Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Silliest Things

Bob the Marine's instructions for how to make a jigsaw puzzle ("Start at the upper left hand corner and work your way straight across, then go down to the next row and work your way straight across, and so on until you're done") struck me as being pretty silly even as the words were leaving his mouth.

Were they the silliest words I heard as a child? Probably not.

Some of the silliest things seem to have been taken all too seriously, however.

Perhaps the earliest such thing I can recall came out of the mouth of Mrs. Seymour, the elderly neighbor lady who often looked after me when no one else could be conned into it. I'm not sure how the subject came up - maybe because of something on TV - but one afternoon she told me that it was so cold where Eskimos lived, they never took their clothes off. In fact, she went on to assure me, they sewed their clothes right to their skin. Maybe she was trying to be funny, but... I don't think so. She was one of the dourest people I've ever known - someone I can't recall ever smiling. Jokes and teasing seem to have been beyond her. Maybe I misunderstood her, though - maybe she actually said something like "Eskimos make their clothes by sewing together animal skins," but... that would have left me feeling sad about the poor animals. So maybe she actually said "Eskimos make their clothes by sewing skins together." But that doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the conversation (which seems to have been heavy with anti-Eskimo prejudice). And it doesn't fit with my memories of immediately cross-examining her and her adamant restatement of her claim. That claim seems pretty silly in retrospect - but for years after I first heard it, I winced whenever I heard the word "Eskimo" and thoughts of needle-pierced skin flooded my mind....

I think it was just a year or two later that I and others first noticed that the left side of my chest was a bit larger than the right. Instead of asking a doctor for a professional medical evaluation, my mother and I went downstairs to the hardware store run by our landlord and asked him for his opinion. The guy could replace broken windows and clear clogged toilets, after all; certainly he would know what might ail a mere child. After consulting a dictionary and giving the matter much thought, he shared his learned conclusion: What I had was an ulcer. He suggested I drink more milk. When that had no discernible effect, I was left alone to worry about how long it might take my ulcer to kill me....

It fell to Helen B., the woman who replaced Mrs. Seymour as our neighbor in the adjoining apartment, to console me when I came down with the measles. "You know, if those little red bumps on your skin look like they've gone away but have actually just gone inside instead, they'll never come out again - you'll have the measles forever," she confided. "That's what happened to my niece. I think they call them 'inverted measles'...." Her hushed tone made it clear that this was NOT a very desirable outcome. I couldn't quite bring myself to ask what deserted island they'd had to ship her niece off to before she ended up infecting the entire world....

Helen B. seems to have been a fairly sharp person - much more so than Mrs. Seymour - but her measles story was just one of two that are now in the running for the title of The Silliest Thing I've Ever Heard. The other involves her terrible fear of electrical transformers - specifically, the step-down transformers that could be found on so many utility poles all over town. One of these transformers was clearly visible at the back of our lot whenever we sat on our back porch. I think that's where she and my mother and I were one evening when Helen B. first confided her fears. "I almost didn't take this apartment because of that thing," she said, motioning to the big black metal cylinder hovering ominously less than 100 feet away. "I had a friend who lived by one once. It caught fire and blew up. It's a wonder that my friend survived!" I swore to myself right then and there to keep an eye on those transformers for the rest of my life. And I vowed to start with the one right outside our kitchen window that Helen B. apparently knew nothing about....

Despite such stiff competition, I strongly suspect that it'll be something my mother said that'll end up winning the top prize. Not only does she have three things in contention but each of one of them seems to have been dipped in madness, then left to dry in the gentle breezes of peasant superstition.

My mother was never a fan of science in general or the space program in particular. As the excitement of the first moon landing approached, however, an ardent hostility emerged. Finally one day she exclaimed, "Those guys are gonna go fooling around with the moon and it's gonna fall on us!" It was a brief comment, but it left me speechless. I'm still not sure what the best response to it might have been.

On another day, when dark suspicions rather than frantic fears seem to have been dominating her thoughts, she asked me "Have you ever noticed how all those NASA and weather guys sound alike?" Her conspiratorial tone and meaningful glances led me to think that she might have concluded that they were all alien creatures merely pretending to be human. I'm not sure how old I may have been at the time but even then, with some 30 years less experience on this planet than she'd had, I knew that they all sounded alike for the same reason that everyone using an office intercom sounds alike. Since they were trained professionals with lots of knowledge and a firm control of their emotions, however, I can see why she might have easily mistook them for members of an entirely different species than the one she belonged to....

Last but not least, there was the evening we were sitting on the back porch watching heat lightning in the distance and she turned my way and said, "Is it just me or is the lightning getting lower every year?" "Ummmmm...." Once again, I wasn't quite sure how to respond. I tried to imagine the thoughts and fears swirling around in her head that might have led her to ask this. It was tough, but I guess she had heat lightning in mind rather than the sort of lightning that actually hits the ground (since it's hard to imagine any lightning getting any lower than that). And I guess the distant clouds we were watching at that moment seemed low, since they were so far away and apparently much closer to the ground of the horizon than the clouds overhead ever were. Even so... I wasn't quite sure where she was going with this. Did she think that skies full of heat lightning would continue to steadily drop over the course of the next few years until we were all incinerated? I didn't ask; she didn't say. Somehow the world has managed to survive innumerable thunderstorms down to today despite my inability to take her seriously and sound the alarm....


  1. Juicy this?

  2. "Those guys are gonna go fooling around with the moon and it's gonna fall on us!"

    Holy cow jumped over the moon, Batman. That sounds like a line Kurt Vonnegut would put in somebody's mouth. Like that Episcopalian lady who needed a doghouse or the colorful old elevator operator who squeezed his butt and exclaimed, "Yes, yes," whenever he felt he'd made a point and thought that research meant to look for something that had already been found and it got away. "What's that make me, mayonaisse?"
    Nice, nice, very nice.