Stodghill Says So

An opinionated posting on a variety of subjects by a former newspaper reporter and columnist whose daily column was named best in Indiana by UPI. The Blog title is that used in his high school sports predictions for the Muncie Evening Press.

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Location: Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, United States

At the age of 18 I was a 4th Infantry Division rifleman in the invasion of Normandy, then later was called back for the Korean War. Put in a couple of years as a Pinkerton detective. Much of my life was spent as a newspaper reporter, sports writer and daily columnist. Published three books on high school sports in Ohio and Indiana. I write mystery fiction for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and others. Three books, Normandy 1944 - A Young Rifleman's War, The Hoosier Hot Shots, and From Devout Catholic to Communist Agitator are now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. So are four collections of short mysteries: Jack Eddy Stories Volumes 1 and 2, Midland Murders, and The Rough Old Stuff From Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

American Idol - A Tainted Outcome

Haven't seen much on the news or in the papers about the voting fiasco on the final episode of American Idol. The New York Times and probably other papers ran stories but I first heard about it by reading European newspapers. They made a bigger deal of it than the Times. One called it the biggest scandal in this country since the Supreme Court appointed George W. Bush president.
It's all about AT&T, one of the show's prime sponsors, providing free phones for texting votes at parties for eventual winner Kris Allen. Also offered were instructions on how to use illegal "power texts" that cast ten votes at a time. A woman named Bobby Kierna said she voted for Allen 10,840 times. She attended a party with about 2,000 attendees.
AT&T said this was the work of a few overly-zealous employees and was not company policy. Fox, which broadcasts American Idol, has refused to reveal the number of votes for each finalist or how scores are counted. The network says it is "absolutely certain that the results of the competition are fair, accurate and verified."
There is talk that having a clean-cut Christian come out on top was preferable to having a man whose sexuality seems in question named American Idol. The fact that Adam Lambert was the most talented and almost certainly has the brightest future ahead in the business may have been of lessor importance to some. Those attending parties for Lambert were not provided phones.
I don't know who is telling the truth and who is lying but I've always been suspicious of the voting on American Idol. For the last couple of years I have felt that the majority of votes are cast by young women and cute has been of greater importance to them than talent.
The point is that even though ratings were down this year it is a very popular program with millions of viewers so shouldn't this be a bigger deal with legitimate news sources? Rumors, charges and accusations have been bombarding the Internet. Seems like someone should be checking it out.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Oh no, not a smell

In case you haven't noticed, Americans live in constant fear of smelling something. I hold my father responsible for this. Not totally, but he played a role in it.
This always come to mind while taking a shower with Lifebuoy soap. Not the special kind made just for Americans so their delicate nostrils will not be offended. I use the real thing, the old time Lifebuoy with a medicinal fragrance all its own. It's still made in Ceylon and available in many parts of the world where people do less sniffing than is customary over here.
Having grown up at a time when walking down the street might mean coming face to face with a horse, when horse-drawn milk and bakery wagons made daily rounds of every neighborhood, when rubber factories and steel mills were commonplace, I find this fear of a smell perplexing. Along with Clyde Bauer Stodghill (pictured in his heyday), I blame this on the coming of automatic dryers that spelled the end of clotheslines. To get that old clean-clothes aroma, Americans now use chemicals rather than fresh air and sunshine.
So how did Ol' CBS help make people afraid of coming in contact with an odor that doesn't come from a candle or a spray can? Ironically, by selling Lifebuoy soap. When he was a traveling salesman for Lever Brothers, Lifebuoy fell short of being a hot item. Ol' CBS would enter a corner grocery and slap a box of it down on the counter. More often than not the grocer would sweep it off onto the floor while saying, "I have to put food there and that stuff stinks."
My father would pick it up, hold it out head high as if it were the crown jewels of Outer Slobovia and say, "If you don't use it, you'll stink."
Other Lever Brothers salesmen were selling it by the case. Ol' CBS was doing so by the carload. He was called to headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts and asked his secret. While I'm sure he wasn't solely responsible, the firm soon began running ads and radio commercials with a deep voice saying, "B-O!" Body odor, that's what you'd have if you didn't use Lifebuoy.
There are those, of course, who will contend that Lifebuoy and clothes driers are not responsible for the delicate state of American noses. I say they are wrong. But who can deny the irony in the fact that the medicinal fragrance that made Lifebuoy so popular in the 1930s and '40s eventually led to its demise? Not everywhere, fortunately, but it had that effect in the land where even the hint of a smell is considered as offensive as armed robbery or murder.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The problems of being a man

Well, it's been a great day up to this point. It's not even lunch time and already I've been accused of being senile and acting like an 8-year-old. That's quite a trick if you can pull it off.
The accuser was Jackie, of course. It all started last night when we watched a program I hate, Law & Order SUV, or whatever it's called. I can't stand either of the lead characters but like some of the lesser lights. The show was all about two abused women, one young, one old. After being beaten to a pulp a number of times, the young one was rescued by the female lead character I can't stand. So the woman runs off from a shelter and goes back to the brute, who then polishes her off with a knife to the chest.
What is there to say about that except she was stupid and got what she deserved? So I said it. That sent Jackie into that state that only women can enter, the one where they agree with everything you say and don't mean a word of it. All men are familiar with that state. The best was to describe it is that "poor little me, I'm only a woman so what do I know?" way of agreeing with you in an insincere, condescending manner.
Then it turned out the old bat who cared for her invalid husband had knocked off the guy who abused her back in 1974. Pumped six bullets into him, then escaped from jail and married the invalid the same year, although he was not an invalid at the time and knew nothing of the murder. So she gets arrested again, is tried and acquitted, but the invalid doesn't want her back. He said, "Every decision we've ever made was based on a lie."
I agreed with him just as any sensible, right-thinking person would. If I thought there had been sarcasm and insincerity up to that point, Jackie showed me what those words really mean.
I suppose in a way it's my own fault because I acted like the young woman who went back to the abuser and got knocked off. I had vowed never to watch Law & Order SUV again, but I went back to it. Live and learn, they say, but with my 84th birthday less than three months away the learning part better begin damn soon.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Let's Be Scared

I think we have run out of new fears. If one thing remains that has not been covered it doesn't leap to mind. We have run the gamut, or so it seems to me. Food, water, tobacco, alcohol, plagues, accidents, terrorists, war, floods, famine, weather - what's left for the government, TV reporters and cops to warn us about?
Nothing, that's what. But take heart, an old one has been revived in France and they're not kidding around about it. Cell phones have been banned from primary schools. Why? Because they can cause insomnia, headaches, fatigue and cancer. The French want to protect the young kids so they now require the providers to offer handsets that allow texting only, not gabbing. There is a campaign to ban them completely for anyone under the age of 14. They are experimenting with limiting the power of transmitters and one tower had to be taken down.
I learned all this from the Irish Independent. I like to read foreign newspapers because it's amazing how much we never are told about in the U.S. of A.
Well, I'm safe. I would rather be waterboarded than forced to use a cell phone. Regular phones are annoying enough.
How about you? Been sleeping well lately? Have that tired out feeling? Get a headache now and then? Ah-ha, you've been using a cell phone.
What if the French are right? Do you know kids, or even adults, who can't put their cell phones down? If so, here's what to do: be afraid. Be scared. Be frightened. It's quite possible the French are indeed right.
If it were put to a vote, mine would be for banning cell phones all together. I'm sick of seeing people walking around with one glued to their ear. I'm tired of seeing someone punch in a number and say, "Hi, whatcha doin'?" and other important stuff like that. There oughta be a law.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hit by a lack of desire

The urge to blog has been in hiding lately. Perhaps it's because I've been busy with short stories and haven't wanted to leave them. Or maybe not. Even after watching the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday my muse lay dormant.
It was a record breaking 500 for the ABC network. Seldom have more commercials been shown in so short a time. I'd give ABC a grade of C-. The race itself wasn't the most exciting 500 I've ever seen either in person or on TV. It could be that the slower cars aren't all that slow these days. Parity means it's harder to pass the car ahead. A part-time driver named Townsend Bell didn't have much trouble in that respect until he got up to fourth place after starting far back in the field.
ABC gave us all we wanted to hear about Danica Patrick and then went on from there with even more about the media darling who loves to make suggestive commercials. Patrick is a driver but not a race driver in the accepted sense of the word. She doesn't pass people. Before the green flag was dropped she said she'd wait for the race to come to her. That meant just drive around until the cars ahead dropped out or fell back, which most of them did. Two of the best had trouble during pit stops. Another one had something break on his car so he hit the wall. Patrick just kept chugging along until only two cars were in front of her. The idea that she might pass one or both was beyond imagining. Along with cars ahead dropping out, she relies on pit strategy, not racing.
The officials may have to do something so the cars aren't so equal. Giving them a few more options might loosen things up a little. Perhaps seeing three of the hardest chargers bogged down well back in the pack may inspire them to do it.
There were plenty of wrecks on Sunday. So many that even though the cars were going more than 220 miles an hour on the straightaways, the overall time of the race was slow. Most of the wrecks involved bouncing off the wall. One driver suffered two broken vertebrae in his lower back. In olden days with that many wrecks it's likely someone would have been killed. Fortunately the possibility of that happening today is close to nil. Real race fans don't like wrecks. Some do even though a wreck may cost the car owner hundreds of thousands of dollars. For a few that's chump change, for others it just about breaks the bank.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Do You Call This Opportunity?

I see by the papers that Britain is considering the idea of allowing women to serve in combat units. It seems unfair according to rules of the European Union that females are denied the opportunity to kill the enemy face-to-face. This comes as a shocker to me because up until now I didn't realize it was called opportunity.
Brings to mind something I have mentioned previously, the job recommendation given to me by the Army following World War II. It was all summed up in one sentence: "Cared for and cleaned an M-1 rifle while living under adverse conditions and delivering direct fire upon the enemy."
That was it. An entire war condensed into nineteen words. You didn't need a degree from Harvard to see that when it comes to job recommendations this did not rate too far up on a scale of one to ten.
But now women in England are clamoring to have the same opportunity of perhaps getting their asses shot off. Perhaps they're confusing wars like WWII or WWI with something else. Perhaps they believe that in wars like those you go back to a base camp at night. They may be overlooking the complete lack of facilities when "I gotta go" becomes uppermost in mind. Or it could be they don't realize that animal-like behavior rises to the surface when men get serious about killing other men and that sometimes they fall into the hands of those they have been trying to kill. That brings to mind the dreaded word rape.
Maybe they've forgotten the protective feelings men develop for women who are with them. Israel found that had a disruptive effect when a woman was wounded so integration in the infantry was scraped. Then there is the development of affection for members of the opposite sex. That can lead to many things, jealousy included.
How about the back-breaking loads that have to be carried when exhaustion isn't far off? Could most females handle it month after month or would their loads have to be added to that of men already close to the breaking point?
Integrating the sexes is fine under certain conditions. If there are base camps and that sort of thing it can work. What happens, though, if something like either world war occurs? It's best not to even think about it under the best of conditions. Add women to the front line mix and . . . well, forget it.
So ladies, I assure you we are not talking about opportunity. Think major war, think the Somme or Verdun, think Iwo Jima or the Bulge, then be thankful for the opportunity to be somewhere other than an infantry rifle company on the front line when there really is a front line.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

It's a much safer world today

Memorial Day, 1946. I was home from the war, bored with civilian life, craving excitement. The place to find it was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway so I was there for the 500 mile race.
If you tune in ABC tomorrow to watch the latest version of the 500, don't expect to see anything like the one I watched 63 years ago. You won't see the 33 drivers sitting in the open in sprint cars while wearing a T-shirt or one they'd wear to work in an office. If you knew what a driver looked like you didn't need a program or a car number to tell who was speeding by. A belt across the lap was about all that held them in their cars. Death often rode as a passenger.
Tomorrow they'll be wearing fire-resistant suits and visored helmets. You'll barely see their heads and what you do see won't allow recognition. They'll have radio communication with their pit crew and a spotter giving them instructions. The speeds will be high, the danger minimal.
All that is good, and yet a little of the excitement will be missing. So will the sickening sensation of picking up a newspaper and finding a driver you have watched race has died in a crash. George Robson, winner of that 1946 race was dead in three months. Dying with him was George Barringer, another in that long-ago 500. During the next few years more of those 33 who took the green flag in '46 would die behind the wheel of a race car: Rex Mays, Ted Horn, Ralph Hepburn, Chet Miller, Shorty Cantlon, perhaps others.
Such a thing is unimaginable today. So is seeing Rex Mays pass a car coming out of the second turn and then look back with a grin on his face while slapping the side of his car in a "Let's race" challenge. It's not that personal in 2009.
It's a lose-a-little, gain-a-little proposition. No decent person wants to see a driver die tomorrow, but to make it unlikely we have lost the chance to see George Connor wipe his goggles with a powder puff fastened to the back of a glove. We won't see anyone slap the side of his car to issue a challenge. Nor will we see Shorty Cantlon hit the wall head-on at the first turn and be impaled on the steering post as he was in the 1947 500.
People in general are more concerned about safety now than they were back then. That may be good. Or it may not be. Everything that makes us safer means the loss of a freedom to be unsafe. Some prefer safety, some prefer freedom. Life doesn't allow for both.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Will Social Security be here in 50 years?

The answer to the question in the title is easy to come up with: of course. Some young people fear it will not be, but it will because without it there would be total economic disaster.
Consider this: suppose Social Security ended today. That would mean $7.5 million dollars would not be paid in benefits every month. The vast majority of that is spent and goes straight back into the economy. It pays landlords and grocery stores, nursing homes and auto dealers. Every business imaginable benefits.
Without it who would provide shelter and other necessities for millions of elderly people? Many states have laws saying their children must do it. If no one did it, visualize the number of corpses lying around owing to starvation. Not a pretty picture.
Don't say each person would have made arrangements to provide for themselves. We all know better than that. We all remember how the stock market tanked, banks failed, auto companies went bust, house were foreclosed, credit card debt blossomed and savings disappeared during the past 15 months.
The amount of Social Security taxes paid by working people would be dwarfed by the expenses those same people would be burdened with if the care of mom and dad became their responsibility.
If the day should come when Social Security ceased to exist it would be the same day life in America as people have known it would cease to exist. We no longer live in an agricultural society where people stayed put and families remained united. Now they are spread all over the map. Providing for the elders would be a logistical nightmare without even considering other factors.
Had the Townsend Plan ($200 a month paid to every person over the age of 60 provided they spend it within five days) been enacted when first proposed in 1934 it might have brought a quick end to the Great Depression. If Social Security were to end, it would make the 1930s look like years of great prosperity.
So stop worrying, it will be there when you retire because if it shouldn't be, neither will the America you know. As they said about AIG and the large banks, Social Security is too big to fail.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hopefully Clearing Up a Mystery

Here's a mystery - or maybe it isn't. A while back I wrote a blog about Jack Graney (left), who broadcast Cleveland Indians games for many years. Starting in 1936 I listened to him at every opportunity. He's the best play-by-play announcer I've ever heard. In the blog I wrote that the movie Eight Men Out pronounced the name of Chicago Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte wrong. It called him See-cot, but Graney who played in the American League for years at the time Cicotte was playing, pronounced it Sigh-cot-ee.
An e-mail from George Cicotte, Eddie's great-nephew, said the name is French and has always been pronounced See-cot. So who is right? Could Graney, who faced Eddie many times and knew him well, be wrong. No, I think both are right. George knows how to pronounce his own name. Graney wouldn't have forgotten after a mere 16 years.
Here's what almost certainly is behind the difference. At the time Eddie Cicotte, one of the eight Chicago White Sox players who conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, was active, most major league players were uneducated, a few even illiterate. Cicotte's teammate and co-conspirator, Joe Jackson (Shoeless Joe), was one of the latter. There were no public address systems, no radio, no television. Lineups were announced by a man standing at home plate with a megaphone. Few could hear him.
Those rough, crude, uneducated players who called the Series the "World Serious" were made fun of in numerous stories by Ring Lardner. What would they have thought when they saw Cicotte's name in the newspaper? Nothing French, that's certain. They would have pronounced the name as Graney did. George Cicotte says many people pronounce it that way so they usually just smile and either correct them or not. Eddie may have been the same way.
Here's the problem with French: the vast majority of Americans butcher it. Take those of us who participated in the invasion of Normandy. For 11 days my division was in a bitter battle near the village of Sainteny. That's what we called it, Saint-eny. More than 40 years later I learned it properly is Sahn-tuh-nay, or something like that. The town of Isigny was Easy-knee. Briquebec was Bric-uh-brack. You can imagine what we did with Pouppeville and Beuzeville. Nothing a Frenchman would recognize. One day in battle a Frenchwoman managed to make me comprehend that she was worried about her sister living in something like Luh-Hah-dew-Pwee. After much repeating and waving of arms I turned to the man with me and said, "She means La-Haye-du-Puits," a name we pronounced just as it looks.
What would those even less-educated ball players of the teen years have made of Cicotte? Just what Jack Graney did when he spoke of Eddie.
So who was right? George, obviously. Jack, certainly. That's explains why Graney, when Al Cicotte came along in a more enlightened time, thought he changed the pronunciation to avoid being associated with his father, the infamous Eddie. It's similar to the reason the people I came to know so well in Belgium couldn't say Clyde (my first name) and always called me Cloud.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ah, those wonderful pulps

Those exciting magazines with colorful covers and pulpwood pages are cropping up everywhere in my life. I wrote about them here on Tuesday and Louis Willis had an interesting feature on the pulps yesterday at I just finished reading for the second time Ron Goulart's 1972 book An Informal History of the Pulp Magazine, am now re-reading Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties edited by David Madden and next will revisit The Shudder Pulps by Robert Kenneth Jones. If that isn't enough, I was directed to a great website with the name of the best pulp mystery magazine of them all. Check it out at There you can download some of the stories originally published in Black Mask.
I grew up in the 1930s reading a couple of pulps every week. On top of that I read every book in the mystery section of the East Akron Branch Library along with many mainstream novels. I had excellent guidance on the latter because I was encouraged to read Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Bromfield, Tarkington and Upton Sinclair. That was all the teaching I ever had on the subject of writing.
Goulart's book includes interviews with a number of well-known pulp writers. Frederick Nebel told of the night he and Dashiell Hammett huddled together under an umbrella while walking from 37th Street to Grand Central Station on a cloudless, starlit night. There they checked the umbrella, insisting it be kept open, while they visited the Oyster Bar. They then returned to 37th Street under the umbrella to see if anyone would notice. No one did. That's one of the great features of New York, no one minds a bit if you act eccentric.
The standard rate paid by the pulps was a penny a word. Late one afternoon an editor discovered he was short a 5,000 word story for his mystery magazine that was to go to press the next morning. He called one of his regular writers and offered three cents a word if he could get a story to him by 9 a.m. The writer agreed, but intended to spend the evening in a bar so he called a friend and offered him two and a half cents. Same story and another friend agreed to do the job for two cents. I don't know if it went farther than that but the editor had his story and at least three writers made a little money.
Leo Margulies, who later founded Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, ran a number of pulps and insisted the first word be "Thrilling" on every title. He even had Thrilling Love. Margulies was dead when I started writing for Shayne in 1979 but he was still listed as the founder on the title page. That and talking to a few old pulp writers are my only tenuous connections to that wonderful era for writers. One of those I talked to was Walter Gibson, who wrote The Shadow stories. During a long evening in a bar all he wanted to discuss was magic. He had once worked with Houdini and Blackstone so the Shadow was far down on his list of interests. I learned a few tricks, since forgotten, but not much about writing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Writing it straight to the point

When it comes to writing I have a split personality. I'm a reporter when writing non-fiction. With fiction I consider myself a pulp writer. That may put a lie to the split personality idea because both styles are blunt, get to the point methods of telling a story.
In reporting I detest "new journalism" that supposedly makes a story personal. I don't give a damn when I read, "Councilman Joe Blow sat quietly on the porch staring across the cornfield to the woods beyond." So what? Who cares?
The wire service lead is better. "The wife and two young daughters of Councilman Joe Blow were killed Wednesday morning in a one-car crash on Front Street south of Chestnut." That's the story, not the fact that Joe is sorry about it. No need to tell readers he's sad. They'll figure that out themselves.
In fiction I prefer descriptions without frills. The style of a woman's dress, the color of the carpet, the pictures on the wall mean nothing unless they move the story forward. Everyone has seen a sunset. Readers don't need to be told what one looks like. "He was tall with a receding chin and prominent adam's apple" is enough to tell what a man looks like unless the color of his eyes or hair somehow advance the story.
Every writer breaks his own rules at times. When he does, there's a reason for it. If there isn't, he's just rambling and boring readers. An old rule tells us to leave out the part readers skim or skip.
I was lucky because my formative years were spent in a gritty neighborhood where life was seen from close up and there was a store selling nothing but used pulp magazines. Thousands of them covering every topic. Two cents per magazine, only a penny if you turned one in when you entered. I tried them all because I kept a dozen or so on hand and read a couple every week. My favorites were Black Mask, Dime Detective, Flying Aces and G-8 and His Battle Acres. World War dogfights over France and death on the mean streets, those were my bread and butter.
Murder still is. Love is boring, fantasy is the same, no imaginary horror equals that found in real life. So in fiction I write noir and hard-boiled stories like I read all those years ago. I found good teachers in those pulpwood pages: Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Woolrich, many others. They said hook 'em early, skip the frills, keep it moving. Like city editors expected the story to be told in the lead graph so it was still there if everything else had to be cut. Get to the point, that was what they taught me to do.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Major Anniversary for Ol' Stodg

Jackie had a messageboard note from Mike Dooley and that reminded me that it was 39 years ago today that I started work for the Muncie Evening Press. Mike was a reporter for the Star, the morning paper in town, so that made him the competition.
Some people believed the papers didn't compete because both were Pulliam-owned newspapers. They were mistaken. It was a bad start to the day if I walked into the newsroom at 7 a.m. and City Editor Jack Richman said, "Well, Dick, I see you got scooped." Fortunately it didn't happen often. If it had, I would have been job hunting again.
I was one of the last of the itinerant reporters. The Evening Press was my sixth newspaper. Two were large, two were small and the MEP was my second of medium size. That made it ideal for me because I was, and still am, a workaholic. At a large newspaper you get stuck with doing one thing. At a small one you are stuck with doing everything. At one in between those extremes you have a beat to cover but are free to add as many other duties as you choose. When someone had two meetings on the same night, I'd volunteer to cover one of them. I loved to cover high school sports on Friday and Saturday nights. I wrote columns about those sports and about the beat I covered. I volunteered to work on holidays because otherwise they were boring. In 1979 I added writing mysteries for magazines to my workload.
Before joining the Evening Press staff I had never kept a job for more than three years. There always was something better over the next hill and that was a trait I inherited from my dad. The MEP proved an ideal fit for me so I stayed for eight years, left for two, then returned for ten more.
The Evening Press had a veteran staff so the wise guys at the Star, and Mike Dooley was the biggest of them, said, "The youngest man at the Evening Press is 47, and he's the copy boy." That wasn't true. I was 44.
In his message to Jackie, Mike mentioned a Star story about a beer can that changed the outcome of a mayoralty race. I sent a message back to him saying, "Still trying to steal my stories, are you?" I was the one who broke the beer can story and I think I once wrote a blog about it.
Mike Dooley left Muncie to work for a Fort Wayne newspaper. He's going to pay us a visit this summer. If anyone else happens to stop by they'd better be wearing hip boots. Yes, those were great days so it's forgivable.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Number One or Number Two

I'm not sure why, but this morning Jackie and I were discussing the way that back in our elementary school days kids informed the teacher a trip to the restroom was of urgent need. At her school in Muncie, a girl or boy raised a hand with either one or two fingers extended. Permission was then granted.
From kindergarten through fifth grade I attended schools in Detroit, Eau Claire, Mansfield and Cuyahoga Falls, two in the latter city. At all of them the routine was the same, but slightly different than the method used at Jackie's school. I was six years ahead of her so that may explain the difference. A boy or girl would raise a hand and when asked what was wanted would say, "I have to go to the restroom."
The teacher then would ask, "Number one or number two?" The kid would reply and after that was given the OK.
This changed somewhat in grades six through eight at rough and tumble Kent School in Akron. Girls and a couple of sissified boys used the system I was accustomed to at other schools, but with most boys it was different. A boy would start walking toward the classroom door and the teacher might or might not say, "Where are you going, Bill?" Only two boys actually were named Bill, so the teacher would substitute, Nick, Steve, or whatever was appropriate.
If asked, the boy would reply, "I gotta take a leak," or "I gotta take a dump."
As Jackie and I discussed the merits of the two and a half systems it dawned on me that I haven't heard the word dump used in that context in decades. To their credit, or our credit, none of the more vulgar words were ever used out of respect for the girls. Respecting girls was something we all did, at least most of the time, although a few of those in the class were hardly worthy of it. Not if their behavior outside the classroom was taken into account.
The point of our discussion, I think, was curiosity about the system used in schools today. While I have nothing to base it on, I feel a more refined method may have replaced those used during the years of the Great Depression and, in Jackie's case, World War II. I guess it doesn't really matter. It all comes out the same in the end.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Just the way it is

Every night he'd sit straight up on his bunk and scream for a minute or two, a piercing cry of horror at something he had seen or something he had done. The rest of us would get up and stand quietly watching as the sweat streamed down his face, knowing that even though his eyes were open he was unaware that we were near. No one ever touched him or called his name because we sensed that doing so would not be the right thing to do. Eventually he would lie back down and sleep silently the rest of the night. In the morning he seemed to have no recollection of the screaming. No one ever mentioned it to him.
He was a big man, six-three or -four, and like the rest of us in that summer of 1945 he had been assigned the job of military policeman protecting an ordnance company. We called him Lou, although I don't know if that was his real name, and he had come from the 82nd Airborne. All of us were from first-line infantry divisions - the 1st, 4th, 9th, 29th or the 82nd. Like Lou, we all had spent many months in combat so there was that special bond that only combat infantrymen feel for each other. I was 19, Lou about 25, the oldest among us 39. No age barrier existed because we all were old beyond our years.
Lou, a South Dakota farmer, never had much to say. He'd sit listening to the stories, nearly all humorous, about crazy events in the military or escapades in civilian life. He'd smile or laugh and when something was especially amusing he'd lightly punch the nearest man on the arm and say, "Aw, you guys!"
When he would tell a story it was in a faltering manner and more often than not he'd get a little lost along the way. We'd all laugh and tell him he was a big dumb ox and things like that. He'd be pleased because he knew he was just one of the boys, just part of a group of men who had built walls and would let no one but their own kind inside.
One day he was called into the commander's office and reprimanded. The commander had received a letter from Lou's mother saying he hadn't written home for two years. He was told to do so but he never did.
Lou was the first to be sent back to the States to be discharged. He didn't want to go. When his duffel bag was packed and everyone had gathered around, his eyes were moist as he stammered. "I . . I'm gonna miss you guys."
We knew that. We knew that never again would he feel the same kinship, the same closeness and acceptance. Family couldn't provide it because they would never be able to penetrate that wall in his mind. They'd never understand him the way we did because they hadn't been there. They'd utter the usual platitudes and cliches, tell him that everything would be great from then on and all the rest of the drivel civilians say to a man who had left some piece of his mind behind on the battlefield. No matter how they wished to get beyond that wall, it could never happen. That privilege was reserved for others who had seen the things he had seen and done the things he had done. When people say it's like some other experience, they are wrong. Nothing is comparable. That's just the way it was, just the way it is.

Monday, May 04, 2009

You want to check our files?

I've never been a big fan of the FBI. Some of the agency's tactics are annoying and many of its agents are obnoxious and arrogant. If that isn't enough, three of the dumbest men I have ever known were former FBI agents. One was a county sheriff, one a postmaster and one a guy who hung around bars but always seemed to have left his wallet at home.
One day many years ago when I worked for Pinkerton's several investigators were hanging around the front desk in the area where eight or ten female clerks worked. The manager of our agency branch in Cleveland was there too so something special was going on but I don't remember what. The investigators had their own room at the far end of the hall and we didn't even use the front door as we'd come and go. The office girls wouldn't have recognized us if we passed on the street. Or perhaps they knew more than we believed.
So anyway, while some of us were milling around there, two FBI agents came in and asked to see the manager. After he identified himself one of them said, "We want to see your files."
At that time Pinkerton's had, among other things, the largest file in the world on jewel robbers.
The manager, a tough, burly man, smiled cordially and nodded his head. "We'll be glad to let you see our files - the day the FBI allows us to see its files."
The visitors turned and left in a huff. I'm sure that as they walked down the corridor to the elevator they could hear the loud laughter behind them all the way.
Nearly a decade after that two men who identified themselves as FBI agents came to my house and knocked on the door. When I opened it one said, "We want to talk to you."
I told them to get off my property and slammed the door in their faces. All these years I've occasionally wondered what it was they wanted to talk about.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

An Excellent Collection of Stories

My favorite fiction is short and to the point. I read mystery novels, of course, but prefer the shorter form. One of the best of the short mystery writers was the late Jack Ritchie, a man who claimed he never read a novel that wouldn't have made a better short story. I won't go quite that far. I'd put the figure at 95 per cent.
Too many novels are padded. This shows up in the middle and hits the reader in many ways. A favorite of the writers of the cozy style is rehashing everything that has gone before - again and again. Others tell you far more than you need or want to know about the characters and their background. Some go into great detail on the setting. Those who write that way disagree with Raymond Chandler when he said the story should move forward on every page. They prefer to drag it out to increase the word count.
To see if you agree with me, pick up the latest Mystery Writers of America anthology, The Prosecution Rests (Little, Brown $24.95). The book edited by Linda Fairstein contains 22 fast-paced stories centering on the legal system.
One of my favorites is Death, Cheated by James Grippando. A woman diagnosed with a disease the medics say will kill her within a few years receives a $1.5 million payment from a group of investors who bet on death so they can collect on an insurance policy doubling their money. But what happens if the medics are wrong?
An ex-con who swears he was innocent but convicted by an overly-zealous prosecutor seeks revenge in Hard Blows by Morley Swingle. How he plans to achieve it makes the story a spine tingler right to the final sentence.
Other exciting stories are by such writers as S.J. Rozan, Angela Zeman, Twist Phelan and the late Edward D. Hoch, king of short mystery writers. Picking a favorite from the entire collection would be a challenge, but Leigh Lundin's Quality Of Mercy certainly would be one of the front runners. This is a timely tale in which the husband of a woman afflicted with Alzheimer's faces the dilemma of ignoring or fulfilling his promise to place a certain bottle of pills within her reach when she feels the last remnant of her memory is about to vanish. Assisted suicide? Euthanasia? Call it what you will, it's a decision almost anyone might someday face. Merely contemplating it is frightening.
It's hard to imagine that anyone could read this book and not agree that here is a superb method of telling a story.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Have I Been Hoodwinked?

I ask myself the same question every May Day. Have I indeed been bamboozled into believing there is such a thing as a May Basket? Before going to work in Muncie in 1970 I had lived in many cities and towns. Nowhere, not even once, had I heard of May Baskets.
Then one day Jackie told me how nice some guy was because he had hung a May Basket on the knob of her back door. This is what men do, she claimed, they hang baskets on doorknobs of females. I was wondering what they did if it rained, but I kept my mouth shut. Never having heard of this practice, I was skeptical of the whole thing. I didn't have to ask what was in these baskets, having assumed they weren't hung there empty, because she told me they held candy or flowers or other tokens of affection.
Every year I heard this story. Even after we were married I was reminded of the great guy who had hung that May Basket on her doorknob. Eventually she wore me down just as women always manage to wear men down if they are determined about something.
With all my defenses penetrated and just to prove I wasn't a hopeless cretin, one year I prepared a May Basket for Jackie. Needless to say I did not go so far as to hang it on a doorknob. Once having fallen into this trap, I soon realized I was stuck with doing it every year.
Leading up to recent May Days, Jackie has dropped little hints. She says she doesn't need candy. Not that she doesn't want it, just that she doesn't need it. Not being a fool, I make certain there is plenty of sweet stuff in her May Basket.
Still I wonder, though. Is this something she has made up or is there really such a thing as a May Basket? Perhaps I should just take her word for it and be content. At least she doesn't want me out somewhere dancing around a May Pole. At that I would definitely have drawn the line.