THE NORBERT EPISODES

Sometimes a friend from way back just pops into our mind and we wonder why, after all these years. I think, in my case, it’s because in this sad time I needed a few gentle laughs and my memory bank obliged by serving up three Norbert Petryga episodes.

Norbert and I were rookie buddies at Warner Robins AFB in Georgia in 1949. I could describe him in detail, but if you think of Michael J. Pollard, the movie actor (Bonnie & Clyde’s getaway driver), you’d be close, mostly for personality. Norbert was always friendly, cheerful and a little vague.

One Sunday Norbert and I and a few other privates lounged in our barracks planning how to spend our one day of rest when suddenly another lowly airman burst through the front door and, while racing to the rear door, shouted, ” The First Sergeant’s coming. He needs three more K.P.’s.”

We were instantly on our feet, ready to flee – except for Norbert who remained sitting on his bunk smiling. Hearing heavy footsteps on the gravel path outside, I lifted Norbert up (He didn’t weigh much) and tossed him into a nearby closet. Norbert was probably still smiling in there when the Top Sarge left to search for K.P.’s elsewhere.

That same First Sergeant had Norbert and me in the squadron orderly room a week later to tell us about our temporary assignment at the base stockade. “It’s an easy job,” he said. “There’s two prisoners and the Manual says there should be two guards. That’ll be you guys today.”

The stockade sergeant was a laid back old soldier. Norbert and I sat listening to his war stories all morning. He never took us to the cell block, and around noon he looked out the window and said, “Time for you two to take the prisoners to chow. The truck just pulled up.”

“Take the prisoners to chow?” I said. “Sarge wouldn’t it be easier and safer to take the chow to the prisoners?”

“Probably,” he said, “but this is what the Manual calls for. It’s not that bad. You’ll each have your own prisoner and your own shotgun.”

Our own shotgun! I had almost no shotgun experience, yet I knew two untrained rookies carrying shotguns in a crowded messhall was a very bad idea. But then of course, there was the Manual.

I didn’t know what crimes our prisoners had been charged with and I didn’t want to know. I was scared enough already. The sergeant returned from the cell block with Norbert and his young prisoner whom Norbert introduced to me as Larry. They chatted as they left to board the truck. My prisoner was a quiet young guy named Fred. We didn’t chat. We just went outside to join Norbert and Larry.

The truck was empty! No passengers in the back! Guard, prisoner and shotgun missing! Should I fire my shotgun in the air as an alarm? How do you fire a shotgun? Where in hell is the safety?

Just then Norbert and Larry strolled around the corner of the building. “Larry said he saw a garden out back under his cell window, so we went to look at it,” Norbert explained. Larry jumped aboard carrying two daffodils. Norbert tried to join him but was having difficulty so he handed Larry his shotgun. He handed his prisoner the shotgun! I tried to look calm while I searched again for the safety, but before I found it, Norbert was in the truck and Larry had returned the weapon and got his daffodils back.

Norbert was well-liked on the base, but thank goodness, he was also well-known. So when he was spotted entering the messhall carrying his hand-held cannon, a dozen tables emptied quickly and I calmed down a little with the added safety zone. That evening we had half the messhall to ourselves during supper. I guess it was something like when Billy the Kid walked into a saloon.

A few months later, Norbert’s one-year hitch was up and three of us drove him to the bus station in town. We treated him to lunch with smuggled in beer and farewell speeches and left him waiting for the bus to take him back home to Michigan.

A month later I received a letter from Norbert and learned after we’d left him in the terminal, he’d lost his bus ticket and decided to hitchhike home, getting odd jobs along the way. Amazingly, that’s what he did, hitching and dishwashing for a thousand miles! I can imagine the soothing effect smiling Norbert had on grizzly truck drivers and tough roadside diner cooks along the way. And, if I know Norbert, he probably found his bus ticket in the bottom of his dufflebag when he got home.

ROAD RAGE

I was never one to give in to out of control road rage when I was a daily commuter. There were, of course, many encounters during those 40 years with rude, reckless drivers that incited me to use coarse language and even an occasional profane hand signal. But these all took place within the safe, soundproof confines of my locked car cruising safely in the slow lane. And I quickly cooled off. I was always too sleepy to work up a high-powered rage during the morning run and too worn out on the way home in the evening.

However, I was often guilty of driveway rage brought on by the only jalopies I could afford back then. They often refused to start in the morning if the atmospheric pressure, temperature and dew point were not within the acceptable limits of the battery and ignition system.

Those disloyal crates also drove me bananas with their misbehavior on the road. The Automobile Club hinted broadly, after many jump starts and tow jobs, that I was going to be black-balled unless I bought a reliable car or a horse. (They must have been kidding about the horse. )

But my highway breakdowns never incited me into actual road rage. I always felt apologetic towards my fellow commuters. I realized my steaming, smoking stalled crate was blocking one of their vital lanes and some of their glares as they inched by were less than sympathetic. I didn’t blame them.

A typical road rager who has just bullied his way to the supermarket, speeding, weaving and swearing at other drivers who are “in his way”, will get out of his car in the market’s parking lot and undergo a complete personality change.

Sooner or later, a distracted shopper will bump into Mr. Roadrager with his cart and Mr. Roadrager, the bumpee, will say to the bumper, “Excuse me, Sir. I was in your way.” That’s what pedestrians do, God bless them. Who ever heard of sidewalk or shopping aisle rage? It must be because these encounters are face to face and personal rather than the impersonal fender to fender kind.

AFTER HOURS DAYDREAMS

A suggestion for insomniacs about something to do on wakeful nights. Many of us have daydreams during the day. They’re almost always better than our night dreams because we’re in control and they’re pleasant fantasies rather than the weird, scary episodes we sometimes suffer through during the wee hours. The only trouble is our daydreams are too often interrupted by the less imaginative types who bring us back to the real world with loud interruptions like, “You mean you haven’t got that work done yet?” or “Sir, that’s my shopping cart. Didn’t you notice my infant son in the seat?” (“Sorry, ma’am. I was a little distracted. Nice looking boy.”)

Insomniacs can be in complete charge of an uninterrupted after hours daydream as producer, script writer, director, leading actor and with final say on casting and locations. They can also be in charge of stunts if they’re careful not to fall out of bed.

I prefer exciting sports scenarios. I was deeply involved in football as a youth. By “deeply” I mean I was very far below the first team level. Coaches only sent me into games when there was less than two minutes to play and our team had at least a two-touchdown lead. Near the end of my junior high school season I asked my coach if I was going to get a letter. “Yes,” he said, “I’m sending one to your father suggesting he make you try out for basketball instead next year.”

However, in the After Hours Daydream Football League I’m a star player with great stats. I have to get a few hours of sleep each night so I limit my gridiron scenarios to critical late fourth quarter situations. Usually I’m the quarterback, desperate to move our team up the field close enough for a game-winning field goal in the last few seconds. Sometimes I’m the field goal kicker or even a linebacker about to burst through and sack their quarterback before he gets to throw his desperate Hail Mary pass .

Since I’m a Catholic I start to feel a little guilty trying to prevent a Hail Mary pass, but then I do a quick rewrite and I’m playing for Notre Dame.

A DUTCH TREAT

The Dutch gave us Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Ann Frank and, of course, the beautiful tulip. We think fondly of their windmills, their dikes, their odd wooden shoes and tasty cheeses. How charmingly retro! How terribly incorrect!

The Dutch have been expanding scientific boundaries for centuries. The tulip was a nice, profitable sideline, but around the time they adopted it in the 16th century, Dutchmen invented the telescope and the microscope. Also, back then, they settled on our East Coast. Much of what is now the New York metro area, including parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, was known then as New Netherlands before the British moved in.

Over the years the Dutch have been busy inventing the stock market, the cassette, the CD, DVD, Blu-Ray, Bluetooth and, for the Brits, a submarine. WiFi was made possible by prior Dutch inventions. You can look it up.

Now that we’ve got the Dutch record fairly straight, I’d like to write about one of their other inventions that gets hardly any press, one that improved our neighborhoods and added highlights to my childhood- the front stoop.

Early Dutch settlers in the New York area were accustomed, back home, to living in elevated houses. Some Dutch towns were a few feet below the level of the North Sea which challenged and sometimes flowed over their dikes and into their canals and living rooms. Needing a few feet of leeway, they built raised houses with “stoeps”, mini porches with steps up to their front doors.

What was flood protection in the Netherlands eventually added to the quality of life in America. Before air conditioning, Dutch-influenced stoops were places of retreat from the sweltering summer heat of family homes and tenements. With everyone hanging out on their front steps on steamy nights, there were bound to be exchanges of greetings and gossip with stoop-sitting neighbors. Passing strangers were also subjected to friendly inquiries, thereby providing a modicum of crime prevention.

My late lamented dog Phoebe loved to sit on our front stoop and watch the world go by. I began to join her, mainly to prevent any attempts to harrass a passing cat, but sitting there beside her on the cool stone step, watching a sunset, brought back memories of my early stoop days.

During the day we kids would play a stoop ballgame. A “batter” would fire a Spaulding rubber ball toward the edge of a step and it would rebound smartly as opposing fielders tried to snag the flyball or bouncing grounder. In the meantime the batter was scurrying around the bases chalked on the pavement. This game has probably been miniaturized electronically where the players now only exercise their thumbs.

In the evenings we sat on our stoops, doused in citronella and holding glowing cattails to ward off the mosquitoes. Kids played games like “Ghost” and “Truth, Dare or Consequences” while our parents chatted and tried to forget for awhile the ongoing Depression and we all awaited the musical arrival of the Good Humor Man and his five-cent desserts.

Too soon, World War II events were topics of stoop conversations. I learned a lot about the war from passing G.I.’s who stopped and told us about their experiences. Some were rookies, proud of their new uniforms. Others wore combat badges and Purple Heart ribbons. The stoop was our Facebook then, only much more genuinely person to person.

UNRELIABLE RECALL

I’ve written about failing memory more than once (I think), but there is a related offshoot of this affliction that needs attention. I call it the False Memory Syndrome (FMS). Its victims are under the mistaken impression that their memory banks are thriving and solvent while actually, these banks are going belly up.

In addition to the common negative consequences of memory lapses like misplaced car keys, reading glasses and grandchildren, FMS sufferers, since they are unaware of their affliction, are at a greater risk of losing friends and money and having an occasional fist fight.

Some of the afflicted even go so far as to claim photographic memories which is true, in a way. However their mental photos, although sharply focused, have inaccurate captions and dates. All the details of Cousin Harlow’s Eagle Scout induction ceremony, for instance, are remembered and recited as belonging to Uncle Fred’s funeral, including the eulogy and the cremation.

Recognizing an old acquaintance, an FSM victim will pride himself on remembering the friend’s name and will repeat it often during the conversation. “Yes, George. I agree with you George” and so on until “George” points out his name is Fred and says, “Thanks for asking about my wife Alice, but I’ve never been married.”

A false memory can lead to disastrous wagers since the victim considers himself a walking encyclopedia and will bet a bundle when challenged about the name of the 1965 Kentucky Derby winner or the Super Bowl VI victors. His so-called encyclopedic mind is, after all, full of misprints.

I must confess to an occasional FMS attack. Arriving at the supermarket recently I took out my shopping list which I distinctly remembered getting from my wife. However, I had deja vu flashes as I picked up items and loaded my cart. The flashes were justified. I was working with the previous week’s list. The current one was back home on the kitchen table and we were in for a lot of repeat meals that week. Also I took advantage of an ongoing sale, wondering why I’d missed it before, and we ended up with a year’s supply of toilet paper.

Scientists tell us that an important memory part of the brain is the hippocampus, a curved ridge running along each lateral ventricle. (I’ll take questions after the lecture or next November at the latest.) Perhaps for FMS sufferers, the ridge is more than curved. Maybe it’s twisted or to use a medical term, it’s “screwy”.

THE BUZZWORD BIZ

It might have been buzzwords that Shakespeare was referring to when he had Macbeth complain in anger: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Buzzword lingo rarely signifies anything completely factual. It’s frequently used in outbursts of bravado or to camouflage unpleasant details with catch phrases and gobbledygook.

“Ballpark estimate” is among the most harmful. It often precedes a wildly overoptimistic guess of what a project will cost consumers or taxpayers. We’re meant to believe it’s a reasonably close approximation, “somewhere in the ballpark”.

But think about it. The average major league ballpark covers about 195,000 square feet and can fit as many as 55,000 fans. They might as well present a “somewhere in the Grand Canyon” estimate. Like those stretch-waist trousers you can buy from Haband, ballpark estimates leave a lot of room for future fat.

When your company starts talking about an “exit strategy”, ask questions like, “Who’s going to be exiting?” Now that the board of directors’ latest “win-win” project has turned out to be “lose-lose”, what are they doing about it? No one is going to be fired, they’ll say, but there might be considerable “streamlining” and “downsizing”. I’ve been downsized three times. Believe me, it’s not a Weight Watchers program. It’s unemployment.

A corporation I once worked for was planning a “forward-looking” merger, a “brilliant symbiotic union of industry leaders” as described by the vice president at a meeting of underlings, called to assure us our jobs were secure. A year later another meeting had a similar optimistic theme, but alas, only half the original staff had survived. We were told to “multi-task” during the “temporary downturn”. It wasn’t temporary. To coin a new buzzword, the company soon went “kamikaze”.

Politicians are fluent in the language of buzz. When one senator speaks about his “esteemed colleague’s” proposed bill, it soon becomes obvious he’s denouncing it item by item and he implies his “esteemed colleague” is “not playing with a full deck.”

Other pols, mistakenly assuming their finagling was “under the radar”, will admit to only “errors of judgment” and “unfortunate mistakes”. A judge will insist on a plain talk guilty plea and sentence them to “real time” in a “gated community”.

MY TOP NEWS STORY

Most of you know I was an award-seeking journalist for many years. The following is a copy of the report I filed a few years ago on a major scientific breakthrough. I scooped every newspaper in the country with this piece and, while it is still relevant, there have since been unforeseen technical difficulties encountered which have delayed further progress on the project and the details have become classified and unavailable. A verbatim copy of my original report follows:

Dogs can talk! Dogs can really talk! A prestigious animal research institute is about to publicize the astounding results of its groundbreaking achievements in canine communication. Dr. Loo Flirpa, executive director of the St. Francis Ethology Institute in Princeton, and a resident of Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, agreed to reveal some of the details of her leading edge clinical project before the story breaks on the CBS news program 60 Minutes next Sunday.

“It has long been suspected that dogs have a much greater cognitive capability and verbal talent than they’ve exhibited over the centuries,” said Dr. Flirpa, a board certified veterinary psychiatrist. “They’ve been satisfied with their status in society and reluctant to disrupt the balance by revealing their communicative skills. There have been amusing demonstrations of dogs mimicking the human voice,” she said, “but our project has proven we can actually have meaningful dialogues with man’s best friend.”

The CBS program has devoted a full hour to interviews by Scott Pelley of Dr. Flirpa, her staff members and, amazingly, one of the most articulate dogs involved in the project.

“We are receiving helpful and revealing information from our dogs,” Dr. Flirpa said. “Star, one of our dachshunds, may or may not have the typical canine attitude toward humans. We’ll have to broaden our study population to determine that, but she’s giving us a long list of problems she says must be addressed to improve the symbiotic association of mankind and dogdom. Some of her complaints are trivial, like her demand for increased table food and some are unreasonable and biased, especially her suggestion of imposing severe restrictions on cats,” Dr. Flirpa said, but Star made other more significant and reasonable points that you will hear on 60 Minutes Sunday.

“It’s unfortunate that Scott Pelley angered Star with some of his probing questions. I’m sure they’ll delete their little tiff from the video tape,” Dr. Flirpa said. “You might notice at some point, a small bandage appears on Mr. Pelley’s left hand and he’s seated a foot or two further from Star’s little couch.

“One thing Star told us that is quite touching, ” Dr. Flirpa continued,” she asked that dogs be given more say in their names. Recently, one of our staffers teasingly pointed out to Star that the reverse spelling of her name is ‘Rats’. I can understand her annoyance at hearing this,” the doctor said. “I’ve never liked the reverse spelling of Loo Flirpa.”

LAUGH IT OFF

This is one of those times when our life preserver in a sea of sadness can be our sense of humor. As one anonymous philosopher described it , “It’s the icing on a very crumby reality cake.”

When choosing friends and especially a lifetime mate, make sure they’ve been blessed with this heaven-sent gift. You can manage to live in harmony with someone who doesn’t share your views on politics, religion, art and maybe even major league baseball, but if they lack a sense of humor, there’s going to be trouble.

Most people seem willing and able to be amused, to laugh or at least smile at something “funny”. The gloomy minority often finds this jocular attitude strange and even irrational. Sometimes I have great difficulty telling one of my favorite jokes. I usually can’t help laughing during the recitation and right after I’ve delivered the socko punchline and I’m sitting there, helpless, slapping my knee and out of breath, someone will ask, “So that was the joke?”

What people consider funny may depend on what country they live in, their age, social level, intelligence and even their occupation. Their sense of humor can be wry, witty and even of the gallows type, being courageously able to laugh when beset by serious trouble. However, if your date at the movies begins to giggle and guffaw during the torture scene of a slasher film, that could be a bad sign.

The subject has been studied by scientists. Some claim proper therapy can help those born without funny bones by exposing them to stand-up comedians and comedy movies and TV shows. Just being in an audience that’s roaring with laughter may trigger your herd instinct and you’ll begin to join in. Someone can explain the jokes to you later.

Mark Twain disagreed with the scientists. “Studying humor,” he said, “is like dissecting a frog. You may or may not learn something, but you end up with a dead frog.” (That was a test. Did you laugh at Twain’s little joke or did you just feel bad for the frog?)

We’ve been advised by W.C.Fields to “start off each day with a smile and get it over with.” Of course, this popular sourpuss just said that because he wanted to make us laugh.


THE SOUNDNESS OF MUSIC

Families don’t sing together like they used to and they’re missing out on all the benefits. Perhaps during this COVID-19 national lockdown we can revive that old tradition of do-it-yourself home entertainment and reap its rewards.

There are reports and video clips of Italian families singing joyful songs at their windows, raising the morale in their homes and neighborhoods as over 25,000 Corona cases have so far been reported in Italy.

A Psychology Today report says when a group sings together, the rhythm of the song will automatically synchronize the breathing and the heartbeats of the singers. Their immune systems will become stronger and their stress levels will be reduced. Even their posture and mental alertness will improve as they perform as one throbbing, singing unit.

We didn’t know all this way back when in my youth. We just enjoyed belting out a favorite song with our parents and siblings and even with our pals on the playground. It was a feel good thing That was before rock and roll and the wide generational gap that it brought on.

Before that, Dad taught us the lyrics of his favorites and on a long car trip the family would sing a few choruses of “Danny Boy” or “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and we kids would teach the parents the words and music of “The Jersey Bounce”. If there was a little one in the back seat, we’d teach him “Old McDonald Had a Farm” and let him do the oinks and the moos. However, anyone trying to start “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” was declared out of order.

I can’t imagine a family today, off on a long drive in their SUV, putting down their cell phones and game gadgets to start singing rock or rap pieces. I guess they just sit there, doing their own things, with unsynchronized breathing and heart beats. What a shame!

Another thing I like about group singing is that my raucous voice can be lost in the crowd. I have a musical heart but not a musical ear and no one has ever asked me to sing a solo. I have been asked on occasion to stop singing a solo. When I mentioned to a friend that there are special times when I just feel like breaking into song, he said, “I can understand that. You have to break in because you never have the key.”

OUR OVERHEAD PROBLEM

The most important reason we haven’t moved in over 50 years is because my wife and I love living near Lake Parsippany. We’ve looked at more modern houses but always, instead of a beautiful lake at the end of the street, there was just another row of look-alike modern houses.

The other reason is that there is a higher presence that holds me here. No, it’s not a heavenly mandate, it’s just my attic, my jammed full, heavily loaded attic. If we ever try to sell the house, I’m sure the incoming family will insist we get rid of the overhead tonnage. They’ll need the space to store their useless stuff.

Our attic was almost inaccessible when we first moved in. To store anything I had to stand on a wobbly stepladder, reach up, push aside a small trap door in the hall ceiling and then hurl the item into the dark abyss, rendering it almost irretrievable. Therefore not much got sucked into that little black hole. The garbage can was handier and safer.

I should have left it that way instead of installing one of those pull-down attic ladders with a much larger entrance opening. It was a difficult and scary operation. At one point during the installation, 75 percent of me was in the attic while the other 25 percent, my right leg, had penetrated the hall ceiling and must have looked like a weird chandelier.

The new easy route to the attic was just too much of a temptation for a family of hoarders, used to keeping things that should be dumps-bound. “Well, just for now” was the usual false promise before lugging a chipped bowling ball or an expired hi-fi into the upper reaches. Eventually our four children, all reckless collectors and savers like me, moved out, leaving their many boxes of miscellany behind and above. They’ll never retrieve them. I’m sure their own attics are now filled to the brim.

I’ll have to hire a disinterested, unsentimental professional to remove the junk. This never works as a family project. Every item would have to be studied, its history recited and its disposition debated. “Oh, look, my cheerleader jacket! I wonder if it still fits.” and “Wow! Here’s one of my old skis. The other one is up here someplace. I’ll look in back of those filing cabinets or Grandma’s chifferobe.” And so it would go for hours, reading dusty diaries, passing around the two-string ukulele and hugging battered Teddy Bears and Raggedy Anns.

I’ll just let it be and hope the bowling ball, the hi-fi and the overloaded chifferobe don’t come crashing down into the bedroom some night. On a (hopefully) far distant day, the family will be sitting around the living room talking about the good old days when someone will ask, “So what are we going to do with Dad’s ashes?” Then someone else will make a suggestion and they’ll all agree, “Well, just for now.”