Daily Archives: February 12, 2010

Age 10, with a job as water carrier for mobile homes . . .

Picture this: The year was 1942 and World War II was raging. Now picture a location near Oak Ridge, Tennessee where construction and work on the world’s first atomic bomb was in progress. That location was known as Gamble Valley, Tennessee, a trailer city peopled by many of those involved, one way or another, in the best kept secret of World War II—the building of the world’s first nuclear weapon, bombs that would be dropped in 1945 on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and bring to a conclusion our long war with Japan.

And finally, picture a family living in one of Gamble Valley’s modular homes-on-wheels, a small family consisting of one mother, one stepfather and two children, a boy of ten years and his sister, a firebrand just eighteen months older than her brother. We arrived there in early summer, shortly after the end of the school year, and left shortly before the end of summer.

The home was only eight feet wide and thirty feet long while being transported, but when placed for occupancy its width was expanded with panels, some of which had been stored on top in transit and others that folded out to make the home larger. That expansion, with an additional 12 feet of floor space added on each side of the 30-foot length, provided an overall area of 960 square feet, cramped but adequate for that small family.

Entrance was gained through the kitchen, with the dining area straight ahead and two spaces on either side, each measuring twelve by fifteen feet (there was no back door). In effect, in addition to the kitchen and the dining area, the expansion created four other spaces that could, when curtained off, be used either as bedrooms, living rooms or storage space.

Floor-to-ceiling curtains hanging on ceiling rails provided visual privacy for the two spaces on each side of the home, a system identical to that used today in most hospitals. With all the curtains closed, four rooms were created, each closed off from the kitchen, the dining area and the other three rooms by the curtains. The curtains were lightweight and had no muffling properties. And trust me, some of the sounds needed to be muffled.

The curtains were adequate for visual privacy, but there were no provisions for vocal sounds nor for sounds other than vocal—and as one might expect, there were many sounds, both vocal and otherwise. Punishment, including corporeal, verbal and psychological, was meted out behind drawn curtains by one-fourth of the family—the stepfather—to the other three-fourths of the family—my mother, my sister and me. There were lots of arguments, private conversations and various activities that I and my sister always heard, but never were privileged to see.

Now on to my job as water carrier for my home and for paying customers. The trailers had no bathrooms and no running water. The kitchen was equipped with water storage tanks that could be filled to provide water suitable for drinking, cooking and for washing dishes. Known as gray water, the dish water was drained from the trailers and moved through a buried pipeline to a distant waste water area. The village had centrally located communal bath houses that included restrooms, showers and laundry facilities.

My stepfather mandated that everyone in the family be gainfully employed, a trait that extended to animals. He allowed no pets—no cats or lapdogs—he felt that if an animal did no work it was not entitled to be fed, and that included human animals. He would feed and groom a working dog only as long as it produced. If a watchdog didn’t bark to ward off intruders, it shortly disappeared, ostensibly a runaway. If a hunting dog slacked off noticeably in its production of game, whether rabbit dog, squirrel dog or bird dog, that dog would also disappear, and would also earn the label of runaway.

Special note: The paragraph above will reappear as the preamble to another posting, one to be published shortly after this one is published. Stay tuned.

Forgive me for digressing from my original subject, that of being a water carrier for trailer homes at age ten. This is how it was: The kitchen water tanks were fitted with a filler tube that was accessed outside the home. My stepfather convinced several people, a dozen or so, to hire me at one dollar a week to keep their water tank filled. I was outfitted with two water buckets, each with a three-gallon capacity, and a tin funnel with a long neck, ideal for slipping into the outside neck of the water tank.

Water weighs about six pounds per gallon, so with a bucketful of water filled at the laundry facility in each hand, I was carrying (we called it toting in those days) about 36 pounds—not an extreme weight, but more than enough for a boy of ten. I don’t know how much I weighed then, but six years later when I took a physical to enlist in the U.S. Army I weighed a whopping 110 pounds. It’s probably safe to say that I weighed significantly more than I did when I was just ten years old.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the neck of the funnel was flexible, so I curled it around my neck while in transit, full buckets in one direction, empty in the other—admittedly it was not the most inspiring work for which a young boy could wish—I would have been much happier at shearing sheep or castrating bull calves, anything other than carrying water—in fact, it left such an indelible imprint that since that time I have used every excuse available to avoid carrying other people’s water.

Another memory that has escaped me is the capacity of the trailer tanks, nor do I remember how many buckets it took to fill an empty tank. The part I  remember best is that I had to continue hauling water until the filler neck overflowed, and I did that twice a week for each of the dozen or so customers on my list. And I don’t remember my weekly income or my total income for that summer, but I have vivid memories of how that income was divided—half of my weekly take went to my mother for my board and keep, one dollar to me to spend at my leisure and my pleasure, with the remainder going for victory stamps, purchased at the post office for twenty-five cents each—this was my contribution to winning the war, albeit a non-voluntary contribution.

Following its purchase, each stamp was pasted into a special book furnished by the post office. It took $18.75 to fill the $25-dollar stamp book, a book that at maturity would be, some seven years later, worth a whopping $25. None of my books ever made it to the $25 dollar level. They were necessarily turned into cash during separations from my stepfather during the war years, separations necessitated by his violent temper that flared when something did not go his way.

When I started this posting, a flood of memories washed over me—friends I made, games I played, digging up our front yard and planting vegetables (under my stepfather’s direction), a gaggle of family conflicts, my mother teaching me to embroider—I finished decorating a tablecloth and a napkin set that summer—and many more memories worthy of telling, but I must conclude my rambling for now—I’m running out of paper.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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Posted by on February 12, 2010 in Childhood, Family, Humor, Travel, wartime


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Don’t blame Madoff . . .

Don’t place all the blame on Madoff for the billions of dollars that passed from thousands of people to him, his family, his friends and his associates through his Ponzi scheme. Many of those thousands that were bilked enjoyed the rarefied atmosphere found in our top income brackets, but most breathed the common air of middle incomes. Those billions of dollars handed to Madoff were considered by all to be investments, but after a considerable amount of time passed—years—the truth was outed. Those billions of dollars were actually donations, given freely to Madoff and his investment company, given in anticipation of earning fantastic profits.

The blame is not Madoff’s alone—he is guilty, of course, but that guilt must be shared by his victims.

Madoff is now firmly incarcerated, entombed by our criminal justice system and will remain entombed for the next thousand years or so, or until he dies, whichever comes first. He is enduring a punishment for something that was not his fault—well, perhaps half of it was his fault, but no more than half. The other half of that fault lies with the people that followed a trail of crumbs of greed, one carefully laid by Madoff, to its ultimate destination—the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Many of his victims—not all, but perhaps most—were honest and hardworking people, all expecting to profit by dabbling in the stock market and thereby improving their lives, a perfectly normal expectation in our capitalistic society.

Those that were scammed by Madoff’s Ponzi scheme were sorely afflicted with gullibility and greed, a two-pronged disease that will always be lurking in the darkness, ready to oblige anyone that expects to receive something in return for giving nothing. Such are those that firmly believe in that fabled pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

We have a maxim that will protect us from similar situations, but only if we acknowledge its truth and follow it scrupulously. That maxim goes like this:

If something seems too good to be true, it isn’t.

A simple and straightforward adage and one to which we should all adhere. And there is another simple and straightforward adage to which each of us should adhere. This adage is my adage, or maxim if you will, coined by me. I give it freely, with neither hope nor need of recompense—no hope or need of monetary recompense, but I would appreciate and acknowledge recognition of its value. Here is my contribution to civilization:

Every person now living, and every person that arrives later, can be had.

For anyone unfamiliar with the verb phrase to be had, it means can be screwed. In this instance the verb screwed is a remarkably understandable synonym for cheated—the verb to screw has substantially different meanings, of course, as do many verbs in our language.

Conjugation of the verb to be screwed would be screwed, screwed and screwed. Present, past and future tense would be, I am screwed, I was screwed, I will be screwed again.

If confession is good for the soul, then mine is about to be washed clean—I have been had, not once but many times over a lifetime of susceptibility, a life that has taken me far beyond senior citizen status and still counting. The situations in which I have been had differ only in degree—everything else is the same, identical to the situation in which people were had by Madoff. In every instance in which I have been had, I was afflicted with and guided by gullibility and greed.

Trust me—those two emotions are always present and are always the culprits when one is had—there are no exceptions. Many years ago I was had by a carnival barker that promised me a huge profit if I would only toss wooden rings at several rows of wooden pegs. Each peg had a specific point value that ranged from one-half point up to a much higher number of points—there was an explanatory chart taped to the counter top showing the various point values.

Prizes to be given ranged from teddy bears to televisions, prominently arrayed on shelves behind the counter, to be given depending on the number of points earned from tossing the rings at the pegs. Each ring had to be paid for before the toss. The ring could be tossed until a peg was ringed, and the number of points on that peg were earned and added to the total points already earned, if any.

The limited amount of money I brought to the carnival—only five dollars or so—was soon expended, and after my last dollar had been pissed away—oops, I meant thrown away—I needed only one-half of one point to win the brass ring—my choice of any prize behind the counter. As a precaution prior to investing more money, I studied that fraction-filled point chart (studiously) and found that the lowest fraction on the chart was one-half—1/2—of one point.

There was no one-fourth—1/4—point!


How could I lose?

The answer?

I couldn’t lose!

I only needed to toss rings until my toss circled a one-half point peg, and the brass ring would be mine!

I only needed the wherewithal to purchase more rings.

I was a proud enlisted member of our American military force at the time. I was paid once monthly at the end of each month—not much, but I was paid regularly. I was four days away from payday and neither my wife nor I had any more money with us, but safely ensconced at home, well hidden against the possibility that a burglar might ransack our home, was one twenty-dollar greenback.

And now for the rest of that story:

I hied myself to our home, extracted the bill from its hiding place, returned to the carnival, began tossing rings and finally, after I had the entire twenty dollars invested, the barker said, “This one’s a winner.” The brass ring winner? No—the last peg I ringed with that stupid wooden ring that took the last one of my twenty dollars showed only one-fourth of a point.

I protested vigorously and vehemently, charging that the chart taped to the counter did not include a one-fourth—1/4—point. The barker calmly placed a fingertip on the chart, and my gaze followed that stupid grimy hand and its stupid grimy fingertip with its stupid nail packed with dirt to a number that definitely and indelibly read as follows:


It hurt horribly and I protested loudly, threatening to leave and return with my base commander, all without effect—my twenty dollars could never be retrieved. For all the good that bill did me, I might as well have utilized it at home and then flushed it.

That’s my story—I could have told other stories, some involving more money and some less, and some involving other than money, but this is as good an example as I have to demonstrate my theory of gullibility and greed. I did not see the 1/4 point on the chart because I did not want to see it. It was there, but my gullibility and greed infected and affected my vision, resulting in the loss of our accumulated cash wealth at the time.

I say that in all seriousness. We had no money in a checking account or savings account because we had no bank account. With the loss of the twenty we had no money, nothing to exchange at the commissary for food or for baby formula, diapers and talcum powder. Other than that ill-fated twenty-dollar bill, we had absolutely nothing reserved for a calamitous event such as the one precipitated, with treacherous and malicious aforethought, by that damned carnival barker—may he rest in (fill in the blank).


I was gullible and greedy, just as were the victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. However, that incident has stood me in good stead over the years since. I readily admit that I can be had, that somewhere in my world there is some silver-tongued devil that has the ability to make a profit off me by focusing on those two emotions, and I resist it with every fiber of my being, knowing that it could happen again.

In the near future I plan to post the story of how we made it through the last four days before payday. That posting will be a sad tale that involves floating a five-dollar loan and completing a sales transaction, both successful only because of the beneficence of two fellow service members.

A special note: The brass ring was an item that could be snagged by a rider whirling around on one of the old time carnival merry-go-rounds, provided that the rider had a very long reach—hence the expression go for the brass ring. A rider that snagged the brass ring qualified for a prize, one of very little value but one sought for desperately, particularly by young men eager to impress their dates, or perhaps by young men eager to impress other young men, or by young women eager to impress—etc., etc.—who knows who or why? I don’t know whether the practice still exists—I do know that it did exist—I tried many times, but I never caught the brass ring.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

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Posted by on February 12, 2010 in Family, friends, Humor, stock market


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Lightning, lobsters and babes in the woods . . .

The e-mail that follows was sent by one of my three princesses, the one that lives, loves and works in Virginia. She suggested that I tell the story of a camping trip we took in the summer of 1986, a jaunt that began in northern Virginia and took us through Washington D.C., Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and back to Virginia—ten states, eleven counting Virginia, and the District of Columbia, all in just six days. We were really happy to get back home!

This is her e-mail:

Here’s a memory to get you started: Our road trip to Maine….you wanted lobster…I ordered chicken (no surprise there)…she brought us the food, then left. You called her over to ask for the lobster cracker thingies and she said, “That family over there is using them.” We were blown away that they only had one set—-something about “people keep taking them” or something like that. I don’t remember what happened or how long you had to wait, but it put a damper on your “famous Maine lobster” adventure.

Then the night in the tent in the campground…and the lightning and raining and horrendous thunder…seeing shadows of trees through the tent when the flashes occurred….then you whispered, “Where are your arms?” I asked why and you said, “Tuck them in and don’t touch the metal on the bed….JUST IN CASE.” Way to go to scare your kid, pop! This would have been spring or early summer 1985, I think. I’ll check the date on my slides to verify, though.

My daughter touched on the lobster snafu and the night we spent in a non-waterproofed tent while a storm raged around and over us, and one might legitimately say, with one of its components—water—inside the tent with us. At twilight that day we luckily stumbled upon a small state park in Maine with tent grounds, and we pitched our tent under the comforting arms of a giant oak, reasoning that its shade would be welcome the following day. The Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton said it best with the phrase that began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford: It was a dark and stormy night . . .

For us it was not only a dark and stormy night—it was also a very wet night that we spent in our two-person tent, an item we purchased new just before we began our odyssey, along with two aluminum folding cots, two light-weight sleeping bags, a one-burner Coleman camp stove and a Coleman two-mantle lantern, both of which used white gas for power. Using the booklet provided we practiced pitching the tent in the parking lot at our apartment, but decided not to follow the instructions to “waterproof your tent by using the waterproofing tubes included.” Since the skies were clear that day in Arlington, Virginia, we surmised, wrongly of course, that they would remain clear for the duration of our camping trip. They did not remain clear.

Note for campers: Do not—I repeat, do not—pitch a tent of any size under a tree of any size regardless of the weather and regardless of whether the tent is waterproofed. The absolute last place one should be in a storm is under a tree, whether in a tent, a car, a trailer, a wagon or just standing, sitting or lying under a tree. Trees and lighting bolts appear to have a passion for one another—everyone knows, of course, that lightning goes upward from the ground, quite often from a tree, and is met by its counterpart coming down from the clouds. We can pass this gem of knowledge we gleaned on our trip: Weather has an odd way of changing abruptly—in our case it changed so abruptly that we had neither time to relocate our tent, nor time (or the means) to waterproof it.

The massive storm hit around 9:00 p.m. and lasted for an eternity, with brilliant flashes of lightning and rolling thunder, sounds comparable to the sounds made by massive landslides with huge trees snapping like twigs—before the night was over it sounded like Mount Helena blowing its top. Of course my imagination was at high pitch, fueled by something similar to fear—no, not just similar to fear, it was fear. For awhile I feared that I could drown even if the lighting didn’t get me. Not surprisingly, my daughter slept soundly through most of the bedlam, awakening only when I whispered, “Where are your arms?”

At one point during the storm I imagined that I could smell sulfur, an odor associated with lightning strikes—some say brimstone, as in “fire and brimstone.” In 1983 in Arizona it smelled like sulfur. I was in a moving automobile at ground zero near the Arizona/Mexico border when a lighting bolt struck and mangled an aluminum guardrail just a few feet from my front-seat passenger position. Come to think of it, that may not have been sulfur I smelled, but I definitely smelled something!

We survived the ordeal of the storm and emerged from our tent, a bit bedraggled but bound to continue on our great adventure, and as time passed we began to remember that night as a fun time and one of the most memorable moments in our trip.

Prior to finding the state park where we camped that night, we stopped in a couple of travel-trailer parks to see if they allowed tent campers. Neither provided sites for tents, but a woman in the second park mentioned that “a nice family” owned and operated a camp nearby and accepted tent campers. While giving me directions, she included a but, a but as in, “But they only accept family campers.” Thinking perhaps that family size was a factor for admission, I told her there were just two of us. She repeated the provision that, “They only accept families,” with strong emphasis on the word families, and then I realized the reason for her repetition of the sentence. She had a good view of me standing in front of her, of course, and she could clearly see my daughter standing outside near our car.

Note: My daughter was twenty-three years old at the time, and I was rushing toward my fifty-third birthday, an approximate age difference of some thirty years. I said, “Oh, I see,” and turned on my heel and left, my heart and my chest swelling with pride, knowing that she actually believed that I could entice a female non-family member such as the lovely 23-year-old girl standing by my car to embark on an extended camping trip with me. As I pranced out of that office I felt much taller than I did when I entered—had I been capable of doing so, I would have snorted, whisked my tail and whinnied all the way out to the car.

Enough is enough, at least for now. I have been criticized and censured for making my postings too long—evidently some viewers’ truncated attention spans prohibit them from spending very much time reading, especially if there is a dearth of photo images in a posting. I will therefore terminate this posting, a tiny vignette, but representative of the memorable experiences we accumulated over the six-day period, and return at a later date with more details.

I promise.


Posted by on February 12, 2010 in camping, Family, Humor, Travel


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