Monday, August 9, 2010


In late February and early March, John sent me two of his stories, both autobiographical, both delightful. On March 29, he died.

These stories should be read by others; for that reason I post them here. Maybe one day they will find their way into a literary journal or anthology. In any case, they will not disappear.

Story Invisible

My grandmother used to say, “Out of sight—out of mind.”

Growing up on a dairy farm, that really resonated with me. There were always more chores than willing workers and as the oldest of six kids I felt that I got more than fair my share of the nastiest jobs. It was my duty to myself to keep a low profile; to avoid mindless, boring menial tasks so that I had more time to do the important things—like reading books about Superman and The Flash, watching educational shows about exotic foreign places like Bourbon Street Beat and Hawaiian Eye, or learning the lessons of history from dramas like Maverick and Have Gun Will Travel. And besides, it was good for my younger brothers to learn a little responsibility; it was my duty as a big brother to get out of their way and let them grow.

Then one night on TV I saw a movie that changed my life —Claude Rains as the Invisible Man. How blind could I have been—being Out of Sight is just the passive act of not being seen, but Invisibility was a positive choice, an action, a self-imposed mission. And it answered that age old question, “If you could have any superpower what would it be?”

I shared this revelation with my friend Ray. His approval was immediate and he pointed out benefits I had not even considered, “You could go to Tommy’s store and take whatever you wanted—a whole box of York Mint Patties a bottle of Hire’s Root Beer and a stack of comics—and the best part you wouldn’t need to run out of the store—you could sit down right there and nobody would even notice.”

Ever the practical one I pointed out, “But if you sit down and are invisible someone will step on you.”

Never one to let mundane details stop him Ray said, “Ah, but you sit under the pinball machine—nobody steps on you there! Oh, and the girls locker room—you should definitely take a camera in there—a Polaroid, because they won’t develop pictures of naked people from regular film, I know, but I bet they keep copies for themselves.”

Previously I had made myself scarce by ducking around corners and slipping back to my bedroom when I wanted to avoid an onerous task. Now I took charge of my life. That small clearing in the middle of the corn field that for generations had been the farm dump provided a set of bed springs and an old canvas tarp that became my command post. For rainy days I dug out a burrow in the hay loft that could not be seen from more than ten feet away. An old deer stand in the woods became my crows' nest lookout. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that the work of avoiding work was probably harder than the chores themselves would have been.

On a visit home from college, long after dad had retired from farming, my brothers and I were trying to top one another on how crazy we used to be. I mentioned my invisibility phase to see what dad's take on it was. After a minute of thought he said, “You know you began disappearing long before that.” I expected him to go off on the tale of how at the age of two I escaped from the play enclosure he had built for us kids and wandered into the alfalfa dehydrator—a furnace that ate over a ton of wet grass a minute and turned it into dry powdered feed for the cows and how I was found staring down into the machine that wouldn’t even have burped if a two-year-old fell in and how Oscar Franklin snatched me from the maw of death.

But dad starts off, “I think you were three days old the first time you disappeared.” No, a totally different story… three days old?

I’m suddenly thinking of those times when I had hoped I was adopted, or left on the doorstep by passing gypsies, but now I am thinking “disappeared at three days old—maybe a tragic mix-up at the hospital? Maybe I am the long lost heir …” but no, dad assures me that I was not adopted or left by a passing stranger and there was not a mix-up at the hospital.

Dad goes on, “You were born 8 minutes after midnight on Monday June second. After the morning milking, I fed the cows, cleaned up, and around 9 drove over to Princeton Hospital and visited your mom. A nurse took me down to the hospital nursery and you were still sleeping even though it was after 10 AM by then. Nurse said I should give you a pass since it was your birthday. Driving home from Princeton I stopped at Shafer’s hardware store on Nassau St. and bought a pint of black paint and a quarter inch brush. After crossing route one I stopped beside the sign that said, “Welcome to Plainsboro population 648.” I painted a line through the number 648 and just below painted in the number 649.

“Two days later on Wednesday I was bringing your mom and you home and slowed down as I approached the sign. Hoped she would see it on her own without me pointing because calling attention to what I had done would have been like bragging. Unfortunately on Tuesday old Mr. Jacobson had died and some joker had crossed out your 649 and reinstated the number 648.

“So, John, that was the first time you disappeared and I should probably have taken it as a sign of things to come.”

Scary Man that looked like my Grandfather but talked like my Grandmother

The summer of 1951 I had a chance encounter that became the source of my nightmares for years to come. I was four years old when I came face to face with the scary man who looked like my grandfather—the man who shaped my nightmares.

The summer of 1951 started off like most of my childhood summers. My dad had a dairy farm, and each spring he would rent extra pasture land to graze some of his cows. That summer dad had rented three fenced pastures from his friend Pogey Noble, a retired dairy farmer.

The Noble farm was three miles from our home farm and just across Carnegie Lake from Princeton between Washington Road and Alexander Street. If you watch the TV show House, during the opening credits they show a shot of the lake—in the distance you can see a bridge that is Washington Road and the farm was just beyond that bridge and out of shot to the left. Very pastoral and the perfect place for cows to get a little R&R.

Every morning my dad would come back to the house after morning milking; have a cup of coffee; and then take me with him as he drove out to check the cows on the Noble place. He would put out mineral and protein supplements, lay out cracked corn with molasses, and fill the water tanks near the barn while I walked down into the pasture to count and check the cows.

My first clear memory from that summer was arriving at the farm one day—seeing the cows in the first pasture, the one nearest the barn. As I started walking toward the cows my dad said, “See that man?” and pointed toward the third pasture, the one furthest from the barn, the one closest to the Carnegie Lake. When I spotted a man walking near some trees I turned back to hear what dad wanted to say about the guy. “Don’t go near him. You hear me? Stay clear of that man!”

Now, for a kid on a dairy farm a warning like that usually came after a hired man lost a few fingers while using the hay bailer or a power tool opened someone’s artery, or a combine chewed off some poor fellow’s foot just below the knee. On a farm danger was real and warnings were serious.

I went out counted the cows made each stand up and walk around to prove they were fit and well and then returned to the barn having never come within 100 yards of the scary man. I gave him about the same respect I would have given to a bailing machine or a chainsaw.

My childhood memories from that summer are like islands of light with nothing between, so I am not sure how much time passed before my next recollection. This time I was with the cows in the second pasture—the middle field. I was working at getting the cows to stand up. One sleepy Brown Swiss was determined to remain lying down under a shade tree and looked at me like I was a particularly annoying fly that needed swatting as I smacked her on the hip and shouted for her to get up and walk around when I heard a voice. I turned to see the scary little man across the fence maybe twenty feet from me. He said, “Hello, little boy.” He looked a like my grandfather but talked like my German grandmother. TV had taught me that people who sounded like my grandmother were usually villains. He was short like my grandfather and TV had taught me that the smaller a villain was the more dangerous he was. I took off at a run toward the barn where my father was filling the water troughs.

When I realized that my father had not seen what had happened, I decided my safest strategy was to say nothing. Experience had taught me that admitting to being near something I had been warned to avoid often got me punished even though, or possibly because, I had not been hurt.

My third memory from that summer was from a day when my father had business at the courthouse in New Brunswick. The memory begins with us walking across the lobby and approaching the elevator. From previous visits to the courthouse I knew the elevator operator’s name was Jeff. Jeff was standing next to the open elevator door, and I said hello as we passed him. He stepped in and took us to the third floor.

As usual when my father was “doing business” I waited in the reception area chatting with Millie who answered the telephone using a switchboard so she could redirect calls. The process was like magic, with calls coming in through one plug, going through her headset and going out through another plug. I often debated with myself as to the whether Millie or Jeff had the cooler job.

Dad retrieved me and we went out to the elevator. When the doors opened we entered. I realized there was someone else in the car as it descended, and I peeked around my father’s leg to see our fellow traveler. To my horror I realized it was the scary man who looked like my grandfather. He was looking back at me, he smiled and said, “Hello little boy—how are you today?” Any real memory of what happened has long since been over written by the nightmares. In the dreams it is just the two of us—Jeff is simply not there and dad was left behind on the third floor. In the nightmares that lasted for years after that day, nothing happens beyond me being trapped in the tiny room with the scary man. Over the years in my dreams the scary man becomes shorter, more stooped and disheveled, his hair gets wilder, and his sleepy, crazy eyes come to look more and more like Peter Lorrie’s and the hat or walking stick he held morphs into a sword or dagger.

I was probably twenty before I asked my father who that scary little man was. He was at a loss to understand who I was talking about until I reminded him of the summer he rented Pogey Noble’s pastures. His face brightened and he laughed. He said, “When I rented that land, Pogey warned me that the professor liked to walk the fields when he needed to get away from his office, to watch the cows which reminded him of his own childhood and gather dandelion leaves for a salad. Pogey said, 'Now Russ, don’t let those kids of yours go bothering him; he values his privacy and you never know what important problem Professor Einstein may be thinking about!'”

That was the summer Albert Einstein joined Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and the Riddler in my personal pantheon of nightmare villains.