Ralph was 10 years old and the year was 1962; he enjoyed bb guns, firecrackers, comic books, but most of all, he enjoyed his pet rabbits, Mopsy and Topsy. Ralph’s world was made for autumn, a time of harvests, carnivals, and backyard clubhouses. It was a time to shed summer’s oppressive heat, in exchange for the cool whiffs that hung in the long autumn shadows.
The cotton fields of Trumann, Arkansas were now bare. Only remnants of snowy white specks littered the brown furrows. During this time of year, the twilights were exotically scented with a hint of DDT and smoldering leaves. Mournful wails of distant trains rang across the night’s sky.
Ralph lived about midway on a dead end, gravel road, that separated two small cotton farms. His home was originally built to shelter two families. One chimney was shared between them. The house had no plumbing and very few electrical outlets. Each room had one central light bulb, switched with pull string. The only source of water was a hand-primed pump located in the back yard. Its water always tasted of kerosene.
When Ralph wasn’t doing chores, he would enjoy taking long hikes in the fields that surrounded his house. These usually led to his favorite spot, a railroad trestle shaded by Birch and Sassafras trees. He enjoyed climbing its quarztite dumps and perching against the oil-soaked timbers. The tracks smelled of creosote and tar covered limestone. Whenever Ralph walked down its rails, he was always reminded of uncle Harry.
Uncle Harry was not normal. He had no wife or children; he had no debts to pay; he had no steady job or permanent home. About twice a year, he would arrive in Trumann, courtesy of the local freight trains. You see, Harry was one of the last surviving tramps, probably left over from the great depression. He travelled by rail and slept in his Goodwill suit, always wearing his brownish gray, fedora hat, marked by a band of perspiration around its brim. Another signature of Harry was his strong odor of burnt matches and cheap wine. This odious cloud always preceded his entrance into a room and lingered long after he left.
Did I mention that Harry was not normal? Harry would sometimes talk to his reflection in the shaving mirror. Whenever he lost the argument, he proceeded to hit himself with blows to the head and face. No one really knew why. Perhaps he was exorcising some unknown demon, a forgotten sin from a past or present life. Ralph knew that Harry was long overdue for a visit this fall. Prophetically, he arrived that weekend.
Harry enjoyed cooking. Most of his dishes were known for their diced onions and navy beans. He loved to quote kitchen wisdom when he was at the stove. His sayings weren’t like the usual platitudes of God blessing the kitchen or the Kitchen Prayer. No, Harry had a peculiar logic known only to himself. He was fond of saying, “the nose, knows.” Ralph was not sure what that meant and was a little afraid to ask. Such minor questions would often give rise to huge arguments, leading to strong language, slamming doors, and threats to leave town on the next freight. The most memorable of Harry’s sayings was – “if you’re gonna have beans, have beans.” Even the mind of a 10 year old could gather enough clues to decode such a riddle. Harry didn’t believe that meals should have variety. He religiously held that one course meals were cheapest, easiest, and most logical to prepare. No doubt, this had some connections to the hobo’s famous Mulligan stew, a hodgepodge of improvised ingredients prepared in one old tin can, on one shared campfire. In such lifestyles, a balanced meal would be quite impractical.
The weekend proceeded without incident. There were no broken mirrors or slamming doors. Harry was having a good day and decided this was a good time to cook. Saturday’s meal would be fried rabbit, flavored with wild onions. Without a doubt, he got the idea from the two handsome rabbits who lived in a wire mesh cage in the backyard. Yes, meet Mopsy and Topsy, two family pets mentioned at the beginning of the story. They were indeed most suited to Harry’s culinary pursuits. Of course, Harry didn’t share this with the family. Dinner would be a surprise. “If you’re gonna have rabbits, have rabbits.”
As part of the preparation, Ralph had the job of gathering the onions from the backyard. No, Ralph was not privy to the knowledge of Harry’s main course. Ralph only knew that the onions would make the meal delicious, no matter what it would be. The wild onions grew next to the storm cellar, ironically the same spot where the rabbit’s grassy meals were usually gathered. Like a surgeon preparing for a delicate procedure, Harry rolled up his sleeves and walked to the rabbit cage. Ralph wondered why Harry held an empty burlap sack in one hand, as he leaned over to unlatch the rabbit cage with the other.
At this point, I won’t bother to go into details. Suffice it to say, the air was filled with shock and betrayal. Strangely enough, Ralph didn’t say much. Instead, he was totally entranced by one indelible image, a picture that would foreshadow
many autumns yet to come. I speak of the dragon which lived on Harry’s right arm. It was a large tattoo, running the length of his forearm. It wrapped his muscles with its scaly tail and tenuous serpentine body. Harry’s large veins became the veins of the dragon. They were all one and the same.
Harry reached into the rabbit’s cage and Topsy cowered in the corner, attempting to hide in a cushion of leaves and wood chips. Mopsy was not so lucky; he was yanked by his ears. Mopsy’s hind legs kicked rapidly, as Harry pulled him from the cage. Swinging by his ears, Mopsy’s claws slashed against Harry’s forearm, like a blur of razors in full flight. A creature of timidity was transformed into a warrior, as he clawed with blinding ferocity at the enemy. The dragon and Mopsy were locked in mortal combat.
That was the day the dragon bled great tears of blood. Streams of crimson oozed down Uncle Harry’s arm. That was the day Ralph knew what a bleeding dragon looked like.
Dinner was particularly good that night.
Today was the beginning of my summer holiday and I spent the morning cleaning the basement. Somewhere between the furnace and my partially gutted stereo equipment was a reminder from the past, a deluxe Western Flyer bicycle, complete with busted headlights and disassembled wheels.
I remember the early advertisements describing the transformative effects a Western Flyer would have on the life of a ten year old: “Zip along straight-a-ways in third gear with your legs barely moving. Precision gearing simulates shifting into first or second, for climbing hills with surprising ease. Rich—looking, too. Glossy red and white finish, highlighted by chrome—plated handlebars, spotlight, rims, hubs and sprocket. And the enamel finish is baked on for greater durability. Slim 26 x l.375—inch tires reduce drag. Spotlight beams out a bright warning at night . . takes 2 “D” batteries (not included).”
As I shuffled through the trash, my thoughts returned to my basement and the task ahead. I began gathering the remnants of my Western Flyer. Sadly, this heap of rusted metal and tarnished chrome is no longer the chief transport of a once spry, ten year old. It now serves as a different kind of vehicle. In an eerie sense, it is a kind of time machine, or maybe more accurately, a thought machine.
As I brushed the dust from its fading, red enameled frame, I mused at the thought of how effortlessly this bike once bounced over the pot holes and traversed the most precarious alleys of our small town in rural Arkansas. I remember the occasional runs to the neighborhood grocery, of how I preferred to venture out just at twilight. That was a special time for kids and their bikes, a time to sample a blur of random voices and whifs of dinner meals, as we flew past the many houses along our route. I enjoyed drawing cool breezes from the cotton fields, as I zipped down its dirt pathways. The ride was a refreshing respite on a hot summer’s night.
For some reason, I usually pedaled a little faster whenever I neared the abandoned barn on the corner of Paschal Avenue. Actually, I didn’t have a good reason. It was just a passing sensation that was particularly appropriate for an over-imaginative ten year old. On such a night, the past and the present intermingled, forming strong curiosities, or testaments to such foreboding structures. Not even my trusted steed could save me from all the shadowy specters that now resided there. I sensed that this building had many secrets. And, if the moon hung just right, with just the right amount of honeysuckle in the night air, I feared the old barn would speak. I pedaled faster, and faster.
Most homes have at least one junk room or a scrapbook full of half faded fragments. Some items are comforting, some items are sharp and dangerous, but all are a wealth of reminders. My bicycle is a scrapbook providing a trip back to another time, a time of endless summers, the security of a tree house, an evening filled with fireflies and the heavy scent of honeysuckle, and an always loyal Western Flyer, eager to share in my adventures. I’d like to take an actual ride back to the summer of 1962, but unfortunately my 2 “D” batteries have long been drained.
One of my treasured hobbies is collecting and restoring vintage reel to reels. The model I enjoy most is VM 739 by Voice of Music, manufactured about 1965. I developed a strong affinity for this particular model because of its nostalgic connections. It was the model used by an old church friend and given as a birthday gift by his dad.
At any rate, the subject of this particular entry is about common aesthetic issues, when restoring vintage equipment. A strange paradox exists. It is desirable to have as well running machine as possible. Yet, how many parts can one replace before it is no longer considered the same machine? Let me use a real life experience to illustrate this point.
After Voice of Music went out of business in 1977, it was difficult to find exact replacement parts for my reel to reel. At that time, a common problem with any reel to reel was the belt drive system. The rubber belts needed to be replaced after about five years. Other parts included rubber wheels, which became increasingly brittle and lost traction in rewind and fast forward. The capstan roller was the most important part since it controlled to tape speed and sound reproduction. As they aged, the rubber became hard and would lose traction with the tape.
Since the original Voice of Music Company was no longer in business, I was limited to replacing parts, usually with generic duplicates or homemade fabrications. It was an ongoing process that took a great deal of time, but I finally had my VM 739 running like new. I was so proud of my work that I attached an engraved brass plate to the cabinet. It bore my name and the year of my restoration, 1979.
With the advent of EBay, one could find not only a few replacement parts, but now it was possible to purchase a complete reel to reel, exactly the same model that I owned. I
was obsessed with purchasing every VM 739 that I could locate. Often the postage would cost more than the actual machine. However, I continued to buy them religiously, perhaps fulfilling some inner desire to rekindle those earlier memories. I soon acquired machines which were in even better condition that my original. I began stripping
parts from my newer purchases and using them to tweak the performance of my original. My objective was to make my old machine better and better, until it held the coveted status of, “mint.”
I was no longer content on just changing the rubber belts or the drive rollers. I began replacing the transformer, the condenser filters, and even entire amplifier circuits. This obsession continued until one very fateful day. I made the ultimate EBay find, a very special VM 739. It had a mint cabinet and a pristine escutcheon panel. Just as I was about to remove its cover, I had a major epiphany. If I changed the cabinet, the panel, and even all the knobs, would I still have the same machine used by my friend, the same machine which proudly earned my engraved brass plate of 1979?
The following is a fictional account of how an artist sometimes draws creativity through odd objects and the telling of tall tales. This practice was often explored by one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, who developed unusual stories around the dark psyche of things and people. Of course, in my case, let me stress the word, fictional, and the following account should be taken in the spirit of Gothic Horror or perhaps, a little Gothic Humor. I recently gave a speech at my old alma mater, where I was honored as their distinguished alumni. To create a memorable presentation, I included this somewhat offbeat and unusual tale. Unfortunately, I fear that I didn’t provide enough explanation and suspect my audience took my story seriously. If that is the case, then I should consider a well deserved, self-imposed, exile. I hope you enjoy my story called, “My Mannequins are Moving.”
I am an artist, printmaker, and professor, with a somewhat lackluster blog. My literary attempts may be endemic of a more serious dereliction. My words limp along, because
I’m tired, and my creativity is equally waned. Artistic slump is difficult to overcome. However, I must remember that my introspection is often rejuvenated by the things in my studio. To this end, my words today are dedicated to all those artists who have unenlightened lapses and bland corners in their studios. Draw energy from them, my friends; don’t let your walls be empty.
Creativity is a strange thing. It is most elusive and sometimes paradoxical. It is the nexus where two parallel lines meet; it is the shadow realm, where puppets inspect their strings and clowns remove their face paint. It is a Tarot deck where all the cards are identical, except the one printed on the box. It is a genealogy chart where everyone is born on the same date, or Dada is rational. Yes, art holds all these allegorical secrets, like burning coals in the eyes of a snowman.
As a quest for this creativity, I converted my living room into a printmaking studio. I filled it with somewhat curious artifact. On my fireplace mantle is a reproduction of a Corinthian column. Situated just atop of its floral support is a boor’s skull. He stands vigil over my living room. The joy of my life is a 2000 lb intaglio press, made by F. Reem, saved from the 1966 floods of Florence, Italy. I restored all its parts and graced its frame with chrome plated motorcycle bolts. Not too far to the right is a corner of oddities. I call this my laboratory corner. On its sagging Victorian shelves are chemicals, flasks, test tubes, a large tome entitled, “Ghosts,” by Hans Holzer, and a red covered 1958 text, “The Theory and Practice of Embalming. Every home should have an inviting corner such as this. A place to putter and create special blends of intaglio inks, dyes, and sundry printmaking tinctures.
Even though I live a gentle, quite life, I am not alone. My inanimate dog, Bowser, keeps me company on Christmas and Thanksgivings. Bowser sits next to the couch, usually
beside my visiting Jehovah Witness friends. He doesn’t bark, nor does he eat. He is the best Plaster of Paris friend anyone could ever want or need.
Ah, but the mannequins are a different story. I don’t trust them. They think they’re so clever, inching across my oaken floors each night. Their movements are subtle, perhaps traversing only inches in the span of a week. I know their movements; I can hear them from the corner of my eyes and smell them with my ears. It’s difficult to hide sounds in a hundred year old house. It’s difficult to hide the foot falls of scurrying mice, disturbed by slowly shuffling plastic feet.
Last November, I procured the services of a security company to install monitored surveillance cameras. Additionally, I dead bolted all the interior doors. My friends seem concerned. It is so reassuring to have good friends who believe in my stories.
Sometimes we find an area of expression that consumes a lifetime. Mine happens to be an artform called printmaking. It utilizes copper or zinc plates and subjects them to many processes. The image is drawn in reverse, which means the artist must see images and values in reverse. After the images are etched onto a plate, then they must be transferred, or printed to paper. This is the printing process and utilizes a large printing press, also called an intaglio press. The plate is wiped with ink and carefully registered with the paper. The press applies tons of pressure to deboss a beautiful image called an intaglio. Intaglios come in several forms, the chief two are called etching and engraving. There is no art form quite like a well printed etching. All line are debossed with one powerful, clean, and spontaneous stroke; the image shouts, printmaking.
Below, I have created a little montage of my images onto a video. I am not an expert with editing programs, but wanted to do a video because it is a good vehicle for containing my work.
“March of the Mad Hares,” represents the art of Professor Ralph Slatton, done in the printmaking process called, intaglio. His animal images represent the individual cages in which humans hide, and the surreal landscapes that exist within each individual.
Not that it matters too much to anyone but me, but I find the era of computers and search engines to be daunting. This is particularly true for someone who chose the world of fine art as a profession. This is surprising, because I embraced technology when I was a kid. I took apart anything that had wires, including parts of my house. My mission was to inspect, back-engineer, pry, prod, and basically discover all those hidden mysteries inside my machines. I later studied electrical engineering and tinkered with my own circuit designs. Now that I’m almost reaching retirement, I’m faced with the age of computers, websites, and search engines. I thought I could conquer these like I did my old pocket watch, just take it apart, pull out a few pieces, and see what functional part changed. Unfortunately, the hardware part of computers is much easier to grasp than the software concepts. Just when I thought I had licked HTML, now I have to learn about CSS, where everything is hidden in its own secret box. I’m posting this to express how much I hate living in the cyber world and would trade it all for a nice safe cave, if I knew I could still feed myself. By the way, what exactly is an “app?” – Prof. Ralph Slatton – Blackhand Press Templars