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Posts Tagged ‘Children’

Here in Jefferson, one of the local landmarks is a sliding board that looms over the playground at Jefferson Elementary School. It’s a massive blue and yellow plastic thing about 10 feet tall, held up by a metal frame.

The sliding board was here when I moved to Jefferson in 2006. You can’t help but notice it. It faces one of the town’s busiest thoroughfares, standing 20 yards from the pavement, looking at you.

I say looking at you because the sliding board is constructed in the form of a large blue — well, let me back up and explain this properly.

The first time I drove past the playground and saw the sliding board, I said to myself, gracious sakes, it’s a giant blue alligator! A happy, child-friendly alligator, to be sure, but how odd — why did they make it blue?

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Seeing the blue alligator became a part of my regular routine, and I passed it often. Each time I drove by the school, the term “blue alligator” materialized in my head.

Inevitably, that thought was followed by the nagging questions: why is the alligator blue? Why not green? Who decided? Was it done in a burst of whimsy?

Admittedly, playground equipment is not the sort of thing a person dwells upon for long. After I passed the school and the playground was behind me, all thoughts of blue alligators evaporated from my consciousness. My brain moved on to address more important matters, such as picking up my laundry.

Nor is playground equipment the sort of thing a person discusses with family and friends. How lame would it be to interrupt a family dinner by asking, “Hey, guys, that big alligator at the elementary school playground — why is it blue?”

So, the months went by, and the blue alligator stood vigil at the playground, and I saw it regularly. I would ponder the matter for a few seconds, then drive on, the “blue” question unanswered.

Unanswered until the day I put the question to my granddaughter Maddie.

Maddie was two years old when I moved to Jefferson. Early on, we discovered that she is whip-smart, very advanced for her age. This is a kid who thinks like an adult.

I mean that literally. Maddie is a genuine brainiac. You are obliged to relate to her as a small adult, not as a child. Do otherwise, and you make yourself look foolish.

Sometime in 2008 or 2009, when Maddie was four or five, she and I were en route to the city park, and we drove past the elementary school. Maddie was strapped in her booster chair in the back seat, passenger side.

“Hey, Maddie,” I said, looking at her in the rear-view mirror, “Help me solve a puzzle. This has been bugging me for a long time.”

She glanced up at me in the mirror. “What puzzle?” she asked.

“That alligator over there, the sliding board alligator, why is it blue and not green? A blue alligator doesn’t make sense.”

“That isn’t an alligator,” she replied. “It’s a dragon.”

“A dragon? Look at the snout on that thing! The eyes! It’s an alligator!”

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“No, it’s a dragon. Trust me.”

I drifted into the right-turn lane, stopped opposite the playground, and looked over toward the blue… whatever.

“Sure looks like an alligator to me,” I said.

“Rocky, I’m telling you, it’s a dragon. I know it is.”

“How do you know?”

“Because the Jefferson mascot is a dragon. We’re the ‘Jefferson Dragons.’ You must know that. The school colors are blue and red. The sliding board is meant to be a blue Jefferson dragon.”

Oh.

Abashed to the point of humiliation, I drove on in silence toward the park.

After a time, without making eye contact in the rear-view mirror, I muttered weakly, “Well, I still think it looks like an alligator.”

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For most of my working life, I was the de facto office wordsmith. In matters of spelling, grammar, and the art of phrasing things to best advantage, I was the designated go-to guy.

I got overruled regularly by my corporate masters, but still, I was the acknowledged expert.

Things worked out that way because I enjoy writing and have a knack for it. Consider this blog, for example. I started it after I retired in 2006, and I’ve been posting merrily along ever since.

And I assure you, I’m not in it for the money. There is no money. I do it strictly for the enjoyment and the mental exercise.

Because I was an advertising copywriter for much of my writing career, I typically worked alongside a stable of graphics specialists who handled the design and typography side of things.

Graphic designers are fiercely proud folk who obsess over the minutiae of a project, in much the same way as do accountants and clockmakers. The designer’s realm is one of fonts, kerning, rastering, vectoring, Pantone color-matching, and other such mysteries.

As any one of them will tell you, no mere copywriter is capable of understanding what they do. Graphic design is a calling that requires specialized knowledge and training. That’s certainly true.

Then again, I may not know art, but I know what works.

Bad design is depressingly prevalent all around us. It haunts me wherever I go, just as it haunts my designer friends. Go online and take a look at a typical website. It’s probably an affront to clarity and order in a hundred ways.

Or consider the case of Fairfield Missionary Baptist Church, located on a lonely stretch of Georgia Route 82 south of my little town of Jefferson.

The sign in front of the church caught my attention soon after I moved here. I remember the day I first approached the place and saw the sign from a distance.

The thing is, the “F” in Fairfield is so elaborate and tricked-out — even enclosed in a box and separated from the other letters — that you almost don’t notice it.

The first time I saw the sign, I honestly thought it said Airfield Missionary Baptist Church.

And it isn’t just me. A couple of years ago, my ex and I were taking two of our granddaughters somewhere, and we drove past the church.

Maddie, the older granddaughter, was about six or seven at the time and a voracious reader — of books, road signs, anything.

As soon as the church came into view, I said, “Maddie! Quick! What’s the name of that church up ahead?”

She looked up at the sign in the distance and replied without hesitation, “Airfield!”

I may not know art, but I know what works. And doesn’t.

Fairfield

 

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Yesterday, I stopped at the Kroger store in Jefferson to pick up a few things.

The store has been open for several years now. In truth, Kroger became the retail and social hub of Jefferson the day it opened. It’s the one place in town where, sooner or later, you’ll run into everyone you know.

I found the items I wanted, cruised back to the front of the store, and got in a checkout line.

While I was waiting, a man pushing a fully-loaded shopping cart passed nearby, on his way to the exit. He paused a few feet away and looked back over his shoulder.

Lagging a few too many paces behind were his two children. One was a small, delicate girl of about five. The other was a boy, slender and shaggy-haired, a few years older.

“Guys!” the man barked, “Keep up!”

The girl lagged behind because with every step, she was carefully placing her feet heel to toe, heel to toe, heel to toe, marking the paces. One of her shoelaces was untied and trailing behind her, but she didn’t seem to notice. She cradled a loaf of bread in her arms and was humming to herself.

The boy lagged behind because he was intently focused on the small electronic device of some kind in his hand. His eyes never left the screen. He appeared to be following his father by sound, not sight.

When Dad called out to them, the girl picked up speed. The boy waggled a hand in acknowledgement without looking up and continued at the same pace.

A few seconds later, the man stopped and turned toward them again.

“Hey!” he said. “Y’all come on! Stay with me!”

This being a repeat command, both kids immediately responded. The girl raced a few steps forward. The boy looked up from his electronic device and did the same. Satisfied, Dad continued pushing the cart toward the exit.

As soon as his back was turned, both children stopped.

The boy stopped in order to get reoriented to whatever he was doing on the electronic device.

The girl stopped because her brother was standing on the shoelace trailing behind her. She couldn’t move her right foot.

“Christopher!” the girl yelled. “Get off!”

Christopher stood with his back to her, absorbed in the electronic device.

She tried to yank the shoelace free, to no avail.

“Christopher!” she yelled again. Christopher didn’t respond.

So she acted. In one smooth motion, she transferred the loaf of bread to her left hand, gripped it by the twist-tie end, and swung it in a mighty back-handed arc, smacking her brother in the back of the head.

The loaf of bread impacted Christopher’s head with an audible whack. He hunched his shoulders, ducked his head, and stumbled forward a step. The shoelace came free.

By the time the boy recovered and turned around, his sister had returned the loaf of bread to the cradled position and was skipping forward to catch up with Dad.

Christopher looked bewildered.

Shoelaces

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Savannah, Georgia, official home base of the Smith family, is three cities in one.

One Savannah is black and poor. The worst areas may not be as wretched and run-down today as in the past, but they still are bleak, disheartening, and often dangerous.

Another Savannah is the suburbs — crowded and commercialized, indistinguishable from any other suburbs in the country, if you don’t count the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes of summer.

Finally, there is the Savannah of postcards. The historic downtown and the stately old neighborhoods around it. The beautiful city tourists come to see.

In old Savannah, the architecture and the moss-draped oaks are stunning. The streets and squares are elegant and enchanting.

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Many streets are lined with unbelievable displays of azaleas and oleanders, some reaching eight feet tall before city workers are obliged to prune them back.

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The Smith family home in Savannah’s historic Gordonston neighborhood is old, stately, and moss-draped, too.

The house has been there for a century. The rooms and the furnishings change, but very slowly. The trees and flowers are ordinary things that live and die, but somehow, they seem timeless. I think of the place, against all reason, as an eternal presence.

This point of view evolved, I realize, because I don’t live in Savannah; have never lived in Savannah. It’s a place I visit — a week here, a weekend there. If I lived there, as my aunt still does, the old house probably would seem like an ordinary residence, not eternal and unchanging.

Why am I reminiscing about Savannah and flora and old homes? Because of azaleas.

Here in North Georgia, azaleas are common plants. They’re showy and hardy, especially in the more settled neighborhoods. My house is relatively new, but in my yard are a dozen azaleas of various colors, ages, and sizes, all doing fine.

But all of mine together would be dwarfed in size and fullness — literally — by any single azalea bush in my aunt’s yard in Savannah. Azaleas simply are more lush and spectacular in that climate.

The azaleas at my aunt’s house have grown over the years into massive hedges that surround the house. They are impressive all year, but are utterly astounding when in bloom.

Azaleas are deciduous evergreen shrubs in the Rhododendron family. They are popular plants, widely grown and admired across Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

In Chinese culture, azaleas are known as si xiang shu — the “thinking of home” bush. That fact alone makes me love them.

As I said, I’ve always thought of my aunt’s house, and the azaleas around it, as timeless and eternal. It’s part of the “Savannah” I’ve created in my mind.

It’s a place populated by people I love and memories I treasure. A place that will endure forever, unchanging.

I know — it’s a delusion. But it’s a harmless one, and it gives me great comfort, so back off.

With all of the aforementioned in mind, you can understand how jolted I was to learn the real story of when and why the spectacular azaleas at my aunt’s house were planted.

I got the facts not long ago when Aunt Betty and I were talking about her yard plants. She mentioned that the azaleas were getting too big and, as happens periodically, needed to be pruned back.

She added casually that they had brought her much pleasure over the years — ever since the family planted them following my grandfather’s funeral.

What?

My grandfather was in the cotton export business and was well known in Savannah business circles. Betty explained that when he died, many friends and associates remembered him by sending potted azaleas — lots of them — to the funeral.

The family took the azaleas home and planted them. They were, in effect, a beautiful living memorial.

My grandfather died in 1950 while we were living in Tokyo. Only Dad flew home for the funeral. By the time we returned to the U.S. in 1952, the azaleas were established and growing.

If anyone ever told me the story, I didn’t retain it. I was nine years old. Flowers were of no interest to me.

But finally learning about it as a grandfather myself? Mind-blowing.

Still, I can understand how the information eluded me. In 1950, every adult in the family knew the origin and significance of those azaleas. There was no need to keep retelling the tale. It simply didn’t occur to them that we kids might not know the story.

Anyway, it was supremely satisfying to unearth a bit of family history that, unbeknownst to me, was underfoot all along.

And it gives me one more reason to love those magnificent azaleas.

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The old house in Gordonston, standing behind a wall of azaleas.

View of the left side.

View of the left side.

The right side.

The right side.

And the back yard. A proper memorial, indeed.

And the back yard. A proper memorial, indeed.

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The writing team of Walt and Leigh Richmond wrote novels and short stories, mostly science fiction, during the 1960s and 70s. The Richmonds were journeyman writers; often entertaining, rarely profound, little known except to a handful of editors.

Some of their acquaintances suspected that Leigh, 11 years older than Walt, did all the writing. If she did, no one could explain why she shared the billing with him.

At any rate, when Walt died in 1977, that ended the collaborating, real or otherwise. Leigh retired from the writing business. She died in 1995.

The short story below (not a sci-fi tale, by the way) is simultaneously clever and silly, and it makes two valid points.

One is that four-year-old children actually are eager little scientists, working and experimenting with whatever is at hand, steadily amassing knowledge.

The other is that it’s quite possible to do the right thing, even if you don’t understand the situation.

—————————

Poppa Needs Shorts

By Walt and Leigh Richmond
Published in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, January 1964

Little Oley had wandered into forbidden territory again — Big Brother Sven’s ham shack. The glowing bottles here were an irresistible lure, and he liked to pretend that he knew all there was to know about the mysteries in this room.

Of course, Sven said that not even he knew all of the mysteries, though he admitted he was one of the best ham operators extant, with QSOs from eighteen countries and thirty-eight states to his credit.

At the moment, Sven was busily probing into an open chassis with a hot soldering iron.

“Short’s in here some place,” he muttered.

“What makes shorts, Sven?” Oley wasn’t so knowledgeable but what he would ask an occasional question.

Sven turned and glared down. “What are you doing in here? You know it’s a Federal Offense for anybody to come into this room without I say so?”

“Momma and Hilda come in all the time, and you don’t say so.” Oley stood firm on what he figured were legal grounds. “What makes shorts?”

Sven relented a little. This brother had been something of a surprise to him, coming along when Sven was a full ten years old. But, he reflected, after a few years maybe I should get used to the idea. Actually, he sort of liked the youngster.

“Shorts,” he said, speaking from the superior eminence of his fourteen years to the four-year-old, “is when electricity finds a way to get back where it came from without doing a lot of hard work getting there. But you see, electricity like to work; so, even when it has an easy way, it just works harder and uses itself up.”

This confused explanation of shorts was, of course, taken verbatim, despite the fact that Oley couldn’t define half the words and probably couldn’t even pronounce them.

“I don’t like shorts. I don’t like these pink shorts Momma put on me this morning. Is they electrics, Sven?”

Sven glanced around at the accidentally-dyed-in-the-laundry, formerly white shorts.

“Um-m-m. Yeah. You could call ’em electric.”

With this Oley let out whoop and dashed out of the room, trailing a small voice behind him. “Momma, Momma. Sven says my shorts is electric!”

“I’ll short Sven’s electrics for him, if he makes fun of your shorts!” Oley heard his mother’s comforting reply.

In the adult world days passed before Oley’s accidentally acquired pattern of nubilous information on the subject of shorts was enlarged. It was only days in the adult world, but in Oley’s world each day was a mountainous fraction of an entire lifetime, into which came tumbling and jumbling — or were pulled — bits, pieces, oddments, landslides and acquisitions of information on every subject that he ran into, or that ran into him.

Nobody had told Oley that acquiring information was his job at the moment; the acquisition was partly accidental, mostly instinctive, and spurred by an intense curiosity and an even more intense determination to master the world as he saw it.

There was the taste of the sick green flowers that Momma kept in the window box and, just for a side course, a little bit of the dirt, too. There were the patterns of the rain on the window, and the reactions of a cat to having its tail pulled. The fact that you touch a stove one time, and it’s cool and comfortable to lay your head against, and another time it hurts. Things like that.

And other things — towering adults who sometimes swoop down on you and throw you high into the air; and most times walk over you, around you, and ignore you completely. The jumble of assorted and unsorted information that is the heritage of every growing young inquiring brain.

In terms of time, it was only a couple of weeks, if you were looking at it as an adult, until the next “shorts” incident.

Oley was sitting peacefully at the breakfast table, doing his level best to control the manipulation of the huge knife-fork-and-spoon, plate-bowl-and-glass, from which he was expected to eat a meal. Things smelled good. Momma was cooking doste, and that to Oley smelled best of all.

The doster ticked quietly to itself, then gave a loud pop, and up came two golden-brown slices of doste. Dostes? Oley wasn’t sure. But he hadn’t really begun paying too much attention to whether one doste was the same as two doste or what, though he could quite proudly tell you the difference between one and two.

Out it came, and fresh butter was spread on it, and in went two shiny white beds, for some more doste.

Little Oley watched in fascination. And now he reached for the tremendous glass sitting on the table in front of him. But his fingers didn’t quite make it. Somehow, the glass was heavy and slippery, and it eluded him, rolled over on its side, and spilled the bright purple juicy contents out across the table in a huge swish.

Oley wasn’t dismayed, but watched with a researcher’s interest as the bright purple juice swept across the table towards the busily ticking doster. Momma, of course, wasn’t here, or she would have been gruff about it. She’d just gone into the other room.

The juice spread rapidly at first, and then more and more slowly, making a huge, circuitous river spreading across the table, first towards the doster and then away from it towards the frayed power-cord lying on the table. It touched and began to run along the cord. Not a very eventful recording so far, but Oley watched, charmed.

As he watched, a few bubbles began to appear near the frayed spot. A few wisps of steam. And then, suddenly, there was a loud, snarling splat — and Momma screamed from the doorway. “That juice is making a short!”

The information, of course, was duly recorded. Juice makes shorts.

It was a minor item of information, mixed into a jumble of others, and nothing else was added to this particular file for nearly another week.

Oley was playing happily on the living room floor that night. Here there was much to explore, though an adult might not have thought twice about it. Back in the corner behind Momma’s doing bachine a bright, slender piece of metal caught Oley’s attention. Bigger on one end than the other, but not really very big anywhere, the sewing machine needle proved fascinating.

As a first experiment, Oley determined that it worked like a tooth by biting himself with it. After that he went around the room, biting other things with it. Information, of course, is information, and to be obtained any way one can.

The brown, snaky lamp cord was the end of this experiment. Oley bit it, viciously, with his new tooth, and had only barely observed that it had penetrated completely through when there was a loud splat, and all the lights in the room went out.

In the darkness and confusion, of course, Oley moved away, seeking other new experiences. So the cause of the short that Momma and Poppa yakked so loudly about was never attributed to Oley’s actions, but only to “How could a needle have gotten from your sewing machine into this lamp cord, Alice?”

But the sum of information had increased. Neatles stuck into lamp cords had something to do with shorts.

More time passed. And this time the file on shorts was stimulated by Poppa. The big, rough, booming voice had always scared Oley a bit when it sounded mad, like now.

“Alice, I’ve just got to have some more shorts!”

Poppa was rummaging in a drawer far above Oley’s head, so he couldn’t see the object under discussion. But all he already knew about shorts — the information passed in review before him.

Shorts are useful. They help electrics to work harder.

Shorts you wear, and they are electrics.

Wires are electrics.

Shorts can be made by juice.

Shorts can be made by neatles, that bite like teeth.

Poppa needs more shorts.

But Oley wasn’t motivated to act at the moment. Just sorting out information and connecting it with other information files in the necessarily haphazard manner that might eventually result in something called intelligence, although he didn’t know that yet.

It was a week later in the kitchen, when Momma dropped a giant version of the neatle on the floor, that his information file in this area increased again.

“Is that a neatle?” Oley asked.

His mother laughed quietly and looked fondly at her son as she put the ice pick back on the table.

“I guess you could call it a needle, Oley,” she told him. “An ice needle.”

Oley instinctively waited until Momma’s back was turned before taking the nice neatle to try its biting powers; and instinctively took it out of the kitchen before starting his experiments.

As he passed the cellar door he heard a soft gurgling and promptly changed course. Pulling open the door with difficulty, he seated himself on the cellar stairs to watch a delightful new spectacle — frothing, gurgling water making its way across the floor towards the stairs. It looked wonderfully dirty and brown, and to Oley it was an absorbing phenomenon. It never occurred to him to tell Momma.

Suddenly above him the cellar door slammed open, and Poppa came charging down the stairs, narrowly missing the small figure, straight into the rising waters, intent, though Oley couldn’t know it, on reaching the drain pipe in the far corner of the cellar to plug it before water from the spring rains could back up farther and really flood the cellar out.

Halfway across the cellar, Poppa reached up and grasped the dangling overhead light to turn it on, in order to see his way to the drain — and suddenly came to frozen, rigid, gasping stop as his hand clamped firmly over the socket.

Little Oley watched. There was juice in the cellar. Poppa had hold of an electric. Was Poppa trying to make the shorts he needed?

Oley wasn’t sure. He thought it probable. And from the superior knowledge of his four years, Oley already knew a better way to make shorts. Neatles make good shorts. Juice don’t do so well.

Suddenly, Oley decided to prove his point: Nice neatles probably made even better shorts than other neatles — and there was a big electric running up the side of the stairs — an electric fat enough to make a real good shorts. Maybe lots of shorts.

Raising his nice neatle, Oley took careful aim and plunged it through the 220-volt stove feeder cable.

Oley woke up. The strange pretty lady in white was a new experience. Somebody he hadn’t seen before. And there seemed to be something wrong with his hand, but Oley hadn’t noticed it very much, yet.

“Well, my little Hero’s awake! And how are you this morning? Your Momma and Poppa will be in to see you in just a minute.”

The pretty lady in white went away, and Oley gazed around the white room with its funny shape, happily recorded the experience, and dozed off again.

Then suddenly he was awakened again. Momma was there; and Poppa. And Sven. But they all seemed different somehow this morning. Momma had been crying, even though she was smiling bravely now. And Poppa seemed to have a new softness that he’d seldom seen before. Sven was looking puzzled.

“I still say, Pop, that he’s a genius. He must have known what he was doing.”

“Oley,” Poppa’s voice was husky — gruff, but kinder and softer than usual. “I want you to answer me carefully. But understand that it’s all right either way. I just want you to tell me. Why did you put the ice pick through the stove cable? You saved my life, you know. But I’d like to know how you knew how.”

Little Oley grinned. His world was peaceful and wonderful now. And all the big adults were bending and leaning down and talking to him.

“Nice neatle,” he said. “Big electric. Poppa needed shorts.”

Original illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction by John Schoenherr.

Original illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction by John Schoenherr.

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Party of Droids

I’ve been on a reading kick lately, and last Sunday, I made the rounds of the Athens bookstores in search of a few titles.

Why Sunday? Because Athens is blissfully quiet on Sunday, and downtown parking is free.

The day went well. I found one book that I wanted, struck out on two others, and made one impulse purchase. The books went on the pile next to my living room chair, to be dealt with in due time.

My last stop that day was Barnes & Noble, a bookstore with which I have a love-hate relationship.

I say that because on one hand, most B&N stores are well-stocked, attractive, pleasant, comfortable, interesting, and enjoyable to visit. The Athens store certainly is, and the staff is highly book-literate.

On the other hand, Barnes & Noble — or Barnes Ignoble, if you prefer — is (1) a soulless corporate behemoth, and (2) way, way too pricey. I rarely purchase anything there that isn’t on sale. If I have to overpay, I prefer to do it at an independent bookstore.

But this is the holiday season, and there I was, wandering the aisles of the Athens Barnes & Noble, looking for bargains. Christmas carols were playing merrily over the sound system.

At first, the atmosphere in the store was normal. Busy and festive, but normal. I wandered back to the Travel department, flagged down a clerk, and asked him to locate a book for me.

While we were talking, loud voices erupted from the children’s section at the far end of the store.

It was a burst of happy, exuberant children’s voices, a mixture of giggles and screams, and it quickly subsided. A few seconds later, the uproar repeated itself.

Barnes & Noble is always full of kids, but they’re usually subdued and mannerly. This was a bit surprising.

“What the heck is going on back there?” I asked the clerk.

“No idea,” he said. “Must be a Storytime event. They do a lot of holiday things in the children’s department.”

As I continued browsing, the kids’ voices ebbed and flowed sporadically. I was curious, but not enough to investigate. Several minutes later, however, I had worked my way across the store to the main aisle not far from the children’s section. Suddenly, the hubbub escalated.

In a flash, a line of a dozen kids — about half boys and half girls, ages six to eight — snaked past me. Chattering excitedly, they reached the end of the aisle, turned left, and disappeared from view.

Moments later, a tall, imposing Imperial Stormtrooper in distinctive white battle armor appeared.

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“Citizen,” he demanded, “Did a party of droids pass this way?”

This Stormtrooper had a bit of a Southern accent. Which made sense, this being Georgia and all.

“They went that way,” I said, pointing in the wrong direction. I knew I was grinning like an idiot, but I couldn’t help it.

“The Empire will not tolerate misleading information,” he replied officiously. “I assure you, I will not harm these droids. I just want to return them to the children’s department.”

Before I could reply, and before he was compelled to make an example of me in some fashion, the line of kids reappeared in the aisle about 20 feet away. When they spotted the Stormtrooper, they screeched to a halt and quickly dispersed amid howls of glee.

The Stormtrooper looked in my direction. I could see my reflection in the black plastic covering the eyeholes of his helmet. He shook his head.

“They’ve split up,” he said with resignation. “Apprehending them now will be difficult.”

“Yes, and I see you’re not armed,” I said.

“Well, we usually don’t need our weapons at a Bookfair event.”

At that moment, we were joined by an 80-ish man dressed in his Sunday best. He looked the Stormtrooper up and down inquisitively.

“You’re one of those… you’re a…” he ventured.

“A Stormtrooper,” said the Stormtrooper.

“You’re from that space movie, where the planet blows up,” the man said. “The soldiers wore white armor –”

“Yes, that was Star Wars. I’m an Imperial Stormtrooper from the movie Star Wars,” said the Stormtrooper.

“– and the villain, the mean one, had black armor — ‘Stormtrooper,’ you say?”

“Yes, sir. I’m here for the Children’s Bookfair. I represent the 501st Legion of Imperial Stormtroopers.”

(The 501st is a real-life organization of Star Wars fans. They make appearances wearing amazingly authentic Star Wars costumes.)

I decided it was time to make my exit. “Good luck rounding up those Droids,” I said with a wave, backing away from the conversation.

The Stormtrooper replied with a peace sign. The old guy continued to hold him captive, speaking in a slow, halting monotone.

A few minutes later, standing in the checkout line, I heard another chorus of excited children’s voices. I looked back toward the main aisle.

There stood the Stormtrooper in a circle of kids. They were looking up at him with huge grins, bouncing energetically in place, listening intently. As he talked, the children periodically broke out in giggles.

The Stormtrooper pointed at one of the older boys. The boy said something in reply, then cracked up at his own remark, whatever it was. The Stormtrooper reacted with exaggerated body language.

From a distance, I noticed for the first time that most of the adults in the vicinity — in the entire store — had stopped browsing and were watching the Stormtrooper and the children. Everyone was smiling. It was a good moment.

Okay, so even soulless corporate behemoths can have some redeeming qualities.

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When I was a kid, my parents probably knew more about the everyday events of my life than I realized at the time.

I’m sure that’s true of everyone. Even though children live a good portion of their lives with no adults present, parents have ways of learning and discerning things.

But adults are not omniscient. Plenty happens in kid-dom that the grownups never suspect.

And sometimes, it’s just as well…

—————

It was 1950. I was in third grade, eight years old. My dad was an Air Force major, stationed in Tokyo, Japan. We lived in the heart of Tokyo at Washington Heights, a housing project for American officers and their families.

I’ve written several times on this blog about life in Tokyo and Washington Heights. Among them: the story of how I learned the truth about Santa Claus; and a story about an ugly incident innocently precipitated by a bunch of us kids.

Back then, my world consisted of the family apartment, the school, the various base facilities, and my friends, all of it within the confines of Washington Heights. Tokyo was all around us, but remote, beyond the gates.

Dad’s office was downtown, so he went “on the economy” daily. But the rest of us saw Japan only when we went on vacation, or took a trip to a city monument or park, or went to the Ginza, Tokyo’s fancy shopping district.

One day, certain events unfolded among a few of us kids that, to my knowledge, the adults never learned about. Let me set the stage.

In olden times, like the 1950s, parents did not ride herd on their children every second, as is mostly the case today. Back then, kids were allowed to roam freely, as long as they reported in as ordered and stayed out of trouble.

That was true at Washington Heights, which had the added advantage of being a walled compound that was under armed guard around the clock. So, as we kids went about our daily routines, we rarely were chaperoned or questioned.

Somewhere near a remote edge of the housing project, a stormwater runoff pipe emerged from the ground and emptied down a slope into a small creek. The pipe was about two feet in diameter and was part of the drainage system beneath Washington Heights.

From that exit point, the pipe went back under the housing project for 40-odd feet until it reached a large metal grate. There, it made a right-angle turn and went another 40-odd feet to a second metal grate.

We kids knew this, because over time, some of us had ventured into the pipe, driven by taunts and dares from the others.

As underground pipes go, this one was relatively clean and dry — clean because Washington Heights was only a few years old, and dry because we were not dumb enough to enter the pipe after a rain.

The floor of the pipe was covered with a layer of sand and pebbles, but it wasn’t icky, slimy, cobwebby, or bug-ridden.

That was the good news. The bad news: even for kids, the pipe was too small to allow you to advance on hands and knees. You had to go belly-down and “soldier-crawl,” using your elbows.

Yet, after someone emerged from reconnoitering, he merely stood up, dusted off, and went about his business. His clothes would be dirty, but not trashed.

In my mind, two related facts about the pipe made going inside possible: one, it ran in a straight line; and two, you could see daylight ahead, shining through the nearest metal grate.

Conversely, when exiting the pipe, you always moved toward a patch of daylight. To me, seeing that daylight made a huge difference.

The truth is, I dreaded venturing into the pipe. It was creepy and nerve-wracking and no fun at all. Every time I went in, I longed fervently not to be there.

But going into the pipe was better than the alternative: being exposed in the eyes of the other kids as a gutless fraidy-cat chicken. Nobody wanted to lose face, so nobody refused to go into the pipe.

I should mention that in accordance with the code of our group, the younger boys were not allowed to enter the pipe. This was partly for their protection and partly to keep them in their place and reserve the glory for ourselves.

But one afternoon, we violated the code and allowed one of the youngest and smallest of us to go into the pipe.

Donnie Paul was no more than five years old, and he was obsessed with going into the pipe like his older brother Billy. Donnie whined and pleaded incessantly. We always refused.

But that day, for some reasons, we relented. We had to know it was a bad idea, but we let it happen anyway.

I remember how we went over the details and prepared Donnie for the undertaking. We made sure he understood the layout of the pipe. We told him to crawl to the first grate, make contact with us there, then turn around and crawl out. We would talk to him and keep an eye on him the best we could.

At first, Donnie did fine. He crawled in at a good pace, reached the turnaround point, and looked up at us through the grate.

Then, as if the reality of the situation finally hit home, his eyes slowly widened in fright, and he began to bawl.

Thankfully, he wasn’t in a panic. That would have been infinitely worse. Donnie simply was alone and scared and overwhelmed.

As he slumped there beneath the grate, sobbing and shaking, it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere. One of us would have to go in after him.

Why the rescue mission fell to me, I don’t remember. Whatever the reason, as Donnie moaned and wailed like a lost soul, I dropped to the ground and belly-crawled into the pipe.

When I reached Donnie, he was whimpering and uncommunicative, but cooperative. I was able to maneuver him in front of me for the return trip. He stopped frequently, but always resumed crawling when I prodded him, sobbing in despair all the while.

After we emerged from the pipe, Donnie stopped blubbering and calmed down. After a few minutes, he pulled himself together and was okay again.

After that, life at Washington Heights returned to normal. No adults ever mentioned the incident. No kids got in trouble. No metal bars appeared at the mouth of the pipe to keep us out. But by unspoken agreement, we never ventured into the pipe again.

For me, the rescue mission is memorable for a second and entirely different reason: during the exit crawl with Donnie, I had my first experience with the sensation of claustrophobia.

As I said, I always hated being in the pipe. It seriously gave me the creeps, and I went in only because of peer pressure. While underground, I tried to concentrate on the moment and not think too much about where I was.

But at a certain point inside the pipe, with Donnie in front of me and daylight not far ahead, I felt an ominous tingling of fear, anxiety, and impending panic.

It was only a brief taste of the real thing — a weak, but growing sensation of being confined, trapped, helpless.

It was a subtle thing and not very strong. By focusing intently on the task at hand, and Donnie’s silhouette in the circle of daylight ahead, I shook off the feeling.

But that preview was enough to last me a lifetime. It was monumentally awful. To this day, I am spooked just thinking about it. I can’t imagine the horror of experiencing true claustrophobia.

Washington Heights was built in 1947. It was in use until 1963, when the American occupants were relocated and the installation was torn down to make room for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Specifically, it was the site of the Olympic Village that housed the athletes.

When the Olympics ended, the property was razed again and given back to Yoyogi Park, from which it was originally carved. It remains green space today.

And for all I know, the stormwater runoff pipes are still there.

Washington Heights and Yoyogi Park in the 1950s.

Washington Heights and Yoyogi Park in the 1950s.

 

Dismantling begins, 1963.

Dismantling begins, 1963.

 

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A few days before Halloween, I was in the drugstore in downtown Jefferson, and one of the clerks asked cheerily, “Are y’all goin’ to Halloween Walk this year?”

By that, she meant would my family and I be attending the city’s annual Halloween celebration, which takes place in and around the downtown square.

Halloween Walk is a popular Jefferson event at which the local merchants, churches, and clubs set up tables along the sidewalks and give away candy to costumed kids who are trudging along in single file, herded by parents and grandparents.

Yes, we’ll be there, I replied. I had volunteered to take my granddaughters Maddie and Sarah to the event, with the able assistance of their grandmother, my ex, Deanna.

When I first wrote about Halloween Walk a couple of years ago, I may have been a little harsh in my criticism of the event. As I explained, Halloween Walk is designed to keep the kids corralled and under control, not wandering the neighborhoods after dark and maybe causing mischief.

To me, it seemed to be intruding on a holiday that has worked just fine for decades and didn’t need adult improvement.

(Later, Maddie and Sarah innocently defeated the purpose of Halloween Walk by trick-or-treating around the neighborhood anyway.)

But, since I wrote that earlier post, I’ve pretty much made my peace with the event. Contrived or not, every kid in attendance is delighted to be there. That makes it hard to complain.

As October 31 approached, I found myself wondering if Maddie would want to go this year. After all, she is nine years old now and a sophisticated 4th-grader. Had she outgrown such juvenile frivolity?

When I asked her, she looked at me as if I had an extra eye in the center of my forehead.

“Of course I want to go,” she said. “Why would I not want to go?”

Silly me. I underestimated the siren call of the candy — virtually unlimited quantities of it, free for the taking.

In case you think I overstate the situation, let me point out that instead of taking along a small plastic jack-o-lantern to collect the candy, as Sarah did, Maddie brought a large plastic Macy’s bag. It was big enough to hold a small child.

——————

When I picked up Maddie and Sarah on Halloween afternoon, they were fully costumed, aflutter with excitement, atwitter with anticipation, and ready to go.

Sarah was dressed as Wonder Woman, and, of course, was disarmingly cute. Her gold crown was a bit too large, but her ears kept it from becoming a collar.

Sensibly and thankfully, the costume featured a skirt instead of Wonder Woman’s famous skin-tight short-shorts. I don’t think Wonder Woman’s red boots had flashing LEDs, either, but they were eye-catching on Sarah.

Maddie wore the uniform of a Jefferson Dragons football player, which she borrowed from a boy in the neighborhood who had outgrown it. On the back of the jersey was a strip of orange tape bearing the nickname her father gave her at age two: MADDOG.

She chose not to wear shoulder pads, but had the helmet ready to go. It was well worn and festooned with stickers, including a large fire-breathing dragon and a double row of small skulls. I assume the skulls stood for tackles, sacks, or some other gridiron achievement.

She thought about using the helmet as a candy bowl, but it was clumsy and heavy. She left it at home and took the plastic Macy’s bag instead.

Deanna arrived wearing a jacket that, for obvious reasons, she wears only on Halloween.

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By the time we arrived downtown, the action was well underway. The four of us merged into the procession on the north side of the square.

One of the rules of Halloween Walk is that all foot traffic must proceed in the same direction. This is important, because if people went in both directions, chaos would ensue. It would be like the Saturday crowd at the mall. The procession would slow to a crawl, and people would be bumping into each other.

For the most part, the citizenry understands this and cooperates.

But not everyone gets it.

When we reached the far corner of the square, we came upon two ladies having a minor confrontation about the direction of travel.

One was a portly woman accompanying a child in a Batman costume. They had just walked up the hill leading to the square from the west.

The other woman, according to her nametag, was affiliated with Main Street Jefferson, the event organizer.

“What we need is for folks to go around the square in a clockwise direction,” the city lady was saying. “So if y’all will, just go back in that direction, down the hill there.”

“We already been down there,” said the portly woman. “Just came up the hill. We want to go around the square next.”

“Well,” said the city lady, “We need for people to proceed in the same direction, which is the clockwise direction. Y’all can go down to that crosswalk there, and the officer will help you across, and then you loop back around to the square that way.”

“Y’all ought to put up signs, or arrows,” said the portly woman. “How’re people supposed to know?”

“That’s what I’m here for!” the city lady cackled. “No need for arrows!”

In silence, the portly woman turned around, took young Batman by the hand, and went back down the hill.

——————

Jefferson is a small town, and there is no practical way to re-route traffic for an event like Halloween Walk. The few side streets near the square could handle the cars well enough, but not the truck traffic.

Therefore, the city has no choice but to leave the downtown streets open to normal traffic during the event. The city police have the difficult task of herding distracted pedestrians and moving vehicular traffic at the same time.

Often as we proceeded around the loop, we found ourselves walking next to a long line of idling vehicles. In one of the cars, I spotted a woman eating a slice of pizza.

She was in the front passenger seat. The window was down, and in her lap was an open box of pizza — deluxe, everything-on-it pizza. In her hand was a steaming slice that drooped in the middle as she maneuvered to take a bite.

I took a step forward and said, “Excuse me, are you going to eat all of that?”

For a split second, the woman looked at me in stunned amazement. Then she smiled.

“Yes — yes, I plan to eat it all,” she said. “I’m so sorry.” The driver of the car, a man, guffawed.

At that moment, I felt an urgent tugging on my sleeve. It was Maddie, pulling me away from the truck.

“Rocky!” she hissed through clenched teeth, “That was so embarrassing! I know that lady! She goes to my church!”

“Well, hey there, Maddie!” the lady with the pizza called out. Maddie smiled weakly and waved.

“Let’s go!” she muttered, tugging again at my sleeve.

“Relax, Maddie,” I said as we continued on, “I was just trying to be funny. That lady knew it was a joke.”

“Yeah, but it was still embarrassing,” she insisted. “I see her every Sunday at church.”

As Maddie well knows, I have a tendency to needle her in such situations — “joking on me,” as she describes it.

And indeed, I wanted to take advantage of the situation and reel off a few wisecracks. I could feel the jokes coalescing in my head.

Maddie, just apologize to the lady for your grandfather’s behavior. Tell her he has Old-timer’s Disease. He does nutty things.

Tell the lady I’m only allowed in public on special occasions. Now I’m back at the institution, so she doesn’t have to worry.

All of that went through my mind, but I kept quiet.

Poor Maddie. At her age, she is so easily mortified by the rest of us that I didn’t have the heart.

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The writing career of James Oliver Causey, Jr., like so many of his generation, was interrupted by World War II.

Causey, a Californian, began writing fiction in the early 1940s. His promising career was put on hold in 1943, when he enlisted in the Army. After the war, he returned to the writing business and did better than ever.

Over the next decades, Causey wrote a string of mystery and science fiction short stories, some of which were adapted for television, and several highly-regarded mystery novels. Causey died among family at his home in Laguna Beach in 2003.

If the following short story is any indication, Causey had a droll sense of humor that probably kept the family entertained.

—————

Teething Ring

By James Causey
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1953

Half an hour before, while she had been engrossed in the current soap opera and Harry Junior was screaming in his crib, Melinda would naturally have slammed the front door in the little man’s face. However, when the bell rang, she was wearing her new Chinese red housecoat, had just lustered her nails to a blinding scarlet, and Harry Junior was sleeping like an angel.

Yawning, Melinda answered the door and the little man said, beaming, “Excellent day. I have geegaws for information.”

Melinda did not quite recoil. He was perhaps five feet tall, with a gleaming hairless scalp and a young-old face. He wore a plain gray tunic, and a peddler’s tray hung from his thin shoulders.

“Don’t want any,” Melinda stated flatly.

“Please.” He had great, beseeching amber eyes. “They all say that. I haven’t much time. I must be back at the University by noon.”

“You working your way through college?”

He brightened. “Yes. I suppose you could call it that. Alien anthropology major.”

Melinda softened. The initiations those frats pulled nowadays — shaving the poor guy’s head, eating goldfish — it was criminal.

“Well?” she asked grudgingly. “What’s in the tray?”

“Flanglers,” said the little man eagerly. “Oscilloscopes. Portable force-field generators. A neural distorter.” Melinda’s face was blank. The little man frowned.

“You use them, of course? This is a Class IV culture?” Melinda essayed a weak shrug and the little man sighed with relief. His eyes fled past her to the blank screen of the TV set. “Ah, a monitor.” He smiled. “For a moment I was afraid — May I come in?”

Melinda shrugged, opened the door. This might be interesting, like a vacuum-cleaner salesman who had cleaned her drapes last week for free. And Kitty Kyle Battles Life wouldn’t be on for almost an hour.

“My name is Porteous,” said the little man with an eager smile. “I’m doing a thematic on Class IV cultures.” He whipped out a stylus, began jotting down notes. The TV set fascinated him.

“It’s turned off right now,” Melinda said.

Porteous’s eyes widened impossibly. “You mean,” he whispered in horror, “that you’re exercising Class V privileges? This is terribly confusing. I get doors slammed in my face, when Class Fours are supposed to have a splendid gregarian quotient — you do have atomic power, don’t you?”

“Oh, sure,” said Melinda uncomfortably. This wasn’t going to be much fun.

“Space travel?” The little face was intent, sharp.

“Well,” Melinda yawned, looking at the blank screen, “they’ve got Space Patrol, Space Cadet, Tales of Tomorrow…”

“Excellent. Rocket ships or force-fields?” Melinda blinked. “Does your husband own one?” Melinda shook her blonde head helplessly. “What are your economic circumstances?”

Melinda took a deep rasping breath, said, “Listen, mister, is this a demonstration or a quiz program?”

“Oh, my excuse. Demonstration, certainly. You will not mind the questions?”

“Questions?” There was an ominous glint in Melinda’s blue eyes.

“Your delightful primitive customs, art-forms, personal habits –”

“Look,” Melinda said, crimsoning. “This is a respectable neighborhood, and I’m not answering any Kinsey report, understand?”

The little man nodded, scribbling. “Personal habits are taboo? I so regret. The demonstration.” He waved grandly at the tray. “Anti-grav sandals? A portable solar converter? Apologizing for this miserable selection, but on Capella they told me –”

He followed Melinda’s entranced gaze, selected a tiny green vial. “This is merely a regenerative solution. You appear to have no cuts or bruises.”

“Oh,” said Melinda nastily. “Cures warts, cancer, grows hair, I suppose.”

Porteous brightened. “Of course. I see you can scan. Amazing.” He scribbled further with his stylus, glanced up, blinked at the obvious scorn on Melinda’s face. “Here. Try it.”

“You try it.” Now watch him squirm!

Porteous hesitated. “Would you like me to grow an extra finger, hair –”

“Grow some hair.” Melinda tried not to smile.

The little man unstopped the vial, poured a shimmering green drop on his wrist, frowning.

“Must concentrate,” he said. “Thorium base, suspended solution. Really jolts the endocrines, complete control… see?”

Melinda’s jaw dropped. She stared at the tiny tuft of hair which had sprouted on that bare wrist. She was thinking abruptly, unhappily, about that chignon she had bought yesterday. They had let her buy that for eight dollars when with this stuff she could have a natural one.

“How much?” she inquired cautiously.

“A half hour of your time only,” said Porteous.

Melinda grasped the vial firmly, settled down on the sofa with one leg tucked carefully under her.

“Okay, shoot. But nothing personal.”

Porteous was delighted. He asked a multitude of questions, most of them pointless, some naive, and Melinda dug into her infinitesimal fund of knowledge and gave. The little man scribbled furiously, clucking like a gravid hen.

“You mean,” he asked in amazement, “that you live in these primitive huts of your own volition?”

“It’s a G.I. housing project,” Melinda said, ashamed.

“Astonishing.” He wrote: Feudal anachronisms and atomic power, side by side. Class Fours periodically “rough it” in back-to-nature movements.

Harry Junior chose that moment to begin screaming for his lunch. Porteous sat, trembling. “Is that a Security Alarm?”

“My son,” said Melinda despondently, and went into the nursery.

Porteous followed, and watched the ululating child with some trepidation. “Newborn?”

“Eighteen months,” said Melinda stiffly, changing diapers. “He’s cutting teeth.”

Porteous shuddered. “What a pity. Obviously atavistic. Wouldn’t the crèche accept him? You shouldn’t have to keep him here.”

“I keep after Harry to get a maid, but he says we can’t afford one.”

“Manifestly insecure,” muttered the little man, studying Harry Junior. “Definite paranoid tendencies.”

“He was two weeks premature,” volunteered Melinda. “He’s real sensitive.”

“I know just the thing,” Porteous said happily. “Here.” He dipped into the glittering litter on the tray and handed Harry Junior a translucent prism. “A neural distorter. We use it to train regressives on Rigel Two. It might be of assistance.”

Melinda eyed the thing doubtfully. Harry Junior was peering into the shifting crystal depths with a somewhat strained expression.

“Speeds up the neural flow,” explained the little man proudly. “Helps tap the unused eighty per cent. The pre-symptomatic memory is unaffected, due to automatic cerebral lapse in case of overload. I’m afraid it won’t do much more than cube his present IQ, and an intelligent idiot is still an idiot, but –”

“How dare you?” Melinda’s eyes flashed. “My son is not an idiot! You get out of here this minute and take your — things with you.” As she reached for the prism, Harry Junior squalled. Melinda relented. “Here,” she said angrily, fumbling with her purse. “How much are they?”

“Medium of exchange?” Porteous rubbed his bald skull. “Oh, I really shouldn’t — but it’ll make such a wonderful addendum to the chapter on malignant primitives. What is your smallest denomination?”

“Is a dollar okay?” Melinda was hopeful.

Porteous was pleased with the picture of George Washington. He turned the bill over and over in his fingers, at last bowed low and formally, apologized for any taboo violations, and left via the front door.

“Crazy fraternities,” muttered Melinda, turning on the TV set.

Kitty Kyle was dull that morning. At length Melinda used some of the liquid in the green vial on her eyelashes, was quite pleased at the results, and hid the rest in the medicine cabinet.

Harry Junior was a model of docility the rest of that day. While Melinda watched TV and munched chocolates, did and re-did her hair, Harry Junior played quietly with the crystal prism.

Toward late afternoon, he crawled over to the bookcase, wrestled down the encyclopedia and pawed through it, gurgling with delight. He definitely, Melinda decided, would make a fine lawyer someday, not a useless putterer like Big Harry, who worked all hours overtime in that damned lab.

She scowled as Harry Junior, bored with the encyclopedia, began reaching for one of Big Harry’s tomes on nuclear physics. One putterer in the family was enough! But when she tried to take the book away from him, Harry Junior howled so violently that she let well enough alone.

At six-thirty, Big Harry called from the lab, with the usual despondent message that he would not be home for supper. Melinda said a few resigned things about cheerless dinners eaten alone, hinted darkly what lonesome wives sometimes did for company, and Harry said he was very sorry, but this might be it, and Melinda hung up on him in a temper.

Precisely fifteen minutes later, the doorbell rang. Melinda opened the front door and gaped. This little man could have been Porteous’s double, except for the black metallic tunic, the glacial gray eyes.

“Mrs. Melinda Adams?” Even the voice was frigid.

“Y-Yes. Why –”

“Major Nord, Galactic Security.” The little man bowed. “You were visited early this morning by one Porteous.” He spoke the name with a certain disgust. “He left a neural distorter here. Correct?”

Melinda’s nod was tremulous. Major Nord came quietly into the living room, shut the door behind him. “My apologies, madam, for the intrusion. Porteous mistook your world for a Class IV culture, instead of a Class VII. Here –” He handed her the crumpled dollar bill. “You may check the serial number. The distorter, please.”

Melinda shrunk limply onto the sofa. “I don’t understand,” she said painfully. “Was he a thief?”

“He was — careless about his spatial coordinates.” Major Nord’s teeth showed in the faintest of smiles. “He has been corrected. Where is it?”

“Now look,” said Melinda with some asperity. “That thing’s kept Harry Junior quiet all day. I bought it in good faith, and it’s not my fault — say, have you got a warrant?”

“Madam,” said the Major with dignity, “I dislike violating local taboos, but must I explain the impact of a neural distorter on a backwater culture? What if your Neanderthal had been given atomic blasters? Where would you have been today? Swinging through trees, no doubt. What if your Hitler had force-fields?” He exhaled. “Where is your son?”

In the nursery, Harry Junior was contentedly playing with his blocks. The prism lay glinting in the corner.

Major Nord picked it up carefully, scrutinized Harry Junior. His voice was very soft.
“You said he was — playing with it?”

Some vestigial maternal instinct prompted Melinda to shake her head vigorously. The little man stared hard at Harry Junior, who began whimpering. Trembling, Melinda scooped up Harry Junior.

“Is that all you have to do — run around frightening women and children? Take your old distorter and get out. Leave decent people alone!”

Major Nord frowned. If only he could be sure. He peered stonily at Harry Junior, murmured, “Definite egomania. It doesn’t seem to have affected him. Strange.”

“Do you want me to scream?” Melinda demanded.

Major Nord sighed. He bowed to Melinda, went out, closed the door, touched a tiny stud on his tunic, and vanished.

“The manners of some people,” Melinda said to Harry Junior. She was relieved that the Major had not asked for the green vial.

Harry Junior also looked relieved, although for quite a different reason.

Big Harry arrived home a little after eleven. There were small worry creases about his mouth and forehead, and the leaden cast of defeat in his eyes.

He went into the bedroom and Melinda sleepily told him about the little man working his way through college by peddling silly goods, and about that rude cop named Nord, and Harry said that was simply astonishing and Melinda said, “Harry, you had a drink!”

“I had two drinks,” Harry told her owlishly. “You married a failure, dear. Part of the experimental model vaporized, wooosh, just like that. On paper it looked so good –”

Melinda had heard it all before. She asked him to see if Harry Junior was covered, and Big Harry went unsteadily into the nursery, sat down by his son’s crib.

“Poor little guy,” he mused. “Your old man’s a bum, a useless tinker. He thought he could send Man to the stars on a string of helium nuclei. Oh, he was smart. Thought of everything. Auxiliary jets to kick off the negative charge, bigger mercury vapor banks — a fine straight thrust of positive Alpha particles.” He hiccupped, put his face in his hands.

“Didn’t you ever stop to think that a few air molecules could defocus the stream? Try a vacuum, stupid.”

Big Harry stood up.

“Did you say something, son?”

“Gurfle,” said Harry Junior.

Big Harry reeled into the living room like a somnambulist.

He got pencil and paper, began jotting frantic formulae. Presently he called a cab and raced back to the laboratory.

Melinda was dreaming about little bald men with diamond-studded trays. They were chasing her, they kept pelting her with rubies and emeralds, all they wanted was to ask questions, but she kept running, Harry Junior clasped tightly in her arms. Now they were ringing alarm bells. The bells kept ringing and she groaned, sat up in bed, and seized the telephone.

“Darling.” Big Harry’s voice shook. “I’ve got it! More auxiliary shielding plus a vacuum. We’ll be rich!”

“That’s just fine,” said Melinda crossly. “You woke the baby.”

Harry Junior was sobbing bitterly into his pillow. He was sick with disappointment. Even the most favorable extrapolation showed it would take him nineteen years to become master of the world.

An eternity. Nineteen years!

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by Dick Francis.

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by Dick Francis.

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Last Tuesday, I got this text message from my son Dustin:

— Sarah is requesting that you go to lunch with her tomorrow.

My youngest granddaughter Sarah, age six, is in first grade at Jefferson Elementary School. Around here, having lunch with the kids is a common thing for parents and grandparents — so much so that the “Parents Cafe” was built to accommodate visitors. I replied thusly to Dustin’s text:

— I can do that. What time?

I felt a little guilty at having to be asked. I’d been intending to do lunch with her ever since the school year started, but things kept interfering.

Not the least of those was Sarah’s abundance of relatives in Jefferson. All four of her grandparents live here, and every time I was about the do the lunch thing, someone else already was going.

Anyway, at Sarah’s request, Wednesday was my day. When Dustin gave me the particulars, he asked the key question: should he pack her lunch that day, or did I want to bring it?

Sarah was always big on the lunches at Sugar & Spice, a local sandwich shop, so I said I would order our lunches from there. I asked what she preferred.

— Grilled cheese and chips and a water.

Wednesday morning, as I was about to call Sugar & Spice to place the lunch orders, another text message came in from Dustin.

— Sarah has changed her lunch request. Now wants 6-in Subway meatball sandwich on white with no cheese or other toppings and plain Lays chips. Water.

No problem. An hour later, after a stop at Subway, I arrived at the school, signed in, and went to the cafeteria to wait for Sarah’s class.

Jefferson has a four-tiered school system. Kids from pre-k through second grade attend the elementary school. Grades three through five go to Jefferson Academy. Grades six through eight make up the middle school. High school is nine through 12. The system divides the kids into sensible age groups and works pretty well.

As I waited in the hall outside the cafeteria, an occasional pre-k or kindergarten class would file past me, lurching along in ragged single file, following their teacher. At the end of the line came the class’s teaching assistant, herding the stragglers.

Being an unfamiliar presence, and an old bearded dude holding two plastic Subway bags, I received inquisitive looks from practically every passing kid. Some smiled, some frowned, some gave me a blank look.

The hallway isn’t very wide, so the kids passed fairly close to me — close enough so that a pretty, blond-haired little girl raised her fist as she passed and punched me in the stomach.

It wasn’t a serious punch, mind you. Just a casual statement. She continued on, looking back over her shoulder with a mischievous grin. I let out an oomph and pretended to gasp in distress.

Before long, Sarah’s class filed in, and she ran up to greet me with a hug. As she chattered excitedly about a girl named Riley who gave her a BFF bracelet, we retired to the Parents Cafe and found a table. I spread out the sandwiches, chips, and bottled water.

For a while, we chatted about this and that. She told me she would introduce me to her friend Riley. She showed me her electric blue paracord survival bracelet and her new fuchsia and fluorescent green shoes, which she said glow in the dark.

When I told her about the girl who punched me in the stomach, she sighed and shook her head in dismay.

“She’s probably in pre-k,” she said, licking at the marinara sauce in the corners of her mouth. “Those kids are very young — very emma-toor.”

“No, really!” she said, warming to the subject. “They are so emma-toor that all the pre-k and kindergarten classes have two teachers! It takes a teacher AND a teaching assistant to handle those kids!”

I expressed my understanding and grave concern.

“The first and second grade classes, we only have one teacher, because we’re more ma-toor, and we know how to behave!”

The conversation proceeded in the usual spasmodic manner. She told me about the antics of various kids, some who met her approval, some who didn’t. I asked how she liked her new teacher and got the expected reply: “Fine.”

I also asked what she normally brings for lunch, when no visitors are scheduled.

“I get peanut butter sandwiches a lot,” she said. “Which is fine. But you know what? I always get applesauce! Mott’s applesauce! Which I never eat!”

“Well,” I offered, “maybe you could do a trade with another kid. Like, trade the applesauce for something they don’t want.”

“Are you kidding?” she huffed. “Nobody likes apple sauce!”

Half an hour later, as if guided by some internal clock, she stood up and walked over to the window overlooking the main cafeteria. She peered intently for a moment, munching potato chips, and returned to the table.

“Yep, my class is lining up,” she announced. “I gotta go.”

I stood up to clear off the table. Sarah hurriedly crammed the last of the potato chips into her mouth and chased them with a slug of water.

Before I could collect a departing hug, she thrust the half-empty water bottle at me and raced from the room. As she turned the corner, she looked back and gave me a quick wave and a cheery “see ya!”

“Bye!” I yelled, suddenly feeling sad and disappointed. In the past, Sarah always — always — gave me an arriving hug and a departing hug.

She meant nothing by the omission, of course. It’s just that things change. The young ones, they ma-toor.

She caught up with her classmates and fell in step at the end of the line of bobbing heads. I stood there for a long time, watching as they receded down the hall.

A few minutes later, back at my car, I took a quick sip from her water bottle before heading home.

It tasted like potato chips.

Sarah on her 6th birthday, wearing a telltale smear of green cake icing.

Sarah on her 6th birthday, wearing a telltale smear of green cake icing.

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