Showing posts with label wisdom. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wisdom. Show all posts

25 June 2014

Skid Marks (for Carole Langrall)

I thought I'd lighten it up a little, and get away from all that deep thinking, wading around in shallow waters.

My dad got me my first real job when I was fifteen. It wasn't my idea, but he obviously thought it was high time I didn't spend my summer idle, and I was getting too old for camp. I was going to start boarding school in the fall. Boy needed some life lessons. So he cooked it up with Mrs. McCartney to hire me at her garage.

Some back story. Hazel McCartney and her husband Sewell left a small town in Maine and came down to Cambridge, Mass., during the Depression. They started their business on a shoestring, but made out. Then, a few years later, from what I hear, he decided he didn't like it in the city, and went back upcountry. She stayed.

S.H. McCartney's was a fixture, outside of Harvard Square. Everybody used it for car repair, and I remember getting air for my bike tires there from the time I was off training wheels. It wasn't an unfamiliar work environment. What was unfamiliar was work.

The shop floor itself was guys, entirely guys, and tough working-class guys, Irish, Italians, Polacks. [Years later, I wrote a story called "The Blue Mirror," and used one of my personal heroes, Stanley Kosciusko, who survived the bombing raids over the Ploesti oil fields in WWII, but cancer killed him, in the end. He was the body man, not a mechanic. It's a special skill set.] They didn't treat me too rough, even though I was the FNG, and just a kid, but they didn't baby me along, either. Nobody sent me to find a left-handed wrench, or some other tom-fool errand, but they expected me to sink or swim, and get up to speed. I thought they were awesome. It was the first time I'd been put in a situation where everybody knew their business back to front. They were professionals. They could lean down and listen to an engine running, and tell you all it needed was a new set of points. To me, it was a different world.

Now. Mrs. McCartney. I think, by then, she must have been into her early sixties. And here in her shop, you have this overwhelmingly male presence, all of them people who knew their stuff, but I never heard a disrespectful word from any of them, in or out of her hearing. She came to work at 7 AM, and slipped into a white duster. We had a uniform service, so all the guys wore coveralls with their name over the pockets. I got a set of my own, too, after a month on the job. The boss had her name stitched to her uniform. It read MRS. MAC, and that's what we all called her. She was, maybe, the iron hand in the velvet glove, or more to the point, the iron hand in the iron glove. I admired her beyond words. If you asked me who my first and strongest role model was, I'd have to say it was her.

Now, a digression. Or not. Anybody who's ever run a small business knows that it stays afloat on endless paperwork, invoicing and payroll, tax liabilities, all that crap. So aside from the mechanics working on the floor, and the body shop, and the parts department, the nuts and bolts, no pun intended, there was an office upstairs, and it was run by a gal who was the first true Butch I'd ever consciously met. Not that I snapped to it, then. She was a chain-smoker, Camels or Luckies, and she smoked them down until the ashes fell behind her teeth. She was an intimidating figure. I didn't know at the time that she and Mrs. Mac owned a house together. What used to be called a Boston marriage. I have no idea what went on between the two of them, outside of work, and it's none of my business. The point is that Mrs. Mac trusted this woman absolutely, to handle the money end. Their relationship, in that sense, was transparent.

So we fast-forward about ten years. I'd dropped out of college, I'd been in the military, I'd had my heart broken. I slink back to my hometown, Cambridge, Mass., licking my wounds. I take my mom's car into Mrs. Mac's, and the first thing, she offers me a job. She needs a front-end guy. I say yes, don't even think about it. She wants somebody who knows their ass from a hole in the ground, and I need a comfort zone. I start the next day.

Here's the deal. Every morning I come in at 7, and take over from the night guy, Harry Truman, who's there to keep things safe. ('Mr. Truman.' she calls him, carefully formal. The only black guy on the payroll. Not somebody who tugs his forelock, either. Along with Stanley, another of my private heroes.) Then the shop foreman hands me the day's tickets. Out front, we got maybe fifty cars, stacked up with only enough room to get to the gas pumps. My job is to rearrange those cars. Which ones go to the tire station, who's in for an oil change, who has to get on the lift for a muffler job. You know that little hand-held puzzle, from when we were kids? It's a plastic pad, with thirty-five tiles, and thirty-six spaces, so you've only got one empty space, and you have to shuffle the tiles around and get 'em in order. Sort of a two-dimensional Rubik. Not all that hard. But that's what I did in the parking lot, first thing in the morning, shift the cars and line up the customers for the shop, by work order. Who's on First? Not rocket science, but attention to detail. If a hole opened up on the shop floor, you wanted to fill it.

Mind you, this place was right on Mass. Ave., and there were gas pumps, so I'm the gas jockey, too, and basically your first point of contact. I'm representing, not my strong point, I admit. I caught some odd details. There was a grocery store, right next door, for example, and this woman comes, threading between the cars, and she's got a three-year-old boy in tow, baffled, and a girl, six or seven, who's scrubbing her eyes and collapsing in tears. Not hysterics, although the mom's near crazy. "I think she must have touched a pepper in the supermarket, and rubbed her eyes." I reach over a car and scoop the kid up and get her into the bathroom, and have her splash water in her face. The mom is right behind me, wringing her hands. It passes. I give the little girl some soap, to clean up. Everybody takes a deep breath. The kid, her face red, a little embarrassed, I guess, thanks me. Her brother is looking at me with enormous eyes, like, What just happened? Their mom is of course relieved. Not that serious. The kids are okay, nobody's delinquent, she's not a bad mother, her daughter's not going to go blind. Today's good deed.

Then there was the bum.
  Because we were on the main drag, there was a lot of foot traffic, as well as cars going by. College kids, hippies, street musicians, office workers, stoners, who knows? Jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts the fashion. It was a parade. Hell, it was a zoo. I mean, come on, this was back in the day, everybody smoking dope and careless of the future. We thought we were the heroes of the Revolution.
  And this one particular morning, a guy shows up, somewhere past fifty, but hard to tell, the mileage on his tires. Burned brown as walnut, clothes worn but clean, not walking wounded. You get a read on people. He might have been down on his luck, but he had self-respect. He asks me if he can use the Men's Room.
  Well, okay. I hesitated. And then I thought, gimme a break. He's just a guy on his uppers. I say sure.
  Goes in, takes a leak, cleans up after himself, washes his face, doesn't piss on the seat. We're cool. He comes out, thanks me for the kindness, and then as he's going out the door, he turns back and flashes me this enormous grin.
  "It's a great life if you don't weaken," he says.

I think about that encounter. I think about it a lot. What if you didn't have a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of? And what if some kid in a gas station paid you the courtesy of treating you like you weren't some piece of gum on his shoe? You could be there.
  It's a great life if you don't weaken.

20 May 2012


Dixon's stealth article Silence is Golden reminded me of men I grew up around, the last of the naturally rugged. Many came through WW-II one way or another, and more than a handful didn't much like what they'd seen of man's treatment of man while others were determined to do something about it.

The Right Reverend

One of the latter was Reverend Sommers. This kindly man liked working with boys– a phrase that didn't have the taint it does in today's world of paedophilic hysteria. I think he liked getting out of the house– he raised three brilliant, beautiful daughters, Treva, Trilby, and Aloha, and in a house of four females, he may have felt the need to top off the testosterone tank.

Don't let the 'Reverend' fool you. He never committed the sin of evangelizing nor did he let religion get in the way of doing the right thing. Lloyd Sommers was a retired preacher and professional printer– his hands were permanently stained from printers ink– and collected arcane knowledge and odd acquaintances like other guys collect baseball cards. He co-led Boy Scout troop 222, got involved with myriad community projects, and could cook up a fund-raiser on the smell of an oil-rag.

He loved to talk. I don't remember many of his lectures because I was counting fingers. He had the speakers' habit of emphasizing numbers by holding up fingers… except the digits he held up never matched the numbers in his speech. He would say, "You must remember three things…" and he might hold up two fingers or four, but never three.

What does this have to do with Dixon's article on stealth? I'm getting there.

Those Who Know

One of the great assets of Rev. Sommers was the unusual array of people he knew. Most were men, but a few were women. After we boys finished our mile swim and lifeguard training with a beautiful, deeply tanned woman, Sommers asked us to guess how old she was. Fourteen-year-old boys didn't have a clue, but she seemed an ancient 35 or 40. Nope, the lady was in her mid-70s and could out-swim any of us.

But the men… these were men who lived off the grid long before there was a grid or a name for it. They weren't People Magazine people but Argosy with pages from Popular Mechanics. They weren't antisocial, but they preferred their own company.

Some were expert bow hunters. The State of Indiana had (and may still have) a two-week deer season for bow hunters followed by two more weeks for solid-slug shotgun hunters. Bow hunters were so good– remember this was before the compound bow– that bang hunters lobbied for the seasons to be reversed: they claimed bow hunters thinned the herds before they got their shot.

Borderline and sometimes actual hermits, some of these men would go to ground in winter and emerge in spring looking as if they'd hibernated those few months. Some carved birds indistinguishable from Audubon paintings. A few were self-taught machinists who could build engines from scratch. Others collected 'points' and 'birdstones' meaning arrowheads, spear tips, and a type of sling or throwing stone Indians used to bring down birds.

This might be hard for people to understand, but the interesting part wasn't what they did, but what they knew.

Parental Guidance Suggested

I need to add my father to the list of male influence. At 6'4 and 230 pounds of muscle– he once lifted out a tractor stuck in mud– he was gentle with children. Animals trusted him. Women loved him.

A note about my mother: As World War II ended, rationing was still in effect when my parents married. They were farmers, but they refused to cheat. While their fruits and vegetables came straight from the orchard, most farmers and ranchers felt they didn't deserve better than soldiers or city folk.

My newlywed mother struggled to put meals on the table until she remembered her carbine. From time to time, she supplemented rations with squirrel and rabbit, pheasant and quail. Don't mess with my mother.
He had no patience with cruelty or waste– if you hunted, you ate what you killed.

Although he owned a couple of shotguns, he disdained them. He insisted if you couldn't bring a duck down with a rifle instead of a scatter gun, you shouldn't be hunting. After one 'hunter' from the city proudly offered Dad a brace of rabbits he'd nailed with a 20 gauge, Dad drawled, "Thoughtful of you to strip the meat off." Later he muttered, "Gives a whole new meaning to choke."

You've seen movies and television where the hero sets a tin can or bottle on a fencepost for target practice. Not for Dad. He lined up spent .22 shells on a fence post. "That's your target, son. Don't miss."

He didn't 'collect' guns, but he accumulated a few: Spencer and Marlin and Remington and a couple of octagonal barrel antiques. Between Dad and the mentors provided by Rev. Sommers, we learned to disassemble and reassemble Colts, Springfields, and even an M-1… blindfolded. It's not as hard as it sounds, but they felt 'field-stripping' was important to learn.

I'm woefully ignorant when it comes to modern (semi)automatics and frankly the idea of a Glock without a safety scares me. But one day if I meet up with David, Dixon, or RT, perhaps they might teach me the basics.

Shades of Sherlock

I value a comment from a New Yorker who said "Leigh can talk with anyone, banker or biker, Wall Street, Main Street, or Park Avenue." It goes hand-in-hand with a philosophy I do my best to remember, that everyone in some way is my superior.

Back to these quiet men: One was a 'deer stalker'. Squirrels would descend from trees and climb on his shoulders, poking their noses into pockets of his flannel shirt. He was good with animals, but his true art was silent stalking. Through a fringe of trees, he could slip up on an unsuspecting doe and stroke her back or slap the rump of a surprised buck.
A note about animals: In the country and in the wild, people are often obligated to aid injured animals– a fox, a rabbit, a cow in breech-birth. It's surprising how often animals– even wild animals– will trust a human– perhaps a demi-god to them– especially when they're in great pain. It's possible the story of Androcles and the Lion has a factual basis.

Unlike humans, animals given over to trusting a human almost never scream but simply endure. It's amazing to me.

The Indian Brave

I have distant Algonquin blood, as my parents sometimes reminded me usually when it came to braving pain. Physical pain I can tough out– it's emotional pain that's my weakness. In a hospital or on a roller coaster, I can't stand males who scream.

But we kids tried to learn from the handful of old Indians. They called most of us, me included, 'heel walkers'. They meant we clomped through brush like a marching drill team, clapping heel down first. Dixon's article describes how to 'toe' the ground and then rock the rest of the foot into place. The rule is: quick isn't quiet.


I'll add another point to Dixon's article. My sense of smell isn't terrific, but mentors hammered home the point that humans stink. It might be a good scent or a bad stench, but humans emanate body odors like few other animals.

The effect is worse in forest or field, but odor can be a give-away even in an urban setting. A seductive perfume, the manly aftershave, that new 'fresh scent' deodorant can make one's presence known. My ability to smell may be attenuated, but even I can detect cigarette smoke in parts-per-billion.

It's not merely colognes and unwashed bodies. In tense situations, breath turns sour and sweat floods the skin. If terrified, the very frightened may not be able to maintain control over the bladder and bowels. It just happens.

When sexually excited, pheromones change again. How that might be used in a mystery, I don't know, but there you have it.

In the meantime, shhh