All posts by Ben

III. Free-lance Picketers Finally Clean Up

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 9 May 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

(The finale, Part 3, go back to Part 1 or Part 2)

* * *

Because the teenager was not easily discouraged, Y.D. reminded wise Oscar Hapgood of a self-reliant cowboy, and so years ago he nicknamed him Young Dude. Oscar was caught up in Y.D.’s dream of bring back the Counterculture. Y.D. got hooked in himself because their junior-high buddy, Duff McDuff, had been studying the Vietnam War era in history class.

Oscar had grown to maturity in those years, then became a success in big business. The former hippie took an early — unusually early — retirement to live the life of an artistic vagrant.

The three this Saturday had put together reusable pickets from wooden dowels, foam poster board and tape.

Cici Davidson illustration 3-22-1989
"We haven't eaten all day. We can tell the vegetarian contingent we haven't eaten meat, and advise the others that we are fasting for them." -- Cici Davidson illustration

The teachers kicked them out first. The educators had been marching for better textbooks and took the trio’s blank signs — one black, one white and the last gray — as symbols against illiteracy. The fellows, though, were only trying to stay flexible, which offended the educators.

So they joined the Japan bashers a few blocks away. Y.D., having bought jars of water-soluble tempera powder, painted one word on each sign — “Tick,” “Tock” and “Tech” under clock faces representing an approaching midnight. The working men and women took the boys to be wise guys and ran them off.

Ever optimistic, Duff, Y.D. and Oscar walked down Main Street toward its intersection with Acorn Drive, where opposing sides of the abortion issue had gathered.

Since the fellows were on the west sidewalk, they decided to approach first the group there, which supported access to abortion.

“Excuse me,” Oscar said, “can we help?” We brought our own supplies in knapsacks.”

After exchanging handshakes with the 25 pro-choicers, Y.D. painted Duff’s white board to read, “If abortions are outlawed, only outlaws will have abortions.” The adolescent printed on his black sign in white: “A woman’s body is our temple.”

Oscar brushed on his gray board: “Hooray for Captain Spalding!” Old Hapgood preferred Marx Brothers dialogue to unsolvable social issues.

The men and women didn’t let the newcomers march with them long, and so the guys crossed the street to where 15 anti-abortionists walked slowly in an oval.

Duff wetted the sponge in water from the jug Y.D. carried and wiped the three pickets clean.

Oscar headed toward the leader, who held a Bible, and said, “Looks like you could use some more picketers. I count 10 women and five men, and yonder are 25 opponents.”

“Sir, we are equal in number to those fanatics, if not greater,” the minister replied. “All these women are pregnant so they count as two apiece. Then there’s Millie. She thinks she’s carrying twins, or maybe triplets, the way she’s been feeling.”

“Then we can really help,” Y.D. called out as he joined Oscar. “Mr. Hapgood and myself probably have 500 viable sperm apiece swimming around our bodies at this moment.”

Duff felt left out of this conversation. The trio’s signs were dry by now, but he could not draw any fresh slogans. Although 11 years old, Duff believed he could contribute to these negotiations.

“Let’s not overstate our numbers to these well-meaning people,” the boy said. “A sperm is not a whole human being, but a half. It needs an egg from a woman. I learned that in sex education class. That means, friends, at best your 1,000 sperms are only worth 500 humans.”

The minister gazed at the short-haired upstart, then at the beret-bedecked teenager and last and the gray-haired, denim-trousered Oscar. “The Bible says nothing about the New Math,” he concluded.

The other protesters then raised their pickets as if to smite the trio.

“Let’s try City Hall,” Oscar said, jogging away with Duff and Y.D. “Surely we’ll fit in with the environmentalists’ rally.”

“We’re on foot, and the Greens will appreciate that,” Y.D. said. “We’ve been recycling our pickets all day long, and poster paint doesn’t hurt the atmosphere’s ozone layer.”

“We haven’t eaten all day, either,” said Duff. “We can tell the vegetarian contingent we haven’t eaten meat, and advise the others that we are fasting for them.”

The fellows merrily sang “Look for the Union Label” as they walked, the only protest song they knew in common. Their pickets rested on their shoulders. As they drew close to City Hall, they saw dozens of cars drive away.

The boys were too late for the Earth rally, but not too late to work for a good cause. It took them only an hour to clean the area of soda cans, food boxes, extra petitions and surplus pamphlets.

* * *

The finale, Part 3, go back to Part 1 or Part 2

-30-

II. So Many Burning Issues, So Little Time

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 9 May 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

(This is Part 2, back to Part 1, go on to Part 3)

* * *

Young at heart, Oscar Hapgood was a match for his budding flower children, 11-year-old Duff McDuff and the teenaged Young Dude, whom he was teaching the art of peaceable assembly.

Y.D. this Saturday morning picked up Duff to shop for picket parts at the art supply store.

Duff followed Y.D. down aisle after aisle quietly as long as he could. “Cardboard sheets were on the other side of the store. And why did you put the felt-tip markers back just now?”

Ceci Davidson illustration, 5-9-1990
“'If we reuse or recycle it ourselves, then we’re exempt from practicing "safe soapbox,"’ Y.D. said." -- Ceci Davidson illustration

“We’re fixing to protest for the long term, and that calls for foresight,” the non-conformist teen said. “Look at these thick sheets. High-gloss paper sandwiches a slice of dense foam. We’ll be able to ….”

“That won’t break down quickly in the environment,” Duff interrupted.

“If we reuse or recycle it ourselves, then we’re exempt from practicing ‘safe soapbox,’ ” Y.D. said, picking up three colored foam-core boards.

“Three 3-foot dowels, a couple of brushes, paint and tape,” Duff noted as Y.D. put them in Duff’s shopping cart. “I’m beginning to understand. Oscar will be proud.”

Y.D. also tossed in a large sponge, collapsible water jug and some other items.

The youths carried their purchases in knapsacks to the downtown park. It was noon when the boys arrived to find Hapgood (who though gray was on the near side of middle age) serenading passing vehicles with his euphonium. Oscar could pitch the tenor tuba to mimic car horns. The more he tooted, the more the infuriated drivers honked. Oscar put down his brass instrument every so often to giggle at his escapade.

“Good job, boys,” Oscar said, examining the purchases. “We can get started right away. Teachers are picketing at the school administration building three blocks down.”

After filling the jug at the fountain, they headed over. Oscar talked with the picketers — with Duff tugging at his belt to point out his favorite instructors — while Y.D. affixed the poles to the signs.

“Every Saturday they protest the quality of teaching materials,” Oscar turned to tell the boys.” Is that my picket, Y.D.? Where’s its message?”

“The large the rally the bigger the impact, and that’s where we can help — numbers,” Y.D. said. “With so many causes to pursue, we’ll need the flexibility of blank signs. Mine is black, Duff will hold a white board, and since no issue is just black and white, we’re bought you one that’s gray.”

The three fell in line behind the teachers.

Duff noticed the only bystanders the group drew were a newspaper reporter, a wire service correspondent and a couple of television news crews, all looking bored.

The media was just about to leave, this being a typical protest with nothing standing out, begging to become stories, but the print reporter grew curious.

He asked the lead teacher about these guys who obviously were not educators. Knowing better than to appear uninformed or not in control, the rally organizer said the trio was calling attention to illiteracy and that’s why their signs were blank.

All the journalists then headed toward Hapgood.”Illiteracy? Sure we’re for that … I mean, oppose,” Oscar said. “Boys, let’s walk to a protest song, like my gang did during the Vietnam days.”

Although Duff and Y.D. had read of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, they had not memorized their hits. The only folk song all three knew was “Look for the Union Label” so that’s what they sang.

The teachers firms asked the three to leave.

“Did we fail, Y.D.?” Duff asked, sniffling.

“No. Some activists think they don’t need allies,” the wise teen said as they walked away. “The blank boards may not have been the best idea. I picked up some jars of poster paint powder, just in case. It washes off the plasticized paper so we can repaint the signs with different messages.”

The guys soon came upon another protest. This was a group wearing white hard hats, marching for economic security. Their own pickets read: “Japan Go Back,” “U.S.A. makes my day,” “We invented high technology. Europe stole it.”

Y.D. unloaded his pack, mixing tempera with water from the jug. On each of the signs he painted a clock face. One read 11:45, the next 11:50 and the last five to midnight. He printed one word on each, respectively: “Tick,” “Tock” and “Tech.”

“Y.D., how clever. Simple symbolism is best,” Oscar said.

They fell in behind the blue-collared men.

Unlike the teachers, the workers did not ask the fellows to leave; they ordered them.

One sympathetic laborer, however, yelled, “You might try the environmentalists; they’re at City Hall today. And pro- and anti-abortion protesters are on opposite curbs of Main Street at Acorn Drive.”

Oscar gleamed. “There, we could work both sides of the street.”

* * *

This is Part 2, back to Part 1, go on to Part 3

-30-

I. ‘Hop-along’ Prepares to Pass the Torch

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 2 May 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

(This is Part 1, on to Part 2 and finally Part 3)

* * *

The older stories were the favorites, and 11-year-old Duff McDuff and his teen-age friend Y.D. often insisted on them when they visited the downtown park after school.

There they usually found Oscar Hapgood. He wasn’t old, but he had done a lot to hit early middle age intact. Others who had thrown their lives into their 20s and 30s usually ended their lives in bars or, more often, a suburban home in a subdivision, living substantially as their parents had.

Vic Harville illustration, detail, 9-21-88
They "found Oscar this day sitting on the grass with a paper pad on his lap and watercolor palette next to his knee." -- Vic Harville illustration

Oscar was different. As soon as he became successful in a field he left it. He retired from college to be a hippie and retired from the Vietnam days to join big business. For the most recent change, Oscar set up some investments that mailed him checks every month, bought some art supplies, polished his brass euphonium (tenor tuba) then retired to become a bum.

The boys knew the later tales well.

The gaunt, prematurely gray Hapgood spent his days in the park pursuing the arts. Someday, he hoped to catch one.

Duff and Y.D. (Oscar had nicknamed the lad Young Dude) found Oscar this day sitting on the grass with a paper pad on his lap and watercolor palette next to his knee.

“Hi, guys. Hey, Muses,” Oscar said to the air in front of him, “take five. Get a sandwich or wash your togas or something.”

“Are they gone yet?” Duff asked, looking behind a tree.

“Kid, Muses are goddesses from mythology,” Y.D. said. “The Greeks believed they cause inspiration. Oscar is being funny.”

“The Muses really were my nine ex-girlfriends, because they led me in different directions,” Oscar joked. He was glad Y.D. was reading the library books he’d recommended. Oscar had seen that school was not giving Young Dude what he would need to become a thinking adult.

“Tell us about the 1960s. My teacher said people like you changed the world,” Duff said.

“We hippies didn’t fix anything. Besides, the ’60s weren’t the ’60s,” Oscar said.

“Huh?” Y.D. and Duff grunted.

“Three-fourths of the 1960s was an extension of the ’50s: short hair, Red Scare, drinking on a dare,” Oscar said rapidly. “It was almost the ’70s before the ’60s began. 1968 — Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. got killed. Woodstock was 1969. That was the year of the biggest anti-war protest: 250,000 chanted in Washington, and that was in November, a month before the new decade.

“The four Kent State students were killed by our National Guard — when? 1970. Yet our government didn’t let Saigon fall until 1975 — five years later. The first Earth Day was in 1970. Is our planet clean yet?”

“You must not have enjoyed yourself,” Y.D. said.

“We had lots of great times. The best thing about sit-ins was they separated ‘us’ from ‘them.’ You always have more fun being with people who agree with you, rather than taking a chance with strangers. We found out who was who quickly.

“Did I tell you my counterculture friends called me ‘Hop-along’ Hapgood? You see, I wasn’t drafted because one of my legs is a bit shorter than the other. Whenever I carried a picket and wasn’t concentrating, I would walk in circles,” Oscar said, and the boys laughed.

Duff was disturbed. “What about Eastern Europe now?”

Both boys were mastering the questioning of authority, be it that of peers to conform to fads and intoxicants, or of the adult world of rules, or even of Oscar’s view of the world.

“Sure, there were protests in Romania, Lithuania, Hungary and the others, but they came after the communist economies began collapsing. Those countries have turned democratic because it was the only alternative to unemployment and mayhem. History doesn’t stop evolving; there could be more changes yet.

“Look at Beijing,” Oscar challenged his young friends. “Students there weren’t marching for work and food in 1989, they rallied for ideals. Because China’s economy isn’t in too bad a shape yet, the government was able to crush the movement.”

“Are you saying our First Amendment — freedom to peaceably assemble and to petition for redress of grievances — is a waste of ink? Y.D. said.

“No, the Constitution is there for when we need it: economic crisis,” Oscar said, “but when that time comes, we’ll need to fight for it.”

“We’ve got lots of problems that aren’t catastrophes. People strike and march and chant. Sometimes it works, like for the teachers,” Duff said.

Hapgood smiled slowly. “Labor rallies like those worked frequently 50 or 75 years ago, but not often now, even though they should because of better media access. Maybe protests all look alike to the audience of the moment.”

Let’s make the system — the anti-system — work again,” Duff said.

“Count me in. I’ve got an idea how to do it,” Y.D. said.

“I’m hip for another try,” Oscar said.

* * *

This is Part 1, on to Part 2 and finally Part 3

-30-

White Males Easily Run Afoul of Taboos

Mirthology, 1st run Wednesday 28 March 1990, Arkansas Democrat’s Mid Week Magazine

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

Caption for illustration by staff artist Steve Scallion: Artist’s rendition of Andy Rooney in a high-top fade. Rooney had recently suffered some big-time misunderstanding. [“CBS” is “burned” in above Rooney’s left ear; he’s wearing a tux.]

Editor’s note: In a tradition begun just last year, humor columnist Ben Pollock Jr. writes a serious column for the April Fool’s Day edition. He says this is like dedicated partiers staying home and sober on New Year’s Eve. He didn’t how similar.

Steve Scallion augmented photo, 3-28-1990
"To write is to risk misunderstanding. ... To write is to be misunderstood. That is more accurate." -- Steve Scallion augmented photo of Andy Rooney

To write is to risk misunderstanding. That warning may not stand for high school term papers, which often are all but copied from reference books. Yet, if you’ve penned a love poem to someone who’s not ready for it, or taken a stand in a letter to the editor. …

To write is to be misunderstood. That is more accurate.

As a suburban Dallas reporter nine years ago, I wrote a “blotter” item on a woman’s rape in her apartment. The police report had unusual facts. The victim had three roommates. None was home. All four were flight attendants.

I included these facts in the brief to indicate to readers one may not be safe even when living in a house full of professional people, whose jobs require intelligence and strength and whose training includes basic self-defense.

Fair reporting, fair assumptions, right?

One of the roommates phoned me after the story came out. She believed co-workers could identify the victim, whom I didn’t name, because of their unusual living arrangement, although I didn’t give the address. Non-airline people, she added, think all flight attendants are bimbos and by mentioning their jobs implied the victim “asked for it.”

She called me sexist. She was wrong, but I felt awful.

Months later, I got a tip about a nightclub in my middle-class suburb, On weekends for a couple of months, a Jamaican disco had been set up in an Irving union hall.

I drove over one Friday afternoon to talk to the proprietor while he was setting up. He said this was a branch of a club he owned near downtown Dallas. A Trinidadian, he told me in a melodious accent how his clubs kept émigrés from all the Caribbean islands from feeling isolated.

I returned that night with a notebook, camera and date. I already had conceived my feature’s “lede” (opener): Irving has grown so cosmopolitan that it now accommodates such examples of cultural diversity as reggae and calypso music.

A sign above the cashier’s table and money box read: Please check guns and knives.” The club owner explained there’d been trouble in the parking lot a couple of weeks earlier.

A few patrons were dancing. None was boisterous. Drinks were sold from a couple of coolers. I bought my girlfriend a beer and me a soda.

Before writing the story Saturday morning. I made a few phone calls. They caused me to change the story to hard news.

The police, for example, didn’t know about the club but were interested in that sign. The state Alcoholic Beverage Commission said it had not approved a license for “Tropical Delights 2.” The union hall’s manager, who rented it occasionally to make money for the local, thought this was a service organization.

My last call was to the proprietor. He was angry that I interviewed the authorities.

“You must not like black peee-ople. I thought you were my friend. You don’t like black peee-ople,” he said.

I apologized over and over, saying color had nothing to do with thorough reporting. He wouldn’t believe me – or was he trying to manipulate me into feeling guilty? Either way, he was wrong, but I felt awful.

Tropical Delights 2 was shut down, and the club owner fined.

Columnists, because they don’t deal directly with facts but with their impressions of them, have to be even more careful. No matter how straightforward the writing, some readers will miss the point. Some will be offended inadvertently.

Long before the two examples above, I had learned misunderstanding cannot be eliminated. I still write and revise carefully to minimize confusion.

For months, I have jotted notes for a humor piece on how some good-looking, masculine fellows wear shower caps in public.

I am white; the men nursing their “soft-curl” perms are black. I would add in this essay that white women who wear curlers in Wal-Mart and dress their children only in diapers are just as tacky.

Such a column would be called racist. My even-handedness would be called window dressing to disguise prejudice. We’ve all seen this before.

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague stole my thunder and wrote deftly about the ridiculousness of the latest hairstyles of young black men and women.

The columnist wrote as if unconcerned with potential criticism. I envied her obvious disdain for disclaimers, apologies and explicitly stating good intentions.

Yet, the column did have implicit protection. The columnist’s “mug shot” shows a handsome black woman. She won’t be called a racist.

My photograph with a similar column, which I now will not write, would, therefore, be a picture not of a social critic but of the enemy.

Wait, I’m not the enemy. Here’s my disclaimer to prove it: I have great intentions, and I apologize for any offense my words will ever cause. I don’t mean anything I say.

Happy April Fool’s Day.

-30-

And Whatever Happens, You Heard It Here, First

Voices (op-ed) column, 1st run Monday 13 April 1987 in the Arkansas Democrat
By Ben Pollock Jr.
Guest Writer
Editor’s note: Ben Pollock Jr. is a copy editor for the Arkansas Democrat.
Copyright 1987 Ben S. Pollock

Clip of my 4/13/1987 column
Clip of my 4/13/1987 column

My favorite gadfly, “Biff” Mumsword, let slip last night a political bouquet sure to shake up Arkansas Democrats.

Hanging out in bars pays off. Particularly if you drop a few big names.

Here goes, and remember, you heard it here first.

Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., fresh from leading a tour of the “clean plate” nutrition club to the Soviet Union, soon will form an exploratory committee to help him “decide” to run for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.

Of course, Pryor has already decided to run, or so I’m told. And here’s the other shoe to drop — straight from the best barkeep, amateur astronomer Dr. “Buster” Morgenstern, proprietor of Casa Nova, the Mexican-Cajun cantina where I wait for politicos to stop by.

Morgenstern says Mahlon Martin, director of the state Department of Finance and Administration and Arkansas’ leading economic indicator, will manage Pryor’s campaign.

Neither Pryor nor Martin, nor for that matter anyone connected with them, will confirm this, but that never stops me.

My contacts with the Clean Plate Club did talk over dinner and drinks, though we had to delay our conversation for Morgenstern to finish nailing another star to the wall.

By the way, the blackened bluefish is delightful.

The clubbers — who include boom-or-busters Jack and Witt Stephens, retail king William T. Dillard, discount king Sam Walton, chicken a la king Don Tyson and a modern major general — prefer I refer to the group by its official name, the Good-for-You Council, although the other newspaper calls it “Star Wars,” which the administration in Washington insists is the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Where was I? That’s mean cuisine. I wish I had a personal computer and a telephone hookup at my central Casa Nova table, where everybody knows my name. Then my columns could write themselves.

With Sen. Dale Bumpers red-shirted and the Legislature having stymied Gov. Bill Clinton, Pryor will be left holding the bag (of cliches), my sources assured me.

Mahlon Martin is a patient man and knows the numbers. He is willing to wait for higher office but in the meantime can build valuable contacts, not to mention experience, by running Pryor’s race.

It was Martin’s doing, after all, that kept Pryor’s name from being mentioned as a presidential contender too early. The public accountant certainly had me fooled.

You should keep an eye on Pryor, now that I’ve begun the rumors, but I would suggest also watching Martin. He perhaps could be the first Arkansas politicians to fool all of the people all of the time. I have that on good authority.

* * *

Brummett's column ran day later, 4/14/1987. Coincidence?
Brummett’s column ran day later, 4/14/1987. Coincidence?

While Biff Mumsword was taking care of business at a pay phone, a political animal in red satin gym shorts came up to me and purred, “Bubba, can you spare a dime?”

I told her ethics came before anything and that a direct contribution would constitute a conflict of interest for my newspaper.

“I heard you all had deep pockets,” she cooed.

“That was inflation, honey,” I replied with some remorse.

By this time Morgenstern had switched off Casa Nova’s neon sign. The waitresses had begun putting the chairs on the tables.

It had been hours since members of the Clean Plate Club cleaned their plates and emptied their glasses and were chauffeured home to their wives. Biff, it turns out, had a dime.

After a long, hard night of reporting, I had a column for today’s editions.

If some other newspaper tries to claim an exclusive on Pryor and Martin, remember — you read it here, first.

-30-

Play’s Song Revives ‘Can-Do’ Memory of Father

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 20 December 1989 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1989 Ben S. Pollock

Ben Pollock (Sr.)
Sketch by Cici Davidson, 1989, based on June 1975 photo by Edward N. Altman

My father was a funny man, yet I cannot remember any of his jokes, except the last one.

He died Dec. 19, 1985, — he was 69, me 28 — and still not a day goes by but something doesn’t remind me of him, sometimes opening a deep memory.

I saw a revival of Guys and Dolls this month, partly because it was Dad’s favorite musical.

The first full number, the program read, was “Fugue for Tinhorns.” Had I known that was the “can-do” song — which Dad sang or whistled in the years when he called me “Mister Boo” — I would have braced myself. Caught by surprise, I cried for a moment in the dark balcony, regained my composure and enjoyed the rest of the show.

Dad generally avoided lecturing my big brother, big sister and myself and on the whole gave us little advice. He had gotten a good deal of “When I was your age…” when he was growing up in the Depression, he said, and didn’t want to inflict that on us.

He did advise good grades and hard work as keys to success, with few anecdotes, and generally we complied. He also recommended business with little elaboration, which we ignored.

Although pleasant and generous, he didn’t say much to anyone. Dad was not taciturn. he just was quiet, and kept his comments brief, often disarmingly witty.

Dad also was nice. Everyone in Fort Smith knew him as nice, that gentleman who ran the Model Laundry & Cleaners for some three decades, minus time in the Army.

Dad was polite even when the family business folded in the late 1960s, about 17 years before he did. He acted correctly during the series of jobs after the laundry, including real estate salesman, office manager/data processor, job placement counselor and income tax preparer.

Some said it wasn’t that Dad was nice but, rather, weak.

Being nice wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, Dad admitted in spring 1984.

For still unknown reasons, the company I had served for three years had taken a sudden dislike to me, and I had just found another, better job.

As much as I hated to, I intended to give two weeks’ notice — the proper thing to do, I knew Dad would say.

I was wrong.

“They treated you like hell. Go in, tell them you’re quitting, clean out your desk, then leave,” he said on the telephone.

I can’t do that; it’s not right, I replied.

“I spent my entire life being careful about not burning any bridges, lest I need to cross them again. Now, I see it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference, whatsoever. You don’t owe them a thing.

“And tell them off, so they won’t think they got by with anything,” my father said, asking if I ever heard Johnny Paycheck’s song “Take This Job and Shove It.”

I couldn’t follow this rare advice, and despite my dad’s bitter, hard-earned insight, I doubt he could have, either. But I compromised: I announced my resignation in the morning, effective at the end of the day. Their reply was, “We’ll miss you.” I regret not giving them a piece of mind.

I’m still too nice, but I hope not as nice as Dad. What an awful thing to say.

Dad’s other bit of wisdom ended up coming posthumously. (Dad spent all of 1985 homebound, his nose tethered to an oxygen tank. He had emphysema, and only the fear of exploding kept him from smoking.)

During a visit a year or two earlier, Dad switched to the public television channel to show me Robert Benchley’s 1929 movie short The Treasurer’s Report. Although the print was scratchy, the hilarious service-club satire had not staled. Dad, the civic businessman, had sat through many such meetings; I covered them often as a reporter.

On one trip to Fort Smith in late 1984, Dad had a prize he bought for a quarter at the library’s used book sale. It was Chips Off the Old Benchley, a collection of the humorist’s deft pieces. When he spotted the book, Dad said, he knew I should have it because I might find a kindred soul — I had been trying my hand at light essays.

I hid the volume because it reminded me of Dad’s failing condition. When I tore through the book in mid-1986, I realized — once I stopped laughing — Dad had given me in Robert Benchley a mentor of style, a model of wit, a master of language.

Mom phoned in mid-December 1985. Dad was back in the hospital, but they didn’t want me to come home. I went anyway.

My legs buckled when I saw how emaciated and helpless Dad looked in the white-sheeted bed.

What he said to me were pretty much his last words.

“You got here just in time.”

Dad was right.

-30-

Is It Just My Imagination, Or Is Everybody Paranoid But Me?

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 4 February 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

Tomorrow, I’ll return Stephen King’s “On Writing” to the library so you can check it out.

In it, King summarizes his youth to show how he came to his profession.

He started out with an active imagination, dark even in childhood, and encouraged by an adoring but quirky, single mother.

If he were a teen-ager today, the stories he wrote for his brother’s neighborhood newsletter would have landed him at some Maine Juvenile Home for the Potentially Deranged, being full of monsters and psychopaths, inspired by those cheesy horror movies of the 1950s and ’60s.

Yet no matter how you feel about “Carrie” or “The Shining,” King also has given us “Stand By Me” and “Shawshank Redemption,” the latter books and later movies of redemption, though not without gore.

“On Writing” is my first King book. I’ve seen those movies, though, and read a couple of his short stories in “The New Yorker.” They’ve now inspired me to read his novels or hear them on tapes from the library.

My current book-on-tape is “The Blind Assassin,” winner of this year’s Booker Prize. Margaret Atwood’s narrator is an old woman recounting her life, apparently to an estranged granddaughter. The other family is dead, none of natural causes. This fascinating “chick” book has a subplot that includes lizard-men from outer space who wear flammable shorts.

Was Atwood a bad girl writer in Canada?

Ceci Davidson illustration, 1989
"I imagined my Orange Stick into a motorcycle handlebar, a race car steering wheel or an airplane throttle." Ceci Davidson illustration, 1989

In recent years I have carried a weapon, even to London.

I had one just like it as a kid.

The original Orange Stick came from a wooden block set. It was a 1-inch dowel eight to 10 inches long.

I imagined my Orange Stick into a motorcycle handlebar, a race car steering wheel or an airplane throttle. More practically, it held kite string and could dig small holes. George the terrier fetched it.

The Orange Stick also could be a dagger, spear or pistol, needed for Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, and Army.

I took the Orange Stick to Fort Smith’s Ballman Elementary often. Other boys had brought to recess their plastic pistols and rubber knives. We growled “Pow!” and “You got me!”

Dying was fun. We dramatized groans and convulsions. Dying gave a kid a moment to catch his breath — then you got up, a different soldier.

None of us, and Ballman had kids of all socioeconomic classes, seriously attacked one another or any adult.

In fifth grade the wind grabbed that spring’s kite and pulled the Orange Stick high into a tree. After a few years, I couldn’t see it anymore.

In summer 1998, I made two replicas from a hardware store dowel and a pint of paint.

One Orange Stick stays on my writing desk. I probably get by with carrying the other one everywhere because I shun the temptation of running through the newsroom or airports steering a pretend-Harley.

Oh yeah, in fourth grade my mom was called to school because I had written poems about hippies, drugs and suicide. The year was 1967.

The teacher asked Mom what kind of literature was in our house. Mom said, “‘Time,’ ‘Life’ and the ‘Arkansas Gazette.'”

Last December, a 16-year-old boy presented in drama class a monologue he wrote about a bullied boy taking revenge by blowing up his school.

The writer himself has a speech impediment and has been bullied. He also threatened three students, according to The Associated Press and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

The Ontario boy was charged on four counts of making death threats and jailed for over a month, until bail was set. His 14-year-old brother then made two threats and was jailed several weeks.

Police found neither weapons nor bomb-making materials in their home. A couple of weeks ago, the family celebrated a belated Christmas.

Canadian authors, including Atwood and Michael Ondaatje (“The English Patient”), have made the young writer a cause celebre, saying writing vents anger safely for many youths.

Yet surely, threats must be taken seriously. Note the following from our state, from last week:

“JONESBORO (AP) — An 8-year-old boy was suspended from school for three days after pointing a breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying, POW, POW, POW.

“Kelli Kissinger, mother of first-grader Christopher, said the punishment was too severe.

“South Elementary principal Dan Sullivan said the school district has a zero-tolerance policy against weapons because the public wants it.

“In March 1998, four students and a teacher were killed and 10 others wounded when two youths opened fire outside Jonesboro’s Westside Middle School.

“Christopher said he had been called down for talking in the cafeteria and was sitting at a detention table at the time.

“‘I don’t doubt that he did it,’ Kissinger said. ‘But like his psychiatrist said, (the school) needs to be able to tell the difference between a threat and a playful act. … Chris has … an active imagination, but he’s never been violent.’

“Sullivan said punishment for a threat ‘depends on the tone, the demeanor, and in some manner you judge the intent. It’s not the object in the hand, it’s the thought in the mind. Is a plastic fork worse than a metal fork? Is a pencil a weapon?'”

Is a pencil a weapon?

-30-

Some Very Important Folks Visit My Diner

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 22 February 1989 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 1989 Ben S. Pollock

Sometimes, days off are best spent reading. I took a recent break from work to finish a long novel I had been plodding through for weeks.

The story begins with a Bombay-to-London jet being blown up high over the English Channel. Two people miraculously survive, and the book details how they deal with the ensuing celebrity.

Ceci Davidson illustration, 1989
"The Fertile Crescent was deserted, understandable for the time of day." Ceci Davidson illustration, 1989

I hit the last page in midafternoon, and to celebrate I donned my Panama and walked from my home, the Bengalow, to a nearby café, the Fertile Crescent.

During the three-block walk I decided that someday I would read the prototype of the surviving-a-29,000-foot-fall fiction genre, “The Satanic Verses,” by Salman Rushdie.

The Fertile Crescent was deserted, understandable for the time of day. I took a corner table. The quiet, however, was not going to last a minute more.

“Garcon, table for three. The name is Mose,” grunted an older man who entered. His voice carried but was surprisingly soft. He carried an exquisite walking stick.

The waiter looked at Mose askance, because the place was empty save for me and my hat.

The gent chose a large round table in the middle, under a skylight.

“Be sure to show my brothers over when they arrive. One is Jess; he’s got a beard. The other is Mo; I haven’t seen him in ages, or I’d tell you what he looked like. Mo won’t even let his picture be taken.”

The descriptions were unnecessary for just then two men walking in, arguing.

“I saw the parking place first. That why I deserved it,” said a bearded fellow, Jess apparently.

“You always take life too seriously. You could’ve driven your rig around the block again, and maybe a place would have opened up,” said a curly haired bloke, obviously Mo.

“If you still had your camel, Mo, you could’ve left it on the sidewalk,” Jess said.

“Don’t dare me to repeating my Jess-and-his-donkey jokes,” Mo said.

“Boys, boys. Simmer down and sit over here,” Mose said. “Garcon, quit hiding behind the bar and bring us menus.”

“I didn’t see your ‘Veda,’ Mose,” Jess said. “And where’s Aaron?”

“He’s sitting in the rig, because I parked by a fire hydrant,” Mose said.

“You must still hate feeding nickels to parking meters,” Mo said.

Mo ordered a cheeseburger, Jess took a bacon cheeseburger and Mose asked for a California avocado-and-sprout salad. Their table was bathed in sunlight.

“Thanks for coming, boys, though I’m sorry we’re not getting along any better,” Mose said. “Now let’s plan that surprise party for Dad.”

“The idea is great, but what are we celebrating?” Mo asked.

“His birthday, of course,” Jess said. “Mine is real important, and Dad’s should be bigger.”

Mose laughed. “No one knows when Dad was born. It’s his big anniversary we are honoring. After all, the time I led the gang across the water and when I climbed the mountain are great anniversaries, and Dad’s should be grander.”

“Just because you’re the oldest, Mose, doesn’t mean you’re right,” said the brash Mo, youngest of the three. “Every day is an anniversary for Dad.”

“My point exactly,” Jess chimed in. “Dad always told me he loved me best, and I say birthday.”

“Geez, Jess, Dad just said that because you’re the middle son. Middle children always get coddled,” Mo said. “Besides, Dad said I was the favorite.”

Once Mose claimed he was his father’s pet, the bickering grew annoying. I gave the waiter some money and bought the men a round of Nirvanas.

They looked toward me and smiled appreciatively. I tipped the brim of my Panama. Mo wanted his cocktail straight, Jess on the rocks, and Mose wanted the rim salted. The trio were silent while they ate and drank.

“Dad’s favorite day — and the one we should surprise him on — is the Sabbath,” Mo said, and the others, surprisingly, nodded in agreement. “Shall we say two weeks from Friday?”

“Nothing doing,” Mose said. “Saturday.”

“No way,” Jess said. “Sunday.”

The ensuing argument shook the windows. After one of the brothers — I couldn’t tell which — thundered, “If only we could have settled this when we were mortal.” I tried again to pacify them.

I ordered three Moon Pies.

The chocolate calmed them, and soon they were happily talking about a three-day bash and to include Dad in the final planning. Having all three sons together for a few days would be enough of a surprise for him.

“There’s at least one thing we can thank Dad for,” Mose said as they were leaving the café. “We’ve all been blessed with great tans.”

-30-

Just the FAQs — Frequently Asked Questions about Lieberman

Loose Leaves, 1st run Sunday 13 August 2000 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2000 Donrey Media Group

As a public service — or not — here are frequently asked questions about the presidential campaign, now that it’s gotten interesting.

“FAQs” like these — and those on the Internet and toaster-oven manuals — are invented, not collected, but you knew that, right?

Question: Does experience in Washington matter for a president?

Answer: Jimmy Carter didn’t have any and neither did Ronald Reagan. Dwight Eisenhower did not practice D.C. politics until winning the presidency — twice. Reagan served eight years, too. Bill Clinton was only a governor, like Carter and Reagan, and he’s about to complete eight years. If you are inferring that George W. Bush does not have “it,” then you can’t tell by these guys.

Q. Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney is from Wyoming. Does that make him a cowboy?

A. No.

Q. Republican presidential candidate Bush is governor of Texas. Is he a cowboy?

A. Gosh, no. Reagan is the only elected cowboy in recent decades.

Q. Did you hear that Senator Joseph Lieberman is … is … a Yankee?

A. Some of my friends have been from Connecticut. He might as well be from Iowa or even Arkansas.

Q. Why have essentially all the newspapers and the TV people said in their first sentences on his selection that he’s Jewish?

A. They couldn’t think of anything bad to say about him.

Q. Should I say “Jewish person” or “Jew”?

A. The way some people say Jew — with as hard a soft-g as can be mustered and the rest almost a sneeze — they make it sound like an epithet. If you don’t intend a slur, do the ish. Instead of saying “that Jew Democrat,” try instead, “that sincere Jewish vice presidential candidate.”

Q. I take my Sabbath off, and Saturday, too. What’s the difference with the Hebrew Sabbath?

A. You can count on Sen. Lieberman working Sundays while Al and Tipper Gore go to church. Lieberman and his wife do no work from sundown Fridays through sundown Saturdays.

Basing their practice on what many call the Old Testament and they call the Hebrew Scriptures, they won’t cause animals to work, either. Because machines have replaced horses and oxen, the Liebermans will not ride in cars or planes on Saturdays. Their light bulbs are on timers, because in olden times they would not set fires on Shabbat.

The Liebermans on Saturdays attend synagogue and otherwise focus on spirituality — no games — contemplation not recreation.

Q. What if something big comes up?

A. Here’s Lieberman’s answer: “I’ve always felt that — and the rabbis have encouraged me in this and Jewish tradition does — when you have a responsibility to people that can protect or advance their well-being or their lives, then you’ve got to do it (work on the Sabbath).”

On Saturdays when the Senate met, Lieberman was known to walk to work.

Q. Will Lieberman as a vice president, if elected, wear his religion on his sleeve?

A. Observant Jews wear their religion on their heads, with a skullcap called a “kipah” or more commonly, “yarmulke.” In the South, this is pronounced YAH-muh-kuh.

Q. Speaking of that, why are Jewish commentators looking squeamish on TV?

A. They’re more uncomfortable with a Jew in such a prominent role than those Goyim who have to work to be open-minded.

Jews more traditional than Lieberman say he is too worldly by serving in government. More liberal Jews worry that Lieberman will embarrass them by his piety or just being in any limelight.

Most American Jews are liberal to the point of being non-religious. They think they can “pass” as Gentiles. But Gentiles always know.

There’s a saying whenever you have two Jews you get three opinions. So Gore being Christian makes them a good team, no?

Q. Did you hear the one about how one night a priest, a preacher and a rabbi take a table in a club? Nearby, an Irishman, an Iraqi and an Israeli sit side-by-side at the bar. And a farmer, the farmer’s daughter and a traveling Jewish peddler sit in a booth. The bartender yells, “What’ll you all have?”

A. All these characters … is this a very long joke?

Q. I’m asking the questions here. Hey, how come you don’t have an answer?

A. This is a joke, right?

Q. The clerics point to one another and tell the barkeep, “As God as our witness, we’ll share a large gin martini with a cocktail onion, straight-up.” The immigrants laugh, slap one another on the back and say, “We all ‘I’s.’ Up means no ice. We too drunk one onion-up martini.” The rural rubes point to one another and say, “We don’t know city ways. We’ll have what thems is havin’, a martooni up with a sweet-onion. With three straws to chaw on.”

A. That’s clever but not funny. You should keep asking questions.

Q. I had one setting and three jokes. Maybe I couldn’t decide.

A. That’s the punch line. “Whenever you have to choose, you have three up-onions.”

-30-

Americans Can’t Just Let It Snow

Loose Leaves, 1st run Tuesday 1 February 2000 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock

Copyright 2000 Donrey Media Group

How did you like that snow? Surprised by it? Surprised it lasted like it did? You shouldn’t be. Weather folks had it nailed all along, give or take half of a day.

For all the times we make fun of the TV meteorologists and the National Weather Service, not to mention the private forecast services, nobody admits how often right they are these days. When they are wrong, it’s usually only by a matter of hours.

Sometimes, weather-people are very wrong, but 90 or 75 percent chance of something falling does mean 10 or 25 percent of no precipitation. Odds like that would bankrupt race tracks and casinos in a week. Why didn’t we trust this?

You remember the winter storm. Forecasters said early in the week, with certainty, snow would fall heavily by Thursday afternoon. It might start as early as late Wednesday.

Snow began at 11 or so Thursday morning, and it came down heavily from the start. That’s a pretty accurate forecast. Plans by schools and businesses were set for Thursday when nothing fell by very late Wednesday.

Forecasters also said it would not warm up until Sunday and then only just above freezing.

The snow as predicted stayed on the ground, melting to slush in clear or lightly clouded skies, then refreezing in the night so as to snarl traffic to Saturday shopping and Sunday school. That was an accurate forecast, too.

Let’s open! Let’s close!

Oh, the poor, poor weatherman,
We love to mock all that he says.
We seek ever-greater acumen,
Then do what we want anyways.

Forecasters have radar, cell phones,
Satellites see what gravity prevents.
Nothing’s sure, on this make no bones,
But eighty percent should give sense.

Hundreds wrecked in the first six hour,
But thankfully no one was killed.
From sliders walkers had to cower,
Cars had to collide, then they chilled.

Up to thousands per fender-bender
Post-deduct’s, dents costly to fix. The
rest to your choice of tow trucker,
Pray premiums won’t rise for kicks.

Hospital crews thankfully on hand,
Yet they were not too often needed.
Clinics now keep banker’s hours, can
That be ’cause banks now over-seeded?

Woe are we who must commute by slide,
Paper carriers made the hills at times.
Thanks come to stores open with pride,
Close cafes for repast in pastimes.

We can stay home with our Internet,
For twenty a month we are all set.
Until ice snaps precious phone poles,
Then we’ll sled, build fires, drink cocoas.

Superintendents, supervisors,
Why’d you wait ’til noon to lock up?
Trust the TV, there’s no precedents,
Fear it’d cost test scores or markup?

Those who live in hurricane-land
Skeptics too so they teach us little.
At first siren some flee the sand,
The rest seen worse, stay noncommittal.

Our Cape Fear lies everywhere,
The place Fate stops to look around.
For once our snow and ice melts in air,
Floods and twisters will come aground.

Just timidly I trust newscasting,
Despite these claims of confidence.
I hate to feel like I am lying,
When I cancel some appointments.

We claim to want to know the future,
We pray for truth, we bet for sooth.
Science, history guide ever better,
Prophecy though sure we keep aloof.
Oh, the poor, poor weatherman,
We love to mock all that he says.
We seek ever-greater acumen,
Then do what we want anyways.

We’ll figure out, one of these days, that we Americans can take a day off for a good reason like a strong threat of snow and nothing bad will happen. We won’t go broke. Our children won’t suddenly turn ignorant.

Western European countries, with better-educated children and often higher standards of living and stronger business productivity, give employees months off every year with no concern.

We could learn from such economies. Or we could push ourselves, metaphorically, up very close to stoplights on icy roads, begging for a green light before the yo-yo behind the yo-yo behind us jumps the gun, and cracks all of our bumpers in a bucket brigade of snow.

-30-