POCKET POWER

We don’t know who invented pockets, but that genius should be given credit in encyclopedias and history books. One historian claims pockets became common in the late 15th century.which was when Columbus discovered America during an era of worldwide exploration. There might be a connection. Pockets did widen horizons as well as our trousers. Who knows? The Roman Empire might still be in power today if they had installed pockets in their togas.

Women seem to resist the benefits of commodious pockets and prefer to lug their bulky expensive handbags around which leaves them with only one free arm and that is often holding a cellphone. Men prefer to be two-fisted and have always embraced pockets, the more the roomier.

Thanks to pockets, I’m not worried about the threat to outlaw plastic bags. I’ll be ready. I’ve got the personal capacity to almost do away with bags altogether. I took inventory the other day when I was dressed for cold weather. There were six spacious pockets in my ski jacket, four in my jeans plus two more pockets within pockets and a huge pouch in my hoodie that’s equal to at least four average pockets. In a pinch I could have the checkout guy load some small items into my hood.

It would be a different situation in summer without the ski jacket and hoodie, but then I’d be wearing my cargo Bermudas. If I wear suspenders to make sure the shorts don’t go to half-staff before I reach my car, I’d still be able to accommodate an average food shopping payload. For larger loads there’s my backpack which is actually a megapocket. If they start putting wheels on those big wine boxes, I’ll be all set.

THE ADVANTAGES OF LOSING

In the long run, high school athletes are better off being on a losing team. It gives them a more accurate picture of the real world and provides a valuable dose of humility. Also, the bond between members of losing teams can be very strong, similar to that of shipwreck survivors.

I was on a losing high school football team for two seasons and it was just what I needed to prepare me for the fumbles and losses of later life. I’ll never forget the first time I got to play in a varsity game, I think the coach had decided not to send me in unless the team was so far behind it wouldn’t make much difference.

“Kid!” he called, pointing to me on the bench. I was shocked. I hadn’t been pointed at all season. “What’s your name, Kid?”

“I forget Coach, I’m very nervous. Just call me Kid.”

“Okay, Kid. There’s a time-out. Go in at left tackle and tell them to run the quarterback end run play. We might actually get on the scoreboard before the final gun.”

I tripped over the water bucket running out. My vision was impaired because I’d put my helmet on backwards. “The coach said to run the quarterback end run play,” I shouted as I approached the huddle. Unfortunately it was the wrong huddle which was a serious security breach. Our quarterback was nailed right after the snap.

I got to play in more games the next year mainly because the squad was smaller. An anti-football committee was formed on the PTA called “Mothers Against Mayhem” and some of our best gridders were forced to switch to the track team. Our record was pretty dismal.

The game we dreaded most was our last of the season and possibly of our life on earth. We were to face the mighty and undefeated Memorial High. The very name invoked a grim vision of Valhalla and dead warriors. There was always at least one ambulance parked near the field during Memorial games.

After another one of their running plays when their bulldozer of a line had flattened our defense, my buddy Tom who played left end had a dazed look. “What day is it?” he asked me.

“It’s Sunday. We always play on Sunday. What’s the matter with you, Tom?

“If the coach thinks I’m too beat up, he’ll bench me and that’s always his test question, ‘what day is it?’. I just wanted to know for sure.” Poor brave Tom. I should have told him it was Monday.

ROME -THEN AND NOW

It was our first trip to modern Rome and the carefully preserved remnants of ancient Rome. We found the Eternal City to be beguiling and seductive, in more ways than one.

I clicked away a roll of film in the Colosseum where Christians and gladiators perished to the cheers of the crowds and their emperors.

Very early one morning my wife and I walked in the empty Roman Forum where Julius Caesar had been slain by Brutus and his co-conspirators. We stood where Marc Antony delivered his eulogy as immortalized by Shakespeare. (“I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”) Later we climbed the Palatine Hill, picking up tiny specks of marble from the bygone palaces of Augustus and his successors.

Toward the end of that day as I walked up the Via Veneto from Mass at the Capuchin church, I saw a group of attractive women in evening gowns, strolling in sultry circles in front of my hotel. We had visited the Temple of the Vestal Virgins in the Forum and I was quite sure these ladies were not related. A man in a tuxedo called out to me as I approached. “Sir, would you like to experience the most wonderful night of your life?”

I scratched my head and said, “Maybe. You and the ladies wait here while I go and ask my wife.”

“Ask your wife?” he shouted. “Crazy Americans!” I can’t record the rest of his reply. I’m not fluent in profane Italian.

TWO-BEER JOHNSON

We were sitting around the locker room waiting for the storm to abate before we went out to the first tee. “Listen to that wind,” Paul said. “On some holes, depending on the direction, I could break my personal drive record.”

“Must be forty, fifty miles an hour, Joe said. “It’s not safe out there.”

“This is nothin’, not much more’n a stiff breeze,” Billy scoffed. Billy Johnson was from somewhere out west, a colorful character. We called him “Two Beer Johnson” because after two Budweisers he became quite loquacious, a talented tale-teller. We leaned forward on the benches in anticipation. “I guess you’ve had some big windstorms out on the prairie, Billy, ” I said, prodding him on. We’d each had a couple of brews and I hoped Billy’s imagination had been ignited.

“Wasn’t on the prairie,” Billy began.”It was in Muddy Creek where I spent some time working for my Uncle Silas, the postmaster. There was a scarcity of mail movin’ through Muddy Creek and we had a lot of leisure time.

“Uncle Silas was a talented man. He could have been a master plumber, but we had no plumbing in Muddy Creek back then so he was a master mechanic. The post office was in the front part of his shop and he was usually in back tinkerin’ on somethin’ or other.

“One day he came out carryin’ a big black umbrella. ‘I’ve done it this time, Billy,’ he said. ‘This will make my fortune!’

“You’re gonna sell umbrellas, Uncle Silas?”.

“Not ordinary umbrellas, Billy, ” says he. “They’ll be guaranteed windproof. Folks have been bringin’ me mangled umbrellas to fix and they’re usually hopeless cases. Not with this’n. Light as a feather and strong as an ox. Can’t wait for the next big storm to test her out.’

“He didn’t have to wait long. Two weeks later we got a warning on the radio to be ready to lay low and turn all livestock loose on high sheltered ground. A drecho was headin’ our way. Drecho means ‘straight’ in Spanish.It ain’t like tornados that twist and turn. A drecho will race straight through a town at over a hundred miles an hour, raisin’ hell with anything that’s not solidly bolted down. Uncle Silas was delighted and refused to climb down into the root cellar with me. Said he was gonna take Black Beauty out for a test run.

“Sittin’ in the pitch black cellar I fretted for Uncle Silas. I could hear the boards being torn loose from the shop. The wind’s screechin’ sounded like cranky old witches.

“I climbed up later to what you’d call an air-conditioned shop and saw Main Street littered with battered store signs, shutters, screen doors and the like. I heard later there wasn’t a privy left standin’ in town. Luckily they’d all been unoccupied when the drecho hit.

“Luke Travis, our constable, was formin’ a search party. Turned out nobody was found to be hurt bad, not even the cat that was howlin’ on the general store roof, but there was no trace of Uncle Silas except for a size 13 boot that I recognized lyin’ in a gully at the edge of town, the downwind edge.

“Before our search party could move out, Uncle Silas came limpin’ down the road. He wasn’t hurt. He was limpin’ cause he was wearin’ only one boot ‘It worked!.’ he shouted, ‘Worked just fine! I left it atop that cottonwood tree as good as new, not one bent spoke and we were in the air for more’n five minutes before we lighted on that top branch.’

“I askd him why he didn’t let go of Black Beauty ‘stead of goin’ airborne and riskin’ his life. ‘Let go of my prototype? Never! It’ll make my fortune!’ he shouted.

“So, Billy,” I said. “Did your uncle get rich from his invention?”

“Yes indeedy. He sold the patent rights to a big Denver outfit, got royalties and kept control of brand names. If you fellas ever seen one of those Mary Poppins movies, it wasn’t all special effects. That lady was travelin’ under a Silas Flyer.” (In vino veritas? Probably not, but who cares? It was a great yarn.)

WANTED: TELEPHONE OPERATORS. PREFER PRIM AND PROPER FEMALES WITH LONG ARMS

The world’s first female telephone operator, Emma Nutt, was hired in 1878 by Alexander Graham Bell who had invented the telephone two years earlier which was also the year of the nation’s centennial and of Custer’s Last Stand

Bell had tried using teenage boys as operators, but their attitude and behavior proved unacceptable. The Boston Telephone Dispatch Company’s customers appreciated Emma’s cultured voice and her patient, courteous manner, whereas the boys had too often been impatient, wisecracking and even profane. According to one source dignified Emma married one of those hopefully reformed boys years later.

Emma was 18 years old and in compliance with the company’s hiring requirements for operators by being between 17 and 26 years of age, unmarried, of a prim and proper appearance and with arms long enough to reach all points of their huge switchboard. Her starting salary was $10 a month. She soon memorized every phone number in the company’s directory and stayed at her post for about 35 years.

The prim and proper appearance requirement seems a bit odd for operators who would be unseen by the callers. However, around 1978, a century after Emma began to work, a Bell supervisor told me the company had once relaxed its strict dress code for operators but the resulting decline in attitude was disappointing and the code was reinstated. Are we dealing with the same decline in attitude during the current widespread dress down work days? Haven’t you noticed that even the lady robots seem a little testy on Fridays?

Live telephone operators were part of my life for many decades beginning in 1936 when my family got our first phone. Bobby, my best pal in the second grade, had been bragging about his family’s phone so I decided on that first day to call him to do some counter bragging. I lifted the receiver for the first time in my life and I heard, “Number please” by some lady with a pleasant, cultured voice and probably prim and proper with long arms. . She sounded like Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife.

“I don’t know his number, ” I said, “but I want to talk to Bobby. He lives across the street in the white house with the blue shutters.” For a moment there was silence on the other end and then i received a prim and proper instruction: “Please get your mother, Sonny.”

The Little People, Fact or Fiction?

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, let’s get something straight. Leprechauns are real. My grandma told me that many years ago and she would never lie. Grandma had lived in Ireland and was an eyewitness. The “little people” she said were very active in County Sligo. Other reliable sources have reported on these mischievous pixies and the accounts don’t vary that much.

Leprechauns are always described as resembling little old men, about three feet tall, and skilled at mending shoes and practical joking. If on St. Patrick’s Day Eve you leave a pair of worn out brogans outside your front door with a wee drop of something to ward off the night chill, you might be rewarded in the morning with new soles and heels, a bright shine and an empty shot glass.

If you’re fast enough you’ll get a glimpse of the departing cobbler who can be recognized by his unique garb. Leprechauns are said to wear red or green swallowtail jackets and red breeches buckled at the knees. William Butler Yeats, the Nobelist poet who lived in Sligo, added a significant detail based on his sightings. Their jackets, he said, have seven rows of buttons with seven in each row.

This could be useful to another eyewitness besides Grandma and Yeats. If you brake suddenly to avoid hitting a wandering Leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day, an accurate 49-button description would be an important detail in your report and might even make a breathalyzer test unnecessary especially if the investigating officer is Irish.

Never chase a Leprechaun, not even to thank him for the repaired brogans. He might think you’re after his hidden pot of gold which would change him from jolly to fiercely protective. Also, a captured Leprechaun would owe you three wishes, but be careful. They have a way of making you wish you hadn’t wished.

I may have had a leprechaun encounter of the fortunate kind. While touring the beautiful Ring of Kerry years ago, our guide Dennis announced, “We’ll be stoppin’ up the road a bit beside a peat bog. A little fellow will come out of the black thorn hedge and offer to sell you an ancient Irish beverage he calls “poteen”. It’s an old Gaelic word for “happy” I believe.”

I bought the beverage from the very little man in the green wool overcoat, but I didn’t know about the 49-button count then. Every St. Patrick’s Day I take a wee drop or three. It’s quite magical.

DAYDREAMS : OUR SECRET LIVES

Daydreams are better than night dreams which are often scary adventures with weird uninvited strangers or perhaps friends acting weirdly. You’re much more in control with daydreams. As the producer and director you’re in charge of casting, script-writing and even scenery and special effects. And of course you always have the starring role.

These secret lives of ours were once frowned upon by psychologists. Around the time we moved from craftsmanship to assembly line production the workforce was becoming saddled with tedious repetitive jobs. Daydreaming increased and was being criticized as promoting laziness and safety problems.In the 1950’s some psychologists warned that children who frequently daydreamed could become candidates for neurosis and even psychosis.

Today these fantasy sessions are said to be most prevalent among those with boring jobs such as lifeguards and truck drivers which is a little worrisome. I’d hate to be caught in a riptide off an Asbury Park beach and rapidly departing from North America while the lifeguard is winning a freestyle gold medal at the Summer Olympics in La La Land.

I’d also hope the driver of the 18-wheeler who’s been tailgating me on Route 80 is not enjoying “a short detachment from his immediate surroundings” as Wikipedia defines daydreaming.

Aside from that I agree with the current assessment of daydreams as valuable tools for geniuses like Einstein, Beethoven, Edison and Mel Brooks and as stress-relievers for the general population. I admit to being among the frequent flyer class of daydreamers. Before I retired it provided an emergency exit from ho-hum business meetings.

I kept my little mental rowboat moored in a convenient cove in my brain’s temporal lobe and when the vice president got to “a serious drop in second quarter earnings”, I began a peaceful cruise on beautiful Lake Parsippany. The weather was always perfect -billowy white clouds against an azure sky, a cooling breeze and gentle ripples that didn’t interfere with my rowing. I caught quite a few bass during those meeting/cruises. Sometimes there were other boats out there and I recognized fellow workers pulling on the oars. Once I was surprised to see that day’s speaker zip by on a trim little catboat. I could hear him reciting the corporate earnings report as he made a starboard tack.

One must keep a tight rein on one’s daydreams however. I had a dear friend who had the habit of letting his mind wander frequently. One day it meandered off and never came back. He now holds a high political office.

UNIVERSAL WORDS

The Bible and folklore tell the story of our ancient ancestors’ attempt to build the Tower of Babel. The plan was for the tower to reach heaven and provide an easy backdoor entrance. God canceled their building permit and put a damper on the project by depriving mankind of its universal language. Suddenly, the architect could no longer converse with the construction supervisor and the super’s orders to the bricklayers sounded like gibberish to them.

This polyglot situation is still in effect and is quite comprehensive. A linguistics expert at the Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands claims there is only one word that means the same in every language, and it’s more of a grunt than a word. “Huh” is supposed to have the same meaning around the world whether it’s uttered in Brooklyn, Bangladesh or Bolivia. I guess the universal meaning is “I didn’t hear or understand what you just said.”

Maybe “huh” is the only completely universal word, but others must be in hundreds of vocabularies. Experts say the M’s and P’s in “mama” and “papa” are the easiest consonants for babies to pronounce, so those parental titles are used in many languages, but not all.

“Ah: is also widespread, usually meaning “I like that,” or “Please keep scratching there.” If “ah” is drawn out and accompanied by a scowl, it means “I don’t like that” or “The Mets just blew another one!”

There is a universal version of “ah” if it’s followed by “choo”, meaning “Something is tickling my nostril” or “You’re not supposed to smoke in here.” This reminds me of the joke about the American tourist lost in Berlin, very anxious and having a sneezing fit. A passerby politely said “Gesundheit” and the tourist remarked,”Thank goodness, someone who speaks English!”

It’s surprising that “ouch” is not a universal word. Pain is greeted with many different exclamations around the world. Japanese dental patients say “Itai!”. A German carpenter yelps “Autsch!” when his hammer hits his thumb and “Ay!” is what a Spanish toreador shouts after a too close encounter with the bull.

I’m not convinced about that one. Do we really have to learn what to shout if we scrape a knee in Nepal or get a cramp in Croatia? I’ll have to think about that. Hey, what about “hmm” for a universal word? Do you have any other suggestions?

RULE-BENDING

Benjamin Franklin said, “The Constitution only guarantees Americans the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

That makes sense, but of course there are rules to be followed during the pursuit and where there are rules, there will always be rule-benders.

Those who believe that wealth is a vital ingredient of happiness become impatient with any rules that stand between them and Easy Street. There’s the pol who forgets that the donated funds are for his campaign expenses and not his champagne flights and the financial officer with his sure-fire recipe for cooking the books.

Many of these perps end up with no money worries and living in gated communities. However, the gates are locked and armed guards are posted on the walls.

We all occasionally try to circumvent an inconvenient regulation, usually on a small scale, and maybe not even involving money. A friend told me his doctor had ordered him to walk two miles every day to maintain his fitness and health . “It was pretty awful the first week,” he said. “I was out of shape and exhausted after those two-mile forced marches, but then, luckily, I found a shortcut.”

In 1938 Douglas Corrigan, a young flyer from Texas, was refused official permission for a transatlantic flight to Europe. After flying his single engine plane from California to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, he took off again, supposedly for a return flight to California, but ended up landing in Ireland instead. His excuse for the significant route change was low cloud cover that he said obscured the view of the ocean below, and his misreading of his compass. He became famous as “Wrong Way Corrigan” and never publicly changed his story. After all, the authorities must have been embarrassed. They’d said his plane wasn’t capable of a flight to Europe.

Once when I was a little kid I wanted to go to the movies, but the admission price then was ten cents and I had only one lonely nickel. I asked my older brother Jim for a loan. “I can’t help you,” he said, “but you can get in with a nickel. Just tell them you’re going to watch the movie with one eye closed.” I was only seven years old and dumb enough to think that might work.

The theater manager laughed in my face and said, “Okay, kid, but if I catch you opening the other eye during the movie I’m calling the cops and I’ll have you arrested..” I was also dumb enough to believe him and I left. I’d recently seen a scary George Raft movie about Sing Sing Prison and I didn’t want to end up in the slammer. A week later I returned wearing an eye patch, but that didn’t work either.