You really nailed it this time!
When I stopped building and remodeling houses for a living after training to become, and getting my first job as a graphic artist in my 20’s at Media 4, an ad agency, I had a large supply of nails, screws, wire and bolts left over from construction jobs. My wife had gotten a glue gun for the production of “Moses Baskets,” fabric covered wicker baskets that she and a friend were crafting and selling. My son and his friend Emerson liked to nail scraps of wood together in our backyard and make sculptural towers with pieces of wood that I gave them from my garage. Emerson talked like Elmer Fudd in those days and his favorite sarcastic, ironic expression about my son Jordan’s creations was always “Vewy Imppwessive, Jhoordannn! Vewy Imppwessive! To this day, 25 plus years later, “Vewy Imppwessive!” is still an iconic, ironic family slogan.
Emerson, in his extreme building enthusiasm, hit one of his projects so hard that he broke the head off of a small hammer, something that I had previously thought was physically impossible. While Jordan and Emerson were banging out their creations I got out the glue gun and started making nail furniture right next to them. I had been to the Ringling Brothers – Barnum Baily Circus in Madison Square Garden when I was 6 years old and had seen Freak Shows. My companion’s mother bought me a small Bowie knife and bought my friend Danny a pet alligator at the circus. We were armed and dangerous! We saw someone lying on a bed of nails in the Freak Show which decades later became the inspiration for my first nail sculpture, a bed of nails. It was a four poster bed with large lag screws for the legs and vertical upright nails for the mattress. When I finished it I painted it bright high glossy red.
I went on to make chairs, tables, couches and large thrones out of nails, screws, wire and bolts. The tallest red throne was glued to an old large circular photographic enlarger lens used for a base which I painted gloss black. It is still awaiting a royal coronation ceremony for a small king or queen. They will knight their obedient vassals with nine inch nails and finish the ceremony by praising them with the salutation, “You Nailed It!”
Don’t ever let any paint get on the floor!
My Stanford art professor, Jim Johnson, was trembling with rage when he read this directive from Lorenz Eitner, then the head of the Stanford art department. Jim was on the verge of tears and read Dr. Eitner’s directive verbatim to my painting class, as it instructed painting professors to tell their student artists to not let any drops of their paint or turpentine fall onto the bright shining hardwood floors in the new art department studios in the spring of 1972.
It was a classic example of the difference between art historians and the people who actually make art – Those who know and appreciate how art is in truth created, and those who see it decades or hundreds of years later in museums or books, and write about it and have no real concept or appreciation for the artist’s struggle, or how art is actually made.
Jim Johnson later slowly went blind, the cruelest fate possible for a visual artist.
We speak with a lisp because King Ferdinand had a lisp and his court did not want to disrespect him, so soon everybody in the entire country of Spain started lisping, just like the king.
I was given this explanation of why everyone in Spain spoke with a lisp, a country wide cultural affectation that I first noticed on a trip to Madrid when I was 19, having taken Spanish for 5 years in secondary school and speaking Mexican Spanish, which does not feature lisps. I was told the probably untrue legend that King Ferdinand of Spain had a lisp and that everyone in his court started to speak like him so as not to embarrass or disrespect him, and the linguistic custom then spread to the rest of the country.
My friend Rob who had anti-lisp speech therapy in his childhood, recited a poem to me that he had to memorize and repeat endlessly to overcome his lisping tendencies:
“Amidst the mists and coldest frosts
With stoutest wrists and loudest boasts
He thrusts his fists against the posts
And still insists we see the ghosts.”
I was in Madrid at the Prado National Art gallery, looking at Francisco Goya’s dark and horrific suite of prints, “The Disasters of War,” where a friend was explaining the Spanish lisp theory to me when I looked up and saw my cousin Sydney Waller, randomly looking at the same Goya prints. I was overjoyed to see her as I had no idea that she was in Madrid, and our meeting was a karmic cultural coincidence. I did not lisp as we greeted and embraced. She had a degree in art history and was running an art gallery in Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Every summer, coinciding with the induction of players into the Hall of Fame, she held an exhibition of baseball centric artwork for a month. She also helped to create and edit a book on the national pastime entitled “Diamonds are Forever – Artists and Writers on Baseball.”
I don’t wanna eat my han-ya-ya! I don’t wanna eat my han-ya-ya!
I was driving across the USA with my family for the first time, from our home in Saint Paul Minnesota back to New York City where I had been born 3 years earlier, in a very unreliable green Studebaker coupe, prone to random highway breakdowns. We were eating lunch at a roadside diner when I was served a very rare, bloody hamburger. I took one bite, spat it out and stood up on the banquette and shouted over and over again “I don’t wanna eat my han-ya-ya! I don’t wanna eat my han-ya-ya! I don’t wanna eat my han-ya-ya! From that day on until decades later, I only ate well done meat, later becoming a vegetarian for a couple of years.
Starting when I was around 9 years old, I developed a fondness for whale meat. We sometimes dined at Sloppy Louie’s restaurant, across from the Fulton Fish market on the edge of the New York harbor, back when New York had a daily seafood market at the docks. Sloppy Louie’s was the only place I have ever been, other than Iceland, where whale flesh has been on the menu. I had been reading books about whaling and it seemed like a romantic idea to ship out as a cabin boy for 2 years to get away from my quotidian daily life at P.S. 125, a very rough, over crowded urban school on 125th Street in the heart of Harlem, where my parents had enrolled me to help integrate the mostly black student body. Sloppy Louie’s menu was as close as I could get to that whale getaway fantasy, though I later saved my shoe shining and baby sitting money and bought an 8’ El Toro sailboat for $150 and sailed away on the summer lakes of New England, though I was never able see a whale and to cry “Thar She Blows” from the top of my 8’ tall aluminum masthead. We did catch numerous sunfish, bluegills, perch, bullheads and the occasional large mouth bass, but whale was not on the fishing menu in Rowe Pond and I didn’t have a harpoon.
My family had lived in Oxford England for a year just before I was born when my father had been granted a Fulbright scholarship to work on his PhD dissertation, so I had heard about exotic English dishes such as Toad in the Hole, Bangers and Mash and Spotted Dick. The closest I ever got to that kind of meal was when my mother would make me an Egg in Hole. When my Anglophile, tea sipping grandparents visited, they would serve me something that I thought was called “Cambridge Tea,” though I found out years later it was really “Cambric Tea,” a sweet hot drink made of milk, water, sugar and a couple of drops of tea, perfect for young children.
When my uncle Jim Thomson, a China scholar and American diplomat, would visit us after trips to Asia, he would often bring us a box of 100 year old eggs, which were eggs that had been buried in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls and aged for several months. Once the eggs were unearthed and peeled, the yolks had turned dark green and the exterior of the eggs were dark brown and black, often naturally engraved with white snowflake/pine branch patterns. They smelled of sulphur and rot. The sight and smell of them made me nauseous and to this day I still do not like hard boiled eggs.
We would often walk down Broadway in the evenings to go to a pizza restaurant. The subway was elevated there directly above Broadway and the trains would make a tremendous screeching rumbling roar as they braked, rolling into the 125th street station. Across and up Broadway were the General Grant and Morningside Heights Projects, huge gulag style low income brick apartment towers that had recently been completed. City planner Robert Moses had demolished hundreds of acres of 19th century brownstone slum apartments and had built dozens of 20 story towers which had just been completed in 1956. They were later described in the New York Times as “new slums built atop old slums.” It was a sketchy neighborhood at best, that I had to walk through to get to school every day for several years.
As we were finishing our pizza one night, the waiters suddenly started yelling in Italian and two of them rushed past our table out of the door and ran up Broadway, chasing a couple of patrons who had eaten but had departed rapidly without paying their bill while waiters were in the kitchen. It was the first time I had seen a “Dine and Dash” episode in real life and in real time.
In the summers we would leave Manhattan and spend two wonderful months in very rural Heath, Massachusetts, the town that time had forgotten, where my parents had bought a 50 acre farm for $ 6 per acre and built a vacation home. The country store when we shopped several times a week had a front counter covered with rainbow hued boxes of penny candy. We would carefully choose our favorites and deposit them in very small paper bags and pay for them with carefully counted pocket fulls of pennies. My favorite were Atomic Fireballs, hard bright red 1” diameter spheres that had a very sweet exterior, but became hotter and more spicy as the outer layers dissolved and the bright pink interiors, laced with some kind of hot pepper mixture, came into play in my mouth. They gave a lot of bang for the buck (or penny) as it took 15 or 20 minutes for them to dissolve, and they were so hard that it was impossible to chew them to hasten the tasting process without risking breaking your teeth.
I also loved their Birch Beer, a regional soda that was as clear as water, somewhat like colorless root beer, but made from birch bark, sap and roots. The top loading metal soda container in the Peter’s Store had a faded red Coke logo painted on the sides and was chilled by huge blocks of melting ice that the bottles were nested in. Creamsicles were another favorite iced confection – Orange sherbert popsicles with an interior filling of vanilla ice cream, perfect for cooling down after an Atomic Fireball nuclear meltdown had exploded in my mouth.
We often brought Kellog’s Sugar Corn Pops breakfast cereal home from the Peter’s Store. They were advertised on black and white TV with violent ads featuring fighting cowboys with guns shooting Sugar Pops. Their tag line was “The Pops are sweeter and the taste is new, They’re shot with sugar through and through.”
We drank gallons of Kool-Aid on hot summer afternoons. It came in a small flat paper packet with a picture of a large smiling red pitcher on the front, covered with shimmering beads of smiling icy condensation. It cost five cents and made two quarts, We dumped it into a large aluminum pitcher and added half a cup of sugar and a quart of water and stirred up a seriously sugary concoction. The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is now used to describe either blind obedience or loyalty to a cause, but our loyalty was to the sweet sugar high we got as young children sipping Kool Aid in Stevie Wolf’s yard sitting by the swing in the shade of the towering maple trees. It gave us the energy to pivot between games of hide and seek, kick the can and endless turns on the single swing, suspended from a high maple branch.
We sometimes had “Flav-R Straws” – thick paper straws which had a long very thin rectangle of chocolate flavoring built into the inner length of the straw’s tube which would slowly dissolve and flavor the milk coursing through it as we sucked it up.
To add to the sweetness of life, I would often drink shot glasses of maple syrup that we bought from our farmer neighbor, Howard Thomson, who had a sugar house next to his barn. I helped him bring in the maple sap a couple of times in the snowy spring months when the winter thaw began. He would tow a sled with a large galvanized tank of sap atop it, pulled by his big draft horses, Tom and Jerry, who he would effortlessly command with cries of “Gee” and Haw” as we slid our way through the sugar bush. The sugar house had a roaring wood fire under the large evaporating pan. It took 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
“No Batter In There, No Batter in There. He Can’t Hit It. He can’t Even See His Own Feet!
Trash talk was encouraged by our little League coach, Joe Klinocki, in Charlemont Massachusetts in the early 1960’s. It wasn’t yet called trash talk – Joe just yelled to us that he wanted to hear some “Chatter out there” and we started right up, loudly verbally disrespecting whoever was standing next to home plate with a bat in his hand. Baseball was a constant source of entertainment, cognition, consternation, contemplation and competition in our Heath, Massachusetts childhoods. Our neighbor Ned Wolf would listen to the game scores on the radio at his house down the hill over breakfast, and acting as an intrepid traveling news boy, would then climb the hill to our house to tell us who had won and who had lost, and by how little or by how much. Sometimes he would bring the Greenfield Recorder Gazette that his parents subscribed to with him, which displayed all of the latest sports facts in glorious black and white. In later years my father and brother would read the box scores and game write ups in the New York Times in front of our fireplace in the living room in the evenings.
When I was about six or seven years old I was introduced to Major League Baseball by going to a double header (two games played back to back) watching the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Milwaukee Braves, one of the better teams in the League at that time, in Ebbets Field, their New York ballpark from 1913 to 1957. We had taken the subway from our home on the upper west side of Manhattan to the Flatbush area in Brooklyn, a 45 minute trip. The owner of the team, Charles Ebbets had named the park for himself, as this was long before the days of multi million dollar stadium naming rights and bidding competitions.
The Dodgers had broken the color barrier in baseball and had hired Jackie Robinson in 1947 as the first black player in Major League Baseball. Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, some of the greatest players of all time were also on the team – not that it mattered to me. I wanted to play baseball, not watch some miniature old men play the game extremely far away from where we were sitting, high up in the bleachers behind right field. I had never seen my father get so excited before, which happened with every Dodger hit or good defensive play, which was thrilling and odd, as he was seldom that emotionally demonstrative unless he was telling stories at the dinner table, playing the piano or singing. He could sing two notes at once somehow and would harmonize with himself, a little like Tuvan throat singing.
I ended up being so bored by the contest that I did not go to another major league game for almost 40 years, until my son Jordan was 9 years old and had decided that he would be a Major League pitcher when he grew up. Baseball is essentially a game of tension and waiting, and unlike the balletic war game of American football where something violent happens with every play, in baseball mostly nothing happens. We went and saw the Oakland A’s play and I was so impressed with how pristine the stadium and field were. It seemed like a flawless and sparkling world apart, impossibly green and clean, far away from normal quotidian daily affairs, almost spiritually pure in its otherness.
Heath was far too small a town to have a little league team, so we drove 6 miles down a mountain to the town of Charlemont to join the Charlemont Firemen, sponsored in some way by the local volunteer fire department. The team was too low rent to have uniforms, so all of the kids wore bright red T shirts with a small white felt C stitched to the center, blue jeans and black Keds high top sneakers. Everyone had to provide their own gloves and ball caps. Our coach was a gruff man named Joe Klonocki who owned a nearby garage where he worked on cars, trucks and tractors. He always wore green pants and green shirts and a green hat with a little slot in the front of it for a train ticket. With his rather large belly he looked like a giant green baseball in profile. He batted lefty, but cross handed and cautioned none of us to ever do that. The one time he ever let us see him hit, he knocked pitch after pitch way out to right field. Just creamed the ball and grinned. Joe dished out punishment for misbehavior or idle frivolity by smashing a baseball towards the Deerfield River at the far edge of the field and telling the offender to go run and get it.
He loved baseball and passed on that passion and devotion to his players. He chewed tobacco constantly and if you failed to perform well during batting practice, he would grumble and spit a long stream of tobacco juice in your direction from his coaching perch high atop the pitcher’s mound. He got his tobacco fix by taking out a cigar, breaking it in half, putting one half back in his pocket, and stuffing the entire other half deep into his mouth. Chewing would ensue and spitting floods would soon follow.
We played on a field behind an old brick school near the Deerfield River. For some reason coach Joe decided that I should play shortstop, one of the most active and demanding of all of the positions on a baseball diamond. More balls get hit to shortstop at higher velocity than any other position. We had all of our practices and played all of our games in the late afternoon or early evening in the summer, and at shortstop my position faced directly west into the bright and blinding low sinking sun, a serious and dangerous predicament when balls were being hit directly toward my body, head and face. It was exciting, but I would have much preferred to be playing in any other position, especially the outfield that my fielding skills were far better suited for, but Joe had his own ideas, and his decisions were final. Our field directly abutted another baseball diamond where older kids in the Pony League played. Their right field and our left field backed into each other. Once one of their right fielders was hit directly on the head by a ball hit from our game, his back being turned to us while concentrating on his own competition, and he was suddenly knocked unconscious.
The baseball field was right next to the Deerfield River and the Boston and Maine railroad ran right next to the river. I always loved the bright blue and black color scheme of their freight cars, engines and cabooses, so much more colorful than the usual subdued dark brown or rusty red color schemes of the other railway lines. That segment of track was one of the most poorly maintained and accident prone sections of railroad in America in the 1950’s and 1960’s. One year a train had derailed directly across from the field and a scattered, shattered necklace of black, blue, brown and yellow freight cars lay strewn across the low hillside and the rest of the wreck remained half submerged in the river all summer long. The Hoosac tunnel, one of America’s greatest 19th century engineering marvels began very near there, connecting Charlemont at the eastern end of the Pioneer Valley and the then thriving industrial hub of North Adams 4 1/2 miles away on the other side of the Hoosac mountains. 196 men were killed in excavating the tunnel through solid rock. The funding for the tunnel was expensive and contentious. Future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said he’d like to “wall up a dozen lawyers at one end of the tunnel and put a good fee at the other” to streamline the building and funding process. We sometimes hiked to the opening of the tunnel on the eastern side and would walk in a hundred yards or so and hope that a train did not come barreling out of it while we were inside the mountain in that dark and narrow space.
During one Little League game Ned Wolf was pitching, my brother Peter was playing first base and the batter hit a high fly into shallow right field. Peter backed up into right field to make the catch and collided with the large and immobile body of right fielder Timmy Henderson and fell down and broke his wrist. I was watching in disbelief from shortstop and was horrified when he got up clutching his left arm in terrible pain. We drove him to Shelburne Falls, 5 miles away to Doctor Galbo’s office, where a large plaster cast was put on his wrist and forearm. Never one to let adversity slow him down, he somehow continued to pitch in ensuing games, throwing pitches while clutching his glove to his chest with his splinted arm and quickly putting his glove on his right hand once the ball had been thrown. To the disbelief, amusement and amazement of opposing pitchers, he batted one handed, holding the bat like a giant club in his right hand a number of times. He actually hit the ball and got on base a few times using this very exotic and unorthodox technique, perhaps the only kid in the history of Little League to bat in that fashion.