Rant-Man’s Notebook: I Come By It Honestly

By now you’ve probably discovered that I’m something of a goofball. There’s a reason for that. Insanity runs in my family. It actually runs marathons. Let me tell you what I mean…

Massachusetts, somewhere around 1930. My grandfather, Ernie, is courting a young lady named Bertha. (Yes, Bert & Ernie.) Ernie has asked Bertha to marry him a number of times, and she has turned him down the same number of times. She has a million excuses; we’re too young, we don’t have any money, there’s a depression, and so on. But Ernie is persistent. One fine afternoon, Ernie and Bertha are out for a picnic in his old car. They’re driving down the road, having yet another conversation about marriage. Ernie sees that he’s not getting anywhere with this conversation, so he stops the car. He gets out. Bertha follows. Ernie says “are you gonna marry me, Bertha?”

Bertha says no. Ernie climbs a nearby telegraph pole. From the top, he calls out again, “are you gonna marry me?” Again Bertha refuses. Ernie stands on his head on top of the pole.

“GET DOWN FROM THERE, ERNIE!!”

“You gonna marry me, Bertha?”

“No!”

“Then I’m staying up here!”

“Come down from there!”

“You gonna marry me?”

“Will you stop this foolishness and get down from there!”

“Not ’till you say you’re gonna marry me.”

“Oh for God’s sake!” She mutters under her breath a bit about the damn fool standing on his head on top of the telegraph pole. Finally she relents. “Okay, Ernie, I’ll marry you. Now come down from there!”

They were married for over 67 years and passed away within about a year of each other. They had four children, the third of which was my mother. I think she inherited the gene from Ernie.

My mother could never resist going for the laugh, no matter what lengths she had to go to to get it. One year, she cooked a cornish game hen inside the Thanksgiving turkey. At the dinner table, she “delivered” the small bird, crying out, “oh my god, it was pregnant!” My older brother almost threw up, until one of the younger ones reminded him that turkeys lay eggs. I’m fairly certain he didn’t eat Thanksgiving dinner that year.

She also started some traditions that have continued to my own kids, such as dying all the food green on St. Patrick’s Day. The look on the kids’ faces at school when I brought out my green sandwich was priceless. Green bread, green peanut butter, green jelly, a green apple, green cookies, green milk. It was a beautiful thing. I still do it.

When I was about 12 or so, Mom had divorced my dad (with good reason), and had a boyfriend named Eddie. Eddie was a bartender, and my mom worked evenings, so they got off work at about the same time. Their habit was for mom to meet Eddie at the lounge where he worked, and then they would go out for breakfast before she went home. On one occasion, they were sitting in the coffee shop, waiting for their food, when Eddie notices that the restaurant has had one of those fancy new pushbutton payphones installed. (It was the early 1970’s, and pushbutton phones were still new. The pushbutton telephone songbook hadn’t even come out yet.) Eddie decided he had to try out this marvelous new device. The two of them leapt to their feet and ran to the phone. Eddie flipped open the phone book, choosing a name at random. “Frank! Yeah, good ol’ Frank! Let’s give Frank a call!” He punches up the number, enjoying the pleasant tune it produces. It’s about 2:30 in the morning.

A groggy voice answers the phone. Eddie says “Hey Frank, it’s Eddie. I’m down at the coffee shop with a couple of hot chicks and they want to meet you! Come on down!”

“I don’t think my wife will let me.”

“Okay, Frank. Talk to you later. Bye.” Eddie hangs up the phone.

“Good ol’ Frank.”

My mother took down Frank’s name, address and phone number from the book. For the next several years, Mom and Eddie mailed Frank Christmas cards, birthday cards (“happy birthday, whenever it was!”), and postcards from their vacations. They called him occasionally and chatted. Frank never let on that he had no idea who they were. He was an older gent, retired for years, and I think he enjoyed the contact, though Mom said she could always tell that he was a little confused by these two old friends that he couldn’t remember.

About the same time that they were playing with Frank’s mind, we moved into an apartment complex with about 150 units. Lots of kids (good thing, because my mom had five boys ranging from 7 to 13 at the time), and also lots of singles. In particular, lots of single parents. The day we moved in, mom got a tour of the complex from a group of the kids. She climbed into an abandoned shopping cart and let the kids push her all over the place, pointing out who lived where. We were instantly famous in that place.

In a relatively short time, Mom had become part of a group that hung out by the pool on the weekends. There were about 6 or 7 of them who got together for socializing at least a few times a week. One was a nice lady who was Bill Bixby’s secretary; another was a funny little irishman named O’Brien, who was the kind of guy who would spontaneously decide to jump into the pool from the third floor balcony. Fortunately he made it.

One fine Saturday morning, my mom and some of the others were out by the pool, and somebody noticed that O’Brien wasn’t there. Another person mentioned that O’Brien never got up early; he was a night-owl. Mom allowed as how that was slothful, and he should get up with the sun; early to bed and early to rise and all that. She decided to do something about it.

That night, my mom and two of my brothers ventured out into one of the rural areas nearby, looking for a farm. They crept in, scouted around and found what they were looking for. As they were making their way back to the car, their prize decided on a different course of action and began crowing for all he was worth. The farmer ran out of his home, shotgun in hand and began shooting at anything that moved. They somehow managed to keep the rooster quiet, hid behind the trees until the farmer went back to bed, and then got back to the car, rooster in hand and headed home.

They tied a length of twine to the rooster’s leg and tied the other end to O’Brien’s doorknob. He was the unsuspecting new owner of a guaranteed alarm clock. When the sun rose, so did everybody in the complex. Most were quite curious about the sudden presence of a rooster in their community. Apparently somebody ratted us out as the perpetrators. How do I know that?

The next morning, there was a duck in our bathroom.

Like I said, I come by it honestly.

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