Friday, October 31, 2008

The Blue Lady 2: Paranormal Boogaloo

If I search through the newspapers in the old college library a few things happen: One, I can praise God, Allah, Bill Gates, and Al Gore for giving us the Internet. Two, I can smell that really old musty basement smell that reminds me of clothes left in the washing machine too long combined with damp cat. Three, I can learn stuff.

The last time I was there, that's exactly what I did, learn, not sniff stray cats. I went there seeking answers to the mysterious blue lady that chased me into the bathroom the last Halloween. (if you haven't read her story, it's probably better if you read it first). I wanted to find some sort of explanation for what I'd seen. Rumors about the theatre building being haunted were nothing new on campus, so I figured somewhere in the stacks and stacks of brittle yellow newspaper, I'd find some sort of answer.

After weeks of using whatever free time I had to search for an explanation to the things I'd seen, eventually, in a dusty pile of college newspapers from the mid-1920's, I found what I was looking for.

The theatre building was still fairly new back then, and the town was relatively small. Surrounded by farm communities, the college and the town pretty much marked the halfway point between the middle of nowhere and Chicago. A perfect spot for a railroad stop.
Folks looking for an exciting night out on the town no longer needed to travel all the way to the big city, the railroad now gave them closer and easier place to go. Businesses started to pop up around the college, restaurants, night clubs, shops... And things really got booming for the college theatre; folks could have an evening of culture and entertainment without the long journey into Chicago.

Philler Hall became a destination for all sorts of popular acts of the time. Big bands, vaudevillians, comics, and singers. The little town had hit the big time.

One month, a real live Broadway revue made it's way to Philler Hall.Folks from all around journeyed to the college to see New York's brightest stars right there in the middle of farm country. One woman in particular was so excited to see the show that she gathered up three generations of her clan into the family truckster and headed off towards the college.
Grandma, in her Sunday best, a long beautiful dress with a high collar and lovely faux pearl buttons, sat right in the middle of the audience, blown away by the bright lights, the ornate theatre decorations, and the anticipation she'd get before the show began.Next to her, Grandpa, not a lover of the arts, but along to make the Missus happy. On both sides of them, their four sons, their wives,and their children. The whole motley brood there for the show.
The curtain rose and Grandma's heart skipped a beat. She loved the theatre, completely fascinated by the actors, the sets, the music, the costumes, every single aspect of it. Grandpa, not so much with the fascinated, he took a nap. Throughout the first act his wife kept giving him the ole elbow in the ribs; one, to keep him awake, and two,to point out specific things about the show that she was enjoying.

Grandpa kept dozing back into lullaby land and eventually one of Grandma's nudges just wouldn't wake him. She tried again, digging the pointiest part of her elbow into the soft spot below his ribcage. He didn't budge. She kicked and pinched, all of it very discreetly, but Grandpa was dead to the world. Really.

Grandma wasn't terribly surprised, her hubby was an old dude and dying is what old dudes tend to do. She was upset more than anything, upset that he dared to die in the middle of the show and ruin an evening at the theatre for her. She wasn't going to let that happen though. She leaned to her left and informed her oldest son that Grandpa had passed. He took it well, because the look in his mother's eyes told him to remain calm, stay seated, and watch the show. She leaned over Grandpa to her right, and told her youngest boy that his father was gone. One look told him to wait until intermission to do anything, to just sit there and allow the nice folks around them to enjoy the performance.

That halfway break came and Grandmas smiled and clapped and stood and made small talk with the theatre goers around her as they shuffled up the aisle to the lobby and the restrooms. Grandma sent her four daughters-in-law and all the little ones away, out to get some refreshments. The auditorium sufficiently empty, she employed her sons to lift Grandpa out of his seat and walk him up the aisle"Weekend at Bernie's" style. All the while Grandma walked in front of them, swatting her deceased husband with her purse and admonishing him about the dangers of drinking too much. "I'll never take you out in public again, you embarrass me with that drinking of yours." Her boys caught on to the ruse and began to laugh and carry on about how much good ole pop drank.

There they stood, up in the lobby, encircling Grandpa and insulting added man who'd never tasted alcohol in his life for being a drop down drunk.

Grandma refused to let a little thing like death ruin a perfectly goodnight at the theatre, for herself, her family, and everyone else there. Knowing full well that notifying the authorities would probably wind up cancelling the show, she waited until the lobby lights flashed and people made their way back into the auditorium to make her move.

Once the lobby was clear, Grandma led her sons across the room, opened what she thought was a storage closet (it was actually the ticket booth), and gently tossed her dead husband on in. They went back inside and enjoyed the rest of what turned out to be a really good show.

There was only one problem with the dead guy in the closet. The dead guy, he wasn't dead. Yet.
After the show, Grandma and the boys waited around to deal with the proper authorities. When Grandpa was dragged out of the ticket booth,a young doctor discovered that he had not in fact died in his seat watching a Broadway show, he had died inside that closet, using his fingernails to try and claw his way out in the dark. Grandpa had suffered a heart attack brought on by fear. He'd woken up in a strange dark place and freaked out.

Grandma was heartbroken. She felt that she was responsible, and every doctor's reassurance that Grandpa would have died soon anyway was no consolation. She went into a great depression, distancing herself from everyone she knew and loved. She believed that she'd killed her husband and deserved no happiness, so after a few painful, difficult years, Grandma killed took her own life, hanging herself in the attic.

Legend has it that the woman I saw that Halloween night was Grandma,peeking into the ticket window to find the lost soul of her departed love. Whether or not Grandpa's spirit was in the closet at the time,I don't know, but I sure am glad that's not the room I decided to hide in.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Plain Ole Fright

Halloween night my senior year in college was the scariest of my young life. I don't mean the shadows startled me or I couldn't sleep because the Blair Witch was in my room kinda scary, I'm talking full on pee yourself, Fred Sanford clutching his chest kind of fear.

For years, I'd been hearing haunted house stories about the theatre that I worked at. For years, I'd listened as other students recounted far-fetched, unbelievable tales of phantom encounters in the building. For years, I sat on the stage on Halloween night as Jack, the theatre manager, told his own first hand stories about the ghosts of Philler Hall. All those years I kinda straddled the line between belief and skepticism, between acceptance and "hey, get me some sciencey stuff that proves it and I'll be on board." That night, that Halloween, I got shoved right over that line into full on "Amen brother, I believe" land.

That particular show, I was in charge of sound design. All the floor microphones that sat on the stage, all the body mics that were woven into the actor's costumes, all the music, and all the sound effects, that was all on me. It's a fun job, really, but it is an awful lot of work on show days. To test all my equipment and prepare for that evening's performance, was a long process that made a whole heck of a lot of noise. To be courteous to the other tech geeks, and I guess to the actors too, I'd usually get there about four hours before showtime.

My sound board was set up at the back of the theatre's main level, kinda tucked away in the corner. Most of the sound equipment was way upstairs, so I had cabling running up through the walls, three levels up, to the sound and lighting booth. My sound system took me months of planning and rehearsal to get just right. Dozens upon dozens of cables ran from the board to the speaker box, plugged into just the right spot to get what I needed to come out of the correct speakers. This cord inserted into this outlet made the alligator sound come from just where the alligator was supposed to be. That cord split off and plugged into this series of inserts made the choo choo sound like it was moving across the theatre. So on and so on... Each plug had its place to have the sound do what we needed it to do and sound the way we wanted it to sound, almost three months of work had made my set up near perfect, in fact, I'd finally just gotten it the way I wanted it about four o'clock that morning. But, when I got there that night, opening night, a mere four hours before curtain, all those cables were no longer stuck into their perfect spots, they were pulled out and lying on the ground.

I was livid. All of the theatre lights were off, except for the little green desk lamp I had sitting on my table, but I scanned the room anyhow, searching for signs of movement of the low sound of the perpetrator breathing. Convinced it was the vacuum cleaner lady who seemed to have no respect for our equipment, I swore that I'd kick her right in the pancreas if I saw her.

Pancreas kicking or no pancreas kicking, I had to put the anger aside and get this problem fixed. I was rushed anyway, but now, there was no way I'd be done before show time. The first thing I had to do was get the plugs back in place. For most shows, that would have been easy. We'd map which cable went where and label each and every plug. Time consuming, yes, but to fix a snafu like this one would be simple. That brings up problem number two. I didn't map and I didn't label. The director had me make so many changes and add so many last minute sound cues that I'd never found the time. I'd actually planned to do it during this evening's performance. Now, well... oops.

I did the best I could, using a rough draft map from a few weeks back and a scientific guessing game that involved tugging on tiger digits. Fifteen minutes later, I was somewhat satisfied. Now I had to run up to the sound booth, three flights of stairs up, and push the power button to turn on the speakers. I don't think I've ever run up so fast in my life. Steps really should be in the Olympics.

Throwing open the door, I dashed into the booth. Once I reached the power source, I held my breath and did one of those "Oh dear God, please make this work" sort of pseudo-prayers. I reached for the button and listened. Pressing it and hearing a little click followed by a soft hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm would mean I did a good job guessing which plug went where. Any sort of pop would mean I did bad, the louder the pop the worse I did. I pushed the button.

I waited.

I waited some more.

It seemed that I could have waited all day and nothing would have happened. That wasn't one of the options though. It had to make a noise. Good noise, bad noise, there had to be a noise. Any sort of noise. There wasn't. The only thing that could mean was that the cables downstairs weren't connected.

I flew out of the booth, down the stairs, around the corner, down the next flight, through the upper lobby, down next set of steps, around the last corner, down the final flight and into the fancy schmancy lobby. I dashed across the lobby, passing the front doors and the ticket booth, burst into the theatre and towards my sound table.

Those cords, you know, the ones that were unplugged and in a mad panic I plugged them back in, threatening pancreatic violence against any cleaning ladies that happened by, they were all out again, just lying there on the carpet.

At this point I figured I had to be the victim of some sort of practical joke. I sensed Dick Clark or Ed McMahon was lurking behind the stage curtain with all my classmates, laughing hysterically at the bulging vein on my forehead that had now begun pulsing.

Grabbing the diagram from the chair where I'd left it, I began plugging everything in again in a frantic daze. I never got to the tiger's toes this time, eenie and meenie ran the show.

Sprinting up the stairs winded me, so there were no deep breaths before I hit the button this time, heck, I was lucky I was breathing at all. I said my silent prayer and pushed "power." Nothing. No click, no pop, nohmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

An angry demon had taken over my body at that point. Walls, windows, and banisters felt my wrath as I hurried back down the twisting, turning stairs, across the lobby, and into the theatre. There they were, all the cords, unplugged again.

That pulsating bulgey vein was just about doing a salsa dance by this point. Alan Funt was backstage having a coronary, dreaming how great Candid Camera ratings would be this week. The wheels were turning somewhere in the brain of a prepubescent Ashton Kutcher.

The plugging in of the cords was more of a random blind guy playing darts from a tilt a whirl kind of event this time. The trip up the steps more of a huffy puffy "I think I can" thing than a dash. The pre-button prayer more of a threat to the powers above that I just might hurl myself from the balcony. I pushed it. Held my breath. Then, there it was, a tiny little click and the sweetest hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm I ever did hear.

The trip down the stairs this time became more of a stroll. A leisurely stroll spent with me calculating exactly how much time I'd have to get done, where to cut corners, where to delegate when my idiot helper got there... Lost in thought, I'd wound my way down to the upper lobby and was halfway down the next set of steps when I noticed the big stained glass window above the stair landing was rattling like crazy. It stuck out to me, because I remembered remarking to my roommate on my way out earlier, how nice a night it was. Nearly sixty degrees, no clouds, no sign of rain, no wind. Yet, that window was vibrating like the bed in a cheap motel when you've brought a pocket full of loose change.

I took the last few steps towards the window and reached out to touch it. Ice cold. The shaking stopped though. But, now I could hear the same sound coming from the other side of the pretty much symmetrical lobby. Feeling a strange need to investigate, I climbed back up to the upper lobby, walked across, and made my way to that stained glass window. Up in the lobby, there was a rattly stereo effect going on, I could hear the glass vibrating on both sides. I reached up and touched that window too. Freezing.

I pulled my hand away and watched the fog fill back in the hand print I'd left, all the while wondering how the windows were icing over when it's sixty outside and how in the world the wind was blowing at the building from both sides.

For whatever reason, instead of continuing down the set of steps I was on, I walked back up to and across the upper lobby and started down the West staircase. Each step I took down revealed more and more of the lobby to me, and I suddenly realized the carpet was bathed in a bluish light down there.

I slowed myself, the gears in my brain working overtime to figure out where and how my friends were hiding to pull this elaborate prank on me.

I took a step down, expecting Matt or Tony or Todd to pop out and scare the living poop outta me. Nothing.

I took another step and was able to see the very bottom of three sets of double doors that led into the atrium and then outside. That was down and to my left. Down and to my right were the five sets of double doors that led into the theatre. Shadows filled the corners, but the middle of the room was more and more blue the closer I got.

I took another step and realized that the front doors, the six glass doors with brass handles that led into the atrium, they were open. Now, I'm bright enough to put two and two together and get something that at least resembles four, so that ability worked its magic right there. I remembered that those doors don't have locks, so Jack would chain them each night, wrapping loop after loop after loop of heavy metal chain through the cold metal handles, then pad locking them. Jack himself was the only one with a key to those locks, (the rest of us used the back doors) and taking off those chains was an incredibly noisy process that made garbage trucks picking up other garbage trucks and dropping them into a third set of garbage trucks seem tranquil by comparison. I wasn't gone long enough for those chains to have been removed, and even if I had been I would have heard that racket all the way upstairs, but there they weren't.

I took another step, this time, turning my back to the wall and scooting down kinda sideways. Those old fancy doors also didn't stay open on their own. We used this big ornate ashtray things to prop them open when the audience was coming in. Yet, when I looked to the right, there were the ashtrays, far from the doors that were somehow holding themselves open.

I took another step, only a few from the bottom, only feet from the lobby floor now, I could see that the blue light that was spilling into the lobby was coming either from outside or from the far end of the atrium.

I took another step and another, each one bringing me closer and closer to that entryway where I was sure Greg or Barb or Erica were going to jump out with a "boo." No one jumped, so I pushed myself forward.

Scooting myself around the seemingly magical door, for some reason I now found myself about to peek into the foyer. That room was probably six feet across to the outside doors and maybe thirty feet wide from my end to the ticket window across the way, so there wasn't anywhere for a person to hide in there, or hide a blue-ish light bulb for that matter.

My muscles pretty tense, hoping I'd catch whoever it was off guard and scare them first, I side stepped into the atrium. What I saw there changed everything.

Looking across the room, I saw very clearly the source of the mystery. It was a figure, about five or six feet high made entirely out of blue light. I froze. My brain told my legs to move it out those doors a few feet away, but they didn't listen. I just stood there, kinda transfixed. I remember almost every detail. The figure looked like a woman. She had her hair up, rolled into a bun, she had a high collared dress that buttoned up the back, she was tall, frail looking... her back was to me.

I must have gulped too loud, or maybe my stomach growled, or maybe she heard the urine as it trickled down my leg, but whatever it was, something caught her attention. She started to slowly turn towards me. I could see the lines in her face, the sadness that she carried; I could feel her empty eyes on me.

My jaw dropped, but not in one of those cartoon character AAAooooooGaaa sort of ways, more like a slow steady my mouth kept opening wider and wider and wider. I stopped breathing and my eyes got really big. I started to almost hunch over, as if I was about to fall into the fetal position. I didn't want to lie down on the ground and suck my thumb, but somehow I couldn't seem to move. My brain went through all the options, six feet to the left - door to outside, fifty feet behind you - door to theatre, five steps back - the stairs. All of those seemed like viable options, but my feet didn't like them. My feet finally decided to run, and of all the directions they could have picked, they figured running closer to blue lady was a good idea.

I took one little half step out of the atrium and into the lobby and sprinted myself closer to her. Luckily, my feet, as stupid as they appeared to be, didn't much feel like stopping to have a chat, and I zoomed right past her.

I could have chosen any of seventeen doors; ten into the theatre or six that led to the sweet ghosty-woman-free realm of outside, but no, I chose door seventeen. I ran and hid in the handicap bathroom. I don't know why.

Flying through that door without even thinking about it, I slammed it shut behind me and pushed the little button to lock it, yeah, like little push button door locks are going to stop blue people from getting in there and doing whatever it is blue people made from light do to people who are completely solid and entirely devoid of blueness.

It took a good ten seconds for me to realize where I was, but only an instant to come to the conclusion that I was the stupidest person ever. What the holy heck was I doing in the handicap bathroom? The only door I could have gone through that did not lead to a sure-fire escape route. Trying to calm myself, I mentally listed my options.

There was a window. Windows rock. I can go out the window.

No, The window was seven feet off the ground and, for some inexplicable reason, it had bars on it. I don't know who, but apparently somewhere down the line, someone was concerned that handicap people were going to leap seven feet in the air and climb out the window, so they put bars on it.

I thought for a second, pretty seriously too, about attempting to flush myself down the toilet, even going so far a checking to see if my foot would even fit in the bowl. It didn't.

Under the cabinets, no, there were none. Up into the ceiling tiles. Nope, there were none. The only way out of that room was the way I'd come in.

I made two plans. Plan A. I'd throw open the door, the lady would be no where in sight, I'd make a hard left and spring through the door into the theatre, down the aisle, and out the back door. Plan B. I'd throw open the door, the lady would be there waiting for me, and I'd lay down on the floor and cry. I hoped plan A would work.

Working up the courage, I went for it. I turned the handle, the little lock button's click and my heavy breathing the only sounds. The adrenaline coursing through me made the door like a feather; I tossed it aside and quickly scanned to lobby for any side of psycho Smurfette. No one there. I cut hard, sliding a little on the carpet, but kept my footing and charged that door. I hit it as hard as I could, already envisioning myself sprinting down the street to hide under my bed. The problem... I pushed at full force, ordering that door to open, and it only accepted pull commands.

I'd built up a considerable amount of speed and power in that seven step sprint, so when I hit the door it was like a unstoppable force vs. unmovable object death match. I lost. I found myself falling backwards, but with a nifty ninjaish maneuver right after I hit the ground, I was right back on my feet. A little dizzy, but on my feet and charging right back at the door.
Dodging theatre seats, props, and the stage curtain, I fought my way all the way out the back door. Finally, I calmed down.

I waited for the other tech people to arrive, and praying for that whole safety in numbers thing, I went back inside. I didn't tell a soul about what had happened, I just went about my business and had a fantastic show. (Somehow, when I'd gotten back inside, all my wiring was hooked up perfectly.)

At the end of the night, Jack held his little post-show hooray type pep talk. As always, the Halloween tradition, Jack invited us all to stay and tell ghost stories up on the stage. "Ha ha ha ha ha ha," I blurted out, "Oh man, have I got a... a burning desire to go home. Have fun with the stories guys,"and I left. There was nothing, not even those big heavy chains that'd magically disappeared that was going to keep me in that theatre that night.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Jack and the Epilogue

This is the epilogue to Jack's story. I posted the story itself last Friday.

Jack didn't tell anyone about the little boy he'd seen. Figuring that anyone who heard about his ghostly encounter would probably either assume he was certifiable or having LSD flashbacks, he decided keeping his ordeal quiet would be best.

After a few years, though, Jack began hearing more and more inexplicable stories about the building and its inhabitants. Everytime someone else relayed a first or second hand paranormal event, Jack considered spilling his own guts. He didn't. He continued to keep his secret. For over ten years, Jack kept it quiet.

Finally, once he'd been working there long enough, and had the respect, authority, and credentials that made him confident enough that no one would strap him down and ship him to the looney bin or fire him, he decided to ask an older gentleman who'd been working at the college for decades if he'd ever heard or seen anything strange in the building. Jack was careful not to let too much information slip, he wanted to gauge the man's reaction, not tell him what he'd seen just yet.

Jack was still being very cautious. The gentleman Jack asked was the same custodian that said goodnight to him each night on his way out, including the night he had his little run in with Lil Casper. The same maintenance man that let Jack know he was the last one in the building that night ten years back.

If this story had been a cartoon, this is the part where Jack would peel a rubber mask off that crazy old Janitor Jenkins, and discover that he, in fact, was the little boy and an elaborate series of pullies and people covered in special glow-in-the-dark flour would have enabled this prank, but this was real life, so the old man just sat there in silence for what had to have been a full minute, but seemed like nine hours, pondering the question. Eventually he spoke. This is the story he told.

Oh, way back in the 30's, years before I was even working here, when this building was still fairly new, there was a young music professor. This kid was trying to make a name for himself, trying to impress the college big-wigs and the like, trying to do something great and important. He spent countless evenings locked in his office, an office that is right around the corner from yours Jack. The one right across from the water fountain. Not unlike you, he'd be here all night, til three, sometimes four o' clock in the morning before he'd decide that he should get home to his pretty young bride and their little son. Time always seemed to slip away from him, as it does for a lot of us.

One particular day, the professor's wife was heading out of town to visit relatives. She left the young son, probably around six or seven years old, in the care of his father. Now, just because he had the little tike to look after didn't mean that the prof didn't have work to do. No sir, he dragged junior along, sat the little guy down in his office, and got to work.

Junior got tired of drawing pictures on the chalkboard and lying on the office floor real quick. He begged and he begged and he begged, finally, the rascal disturbing his work enough, Dad relented. "Go, run around, just don't break anything," Dad warned, adding, "Just don't go down into the basement," as the boy dashed out of the room.

Freedom had its advantages. He ran up and down the steps. He did cartwheels on the stage. He sprinted up and down the theatre aisles. He tooted every horn, banged every drum, and punched every key up in the music room, but eventually he got bored. The only place in the whole Hall left for him to explore was the only place his daddy had told him was off limits. The basement.

Eventually, time, like it seems to do, slipped away from the professor and he headed home. It was late and shuffling out the door tired was his routine. Remembering to bring his son back home with him was not part of his regular routine, so he forgot.

The next morning, in a mad panic, the professor burst through the doors and frantically searched the building for his boy. He scanned the stage. He glanced down every row in the auditorium. He looked in each classroom, under every desk, and behind every piece of furniture. Finally, his gut churning and his heart in his mouth, he knew he had to look downstairs in the basement. That's where he found his son, crushed to death under a pile of lumber back in the far corner of the woodshop.

When the pieces were put together, it was found that the last person to see him alive was a friendly old maintenance man who was locking the building up for the night. He spotted junior up on his tippy toes getting a drink from the fountain. From the other end of the hall, that old broom jockey shouted goodnight and waved to the boy, getting a big smile and wave in return.

"I suppose, Jack," the old man said, "that you asked me because you'd seen something. By the shade of white your face turned there a second ago, I'm gonna go and say you saw that very boy."

"If I did?" Jack asked, amazed that the janitor's story so closely matched his own.

"Well, then you wouldn't be the only one whose thought they may have heard a little boy getting a drink late at night. Seems he comes back about once a year, every year, same time."

Jack marked his calender from that point on, making sure to skedaddle at a reasonable time at least one night a year.

In part one I promised that this would be a true story about something that happened to me. Hold tight, we're getting there. Parts three and four later this week.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Jack and the Ghost Stalk?

There are only two types of people in this world. Those who believe in ghosts and those who do not.

I happen to fall into the first category. Scoff, guffaw, and jest all you want, I understand. You see, I used to be like you, I used to be a non-believer, but I've seen things now that I just can't explain. I've witnessed events that no scientific, religious, or psychological explanation can satisfy. Not even a six foot talking dog and a pot-head in a van could get to the bottom of these mysteries.

Back in the day, when I was a young pup at college, I worked in the theatre department. While there, I did just about every job you can imagine being dished out to a student. I swept the floors, I tore the tickets, I carried the heavy set-pieces around, I built the sets. I ran the lighting, I designed the sound, I worked the spot, I controlled the sound board. Later in my theatrical career, I acted in, wrote, and sometimes directed the shows. A regular Renaissance man, I had myself a little chunk of each and every portion of "it all." Those were some great times.

Oh yeah, the theatre I worked at was haunted.

It seemed that just about every one that worked there, went to that school, or wandered by late at night and for reasons that still escape that person, decided to play drunken ghost in the graveyard inside the building at three in the morning had a ghost story to tell.

Lucky for all of them that ghost stories became a fall semester tradition. Even though the building we were sitting in was chock fullo' ghostly sorts, each and every Halloween night, Jack, the theatre manager, would sit us down on the stage with all the lights dimmed, and we'd tell our stories. Jack would always start.

He'd fill us in on Bertha, the ghost in the balcony. You could see her, sitting up there in a chair, looking down on the stage. She must have been a theatre lover in her past life, or should that just be life, because there she was, every night, just sitting there in the fourth row of the balcony, right on the aisle. She'd disappear if anyone happened to find their way up into the balcony, and same thing if the lights came on, but there she was, whenever the lights were low and the upper level empty. She sat and watched the show. Always from the same seat.

After Jack introduced Bertha to all that year's freshmen and transfers, we'd go around the circle and tell the stories we had. Most of them stunk, unbelievable tales of frightening phantoms and mischievous poltergeists. Some of them were rewritten versions of all the urban legends, reconfigured just enough so that they took place in or around the college. Most of them were pure make-believe. A lot of them were nonsense. Or so I thought.

Jack would always finish the evening with his own ghostly encounter. His story always had us on the edge of our seats, even when we'd heard it several times. His story, coming from a respected professor and award winning director, that story felt true.

Jack's story took place during one of the first years he was teaching at the college, way back in the early '70s. Late one night, hip deep in term papers, Jack was nodding off at his desk. He knew that he was the last one in the building, because the night janitor always said goodnight before he left. Even so, somewhere in between awake & alert and sleepytime, Jack recognized the sound of the water fountain out in the hallway when it suddenly went off.

Believe me, the is was an easily placed noise. That water fountain was, in all likelihood, the first water fountain ever assembled in North America. Some students theorized that it had actually been the Queen's favorite bubbler, but those crazy pilgrim folk snatched it and brought it over on the Mayflower. In other words, it was old.

That thing made some very un-water fountain like noises. It actually sounded more like a Harley Davidson/baby screaming underwater combo deal. Clank clank clankity clank clank rattle rattlerattattattatttattattle screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee is the sound that came out of that thing when anyone dared to press the button. Not many people did that twice, not only because of the migraine inducing sound effects, but also because somewhere in the past, perhaps back at Plymouth Rock or maybe when General Custer was using it, the spiggoty thing became all misaligned. Instead of a nice cool refreshing sip of icy H2O soothing your throat and moistening your lips, you'd get a room temperature spattering of yellowy liquid right in the eye. It didn't even matter how tall or short or close or far you were, it somehow knew, and it shot you in the eye.

You can probably understand why the Clank clank clankity clank clankrattle rattle rattattattatttattattlescreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee coming from the hallway outside his office startled Jack. He thought he was alone in that big old building and who in this world would be quenching their thirst from that thing?

Jack slowly rose to his feet, shaking off the sleep as he headed towards the door. He peeked out into the hallway and saw nothing. It was dark out there, nothing but the red light from the exit sign reflecting on the surface of the Kaiser (that's what we called the fountain) and the cold linoleum floor.

Chalking the whole thing up to a mish-mosh of lack of sleep, hardwork, end of term stress, and his over-active imagination, Jack went back into the office to pack up his stuff and head home.
He tossed some books and papers into his bag and reached for his coat. Mid-reach, Clank clank clankity clank clank rattle rattlerattattattatttattattle screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee came pouring into the room from the hall again. Already on his feet thistime, Jack stepped towards the door. It took a second for his eyes to adjust. No one was at the Kaiser, but in the shadows, Jack swore he saw a shape, an arm maybe, rounding the corner and heading down the stairs to the basement. Knowing full well that there was no reason for any students to be in the building this late, Jack got his "hey,you're not supposed to be here" face on and trudged down the corridor. When he reached the steps, he shouted down, "Hey! Hello? Is anyone down there?"

No answer came back.

Curious to see if maybe he'd inadvertently picked up an LSD habit, Jack wandered down to the basement to prove his hallucinations false. He took the first ten steps quickly, but turned the corner and slowedhis pace for the last ten. At the bottom, Jack found himself in an empty room. On one side was the door to the costume and make-up room, that door was bolted. Jack, himself, had the only key. He checked it anyway. Satisfied, he wandered to the other side and checked the other door - a super wide, ridiculously heavy metal door that weighed close to a hundred pounds. That door led to the woodshop and was pad-locked. Jack felt his pocket, finding the lone key to be right where it belonged.

Shrugging it all off as late nights and caffeine jitters, Jack strolled back to his office, more ready to go home than he'd ever been before.

Quickly, Jack organized the paper's he'd been working on, just to give himself a head start on the next morning. A morning Jack was startingto realize was going to come way too soon. With his coat in hand this time, he heard it again, the unmistakable colicky baby/biker gang noise that emits from the Kaiser. He darted out into the hall and turned towards the sound. What he saw there relieved him. A boy. A small boy, no more than six or seven years old standing up on his tippy toes to get a drink.

"Hey, kid? Kid?" Jack called.

The kid didn't respond, he was busy slurping the loudest water ever. "Kid, you're not supposed to be here. Where's your mom and dad?" Jack didn't recognize the boy as the son of any of his co-workers, but figured some sort of parent had to be nearby.

As he approached the kid, with the intention of ripping ole pops a new one when he was found, Jack explained to us that he started to feel cold. Like someone had turned the air conditioner onto super Arctic freeze setting and it was blowing just at him.

Jack was still a good fifty feet away when the kid stopped drinking, stood up straight, looked right at, almost right through is the way he described it, Jack, smiled a real big crazy little boy goony bird smile and waved.

"Yeah, that's it. Hello," Jack muttered under his breath. About to repeat his where in the living heck are your parents line of questioning, Jack moved closer. The boy, he didn't seem to really notice Jack. He just turned and marched down the basement steps.

"No!!! Kid, you can't go down there," Jack shouted, running after the lad. Skipping all but the really important stairs, Jack found himself in that big empty basement room in no time.

No kid.

He checked both doors. Locked. Keys, still in his pocket. Jack was dumbfounded. He's a rational guy. Down to Earth. Straight laced and conservative. There was nothing to explain these things he was seeing. Or rather, what he wasn't seeing.

Sure that some of those radical 1960's campus hippies had spiked his coffee, Jack muttered curse words under his breath the entire way backupstairs.

Back in the office once again, Jack grabbed his bag and pulled on his coat. As he walked out into the hall, he smiled to himself at his foolishness. How could a grown man let his imagination get the best of him like that? With one foot firmly planted on the hall tile and the other well on it's way, Jack made an effort not to see the Kaiser with his peripheral. "Please don't go make a peep," Jack thought.

It didn't listen.

Clank clank clankity clank clank rattle rattle rattattattatttattattlescreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Jack stopped dead in his tracks. Slowly turned, swearing and cursing the mere existence of water fountains as he did so, and faced that end of the hall. There he was, gulping down nasty luke-warm, slightly eggy smelling water, the little boy.

His shoulders slumped and "why me-s" ran through his brain like hamsters on a wheel. "Kid?" Jack managed to spit out. "You're notsupposed to be here," came out next, trepidation replacing the irritation that was in his voice earlier.

Just like before, the boy stood up, turned real slow, smiled that bone chilling creepy little smile, and waved. Just like before, the boy turned and bounded down the stairs. Just like before, not wanting to, but no longer entirely in control, Jack headed after him.

Going full speed when he tried to make the worn out loafers on his feet make the turn around to corner to the steps, Jack slid on the tile and knocked into the wall. Stumbling uncontrollably down the first few steps, he hit the iron hand rail so hard that he actually chipped the bone in his elbow. Still, he didn't feel the pain, not yet, adrenaline kept him moving into the basement.

As he'd expected, that big empty room was just that, empty, so shoving his hand into his pocket, Jack grabbed his keys. Fumbling a little bit from all the nerves, Jack finally turned to dead-bolt and threw open the costume room door. He reached over and flipped on the lights, suddenly sending power to a room full of insanely bright make-up mirrors. That sort of brightness could probably melt your eyes, but Jack fought through the temporary blindness and the spots and the whiteness. When his vision started to clear he saw a fuzzy version of a room full shadowy figures. In the moment, he nearly wet himself,but he slowly realized what he was seeing was a room full of costume mannequins.

When his sense of sight returned, he searched under the tables, behind the dummies, in the wigs, within the props, and inside the cabinets, but there was no boy. That left only the wood shop.

Jack bolted across the room and sped towards the shop door. It took two hands and all his strength to pull the metal barricade open, and he had to prop it in place with his foot while he hooked the cable that held the door open around a bolt in the wall. Without that cable or that bolt, the door would slam violently shut, and I still have an ache in my once broken hand to prove the force that door closed with.

The fluorescent ceiling fixtures in the shop were easy on Jack's eyes, so when he hit the switch in that room the light actually made it easier to look around. He searched every inch of the shop, in the lumber room, behind scrap piles, under the work benches, around the table saw and air compressor. Finally, in the furthest corner of the room, near the giant drill press, Jack saw a pair of Keds sticking out.

"Hey, kid, I don't know how you got in here, but it's not hide and seek time. Get out here." Jack shouted.

The kid didn't budge. Jack crept closer.

"Hey. I said get out here. Where are your parents?" Jack mumbled.

Still, the kid didn't move a bit. Nearly right on top of him, Jack edged his way around the drill press. There he saw the kid, just laying there, a glassy look in his eyes, his chest, which should have been rising and falling with breath, still.

Jack, side-stepping panic, dashed the last few feet and reached out to the boy, boy scout CPR lessons swirling around in his brain.

As he went to touch the kid, to help him, to save him, Jack placed his hand on the little guy's chest. The boy vanished. Like smoke dissipating into the night air, he was gone.

Now Jack would tell us this story every Halloween night, with the stage lights low, and that very woodshop directly beneath the stage floor we were sitting on. With the freshman sufficiently freaked out, Jack would usually ask for a volunteer to run to his office, back behind the stage, to get something for him. Realizing they'd have to walk by the waterfountain and the stairs, no one ever offered their services. I did. I didn't believe. "Great story," I thought, "but just that, a story." That was my stance until three years later, when my own empty building encounter changed my mind.

Next week, the anniversary of my ghostly run-in, I'll tell that story. Until then, run home and hide under the bed when ever you hear Clank clank clankity clank clank rattle rattle rattattattatttattattlescreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Read the Scooby Doo style revelation that takes place at the end of Jack's story.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Super PlainOleShoutOut to Deb and Joe

I'm a big slacker. I readily admit that. I'd apologize, but that's more effort than I'm really willing to put forth.

A few weeks back, Joe from Crotchety Old Man Yells at Cars was kind enough to bestow upon me this beautiful award. I didn't forget his kindness; I'm just... incredibly lazy. I hope Joe forgives my slackery ways. Check out his site. He may be crotchety, but he's hilarious and one of my favorite bloggers.

Then, as if I don't possess enough slackerific tendancies, Deb from Debbie Does Drivel goes and gives me another award. Deb is great, and I love her site, but her award came with rules and regualtions and stipulations and all those sorts of things (Deb, that just makes me like Joe better). I guess I'll play by the rules and list 6 things that make me happy. I'll have do the second part (passing the award on to 6 other deserving folks) later.

6. Monkeys in people clothes.

5. Monkeys in hats and/or diapers.

4. That no matter how hard they try, the Cubs can't lose today.

3. This Saturday no one is making me go pick pumpkins, pick apples, wander through haunted corn mazes, trek through the zoo, or any sort of extended family activities where the activity takes the back seat to my mom and sister yelling at me. I actually have an entire day where no one will bug me, and I can just relax on the couch doing what I do best - not a damn thing.

2. PlainOleTike (that's the rug rat)

1. I suppose this as good a way to announce this as any, there's another PlainOleTike on the way. Heretofore this munchkin will be referred to as PlainOleTike 2: Fetus Boogaloo.

Thanks Joe and Deb.

I'll be back tomorrow with a regular post: a four part Halloween saga that will tell you all the greatest ghost story of all time.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Downfall of McMerica

Americans are getting fatter and fatter. I'm sorry if you're fat and this offends you, but so be it. We, as a people, are getting bigger, fatter, lazier, and I don't think it will be long before some unsuspecting surgeon cracks open the chest of some middle management drone from Akron and finds a Super Size order of McFries right there in the left ventricle.

Sure, we have health craze spurts every now and again, but the number of treadmills currently treading mills are far out numbered by the ones that currently act as clothes hangers. The folks that dutifully order entrees with the little hearts next to them would be trampled by the early morning Ultimate Omletters (yes, the Burger King and his big giant creepy head are actually seeing success serving up heart disease on a warm toasted bun). Our health club membership cards are collecting more dust than our Swiffers could ever hope to.

Yup, here in McMerica we're getting lazy, fat, slovenly, and there's no end in sight. We're a society of people who throw our gnawed on fried chicken bones out the car window, aiming for that jogger. We're a land of folks who habitually pump four dollar a gallon gas into our suburban utility vehicles while the bicycle in the garage becomes a future middle school science project on oxidation. We're a country that takes a perfectly nutritious, chock full o' vitamins vegetable, and deep fries it. Really, was there an outcry in the streets for someone to start fat frying green beans? Come on people, when is it enough cholesterol?

I'll tell you why we are the way we are today too. It's TV. I put 100% of the blame on TV. No, this isn't going the direction you think it is. What I'm saying is that TV now-a-days is too good. CSI:Tuscaloosa and Distraught Soccer Moms and Attractive People Trapped on an Island are all too good. I can't recall shows being this good back when I was a kid, and that's the problem. There are no good kids TV shows that encourage today's youth to go outside and play.

What you say? That's contradictory? Nope. Wait. Listen. Learn. Nod in agreement.

When I was a kid we had the greatest horrible TV shows ever. We had the Dukes of Hazard, with the car jumping, police evading, saloon fighting Duke boys always ready for action. We had the A-Team, chockfull of damsel/dude in distress, save the day heroics. We had Knight Rider, well Knight Rider had a freakin' talking car. How cool is that? We had Shatner rolling over the hood of his car; super-powerCourtney Cox; Richard Dean Anderson making a bomb from a grapefruit, an adult diaper, and a clothes pin; a dude that turned into a panther; Don Johnson's day-glo socks; Major Dad solving crimes with some blond headed dude, and two different Lee Majors vehicles.

The problem today's kids face, and the reason why McMerica is become obeser and obeser by the second (in fact we, as a nation are consuming forty-two trillion Double Whoppers with Cheese while you read this sentence) is there isn't enough great horrible TV show for kids to watch.

TV shows used to inspire play. You'd get a buddy, you'd be Bo Duke, he'd be Luke Duke and you'd sit under the picnic table in Mrs. Stein'sbackyard, driving that bad boy around, jumping imaginary rivers and crashing invisible road blocks. Sometimes the Duke boys would crash that picnic table up and have to jump on there vintage Huffy/Schwinn motorcycles to evade Roscoe P. Coltrane (aka the little sister). If you absolutely had to, a third pal could join in, but if Eddie didn't want to be Cooter, he'd have to make up a third Duke, usually it was Han Solo Duke.

If there were four of you, that bad ass picnic table would be Mr. T's van. And your little gang was a team of underground vigilantes who almost shot people and blew up stuff that was kinda near the bad guys. Shows like The A-Team led to endless hours of me being Hannibal, the smart one; Tristan as Murdock, the crazy one; and Mitch asB.A., the strong one. Eddie never wanted to be Face, the pretty one (what little boy ever wanted to be the pretty one), so he was usually Han Solo A-Team.

Even if you had no friends, you could be Knight Rider and hop underneath that picnic table and talk to it. Sure, that's a little creepy and sad, but at least those kids were outside, running around, pretending to solve mysteries, calling the picnic table to come rescue them whenever trouble arose. If things got too hairy for you and your version of Kitt crashed, you could always call an imaginary Han Solo Car to come to your aid.

That's just the way TV shows were back in the day. TV shows that were so bad that you had to go outside and act them out yourselves and make them better. Shows like Misfits of Science, Manimal, The GreatestAmerican Hero, Wonder Woman, V, McGyver, TJ Hooker, The Fall Guy, The Six Million Dollar Man, Simon and Simon, Riptide, The Incredible Hulk, and Miami Vice.

These shows were so bad that they were awesome. These shows encouraged kids to get up and go outside. Now we have theaptly named Jackass.

Back then we had horrible video games. You spend too much time slothing away in the house, you'd burn out your retinas playing Pong, or if you had no friends, you'd play vertical pong, also known as Breakout. If you played those games for more than half an hour, with lack of motion, animation, or change of scenery, your eyes would dry out and you'd lose the ability to blink.

Come on, there's not a soul in my age bracket who didn't have dreams, or perhaps nightmares, about the Tetris pieces not quite fitting right.

Now video games are so cool that I'm not sure why anyone would want to participate in real life. There's no need to pretend your Bo or Luke or Han Solo Duke out under the picnic table when Nintendo can get a General Lee for you.

America is in danger or losing its imagination. We're in danger of sinking into the couch, our cottagey cheesey thighs and overhanging bellies getting in the way of any sort of physical activity. We need to get kids out there flying in invisible jets; warning each other that they won't like them when they're angry, jumping off the front porch over the bushes making the Bionic Woman nenenenenenenenenenenenenoise as they go... We need Spidey and Friends, we need The Goonies, we need Star Wars movies where the heroes are actually the good guys...

Before too long we're going to be big lumps o' goo, stuck in between the arms of the barcalounger, McMeal in one fist, game controller in the other, wishing that Jack Bauer and Gil Grissom could solve all our real problems. I wish they could, perhaps if they had a partner. MayI suggest Han Solo?

Give me a shot at winning Humor Blogger of the Year by voting here. Or, you could just give me a smiley here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

G.I. Joe's Adventures in the Land of Doot Dah Doo: and Other Choking Hazards

It is my belief that there comes a time in every single person's lifethat they are so bored they want to take drastic action. I've heard people utter, "I'm so bored I could die." I've seen folks stare at a clock so intently, as if to will the hour hand to suddenly lurch forward, that I feel their eyes may actually pop out of their head's and shoot across the room. I've witnessed boredom being eased by doodling (on paper, desks, pants, arms, and even the back of a sleeping person's neck), napping (including snoring, jerking awake so violently you fall out of your seat, and some monstrous drool puddles), and playing little games (tic tac toe, hang-man, and the ill-advised "see if we can drop these staples into that floor outlet" - but that's a story for another day).

A while back, I encountered such boredom firsthand. My wife signed us up to attend a baby safety class, in preparation for our first born's arrival. At first that seemed like a splendid idea, learn baby CPR and baby Heimlich and such, but then we got there. I soon realized I was in for a level of excitement that can usually only come from bashing yourself in the head with a pair of maracas.

The class started with Boring Johansen (yes, that is what it said on his "Hello my name is…" sticker) lecturing the group about car seats. Yes, this is vital information, but I believe I was signed up for the common-sense-impaired section of the course by mistake, because the session began with Boring informing the group that you should always strap the seat in, not simply place it in the car. This statement produced various "oooohs" and "aahhhhhs" from the crowd, like Boromir had discovered the secrets to time travel or some such thing. It was right then that I started beating my head against the table, thinking that maybe time would go by faster if I was unconscious.

In this ninety-minute session about car seat safety, I learned this:

(Yes, there is a big blank space here for a reason. I'm making a point.)

To keep myself entertained I decided to play some games with it. The same games that would probably drive me nuts in my own classroom were suddenly my lifeline to sanity. I poured myself a glass of the world's sourest lemonade (lemonade that would inspire the phrase "If life gives you lemons, don't make lemonade like that stuff cuz it's so sour that it's actually puckering internal sphincters"), grabbed a few of the cookies they'd laid out for us, and played the following games:

1. Every time the man said the word "crotch" I'd force myself to do a"shot" of the pucker-juice. The word came up so many times that if I'd been doing actual shots, I'd have passed out around the twenty-five minute mark, an amazing amount of crotch considering this was a baby safety class, not a how to.

2. How long can I go without taking a bite of that cookie? This was a challenging game, cuz those cookies were good. I'd try to set goals for myself: watch the second hand go around two times, get a bite –watch it go three times – take a bite --- wait til Boring Johansen repeats the word "crotch" again, then get a bite. It tested my willpower and helped the cookies survive the whole session, a pretty difficult game.

3. Hold my breath until the man's PowerPoint presentation repeats something he'd already said. Okay, this wasn't much of a challenge; each slide contained something he'd already said at least once. Almost every one letting us know that a five-point harness car seat connects in the crotch. (Do a shot, eat a cookie.)

The only thing that kept me there was the knowledge that the second half of the session would be run by someone else. A younger female nurse had introduced Borizimo the Not-So-Magnificent and promised tobe back later. It had to be better.

After a short break, we returned to find a few colorful note cards on the table in front of us. The cards contained some interesting questions about child safety and we learned that we'd take turns reading the cards and attempting to answer our own questions. It seemed to be a good idea in concept, but in execution it made me long for the days of Boro the Lord of the Car Seat.

Apparently common sense is not a strong characteristic around these parts, because these questions should have taken ten minutes with simple, straight forward answers. Instead, they sparked discussion and debate, dragging on for over an hour. Non-discussable, un-debatable things were suddenly being argued with a passion that's usually reserved for holy wars, soccer fans, and Star Trek geeks.

The first question, read out loud by a clean cut man in his mid-thirties, asked the group to name five household items that could pose a danger to babies. Boom boom boom boom boom and we're done. Next question. That's how it should have gone, but no, yuppie-boy hemmed and hawed for what seemed like enough time to have an impromptu reenactment of the War of 1812. Just after the baby new year 1813 was born, someone shouted out, "household cleaners."

The teacher praised him and agreed that household cleaners were indedd dangerous for babies. He was all smiles until she asked him to name four more. She may as well have been asking him to recite the Gettysburg Address in Latin. After about fifty-seven "ums"and thirty-eight "uhs," I decided to help the poor man out.

"Blenders," I offered, merely to lighten to mood in the room, get a cheap laugh, and take some pressure of the common-senseless man to my right.

Instead of a few chuckles, I got a chorus a Family Feud style "Good answer, good answer"s and a little bit of clapping, like these people were stumped by the question and amazed that I was able to pull an answer out of thin air like that. I then knew I had to move from this neighborhood before my son was old enough to be infected by the stupidity that was present before me.

Yuppie, the pressure now off, blurted out, "Outlets."

Another clap attack and round of "good answer"s followed. If Richard Dawson were dead, he'd have rolled over in his grave.

The nurse lady, sensitive young lass that she was, snapped back sarcastically, "Yes, all the outlets that just happen to be laying around are very dangerous."

A very elderly woman on the other side of the room, who was there for no apparent reason, because she was last fertile when Taft was in office, quickly became that annoying person that asks way too many questions and adds her own two cents to everything that you just want to strangle so the idiocy can continue interruption free. She defended Yuppster with, "Uh, outlets are dangerous. They're very very dangerous."

At this point, Richard Dawson would have beaten her with a garden hoe, instead the nurse stepped in. "Yes they are," answered nurse, "but we're asking about items that could be left laying around for a baby to pick up."

Eventually the rest of the group agreed upon five things that are dangerous for babies, a list that included the obvious choices: model airplanes, large rocks, plastic forks, those buttons with the sticker stick pins on the back, and "my wedding ring," but somehow the conversation was cut short before they could mention hatchets, tomahawks, fighter jets, Freddy Kreuger, and weapons grade plutonium.

Question after question, the nurse lady led the class in the most round-a-bout way possible back to what should be considered common knowledge. Actually, until that evening, I had no idea just how uncommon common sense was. She had to help these people understand that it's not a good idea for babies to get their heads stuck in the crib slats, fall down the steps, sign up for sky-diving lessons, or ingest cat feces.

As time went on, I believe the room actually made her dumber, illustrated by the "choking test" she demonstrated. Nurse lady held up an empty cardboard toilet paper tube, an item that my niece calls a doot dah doo, since that's the noise she yells when she holds the tube up to her mouth. Nurse Lady used that as an example of a small child's throat.

Anything that can fit through the tube, she said, should be considered a choking hazard and kept out of reach. She demonstrated. Holding up a small shirt button above the tube. She paused for a second to build the suspense, as if we were going to be amazed that it fit. She let go, allowing the button to fall to the floor and bounce around where innocent children (or my stupider classmates) might find it and choke. She paused again, this time for dramatic effect, waiting for the ooohs and aaahhhs to come. They did, because these people were so dumb they would have been amazed by the concept of pockets.

Apparently not certain that we all understood that small things fit through big holes, she demonstrated again. Holding up a quarter this time, she gave us the dramatic pause, then dropped the coin through the tube. One guy actually stood up to see if it made it. It went on.

Preemie pacifier. Pause. Drop. Bounce. Ooooo. Aaaaaahhhh.

Lighter. Pause. Drop. Bounce. Oooooo. Aaaaaaahhhh.

Action figure. Pause. Drop. Bounce. Oooooo. Aaaaaaahhhh.

Cap to a two-liter bottle. Pause. Drop. Bounce. Oooooo. Aaaaaaahhhh.

Barbecue fork. Pause. Drop. Bounce. Ooooooo. Aaaaaaahhh.

A Volleyball. Pause. Drop. Bounce. Oooooo. Aaaaaaahhhh.

My turn to read and answer a question was next. I had to follow the "doot da doo" choking on a GI Joe. That was akin to going on with a five man kazoo band after Sinatra has vacated the stage, so I didn't know how I'd top the cardboard toilet paper tube's entertainment value.

My note card told me to ask the group to list four safety concerns regarding pacifiers. Immediately, jokes galore ran through my head. It shouldn't be made of lava. Don't put it in the front seat with the airbags on. Maybe it should have the option of doubling as a rape whistle. Instead, I responded, "I'm going to go out on a limb and say that they shouldn't be able to fit through the toilet paper tube."

That was an easy joke. It should have been a slam dunk. You could have heard crickets chirping. You could have heard a pin drop through a cardboard tube.

I don't think they got it. I should have gone with the lava joke.

The rest of the session was loaded with such common sense that it made my head hurt, but it seemed to amaze so many of these people that I began to wonder how some of them were able to master those tricky insert penis into vagina maneuvers that got them into this situation in the first place.

Oh dear God, these people are going to be raising children soon. Let's just hope they realize they need to belt in the car seat, keep the flamethrowers out of reach, and understand that the five-point harness connects in the crotch. (Now drink some pucker-ade and eat a cookie).

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

That's My Dad

My dad had a heart attack. It was six years ago, but sometimes it sticks in my brain like it just happened. Every now and again, something triggers the memories of that day, like a song or a movie, but other times it just pops into my brain like an uninvited cousin and her weird obnoxious son who doesn't wear shoes that you didn't invite in the first place.

Luckily, I guess, I just happened to be staying at my parent's house that night. My wife and I had just driven ten hours to get there. We were beat and already in bed, starting to drift of to sleepy-land. Mom yelled something down the stairs. I didn't hear her at first, but my wife made out the words "hospital" and "chest pains." I darted to the stairs, praising the people at Bayer for pounding their commercials into my head. "I'll be up in two seconds," I hollered back, "give him some aspirin." My wife was dressed and ready to go before I could even think about finding some pants.

Throughout my high school years, each and every morning, I felt like Gilligan. Why? Well, because every day, on his way out the door, my dad would stop in my room and wake me up with a gentle, "Hey, little buddy, it's time to get up." Like a stupid teenager, I made fun of
it, never doing it, but always wanting to respond with a "five more minutes, Skipper." Never to his face, that would hurt his feelings, but to my mom and my sister, the gloves were off. "Why in the world does he call me little buddy?" I'd complain. Finally, Mom snapped,
"He doesn't get to see much of you." With his ridiculous commute and long hours, she was right. "He asked me if he could be the one that wakes you up; it's important to him." I stopped mocking and complaining.

Mom wanted me to drive. I was calm and she was starting to panic. She must have told me thirty-seven times that I was driving, that she couldn't handle it, but when I ran back down to the basement to get something stupid like my wallet or cell phone or something I don't even remember what, using up precious time, she hopped in the driver's seat and started the car up. She never relinquished control, even though the whole way there she kept talking about pulling over and letting me take the wheel. It was a white knuckle ride the whole way, mom paying more attention to dad, asking him over and over and over how he was doing, how he felt, if he was okay. She was paying about as much attention to the road, the other cars, and those pesky little traffic laws as a hyperactive pre-teen does to his teacher when there's a bird outside the window. The exact same drive I took every day, from my parents house to my college (just a few miles past the hospital), was suddenly very different. I felt helpless. I wanted to be in that driver's seat.

I bought my first car without actually knowing how to drive it, I hadn't learned yet how to drive stick. Dad promised to teach me. My first manual transmission lesson, I sat down in my car. My dad showed me the gears, explained the clutch, and demonstrated how to shift. I
was ready to start. Shifting into reverse to back out, easing off the clutch, and slowly giving just a little gas, I stalled it. The car lurched forward a way I didn't know that cars could move.

"It's okay," Dad encouraged, "try again, you'll get the touch in no time."

Shift, ease, gas. Stall. Lurch.

"Don't get discouraged. Everyone has a hard time at first," Dad urged.

Shift. Ease. Gas. Stall. Lurch.


Shift. Ease. Gas. Stall. Lurch.

"Okay, maybe you should let me try it. You can watch and see what I do"

I jumped out of the car and my dad and I switched spots.

Shift. Ease. Gas. Stall. Lurch.

"It's okay, dad, don't get discouraged."

"What the heck is wrong here?" Dad questioned.

After about forty-five minutes of futzing (his word, not mine) around with that stupid little car, Dad was getting mighty irritated. With his foot on the clutch and the car in neutral, we started to roll backwards out of the driveway, but with some kind of Superdad lightening quick reaction power, he slammed the car into first gear, turned the key, popped the clutch, and jammed the gas pedal. I expected that the car would stall again, but it shot forward like a stallion with a horsefly hovering around his rear. I guess Dad wasn't expecting that either, because he'd nearly shot us right into the side of the garage.

Earlier that night, when my wife and I had first arrived, we all sat up in the living room talking, joking, laughing. One of the last things I remember Dad saying that night was reading aloud from one of those wacky t-shirt catalogs - "They say I have ADD, but I don't thi... Ooooo, look, a chicken." He, being the king of the short attention span, found that one hysterical. Still, looking back with that hindsight thing being what it is, he didn't seem himself at all that night.

Every family gathering, every neighborhood party, every barbecue, picnic, camp out, or conference, my dad is the one telling the jokes. He's always got a showstopper in his pocket. He thinks they're hilarious, and I haven't figured out if I'm the only one that finds him funny and everyone else is polite, or if he really is the laugh riot he believes he is. I really don't think it matters either way, he'll tell them anyway. My mom calls them groaners and asks people to
not encourage him, but he doesn't need encouragement, he just needs an audience. My childhood memories are polka dotted with occasions when he pulled out the big boy, his favorite, every time he told it, he'd start to snicker and giggle to himself before the punchline came. That laugh was infectious, soon everyone was hootin' and hollerin' and they had no idea why, which made it even funnier.

We arrived at the hospital, in one piece no less. My mom pulled up into the ambulance bay and I ran around to take over. I'd park the car while she walked dad in. By the time I got inside, they were all set up in their little curtain area. Dad was hooked up to about fifty-two machines, bleeps and blips and big red digital numbers and tubes and wires, like a whirlwind of chaotic confusion, going every which way. Mom, already teetering on the edge of full-blown-tizzyville, began to get me going. Each change on the readout screen sent me into high alert. My sister showed up in such a panic that the nurse threatened to remove her. It was those moments
that my admiration grew for two very brave people: My dad, who continued to joke around, his way of dealing with stress and an attempt to keep us all calm; and my wife, who's level head and medical background gave us all a voice of reason, patiently giving us a bleep/blip play by play in the compassionate way the doctors didn't have time for.

One particularly Barbie-ficated Christmas morning that I can still picture, my dad and my uncle, hip deep in Dreamhouse bits and magic kitchen pieces, exasperated, stressed, and laughing - each confusing step in the not-so-kid-simple instruction book causing them to survey the room full of pink chaos around them and shout that morning's sarcastic mantra, "Some Assembly Required." Some Assembly Required became a running gag for those two, a trailer hitch, steaks on the grill, a new bike, a crib for his grand-daughter, the finished basement they worked on... were all met with the same catch phrase, "Some Assembly Required."

After about half an hour lying in the emergency room, in the middle of a bad joke, his eyes rolled back in his head, eye-lids fluttering, chest convulsing, arms waving. My mom started
screaming, "Mike stop it. Mike, it's not funny, stop it." At first, we all thought the eye rolling and the convulsing was him goofing around. It took the blips and the bleeps, blippin' and bleepin' with no more rhyme or reason, just frantic, piercing bedlam, to make it real. Doctors and nurses and the like came rushing in there like a pack of malnourished rotwiellers pouncing on a McDLT.

Helpless. That's not a word I could have ever used to describe my dad, except once. When my sister was getting married, we had a bachelor party for my soon to be brother-in-law. The whole gang was going to play paintball, and, of course, Dad was invited. I don't recall if anyone expected him to take us up on the invite, but I distinctly remember thinking about a little revenge on the paintball field for a few unjustified groundings and the like. Teams that day were randomly selected, and of course, I was on the opposite side as my old man. Yes, I thought, a Mr. Burns style "excellent" playing in my brain. Now, this paintball course was out in the woods, densely forested, lots of shrubs and heavy brush covered the ground, and I was doing my best GI Joe maneuvers to sneakily get myself to the front line. There was a small, but incredibly muddy ravine, with a little creek meandering through it, dividing our side from theirs. When I got up there, I saw Dad. The man who represented strength, stability, courage, and honor to me, right there for me to shoot. Before I had a chance, he slipped and fell, sliding ten feet down the slippery slope, into the creek bed. The muck sucked his feet in and he couldn't seem to right himself. By then he was in his late fifties, so a fall like that wasn't a bounce back and keep running kind of fall. Hidden away in the bushes, I felt that moment of helplessness with him as he tried to get back up. My brain debated with itself for a half of a half of a second, wondering if I should help him, shoot him, or stay hidden and let him keep his pride. Before I could make a decision, a friend, one on Dad's team, bounded down the incline and pulled my pop out of the creek, helping him to the top of the slimey, rain-soaked ridge. Once he was safe, I popped out and shot them both. It was awesome.

The doctors needed room. The nurses, very fond of helping the doctors achieve that space, kicked us out. We were shooed away like cats drawn to the can opener. We wanted to stay, but we weren't wanted in return. I remember my sister bawling and holding my mom, then they
were gone. I know they didn't just vanish, but they were just gone. I tried to back away, I didn't want to be in the way, but my legs wouldn't cooperate. I recall, at least in my head, very calmly
saying, "That's my dad," and falling to the floor. My wife pulled me to my feet and dragged me out of there.

My dad has about a million stories about stupid, but incredibly funny things that he did as a kid. The idiotic trouble that a teenage boy and his friends can get into, that was passed down to me from him, only, I think he was worse than me. He grew up in a different state than we live in, moving away to get a fresh start in his twenties. My mom kept him here, which was good for me, but I've never gotten to see my dad in his element. One time, and one time only, have I ever seen him with his buddies. We visited some family, and made it a point to have breakfast with his pal, Bruce. That morning, I saw the ME in my dad, or the HIM in me. A different element, a different time and place, a different man. The waffles were just barely on this side of okay, but that breakfast changed everything. I suddenly understood who my dad was.

Out in the waiting room, totally unaware of what was going on back in curtain number three, we prayed. My mom begged us to take a knee with her and say some words. I don't remember what was said or how long we sat there, still in shock, I stared at the door back into the emergency room, hoping someone would come out soon and tell us what was happening. A nurse or an orderly or a receptionist, I don't know what she was, but she wore scrubs and looked official enough, she came over to us and sincerely apologized. "I'm sorry," two simple words,
two small, powerful words and that was it, that was her telling me my dad was gone. Her telling me that my kids would have no grandpa. That my mom was all alone. That I'd never hear those groaner jokes again.

My wife asked what happened and it turned out that Scrubbie the Tactless Buffoon was apologizing for us having to witness what we had. She had no more idea than we did what was going on back there. Totally out of control, I laid into her. How dare she come over here and say "sorry" to people in that situation, did she have no sense in her head. I went on for a while, probably making her cry, but definitely teaching her a valuable lesson. Later, I felt bad that I'd talked to her that way, but my mom, my sister, and my wife told me not to, she'd deserved it.

I saw my dad cry once. I was in college. He'd been laid off about a year earlier and had struggled a bit, trying his hand at sales. It was something he'd always wanted to give a shot, but it just wasn't working out. I'll never forget my mom's reaction to a few years of just not cutting it, "Your father really wants to try this. He thinks he'll do well because he's a people person, but he won't. He's too honest and kind. He's too good a man." One day he came home, I was walking into the garage as he was getting out of his car. He wasn't due home for hours, so I asked. My mom must have known already, cuz she was waiting in the doorway. He couldn't, or wouldn't, look at me. He had tears in his eyes. I looked to my mom, and she shooed me away. Letting Dad pass me, I left. He felt like a failure that day, like he'd let his family down. I had never been happier that he was my dad. I had never seen him as more of a man.

We waited forever. Tired of the waiting room, we wandered. The chapel, the gift shop, the vending machines, random hallways. Just waiting.

When my niece was born, my sister wasn't in great shape. There were complications, and I don't know if anybody ever explained them well enough to me for me to comprehend exactly what was going on. To this day, I don't know if my sister or her daughter were in danger, and to be honest, I don't really care. All that matters is they're both fine today. My sister, one of my best friends, still offering advice. My niece, who may possibly be the loudest human being on the planet - showing us all that evolution may very well make the microphone unnecessary - getting ready to celebrate birthday number four. The day she was born, the whole family was gathered at the hospital waiting, Dad more excited than anybody. We sat in a little area down the hall from my sister's room, and each and every time a doctor, someone who looked like a doctor, or anyone wearing white appeared in the hall, Dad stood up in anticipation. Finally, Emmy was born. You should have seen the look of incredible pride and unmeasurable joy on his face when he held her the first time.

Eventually, the doctor emerged. A man with posture so good that I have to interrupt this story to remark on the rigidness of his spine. You could have used his vertebrae to measure if you're hanging shelves straight, that's how good his posture was. Anyway, he, in a very professional and straight-forward way, let us know what was going on. I don't remember all the technical mumbo-jumbo, or which artery was all gunked up and which was one partially full o' goop, I only
remember him telling us that Dad was going to be okay. A simple angioplasty would lead to more waiting and worrying and praying and aimless hallway wandering, but he'd be alright. And he is.

That was the worst and the best day of my entire life. So many more memories have happened since. The zoo with his granddaughter. World travels with my mom. Enjoying his retirement by getting a job. Friends, family, the people who are glad he's still with us. More jokes, moments of him lost in his own little world like he tends to do, the stress and excitement of football Sundays, declining a second invite to play paintball, playing his guitar to watch Emmy dance, the tears in his eyes when he found out he'd be Grandpa squared. Strength. Courage. Hope. Love.

If this was his story, he'd tell you a joke. He'd probably tell the one about the little Native American boy. Back in the pre-PC days it was a joke about an Indian boy, but I'll play by the rules. The little boy was curious about something, so he went to ask his father. His father was the wisest and bravest in the whole tribe, so when the little fella wondered about anything, Dad had an answer. "Father, where do we get our names?" he asked.

"Well, son, when your sister was born, it was early morning. I held her in my arms, emerged from the tee pee and saw a running deer. Her name became Running Deer. When your brother was born, I emerged from the tee pee and saw a strong buffalo. That became his name. Often
times, we name our children after what we see in the moments after they're born. Why do you ask, Pooping Moose?"

That's my dad.

Sorry, I wasn't feeling funny today, but if you want, you can still vote for me for Humor Blogger of the Year by clicking here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Only Thing Better Than Chicken Pot Pie is Deep Fried Chicken Pot Pie With Bacon

I've reached the point in my life -- with a kid and a parental heart attack under my belt -- that I'm really trying to live healthier. I try to eat right. I do a sit-up every now and again. I
read the labels at the grocery store. Okay, I'm still working on the whole concept of portion control, but Saturday I realized I was a lot closer to the right track than I'd previously though. This weekend I had dinner with Cholesterol Jones himself, the walking anti-Richard Simmons sat down and talked with me about his eating habits. I went out to dinner with my pal Rob.

Jim's usually good for a laugh or two, but the other night he had me pretty close to wetting
my pants. I know, I know, peeing your pants is the coolest, but still I tried to stop myself anyway.

A lot of Jim's humor comes from the delivery, so try to imagine this dialogue in a slow paced, dead-pan like a manic depressive Steven Wright.

"So my mom shows me this article she found in some magazine about the ten worst things in the world for you to eat........

There was a long pause during which wondered where in the world this story might be going. Like a june bug in your bedroom in the middle of the night, Jim has a tendency to shoot off in odd directions that no one could anticipate.

"Number one was the Peppridge Farms Chicken Pot Pie... ... ..."

Expecting him to mention the restaurant we were currently sitting in, I definitely wasn't anticipating any talk about pot pie. Why in the word he decided to bring up pot pie, I wasn't certain.

"That's what I had for dinner last night... There was a little picture next to the article in the magazine; it was the same package, the same brand... ... ... ... I mean, what are the odds, that the thing I ate for dinner the night before was the worst thing in the world you could possibly
eat on the day that my mom gives me an article to read about the worst thing you could possible eat?"

"How were things rated?" I inquired, "What was it, a health list or something?"

"Exactly. Fat, cholesterol, calories, sodium..."

"What else was on the list?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't remember all of it. Burger King fries. Burger King chicken tenders..."

"Really? I wonder what makes Burger King fries worse than other fries," I wondered.

"They're nasty," my wife, who does not ever get called to do Burger King commercials, quipped.

"I mean, what are the odds. It's the worst thing in the whole world to eat, and that's what I had for dinner," Jim carried on, his brain all stuck on pot pie the same way the pot pie is probably all jammed up in his arteries. "I mean, it's only this big," he claimed, showing us with his hands that the pot pie was about the size of a pygmy shrew, "it's not a lot of food. How could it be that bad?"

"Well, it's not like you eat those every day," I consoled.

"Yeah, but that's not all I had."

"What else did you have?" I asked, imagining Mr. Anti-Vegetable may have complimented the pot pie with some sort of potato concoction or maybe a bread product.

"I had some tacos," Jim admitted, pulling that one so far out of left field that even the left fielder got smacked in the head cuz he didn't see it coming.

"You ate tacos and chicken pot pie?"

"Yeah, it's small and it took a whole hour to cook, and I had some left over taco meat that I wanted to use up."

"So you had tacos as an appetizer?"

"Yeah, kind of. I guess you could call it an appetizer."

"How many tacos did you have?"

"How many tacos would you think?"

"Well, when we have tacos I usually eat four or five, so I'm guessing, since tacos were just your warm-up, you had three."

There was no response, just a look. A look that said, what are you crazy? Three tacos, that's nothing.


Crazy look.


The same look, only with a hint of exasperation. I remember back in the day, Jim used to eat a ten pack of Taco Bell tacos and still have room for a bag of fun sized Kit Kat bars, two liters of Coke 2, and the hind quarters of a spit-roasted hippopotamus, but that was in high school, there's no way he could still eat like that. "Six tacos?"

Jim gave me this big goony bird smile that was so crazy it made the Cheshire Cat look sane.

"Six tacos and a chicken pot pie? What, losing your touch?" I sarcastically chided. "Didn't you have any rice or beans to go with it?"

"And a bag of chips with salsa."

The look of shock and amazement stood in place of me asking, "What the...?"

"While I was waiting for the pound of meat to cook. Just to tide me over," he explained.

Apparently having said enough about the feast of the century that Jim calls a light supper, he transitioned into a story about his latest trip to the doctor.

"I went to the doctor earlier this week too... I have this whole long list of things that are wrong with me and none of them are taken care of... He didn't do anything..."

"What's wrong?" I dared to ask.

"Well... my left ear is all clogged up, so he gave me this spray to shoot up my nose. Then there's the problem with my eye..."

"Wait," I interrupted, "your ear is clogged up, so he gave you nose spray?"

"Yeah, apparently it's all connected in there. I'm supposed to shoot it up my nose and the gunk will plop outta my ear."

I was still trying not to picture, but to at least understand the ear/nose caverns that allow this to happen, but Jim had moved on.

"Then, there's the fact that I go to the bathroom all the time... I'm afraid to even go to the movies... I go to the bathroom like every hour..."

Suddenly there was no more eye contact, Jim's gaze just kinda drifted off towards the floor, down and to the right.

"The doctor said he didn't think there was anything he could do about that... but he wanted to .... check my prostate just in case..."

"You're only thirty-five. I didn't think you had to do that until you're forty," I wondered.

"Fifty... so I have to drop the drawers... it was very uncomfortable... then he pushed it in even deeper... I didn't like it... and I told the doctor that... 'Bigger stuff comes out of there,' he told me... 'Yeah, but that's coming out... it was designed with out in mind.'... ... ... 'Everyone says that,' the doc said... ... ... 'Yeah, and besides the other stuff is soft... not like fingers... ... ... and I wasn't even bent over a table... ... ... I was just laying there in the fetal position... ... ... very
uncomfortable... ... ... I don't know if it got all stretched out, but I was walking funny the rest of the day... ... ... I hope it goes back... ... ... ... I have a whole new world of admiration for gay
guys... ... ... I wonder if they enjoy going to the bathroom... ... ... ... ... ... at least they seem to walk normal."

The eye contact snapped back. "I also got all this blood work done. A cholesterol test and a bunch of other stuff."

"Your cholesterol was probably around 900."

"It was a little high."

"So you went home and ate six tacos and a chicken pot pie to celebrate?"

"And some chips and salsa... ... ... I really got to start eating healthier."

There was a big sigh and what could only be described as a contemplative pause. Mid life-style rumination, the waitress came over. Jim asked if he could add bacon to his chili-cheeseburger. The looks my wife and I gave him made him feel the need to defend his order, "Hey, I survived the pot pie, and that was the worst thing you can eat."

I sure would appreciate a vote for HumorBlogger of the Year.