Archive for the ‘memories’ Category

Mopsy Meets the Blood Dragon

July 3, 2012 1 comment

Meet Mopsy and Topsy

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.


Uncle Harry

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

See Mopsy, See Mopsy Run

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.

Western Flyer Time Machine

Western Flyer Advertisement
Western Flyer Easy Payment Plans

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.

Restoration, A Personal Dilemma

March 12, 2011 1 comment
Voice of Music is a reel to reel which I enjoyed much in my youth.

Voice of Music Reel to Reel, Model VM-739, made 1965

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

voice of music microphone

Voice of Music Microphone

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?