Archive for July, 2010

Fun with simple household items

July 31, 2010

Back in the Fifties – long before the invention of Nintendo and the like, kids had to make do with things at hand in order to have fun.  How much fun depended on what you had at hand – and how crafty you were.  Now, I don’t mean ‘crafty’ in the sense of being able to build a shopping area from a set of Lincoln Logs, but ‘crafty’ in the sense of sneaky.  I liked my sneakiness to actually be called creativity.

Rubber cement was a really neat invention.  It allowed you to stick papers together and pull them apart at a later time.  It had a heady aroma that would make you momentarily dizzy when inhaled.  This was long before glue sniffing became the rage and was closely aligned to receiving a test or classwork that had just been mimeographed.  They used ether in that process and sometimes it was so strong that just sitting in the class would get you high.

Anyway, my primary use of a small can of rubber cement started about a week earlier.  I began to complain of a pain on either side of my nose.  My mom would press here and there and ask me where it hurt.  I managed to fake a few groans and winced convincingly enough so that she pronounced that I had a sinus infection.

This went on for several days until I was getting ready to come down for breakfast one morning.  I loaded up my cupped hand with most of a can of rubber cement and allowed it to thicken slightly.  On the way down the stairs, I rubbed it under my nose until my eyes watered.  When I turned the corner into the dining room, I fake a huge sneeze that made everyone jump and turn to look at me.

I triumphantly allowed my hands to fall from my face and let the dripping rubber cement string out all down the front of my shirt.  As I held out my hands, happily making cat’s cradles of the gooey mess, I said “Hey!  Maybe this is what was blocking my nose up!”

Way back before matches were made so safe that you can hardly even get one going now, there used to be what were known as ‘kitchen matches’.  They also went by the name of ‘strike-anywhere matches’.  They were about as long as a toothpick and had a nice red head topped with a white phosphorus tip.

If one was careful, you could slit the empty end with a razor blade and slide a small square piece of paper into it to act as a stabilizer.  Before doing the surgery though, you first needed a tiny square of aluminum foil.  Applying the foil to the business end of the match you rolled the head into a tube and twisted the tip into a point.  This helped the aerodynamics of the match and, along with the tail “feathers” it would shoot across the room when you held another match under the foil and waited for the wrapped tip to catch fire.

We kids called these Zappers.  I don’t know why, we just did.  Shooting them off the edge of the table was fun – for about five minutes – and then you started looking for other targets of opportunity.  Sisters sitting quietly in the living room reading were one good target.  Brothers not paying attention to the direction a Zapper was aimed was another.

Zapper escalation occurred when one ill-aimed Zapper managed to hit said brother on his bare chest one summer afternoon.  It was a perfectly aimed shot that landed a direct hit on his navel.  Now, the significant thing one has to remember about this whole Zapper thing is that when the foil-tipped match ignites it gets HOT.  This Zapper hit him, as I said, in the navel and stuck there, rapidly burning a hole in him.

After beating at it, and running inside to grab an ice cube to apply on the burn, the rocket attack escalated almost immediately.  Soon the two of us were lobbing flaming matches at each other with vigor.  To this very day I still have a small, white scar on my shoulder where one of his Zappers landed.

We were always on the lookout for things we could do and when the pirate movies began to show up we kids began to emulate them.  Most notably were the sword fights.  Now, none of us had a sword, but that really didn’t matter.  It was the jumping around on various pieces of furniture (until mom’s declared “OUTSIDE!”) and stomping our feet in preparation for a charge.

My brother and I were out in the garage one day and located our camp kit.  Sticking out of the basket were four wooden handles that were attached to weenie roast sticks.  This was the type of stick that had a central spike and contained a push/pull lever that you could use to push the hot weenie off the end and onto your plate.  They would also make excellent swords.

We each grabbed one and began slashing and hacking at each other.  He landed a blow across my nose that brought tears to my eyes so I replied in turn – WHACK – right across his shoulder.  With much clanging and stomping we re-engaged and fought across the garage floor and out the door.  He stepped through the door and disappeared.  Aha!  I thought to my self.  He’s on the other side in ambush.

I prepared to leap through the door and continue the fight.  He apparently tired of waiting for me to appear and began coming back through the door at En Garde.  The point of his ween…, er, sword, caught me right in the ribs.  It took three stitches to close the gash.  The edict that followed was “Thou Shalt NOT Play Swords With Sharp Objects!”

I may have mentioned this already, but it is a very funny story.  Somehow my dad came up with a small can of luminescent paint.  In the dark it glowed with an ethereal green hue.  He used it on every light switch in the house so they could be found in the dark.  A really good idea, by the way as night lights were deemed “too costly in electricity” by my dad.  He also put some in several other places so that objects could be located in the dark.  My brother and I found one more use for it.

Outside my brother’s and my bedroom and opposite my sister’s room there was a comical cat clock.  It was made up in the shape of Felix the Cat of funny paper and cartoon fame.  His tail would flick back and forth, his whiskers would tilt up and down, and lastly his eyes would move to and fro with each tick and tock.

Grabbing his tail one afternoon, my brother and I painted small dots of the paint over the pupils of Felix’s eyes.  Thus, when night fell, all you could see was the glow of two green dots moving back and forth.  It was very impressive until the glow wore off.

That night, we waited until it was just about time for my sister to be taken to the bathroom (she had a slight tendency to wet the bed).  While she was in the bathroom, I got out my trusty Boy Scout flashlight and shined it directly into the cat’s eyes for a full charge of light.  When I turned it off, they really stood out.

My sister came out of the bathroom and neither he nor my mom noticed the eyes until about ten minutes later when there sounded a growing moaning scream from my sister’s room.  It built and built until it sounded like an air raid siren in an old World War Two movie.

“Mom.  MOM!  The cat’s gonna get MEEEEEEE!”  She screamed.

I heard my mom come down the stairs and down the hall to her room.  Some muffled consoling occurred and then quiet returned.  I don’t think our “sleeping” fooled my mom very much when she poked her head into our room.  The next day, the clock was moved so that those two glowing eyeballs clicked back and forth in front of our room.

I was always a tinkerer.  I loved to find out how things worked.  Sometimes I was good at it, and other times I sucked.  I took apart a clock once and when it went back together it always ran a twice the time – two minutes for every one.  I never did find that little wheeled sprocket that fell on the floor.

I never admitted to anyone until now that the reason my dad’s grinding wheel in the basement workshop was down to half it’s size was that I used it to try and shape a piece of tungsten steel.  Nobody told me that it couldn’t be ground down.

I even fixed the television when one of the tubes blew and didn’t light up.  My dad spent at least two dollars in telephone time calling up television repair shops hunting for the cheapest price on a new tube.  He was like that.

Perhaps my biggest achievement was fixing the toaster.  For weeks my mom had been nagging my dad to fix the toaster.  I would either stay down until the toast was incinerated or it would pop up before the bread was even warm.  Finally, I told her I could fix it.  Well, that’s not strictly true; I told her afterwards.

I waited until she went to the store, unplugged the toaster, and took it downstairs to the workbench.  Unscrewing the top wasn’t so bad and I finally lifted it off and set it aside.  The innards were caked with left over toast which was probably why it didn’t function properly.  I grabbed a brush and began flicking it as all the crumbs.  By the time I finished, there was a respectable pile of them on the bench.  Note to ones self:  NEVER blow at a pile of breadcrumbs when there is a back to the workbench to launch them right back at you.

Anyway, I decided that the spring tension wasn’t quite right either so I used a pair of needle-nose pliers to carefully lift the spring from it’s connection point annnnnnd eeeeeeasy now —- SPOING!  It launched itself across the basement and I distinctly heard it hit the water in the sump with a slight ‘bloosh’.  Rats!

I must have looked through every cigar box and drawer in the basement trying to find a replacement spring.  Finally I located one that looked about right.  It was a little stronger it seemed, but once I stretched it from the lever to the little hole in the side of the toaster it appeared good to me.  I reassembled the toaster and carried it back up to the kitchen.

The next morning, I watched carefully as my mom loaded up the toaster and pushed the lever down.  It latched into place and she turned to other mom-things.  I was distracted for a little while eating my cereal (I really hate oatmeal with raisins) until there was a mighty CLICK-BAM!  Two slices of nicely burnt toast shot out and smacked against the ceiling.  They promptly shattered like a couple of clay pigeons and showered all of us with shrapnel.

“What the hell?”  My mom said as she took in the shattered remains of two valiant pieces of toast sacrificed themselves as a testament to my ingenuity.

Why was my mom looking significantly at me?

The local five and dime (remember those?) got in a supply of jokes and treats for all occasions.  I coughed up fifty cents of my hard-earned dough and bought two items:  a plastic block that looked like an ice cube and had a fly trapped in it, and a pack of gum that was really laced with pepper and was supposed to be really hot.

In the evenings, my dad would come home from the base really beat.  I guess it was fighting with all those isobars, thermographs, and upper-level charts.  He liked to have a drink after dinner and so I was able to use my first item.  He grabbed a couple of ice cubes from the icebox, splashed in his scotch, and relaxed in the living room to watch some television.  When he got up to change the channel I managed to slip the fake cube into his drink.

Throughout the entire television program I was bursting with suppressed laughter but he never seemed to notice.  He drained his drink, took the glass into the kitchen, and washed it out.  I was devastated that he didn’t even see the fly.

Two days later, I found that one of the cubes of ice in my soda had a fly in it.

My brother was the target of the hot gum.  He is naturally suspicious of everything I do and say to him so it was a wonder I got him to try it at all.  Even so, he made me take a stick before he would.  It was a good thing I doctored one stick with regular gum before offering him the hot one.



New School Jitters

July 14, 2010

Note:  I kind of got this one bass-ackwards from my previous blog post.  I apologize.

Moving from one school to another is always traumatic.  No matter how good (or bad) you were doing in your old school, there is always the wondering if you will fit into the hierarchy at the new school.  I knew my move from the US school in Germany to the new school in California was going to be an eye-opening experience.

The major difference in schools was that every kid in my old school was a dependent of military parents.  In my new school there would be very few dependent kids – if any.  The nearest base, which was Hamilton AFB, was about twelve miles south of Petaluma and had quarters on base for most of its personnel.  My dad just wanted to live off base this time so we bought a house in a new subdivision in Petaluma.

While we were moving in, it was decided that we didn’t have to go to school so but we had to pitch in and arrange the household as desired.  This only took a week to do properly so by the time the next Monday came around we were off to school.

I was entering senior high school in the middle of my junior year right before the Thanksgiving break.  I’d have two weeks of school and then a week off for the holiday.  As it turned out, this was a good thing because I was able to figuratively dip my toe into the water before jumping in feet first.

My first day did not go well.  I had to stop at the office and make sure I was registered.  As I suspected, someone had made an assumption and changed my name from Tom to Thomas.  This was usually the first thing I noticed every time I looked at an official form with my name on it.  My parents, not being dummies, figured that if they named me Thomas that everyone would call me Tom anyway, so they just made the shortcut and named me Tom.

Fortunately, I had a copy of my birth certificate with me.  It didn’t cut any ice with the stern-faced desk person who insisted that I give her my “real” name despite being shown a copy of my birth certificate.  This escalated into a virtual shouting match which me, as a lowly almost-student, was destined to lose.  My parents were called.  The office troll’s disposition was not improved by my mother’s response to her (which, fortunately, I did not hear).  Exuding extreme displeasure towards me, she signed me in as a student and handed me a class schedule and a map with a huge smirk.

My locker was way the hell and gone down a dead-end hallway and had no relationship anywhere near any of my classes.  I could imagine the glee at which the office troll assigned me this locker.  If I wanted to use it I would have to sprint (No RUNNING in the HALLS!) to and from it in the thirty seconds allowed between classes.  I resigned myself to being forced to carry a book satchel.  This would guarantee me nerd status in seconds.

Speaking of which, I was tentatively placed in the ‘nerd’ subdivision of official outcasts.  This was due mainly to my ability to say or do something wrong no matter what I said or did.  It didn’t help one bit that I had been a high-B or low-A student in Germany; in fact, it just dug a deeper hole.  I managed to enroll in German class and, while the teacher was a good one, she just didn’t have the total grasp of a native German speaker and would occasionally say something that caused me to suppress a snort.  In one memorable instance, I didn’t suppress it enough and she heard me.

As punishment, she assigned me a little extra homework – translating a seven-paragraph chapter from German to English.  I guess it really didn’t help my case that I did it in class that afternoon and handed it to her when class let out.  She asked me what it was and I told her.  Now she was the one that snorted.  By the time she read my translation she was pretty ticked off.  Word spread rapidly around that I was a wise ass.  In some groups this was a good thing and in others a handicap.

There were possibly seven or eight major cliques in school.  Most notably were the jocks, the nerds, the cool guys, the cool girls, and the surfers.  I tried my best to steer clear of the jocks because they liked to run over people in the halls and generally make everyone’s lives miserable.  I don’t think they really did this out of spite, but more because they just wanted to, or were too big to be expected to move.

Some of the cool girls were merged with the jocks, especially the cheerleaders.  As a whole, the cheerleaders were very, um, wholesome.  With their hair just so, wearing short dresses and tight sweaters, and hanging on every grunt of a jock they defied anyone’s attempt to pry them away.  The rest of the cool girls made life miserable for the uncool girls.

There were three major hangouts in town for teens.  The first one, located only a block from school, sold everything from pencils to sodas.  There was a short fountain area behind which were various siphons for water, Coke, and three or four flavors of ‘sweet gunk’.  The rage at the time was a lime-Coke.  First you took some Coke syrup, spritzed in some lime gunk, and then added sparkling water.  It would foam up and over the sides of the glass before it ever got to you.  It had it’s unique flavor though and, after several of them, you got used to it.

The other two places were out near the highway.  One was called The Burger Barn even though it looked nothing like a barn and the other was named the Dog ‘n’ Suds.  The latter was affiliated with A&W Root Beer.  This was the place I hung out mostly because for fifty cents you would get a huge mug of almost frozen root beer and a fat hot dog on a bun.  For a quarter more, you could get a huge tub of French fries.  Pretty much every girl I got to ride in my car wanted to go the Dog ‘n’ Suds because of the root beer.  I was not popular because most of the time I showed up because I usually had more than one girl in my car.

They loved to ride in my convertible.  I’ve had as many a six kids in the car at one time; mostly girls.  They thought it was “cute” which I exploited to the max.  With the short-throw stick shift resting between the front seats, I almost always managed to run my hands along a thigh when I hit third or fourth gear.

Eventually, I got settled in and found my niche.  At first I was a niche of one, but after six weeks or so I built it up to ten or twelve of us.  We were the ones that didn’t fit into any other category so we started one of our own.  We called ourselves The Group.  Pretty catchy, eh?

It was through a backyard pool party with The Group that I talked with a couple of my neighbors who were with the Surf group.  They both lived within a few houses of me and I’d seen them around a few times so I just invited them.  This is probably how the surf bug bit me.  It sounded way cool to be able to ride waves to shore and I wanted to try it.  The fact that surfing required the girls to wear swim suits didn’t enter into it at all.