Category Archives: 1989 Mirthology

Mirthology columns from 1989

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.


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.”