Monthly Archives: December 2012

1940’s Christmas, Nana, and the Miser of Lixnaw

A Christmas Story

Poisson Christmas Tree 1950 The Christmas Tree at the Temple Street Homestead  

(Circa 1949; Photo by Francis Poisson)

            The Christmas holiday at the White House on Temple Street during the Forties looms very large in my memory. It was an old fashioned family Christmas with lights and trees, indoors and out, and presents and excitement and the smell of good food cooking. There was plenty of snow, Christmas carols, and it all built to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at Sacred Heart Church, just up the hill. It was an annual tradition.

It was a great honor to be picked as an altar boy to assist at Midnight Mass. Since I lived close to the church, and was frequently called on short notice as a substitute for kids who didn’t show up, I usually got the nod from Father O’Brien for Midnight Mass. Besides, everyone remembered the debacle at last year’s Midnight Mass downstairs, in the lower chapel. This Mass was intended to accommodate the overflow crowd that filled the decorated main church,  and where the music played and the congregation sang, and the incense wafted through the aisles.

The downstairs chapel was pretty Spartan. A few candles and poinsettias, but not much else. Last year, the priest had asked altar boy Roy Flynn if he had an ideas to liven it up a bit. Roy did. He had a portable phonograph and some 78 RPM records, along the lines of Bing Crosby singing “Silent Night,” and other such Christmas hits. It was a bit profane for the time, but the good priest agreed it would do, and Roy Flynn set up his phonograph and made ready for play. Alas for Roy, be brought several mixed albums and in the excitement, he placed the wrong record on the turn table. When Father entered the altar in all his glory, the phonograph played “Cocktails for Two” by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Henceforth, phonographs (and Roy) were banned from Midnight Mass.

In every series of life events there comes a payback time, and this year Midnight Mass was mine. Uncle George told me once, “We send and receive our own letters.” Most of mine worked out to my advantage, and this year’s downstairs Midnight Mass had a little appropriate music from an old pump organ, and all went to everyone’s satisfaction.

After Midnight Mass, we returned home for hot chocolate and gathered around the tree with great excitement as my father distributed the presents that my mother had selected, shopped for, and wrapped. My father had the lead: he distributed the presents. Most importantly of all, the family was all together and around me.

            The holiday season would officially start just after Thanksgiving when Santa Claus made his first appearance, waving his way down Main Street, on the back of a fire truck with its lights flashing and siren howling. My sister Mary’s husband, Paul Morin, took his two sisters, Judy and Bunny, and me to see the event each year. The firemen threw candy and small toys from the truck. Santa Clause waved hello. We all shouted and sang. And we ended the evening at Murnik’s Cafeteria for hot chocolate and doughnuts.

 The holiday season, however, didn’t come to our house until the week before Christmas. My father believed you could wear the holiday out by excessive celebration, so he kept it to as few days as possible. We went out and bought our tree, for example, just a day or two before Christmas. By then all the good ones were gone and we ended up with some of the scraggliest looking excuses for a tree that you can imagine. Once, after my brother Leo got his license to drive, Dad sent us three boys (Leo, George, and I) down to Levi Lashua’s lot near Central Fire Station in Fitchburg to pick out our tree. He gave us a dollar to pay for it and another fifty cents to celebrate with hot chocolates at Brook’s Drug Store next door to Levi’s. It was a cold and snowy night. Levi had little interest in leaving the shack where he sat with his wood burning stove, getting maximum heat from all the pieces of birch and pine trees he had trimmed off his customers’ purchases. “You can have any tree that’s still out there for seventy-five cents,” he said. “Except the ones with the red tags on the top. Those are sold and awaiting pick-up.” We went out to look for our prize. There wasn’t much to choose from. The trees left on the lot were small, bent, skinny, and generally pathetic looking. The only one we saw and really liked was the nice, big, full spruce tree – with a red tag on top. We knew it was sold to someone else, but we decided to take it anyway. We removed the tag, told Levi we had found one that would do, loaded it in the car, and took it home.

            My father took one look at it and said, “How did you find such a nice tree as that this late in the season?” That did it. We broke down and told him the whole nefarious story. He wasn’t mad, just disappointed. Perhaps that was worse. “Now go take it back,” he said. “Tell Levi what you did and bring home an honest tree for the holiday.” We took it back. Leo told Levi the story and Levi was neither mad nor disappointed. He said he understood. He came out of the shack and helped us find a tree in the back that was only a little bit away from being acceptable. We brought it home. My father was pleased. The funny part of it was that when we got it up in the living room and decorated it with lights and tinsel and icicles, put Dad’s illuminated five pointed glass star on the top, and Mother’s celluloid Santa and sleigh on the branches, it was one of the best Christmas trees we ever had.

            Nana Ware would come into the living room when we were done and join us for cocoa and cookies. She was blind, but she could hear and she could smell, and she could tell stories. She smiled as she said, “I can feel Christmas all around me.”

            We would sit there. Talking about times past and looking forward to the big day coming soon. The big Crosley parlor radio would be playing Christmas carols in the background., as we talked. We would then ask Nana to tell us a story about one of her Christmas memories of when she was a girl, back home in Ireland. One time, she told us the story of Danny Mack, the Miser of Lixnaw:

 

The Miser of Lixnaw 

Nana illustration Miser of Lixnaw

            “Quite the meanest man in Lixnaw was the wealthy landlord and farmer, Daniel McMahon. We called him Danny Mack behind his back. He was Irish enough, to be sure, but it was the English swells he catered to. He knew rightly enough where the money and power was. He couldn’t do enough for them. He treated all of us in the village like dirt beneath his heels. My father used to say, ‘He’s one of us, but he acts like one of them. That’s the worst of all.’ We all knew what he meant, and nobody went near Danny Mack unless, God forbid, they had to.

            Mr. McMahon loaned out money at very high rates. If you borrowed a shilling today, you’d owe him two shillings next week. God forbid you couldn’t pay that back or he’d have the constable on you. Your furniture and kit would be in his barn within a fortnight. ‘The law is always the law,’ my father said, ‘but it’s not always fair and not always just. It’s not always the right thing to do.’ My mother said you can only hate someone you fear, and not everyone feared Danny Mack. My father said amen to that, but added, ‘it’s small consolation to be only hated by a few when the rest of the village despises you as well.’

            Mr. McMahon lived like a miser too. His cottage was one of the most miserable in the village and he always looked unkempt and in need of a good wash. He had no wife or family to care for him. He was quite alone with his money, and though he had quite a lot if it too, they say he’d still jump right down a rabbit hole after a penny. Sometimes the children would bend down and hide behind the stonewalls when he passed along the village roads. Then they would call out their cruel rhyme:

            ‘Dan, Dan, the dirty old man.

Washed his face in the frying pan.

Combed his hair with the leg of the chair.

Dan, Dan the dirty old man.’

Then they’d scurry away laughing before he could recognize who they were. Most often he’d grab a rock or stick and fling it after them with a curse.

            Of course, I didn’t know much of all this at the time. I was just a little girl of nine or ten in the parish school; this would have been around 1870. Mr. McMahon was just one more poor soul I’d see winding his way through the streets on my way to church or school.

            One day near Christmas, the parish priest gave us a special assignment. We were to come next time with a story from one of our family or friends about their favorite color. What was it and why did they like it? It was a good question, and could have been a lot of fun, but I was small and busy. I forgot about it altogether in the holiday preparations going on. It wasn’t until I was on my way to parish school with my friends that I remembered the homework task. I had not done my assignment. I had not asked anyone my question. Fr. Kavanaugh would not like that, and it would go hard for me at home as well.

            I was walking along the road, wondering what would become of me, when I looked up and walking toward me was Mr. McMahon himself. I had an idea.

            ‘Good morning, Mr. McMahon,’ I said cheerfully. ‘Tis a fine day. And would ye have a moment for a question?’

            He looked at me warily. ‘And what question would the likes of ye be having for the likes of me?’ he asked.

            ‘It’s for school, Mr. McMahon. I was supposed to ask a family member or friend to tell me their favorite color and why they like it. I was hoping I could ask ye my question.’

            ‘Oh,’ he said, looking at me suspiciously, ‘am I your friend then?’

            ‘No sir,’ I told him. ‘I forgot to ask my family and friends and I’ll get into trouble if I go there without my lesson. I thought I would ask ye.’

            He laughed at that. ‘All right, child,’ he said, ‘I’ll be answering your question. My favorite color is … orange.’

            Now I thought he was joking me. Orange was the color of the British, and the Irish who supported them. The Orangemen called themselves The Ascendancy, and had little to do with the likes of us. But it was an answer, and the only answer I had to carry with me. I said, ‘Oh, like the fruit!’

            ‘And what would you know about the fruit, child? Have you ever tasted an orange?’

            ‘No sir, but I have heard about them and they are soft and juicy and sweet.’

            ‘Aye, they are that,’ he said, falling into step beside me. ‘I go to Dublin now and again on my business, and I’ll have one there. They grow them on the islands near Italy, you know’ he continued, and they have them there for sale in the city markets well into the winter months. I like them for their taste and their rarity. It is a special treat for me to have an orange when I’m in one of the big cities.’

            By this time we were near the school. I thanked Mr. McMahon for his time and for talking with me. I was happy that I could now make my report. Mr. McMahon waved me goodbye and into the class I went. I made a good report in class that day. The priest was shocked that I had interviewed Mr. Mack. He said it was unusual – but a good thing to have the views of different people. Mr. Mack, he commented, half under his breath, was certainly a different person.

            Well, I told my parents what I had done. My father was amused. My mother warned me against talking to people I didn’t know very well. She added, ‘It does show that there is a little good in everyone.’ My father harrumphed at that. He said, ‘Well, maybe Mr. Mack will get a bit of time out of the sulfur pit that awaits him in the next life.’

            The story doesn’t end there,’’ Nana said. “It was a while later, on Christmas morning, when there was a knock on our cottage door. My mother opened it and found no one there. On the doorstep was a bright cloth tied with a bit of twine. ‘What is this?’ she said, bringing it inside and undoing the knots. ‘Mary, child,’ she said, ‘I believe Father Christmas has brought ye this from your new friend.’

            And there, inside the cloth, was my very first orange.”

Above is an excerpt from Ed McManus’ book, “The Nana in the Chair and the Tales She Told” (AuthorHouse 2003, Red Roof Press 2006)

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Christmas Eve, 1945: The Midnight Mass Express

The Midnight Mass Express

Monsignor Meehan Kerry c 1975

 Monsignor Francis X. Meehan (1910-1994) and Kerry McManus, Circa 1975

Back in the early Seventies, Immaculate Conception Parish in Marlborough was assigned a new pastor: Monsignor Francis Xavier Meehan.

Monsignor Meehan was an intellectual, theologian, and an educator At St. John’s Seminary in Boston  for many years. Now, toward the end of his career, he was returning to parish work as a local pastor. It was a role he had requested, and truly relished. He was my pastor, mentor, and friend.

Monsignor Meehan was known for his willingness to help everyone, his good nature, and long, intellectual sermons (that most of us didn’t entirely understand, but which always contained at least one useful thought);  and his dry sense of humor. I appreciated all of his gifts and talents, but naturally, his warmth and humor drew me closer.

We young, family parishioners would get together in little home groups from time to time, discussing church teachings, policies, ethics, and church experiences (good and bad). Nothing was off limits. Sometimes we discussed personal matters. Once he admitted he was named “Francis X. Meehan” for the famous Hollywood silent movie idol, “Francis X. Bushman,” after whom so many admiring mothers named their firstborn sons  early in the 20th Century. His mother, like many mothers of her time, always insisted that she had named her son after the great St. Francis Xavier; but that one mother’s tale was suspect, and the great silent movie star, Francis X. Bushman, was believed to be the source of most of those young boys’ name.

That opened the door, and I asked Msgr. Meehan to tell us a light-hearted story from his own personal experience. One Christmas Season, after a glass or two of Jamison’s around my fire place, he told us of his first Christmas parish experience:

“At Christmas time in the 1940’s, just after World War II, the churches were packed with people during the Christmas holidays. The pastors would contact the seminary to recruit young priests, teachers, and even senior seminarians to come and help out at the churches. My first Christmas assignment was helping out at an old world Italian Parish in the North End of Boston.

“The parish was old world in every way. The senior congregation was first generation Italian-Americans. They had built the church, and their children and grandchildren filled it. They also had several traditions they followed without fail. One of these was irreverently called ‘The Jesus Express.’ You never dared call it that in front of the old pastor, but occasionally he did tolerate use of the alternate term, ‘The Midnight Mass Express.’

“The premise was simple: Before Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, there would be a choir festival. They would surround the stable scene and empty crèche at the foot of the altar, then step aside for the final hymn (“Joy to the World,” and “Silent Night,” were local favorites) . While they sang, the Baby Jesus was majestically lowered, sliding slowly along an almost invisible wire, that led from the choir loft to the empty crèche on the altar. It was rehearsed and perfectly timed. The little statue landed in the straw almost at the exact final note of the hymn. Then the pastor, his curates, deacons, and altar boys, all splendidly attired, would say a few prayers, bless the entire diorama, and proceed with Midnight Mass.

“The year I was on duty, naturally, there was an issue. The committee had allowed two of the altar boys to string the wire from the choir loft to the crèche and, as young boys will, they were more interested in getting the job done quickly than properly. They didn’t understand, for example, that the higher the choir loft end of the wire was raised, the faster the Infant Jesus would proceed down it when they released him from the loft. They hung the wire very high indeed. And, alas, no one checked their work.

“Came Christmas Eve, and the choir concert, a full church, and the clerical presence.  The pastor gave the signal to the boys in the choir loft: “Release the Infant Jesus.” They did just that.. As clerics and congregants alike looked on in horror, the little statue of Jesus hurtled down the wire at a high and ever increasing rate of speed. One of the curates, who had been an Army chaplain during the war, reverted to his military training. He yelled, “Incoming!” and dove into the first pew for cover. The pastor stood his ground. The little statue hit the crèche at top speed, knocked it over, which in turn knocked over Joseph and Mary along with the shepherds and the animals, which in turn knocked down the entire stable.

“In less time than it takes to describe it, the Christmas manger scene was a shambles, flattened, and apparently destroyed.

“The pastor never blinked. He proceeded to say the prayers over the wreckage, blessed it with holy water, and walked triumphantly away to begin the Midnight Mass.

“After Mass, the pastor got all the participants together for a review of the disaster. The responsible altar boys received a talking-to and lecture that they probably carry with them to this very day. The pastor asked for a damage report. The custodian replied: “The shepherds and the angels are broken but fixable; The Holy Family landed in the straw and they are okay. I can set up the crèche easily enough, clean up the mess, and with a little help, we can hammer the stable back together in time for tomorrow morning’s first Mass.’

“For the first time, the pastor smiled: ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are all well? That will be our little Christmas miracle. As for the rest of it, fix the crèche and have the stable set up around the Holy Family before anyone goes home tonight.’ He walked happily away.

“And it was done just that way. By the 7am Christmas Mass, the Infant Jesus was safely back in his crèche, in the stable, and surrounded by his loving parents and attendant shepherds and angels.

“God was in his place and all was right with the world.

“And – after all – isn’t that a great message for Christmas?”

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I.D.M., Inc.: The Chairman’s Letter

Willy Sellmore

The Chairman: Wharton B. School addresses an analysts’ meeting (1994)

(Willy Sellmore: At our sales meetings, we often used puppet, “Willy Sellmore,” on screen, as the sales force spokesman. Willy raised questions and issues with management that individual sales people might be reluctant to do. Willy was played by writer, humorist, puppeteer Joe Vuotto.)

 

 Note to Staff: The following letter is being sent from the Chairman’s office to all I.D.M. shareholders of record as of the start of the previous fiscal quarter. It is intended to address the shareholders’ and financial community’s concerns about the company’s recent reports regarding profitability and continuing viability. Please insure that all employees receive copies at home and see it posted on all headquarter’s bulletin boards. -HR

To:             All Shareholders, Employees, Analysts, and Friends of I.D.M., Inc.

From:       Wharton B. School, Chairman, BA, MBA, CPA, Ph.D, MDC*

Subject:   Quarter 4, Year-to-Date, Operating Results Analysis

The company’s recent quarterly performance was not up to your Chairman’s expectations. Specifics will be announced in due course, but the root causes of this shortfall are well known to the business and investment communities. They include the economic crisis in Greece and Italy, the continuing inroads made by the European Common Market, the strength of the Euro, uncertainties in Iran and North Korea, the counterfeiting of U.S. One Hundred Dollar bills in China, and the world wide concerns about unrest in the Middle East, the co-called Global Warning scares perpetrated by the Media, and El Nino. The issue of the American economy speaks for itself.

The company has responded to these challenges by reorganizing the headquarters function and managing several mid-level executives out of the business for performance related issues.

The Chairman will not address the critics and other alarmists who suggested that his alleged quarterly bonus (publicly reported at $75 million but, in actuality, significantly  less) contributed to the profit shortfall. The bonus was earned in accordance with the Executive Compensation Plan approved by your Board of Directors and on file and accessible to the public at our Nome, Alaska office during normal business hours.

Our focus now is on a return to profitability, and to that end we have reorganized ourselves for what we shall call “The Challenge of the New Millennium.” Your Chairman’s background in Human Resources and Finance has given him a unique perspective in developing a powerful, staff-centric, centralized operation. An organization with the support, control, and metrics necessary to call the corporate tune to which the line organizations will dance. We believe that the flexibility and dynamics of the New Millennium Third Generational Functional Mobility plan will enable the company to return to profitable within a forecastable time frame.

In addition, the Executive Compensation Plan has been reworked to help focus your Chairman’s attention on the work at hand. Retention bonuses have been paid to guard against the Chairman’s untimely departure before this important work has been concluded.

The Chairman believes that our future success lies in the continuing down sizing of our customer base to allow corporate focus on the key accounts responsible for the bulk of our revenues. A small group of corporate loyalists is obviously to our greater good than a larger mosaic of clients, each of whom may want something different.

Our Corporate Mission Statement: “To achieve results for our Founders, Principles, Key Executives, Shareholders, and Employees” was never truer than it is today.

A few illustrative examples of this new approach will be helpful:

1. The Research and Development Department now reports to Freight and Traffic. This new group, captained by the Chairman’s long time administrative aide, will encourage our engineers to design all new products to fit standard size cartons and containers to realize the great savings possible in the costly Packaging and Preservation areas.

2. The World-Wide Sales & Marketing Organization will now report to Human Resources. This new organization, led by another trusted and talented corporate loyalist, will recognize the attractive and personable people of Sales & Marketing by establishing a corporate cosmetic standard which will be administered within Human Resources, which your Chairman directed for the first ten years of his employment with the company.

The current corporate sales theme (“Sell Below Cost and Make it Up in Volume”)  came to us directly from the Human Resources Think Tank.

3. Manufacturing and Customer Services will now report to Finance. Quality Control is Number One, at I.D.M. and Quality must be controlled, or it becomes very costly. Hence the involvement of our Finance Staff in these two important functions.

We have identified the party who altered the Quality slogan on our website to read: “The Quality Goes In, Before the Name Falls Off.” This person will be dealt with to the full extent of the law.

The Customer Services function has been expanded to include prompt payment scripts and account status reports to be reviewed with the calling customer. Service contracts will be offered to customers having repeat problems, as we firmly believe that in every problem there resides a revenue opportunity.

With changes such as these, we firmly believe that our Millennium Program, similar in many guises to that of Apple, Google, and Berkshire Hathaway, will likewise result in significant financial gains for the corporation in the intermediate and long term time frames.

At this point, the Chairman took questions from the floor:

1. Reporter: You allude to a huge loss. Exactly how “huge” will that loss be?

The Chairman: At my level, I don’t keep those details at my finger tips. Check the website in the near future.

2. Reporter: There are many references to your, and the Board’s, compensation plans, retention bonuses, deferred compensation, stock plans, expenses, and perks. Exactly how much did you receive this year-to-date, from all corporate sources?

The Chairman: We like to say we’re a public company, run by private persons. The matter of my personal income should not be the subject of public discussion among gentlemen. However, I will say that without my own, and the Board’s, involvement, the losses would have been far greater than what we see today.

3. Reporter: The people who left the firm were not on the decision making level. They were mid-level managers who had little to say about corporate strategy. How does firing them resolve anything?

The Chairman: These people were on the tactical level and, as you know, tactics is the implementation of strategy. In that sense, they were at fault. Rest assured, I feel some responsibility for not having supervised them more closely. However, I am, as my staff constantly advises me, “only one man.”

4. Reporter: How exactly will you reduce expenses without cutting your executive compensation?

The Chairman: We will shortly announce a rigorous cost cutting program. which will touch areas like annual employee increases, employee expense reimbursement, the employee outing, holiday party, corporate giving, and additional layers of travel approval for all non-executive staff.

In addition, several of our busiest Board members have agreed to accept consultant contracts, and to tour our facilities around the world searching out opportunities for potential cost savings.

5. Reporter:  You mention your Board members. I see from their resumes that they share with you long term relations dating from school days right up through your current private club memberships. Do you see any conflict of interest here?

The Chairman: No.

6.Reporter: It was reported on a television investigative program, that over the past year you have spent nearly $25 million on vacation homes, boats, and sports cars  How can you justify such personal expenses in light of your current and on-going corporate losses?

The Chairman: I believe our employees, and the shareholder public, are well pleased with my personal acquisitions.  I believe it shows my faith in them, and in our company, that I am willing to take on such personal financial obligations in any otherwise stressful time.

7. Reporter: Shareholders and the press alike complain that there is so little information available on your website. What is the best way for people to stay current with your operations?

The Chairman: My advice would be to read the website for my periodic  letters and reports. What is key here, is that the public listen to what we say, read what we write, and not obsess over what we do.

8. Many I.D.M. employees have lost their jobs, and investors lost their money, due to what has been called by the Wall Street Journal a “mismanagement crisis.” Do you think you owe the employees and investor community any sort of an apology for this situation?

The Chairman: I am never too proud to acknowledge concern. I can truthfully say that if anyone feels that what I did, offended or harmed anyone, I am sorry they feel that way.

Thank you, and good day.

At this point, the Chairman’s son, “Tuck” School, recently appointed Vice President of Public Relations, thanked the media and shareholders for their attendance and interest, closing the meeting with a non-denominational prayer for the welfare of the United States of America. An open bar, buffet, and entertainment followed.

*MDC: “Member, Diner’s Club”

Ed Note: Many of the Chairman’s sentiments are based on actual executive comments I’ve read and heard over the past several decades. I worked for a CEO once who was telling us we all must take a voluntary salary cut, or the company might spiral into bankruptcy and our jobs lost. One of the executives asked why, if that was the case, did the CEO recently purchase an estate and speed boat on Cape Cod. The CEO’s answer was much the same as the Chairman’s: “You should be pleased that I believe in our recovery enough to take on such financial burdens.” People say such stuff, and sometimes, they get away with it.

Finally, the I.D.M. story: In 1964, I was moonlighting as a business writer, and met three young men from the Harvard Business School who were introducing their new company’s first product: It was a numbers pad that could be attached to your computer keyboard (the early computers did not all have built-in number pads as they do today). Their president, Jan, wanted me to write press releases and get them placed in trade magazines. I agreed. I asked Jan, “What does I.D.M. stand for?”

Jan replied, “It Doesn’t Matter.”

I said, “Probably not, I’d just like to know.”

Jan replied, “You don’t understand. I.D.M. stands for ‘It Doesn’t Matter.'” He told me this story:

“When the three of us started the company, we had a big argument over the name. I had a strong opinion, my first partner had a strong opinion, and our other partner kept saying: ‘Guys, it doesn’t matter.'”

“We settled on I.D.M.: ‘It Doesn’t Matter.'”

I thought that was funny. I kept it to myself and wrote and published several news releases for them.

Nearly two years later, Jan called and invited me to lunch to discuss an issue.  I joined him. He told me that a company had offered to buy them out and they all felt this was a good time to exit the business. “The problem is,” Jan said, “their lawyers asked me what I.D.M. stands for. I said, ‘It Doesn’t Matter.’ The lawyer said, ‘Yes, it does. If you want the deal, call me tomorrow with that information.'”

Jan and I sat there for a while, munching sandwiches and drinking beer, before we came up with the meaning of I.D.M.: ‘Interactive Data Management.’ Jan pitched that to the lawyer, the lawyer bought it, and the deal went through.

Both I.D.M. and the company that bought them are long gone now, but every so often I think of I.D.M. and say: ‘It Doesn’t Matter.'”

 

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Mommy, Mummy, and Me

Mommy, Mummy, and Me

For: Kathryn R. McManus

1904 – 1989

mummy's ghost Original Mummy Movie Poster (StockPhoto)

          It was a warm August night in 1945. We usually had meals together as a family but this particular night everybody was out, and it was just Mother and I – home alone for the evening. About mid-afternoon, she  said, “Let’s have an early supper and catch the bus into town to see that new Disney movie at the Fitchburg Theater.” It was music to my eight year old ears. “Let’s do it!” I yelled, and the plan shifted into implementation mode. We tidied up the house, had a light supper, dressed for the movies, walked down the Church Hill to the bus stop, and caught the F&L trolley into downtown Fitchburg, nearly three miles away.

The bus stopped in front of the Fitchburg Theater, and my joy turned to gloom. The movie had changed, and the Disney film was no longer playing. In its place was something called, “The Mummy’s Ghost” starring Lon Cheney, Jr. Mother didn’t know what it was either, but she said, “Well, we’re here. Let’s go see it.” I immediately agreed and bought popcorn and candy at the Carmel Corn Store, while she purchased the tickets for herself  ($.25 cents) and me (“Under Twelve, 12 cents”). We went into the darkened movie theater and took our seats.

I always liked to look around movie theater interiors before the lights went down. I hoped to see a movie star, or at least someone rich and famous. They called these theaters “movie palaces,” and they lived up to that name. The stage had rich, heavy drapes that concealed the screen and dramatically opened just as the movie began. There were huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and beautiful pictures and murals painted all along the walls. The ceiling was dark, like the sky, but there were little lights set way up there that twinkled like stars. I used to wonder how they ever replaced the bulbs when they burnt out. It was so high.

The people who worked in theaters all wore military type uniforms and carried flashlights. The ticket taker had wide shoulder boards on his long Navy coat and wore a nautical cap with gold braid that made him look like an admiral. I thought he had the best job in the world.

We were just in time. The lights went down and the movie began.

I learned later that the first Mummy movie was made in 1932. It was a horror classic starring Boris Karloff. It was a great success on the “B Movie” circuit. The film we saw was a sequel, starring Lon Cheney, Jr., made in 1944. Mr. Cheney went on to later fame as The Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein, and other such characters as you would not like to find hiding in your bedroom closet or under your bed.

The plot was simple: An American museum swiped the mummy of the lovely Princess Ananka from her Egyptian tomb – and Lon the Mummy was determined to get her back at any cost. Lon was ready and able to kill half the town if he had to, usually at night, and by sneaking up behind them with his one good arm outstretched and reaching for their throat. He could only drag his bandaged, aching body about six feet every minute but, fortunately for him, no intended victim ever looked behind them as they roamed their remote family grounds, alone in the middle of the night, for whatever obscure reason compels people to do that.

Then there was the dummy college professor (Sir John Whemple) and the Tana leaves. Tana leaves only grow in sacred Egyptian gardens. They are like tea leaves, and if you brew six of them at midnight, it summons the Mummy who kills you, drinks the Tana tea, which empowers him, and then he goes off looking for more trouble. Sir Whemple didn’t believe this and brewed the leaves in his home at midnight. He did this, naturally, with his back to the open French doors, while he laughed at the curse, and the you-know-who is creeping up behind him. Everybody in the Fitchburg Theater was yelling, “Turn around and look, stupid!” He didn’t, and Sir Whemple soon chuckled his last chuckle.

A sidebar, if I may: A Mummy’s speed is measured in “MMPH.” That’s “Mummy Miles per Hour.” Mummys are slow, and they smell moldy. They are also old, sore, and drag loose bandages behind them that you’re sure they’re going to trip over like I did on my sneaker’s shoelaces. Mummys are not even particularly quiet. They groan a little bit as they move, but not enough so that anyone would turn and look to see what smelly, moany thing was creeping up behind them. The victims were all early proponents of the Satchel Page philosophy of Life: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”

Now – this speed thing all changes in some Einstein’s Relativity way when the camera is off them. One townie character, for example, sees the creature coming for him. He jumps into his 1941 hopped up Ford coupe, and takes off down the road at high speed, for several minutes, taking corners on two squealing wheels and all. Then, for some reason, he stops to rest. The Mummy’s arm immediately comes through the driver’s window, grabs him by the throat, and you know the rest. It’s never clear how old Lon, the turtle-paced Mummy, got there so fast. Did he hitchhike (and who would have picked him up)? Had he a Mummy scooter? It was never explained.

Anyway, the Mummy gets the princess, they either escape or jump into a bog (I forget which; actually, there were about five of these films in the series and, in later years, I saw them all – and got most of the plot details mixed up). In the film’s happy ending, life in the little township goes back to normal, if with a seriously reduced population.

I was terrified. My mother was embarrassed for bringing me to such a film, but, like me, she was enthralled, eyes glued to the screen, and determined not to leave until the movie ended. I was under the seat most of the time anyway, so that wasn’t an issue at the time. To this day that Mummy movie is my definitive horror film, and that includes The Exorcist and all those slice & dice sequels too. And – you didn’t even see any blood and gore in the Mummy series. The camera always showed a treetop swaying in the wind or something like that just as the Mummy sprang on his next victim. You had to imagine what happened. That was the worst of all.

I spent that night in my bedroom with the light on, and the hall light on, and the closet light on. I had my father’s flashlight. He came in and lay down beside me for a while. He told me how his father and friends used to tell Irish ghost stories on Christmas eve, and how one time he was so afraid that he couldn’t go to bed even though he knew Santa Claus wouldn’t come until he did. I laughed at that. We talked for a while and then I fell asleep.

My parents came in several times to check on me and Penny, our Irish Setter, slept on the foot of my bed. I got through the night okay. That was my last horror film for a while, and I’ve been a bit twitchy ever since.

I read in later years that the Mummy movie was very Freudian. I didn’t know what that meant then and I’m not sure now. I also read it’s a condemnation of Godless science. Maybe that’s true too. There was also a thought about not taking away the history of another culture just because you can. That’s still an issue today. I think the moral is much simpler: If you smell some moldy, groaning thing dragging behind you through the woods late at night, at least look back and then start running. And don’t jump into a car. You might outdistance them on foot, but in a fast car you’re going to end up as road kill

The Mummy franchise was so good they remade it a couple of times: First in 1959 with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I saw those in college and they were pretty good. Then again in 1999 with Brendan Frazer. He was pretty good too, although the special effects and graphic violence never lived up to what Lon Cheney, Jr. made me see in my head.

I give the original Mummy series a “thumbs up.” The whole series is now available on DVD. Rent them some night and see for yourself.

Three tips: (1) Don’t watch them alone. (2) Don’t brew any Tana leaves at midnight with the doors open, and (3) every so often – look behind you, just in case.

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How to Make Ice

An August Reverie: How to Make Ice

ice cubes man-taking-ice_~255-417851

Clip Art: Explanatory Exhibit: Am Ice Cube Tray (retro)

In my little summer home, I welcome guests including family, extended family, and friends. I even provide drinks, asking only that the guest mix such drinks themselves, after the first drink is provided by the host

All of this works well enough, except for the ice. Later in the evening, when I reach for a few ice cubes, there is nothing there: It is a stark reminder of the sad, old “Mother Hubbard Phenomena:” The cupboard is bare. No one but me ever makes ice. Perhaps some have lost the recipe. A few might think that ice is a natural byproduct of the refrigeration process. Most may have simply forgotten.

To rectify this, I am posting this helpful little notice on the freezer door:

How to Make Ice

Follow these simple steps and you will enjoy the independence and satisfaction of creating your own personal set of matched ice cubes:

1. Take an ice cube tray, or other appropriate mold, and fill it with cool water (approximately 60 degrees F) up to the lip. Do this in the sink. Try not to spill the water, either on the counter or on the floor. Remember to turn off the faucet when the trays are full.

Note: Do not use hot or boiling water for this purpose. In addition to being more dangerous to handle, scientists tell us that boiling water, while possibly purer, takes longer to freeze than cool tap water.

2.Make sure the tray compartments are equally, but not overly filled.

Note: This can be a teaching moment: As you fill the ice trays, watch the water flow gently over the top of each compartment to fill successor compartments. This is the principle that sank the RMS Titanic in 1912. The great ship had water tight compartments, and heavy hatches or doors, but the compartment walls did not extend to the above deck, so the water simply flowed over them, water-fall like, filling successor compartments, and eventually sinking the great ship. People will never tire of hearing this dramatic and demonstrable story.

3. Gently place the filled trays on the freezer shelf, and close the freezer door.

Note: Do not expect immediate action. Depending on the temperature of the water, the temperature of the freezer, and the number of times people open and close the freezer door, the process could take 4 – 6 hours. However – this does mean that you can repeat the process at least twice, or even three times per day.

4. When the trays are finally frozen, visually check for water bubbles in the ice, which may indicate imperfect or incomplete freezing. If properly frozen, you may immediately use your new ice cubes, to the delight of your friends and yourself. Now, repeat the process.

Note #1: The number of cubes you can make it limited only by the water available, the ice cube trays, and some sort of freezing machine and power source. The rest is up to you, requiring technical knowledge (as contained herein), and your personal effort. I’m sure the latter will never be in short supply.

Note #2: I occasionally find ice cube trays in the freezer, empty. This could be caused by someone lazily picking an ice cube or two out of the tray with their finger nail, and putting the finally empty tray back in the freezer.

However, if someone believes that ice will form in an empty ice tray, perhaps by spontaneous combustion, this is not true. M.I.T.’s Lincoln Labs tested approximately 750 empty ice cube trays (of rubber, plastic, and tin construction) in a variety of freezers, and found that in no case did ice form spontaneously, or even over time intervals ranging up to 48 hours.

Their conclusion: There must be water in the tray in order for ice to form.

Now you have both the technology and the mechanics of making ice cubes. Please use it wisely and appropriately.

This is one of those few times we may safely say: “Try this at home.”

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Reflection: On Gambling

Sleight of Hand

       Illustration from “SLEIGHTS: A Number of Incidental Effects, Tricks, Sleights, Moves, and Passes (1914)”; by Burling Hull; given to me by Dad’s friend, Levi Lashua (Auctioneer, Table Tennis Hustler, and Parlor Magician Extraordinaire) in 1947 on my 10th birthday

I am not a gambler.

Well, I suppose everything you do in life is some kind of a gamble. I’m not a gambler in the sense of Off Track Betting, or even frequently purchased lottery tickets. In fact, a statistician once told me that your chances of winning the top prize in a national lottery is about the same, in a practical sense, whether or not you buy a ticket. You lose the distinction in the rounding off of the odds. Of course, without the ticket you have no chance at all, microscopic though such a chance might be, but – when it comes to the lottery, you’re not buying a ticket anyway, you’re buying a dream.

Over the years, I have known a few heavy bettors, but never anyone who made real money over the long run. There are too many skilled gamblers out there, and the odds are against you.

A while back, I ran corporate events and recognition programs all over the world, including resorts throughout Las Vegas, Reno, the Caribbean,  and on cruise ships – all of which feature casinos. They are a magnet for the high energy,competitive, aggressive types who seek thrills and endorphin highs at every opportunity (especially with a few drinks under their belts). Meeting Managers always kept a special eye on these guys to try and make sure they didn’t go off the deep end. It didn’t work all the time, and a few Happy Campers on a sponsored vacation trip, ended up going home sadder, poorer, but hopefully wiser. In general, casinos are not desirable destinations for corporate recognition programs.

People in jobs like mine, Meeting Managers, rarely gambled. They were not heavy drinkers, or heavy anything-else either. One colleague, a senior Meeting Manager from IBM I met on the road, and I talked about that one night over dinner. I shared my insight and he said, “Absolutely. Look around at the Meeting Managers you meet out here: There aren’t many old men in our business. If you want the fast life, don’t take this job. You’ll kill your fool self, burn out, or get fired within a year.”

I smiled at the memory of the old nuns in parochial school back in the Forties gravely warning us about “Occasions of Sin.” I guess a casino might qualify.

I learned a few new things about casinos too. They will attract business using every tactic, and trick, in the book. For example, resort casinos are designed and built so that you cannot get from the lobby to your room without walking through the casino, or at least walking past the casino. You can’t go in or out without hearing the laughter, the music, the clank of coins hitting the winner’s tray, seeing the dancing colored lights – everything that appeals to the senses. Why are slot machines so noisy when they dispense coins into the winner’s tray? That noise is designed in, and it’s special. It cries “Winners Over Here!” And the would-be winners come. Once, in Las Vegas, I saw a big bus pull in one morning loaded with area senior citizens. Their luxury bus ride was free, as was a nice lunch at the casino, and then they had 4 hours to lose their money. The buses arrived every morning.

A few of the elderly women carried white, canvas work gloves. “Why is that?” I asked.

“Because,” the floor manager said, “they don’t want to develop calluses from pulling down the slot machine handle several times each minute.”

I worked for, and hung around, with Texans on the road for a while. I always found Texans and Germans to be the most raucous partiers. They were both loud, funny, story tellers who, after hours, enjoyed a drink with friends, telling, and listening to, each other’s tales. And – you better have something new, because they had heard them all.

Like the other successful people I met, they knew their own limits and paced themselves accordingly. One night a bunch of Texans got going on the subject of gambling and “Pappy’s advice.”

One guy said he was told: “If you ever find yourself at a bar, sitting next to a slick looking dude with a deck of cards, who wants to bet you 20 bucks that he can make the Jack of Hearts jump out of that deck and spit cider into your ear, don’t take the bet! You’ll just be out 20 bucks and have an earful of cider.”

Another guy said, “Just look at these casinos. They’re like some temples the ancient Romans built. These casinos are palaces, and people don’t built palaces to commemorate their losses.”

Another told the story of the Texas gambler who: “…..came to Las Vegas in a $50,000 Cadillac El Dorado, and went home in a $250,000 Greyhound Bus.”

And finally, my favorite, the story about two Texans who ended up in a small border down that allowed no gambling whatsoever. They had to find a game, and eventually the bartender steered them to a private room in back where betting games of every sort were available. The two split up and when they got back together an hour later, one of them said: “Every game in this room is fixed.”

His friend replied, “Shhh! If they hear you say that, they won’t let us play!”

And, people take their gambling seriously. One night in Las Vegas, a group of high stakes poker players invited me to swing by their suite after a late night event for a nightcap. I agreed, and showed up after the game for a drink and a visit. Everybody was talking and laughing, and I picked up the deck of cards that was on the table and, unobtrusively  “rigged it.” I had learned a magic trick from an old book (see illustration) whereby you can quickly and quietly stack a deck of cards so that you know all the cards, rank and suit, in order. You can even let someone cut the deck, and you can still pick up the “read” within a card or two. It’s an easily learned memory trick.

I quietly stacked the deck and, during a conversational lull, conspicuously put the deck on the table. I felt the back of the top card as though was searching for something. I said “Six.” I flipped the card over. It was a “Six.” Then I said, “Jack, Eight, King, Three.” I flipped those 4 cards face up: They were “Jack, Eight, King, Three.”

The room grew quiet. I looked up and everybody was gathered around, looking very serious indeed, and watching my performance. I knew it had been a high stakes game, and one of the guys, sensing my unasked question, said: “That’s the deck we’ve been playing with.”

Another guy, the host, became visibly upset: “Guys,” he said, “the casino sent that deck up with the refreshments. I don’t know anything else about it.”

I saw where this was going. I said, “It’s a trick! I stacked the deck while you all were talking!”

There was a pause. “You stacked the deck while we were all around you?”

“Yes,” I said, “It’s a magic trick, and you weren’t paying attention because your focus was elsewhere.” I then broke the Magician’s Code and showed them how the trick was accomplished.

And I had to show them again, and again, and yet again until they could all do it themselves. Then, everything was calm and fine, and I had learned another rule about gambling that the Texas boys’ great grandfathers had probably learned a century or more before in the Old West:

First Great Rule of Gambling: Gambling, Magic Tricks,and/or Sleight of Hand, never go together.

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I’m on a Help Line: Help!

Okay, let us now consider Help Lines in the context of both utilitarian assistance and self-abuse.

It starts when you call the 800 number. If you are lucky enough to hear a human being, or think you hear a human being, you probably have either a person speaking English-As-A-Fourth-Language, or a young person speaking English as though…hewasrecitingaGilbert&Sullivanpattersong.

Me: I didn’t understand a word he said; is there a way to record it and play it back later at a slower speed?

And that’s if you’re lucky. Most often you’ll end up with a helpful computer doing automated responses. Don’t bother pushing “O” for operator. It will ignore you as it chants:

1. “Please listen closely as our options have changed.”

Me: They have not; I called 6 months ago and you said the same thing.

2. “If you’re calling about the allegations of embezzlement and tax fraud against our CEO and the Board of Directors, please hang up now and call our Law Department as 1-800-NOFAULT.”

Me: I wonder where they’re being held.

3. “If you wish to manage your account, you can  find this information by visiting our website. Find the ‘account’ logo and click on it; then find ‘manage your account,’ click on it; it will often take you to ‘services,’ where you can read our ‘Frequently Asked Questions’. If the website crashes again, it is only because we’re helping others.”

Me: Your  website is impenetrable, and nearly as useless as your 800 number.

4. “We are currently experiencing a higher than normal volume of calls.”

Me: You say that at 10am, noon, and midnight.

5. “Our associates are all busy helping other callers.”

Me: I think this means you don’t have enough people on the phones; or, maybe your stuff is so flawed, no one can figure out how to work it.

6. “Your waiting time is less than 10 minutes.”

Me: Beautiful! You’re not trying to scare me away, are you?

7. “Please key in your 12 digit account number now.”

Me: Huh? I just want to know how to turn the fool thing on.

9. “For security reasons, please enter the last four digits of your Social.”

Me: The last Social I attended was over the holidays.

10. “Please say your answer to one of the following security questions:

1. What is your cat’s maiden name?

2. Who was your first boss’ wife’s older brother?

3. What did Marilyn Urquhart say you did at the Senior Class Reunion of 1987?

Me: Marilyn Urquhart is not to be believed. I’ll go for the cat’s maiden name: Is it…Kitty?

9. “I’m sorry that is not correct. Thank you for calling us. Please check the website. We’re pleased that we could be of assistance to you. We value your business. Press 8 if you’d like to hear about our new product offerings, or arrange a contract maintenance session with one of our staff engineers. Please have your credit card ready. If you’re willing to take a two minute survey, please stay on the line. Have a great day.” (Click)

Me: Hello? What was that website address again?

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