Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Parakeet Trapper 1960
by
Joel Haas

The summer he was five years old, my younger brother, Michael, decided to trap a parakeet.
He would later go on in life to play Lady MacBeth dressed as the Virgin Mary, start a Flying Saucer Investigation consortium, and open a strip joint/night club for ten year olds in an old chicken coop; but that was all in the future.
For now, he was standing in the front yard of the rental home my family shared with two foreign graduate students on the edge of Raleigh, N.C. Intently, Michael stared at an antique canary cage placed under a dogwood tree. Cornmeal was scattered on the cage floor. Carefully balanced, a short wooden stick propped the cage door open.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I'm going to trap a parakeet for a pet,” Michael answered.
Instantly, my role in Michael's endeavor was clarified. As his older brother, it was my bounden duty to “laugh him to scorn,” in the words of King James Bible.
“You dummy!” I snorted. “Parakeets don't live in North Carolina!”
This deterred Michael not a whit. He put a little more cornmeal in the cage and went off to play. He had watched as my father had taught me to build a rabbit trap out of boards, bait the trap with carrots and lettuce and set the door open with a stick. Dad insisted the trap be checked every day, but we couldn't hover about the area or the animals would be too shy to ever come near the trap. Applying the same logic, Michael went off to play in the back yard and I left to run about the neighborhood with a more mature and urbane crowd---those of us recently graduated from third grade.
After an afternoon of sophisticated activities such as riding our bikes down steep hills, turning over rocks in the creek looking for salamanders, and smashing quince apples in Pem Browne's back yard with a baseball bat, I returned home for supper looking forward to another satisfying round of “taunt little brother.”
Quite a crowd was gathered in our front yard on my return. Michael stood under the dogwood surrounded by my parents, my youngest brother, John, a neighbor or two, and the two foreign graduate students who rented the apartment above our house. Everyone was focused on the antique bird cage.
Drawing nearer, I saw the impossible had happened.
Michael had caught a parakeet.
There was lots of oohing and aahing and “isn't he cute!” as everybody looked at the little bird in the antique cage. It was hard to know who was more stunned--the bird or Michael. Michael named the bird “Keet.” (Several years later, company was procured for Keet through more traditional means when another parakeet, improbably named “Geronimo,” was purchased.) Keet had not shown the slightest interest in the cornmeal so a trip to hobby shop/pet store was in order to buy a watering tube, cuttle bone and seeds holder. They sold bird cages, too.

At the pet store, I turned to AK, the wealthy East Indian foreign student who seemed to be very generous with buying Michael parakeet supplies and proposed the first of many disastrous business models I would try over my life. If AK would put up the money to buy a dozen bird cages, I would set parakeet traps all over the neighborhood. We could sell parakeets to the pet stores and split the profits.
AK wisely declined. I don't know if he lost money later in life on bad investments, but I am here to tell you he never lost a dime on parakeet trapping.
Because, as I learned years later, it was AK who had seen Michael's parakeet trap; had seen the child logic and hope; and, with a God-like power, granted a miracle on a whim.
AK went to the pet store and bought a parakeet.
A year later, AK granted one more wish when he saw long odds, but a certain logic and hope. He gave my parents the down payment to buy a house (having wisely not invested in a parakeet trapping scheme.)
This came to mind one late October morning last year when I went out to get the newspaper. I live only two blocks from that rental house of my childhood.
I was astonished to see a small parrot on the suburban pavement in front of me. An escaped pet. The bird waddled clumsily on the flat roadway and its strong, hooked beak was nearly useless as it tried to gnaw a bit of flat road kill squirrel. Crows soon arrived and chased it away.
Winter would be here soon.
I wished for a mango or a peach to offer it.
And Michael's old bird cage.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

MacBeth for Boys

For actors, no play in the English language is more surrounded by superstition and tradition than “the Scottish play.”
My brothers and I were blissfully unaware of this as we contemplated mounting our own production of Shakespeare's “MacBeth” in our bedroom in 1962.
There had been a televised version of it and we had been allowed to stay up and see it. I recall dimly my mother explaining the plot to us.
The subtleties of literary sub texts—meditations on the fleetingness of power, mortality, morality and so on surely eluded us.
It had witches, ghosts, castles, murders and battles. And, if it did lack a twelve eyed Godzilla bent on eating Tokyo or Los Angeles, well, that's just because the Scottish play was literature; culture.
Our parents were almost as concerned that we be cultured as that we eat all our vegetables and drink all our milk.
As producer, director, and star, I recognized we were short of resources. We had no costumes, sets, props, or even a script.
“But the play's the thing!”
As I could only play MacBeth, it was necessary that my brothers handle all the other roles.
Michael and John's two level bunk bed served as the castle.
We had a plastic crown from Halloween (my mother was a theater costumer) and no house full of little boys is ever short of plenty of plastic swords and shields.
Michael (then about 8) had just had his hair cut in a crew cut, so he wrapped up in an old green blanket with part thrown over his head whenever he had to play a female role. Actually, he looked vaguely like the Virgin Mary in a Christmas pageant, which added a special piquancy to his Lady Macbeth.
We lacked a script.
This was not really a problem. I knew the story and would direct my brothers as to where to stand and what to say.
In the opening scene, one of the witches cries out, “Hail MacBeth, Thane of Caudor!” Mom had explained to me “thane” was a Scottish title—sort of like “duke” or “first baseman.” It never occurred to her to explain Caudor was a place. This little omission was shortly to cause trouble.
Instructing the witches, I had my brothers—both draped in green blankets and bent over while they stirred a cardboard box cauldron with broom handles—to say “Hail MacBeth, Thane of Corridor!”
“Thane,” I smugly volunteered, was a Scottish nobleman.
“What's a corridor?” Michael asked innocently.
I was irritated to be asked a question to which I did not know the answer.
“A hall monitor,” I told him. “Corridor is another word for hall.”
Michael nodded, only half comprehending. We both attended the grammar school across the street. Some little goody two shoes student would be appointed by the teachers to enforce our lining up, not talking, or whatever. We suffered hall monitors, water fountain monitors, bathroom monitors, etc. To be honest, the notion of a duke or thane of hall monitors had puzzled me, too, so I improvised.
“Castles have halls,” I began. “MacBeth's in charge of who has hall passes in the castle.”
That satisfied both Michael and me and so on we plunged. It really didn't matter all that much to us. In our stripped down, fast paced version, MacBeth was not going to be handing out hall passes above five minutes before moving on to murder King Duncan.
We lacked only one thing. A dagger. In the TV version we'd seen, MacBeth does his famous “Is this a dagger I see before me?” speech with a large knife floating in a doorway above his head. I intended reproducing this with equally as much dramatic effect.
I would hang our dagger by a string from the doorway into the hall. With the hall lights on and our bedroom lights off, I was sure the effect would be eerie.
I would finish the speech, snatch it free of the string and stalk over to my bed where my youngest brother John (age 4 or 5) was essaying the role of hapless King Duncan.
We encountered our first obstacle.
Mom absolutely refused to allow us to use her butcher knife for our dagger. This was a blow since it was not only impressively large and deadly looking, but it had a small hole drilled in the hilt, perfect to draw a string through. Mom seldom used the knife but she was not about to let us use the it. Not even if we promised to be careful.
I was unwilling to give up the special effect, so I settled for letting Mom give us a large soup ladle.
It did not strike me that the casual observer would think Macbeth even more deranged than he is when gazing up into the light, cries “Is this a dagger I see before me?” and rushes off to stab King Duncan with a soup ladle.
I brought the ladle down on John. Michael crouched behind my dresser, stabbing a fresh apple with a pencil. It made a terrific sound effect. John, of course, played his big scene for all it was worth and my parents nearly became hysterical.
The play had to be stopped and lights flipped on so Mom and Dad could be reassured no real fratricide had taken place.
As director and star, I was of several minds about this. I really didn't like the pace of our play being broken up, but I took a perverse satisfaction in how effective our sound effects had been.
Back on track, we pressed on. Michael and John eventually returning in the final scene, carrying before them their wilting pecan branches we'd broken off the trees in the back yard. Our back yard, if not Birnham Wood, had come to move.
The final scene came off perfectly.
We had choreographed a gigantic, stupendous, unbelievable, impressive, jaw dropping, lots of people get stabbed in big swords fights, screaming like banshees with blood all over the place-we-even-use-real-ketchup-on-old-tee-shirts and jumping up and down on the top bunk bed final battle!
MacBeth dead, Michael makes a short speech on the top bunk bed, places the crown on top of his head and...
Exeunt Omnes

CURTAIN

Postscript:::::Years later, my brother, John, having acquired theater degrees from both UNC and USC, won a fellowship to get yet another post grad degree in directing and acting at University of California-Berkeley.
He directed MacBeth.
I understand it was brilliant. But without a Virgin Mary drag queen for Lady MacBeth, fresh apples, and a giant soup ladle, I can't imagine it was more memorable than mine.

POST POSTSCRIPT after reading all of the above, my mother, Douglas Haas Bennett sent along these additional memories of the play:
The story brought back such happy memories but I must make some comments.
Costumes: Can't remember what you wore but there was always a pile of "costume stuff" for all of you to choose from.
As armor, John wore the top of a silver dress I had made in the 1940s. Later, I cut the skirt from it when Mike was younger and wanted to be a knight for Halloween. As Banquo's ghost, John wore it with jeans tucked into aluminum foil covered rain boots. Somewhere there is a picture of him on that old metal hobby horse. John did not wear the boots for the play but as the ghost he covered the silver armor with a sheet. This ghost approaching almost did YF (Your Father) in.
Michael stabbed an Idaho potato, not an apple. It makes a wonderful natural sound effect: a tip which I later passed on to numerous theaters. Apples are too soft and the core keeps the sound from lasting long enough.
As I recall what really broke YF (Your Father) up into laughter was The Virgin Mary as Lady MacBeth stalking along the top bunk bed while making the speech about bloody hands.
When you asked for the knife I had no idea of what you were up to and could easily see you being completely fed up with your younger brothers.
I saw the play all the way through and then when YF (Your Father) came home I suggested that you all repeat it for him. It was then that he had his laugh breakdown and you three would never give another performance.
I was very impressed with the way you cut the play so that you three could do it and have the play make sense while still keeping it to under 30 minutes.
It is one of my fondest memories of the three of you doing a joint project.
I love you all for it.
Mom

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Liberation



My new wall sculpture, "Liberation," was installed at Glen Aire Presbyterian Retirement Home in Cary, NC Friday.
It's cut in 19 gauge steel and painted with white enamel. The piece measures 6 ft 6 inches wide ( 1.95 meter) by approximately 4 ft high (1.20 meter). The steel lines coming bending out from the all, represent latitudinal lines such as found on a globe or map. The lines project out about 1 ft from the wall (30 cm)
The color of the piece is actually a vivid white, but the peculiar blue gray wall covering behind the piece seems to have confused my camera a great deal.
The woman in the sculpture is dissolving into the many birds, boats, stars, leaving the retirement home in spirit and dreams if not in her body.
One of the pleasures of doing commissioned art work is telling people's stories. By that I mean I always ask a potential client what they want a piece to do or say about them. For me, a commissioned piece of art work is a person asking me to tell the emotional essence of one of their favorite stories. Sometimes, I don't know the whole story myself until the piece is finished and the client sees it.
That was certainly the case here.
I have known Mr. Davis (not his real name) nearly my entire life. He was simply one of the members of the constellations of adults a child vaguely senses around him and deals with. In this case, Mr. Davis was one of the men at our Presbyterian church when I was growing up. He was Alex and Mary's dad, and sometimes he was an usher at the 11 AM service and his wife was the church secretary and he served on the church boy scouts troop committee along with my father.
I was surprised to hear from him late last year. He called me up out of the blue telling me he wanted to commission a sculpture for a new area being built in the retirement community where he had moved some years before. He could not articulate why he wanted to commission a sculpture. Pressed, he said he had seen a sculpture in a doctor's office that had moved him and he wanted one like that. I explained I had no interest in copying another artist's work and was pretty sure the copyright laws were against it, too. But, this was so out of character for Mr. Davis I was intrigued. What had moved him so much about the sculpture he had seen? I asked him to think about what he wanted this sculpture to say? When he could tell me that, I said, we could start to talk.
I met him and his daughter, Mary, several weeks later at the retirement home. I was surprised to find, Betty, his wife, was suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's--"we moved here years ago after Betty was diagnosed," Mr. Davis explained. He had seen the sculpture that moved him on one of the numerous trips to a doctor's office whenever he took his wife for treatment.
"Daddy has taken what you said about considering what this means very seriously," Mary told me. "He's called everybody in the family and everybody has told him it's his project and nobody can tell but him."
"So what's this sculpture to be about?" I asked Mr. Davis.
"I think it's about liberation," he said. I was surprised at how his voice quavered, how emotional he seemed. Men of my father's generation, WWII vets, never showed that.
I did not want to risk embarrassing him by probing further. "I can work with that theme," I assured him, and steered the discussion into safer waters such as costs, schedules, and contracts, all familiar territory to Mr. Davis, a man who'd spent his career as a purchasing accountant for a large manufacturing plant.
Over the next several months, I had several frustrating false starts on some designs I was not happy with and the new building in which this was to be installed was delayed. Finally, I came up with a design I presented to Mr. Davis and his daughter.
I worked from a comment my own grandfather made to me when he was 80 and I was in my early 20s. "Joel, I don't think or feel much different than you do, I just don't get around as fast."
I added to that, the fact that the average age of residents at this retirement community is 82 and that three fourths of them are women.
From those ideas, I designed a figure of a young woman dissolving into birds, boats, stars, all symbols of freely going one's own way or direction in the universe. I designed steel rods, much like latitude and longitude lines on a globe or map to come out and surround the figure, they also provide support for the various figures of birds and boats cut from the figure of the woman.
Mr. Davis had one other request about the design when he saw the full sized paper model, could there be a small plaque to one side giving the title of the piece, my name, the date, and --he was quite specific about this, in much smaller letters, "A gift of Robert and Betty Davis."
Well, I finally got the piece finished and the retirement community got their building done. Friday, I went out there to install the piece. Several of the staff were on hand to help as well as Mr. Davis. When they saw the sculpture had been designed to be light weight and in pieces, Mr. Davis volunteered to help put it up and sent the staffers on their way.
When we were nearly finished, I was sorting and putting away extra screws and drill bits. Mr. Davis was staring at the sculpture and commented, "There's nothing else like it here. I'm sure Betty would be pleased."
Just to pass the time, I asked him where and when he and Betty had met. That's when I got the real story of the "Liberation" sculpture.
"We met in the fall of 1943 in the most exciting city in the world for young people in wartime-- San Francisco." I was struck by this just-the-facts-business man's sudden turn of poetic phrase.
"I'd just graduated from college and was newly commissioned in the US Navy as an ensign. I was sent to San Francisco to meet my ship. When I arrived, the harbor master told me it would not be in port for months--- I would have to apply for some temporary assignment until it arrived. Assigned a 5PM to 3 AM shift in a downtown office building proof reading code book revisions, I soon noticed a very pretty WAV worked the day shift on a different floor. Given our schedules and locations, I had little hope of getting to know her. Her supervisor, an ensign in the WAVs, had taken an, ahem, "personal" interest in me, though, and she arranged to have me transferred to her department and shift. She had no idea Betty was in the picture for me. It wasn't long before Betty and I were an item and we knew we were meant to be. I left San Francisco in March of 1944, an officer on a freighter carrying 8500 tons of high octane aviation gas bound for the South Pacific. The ship returned to San Francisco in May, 1945 and we became engaged the following month on her birthday. When the ship put to sea again, Betty and I planned to be married when the ship returned to San Francisco.
We were at sea 19 months, saw a lot of boredom and a bit of combat, including three landings. Betty and I wrote the whole time. I still have all our letters. Maybe our kids will be interested in them some day. They don't have any literary value, just an account of two young people in love and lot of boring information about life on board my ship.
Anyway, I got a letter from Betty one day saying she was so excited I would be coming home soon. Surface mail to my APO address had been cut off some weeks before and she was sending this letter via air mail on the last day allowed for my address. That must mean our ship was coming back. The same day I got that letter, our ship got orders canceling our return to San Francisco and ordering us to proceed around Africa and on to New York City. There, our ship was to be decommissioned. With our mail cut off, there was no way to let Betty know. For a long time, she had no idea where I was or how I was.
Once I reached port and contacted Betty, she did manage to get to New York, though it was a long train ride in those days. We got married in a small Episcopal church in the theater district, called The Little Church Around the Corner. New York was full of servicemen in those days and housing was tight. After the wedding, I managed to rent a room at the Ritz Carlton for three nights. The rate was $10/night but for people in the service there was a 25 % discount, so we paid just $7.50/night.
To get a Stateside billet, you needed a certain number of points, accrued in serving overseas. I knew I didn't have enough points to qualify. Meeting with the re assignment officer, I explained I had just gotten married the day before, and that I knew I didn't qualify for a stateside assignment, but my wife had a large apartment in San Francisco--- could he assign me to a ship home ported there? He was sympathetic and said sure. Just to make things nicer, he asked me where I'd like to pick my orders to San Francisco? I replied, I thought I would sure like to pick them up in Miami. He then ordered me to proceed to Miami to pick up my orders for re assignment, so the Navy at least picked up the transportation tab for our honeymoon. From Miami, we traveled to San Francisco and I served on a passenger liner bringing troops home from the war. Betty mustered out of the WAVs and got a job as a clerk in San Francisco.
When the navy let me go in '47 I got a job with a company that owned a plant in Raleigh and we've lived in the area ever since.
Returning to my truck, Mr Davis and I paused at the main hall entrance and he motioned to the glass case of photos of residents in their WWII uniforms. There had been a contest to see who still looked the most like their old photo. "I have a photo of Betty in her WAV uniform," he said, "but I wouldn't put it in here with the other women. Not fair. She was a lot prettier than they were."
They have been together 63 years, but the last ten years, she's been slipping away from him, parting them for far longer than the war ever did. Back then, they could write, but now there is no letter he can write that she can read or ever respond to.
He has lunch with her every day.
He sees her in the morning and helps nurses tuck her in at night.
Still, they are parted more sternly than the vagaries of war ever did. You cannot write to a mind that has slipped below the sunset of Alzheimer's.
He is like a man putting messages in a bottle thrown in the sea. As long as there is any chance of a last letter reaching that pretty young woman so far away he will write. He writes to her now by simply being there, touching her, by saying "Good Morning." or "I love you." Maybe one will get through. He never knows.
But she waited for him, and he, by God, will wait for her.
Until their liberation.

POSTSCRIPT-- a little over four years later, Betty slipped away. Mr Davis did not speak at the funeral, but his children and grandchildren did. They remembered an independent woman who had grown up in western Colorado, able to shoot and ride. They remembered with pride their mother's stand for civil rights in Raleigh in the early 1960s. I had lunch with Mr Davis in January of 2011. He is writing his memoirs for his children and grandchildren.

Monday, November 13, 2006

My 1st Sculpture and THE CRAWLING EYE

By Joel Haas

With a 9 PM bedtime strictly enforced, it was no problem for me and my two younger brothers to bounce out of bed at 5:30 AM or earlier on a Saturday morning.

In self defense, our parents eased the television restrictions so we could watch Channel 5’s Saturday morning “Sunrise Theater.”

Using bright red fingernail polish, Mom placed a mark on the TV volume knob—under no circumstances were we to turn the volume beyond that red mark. Thus, our parents could sleep late while we watched Grade B horror movies.

After pouring our bowls of cereal and making chocolate milk, we’d plop down in front of the 1957 vintage black and white “portable” TV. (Portable in those days meant a TV small enough it only required a gorilla sized man wearing a steel truss to move it from point “a” to point “b.”)

At that time (and even into the early 1980s) Raleigh’s WRAL-TV did not sign on the air by playing the national anthem. Instead, a photo montage of the Confederate War Memorial on Capitol Square would appear. Then, a slow, respectful version of the Confederate anthem “Dixie,” sung by the University of North Carolina’s Men’s Chorus, played. Pictures of The Old Well on the UNC campus and magnolia blossoms alternated with close up views of old cannon barrels and various other Confederate war memorials on the State Capitol grounds.

When the last photo of magnolias faded and the Men’s Chorus fell silent, the real fun began.

“Welcome to Sunrise Theater,” the announcer’s voice would intone, “Bringing you the best in exciting movies from Hollywood and around the world!”

Invariably, that meant ancient grade B movies from crypts almost as old as Dracula’s. The plots were witless, the special effects, cheesy and dirt cheap, and the acting only a cut above that found in any local high school.

Nonetheless, it scared us silly.

Nearly half the movies seemed to involve the rugged and redoubtable actor Andrew Dugand saving Los Angeles from giant ants/giant spiders/giant locusts/giant scorpions/ giant somethings bred by atomic tests gone terribly wrong in the Nevada desert.

No matter how horribly its genes had been altered by atomic blasts, any monster maintained an instinct to move toward Los Angeles and Andrew Dugand with all possible haste.

Just as surely, a young, nubile scientist’s daughter, in tight khaki riding breeches would fall in love with Andrew Dugand only to be stolen away by the monster d’ jour. These girls could be Olympic track stars, able to sprint 50 miles with no problem, but let one giant spider show up and they’d run around in circles in the Nevada desert until they had tripped over the only rock within miles, spraining their ankles. The hero was forced to change his plan because he had to save Miss Riding Breeches. This never made sense to little boys. What was saving Miss Riding Breeches compared to letting giant ants and giant locusts ravage Los Angeles? And besides, for Pete’s sake! it was only a girl!

Some movies scared us worse than others. Some movies scared me more than my brothers and some scared them more than me.

It was just such a movie that inspired my first sculpture as well as bringing out all my usual jerk big brother qualities.

THE CRAWLING EYE, a British movie made in 1957 under the title THE TROLLENBERG TERROR, scared my younger brother Michael. The plot: mind reading aliens shaped like giant eyeballs with tentacles attack Earth. The aliens’ stare and tentacles freeze people to death and/or behead them. The aliens meet their match and doom when they attack a “high tech” fort on Trollenberg Mountain in Switzerland An American hero calls in Britain’s Royal Air Force to drop fire bombs on the aliens.

Andrew Dugand sat this one out. Re titled THE CRAWLING EYE for American distribution, the hero was played by Forrest Tucker (who later played the sergeant in the US TV series F Troop.)

In any event, the movie did not scare me, but it transfixed Michael with fright. Evil older brother that I was, I soon dreamed up a way to scare him again.

For Christmas or a birthday, I don’t recall which, I’d been given a large amount of brightly colored modeling clay. (Even then, somebody must have thought I’d grow up to be a sculptor!) Anyway, I spent a large part of Saturday afternoon using every scrap of clay I owned to make a large, colorful eyeball about the size and shape of an American football.

Saturday night came, and after we’d had supper and helped Mom clear away the dishes, we played a bit more, then, put on our pajamas and Dad told us a bed time story. The story finished, we dispersed to our bedrooms and it was “lights out.”

Now, I put my plan into action.

I had a small bedroom to myself behind the den/TV room. The den opened out onto a long hall in front of the bathroom door. Across the hall, Michael and John slept in bunk beds in a larger bedroom. The long hall ran from the bathroom door down the length of the house, turning left into the living room.

Carefully lifting the “Crawling Eye,” I crept through the den, past the bathroom door. Crossing the hall, I could see light coming from the living room and hear the soft, indistinct voices of my parents.

I tip toed into my brothers’ room. There was enough ambient light from the night light in the hall. They were sound asleep, John in the bottom bunk bed, Michael in the top one, his face towards me.

I plopped the clay eyeball onto Michael’s pillow just an inch from his nose.

He didn’t wake up.

More extreme measures were called for.

I shook his shoulder roughly, while, in a frantic stage whisper, I said, “Wake up, Mike! The Crawling Eye! The Crawling Eye!”

Michael’s little brown eyes popped open in surprise. A split second later, he let out a scream.

God forgive me, but, speaking as an older brother, that was tremendously gratifying.

Payback threatened almost immediately.

“What’s going on back there??!!” Dad’s voice thundered from the living room.

“The Crawling Eye! The Crawling Eye!” Michael continued to shriek.

“Do y’all want me to come back there and take off my belt?!” I could hear Dad’s heavy steps as he moved out of his chair and towards the hall.

It was time to flee.

Grabbing the clay Crawling Eye, I dashed into the bathroom. I closed the door and crammed the clay eyeball as far as I could under the old fashioned claw footed bath tub. Outside the bathroom door, I heard Dad passing by on his way into my brothers’ room.

“What’s going on back here?!” I heard Dad bellow.

I flushed the toilet, waited a few seconds, and opened the door. Yawning broadly and rubbing my eyes sleepily, I looked up at Dad’s scowling face. “Is Michael having a nightmare?” I asked in smooth innocence.

“He’s got the Crawling Eye!” Michael yelled.

I looked at Dad and shrugged. He had no idea what we watched on Saturday morning, so “The Crawling Eye” meant nothing to him.

“Now y’all listen here,” Dad shook a finger, “ Everybody’s going back to bed and go to sleep or the next time I come back here I’ll already have my belt off. Everybody understand?”

“I didn’t do anything!” my youngest brother, John, protested his innocence.

“Good,” Dad grumped. “See that you don’t.”

I trudged slyly back to bed.

Sunday morning, I made it my business to get up before anybody else. I had evidence to recover and destroy.

In the bathroom, I pulled the tightly wedged clay model from its hiding place beneath the bath tub. Taking time to gather up bits that had come loose, I scampered back to my room.

There, I disassembled the clay eye. After sorting the different colors of clay into separate piles, I thoroughly squished them together. Before anybody else got up, I was making them into animals, airplanes, or ships. Soon, there was no trace of “The Crawling Eye.”

Michael must have had a bad dream.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Chocolate Coins

by Joel Haas

At first I thought I had found a trove of chocolate coins!

One of our favorite chocolate candy treats in the 1950s was chocolate coins wrapped in stiff gold foil. With a design front and back, and lettering just like real coins, the candies were sold in little faux nets bags to resemble “pirates purses.” The challenge of eating chocolate coins was carefully removing the stiff gold foil, preserving the design of the coin. Slowly and carefully, we’d reassemble the empty wrappers later, to make play money. We never got chocolate coins except on special occasions like Christmas, or Easter.

BUT….

Here it was July, and I had found about a dozen of them right here in the drawer of Dad’s bedside table!

Conflicting emotions flooded into my young mind. What an unexpected treat! How could Dad have kept all these chocolate coins to himself all this time? He was always generous with me and my brothers when it came to chocolate candy and treats. I was hurt he had been holding out on us!

I examined the coins in greater detail. The gold foil glittered and the only thing keeping me from tearing open several of them and gobbling them down was trying to balance in my mind how many I could eat and Dad not notice them missing? I had never seen this brand of chocolate coins and they were not in the usual pirate’s bag purse.

Too, all the coins were the same size. Other chocolate coins ranged in sizes from about the size of a nickel to a quarter to an old fashioned silver dollar. All of these seemed to be about the size of a 50 cent piece.

Gingerly, I pried one apart. The sides did not come apart as easily as the chocolate coins I was used to.

When I finally got the wrapper off, I was surprised and disappointed to find what looked like a greasy, twisted rubber band or a flat mushroom. Carefully pulling it out, I gave it an exploratory nibble. YEECH! It was definitely rubber bands! Rubber bands, but definitely, very weird rubber bands. Poking at the middle of it, I found I could unroll it like a long sock. It seemed pretty greasy, but I was curious, “how far could this thing be unrolled?”

Quite a long ways, as I discovered, but just as I had unrolled it as far as it was going to go, my mother came into the room.

I might be in trouble.

On the one hand, I might be able to get out of it by showing Mom that Dad obviously had been holding out on us all with the candy coins. On the other hand, these were not the usual candy coins. A neutral course was best, I decided.

“What is this?” I turned to Mom.

Whatever normal chastisement I was due for went right out of Mom’s head when confronted with her small son holding forth a fully unrolled condom.

“That’s your father’s,” she said flatly.

“I know,” I said gravely. “I found it in his drawer.”

There was a short silence. “What is it?” I persisted.

“It’s a machine part covering,” Mom said --- the first thing that popped into her head. Then, without further ado, she retreated, leaving me unchastised, relieved, and deeply puzzled.

My father was legendarily unmechanical. A Philips head screw driver was the most complex tool in the house. What possible machine could he be using this on?

Well. There was one machine.

My father, Ben Haas, was a professional writer. The only machine I had ever seen him use was the model 1923 Underwood manual typewriter on the desk in the bedroom. It was the tool of his trade and I had seen him take it apart to clean and repair it.

I walked around to the desk, holding the “machine part covering” in front of me. I tried stretching it, but there was obviously no possible way this was going to cover the entire typewriter. At best, I could stretch it over a few keys or let it flop limply over the carriage return leaver. Would Dad come back and find I had taken one of his “machine parts coverings?” Would he be mad and punish me for going through his bedside table drawer?

The only way out I could see was to show I was a good and dutiful son. I needed to show I had seen to covering his machine parts in his absence when he had obviously forgotten to do so himself.

But how did this rubber tube fit on a typewriter???!!!

I was beginning to panic.

Suddenly, I had an insight. It was the roller platen! I had seen Dad unscrew the ornate brass knobs on each end of the roller platen, remove it, clean it and replace it. That had to be it! I easily unscrewed the knobs and removed the platen.

With great difficulty, I managed to encase the whole length in the stretchy “machine parts covering,” and get the platen replaced. The knobs wouldn’t go back on, so I carefully laid the encased roller on top of the typewriter, setting the knobs to one side.

I closed Dad’s bedside drawer, taking the “machine part wrapper” with me--- it would make great play money along with the rest of the gold coin wrappers my brothers and I had saved.

Then, I left my parents’ bedroom, closing the door quietly, not mentioning my good deed to either Mom or Dad, figuring I would either be in for a scolding or praise soon enough.

I have no idea whether my father came home shortly thereafter and, finding a condom on his typewriter, took it as a not so subtle hint from my mother that he was working too much and should pay more attention to the home front. Maybe Mom went in the bedroom, and quietly removed the “machine part covering,” replacing the roller platen so Dad would never suspect his precious typewriter had been “violated.” Or, maybe, they found it and both had a hysterical laugh over it.

Neither of them ever said a single word about it to me.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Fairy Princess

The Fairy Princess
--A mostly True Story


by Joel Haas


I’m a sculptor and this is a story about one of my most unusual commissions. I write this a day or two before Mother’s Day, and, as you shall see, that is very appropriate. Photos of the final work are at the end of this piece.

Several years ago, I received a phone call from a lady I had never met, a professional garden designer, who had seen my work and now wanted to commission a work for her own garden. As a professional artist, my bank account has never been so swollen that I could summarily turn down work, so while I idly played with the phone cord and sipped a cup of coffee, she explained what she wanted.
“I want you to do a memorial piece,” she began, “about my late daughter. She was six.” My heart sank—I don’t do portrait work, and certainly not portrait work when I can’t see the actual subject.
“She was killed in an automobile wreck along with her puppy and my younger sister who was taking her to the park.”
I told myself this was a job I did not want.
As if reading my thoughts, she told me, “I don’t want a portrait of her. And this happened five years ago.” She went on, “ I don’t care what sort of style you do this work in or what medium, but you do have to use the colors pink and purple.”
“Why pink and purple?” I asked.
“She had a fairy princess outfit that was pink and purple which she wore while playing in the garden.”
“So,” I asked, “what you really want is a sculpture that evokes the spirit of your child in the garden?”
“Right,” she answered.
“That,” I told her, “I can do,”—though I didn’t have the faintest idea at the time how.

Over the next few weeks I tried some ideas out—made abstract sketches, doodles of ultra realistic castings of flowers or children, but none of it seemed right. I was not evoking anybody’s spirit with these ideas--and deadlines and bills loomed. Finally, I realized, my client knew her child’s story, but I did not and I never would. So. I had to write her daughter’s story anew for myself and work out a sculpture based on that.

Over the next few days, I wrote a children’s story about a little girl who meets a real fairy princess and wants to become one, too. Then, I illustrated the story as if I were six years old!
I had the mother read the story when I was finished. After a good cry, she looked over the childish drawings I had so painstakingly made and selected which one she wanted me to translate into a steel sculpture for her garden.
What follows is the story I wrote and a picture of the final 8 ft tall steel Fairy Princess I built.

HOW LEAH BECAME A FAIRY PRINCESS
It all began with a very loud crash.
Then.
Everything was quiet and Leah was in her garden again.
For the longest time nobody came but the day was pleasant and nearly all the flowers were in bloom.
Soon, Helen and Margo from down the block came through the gate. A little after that, Leah heard her mother’s voice and Lindsey’s mother’s voice outside the tall, wooden gate. They seemed to be speaking in hushed tones, but, in a moment, Lindsey came in the garden, and they didn’t care what sort of tones their moms were speaking in.
Margo and Lindsey had capes and crowns and Helen had pink boots with glitter and a very fancy sparkly wand her daddy had made her. Soon kingdoms and castles had been conjured, boundaries drawn and tea parties and treaties arranged. There were no frogs to be found in the garden, so a kitten was pressed into service. Margo proclaimed the kitten an enchanted prince she would save with a magic wand and food.
Wrapped in enough towel “robes” to immobilize it, the kitten was plied with endless cups of imaginary tea and cake as they awaited just the right moment to suddenly proclaim it a handsome human prince.

A buzzing, tickling sound was heard in the distance. The garden grew even brighter. The air shimmered. Suddenly, in a shower of silver sparks, The Fairy Princess appeared, mounted on her faithful steed, Charley Horse.
The girls had never seen such a wonderful outfit!
Unnoticed, the kitten struggled free of the “robes” and teacups and hurried to safety under the kitchen steps.
“Do you all want to play fairy princess?” The Fairy Princess asked, casually brushing her magic wand through Charley Horse’s mane.
Hardly able to speak, all the girls nodded yes.
“Well, then,” The Fairy Princess proclaimed serenely, “We shall need wonderful dresses and castles and wands for everybody!”
As she slipped gracefully from Charley Horse’s back, The Fairy Princess shouted, “Tiaras for everybody, too!” With a glowing wave of her magic wand, they were all transformed –every one of them.
“Leah!” Margo and the other little girls looked up. “We didn’t know you were here and playing, too!”
“Of course, she’s playing too,” The Fairy Princess said airily as she waved her magic wand again.
And Presto! Head to toe, Leah was wearing a pink and purple outfit. Her pink gauzy wings fit perfectly with her sparkly purple dress, yellow crown and wand. She felt a bit wobbly and saw she was perched on some of her mother’s old high heels!
“Perfect!” The Fairy Princess squealed. “Everybody wave their magic wands!”
And so the morning passed—the girls waving their magic wands to create kingdoms and wipe away tears.
At lunch time, a grand gathering of the kingdoms was held and Leah’s mother—a servant summoned on brief sufferance from another world—served cookies and juice.
“May we please ride Charley Horse after lunch?” the girls begged The Fairy Princess.
“Of course,” The Fairy Princess answered between delicate bites of cookie. “He loves to race with the butterflies—he’s not really fast enough to beat the hummingbirds, though.”

And so they played until the shadows lengthened as the afternoon sun turned the garden lawn hazy gold.
Leah was having so much fun riding Charley Horse and turning flowers into castles and frogs, she hardly noticed Margo and Helen and Lindsey had left.
“Where did they all go?” Leah asked The Fairy Princess. “Did they all have to go home?”
“No,” said The Fairy Princess as she conjured up sugar cubes and apples to give Charley Horse, “They said they were too old to play fairy princess any more and left.”
“Will they be back?” Leah asked.
“No,” was the reply. “They’ll always be too old to play fairy princess now.”
Surprised and a little put out, Leah declared, “Well, I’m not too old to play fairy princess. I never want to be that old!”
So they played—or held court—until the tide of shadows washed over the garden and lightning bugs began to twinkle above the beds of liriope and spearmint.
“Charley Horse loves to race lightning bugs,” The Fairy Princess observed while daintily holding a pretend tea cup.
“I would love to be a real fairy princess like you!” Leah sighed. Even the coat hanger wire in her gauzy pink wings seemed to slump a bit in resignation.
“Why nothing could be easier!” The Fairy Princess said. “You have only to ask your mother if you can come with me to see Titania, The Fairy Queen. I’m sure she could make you a real fairy princess for ever!”
“Now?” Leah was startled.
“Just go ask,” The Fairy Princess pointed to the back door. Already, the porch light had come on to show the steps in soft light.

The screen door shut quietly behind Leah as she entered the house. It seemed so dark and so late. Hadn’t the sun just gone down? Yet both hands on the kitchen clock were already on the 12!
Had she missed supper?! She hadn’t even felt hungry all day!
The house seemed so dark, yet she could see with perfect clarity. It didn’t matter—she could have walked the house with her eyes closed. She hurried down the hall and to the left—into her mother’s bedroom.
Mommy had new pajamas and her hair looked different.
Odd.
But still, this was the safest and coziest place in the world!
Without even thinking about it, Leah climbed into bed with her mother as she had so often in the past. She heard her mother’s happy murmur of sleepy greeting and felt her mother’s arms around her.
Adjusting her toy wings and wand, she told her mother all about the day, about Charley Horse and Margo, and Helen, and Lindsey, and about The Real Fairy Princess who could really fly and really turn columbines into teacups and pecan sticks into wands. And how the other girls were too old to play fairy princess and had left but how the Real Fairy Princess had promised Leah could be a Real Fairy Princess, too, if her mom would only let her go with the Real Fairy Princess to see Titania, The Fairy Queen, and…”
Leah stopped for breath.
Her mother was smiling and nodding.
“Oh, please, Mom! May I go? May I?” She used the same tone as if she were pleading to go to Margo’s for a sleep over.
For the longest time, her mother said not a word.
Finally, “Yes,” she nodded, and Leah was out of bed, nearly flying down the hall, shouting, “Thanks, Mom!” and never saw the single magic tear coursing down her mother’s face.
Charley Horse was waiting nearby as the back door slammed shut and Leah skipped into the moonlight shouting, “My mom says it’s okay! I can be a Real Fairy Princess forever!”


Day was rapidly diluting the night sky.
The mother stood silently crying by the back door. She had had the most delicious and painful dream of Leah last night. The joy of holding her child in her heart and then the white hot pain of letting her go.
She pushed the back door open and felt the dew and grass between her toes.
She heard voices--softer than daybreak’s whisper—in the jasmine along the back wall.
Sparkling dimly in the tree branches overhead was a regal woman in a magnificent gown. Titania, The Fairy Queen! Around her were little girls in a multitude of fairy princess robes from terry cloth to gauze to real satin.
She saw Leah standing before The Fairy Queen, a look of puzzlement and awe on her child’s face.
“Where are my real crown and real magic wand?” Leah asked.
“In your mother’s garden,” The Fairy Queen answered. “You’ll have to seek them there.” Then, waving her scepter, The Fairy Queen wove a circle of sparkling fairy dust around Leah’s head. “This is what I decree: that whenever and wherever you are carried in your mother’s heart throughout her garden, you will be Chief Real Fairy Princess there and decide whatever games are to be played!”
With that, The Fairy Queen started to rapidly fade away. Already, it was hard to tell if she were still there in the tree top—or if it were just a trick of the light on leaves and branches.
“Wait!” Leah called, “Can I have my friends over? And all the other princesses, too?”
“By all means,” she heard The Fairy Queen say. “And Charley Horse, too.”
And, then—they all vanished.
And, then—it really was just morning light playing tricks on leaves and branches.
CLICK ON THE FAIRY PRINCESS PHOTO TO VIEW LARGER PHOTO
Steel sculpture about 8 feet tall--note, even the flowers holding up the princess are made in steel. There is a butterfly in her hand for resurrection.
Below are two of the quick sketches of illustrations done for the mother to view.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Lollipop Garden

THE LOLLIPOP GARDEN

By Joel Haas

Well, I couldn’t go on eating only Spam and fried sliced weenies forever.

I would not eat lettuce, string beans, brussel sprouts, peas, salads, carrots, radishes, or anything that came out of the ground.

“You need to eat your vegetables,” my parents would say. Children hear this and wonder “why?” “So you’ll grow up tall and strong,” was always the answer.

Not a good enough answer for a three year old.

My parents were at wits’ end, convinced I would never grow taller than 3 ft and haunt them forever as a public example of their parental failure to make me eat my vegetables.

“There’s Joel Haas,” people would say as a wizen Munchkin passed them--“He’s 55 years old and still no bigger than the day he turned three!--all because his parents were too lazy to make him eat his vegetables!” Determined to avoid this shame in their dotage, long nightly battles were fought with me at the supper table.

As with so many parents trying to find a high minded way along the path to raising their first child, they eventually hit upon the solution favored by generations preceding them—bribery and lies.

As always with my parents, the genius was in the presentation.

“We’ll plant a lollipop garden, if you eat your vegetables.” My father promised one night.

“A lollipop garden?” I was intrigued.

“Yes,” my father went on to explain. “I discovered we have magic dirt in a secret part of the backyard. If I say the right magic words over it, it will grow lollipops for you every night you eat your vegetables.”

“Let’s see it,” I demanded.

“No,” Dad was determined to squeeze this for all he could. “You eat your vegetables tonight and we’ll go get some dirt for a lollipop garden tomorrow night when I come home from work.”

This was sufficient bribe for that night. Looking forward to a lollipop garden, I ate my vegetables without further objection.

The next day, Dad was home a little later than usual. I could hardly wait to get started on the lollipop garden. I remember it was nearly dark. Together, we went into the farthest corner of the backyard.

Envisioning agribusiness farming vast acres of lollipops, I offered the use of my toy bulldozer and trowel to gather up huge piles of dirt for a lollipop garden. Dad said he didn’t think there was that much magic dirt around and that we would only need the chipped plate Momma had given us and the neighbor’s shovel.

While I was ready and willing to haul right in to digging anywhere, Dad made a great show of looking for just the right place to find magic dirt (probably to avoid dog poop and tree roots.)

A shovelful of dirt was soon heaped on the plate. Dad waved a hand over it several times muttering some “magic words.” and we were ready to go inside for supper.

With great ceremony, the plate of magic dirt was placed on one end of the kitchen counter. After supper, my parents explained, if I ate all my vegetables, one of them would come in and check the lollipop garden to see if any lollipops had grown.

It all worked as predicted. I ate my vegetables and one of my parents would go into the kitchen to check the lollipop garden. The dirt plate would be brought out to me, a half dozen or so lollipops stuck into the tightly packed dirt. I could choose one—two maybe if I had been very good or had volunteered to eat a second helping of peas—and the rest were harvested and put away to bribe me with the following day. Momma placed them in a small bowl out of my reach on top of the old refrigerator they’d nicknamed “Wheezy” because of the sound the compressor motor mounted on top made.

Amazingly, the lollipop garden grew exactly the flavors and brands I liked best and could see in the stores. An additional benefit to my parents was I quit whining for those lollipops when in the grocery store. We could grow them at home for free!

I wanted to go out with more plates and the neighbor’s shovel to find more magic dirt. We could have a huge farm of lollipops in the kitchen and even sell some to the grocery store. (This is only the first of many impractical business models I was to pursue in later life.)

There was no more magic dirt, it was explained to me. We were very lucky to have found this much and I should be careful not to mess with it or mistreat it, or even this small pile might lose its ability to sprout candy.

All went well. I was eating my vegetables. I would grow up to be “tall and strong” (at least enough so, people wouldn’t talk that my parents had not made me eat right.) I did not whine for lollipops at the grocery store. All was right with the world.

All was right, that is, until “Aunt Wat” came to visit.

MaryFran Watson was one of my mother’s high school and college friends. Only child of a well to do and prominent Raleigh family, she had gone to New York City to theater school and had pursued a career on the stage. In later years, when she had returned to Raleigh, I recall “Aunt Wat” telling me to “save your voice for the stage, dear,” rather than the “will you kids be quiet?!” we were more likely to hear from other adults. That was all in the future. I was only three and had never met her before.

She arrived for a visit to have lunch with my mother. Immaculately turned out in a dark blue suit with matching hat and heels, her outfit was the perfect compliment to her naturally red hair and fair skin.

I was fed beforehand and sent to play quietly in the living room where they could still watch me and have a light, elegant lunch, while catching up on gossip and news.

I played quietly with my toy cars and bulldozer. From the living room, --this is important-- I could see into both the dining room and the kitchen.

Lunch was finished and my mother excused herself for a moment—probably to go to check the mailbox and go to the bathroom. “Aunt Wat,” ever the good guest, called after, “I’ll just take the dishes on into the kitchen.”

I watched her place the dishes on the counter, the silverware in the sink and wipe off the counter top. She paused a moment, a puzzled look on her face. Then, to my three year old horror, and with as traumatic effect today as when it happen over a half century ago, I watch her pick up the lollipop garden plate, press the trashcan pedal with one elegant blue high heel shoe.

When the trash can lid popped up, she summarily dumped the entire plate of dirt into the trash can.

I went into a complete meltdown.

No professional actor has ever chewed a rug or scenery with the intense hysteria I showed that day.

Aunt Wat, of course had not the faintest idea what had happened. She rushed into the living room expecting to find me mortally injured. There was no mark on me and, it was obvious, choking was not my problem. My incoherent screaming about lollipops probably deepened her concern.

Momma returned but I was inconsolable. The two of them could not jolly me back to good humor. The lollipop garden was gone, abused and blasphemed so much I was sure it would never return.

I howled bloody murder on through the afternoon and I am sure my mother and MaryFran’s visit was cut short by my grief.

Mom and Dad must have agreed this was a great time to cut the candy budget and my dental bills, because I do not recall the lollipop garden being restored. Its magic dirt went out with the trash and, somewhere in the landfill, fallow and untended, still awaits a new young farmer.

I didn’t know it then, but there was yet one more spectacular harvest to be had from the lollipop garden. For my fortieth birthday party, the centerpiece present was a huge platter presented by “Aunt Wat,” forty, expensive, gourmet lollipops stuck in a heap of packed dirt.

I am here to tell you, I ate every one of them over the following month and half—and I did so without always eating my vegetables!