THE DAM ASSIGNMENT

It was twilight of a pleasant Sunday evening. I was just beginning to recover from the after effects of an even more pleasant Saturday evening, trying to decide between TV and a good book. Or I might just relax and watch the plants grow in my wife’s terrarium. Suddenly I was jolted to attention!

“Say, Dad, do we have any cement?” I didn’t catch on at first, assuming it was just a growing boy’s natural curiosity.

“There’s a ten-pound bag in the basement, Steven. I’m going to build a patio someday….or other.”

“That’s a relief, Dad. I was afraid I was going to flunk Earth Science.”

I caught that one, a wicked line drive, and flinched. “Am I correct in assuming you have some kind of impending school project, Son?”

“Yup, and it’s due tomorrow. Miss Grumble said if we don’t……”

“Steven, you mentioned cement. Can you assure me we don’t have to build something like that Fiji village out of toothpicks tonight? There was a pleading tone in my voice.

“Of course not, Dad. That was last month’s geography project. This is for Earth Science. It’s completely different.”

I gripped the arms of my Van Winkle Lounger and whispered, “What is it?”

“Hoover Dam, Dad. I have to build a model of Hoover Dam. Miss Grumble said if I don’t…..”

“Hoover Dam by tomorrow morning ? How long have you known about this and why didn’t you start sooner?”

“Gee, Dad, you don’t have to shout like that. I’ve been busy with other things, like the poetry class and cross-country practice, but I’ve also been working on this project.”

That’s different, I thought. I’m good at finishing touches. It’s my specialty. “What have you done so far?” I asked.

“I’ve got the water for Lake Mead in this bottle, Dad. “

After an hour’s research I had a vague idea of what Hoover Dam looked like. While Steven stood by holding Lake Mead, I began mixing quick-dry cement , wondering how to fake turbines. What’s a turbine, anyway?

It was a challenging fun project at first, but assistant Steven went to bed at ten and it got lonely. By 2 a.m. I was groggy and suffering with cement burns. (I should have worn gloves.) A few hours later I awoke, looking down at what could easily be mistaken for Hoover Dam by someone who had never been there or had never seen or even heard of it.

Full payment came when Steven pronounced in the morning, “It’s Super!”
“But gee, Dad,” he said, “You didn’t have to make a sign like that and I think you misspelled it.”

“Leave it as it is,Son. Humor your old Dad and leave the sign.”

“Dedicated to Miss Grumble: Hoover Damn.”



BRAHMS TO THE RESCUE

Background music is essential in the movies. “Rocky” would have been a so-so pug without his rousing theme and a musicless “Jaws” would have lost much of its bite.

The strong influence of music is not a new idea. Playwrite William Congreves wrote in 1697, “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks or bend the knotted oak.”

There are examples in real life. Serenades still arouse the emotions of young maidens, dirges underline our grief and military bands still inspire troops with the necessary enthusiasm to run in the right direction when the battle begins.

Background music is often piped into dentist and IRS waiting rooms and wherever else a calming influence is needed, a sort of audio Novocaine. But a more personal effort for attitude adjustment is also available..

Using your Smart Phone player to create an appropriate audio atmosphere could increase your chance for success by inspiring others to change their attitudes or tempos. Say you’ve been summoned into your boss’s office. He appears angry and you sense an impending crisis. “You sent for me, Mr. Hardnose?” you ask and reach into your pocket to turn on your player, selecting “Brahms Lullaby”.”

“It’s this Badpenny contract,” Mr. Hardnose growls. “You were a week late in submitting it and I have never seen such a….such a….” Mr. Hardnose begins to struggle against the waves of soothing notes drifting out of your pocket and filling the room. His growls soften to murmurs with the same sleepy tempo of the lullaby. “Please try to improve this thing, my boy,” he whispers, slumping back into his chair. “It does have a few good paragraphs.”

Brahms’ Lullably is reliable, but it only provides about two minutes of sedation and shouldn’t be used to calm a major tirade. Pachelbel’s Canon gives you about six minutes and, for longer tranqulization, try De Bussy’s 10-minute “Afternoon of a Faun”. I heard it once stopped a charging bull.

There are situations calling for a faster beat. You might be in a long supermarket checkout line with a cashier and bagger who appear to be starring in a slow motion movie. A rousing Sousa march will speed things up and get you out in 6/8 time.

I’ll soon be paying by the hour for a plumber’s efforts. If, as usual, he leaves half his tools in the truck, when he leaves for them I’ll hit him with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. He’ll march briskly to the truck and possibly salute me when he returns.

Music is definitely a mood and pace changer, but it must be used carefully. A friend of mine was pulled over for speeding on Route 80 recently. He had an elaborate, well rehearsed plea about being on a mission of mercy. As an added touch he’d turned on his car’s player for a heart-rending performance of Clair de Lune. The teary-eyed trooper began to stuff his ticket book back into his pocket when Joe accidentally turned on the radio and heard a news report about an unruly crowd shouting to defund the police.

In addition to a speeding ticket, Joe was cited for reckless parking and dirty tail lights.

END OF THE LINE BLUES

The supermarket checkout line was invented in 1938, just in time to provide endurance training for the large, rugged fighting-mad population needed for the trying times of World War II.

That’s not a complete exaggeration. How many times in the last month have you endured long waits in a checkout line,watching your Haagen-Dazs drip into your bagels, as a conscientious clerk read someone’s pack of discount coupons, front and back, and then called a manager for consultation? How many eternities have you spent while a housewares clerk strolls over to advise the price of an untagged soup ladle?

The express checkout is a great idea. However, it seems to be the first assignment for green recruits. I once tried vainly to help a rookie identify the exact genetic name of my potatoes so he could punch the right twenty buttons to come up with the price. Finally, a housewife at the end of the line shouted, “For goodness sakes, you two dummies, those are russets!”

In the new bring-your-own-bags era, pro baggers are not always on hand. To help speed things up, I sometimes attempt to fill the void, but my performance tends to resemble an”I Love Lucy” episode with groceries zooming in on the belt while I desperately try to keep up. I usually arrive home with scrambled eggs and the milk already poured into the Wheaties.

SURVIVING AS A CHILD IN THE WILD

Many veteran campers will explain at great length that the main reason they spend their vacations like Neanderthals in pop-up canvas caves is because they need the change.

But are all changes good? Wouldn’t a stretch on a Georgia chain gang or a week in solitary at Sing Sing be a change? Shouldn’t a vacation make us feel good while we’re on it rather than just making us feel relieved when it’s over?

My first camping experience came when my parents decided I needed a change. (or maybe they did.) I was backpacked onto , kicking and pleading, the bus to Camp Now-ee-Gotcha in the Poconos

By my third day, the camp counselors were using me as an exhibit for the insect bites and severe sunburn lectures. The activities program was very detailed and very strict and the food was swill. (That’s not a misspelling.) And the scary campfire yarns about maneating and boyeating beasts in the nearby forests made night time sleeping impossible. I dozed off during a swimming lesson while attempting the backstroke and was again a star in the artificial respiration video.

All this led to a very rewarding experience, not in the camp, but during my eventual escape and my conversations with interesting drivers as I hitchhiked home.

One old truckdriver remembered he’d endured a miserable week as a boy at Camp Now-ee-Gotcha and years later, as a G.I., soon after the D-Day invasion, was captured by the Germans and was a prisoner of war for five months.

I asked him which camp experience was the more painful and, after a thoughtful few minutes, he admitted he couldn’t decide between Now-ee-Gotcha and Stalag 22.

MOVIE HOUSE INMATES

Hercule Poirot turned to the group of suspects seated in the Orient Express dining car. “It is now quite clear to this detective that the murderer of Colonel Throckbottom is none other than….(COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, A-A-ACHOO!) who has cleverly been disguised as (RATTLE, RATTLE, CRUNCH!)”

At this climactic moment in the movie, Poirot raised his hand to point to the perpetrator and the entire row in front of me stood up to remove their coats or to leave for parts unknown. When I cry at movies, it is often caused more by the audience than the film.

We movie goers have to deal too often with the coughers, sneezers, snackers, talkers, wrigglers and shoe-losers sitting near us. I sometimes don’t get to see an entire movie until years later when it’s on TV. Until TCM ran “The Grapes of Wrath”, I’ d thought it was a story about a strike at a winery.

Snacking at the movie theater is a nice tradition, but it can be overdone. The couple in front of me recently consumed two bags of popcorn, four candy bars and a sack of donuts. I felt like I was playing PacMan. It was very distracting.

The noisy eaters are the worst. Without realizing it, they add sound effects to a movie. A nearby wolfish potato chip chomper spoiled “Gone With the Wind” for me. When Rhett Butler angrily swept Scarlett off her feet and carried her up those stairs, I thought I’d heard cracking and assumed he’d broken the poor girl’s back.

Laughter in a theater can be quite infectious and enjoyable, but sometimes it can be disturbing. The jolliest loud laughter I ever heard was from a gaunt, hatchet-faced old man sitting next to me. It was during “Psycho’s” chilling murder scene in the shower. I settled for sponge baths for weeks after that.

“Oh, I saw this picture. You’ll love it,” the ‘spoiler’ tells his companion. When you hear this, change your seat immediately to avoid his or her running commentary. “Now watch this! Watch what he does now! Watch!” Does he think we’re going to stop looking at the screen after paying so much for a ticket?

I encountered one of the more imaginitive movie house nuisances once in a Morristown theater. I was trembling through a “Friday the 13th” sequal in 3-D when I suddenly felt an icy cold hand on the top of my head.

As I fought off a fainting spell, I thought, ‘This 3-D is much too realistic.!” But then I heard a woman shouting beside me in the aisle. “This is our row, Sylvia. I remember we were six bald heads from the back.”



CASTAWAY RENTALS

Our very ancient ancestors were born in the sea and we are drawn back by the hypnotic rhythm of the waves. Like lemmings we make our way to the ocean each summer, undeterred by obstacles, adversities or toll booths.

Inching southward on the Garden State Packedway, with family and engine overheating, we begin to trade the cares and fears of our landlocked lives for the cares and fears of oceanside living.

After three hours of inching and a hundred Are-we-almost-theres?, we arrive at Jellyfish Beach where we have reserved a place at Bertha’s Bungalow rentals and sales. (“She sells cheap shells by the seashore”)

Your cozy cottage, according to Bertha, is within easy walking distance of the beach, but Bertha has run in three Boston Marathons and is a retired Marine drill sergeant.

Bertha also claimed your cottage sleeps eight, but you forgot to ask if that was simultaneously. Now she demonstrates how the kitchen table converts to a double bed and the living room couch opens up almost completely. Two can sleep there if one sits up.

There is a nice view of the cottage from the detached guest bathroom, The promised third bathroom is even more detached. Bertha has an arrangement with a local Texaco Station. Well, what do you want for $2,000 a week, the Beverly Hilton?

Jellyfish Beach beckons. There is a genuine feeling of homecoming as you approach the entrance. The ocean, after all, is our Mother. She belongs to all of us. The beach is another matter. It belongs to the taxpayers of Jellyfish Townsip and they charge five bucks a head per day.

You spread your beach blanket and collapse beneath your umbrella until a strong gust sends it pinwheeling towards the boardwalk. Never mind, you will soon be romping in the waves and body surfing. A lifeguard looks at you oddly when you ask ” what time does the ocean calm down?”

Finally, you join your frolicking family and bravely dive into a hugh white-capped roller which does a 180 and pulls you out towards what could be shark country. Was that a fin poking out of the foam?

You’ve seen “Jaws” a dozen times and you know exactly what to do, but the famly votes you down. They will not drive a mile or two inland and find a motel. They’re having too much fun.

As the sun sinks and the shadows lengthen across the sand, your happy group returns to Bertha’s for quick showers (If the Texaco Station is still open) and seaside games, like peeling off each other’s skin. Or you might return to the boardwalk in the evening and spend a week’s wages trying to win a stuffed monkey.

Tomorrow you can go out on a crowded chartered fishing boat and possibly win the pool for the seasickest person on board. Or you could sit on the beach again and watch for oil slicks and red tides. There are so many possibilities!

FAHRENHEIT DEBATES

We were dining by candlelight in a posh restaurant when my wife Barbara leaned across the table and said , “Sweetheart, would you please have them do something about the air conditioning?”

“Exactly what I was thinking, my dear,” I said and waved to the waiter. “Pierre, I’m sweltering. Would you please turn up the AC?”

“Turn up ?” Barbara gasped. “Turn up the air conditioner? They should turn it off! I’m freezing!”

As Pierre walked away, perplexed, I glanced around the room. Most of the male diners had doffed their jackets and loosened their neckties. The women were huddled in bulky sweaters and shawls. Some appeared to have blue lips.

I’ll bet air conditioning is right up there as one of the causes of broken marriages and divorce. Think about it. A hundred years ago when the institute of marriage was almost rock solid, how many air conditioners were there?

Air conditioning places much of the indoor climate decisions into our hands and makes the temperature, at least, a matter of personal choice. But when there’s more than one person involved, that’s a problem.

We once resigned ourselves to weather conditions as being God’s will and changed our plans when necessary. But since our indoor climate is now the result of human decisions, it has become a case of second and third guessing, bickering and occasional fisticuffs.

AC setting opinions vary, depending on the subject’s sex, metabolism, activity level and attire. At a business office, for instance, the female receptionist who burns very few calories per minute and is dressed in peekaboo chiffon, prefers the “semi-tropical” setting. The boys down in the shipping department, however, push the “Arctic Wastes” button.

As management vacillates, yielding to one faction and then another, and as the AC and cooling fans settings are changed, the building temperatures and the wind chill factors fluctuate daily. Absenteeism soars as chilblains and heat exhaustion cases increase.

The internal climate control debate intensifies the conflict between the sexes and might also be contributing to the highway accident rate. A happily married New Jersey couple is cruising southward on the Garden State Parkway, anticipating a carefree day at the Shore. As they approach Perth Amboy, he reaches for the instrument panel.

“What are you doing, Harry? You’re not turning on the air conditioner are you?

“Sweetheart, it’s definitely getting close in here with the sun beating down on the roof. It must be close to 90 out there now and the vent isn’t helping much. I’ll just put it on low.”

“Oh dear! I can feel the icy blast already! Right down to my bones!”

“I haven’t turned it on yet, Alice.”

Just a few miles further, Harry has cooled down where he’s hardly sweating. Alice is wrapped in a beach blanket and sneezing occasionally. Harry relents and pushes the off button. Ten minutes later he is sweating bullets and feeling a little dizzy. “Alice, I have to open a window,” he gasps.

“Must you Harry? I just got comfortable and you know how I hate being storm-tossed. At this speed we’ll have a 60 mile per hour wind gusting in here. That’s almost a hurricane, Harry. Well, if you must, open it just an inch or two.”

The State Trooper pulled Harry over near the Asbury Park exit. “What’s wrong , officer? I wasn’t speeding, was I ?”

“No sir. But I’ll have to cite you for careless driving. You couldn’t have been operating your vehicle efficiently with your nose wedged in the window opening with one eye looking up at the ceiling.”

A sympathetic male judge might let Harry off with a warning and a month’s community service at a nursing home beauty parlor.

THE LOSING GAME

Many of us party people become anxious this time of year. We realize we are considerably overdue in shedding the winter cocoons that have shielded the results of months of unbridled feasting. Our bridles, it seems, have become two sizes too small.

Inevitably, the sun travels further north each day, the mercury rises and our clothing must become lighter and more revealing with fewer layers to hide our wintertime bulges.

We must accept this need for scantier garments if we want to enjoy our usual summertime activities. Can you imagine an Asbury Park lifeguard shouting into his bullhorn, “Hey you in the trenchcoat, don’t swim out so far!”

I’ve tried the one-week diets. That’s not their official name. It’s how long I’ve managed to stick with their starvation menus that deprive my body of vital nourishment from salami subs and everything pizzas.

Some experts suggest exercise is the answer for long term results. They say we must burn more calories than we eat to lose weight. I agree. I’ve always wanted to try weight lifting. The key is to start gradually and know your limitations. I’m following that regimen now. For two weeks I’ve been pumping aluminum and hope I can soon advance to stainless steel.

At the same time I’m taking my doctor’s advice to include jogging in my program with a one-mile daily run. At first I found this quite difficult, but I’m okay with it now since I found a shortcut.

A friend of mine is very happy with the results of his wall pushup program. Pinky is a big fellow who also prefers calorie burning over dieting. He’s lived in a small apartment for years with little room or income for expensive excercise equipment. Wall pushups, which burn about 10 calories a minute, seemed ideal for him.

After two months of hourly sessions against his living room wall, Pinky had significantly reduced his bulk and increased his muscle tone. Then one fateful night at pushup number 243, his wall gave out and Pinky fell into the adjoining apartment.

The startled young lady who lived there soon calmed down when Pinky apologized for his dramatic entrance. Very soon, he and Barby were having a tete-a-tete beside the shattered sheet rock and soon discovered they were soul mates, both New York Mets fans and Democrats who enjoyed nature walks and Mel Brooks and both had planned to adopt a shelter dog.

Pinky lost 65 pounds and gained an attractive 125-pound fiancee. They soon married and didn’t replace the shattered wall. They live now in their commodious duplex apartment with little Melvin and Old Yeller.

There is no guarantee of a happy ending like this for a wall pushupper. You had better find out who lives in the adjoining apartment. It could be a happily married personal injury attorney.

OH THE FEAR OF THE OPEN ROAD!

Browsing the Web today, I came across an ad for an antique Puch Maxi moped on sale for an astounding $5,000. It brought back memories of my scary attempt to “grab life by the handlebars”.

It was in Bermuda years ago and I did grab the handlebars, scared stiff on a perilous Puch Maxi which I feared might carry me and my wife into eternity or at least into an emergency room.

I hadn’t even been on a bicycle for 10 years and was quite upset on arriving in Bermuda to hear the best way to tour the island was on one of these motorized enigmas.

I eventually found myself mounted on one of the little devils, helmeted and staring down the road through tinted goggles as I called for more and more power, twisting the throttle further, thrilling to the crescendo.

“Hey mister,” the attendant shouted over the roar, “aren’t you gonna take it off the stand and give it a real test run?”

“I want to get the feel of it first,” I said.

“You’re gonna run outa gas soon. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it and have a lotta fun.”

Easy for him to say. He had my money and I had two pages of the rental company’s legalese with bail-out phrases like “excludes all liability” and “makes no warranty of the working order of the vehicle.”

On my solo test run (My wife Barbara refused to board in back.), the Puch almost left without me. I managed to remain partially seatborne by alternately braking and throttling. Turning was simple. I stopped, raised the front wheel, and swung it around. Sometimes you have to improvise.

To make it more interesting and scary I had to remember to drive on the left like everyone else on the road and obey the 20 mph speed limit without a speedometer.

The rental guy had shown me how to engage the rear brake with the left control and the front brake with the right. “By the way,” he added, “don’t apply the front brake alone or you’ll go over the handlebars.” I was beginning to feel like a rookie Kamikaze pilot.

Returning from my third shaky test run I found my helmeted wife, Barbara, all atwitter. “This should be fun,” she laughed, mistaking my clenched teeth for a smile.

“You have to shout every 20 seconds, “Keep to the left please Sweetheart”. I told her. “If it’s an emergency, leave off the last part.”

A nervous hour later, having survived some near misses with several vehicles and one traffic cop, we were climbing the steep hill to the Southhampton Princess. It was tea time at the posh hotel, but I was thinking of something stronger. Suddenly I saw an idiot mopedder coming straight at us.

“Keep to the left, you idiot!” he shouted as he squeezed by.”

“You forgot to remind me,” I scolded Barbara. “You could have caused a serious accident!” She leaned forward and whispered in my right ear, “Horse hockey, Darling!” It was her cute way of ending our arguments.

By then the pooped Puch’s putts were getting fainter. “Lean forward or something,” Barbara suggested. “People are walking up the hill and they’re gaining on us. This is embarrassing!”

Soon there was a strangled cough and we stopped. “Try sliding off the back,” I said, but I’d forgotten to throttle down first so me and the Puch rocketed ahead into the bushes beside the main entrance.

While the doorman was helping me out of the greenery, I noticed Barbara was strolling by, pretending she didn’t know me. All was forgiven later when I found her sitting in the lounge with our two old friends, the Martinis.

Fortunately, the Puch fit snuggly in the taxi trunk for our safe ride back.

WHEELING AND DEALING FOR WHEELS

Car shopping has always been a painful experience for me. I try to learn enough beforehand to be a savvy negotiater. I take notes while watching the TV car ads, but they’re not that explicit. Maybe the precise details are in the six lines of fine print flashed across the screen for one second before the ad closes.

What really disturbs me is the cheerful challenge to “come down and make your best deal!” The last time I managed a successful “best deal” was in the last century when I aced a trade with Skippy Zabrowski: My turtle for his cat. It was a real coup. In just a few weeks I had three cats and he had only one dead turtle. Skippy had never questioned Lightning’s lack of vital signs.

When it comes to pregnant cats and dead turtless, I can be a wheeler-dealer, but it’s a completely different story with cars. For one thing, I was misinformed. I thought our automakers were up against it with stiff foreign competition. So I believed their ads promising “fantastic savings” and “rock bottom pricing”.

When I saw a line up of small Detroit-built streamlined cars in the lot beneath a “SPECIAL CLEARANCE!” banner, I thought I might have stumbled onto something worthwhile.

“What’s the price on those sports cars?” I asked the salesman and then he told me. “No, I don’t want to buy all of them,” I said. “What’s the price of one?” Clyde began to explain the automotive facts of life to me. My eyebrows went up and they have never come down.

Eventually I was ushered into Clyde’s office and, while he flipped through price lists and pounded away on his little device, I glanced around the room and was dismayed to discover I was in the grip of the “Salesman of the Year”. Why do I always get the hotshot salesman? Are there no more Skippy Zabrowskis out there?

I told him the car model I wanted, how much I could put down, and the few features I’d like. He flipped pages and pounded wildly for five minutes before telling me the amount of my monthly payments. Ugh!

I dropped the 6-speaker stereo system, the sun roof and the rear seat TV. Clyde was getting me down to the basic dead turtle and it was still too expensive. To pay the monthlys on this stripped down car I would have to give up or minimize most lunches, HBO and my tap dancing classes. There was the new roof for the house, but I thought there was a reasonable chance for a prolonged drought.

One has to be firm in these situations, so I stood my ground and kept demanding concessions until Clyde finally caved. My first oil change would be free as well as complimentary bagels and coffee during all oil changes. I pressed harder until he promised a free windshield scraper You gotta be hardnosed with these guys.

“You’re a tough customer,” Clyde admitted. “I’ll have to get the manager’s okay on this deal.” I tried not to show how pleased I was with the way I’d handled myself, wanting to maintain my hard-as-nails image.

Clyde left, and in a few minutes, I saw an older man smiling at me through the door window. I thought I detected giggling. He disappeared and a few minutes later I heard laughter and what sounded like the popping of a cork.

Eventually, Clyde returned with the contract and told me to sign just above the champagne stain. “Not so fast, Clyde! ” I said. Run through those figures again.!

He got a little surly, but he read off the numbers while I checked them on my Texas Instrument light-powered calculator. (It pays to keep up technically.) Sure enough, my figures were correct. I was giving up vacations and recreation for 48 months, but my shrewd dealing had managed to insure food, clothing and shelter, plus all those free bagels and coffee.

P.S. I just noticed today while looking over the contract, the car dealership’s manager, the co-signer, was S. Zabrowski. I’m sure it was just a coincidence.