Sunday, January 15, 2012

Off My Rocker?


You older folks know the term, “Off his rocker.”  For you younger readers, it means being slightly crazy.  But, it means other things, too.   I do my best work when I’m off my rocker.  Actually that is the only time that I do any work. As it turns out, if someone else is in my rocker I get even less work done.  Are you confused yet? 

Back in about 1972 when I was a young man and knew everything I had a job working for the Episcopal Mission Society in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.   At the time, it seemed like just a job, something to do till something else better came along. Remember, that’s back when I knew EVERYTHING.   In retrospect, it was a great job and besides receiving modest pay and no benefits I got meals and a squeaky bunk in a cabin on the mountain top with a cold water shower and all the firewood I could cut and split.  How good does it get, eh? 

In the Spring time I swung a day off, a Saturday if I remember correctly and left home in my 1965 VW Beetle carrying only my camera and a sandwich.  

The Catskills were at that time a wonderful mix of old and new, civilization and almost primitive rural communities and crossroads.  While the fashionable people from NEW YORK CITY came to the Catskills to play and relax in the most up to date resorts, just a couple miles in any direction you could bring you to little cabins in hidden valleys which had been occupied by the same family lines since the Revolution. 

New York State Highway 17, AKA “the Quickway” was a modern wonder, traveling through the mountains in a series of cuts and fills with magnificent overlooks and towering walls of native rock and trees.  But, carved in with less expense, less noise and way less dynamite were the township roads, often still topped with native clay and gravel and about one and a half cars wide.  The little bridges, crossing a multitude of clear, cold trout streams were usually narrower. 

It was the little roads I traveled that day by plan and desire.   And, whenever the mood took me, I stopped and photographed the views that caught my eye and heart.  There were huge hemlock trees, massive piles of bluestone shards and tiny springs and creek crossings.   My sandwich went well with a tin cup full of cold spring water.   I didn’t know anything about water-born diseases then and never suffered for my ignorance.  Now, I suppose there are signs at every spring warning of possible death if you drink the water. 

About mid-afternoon as my little Volkswagen was sliding down a muddy section of grotesquely inclined roadway (remember, it was in the Spring) I passed a spot of what looked like the brush not growing well near the road.  Nailed to a stick was a hand painted sign that said, simply, “Junk for sale”.   It turned out to be someone’s driveway, just a muddy two-track up a slippery incline between trees and bushes which brushed against both sides of the little Bug.  

At the top of the drive appeared a cabin and a little log barn.   The cabin was complete with two windows and a door on the long side and one window and the stone chimney on the short side.  Smoke rose out of the top and mixed in the treetops.   A long “settin’ porch” ran the length of the house.   On the porch was a small boy, probably about ten-years old dressed in overalls and muddy boots.   He was friendly but cautious and showed me the table full of “junk”, old rusty pliers, a hammer, some old blue canning jars, a little box of thimbles, that sort of thing.    I noticed that he had been sitting in an old wooden rocking chair.  It really didn’t look like much, it too was for sale, and I needed a chair at my place.  So, I ponied up the four dollars he asked for.   It never dawned on me to negotiate a better price.   Even then I guess I knew that a dollar more or less to a poor man could make a big difference.  I left him happy, and I was happy myself, the signs of a good trade.

The old rocker did fit into my VW with the back seat folded forward.  And, when I got back home at the end of the day I learned that I was right .   It was just an old wooden rocker, with a worn seat.  But, by golly, it was comfortable, and it made a satisfying  sound when it rocked.  All the joints, wood-to-wood connections were pinned with wooden dowels.  My magnet didn’t find any nails or screws.  A few minutes with a damp cloth took off quite a lot of dust, grime, smoke and hand prints.  In the sunshine that came in early the old chair glowed with a deep golden hue.  I was glad that the cleaning had not removed the “creak”. 

Over the next several months I spent most of my “off” time in that old chair.  People stopped to visit me and would beat me to it, sitting and rocking and smiling as it creaked.  When the time came to move back to Wisconsin I had to make a big decision.   I was traveling light and everything I owned fit into my Volkswagen, except the rocker.  Heck, I had only paid four dollars for it, I could leave it right there.  But, something made me search out a friend who was traveling to the Midwest a couple of weeks later and I persuaded him to pack my rocker along.   He left it at my parent’s home, very early one morning, on the back porch in such a fashion that they could not open the door.  They re-arranged the living room furniture, pulled out the rags that sealed the front door against the winter weather, opened all the locks and brought my old rocker in.   My Mother said, “You mean you bought a four-dollar chair and made Dwight carry it all the way here?  And then your Dad had to open the front door and get it all fixed again, just for this?   This old chair?”      

Through the years that old rocker has been with me and later, my wife, at my apartments in Indianapolis, and our duplex in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, then our first home in Silver Lake, Wisconsin and our home in Iron River, Michigan.  The years roll on and the old rocker gave us a perch to rock babies as their teeth came in.  It was a nice place to sit and talk to the Grandparents on the phone and read a book.  It came with us to Louisiana and moved right into the violin shop with me.

Louisiana is known for it’s antique trade.  Some of its small towns thrive on the antique trade alone.  So, I should not have been surprised when several antique dealers came into the shop to look at and admire my old rocker.  A couple wanted to buy it then and there.  A couple of others were more informative and guessed that the rocker was made by a well known American named Stickley, a long time ago.  

In my sometimes-cramped shop, the rocker still has the place of honor, near the center of the room, facing the front windows and door.  I sit down there after lunch some days, and fight to stay awake.  Some folks who come in sit down and doze off right away, so comfortable is the seat and the sound. 

The rocker came into quiet prominence after Hurricane Katrina when many, many people were on the street, on foot and on their last dollar, and just about out of dreams.  Every day, sometimes several times a day, persons with nothing better to do would walk into the shop, “just to look around”.  Their homes were gone, their pets were gone, and in many cases some family members were gone, too.   They were in Hammond, just waiting, biding their time till they could get back into New Orleans to see what was left, and to try to start over. 

Many of them needed a rest room.  Some needed cash for food, and we took care of everyone who asked to best of our abilities.  But they all, every single one of them  really needed someone to listen. 

They were full of stories. They were full of questions and complaints and they were full of sadness.   And as they sat in the rocker, and it creaked with each movement, they sat and talked and cried and remembered.   After work I’d go home and wipe my face as I told my wife the details of the lives that had been shared with me that day and she suggested that I write a book titled, “Stories From The Rocker”, partly to record these little vignettes of heroism and history, but also to help me unload the weight of it all off my own shoulders. 

That was late summer 2005.  It is now 2012, and finally we can get through a day or a week without anyone saying, “…back before the Storm…”  

My old rocker is still there, and it still comforts visitors.  It is the “chair of honor” for mothers and grandmas who visit the shop with their families of budding violinists.  Children, of course, like to sit and rock enthusiastically and hear the chair creak.  Gladly, most of the sadness is gone now. 

As I look back, I have to wonder if that family in the Catskills has missed the rocker as much as I have loved it.  Or, maybe Mr. Stickley made it for this purpose, to travel and bring comfort to the weary.  

Friday, January 13, 2012


I'm sorry this has taken so long.   Like so many discoveries it just suddenly POPPED into focus.  

In 1958 the movie, "THE BLOB"  was released, with Steve McQueen and other actors.   A great early Sci-Fi story, it tells about a blob of space snot that has come to wipe out mankind.   After pumping a ton of lead into it, burning it, and hooking up a 13 K V line it is discovered that it can't stand cold.   So, it is taken to the Arctic, where it freezes safely, as the star says, "As long as the Arctic stays frozen..."

Get it now?   Al Gore was ten years old in 1958.   He saw this movie and it scared the crap out of him!!  If the Arctic thaws out the BLOB is going to come back to life!!!    That's what the whole global warming thing is all about!!   He BELIEVED IT!!!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Gardening The Safe Way

This was written after our visit to Washington DC in August, 2011:

The problem with having a garden in your yard is not the bugs or the various fungus problems or even the indomitable weeds.  The real problem comes after you have tilled the ground and picked out the weed roots, then raked it all out and planted the seeds or sets, and then watered and fertilized, and picked more weeds and waited till just the right moment for harvest, some sneaky idiot neighbor steals your tomatoes or pulls up the carrots.   The cure for this, of course, is to put up a good fence with “Do Not Climb or Cross This Fence” signs.  Trained snipers on the roof make it a winning situation for the gardener.  That way, NO ONE will get near the melons or poke salad.  Michelle, a woman in Washington D.C. figured this out a couple of years ago and her little 20 x 15 garden plot looks great.  The professional landscape men who tend the yard keep it looking that way.   I think the snipers were there already and they put the garden on their watch list at no additional cost. 

It’s a funny thing when you think about it.   Folks who live in mobile homes will put a concrete birdbath with a circulating pump in it out in the yard to make the place look fancy.   And, the folks who live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave who already have magnificent fountains front and back and a potentially prizewinning lawn put a vegetable garden out back, in view of the street to make the place look like a mobile home park in Ohio. 

Yes, there are snipers.   You can see them move about from time to time.  Our guide, a fellow who is professionally involved in the workings of the U.S. Government said we could glance at the snipers, but not to stare at them, or make eye contact as they peered down on the civilian population with their high-powered binoculars.   If they “noticed” us, the ground level guards might walk out and want to talk.   That would be bad mojo, indeed.  

This is the White House, the People’s House here in America.  Of course, “the people” don’t really get to use it.   In fact the people who own it don’t even get to knock on the front door or stroll up the front walk without a specific invitation by date and time from a Congressman or Senator.  Personally, I’d like to file a Notice of Eviction with the local Sheriff. I don’t care to knock on the door, but I think it is time for the current residents to pack up and move on.  

Marine One, the President’s Sea King helicopter comes and goes several times each hour, I suppose to make it harder for anyone to know if or when the Executive is on board.  Everything revolves around Security here.   I don’t disagree with that actually, but there is a difference between having security and living in a fortress.   You’ll not get the full feeling of this on the nightly news, but standing out front, walking by, the “fortress” effect comes through loud and clear.   The long line of Black Suburbans in the drive, possibly waiting to head out to the golf course is the only thing that breaks the spell.

We left the White House sidewalk and walked past the big building next door.  Then it dawned on me why Presidents seem to feel that they can spend money with no looking back.   The building next door is the Department of the Treasury…”Lead us not into temptation” is NOT emblazoned on the big doors.

Now, on with the tour. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Smell of Paint

About a month ago my friend Murphy, a fluffy gray cat, decided to check the adhesion of the wall paper in a rather inconspicuous place near the back door.   With just a little pulling, he found that the paper, applied by a previous home owner could be peeled down in narrow strips.  

Of course, this meant that the room needed some sprucing up.   This room is approx. 12 x 14 and has the desk and printer, our eliptical machine and a desk where I do leather crafts.   Why stop there? As of today, all the paper is off the walls of that room, the trim is painted, the living room is a different color, the dining room has been totally repainted and all the trim changed color, the whole long ranch-style hallway has been repainted.   All the family pictures and decorative paintings, clocks and other "permanent" decorations have been moved and re-arranged.  Our curtains are packed away and new curtains have been bought and hung. All new area rugs are in place and several new spots are now covered with NEW throw rugs.  The original spot that Murphy scratched on has not been painted yet.  I guess it is being saved till last for some ceremonial reason.

Face the facts.   Grown women just need to smell fresh latex paint sometimes.  

Men usually prefer the smell of Outers (TM) Gun Solvent.