120 grit which makes the surfaces uniform and soft. This process was completed on both the top and bottom sides of her.
After the sanding, your stepdad used a Sawzall, a mightily useful tool that no respectable Vermonter should be without. It can saw through walls, pipes, moose bones, metal and God knows what all else. He used it to cut off the end corners to create two rounded ends. We featured a time when small children might come careening around the living room only to trip and fall. Hopefully a table with rounded ends would prove safer to christen.
At this juncture, another discussion began and lasted 2 full days pertaining to the need for table legs and how to best accomplish this task. Your stepdad hit on the idea of prevailing upon another another local Calais resident (by the way, Calais has more Pulitzer Prize winning authors than any other town in America) John Borough. He is a very well known furniture and cabinet maker who works exclusively with the créme de la créme of the wood product world. So your stepdad phoned him up and asked if he would be so kind as to make and attach a respectable set of legs to her. John agreed and before the roads could thaw too much she was delivered to his workshop.
A mere 2 days later, John called us to state that she was ready and standin’ on four legs. Not only that but he attached these really fancy and functional feet to her that can be screwed up and down to account for variations in the shape of her or the flooring that she might stand upon.
Your step dad and Phil then began the arduous process of cutting out all the wood pieces to make the inlays for each game board. They decided to use different types of wood to create contrasting squares, triangles and a cribbage circle. They settled on using Butternut (this is the in between color wood), Cherry (the darkest wood and also the table legs and bottom shelf), and Maple (the lightest color and the table top surface).
It took about 4 days to cut all the pieces in stages. First a rough cut for the general size and then 2 more to make them fit well.
The next step was the most terrifying of all. Your stepdad and Phil had to use a router to scoop out all of the wood on the top surface for the inlaid game boards. They reported only a couple of minor mishaps and no need to buy stock in Band-Aids just yet. While their was some blood shed upon her, she was cleaned up immediately and you could never tell where the droplets dropped.
With the routing process safely behind them, they then set in the pieces for each board. For the center strip of the backgammon board they decided to add a strip of Mahogany to delineate the 2 sides. They also used this wood for placing an outside edging around both the chess/checkers board and the backgammon board. To make the skunk lines on the cribbage board, they used ebony scavenged from an old piano somewhere in Vermont. The only reason that these piano keys survived Mitch and Phil’s big house fire of January, 2002 was the fact that they had been abandoned in an out building on the farm many years ago in a plastic nail tray.
As a sign of our sophisticated level of life and dedication to finery, your stepdad then located a Walrus tooth that had been gifted to us by a completely crazy Jewish woman who had gone to the tiny village of Akiak, Alaska to gain forgiveness of her student loans in return for 2 years of teaching. Her personality caused her no end of despair and bad relations as the local Native Alaskans tend to the quiet side and quietude has never been one of Robin’s endearing traits. But at least she went to Alaska and we got this great Walrus tooth, far better than a T-shirt. The poor tooth had lived in a box labeled “stuff” since we moved into our log home from the hippy architecture palace down the road on February 14, 1999.
The tooth was such a fine specimen that it frightened Phil to have to cut it, but since he is the carver by career choice, it fell on his shoulders to accomplish this task. He did a fine job and he created 3 different shapes of cribbage pegs. It will be easy to distinguish your pegs while you play cribbage by remembering the number of grooves on your peg or whether the top is rounded or flat.
In addition to the obvious needs, a center hole was routed out for the cribbage pegs and deck of cards storage. A cover was also made from the Cherry to offset the color of the table top. All you need to do to access your cards and pegs is to press one corner of the cover and you can lift it up from the opposite end.
In order to make the bottom shelf, we began again with the cutting of another tree on our land, a Cherry. This too was cut by Jeff Doubleglen Jr. and skidded out by Petey Boyne. She also aged for the same period of time in the “bahn” and didn’t get a split in her anywhere. This tree had many boards made from her, all of them planed to 1 inch thick by your stepdad with our newly purchased blue planer, a wonderful tool that generates lots of shavings good for beddin’ in the bahn for the Kaowz.
Your stepdad commenced next to drilling 363 holes in the cribbage board with his spankin’ new portable drill, a gift from Winston Buckley Sonworth, in an effort to get us to quit buggin’ him about all the free meals we gave him over the past 10 years with scant little in return. The bribery worked and we haven’t said a thing to him since.
It was a great day when your stepdad then sanded the entire table top to make a smooth and uniform surface that helped to set in the precisely shaped wood pieces. To assist the security of the inlays, your stepdad and Phil also used a persuader in the form of Titebond glue. A little glue to a wood table never hurts; in fact, this is the best insurance policy.
Now the table was ready for release from Phil’s house where the sawdust is no problem but my health could not have abided by it. By the way, the farmhouse was now a new one built last summer, 2002, to replace the one that burned. After that event at the start of 2002 we passed a year of turmoil in Pasedena. We witnessed not only the fire but also a great big old contrived drug bust. They came with the DEA, the ATF, the SWAT team, an Apache helicopter, AK47’s, the State Police, the Fish and Wildlife Dept., and trained dogs. Hundreds of law enforcement agents crawled all over the farm, sometimes literally as they took it upon themselves to be thorough enough that even the manure pit was a source to seek all manner of illegal items. They jumped up and down upon finding the bones of 7 to 8 moose, each and every one legally hunted by your stepdad and brought here for butchering. It was a lot of fun to see them all buckled up in their hip waders and diggin in the manure, sort of a social commentary on the daily doings of some law enforcers. Heck, if they hadn’t come to make a big drug bust, we could have sold tickets and really made a killin! While they were in hopes of discovering a major drug ring, the poor guys only learned that the “reliable informant” who had bravely “tipped them off” was no more than a common thief weaving tales and trying to get off a charge while giving the “interdiction” horn a toot. They were the most woebegone law enforcement cowboys we have ever seen and they left with but a few pot plants and no stash of weapons.
Unfortunately, that incident would contribute to the last major catastrophe of 2002. The poor bahn again became the scene of sorrow as Mitch Guy, the older brother, decided he couldn’t withstand another Vermont winter or dealing with the trials of a man who had little income, many addictions to feed and too many change cards. His solution was to hang himself in the bahn and he, being an amazin’ machinist and self taught engineer, fashioned a noose from an airline cable that served to take his head clean off. We all guess that did the job and he suffered none in the process.
[to be continued]