Time left on the clock

A faceless city sandwiched between equally dull, non-descript neighburbs, all working-class in the shadow of industrial giants, Hammond, Indiana was generic, before the meaningless word had meaning.  Separated from lurid Calumet City, the Illinois home to 252 bars and strip clubs, by State Line Avenue and a tangent on the Rand McNally atlas.  From the playwright’s perspective, Thornton Wilder, Hammond was Our Town.

The writer, Sinclair Lewis, would have gagged on the polluted air from the Sinclair refinery, from the belching furnaces of USSteel, from the omnipresent aroma of pig fat rendered by Lever Brothers when the wind drifted south off Lake Michigan, all in the name of battleships, Lifebuoy Soap, Ivory Flakes, and 89 octane Dino Supreme.  Had this been Lewis’  Main Street in Indiana, and not Iowa.


The corner window at Goldblatt’s
presented the newest toys for the Holiday Season.  In Jean Shepherd’s ‘Christmas Story’, it is where Ralphie first saw the Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun.

The 1957 high school graduating class was thought special.  It was not.  Tens of thousands of seniors, everywhere, were gelatinized by geographic lottery, turbulent hormones, acne, fear of peer rejection, sexual arousal, and a license to drive.  So it was at HHS, neither a Blackboard Jungle, nor the Fonz in ‘Happy Days’.  Each class different, each class alike;  crinolines, flattops, bobby sox, and the Cubs finishing last.

Homeroom teacher, John Muri, spirited organist for the Civic Center basketball games, iconclast, strict disciplinarian, was known to break wind at 8:10 each morning.  The foul odor was overcome by the classroom stench of  flesh-tinted Clearasil except for the likable Jerome Johnson, whose flesh was a different color.

The permanent positive effect of demure spinster, teacher Margaret Work, and her devotion to Latin and literacy, was never acknowledged.  It shaped many lives, mine included, and I still retain her text, Ullman & Henry, “Latin for Americans”.  She was on my Mason Street paper route, but what I remember most, (a) the difference between the gerund and thirty forms of the future passive participle, and (b) we bought her father’s used 1940 DeSoto after WWII.  Henry had purchased a 1948 bullet nosed Studebaker.

The suppressed memory of my favorite English teacher, Miss Ellen McGranahan, whose posterior aspect of her calves, partially obscured by seamed nylon hosiery, resembled the blue and red interstate map of America’s east coast.  She quietly and singly, urged me to become a writer.  I succumbed, however, to the gruff math teacher, Charles Garrett, who demanded, in the name of patriotism, that we study math and engineering to counteract the Red Menace……the Soviet launched Sputnik satellite.  I foresaw no future in starvation;  on an empty stomach, science trumped art.

Proof that staying awake in class was important; to this day, I rarely end a sentence with the preposition, at, and never, never, modify an adjective with an adjective, e.g., large huge is where it’s at.  Unless you prefer butchered rap music over silence.

I had one favorite female class member, admired secretly.  She was quiet, soft-spoken, and very smart.  And in the basest, understated description, simmering hot.  If describing a wallflower, she was an orchid.  At a previous reunion, perhaps the 40th, her appearance caused two male counterparts and me to audibly gasp at the transformation…silver-haired, petite, and stunning. Although both Bob and Tom, their real names, have since dropped dead, the gorgeous (forever unnamed) classmate was never formally charged with involuntary manslaughter.


Much of the class of ’57, I remember, although in the pie of life, a third now constitute the necrology report, another third lost and forgotten, and for the breathing balance, the vagaries of advanced age move onto center stage; medicare part-D, dementia, grandchildren, mobility chairs, and assisted living options.  Few will choose assisted dying.

Dismissed: corporate stature & titles, tax bracket, size or number of homes, skin color, popularity, vanity.  All once relegated as important, now insignifigant, they’ve become the compost heap of righteousness, i.e., who really gives a s#it.     Relevant: family, friendships, lucidity, and remaining vertical.

The misses, Work and McGranahan, embraced reading (and writing), pursuits which have become passe, no longer a requirement for graduation.  Both ladies have since been bar-coded and scanned on the check-out lane of life, free, free at last, from the contemporary jargon that produces the idiotic phrase “my bad”. I miss them dearly, thankful for enriching this life.   A non-perishable memory.  Wherever and whenever those who survived this stepping stone to adulthood, we all possess private recollections.

With an internet assist, our remaining classmate leaders, those not yet at room temperature, may plan a 60th reunion in 2017.   Reunions, like Chai tea, are not my cup of gin, but we’re late in the 4th quarter.

With no time outs remaining.

Count me in as a yes.




A suitable quote (unattributed)

Where is it again that we are going… And why are we in a handbasket?




A set of Balls…..& Margaret Truman

Welcome to the central Indiana supermarket tabloid for a love story….a tissue won’t be necessary.  The Balls, all five of them, are the renowned brothers from Muncie, Indiana, who created a financial empire selling glass canning jars.

George Ball, on the right, the last to survive, died in 1955 at age 93.

Their philanthropy and devotion to community embraced every cultural element within the city, most prominently the establishment of Ball State University whose most notable graduates are David Letterman (class of 1969), Jim Davis, cartoonist creator of Garfield the Cat® (class of 1966), and the irritating John Schnatter; founder, CEO, and blabbermouth for Papa John’s© Pizza.

Should you wonder how this celeb A-list might be confused with the 3rd tier status of presidential offspring, please continue.  Surely you’re thinking Lynda Bird and Luci Baines Johnson, Caroline Kennedy, Trish and Julie Nixon, Chelsea Clinton, and the forgettable twins, Jenna and Barbara Bush.

None, however, approached the talent or intellect of Margaret Truman, George Washington University, class of 1946, member of ΠΒΦ, the only child of 33rd president Harry Truman and wife Bess.  Neither homely nor glamorous, she was an accomplished vocalist.  No threat to her contemporaries, Maria Callas or Beverly Sills, she was still very good, and even better as a mystery novelist.


At age 32, Margaret married Clifton Daniel, age 44, a prominent staff member of the New York Times.  Together they raised four sons in her adopted, beloved Manhattan.  Easy to eschew her original, show-me, hometown, Independence, MO.  Then in 1973, Clifton’s career took a dastardly turn as the Times promoted him to Washington DC bureau chief.  Margaret was furious, as her years in the White House created a contempt for the society within the beltway, and refused to move.  She would need to have a car, which she also detested, having done well without one in Gotham City.

So, enter the New York Times largesse; they purchase a new 1973 Mercedes-Benz, a plain jane, entry level, 4 door sedan for Margaret, to assuage (think WD-40 for the soul) her resistance to the move.  Clearly, a bribe.  She relented.

This confluence of events leads me, along with my loyal canine companion, Jack, to Muncie to examine/appraise this very vehicle.  Aha, you may be thinking, the Seinfeld episode, where George Costanza buys a ratty, Chrysler K-car convertible which he believes was once owned by the B-grade actor, Jon Voight (best known as the biological father of Angelina Jolie, whoever she is).  Good comedy, crummy car.

Celebrity ownership, at any level, has little to zero effect on a car’s value.  The car is inorganic, like an Airstream, and has no individual or institutional memory.  It doesn’t know who owns it, its brand, logo, or have feelings, headaches, or memories of the ‘good times’.  Yes. I’m being harsh, but stuff a sock in it.  The notable exceptions, special order models; e.g. Clark Gable, James Dean, Steve McQueen, Elvis can command a premium.

Not so for Margaret (nee, Truman) Daniel’s sedan, but oh what a sweet example.  Now with its 4th owner, an elderly, respected Muncie barber, it has a verified 30,640 miles on a rust-free chassis with impeccable maintenance history.  Think of that, < 800 miles/yr, over a lifespan of forty years, with an all original pearlweiss exterior (off white) and schwarz mb-vinyl tex interior (black), always garaged, exhibiting few blemishes.

Aside from minimal factory upgrades; laminated tinted glass, power steering, automatic transmission, Behr® air-conditioning (not working), and Becker® AM/FM radio, it is free of those costly and needless options; power windows, power seats, power antenna, cruise control, sun roof, the very trinkets which become wallet shrinkers.


The classic 114 chassis, 280 sedan, fog lamps at the ready

Muncie, Indiana, 28Nov2012

So tonight, Jack and I will raise a toast, with our favorite malted beverage, a Steigel lager,  and a hardy Prost !! to Margaret Truman, an intellectual giant among the precocious White House dwellers.  Her decision to join Clifton in DC, was amply rewarded, as they returned to NYC in 1976.   Mr. Daniel wrote in his volume of reminiscences in 1984, ”We were the kind of people who wouldn’t marry anybody our mothers wouldn’t approve of; a couple of citified small-towners, puritans among the fleshpots.”

The future of the sedan, in limbo, stay tuned.  Tonight, any pizza except Papa John’s.


Right place, right time

As I recall, a warm winter day, 2007, in mountainous rural Arizona a few miles from the border to Mexico, I was enjoying a quiet morning ritual.  Coffee at the aptly named local cafe, the Gathering Grounds, the fresh brew originating from the third world; East Timor, Sumatra, or Nicaragua, all promised to be ‘fair trade’.

Lessening the carbon footprint, I bring my own, sizable plastic mug.  It makes me feel good.  Keeps the overpriced java hot, while I embrace the delusion that I’m leaving the earth a better place.   And I get free refills.  The generic mug has a benign black and white overlay, WMH, embedded within a cross.  I like it, a garage sale purchase for a dime, the summer before in the upper peninsula’s Pickford, MI., not far from Stalwart.

From across the room a lone young man, early 20’s, approaches my table.  He is neatly dressed in the khaki brown uniform of the U.S. Border Patrol and asks, “excuse me, sir, may I join you ?”

“Sure, son, have a seat”.  It was clear to me,  he did not intend to ask for my passport, photo ID, or suspect that I might be transporting illegal substances.  Anglo geezers aren’t in the cross hairs of the BP….call it ethnic indiscrimination if you like.  Or reality if you don’t.  We shook hands, his right hand in a cumbersome cast.  He had been crying.

He wanted to know if I was from Michigan and I explained, no, actually Indiana, however, we do spend the summers on the north shore of Lake Huron in the eastern U.P.  and why do you ask ?

His story began to gush.  Growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, jobless after graduation from LSSU,  he joined the border patrol hoping to get stationed nearby at the Canadian border.  A plush, low-risk assignment.  The BP instead sent him to be trained near Ajo, AZ, a desolate desert outpost near the Mexican state of Sonora.  He had nearly severed a finger the first week, caught on a cyclone fence, pursuing illegal immigrants.  In the second week he discovered the remains of a fifteen year old girl, a victim of dehydration and hypothermia.  In the third, a fellow rookie had been shot in the thigh by a drug trafficker.  His fluency in Spanish limited, he had no concept of what he had gotten himself into, had never been away from the “Soo” and as evidenced by the tears, was a desperately homesick kid.

From halfway across the room, he had recognized the logo, WMH.  With no formal training in psychiatry, I thought it might signify Why Men Hurt.  No, he quickly informed me, it’s the War Memorial Hospital, and his Mom, an RN, had worked there for years.  He lived just east of Ashmun Street, the main drag, and before long he was smiling, telling me how he and his friends would jump off the bridge and swim in the canal.  And in the winter play pickup hockey games on the ice.  And how here it was February, 70℉, people wearing short sleeves, can you believe it?

Below, the Ashmun St. bridge, in the dead of winter

Yes, I knew the bridge, had been to the SooLocks, and my favorite saloon was the Antlers, renowned for those walls and ceilings covered with the dessicated body parts of deceased wildlife.  And where else can you enjoy a slice of Venison Pie ?

You couldn’t wipe the grin off his face as he nodded, “yeah, mine too”.

He had to return to duty.  We parted with a handshake, never exchanging names, and by his enthusiastic departure, I was certain he would never forget the encounter.  I know I haven’t.

And now, five years later, I’m enjoying my morning coffee from the same ten cent mug.  In the distance, a passing freighter, the DeTour Reef lighthouse, and less than 100 feet away, a pair of nesting sandhill cranes select insects for breakfast.

Funny, how a garage sale purchase can transport you to the right place, the right time.