Monday, January 16, 2017
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Sunday, May 04, 2008
The summer he was five years old, my younger brother, Michael, decided to trap a parakeet.
He would later go on in life to play Lady MacBeth dressed as the Virgin Mary, start a Flying Saucer Investigation consortium, and open a strip joint/night club for ten year olds in an old chicken coop; but that was all in the future.
For now, he was standing in the front yard of the rental home my family shared with two foreign graduate students on the edge of Raleigh, N.C. Intently, Michael stared at an antique canary cage placed under a dogwood tree. Cornmeal was scattered on the cage floor. Carefully balanced, a short wooden stick propped the cage door open.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I'm going to trap a parakeet for a pet,” Michael answered.
Instantly, my role in Michael's endeavor was clarified. As his older brother, it was my bounden duty to “laugh him to scorn,” in the words of King James Bible.
“You dummy!” I snorted. “Parakeets don't live in North Carolina!”
This deterred Michael not a whit. He put a little more cornmeal in the cage and went off to play. He had watched as my father had taught me to build a rabbit trap out of boards, bait the trap with carrots and lettuce and set the door open with a stick. Dad insisted the trap be checked every day, but we couldn't hover about the area or the animals would be too shy to ever come near the trap. Applying the same logic, Michael went off to play in the back yard and I left to run about the neighborhood with a more mature and urbane crowd---those of us recently graduated from third grade.
After an afternoon of sophisticated activities such as riding our bikes down steep hills, turning over rocks in the creek looking for salamanders, and smashing quince apples in Pem Browne's back yard with a baseball bat, I returned home for supper looking forward to another satisfying round of “taunt little brother.”
Quite a crowd was gathered in our front yard on my return. Michael stood under the dogwood surrounded by my parents, my youngest brother, John, a neighbor or two, and the two foreign graduate students who rented the apartment above our house. Everyone was focused on the antique bird cage.
Drawing nearer, I saw the impossible had happened.
Michael had caught a parakeet.
There was lots of oohing and aahing and “isn't he cute!” as everybody looked at the little bird in the antique cage. It was hard to know who was more stunned--the bird or Michael. Michael named the bird “Keet.” (Several years later, company was procured for Keet through more traditional means when another parakeet, improbably named “Geronimo,” was purchased.) Keet had not shown the slightest interest in the cornmeal so a trip to hobby shop/pet store was in order to buy a watering tube, cuttle bone and seeds holder. They sold bird cages, too.
At the pet store, I turned to AK, the wealthy East Indian foreign student who seemed to be very generous with buying Michael parakeet supplies and proposed the first of many disastrous business models I would try over my life. If AK would put up the money to buy a dozen bird cages, I would set parakeet traps all over the neighborhood. We could sell parakeets to the pet stores and split the profits.
AK wisely declined. I don't know if he lost money later in life on bad investments, but I am here to tell you he never lost a dime on parakeet trapping.
Because, as I learned years later, it was AK who had seen Michael's parakeet trap; had seen the child logic and hope; and, with a God-like power, granted a miracle on a whim.
AK went to the pet store and bought a parakeet.
A year later, AK granted one more wish when he saw long odds, but a certain logic and hope. He gave my parents the down payment to buy a house (having wisely not invested in a parakeet trapping scheme.)
This came to mind one late October morning last year when I went out to get the newspaper. I live only two blocks from that rental house of my childhood.
I was astonished to see a small parrot on the suburban pavement in front of me. An escaped pet. The bird waddled clumsily on the flat roadway and its strong, hooked beak was nearly useless as it tried to gnaw a bit of flat road kill squirrel. Crows soon arrived and chased it away.
Winter would be here soon.
I wished for a mango or a peach to offer it.
And Michael's old bird cage.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
My brothers and I were blissfully unaware of this as we contemplated mounting our own production of Shakespeare's “MacBeth” in our bedroom in 1962.
There had been a televised version of it and we had been allowed to stay up and see it. I recall dimly my mother explaining the plot to us.
The subtleties of literary sub texts—meditations on the fleetingness of power, mortality, morality and so on surely eluded us.
It had witches, ghosts, castles, murders and battles. And, if it did lack a twelve eyed Godzilla bent on eating Tokyo or Los Angeles, well, that's just because the Scottish play was literature; culture.
Our parents were almost as concerned that we be cultured as that we eat all our vegetables and drink all our milk.
As producer, director, and star, I recognized we were short of resources. We had no costumes, sets, props, or even a script.
“But the play's the thing!”
As I could only play MacBeth, it was necessary that my brothers handle all the other roles.
Michael and John's two level bunk bed served as the castle.
We had a plastic crown from Halloween (my mother was a theater costumer) and no house full of little boys is ever short of plenty of plastic swords and shields.
Michael (then about 8) had just had his hair cut in a crew cut, so he wrapped up in an old green blanket with part thrown over his head whenever he had to play a female role. Actually, he looked vaguely like the Virgin Mary in a Christmas pageant, which added a special piquancy to his Lady Macbeth.
We lacked a script.
This was not really a problem. I knew the story and would direct my brothers as to where to stand and what to say.
In the opening scene, one of the witches cries out, “Hail MacBeth, Thane of Caudor!” Mom had explained to me “thane” was a Scottish title—sort of like “duke” or “first baseman.” It never occurred to her to explain Caudor was a place. This little omission was shortly to cause trouble.
Instructing the witches, I had my brothers—both draped in green blankets and bent over while they stirred a cardboard box cauldron with broom handles—to say “Hail MacBeth, Thane of Corridor!”
“Thane,” I smugly volunteered, was a Scottish nobleman.
“What's a corridor?” Michael asked innocently.
I was irritated to be asked a question to which I did not know the answer.
“A hall monitor,” I told him. “Corridor is another word for hall.”
Michael nodded, only half comprehending. We both attended the grammar school across the street. Some little goody two shoes student would be appointed by the teachers to enforce our lining up, not talking, or whatever. We suffered hall monitors, water fountain monitors, bathroom monitors, etc. To be honest, the notion of a duke or thane of hall monitors had puzzled me, too, so I improvised.
“Castles have halls,” I began. “MacBeth's in charge of who has hall passes in the castle.”
That satisfied both Michael and me and so on we plunged. It really didn't matter all that much to us. In our stripped down, fast paced version, MacBeth was not going to be handing out hall passes above five minutes before moving on to murder King Duncan.
We lacked only one thing. A dagger. In the TV version we'd seen, MacBeth does his famous “Is this a dagger I see before me?” speech with a large knife floating in a doorway above his head. I intended reproducing this with equally as much dramatic effect.
I would hang our dagger by a string from the doorway into the hall. With the hall lights on and our bedroom lights off, I was sure the effect would be eerie.
I would finish the speech, snatch it free of the string and stalk over to my bed where my youngest brother John (age 4 or 5) was essaying the role of hapless King Duncan.
We encountered our first obstacle.
Mom absolutely refused to allow us to use her butcher knife for our dagger. This was a blow since it was not only impressively large and deadly looking, but it had a small hole drilled in the hilt, perfect to draw a string through. Mom seldom used the knife but she was not about to let us use the it. Not even if we promised to be careful.
I was unwilling to give up the special effect, so I settled for letting Mom give us a large soup ladle.
It did not strike me that the casual observer would think Macbeth even more deranged than he is when gazing up into the light, cries “Is this a dagger I see before me?” and rushes off to stab King Duncan with a soup ladle.
I brought the ladle down on John. Michael crouched behind my dresser, stabbing a fresh apple with a pencil. It made a terrific sound effect. John, of course, played his big scene for all it was worth and my parents nearly became hysterical.
The play had to be stopped and lights flipped on so Mom and Dad could be reassured no real fratricide had taken place.
As director and star, I was of several minds about this. I really didn't like the pace of our play being broken up, but I took a perverse satisfaction in how effective our sound effects had been.
Back on track, we pressed on. Michael and John eventually returning in the final scene, carrying before them their wilting pecan branches we'd broken off the trees in the back yard. Our back yard, if not Birnham Wood, had come to move.
The final scene came off perfectly.
We had choreographed a gigantic, stupendous, unbelievable, impressive, jaw dropping, lots of people get stabbed in big swords fights, screaming like banshees with blood all over the place-we-even-use-real-ketchup-on-old-tee-shirts and jumping up and down on the top bunk bed final battle!
MacBeth dead, Michael makes a short speech on the top bunk bed, places the crown on top of his head and...
Postscript:::::Years later, my brother, John, having acquired theater degrees from both UNC and USC, won a fellowship to get yet another post grad degree in directing and acting at University of California-Berkeley.
He directed MacBeth.
I understand it was brilliant. But without a Virgin Mary drag queen for Lady MacBeth, fresh apples, and a giant soup ladle, I can't imagine it was more memorable than mine.
POST POSTSCRIPT after reading all of the above, my mother, Douglas Haas Bennett sent along these additional memories of the play:
The story brought back such happy memories but I must make some comments.
Costumes: Can't remember what you wore but there was always a pile of "costume stuff" for all of you to choose from.
As armor, John wore the top of a silver dress I had made in the 1940s. Later, I cut the skirt from it when Mike was younger and wanted to be a knight for Halloween. As Banquo's ghost, John wore it with jeans tucked into aluminum foil covered rain boots. Somewhere there is a picture of him on that old metal hobby horse. John did not wear the boots for the play but as the ghost he covered the silver armor with a sheet. This ghost approaching almost did YF (Your Father) in.
Michael stabbed an Idaho potato, not an apple. It makes a wonderful natural sound effect: a tip which I later passed on to numerous theaters. Apples are too soft and the core keeps the sound from lasting long enough.
As I recall what really broke YF (Your Father) up into laughter was The Virgin Mary as Lady MacBeth stalking along the top bunk bed while making the speech about bloody hands.
When you asked for the knife I had no idea of what you were up to and could easily see you being completely fed up with your younger brothers.
I saw the play all the way through and then when YF (Your Father) came home I suggested that you all repeat it for him. It was then that he had his laugh breakdown and you three would never give another performance.
I was very impressed with the way you cut the play so that you three could do it and have the play make sense while still keeping it to under 30 minutes.
It is one of my fondest memories of the three of you doing a joint project.
I love you all for it.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
POSTSCRIPT-- a little over four years later, Betty slipped away. Mr Davis did not speak at the funeral, but his children and grandchildren did. They remembered an independent woman who had grown up in western Colorado, able to shoot and ride. They remembered with pride their mother's stand for civil rights in Raleigh in the early 1960s. I had lunch with Mr Davis in January of 2011. He is writing his memoirs for his children and grandchildren.
Monday, November 13, 2006
By Joel Haas
With a bedtime strictly enforced, it was no problem for me and my two younger brothers to bounce out of bed at or earlier on a Saturday morning.
In self defense, our parents eased the television restrictions so we could watch Channel 5’s Saturday morning “Sunrise Theater.”
Using bright red fingernail polish, Mom placed a mark on the TV volume knob—under no circumstances were we to turn the volume beyond that red mark. Thus, our parents could sleep late while we watched Grade B horror movies.
After pouring our bowls of cereal and making chocolate milk, we’d plop down in front of the 1957 vintage black and white “portable” TV. (Portable in those days meant a TV small enough it only required a gorilla sized man wearing a steel truss to move it from point “a” to point “b.”)
At that time (and even into the early 1980s)
When the last photo of magnolias faded and the Men’s Chorus fell silent, the real fun began.
“Welcome to Sunrise Theater,” the announcer’s voice would intone, “Bringing you the best in exciting movies from
Invariably, that meant ancient grade B movies from crypts almost as old as Dracula’s. The plots were witless, the special effects, cheesy and dirt cheap, and the acting only a cut above that found in any local high school.
Nonetheless, it scared us silly.
Nearly half the movies seemed to involve the rugged and redoubtable actor Andrew Dugand saving
No matter how horribly its genes had been altered by atomic blasts, any monster maintained an instinct to move toward
Just as surely, a young, nubile scientist’s daughter, in tight khaki riding breeches would fall in love with Andrew Dugand only to be stolen away by the monster d’ jour. These girls could be Olympic track stars, able to sprint 50 miles with no problem, but let one giant spider show up and they’d run around in circles in the Nevada desert until they had tripped over the only rock within miles, spraining their ankles. The hero was forced to change his plan because he had to save Miss Riding Breeches. This never made sense to little boys. What was saving Miss Riding Breeches compared to letting giant ants and giant locusts ravage
Some movies scared us worse than others. Some movies scared me more than my brothers and some scared them more than me.
It was just such a movie that inspired my first sculpture as well as bringing out all my usual jerk big brother qualities.
THE CRAWLING EYE, a British movie made in 1957 under the title THE TROLLENBERG TERROR, scared my younger brother Michael. The plot: mind reading aliens shaped like giant eyeballs with tentacles attack Earth. The aliens’ stare and tentacles freeze people to death and/or behead them. The aliens meet their match and doom when they attack a “high tech” fort on
Andrew Dugand sat this one out. Re titled THE CRAWLING EYE for American distribution, the hero was played by Forrest Tucker (who later played the sergeant in the US TV series F Troop.)
In any event, the movie did not scare me, but it transfixed Michael with fright. Evil older brother that I was, I soon dreamed up a way to scare him again.
For Christmas or a birthday, I don’t recall which, I’d been given a large amount of brightly colored modeling clay. (Even then, somebody must have thought I’d grow up to be a sculptor!) Anyway, I spent a large part of Saturday afternoon using every scrap of clay I owned to make a large, colorful eyeball about the size and shape of an American football.
Saturday night came, and after we’d had supper and helped Mom clear away the dishes, we played a bit more, then, put on our pajamas and Dad told us a bed time story. The story finished, we dispersed to our bedrooms and it was “lights out.”
Now, I put my plan into action.
I had a small bedroom to myself behind the den/TV room. The den opened out onto a long hall in front of the bathroom door. Across the hall, Michael and John slept in bunk beds in a larger bedroom. The long hall ran from the bathroom door down the length of the house, turning left into the living room.
Carefully lifting the “Crawling Eye,” I crept through the den, past the bathroom door. Crossing the hall, I could see light coming from the living room and hear the soft, indistinct voices of my parents.
I tip toed into my brothers’ room. There was enough ambient light from the night light in the hall. They were sound asleep, John in the bottom bunk bed, Michael in the top one, his face towards me.
I plopped the clay eyeball onto Michael’s pillow just an inch from his nose.
He didn’t wake up.
More extreme measures were called for.
I shook his shoulder roughly, while, in a frantic stage whisper, I said, “Wake up, Mike! The Crawling Eye! The Crawling Eye!”
Michael’s little brown eyes popped open in surprise. A split second later, he let out a scream.
God forgive me, but, speaking as an older brother, that was tremendously gratifying.
Payback threatened almost immediately.
“What’s going on back there??!!” Dad’s voice thundered from the living room.
“The Crawling Eye! The Crawling Eye!” Michael continued to shriek.
“Do y’all want me to come back there and take off my belt?!” I could hear Dad’s heavy steps as he moved out of his chair and towards the hall.
It was time to flee.
Grabbing the clay Crawling Eye, I dashed into the bathroom. I closed the door and crammed the clay eyeball as far as I could under the old fashioned claw footed bath tub. Outside the bathroom door, I heard Dad passing by on his way into my brothers’ room.
“What’s going on back here?!” I heard Dad bellow.
I flushed the toilet, waited a few seconds, and opened the door. Yawning broadly and rubbing my eyes sleepily, I looked up at Dad’s scowling face. “Is Michael having a nightmare?” I asked in smooth innocence.
“He’s got the Crawling Eye!” Michael yelled.
I looked at Dad and shrugged. He had no idea what we watched on Saturday morning, so “The Crawling Eye” meant nothing to him.
“Now y’all listen here,” Dad shook a finger, “ Everybody’s going back to bed and go to sleep or the next time I come back here I’ll already have my belt off. Everybody understand?”
“I didn’t do anything!” my youngest brother, John, protested his innocence.
“Good,” Dad grumped. “See that you don’t.”
I trudged slyly back to bed.
Sunday morning, I made it my business to get up before anybody else. I had evidence to recover and destroy.
In the bathroom, I pulled the tightly wedged clay model from its hiding place beneath the bath tub. Taking time to gather up bits that had come loose, I scampered back to my room.
There, I disassembled the clay eye. After sorting the different colors of clay into separate piles, I thoroughly squished them together. Before anybody else got up, I was making them into animals, airplanes, or ships. Soon, there was no trace of “The Crawling Eye.”
Michael must have had a bad dream.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
by Joel Haas
At first I thought I had found a trove of chocolate coins!
One of our favorite chocolate candy treats in the 1950s was chocolate coins wrapped in stiff gold foil. With a design front and back, and lettering just like real coins, the candies were sold in little faux nets bags to resemble “pirates purses.” The challenge of eating chocolate coins was carefully removing the stiff gold foil, preserving the design of the coin. Slowly and carefully, we’d reassemble the empty wrappers later, to make play money. We never got chocolate coins except on special occasions like Christmas, or Easter.
Here it was July, and I had found about a dozen of them right here in the drawer of Dad’s bedside table!
Conflicting emotions flooded into my young mind. What an unexpected treat! How could Dad have kept all these chocolate coins to himself all this time? He was always generous with me and my brothers when it came to chocolate candy and treats. I was hurt he had been holding out on us!
I examined the coins in greater detail. The gold foil glittered and the only thing keeping me from tearing open several of them and gobbling them down was trying to balance in my mind how many I could eat and Dad not notice them missing? I had never seen this brand of chocolate coins and they were not in the usual pirate’s bag purse.
Too, all the coins were the same size. Other chocolate coins ranged in sizes from about the size of a nickel to a quarter to an old fashioned silver dollar. All of these seemed to be about the size of a 50 cent piece.
Gingerly, I pried one apart. The sides did not come apart as easily as the chocolate coins I was used to.
When I finally got the wrapper off, I was surprised and disappointed to find what looked like a greasy, twisted rubber band or a flat mushroom. Carefully pulling it out, I gave it an exploratory nibble. YEECH! It was definitely rubber bands! Rubber bands, but definitely, very weird rubber bands. Poking at the middle of it, I found I could unroll it like a long sock. It seemed pretty greasy, but I was curious, “how far could this thing be unrolled?”
Quite a long ways, as I discovered, but just as I had unrolled it as far as it was going to go, my mother came into the room.
I might be in trouble.
On the one hand, I might be able to get out of it by showing Mom that Dad obviously had been holding out on us all with the candy coins. On the other hand, these were not the usual candy coins. A neutral course was best, I decided.
“What is this?” I turned to Mom.
Whatever normal chastisement I was due for went right out of Mom’s head when confronted with her small son holding forth a fully unrolled condom.
“That’s your father’s,” she said flatly.
“I know,” I said gravely. “I found it in his drawer.”
There was a short silence. “What is it?” I persisted.
“It’s a machine part covering,” Mom said --- the first thing that popped into her head. Then, without further ado, she retreated, leaving me unchastised, relieved, and deeply puzzled.
My father was legendarily unmechanical. A Philips head screw driver was the most complex tool in the house. What possible machine could he be using this on?
Well. There was one machine.
My father, Ben Haas, was a professional writer. The only machine I had ever seen him use was the model 1923 Underwood manual typewriter on the desk in the bedroom. It was the tool of his trade and I had seen him take it apart to clean and repair it.
I walked around to the desk, holding the “machine part covering” in front of me. I tried stretching it, but there was obviously no possible way this was going to cover the entire typewriter. At best, I could stretch it over a few keys or let it flop limply over the carriage return leaver. Would Dad come back and find I had taken one of his “machine parts coverings?” Would he be mad and punish me for going through his bedside table drawer?
The only way out I could see was to show I was a good and dutiful son. I needed to show I had seen to covering his machine parts in his absence when he had obviously forgotten to do so himself.
But how did this rubber tube fit on a typewriter???!!!
I was beginning to panic.
Suddenly, I had an insight. It was the roller platen! I had seen Dad unscrew the ornate brass knobs on each end of the roller platen, remove it, clean it and replace it. That had to be it! I easily unscrewed the knobs and removed the platen.
With great difficulty, I managed to encase the whole length in the stretchy “machine parts covering,” and get the platen replaced. The knobs wouldn’t go back on, so I carefully laid the encased roller on top of the typewriter, setting the knobs to one side.
I closed Dad’s bedside drawer, taking the “machine part wrapper” with me--- it would make great play money along with the rest of the gold coin wrappers my brothers and I had saved.
Then, I left my parents’ bedroom, closing the door quietly, not mentioning my good deed to either Mom or Dad, figuring I would either be in for a scolding or praise soon enough.
I have no idea whether my father came home shortly thereafter and, finding a condom on his typewriter, took it as a not so subtle hint from my mother that he was working too much and should pay more attention to the home front. Maybe Mom went in the bedroom, and quietly removed the “machine part covering,” replacing the roller platen so Dad would never suspect his precious typewriter had been “violated.” Or, maybe, they found it and both had a hysterical laugh over it.
Neither of them ever said a single word about it to me.