Chapter Three  - Part B

GIFTS 

continued 

 

YOU AND THIS SCRAWNY BOY?

 

Spring 1972, Breakfast With The Rat Pack, Brons age eight

 

"What is your problem, Banker?  You haven't as much as strung a sentence together this morning!" Doc Yoder said in his gravelly voice as he stared at Banker George and waited for a response.  

 

I'd never seen Banker George in a bad mood, but he sure wasn't happy on this particular morning.  Predictably clad in one of his high-priced suits, George hinted the manly scent of top-shelf cologne. I only knew George's suits were expensive because Dad always said so. Otherwise, I couldn't tell a Sears Roebuck from a Brooks Brothers. The banker's prematurely white hair took well to the comb, and a little-dab-will-do-you of Brylcreem kept it perfectly in place.  However, the angry expression on his face was new.

 

George grumbled, "It's that damn vault in the basement of the bank. I have to shell out 500 fricking dollars to have a company come up here from Philadelphia to move that monstrosity over to the other side of the basement."

 

George the banker was not at all opposed to using the real f-word and did so with frequency, but only in the company of his fellow Rats. I felt as if I was almost a Rat, too, when good fortune marked me present for George's "dropping of the f-bomb." I was curious why the banker was substituting "fricking," but at my age, it wasn't appropriate to inquire.  

 

I went to the Breakfast Place with Dad almost every morning before I did battle with the school monster.  It's where my father “the Oil Man" met the other three members of the McAlisterville Rat Pack, “George the Banker", "Doc" and "Peanut", the funniest man in town. Peanut could get away with telling an off-color joke better than Red Skelton, Shecky Greene, Wally Brown or any member of The Blue Collar Comedy Tour all put together.

 

They were the four best storytellers in Juniata County and maybe even the whole wide world, all with individual styles that differed from their fellow Rats.  George the Banker told stories quietly with a smile; the listener thought they knew where things were heading, but suddenly, at the last minute—BAM—old George turned the tables. Doc was deadpan, dry, mysterious, and forced you to think for yourself.  Peanut was outrageous and hilarious with a gift for throwing his voice. Then there was my dad the oil man. His innate mastery of the pause was so perfectly honed that I often wonder if my dad coined the phrase "timing is everything."

 

But I digress, back to moving the bank vault. 

 

Peanut asked, "What's wrong with it where it is?"

 

The banker replied, "Because I'll have to take a flashlight down those rickety damn steps every time I want to open it.  If I have it moved to the other side of the basement, it will be under the lightbulb." 

 

Doc squinted his eyes and curled his lip as he shook his head and asked. "You haven't used that thing in years. Do you even know the combination anymore?"

 

"YES, I KNOW THE COMBINATION!" George barked. 

 

It was unusual to see George the banker so animated.

 

In unison, all three Rats asked,  "Why don't you just get Buzzy Larson to move the light?"

 

A noticeable silence fell over the table as Oil Man Dad, Doc, and Peanut realized that they had just answered their own question. 

 

I had those dots all connected up the split second Banker George mentioned "flashlight" and "lightbulb" in close syntax.  As an overly informed eight-year-old, I knew that this was no electrical problem, it was a kissing problem, meaning husbands and wives were only allowed to kiss on each other, and no one else, kind of kissing problem. 

 

It was common knowledge that Buzzy the electrician broke the kissing rule and was caught red-lipped with Carlson Watts' wife.  Mr. and Mrs. Watts were no longer living together, and the word I heard from Mom and Nancy's coffee talk was that Buzzy and Mrs. Watts were "absconding to Raleigh, North Carolina, where her people lived."  The odd man out in the kissing contest, Carlson Watts, was George's best fishing pal, and since Carlson was angry with Buzzy, that meant George the banker had to be mad at Buzzy, too. Pretty much everyone was upset with Buzzy, seeing as Carlson Watts was a well-liked fellow about town. 

 

Buzzy Larson was the only electrician around, and George the banker wasn't about to give him twenty dollars to bring the light to the vault.  The situation dictated money be damned; the vault would have to take up quarters with the dangly light bulb. 

 

George the banker, considering the kissing code violation, needed a safe moving company, and the closest one was three hours, 147 miles, and $500 away in Philadelphia. 

 

Doc could make a baby pop out of a lady's belly; I'm living proof.  Dad could fill your heating oil tank and keep you warm all winter, and Peanut could make anyone laugh, but none of the Rats tempted electrocution.  Oh, and Dad and Doc stayed far away from chainsaws, too. I assumed I knew where George stood on chainsaws but was feeling slightly inadequate that I didn't know Peanut's position on them. I  knew I'd have to tuck that inquiry away for a more opportune time as the conversation had just shifted to a cash offer from Dad to Banker George.

 

Did Dad just say, "Nelson and I will move the vault tonight for fifty bucks each?" 

 

George the banker quickly provided confirmation to my distrusting ears. He placed his hand on my shoulder and stared at Dad, who was not looking up from his plate of eggs.

 

"You and Brons?" Banker George asked.  

 

Dad still didn't look up. 

 

This was Dad subconsciously demonstrating his mastery of "the pause."  It had many uses, and as seen here goes beyond storytelling and into the realm of negotiation.

 

The banker continued, "Oil Man, have you seen how huge that thing is?  It weighs over 5000 pounds; they built the bank around it in 1900! " George said with an incredulous tone.

 

"Yep," Dad said, not taking his eyes off his plate as he dipped a corner of white toast in the yolk of an egg.

 

George still had his hand on my shoulder, "You and this scrawny little boy right here? No offense, Brons."

 

I shrugged a little as if to say, it is what it is.  

 

"Yep," Dad said, chewing his food as he finally looked up from his breakfast.

 

George asked, "How old are you, Brons? Eight, right?"

 

Dad answered for me, "Yep."

 

I chirped "Well, more like going on nine. I'm eating all I can to get bigger!"

 

"I'd pay money to see you try to move that vault even an inch." Banker George quipped.

 

Dad said, "Nope, no spectators.  Nelson and I will go in tonight after dark  and move the safe. We'll be in and out in under a half hour.  Mark an X on the dusty floor for the new location of the safe. Check in the morning to make sure you're happy,  then meet us here for breakfast at 7:00 sharp. Oh, and bring two new fifty dollar bills, one for Nelson and one for me. Nelson and I are going to walk over and look at it right after breakfast, but I'm telling you now, Banker, no watchers and no eavesdropping."   

 

The basement was dirty and a little spooky with lots of cobwebs. The morning sun found its way through the rusty bars that covered several tiny windows in the top of the foundation.   

 

Dad dusted a tread off on the stairs with his handkerchief. 

 

"Sit down here on the step beside me, Nelson.  Let's take a deep breath to clear our minds, just relax, and focus on the vault.  I'll keep an eye on my watch and say when it's been ten minutes."

 

Dad carried the ever so faint scent of diesel fuel. It was on the soles of his shoes and helped to relax me. It was a comforting odor because it meant my Dad was nearby.  

 

It took me a minute or three to get into focus.  Then it started.  Waves of the smart feeling washed over me.  Dopamine was bouncing through my brain like the pinballs in the machine at the Breakfast Place.  I was an ADD kid, too. The term leads people to believe that people who are ADD can't focus.  The truth is, we try to focus on everything at once. Dad knew this about himself and me.  He also knew that if he coached me into narrowing my focus down to one thing I could solve problems just like he could. We once again, without either of us knowing it, were engaged in self-hypnosis. Others might call it meditation or even heightened daydreaming.  Dad described it as, "We're just going to sit here and quietly think about it for ten minutes." 

 

I stared at the vault and nothing else because Dad said so. This is the power of suggestion used in hypnosis. The talk started inside my head, "It's tall, taller than Dad, square-ish but tall, and it's sitting flat on the dirty concrete floor.  We can't lift it; nobody can lift it. It's bigger than a refrigerator but sort of shaped like one. Old man Leister at the hardware store sells refrigerators, and they deliver them with a handcart, but no handcart can move that thing. We need to put it on wheels somehow, but we can't lift it to put wheels under it, and it might crush them, anyway. Dad said to stare at it, so I'm just going to stare at it," I thought to myself.

 

As I fixed my gaze, I went deeper into a trance. It came to me. I could see how to lift it, kind of maybe, sort of, probably, yes, I see it, I think. 

 

Dad looked at his watch.  "Ten minutes are up!

 

 Do you see it, Nelson?"

 

"Yes, but I only see part of it. Do you see it, Dad?"

 

"I only see part of it, too. Tell me what part you see, Nelson."

 

"We need wheels under it. I know how to lift it, but I could only get two wheels under it in my imagination, and that isn't enough to roll it."

 

"That's good, Nelson, that is really good. Don't take your eyes off of it.  How high can you lift it?"

 

"I can get the back half about four or five inches off the floor, but I can't see in my mind how to lift the front half at all."

 

"If you can get the back half up four inches we can get all the wheels we need under it. How long will it take to lift it, and how long can your imagination keep it in the air?" Dad wanted to know.

 

"Five minutes to lift, and I can keep it there forever."

 

"How are we going to lift it, Nelson?" 

 

"With a jack out of one of your big oil trucks," I told him.

 

"Nelson, we can't get a jack under that thing."

 

"I know we can't jack it from underneath, but the vault isn't far from the basement wall.  We can put the jack between the wall and the backside of the vault, way up high, and tilt the vault forward. We have to get as high up as we can so it tilts and doesn't slide.  We need some of that flat wood from the packing crate that the new Mobil Oil sign came in to put against the stone wall AND the back of the vault, so the jack doesn't slip." 

 

The wall, constructed of stone, was uneven; we needed a smooth surface for the jack.  

 

"You mean plywood, right?" Dad asked.

 

"I guess, if that's the type of wood used to ship the sign."    

 

"That's a good idea, Nelson. I was going to chisel out a piece of concrete and stick a metal pry bar under it as a lever, but I like your idea better. We'll still bring the chisel and hammer, but just as our plan B."

 

We returned that night and tilted the vault forward with the truck jack. We placed three, two inch thick, four feet long round steel bars under the vault as rollers and glided the mammoth safe to its new home under the light bulb. The combination of my idea and Dad's plan made it almost too easy.

 

We made our exit about a half an hour after entering. We in no way burdened ourselves with heavy lifting, and there was no need for plan B.

 

The next morning over breakfast George the banker gave Dad and I each a crisp new fifty dollar bill while shaking his head in disbelief.  George had many questions, but Dad wouldn't look up from his plate of eggs, and I swore an oath of secrecy. 

 

 

PITTSBURGH AT RUSH HOUR

 

“Brons”, Third Grader at Mcalisterville Elementary School

 

My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Clark, grew up near Pittsburgh. It would not have bothered one bit had she decided to move back to the Iron City.  In fact, I encouraged it. In my own way, of course. 

 

At the beginning of the school year she presented as very sweet. Mrs. Clark was a pretty young woman in her early twenties and not what we, as students, were used to in a teacher. She wasn't old and frumpy, nor was she grumpy. At least, not at first.  Not too far into the year, though, "nuclear" might be a better descriptor for her demeanor. 

 

Yep, nice as pie one minute, but in the blink of an eye, it was as if someone had dropped the Atomic Bomb in the middle of our classroom.  She was popular because she was brandy-new, right out of college, hip, and a newlywed with an infant. 

 

A little girl in my class suggested at recess one afternoon that "Mrs. Clark has the baby blues just like my mommy.  My Daddy said it makes new mothers get VERY upset over nothing and we need to be patient and kind." 

 

Well, she did have a new baby, and there was no doubt in my mind that she got upset over nothing.  Not knowing when the next explosion would come certainly kept us on the edge of our seats. 

 

If Mrs. Clark Was a Bomb, I Was The Fuse      

 

I bumped into the reading and writing wall in Mrs. Williams' second grade and used Gunther the Gator to get me through. Now, as a third grader, I was a huge splat mark. I hit the wall hard and didn't bounce. I still had Gunther, but now I needed more. I was so embarrassed by Mrs. Clark's constant criticism of my laziness and inability even to write my name that I quickly cast myself in the role of the bad kid rather than live with the label of the dumb kid.  Bad kids were considered cool, dumb kids were not. 

 

I did, however, pay attention to classroom discussion and enjoyed it. I was fine as long as I wasn't called on for the humiliating task of trying to read out loud. 

 

During one particular afternoon discussion, Mrs. Clark started drawing traffic lanes on the blackboard and described Pittsburgh at rush hour. 

 

"During rush hour, 4:00 to 5:30, this bridge has all four lanes open, two on each side of the divider," she said as she drew on the board. 

 

She continued, "Then at 5:30 they go back to allowing only two lanes on one side of the bridge: one lane in each direction. They alternate the two-lane traffic to the opposite side of the bridge every other week. It's like rotating the tires on a car, so they wear evenly. 

Isn't that smart?" Mrs. Clark asked.   

 

All the other kids nodded in agreement while I sat in my chair shaking my head back and forth to the contrary.  Yes, nuclear,  would be a very fitting description for Mrs. Clark's temper, and she sent that A-bomb straight at me.

 

“GO STAND IN THE HALL WITH YOUR FACE TOWARD THE WALL YOU DEFIANT LITTLE BRAT AND THINK ABOUT HOW DISRESPECTFUL YOU ARE.  I WILL BE CALLING YOUR FATHER FOR A TALK!"

 

Oh please, it was so obvious that she had a crush on Dad and looked for any excuse to call him.  Mrs. Clark never called Mom, and that was okay by me. Mom could have cleaned up the floor with this skinny young woman or just as easily have sided with her and used me as the mop instead. 

 

Dad showed up mere seconds before the closing bell rang. Of course, I was still standing in the hall. 

 

As always, my father was very charming, and Mrs. Clark batted her eyelashes and twirled her hair.   

 

"Hello," she said with a ridiculous curtsy.  Dad acknowledged her with his special gentleman to lady handshake, smiled, and said "Hello."   

 

"Sir, Brons was disrespectful today during a class discussion, and I had to send him to the hallway. I was demonstrating how a bridge in my hometown changes traffic patterns to get even wear out of the macadam on its surface. I asked the class if they thought it was a good idea and Brons was very defiant and disrespectful.

 

"Nelson?" Dad asked in a tone denoting the opportunity to tell my side of the story.

 

"It's not a good idea, Dad, and worse yet it's so stupid and confusing it will get people killed in car wrecks!"

 

My father possessed such a magical gift for language that it gave me goosebumps to hear him talk.  Dad turned to my teacher. "Mrs. Clark, I have coached Nelson in the art of problem solving, and his skills surprise even me. I understand why you might think you are experiencing a defiant young man. Nelson, like any kid, can certainly behave in a manner unbecoming a gentleman. When he exhibits such actions, I expect a phone call. 

 

But, Mrs. Clark, you have just stumbled into Nelson's wheelhouse. This is a boy with an aptitude for not only seeing problems but solutions to those problems. I'll show you."      

 

Dad turned back to me. It was a regular drill by now.  "Okay, Nelson, take three deep breaths. I want you to get comfortable in your chair and narrow your focus to the diagram on the blackboard. Don't look at or think about anything else. Continue to breathe normally and don't be angry. It's okay now. I'll time you for five minutes. Gather your thoughts by talking it out in your head. No one is going to yell at you or tell you that you're wrong."   

 

Hearing my dad's voice quelled my anxiety and created the relaxation I needed to get my brain cooking. His instructions provided trust and the power of suggestion that I had a talent. These are the components I still use for self-hypnosis. My father had just lead me again into a state of heightened focus, not realizing it was hypnosis. 

 

"Dad broke the silence when the five minutes were up. "Okay, Nelson, do you see it?  Do you know what you want to say?

 

"Yep, Dad, I see it." 

 

"Okay then, I want you to go slow and break it down for me in numbered parts, tell me what you see."

 

I started:

 

"One, it's a bridge. Use all of the bridge, all the time. A set of tires is nothing like a bridge. It's a dumb comparison.” 

 

Dad reminded me, "Be respectful."

 

"Two, if drivers are confused by a bunch of changes, it will just cause car wrecks. Three, a two-lane bridge with opposite traffic and no divider is lots more dangerous than two lanes going the same way on each side WITH a divider. There will be head-ons!"

 

The teacher rolled her eyes as she spun on her heal to erase the diagram from the blackboard.

 

"Mrs. Clark, I think Nelson makes some good points," Dad said.

 

Dad saw my smile and cautioned me; "Nelson, gentlemen don't gloat."  

I couldn't help it; I finally won one with Mrs. Clark! 

 

"Well, I grew up there, sir.  I never saw a head-on collision," she said with teary eyes.  

 

It seemed like such a victory, but I soon realized that I would have been far better off if only I knew enough to pick my battles and keep my mouth shut, two life lessons I've been slow to learn.  Our teacher/student relationship went from bad to worse, and Mrs. Clark upped the ante. She stopped calling Dad and started calling Mom. That didn't work out so well for me. 

 

They were both city girls who moved to the country, and Mom identified with Mrs. Clark. Soon they were commiserating on a monthly, sometimes weekly, basis. 

 

At an afternoon meeting, Mom told “Peggy” with a tone of disgust, "The apple didn't fall far from the tree, I'll tell you that much. That boy is just like his father. You can't get ahead of those two; they're as thick as thieves!" 

 

Mom then asked, "Did they gang up on you, Peggy?" 

 

"Yes, yes I feel they did, Thelma! " 

 

Oh, God, first names, I thought to myself.

 

"Well, they'll do that, and you can't get a word in edgewise. From here on out when you have a problem with Nelson, you call ME! 

 

You let me know if Nelson gets mouthy and I'll fan his little ass till he can't sit for a week."

 

Nope, that did not go well for me at all.