Comedy, Humor, Satire

Young Achievers: A New Beginning

No parents want their child to be known throughout life as a Typing School Dropout. In a small town, the stigma can be unbearable. So, much to my horror, my mother and father informed me that I was going to be enrolled in a special night class for teenage entrepreneurs, where I would learn the magic secrets of how to run a successful business.

“I don’t want to run a business,” I told my father. I wanted to spend my Monday evenings drawing and painting, just like I’d been doing every other Monday night, not going to another stupid class. Typing School had hardened my heart against commercial training.

“You’re going whether you like it or not,” said my father. He handed me a piece of paper with information on the first Young Achievers meeting. It appeared that my life would come screeching to a halt the following Monday at 7:00PM.

I stormed up the stairs to my room, screaming behind me, “You’re trying to make a fool out of me. You’re ruining my life.  I’ll never forgive you for this.”

“Good,” said my father.  Then he had the nerve to laugh at me.  I slammed the door to my room three times just to let him know that I didn’t find his little schemes amusing at all.   I could still hear him laughing at me, all the way down in the kitchen.  Rude.

Unlike Typing School, I decided that I was not going to embark on this particular venture alone. The next morning at school, I recruited my friend Nancy to join the Young Achievers group with me. Although she exhibited absolutely no interest in learning about business, or much of anything else, she was the only person I knew who was allowed to wander the streets at night without supervision. She may not have come from the greatest home, but a special mixture of questionable genetics and subpar hygiene had given her the precious gift of a massive tumbleweed of bright red hair that rarely felt the tug of a brush. She also had a significant overbite and loved to chew huge wads of Bazooka bubble gum with her mouth hanging wide open. Business partners like that are hard to come by.

My parents had bought me a nice new outfit so I would make a good first impression as I ventured into this strange new world of commerce. Nancy and I met up at the corner of Main Street on the first Monday night of September. It was unseasonably cold, and the wind was howling between the towering rows of one and two-story buildings that formed the majestic downtown skyline. As we walked down the street, Nancy was forced to stop several times to wrestle with the tufts of hair that the wind had blown into her mouth and embedded into the huge ball of bubble gum clenched between her front teeth. By the time we reached the bank building, there were several long strings of spit laden pink chewing gum hanging from her hair on both sides of her face.

I knew that we only had one chance to make a good first impression.

We were doomed.

A smiling middle-aged woman with a clipboard greeted us at the door of the bank building. She checked our names off her list and directed us to go up the stairs to the second floor. I hit the stairs running, hoping I could put some distance between myself and Nancy, but she refused to let go of my sleeve, and we stumbled through the door of the waiting area as a team.

There were several plastic lawn chairs lining the walls of the waiting room. The lady with the clipboard informed us that we would be called in momentarily for our interviews with the volunteer businessmen who would be leading our Young Achievers group. Then she looked at Nancy and said, “What is that in your hair, honey?”

“They’re the new barrettes that all the girls are wearing now,” I blurted out before Nancy could open her mouth and say something un-businesslike. “She loves fashion. She brought those back from her trip to Paris this summer.”

The woman glanced from Nancy’s oversized Army surplus jacket down to the dirty toes poking out of her flip-flops and shook her head.  Then she walked into the interview room and closed the door. Nancy proceeded to blow a huge bubble with the wad of gum in her mouth and snorted.

“This is so stupid,” she said, as the bubble popped in her face.

While Nancy was occupied pulling the chewing gum off her eyelashes, I took the opportunity to look around the room and size up the competition. There were three teenage boys in the corner wearing identical plaid shirts and brown dress pants with razor-sharp creases. Each one of them was busy scribbling notes on a legal pad with a Flair pen. I couldn’t tell if they were triplets or reform school inmates out on a work release. Rounding out the group was a dazed looking girl in what looked to be one of her mother’s party dresses from the 1950s. I caught her staring at me a few times, but every time I looked her way, she would jerk back in her chair and cover her eyes with her hands. Finally, I’d had enough.

“What are you looking at?” I yelled across the room.

“You’re a liar!” screamed Party Girl. The Triplets stopped scribbling and eagerly leaned forward in their seats, ready for a primetime Girl Fight. “Those are not barrettes. Your friend has a bunch of gum hanging from her hair. Anyone can see that. And she’s not even dressed up. This class is for people who want to be in business. She should just go home.”

I glanced over at Nancy, figuring she would say something in her own defense, but she had fallen asleep in her chair. There were now strings of bubble gum attached to her eyebrows as well as her hair. She was also drooling slightly, but seemed happy enough. Just as I was preparing to elbow her awake, the door to the inner sanctum flew open and we were called in for our interviews.

This room was obviously an unused storage area for the bank. There were three battered desks that looked like they dated to the Civil War era, a few broken filing cabinets, and several piles of flattened boxes. Three men sat behind the desks. The first was a nerdy looking guy with a receding hairline who cringed when Party Girl was led to his station. The second was a pleasant-looking older man in a dark business suit. He had a neat sheaf of papers and a calculator on his desk. He got the Triplets. The third advisor was leaning back in his chair with his feet propped up on the desk. He was reading a magazine. Every two or three seconds, he would jut out his lower lip and blow a puff of air into a ridiculous ginger moustache that looked like it had been transplanted from a tabby cat’s ass. This was where I was directed. Apparently Nancy was still unconscious in the waiting area.

I sat down. My advisor was pretty engrossed in the magazine. I didn’t have the greatest view of the cover because his shoes were blocking my line of sight, but I was pretty sure it was a copy of Playboy. When he didn’t acknowledge my presence after a minute or so, I coughed loudly to get his attention. He shot up in his chair, his legs tangling together as he struggled to get his feet back under the desk. “Somebody must have left this filthy thing here by mistake,” he sputtered. “Probably the janitor. I’ll make sure I report this to the authorities. He needs to get fired for having this kind of stuff around kids.” He quickly shoved the magazine into his briefcase.

“It’s a good thing you’re here to put it back where it came from,” I said.

“Never mind the formalities,” he said. “I’m Bill. Who are you?”

Before I could answer, he jerked his thumb towards the other advisors and said, “You’re lucky you got me instead of one of those guys. I really know how to talk to people. I just have this natural ability to relate to young people, especially young girls. Look at that guy over there in the suit. Who would want to talk to him? He tries to act like he’s so successful because he’s wearing a suit, but that doesn’t fool me. I know he’s a loser.” Bill pulled up his polo shirt and scratched at his stomach. “And that other guy? His name is Joel. He’s afraid of women. Just look at him. He can’t even talk at all.”

I glanced at the other two desks. The Triplets were clustered around the man in the suit, furiously taking notes and punching numbers into the calculator. Party Girl and Joel were both sitting with their arms folded across their chests, avoiding eye contact.

“I want you to think of me as one of the kids,” said Bill. “I’m supposed to be here to advise you on how to run a business, but that doesn’t mean I’m some old guy. I’m wearing jeans, see?” Bill jumped up and tugged at the pockets of his pants, pulling them down far enough that a flabby crescent of hairy flesh peeked out from beneath his polo shirt. I turned my head away, unwilling to process what I was seeing. Bill continued to blabber on, but I had stopped listening. Finally, he ran around the desk, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Hey! Do you have five bucks?”

“What?”

“Can you give me five dollars? It’s for…..ummmm…..the company fee.”

At that moment, Nancy staggered through the door. There was a deep groove on the part of her face that had been pressed up against the arm of the lawn chair. Somewhere along the line, she had lost her coat and one of her flip-flops. She was waving frantically at me.

“I think I have to go home now,” I said, jumping out of my chair. “My father needs me to help him kill some squirrels in the back yard.” I figured I would put it out there right away that I was an experienced killer.   Just in case.

“But we’re ready for orientation now,” whined Bill. “I need the entire team here. I get to do the speech. Don’t forget about that five dollars, either.”

He directed me and Nancy to pull chairs to the center of the room. The Triplets and Party Girl wandered over and sat down, along with the advisor in the business suit. Joel slunk over to the water fountain at the side of the room and turned his face to the wall.

Bill bounded to the front of the room, dragging one of the filing cabinets with him to use as a makeshift podium. “Hi, gang,” he screamed. “I know we haven’t met before, but I’m Bill. I was chosen for this position because I’m a highly successful businessman with a great personality. I’ve taught this class one time before in another state, and even though I can’t really explain what happened there or why we had to leave town so fast, I want to let you know that everyone just thought I was one of the kids.” As Bill spoke, he was clearly developing a major case of happy feet. His jeans began to slowly slide down his hips, revealing a progressive expanse of some very cheerful underpants.

Joel glanced over from his station by the water fountain and suddenly charged across the room. He grabbed the back of Bill’s pants and gave them a savage upward tug. Bill’s eyes bulged out slightly.

“What company did you say you worked for?” hissed Joel.

“Never mind that,” said Bill. He turned his attention back to the kids. “This is Joel. I know you won’t like Joel. Nobody likes Joel.”

Joel stalked back to the water fountain and gave it a sharp kick.

“Be careful around Joel, kids,” cautioned Bill. “I think he has some anger issues. He’s really not fit to be with a group of youngsters. Thank God I’m here to keep an eye on things.”

Bill pointed to the advisor in the business suit. “This is the other advisor,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you his name, because you’ll probably never remember it.” The third advisor smiled pleasantly and waved at the kids.

Nancy leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Did you see his underwear?”

“I think everyone saw his underwear,” I said.

“They looked like girl’s underpants. And were those Smurfs on them?”

“Yes,” I said. “He’s one of the kids, remember?”

Bill reached into his pocket and pulled out a triangular block of wood. “This is what we’re going to be making and selling for our business this year,” he crowed ecstatically. “Everyone needs one of these!”

“We’re making wooden triangles?” said Party Girl in disbelief. “How much are they?”

“Ten dollars,” said Bill.

“Who’s going to pay ten dollars for a little piece of wood?” I said.

“Your parents, of course,” said Bill. “But these aren’t just ordinary wooden triangles. This is the hottest new game in town. I invented it myself.” Bill scurried over to his desk, returning with a drill and a handful of golf tees. Joel had wandered back over to the front of the room and reached out his hand to help Bill.

“Joel is not allowed to use power tools,” lectured Bill. “I’m not sure he’s stable enough. He might decide to drill a hole right in the middle of one of your foreheads.”

“That’s not true,” said Joel. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I think I’m going to call Young Achievers and report you when we’re done with this meeting.”

Bill ignored him and pointed at one of the triplets. “You there. Come up here so I can teach you how to make one of these puppies.” All three boys got up and trooped to the front of the room.

“I see you travel as a pack,” said Bill, plugging in the drill. “Now here’s what you need to do. Give me your pen.” Bill placed the wooden triangle on top of the filing cabinet and randomly marked several dots on the top with one of the Flair pens. “All you have to do is hold onto the triangle with your hand and drill holes into it where I marked it.”

“Wait a minute,” screamed Joel. “That’s not even safe. You can’t hold that little piece of wood with your hand and go at it with a high-powered drill. What if the drill slips? It could go right into someone’s fingers.”

“Of course it’s safe,” sneered Bill. “I invented this, remember? Now watch carefully, kids. I’ll do the first one, and before you know it we’ll be cranking these out by the thousands!”

Bill positioned the wooden triangle between his left thumb and index finger and started the drill. There must have been a knot in the wood at the spot where Bill attacked it with the drill. The wooden triangle was suddenly airborne, hurtling towards the window, while the drill bit carved a deep groove into the top of the filing cabinet. The edge of the wooden triangle hit the window just as the drill stopped, shattering the glass.

“Oh my God,” wailed Joel. “I can’t believe this is happening. I work in this bank. I had to sign a contract to use this room. I’m going to lose my job over this. You’re an idiot.”

“Accidents happen, Joel,” said Bill. “But that’s no excuse for insubordination. You need to get yourself under control. You’re setting a bad example for the staff.”

“You’re not my boss,” shrieked Joel. “I don’t even know who you are or why anyone would put you in charge in the first place.” Joel stalked off to the side of the room and gave the water fountain another savage kick.

The advisor in the business suit had left the room after the window shattered and had just returned with a C-clamp in his hand. “You might want to try clamping the wood down before you drill it,” he suggested mildly. “I just happened to have this in my car.”

“Well aren’t you just special, Mr. Suity Suit Man,” taunted Bill.  “What else do you have in your car?  I have lots of great stuff in my car too, like…”

The bank’s janitor was standing over by the water fountain with Joel.  His face was very red.  I couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying over Bill’s incessant yammering, but I could pretty much guess by the way he was pointing toward the window and the filing cabinet.  The janitor shook his fist at Joel and stormed off down the stairs.

Joel ran across the room and gave Bill a push.  “We have to leave.  Right now,” he snarled.  “And I don’t think we’re going to be able to use this room anymore.  This is all your fault.  And they’ll probably make me pay for the damage you did.”

“Hey kids,” shouted Bill.  “Joel got us kicked out of here.  I told you he was out of control.  But that’s okay.  We need a bigger factory anyway.  We’re gonna be famous.  Production starts next Monday at seven sharp.”

We all followed Bill down the stairs.

“What happened to your shoe?” I asked Nancy.

“I dunno,” she said.  “It got lost somewhere.  Doesn’t matter.  But I’m gonna be a businessman.  I can buy another one.”  Nancy loped off down the street with the typical polished grace of the single-shoed young professional.

My father was waiting for me in the car in front of the bank building.  He asked me how the meeting went.  Before I could answer, Bill came running over to the side of the car,  waving his arms.  He was holding a sign that said “Remember the $5!!”

“What does that sign mean?” asked my father suspiciously.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.  “Just give me five bucks and let’s go home.”

It was the least he could do for a future titan of industry.

 

 

 

Comedy, Humor, Satire

The Thrill of the Open Road

I had survived the horrors of The Simulator and was ridiculously excited to finally learn how to drive a real car. When I was a little kid, my Aunt Margaret owned a very flashy yellow convertible. She loved to drive around town with the top down and a fancy scarf tied around her head that trailed behind her in the breeze. She was sure living the glamorous life, and I could picture myself doing the exact same thing on my first day of Driver’s Training. I could hardly wait for the final bell to ring at school so I could get behind the wheel of a car. I even wore a scarf to school that day. I was not deterred by the fact that it was January and the scarf was a thick knitted monstrosity that would not move in a hurricane. At sixteen, misguided fantasy trumped common sense on a regular basis.

When the bell rang, I shot out of my seat and took off at a dead run for the Driver’s Training room. Our Driver’s Ed teacher was a former military man who had a proven track record of remaining calm in the face of some of life’s worst dangers. That would change very soon. The kids all called our Driver’s Ed teacher “Pubatsch.” This was not his real name and it was never spoken to his face. It was a code name with an obscene translation that some of the older high school boys had come up with after they had failed driver’s training. It was generally accepted that students should never look Pubatsch in the eye or speak to him directly.

Before we set out on the road, we were divided up into groups of three. I was partnered with a mild mannered kid named Mike and a girl named Sue. She was the one from my Simulator class with the thick glasses who couldn’t see the screen. At this point, it still hadn’t dawned on me that I would not be the only person driving that afternoon. I pictured myself out on the open road, the breeze ruffling my hair and my scarf floating behind me as the other kids and Pubatsch stared in amazement at my motoring skills.

Pubatsch led the three of us out into the parking lot to a Chevy Vega with fake wood panel trim on the sides. There were huge signs on both the sides and the rear of the car that said “Caution! Student Driver.” This was not exactly the image I had in mind of what driving was going to be like. Caution was for losers.

Pubatsch directed Sue to get behind the wheel while Mike and I climbed into the back seat. He told us all to buckle up and jumped into the front passenger seat, glaring at his own seat belt and muttering “damn nuisance” without fastening the belt. He was holding a thick wooden ruler in his hand.

“Put the car in drive and get moving,” he snapped at Sue.

Sue stared out the windshield, frozen in place. Although she couldn’t see very well, she sure knew the rule about not making eye contact with Pubatsch.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” snapped Pubatsch. He smacked the ruler against the gear shift. “It’s right here. Now MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!”

The Chevy Vega is widely acknowledged to be one of the slowest cars ever manufactured, which was merciful in this situation. I could see the look of unmasked terror in Sue’s eyes as she reached toward the gear shift, careful to keep her fingers away from Pubatsch’s swinging ruler. We lurched out of the high school parking lot and were soon travelling at an impressive fifteen miles per hour down a side street.
Suddenly, Pubatsch decided that he had something important to tell us and instructed Sue to pull over and stop the car. Taking on a life of its own, Sue’s right foot slammed down onto the brake pedal and the Vega came to a violent stop, throwing Pubatsch into the dashboard of the car. He shook his head a few times to reposition his brain and then said, “Move it up a little.” Sue took her foot off the brake and we coasted for a few feet before she slammed on the brakes again.

“Dammit,” screamed Pubatsch, “I said to move it up! Hit the gas, girl!”

Sue tromped down on the gas pedal and the car shot forward. Pubatsch was getting tossed around like a rag doll in the front seat. He had slid so far down in his seat that most of his body was now on the floor of the car. We came to an abrupt stop when he pressed down on the secondary brake pedal on his side of the car with his bare hands and savagely shifted the car into park.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” whispered Mike.
“I think so,” I replied.

We all stared at our laps, waiting for what Pubatsch had to say. We expected a full blown tirade, but all he did was lean over to Sue and say, “If I’d drunk a glass of milk today, it would be buttermilk by now. Let’s switch drivers.” The man was obviously made of steel. He crooked his finger at me. I got out of the back and slid into the driver’s seat, carefully avoiding eye contact. It was show time. It was also pouring rain by this point and beginning to get dark.

Pubatsch told me to make a right turn at the end of the street. He was tapping his ruler against his left thigh, probably keeping time with whatever marching song was stuck in his head from his days in the trenches. The road I turned onto had a very steep ditch along the side. From the corner of my eye, I could see Pubatsch squirming in his seat, his head swiveling to gauge the distance between the Vega and the ditch. I was more concerned with avoiding the cars in the opposite lane of traffic, along with being on high alert for the series of projectiles that had plagued me in The Simulator. I knew that at any moment a toddler or some small animal could be catapulted into the path of the Vega and I did not intend to be caught off guard during my first Driver’s Training lesson. I felt the right wheels of the Vega slide off the side of the road at the same time that Pubatsch’s huge hairy arm shot out and jerked the steering wheel violently to the left. The car veered into the opposite lane. I thought I heard screams from the back seat, but they were muffled by my own wails as Pubatsch’s ruler slammed down on my knuckles. What is it with these people? I thought. First typing school and now this. If things kept going this way, I was going to have to spend my birthday money on a pair of stainless steel gloves.

Pubatsch jerked the wheel back to the right and hit the brake. The fuel indicator light came on. “We’re going to run out of gas,” I sobbed. This was just exactly the kind of thing that happened to Mr. Perfect in The Simulator. Driving really was a nightmare. Although we had been on the road for what seemed like hours, I later realized that by this point we were only a few blocks away from the high school parking lot.

“Take over, Mike,” said Pubatsch. “We’re going to the gas station.”

Mike was frozen in the back seat, trembling uncontrollably. I jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran around the back of the car and gave him a savage push. “Get out of the car,” I snapped. “It’s your turn.”

“I can’t,” said Mike, shaking his head from side to side.

“MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!” shouted Pubatsch. Mike jumped out of the car and scurried around to the driver’s seat, eyes fixed on the ground.

“Why do you kids keep staring down like that?” said Pubatsch. “Every group of kids I teach is like this. Is there something wrong with your hormones?”
No one would answer him.

Mike drove us to the gas station very, very slowly. We pulled up at the pump and Pubatsch jumped out to pump the gas, then went inside to pay. While he was talking to the attendant, another car pulled in behind the Vega. Pubatsch gestured through the window for Mike to drive forward a few feet to allow the other car to get to the gas pump. Mike was staring straight ahead and didn’t see this crucial hand signal.

“Pubatsch said to take the car out on the road and drive, Mike,” I said.
“What?” he squeaked.

Sue and I managed to convince him that, since he was a boy, Pubatsch wanted him to take the wheel on his own. He started to slowly move the car forward and put his turn signal on to head out onto the street. Sue and I were watching Pubatsch through the side window of the Vega. He looked out just as Mike was turning onto Main Street and charged out of the gas station and started chasing the car. Mike seemed to be pretty happy until he looked in the rearview mirror and saw Pubatsch running at full speed behind the Vega, his arms pinwheeling as he attempted to grab the rear bumper. I was pretty sure he would jump on top of the car like Spider-Man if he got close enough. Mike slammed on the brakes and put the car in park. Pubatsch opened the door, shoved Mike out of the driver’s seat, and backed the car up into the gas station parking lot. He turned off the engine. I noticed his hands were shaking slightly. Pubatsch turned to Mike and said, “What the hell did you think you were doing there?”

The three of us were crammed together in the back seat of the car. “They told me you wanted us to go out and drive without you,” Mike muttered sullenly.

I would like to describe the expression on Pubatsch’s face at that moment, but words fail me. He had probably seen live combat. He may have even killed people in the past. That day, however, he was a broken man. With a catch in his throat, he said, “That’ll teach you to listen to a bunch of women, Mike.” He paused for a moment, and then said, “I think this is enough for today. Let’s head back to the school. Sue, take the wheel.”

The elementary school had let out and we were soon following a school bus. When we reached a set of railroad tracks, the bus hurtled over them without even slowing down. Pubatsch informed us that, when crossing railroad tracks, a bus should always stop and open the door before proceeding. When we reached the railroad tracks, Sue stopped the Vega right in the middle of the tracks and opened the driver’s side door. Then she looked Pubatsch straight in the eye and smiled.


Miraculously, we all passed Driver’s Training that year, with varying degrees of skill. I also learned some valuable life lessons in the process.
There is very little in life that is more terrifying than being a passenger in a car with a driver that has no clue as to what they are doing. The terror is equally real when you’re the one who doesn’t have a clue.
Objects in the rearview mirror really are closer than they seem, especially when the object is a grown man in a state of blind panic.
Anything can be used as a weapon. I am uncomfortable around rulers to this day.
Individuals who embark on a career teaching young people how to drive are among the most fearless human beings on the planet. They deserve our utmost respect. Just don’t look them in the eye.

 

Comedy, Humor, Satire

The Simulator

DRIVERS TRAINING 1

Parenting teenagers definitely comes with some challenges. Not the least of these is teaching them how to drive. At a party we hosted over the holidays last year, the father of one of my daughter’s teenage friends made the comment that learning to drive was pretty easy. You just got behind the wheel of the car and used your common sense. Times have obviously changed from the days when I learned how to drive.

When I was in high school, Driver’s Training was a mandatory part of the curriculum. Adults in this era were understandably nervous about allowing immature, highly distractible young people behind the wheel of a two ton killing machine. Most of our fathers had been in World War II or the Korean War and had no desire to relive the terrors of active combat in their own driveways. So before we were ever allowed to get behind the wheel of a real vehicle, we were first required to endure twelve days of training in “The Simulator.”

Each semester, a long trailer was delivered to the high school parking lot under cover of darkness. Inside the trailer were two long rows of video consoles, complete with gas pedals, brake pedals, steering wheels and large screens. The Simulator was obviously an early prototype for Grand Theft Auto and Twisted Metal. Even though the upperclassmen had tried to poison our minds, telling us that The Simulator was a horrendous experience, we were beside ourselves with excitement. We would get to kill things with pretend cars and we would get a grade for it!

Mr. Dobchuk was our Simulator instructor. He was a thin, nervous man who spoke in a rapid high-pitched voice that none of us could understand. In retrospect, I now realize that Mr. Dobchuk was in an ongoing state of blind panic. I’m sure he realized that we would all be going out on the road shortly after we were finished with The Simulator and was terrified to the very core of his being. It would be a few more years before Xanax hit the market, so for the time being Mr. Dobchuk was on his own.

Our first lesson featured a movie that was designed to teach us the fundamentals of preparing your car for the treacherous journey out of the driveway. The hero of our story was a man we called Mr. Perfect.

Mr. Perfect was a businessman. He lived in a businessman’s house on a quiet suburban street. As the scene opened, Mr. Perfect skipped down his front steps towards his car, blissfully unaware of the horrors that awaited him during his commute to the office. Mr. Perfect circled his car, carefully inspecting each door to ensure it was properly closed. He then tested his trunk by gently tugging on the latch. All systems go. Mr. Perfect entered his car and confidently started the engine. But wait! The engine! Was it still there? Mr. Perfect jumped back out of his car and popped the hood to double check.

I heard a couple of boys a few rows back say, “This movie would be a lot better if we could smoke some pot.” They started tugging on the windows of the trailer to see if they could get them open.

Mr. Dobchuk was seated in the first row. He didn’t seem to be paying any attention to either the movie or his students. In fact, he was slumped sideways in the console chair, both arms wrapped around his head.

The action was heating up on screen. Mr. Perfect had turned his attention to his glove compartment and was repeatedly opening and closing the little door to double check that the light came on.

“It’s important to make sure everything works in your car before you go out on the road,” chittered Mr. Dobchuk into his armpit. Or at least that’s what we thought he said.

Mr. Perfect switched his headlights on and off rapidly and tested his turn signals. The film had been running for fifteen minutes at this point and Mr. Perfect still hadn’t made it out of the driveway.

“This guy’s never gonna make it to work,” screamed the boys in the back. They had succeeded in opening the window of the trailer and were waving their hands in the air to disperse the clouds of pungent smoke.

Suddenly, Mr. Perfect pounded on the horn of his car and shifted into reverse. A few kids screamed. From this point forward, the perspective of the film shifted to the back of Mr. Perfect’s head. Although there were no other cars to be seen, Mr. Perfect launched into a series of frantic hand gestures before pulling out onto the street.

“Here we go,” wailed Mr. Dobchuk mournfully.

Mr. Perfect has been driving for about two blocks when the hood of his car suddenly flew up. An unflappable man, Mr. Perfect simply hunched over in his seat so that he could see the road in the gap between the hood and the engine. Suddenly, Mr. Perfect’s car hit an ice slick and went into a wild spin.

“Wait a minute,” said a girl with very thick glasses as she squinted at the screen. “Wasn’t it summer just a minute ago when he was in his driveway?”

“Never mind that!” shrieked Mr. Dobchuk. “This is THE SIMULATOR! Pay attention!”

Mr. Perfect expertly cut the wheel in the direction of the skid and slid off the side of the road, the right wheels of his car dipping into a ditch. Although we could not see his face, it was obvious from the steely outline of the back of his head that Mr. Perfect would not succumb to panic. He continued to drive calmly, with the hood of his car blocking the windshield, until he was able to maneuver his vehicle out of the ditch. By this point, Mr. Perfect had reached the crest of a steep hill when his brakes suddenly failed. Through a masterful combination of hand gestures and tugs on his vehicle’s emergency brake, Mr. Perfect succeeded in slowing his car down and coasted down the hill.

“Freakin’ awesome, dude!” yelled the boys in the back of the trailer. “He’s like Han Solo in the Millenium freakin’ Falcon.”

“Shut up and watch the movie,” screamed Mr. Dobchuk. “I’ll drop your grade if you don’t be quiet.”

“Mr. Dobchuk, they’re smoking marijuana back there,” said the girl with the thick glasses.

“I don’t want to hear about it. Now pay attention.”

As Mr. Perfect neared the bottom of the hill, a Mack truck suddenly appeared behind his car, lost control and started honking furiously. Ducking his head out of the driver’s side window and gesturing furiously, Mr. Perfect pulled his car into the opposite lane of traffic as the truck barreled past him on the right, then pulled back into the proper lane. After a few more blocks, he spotted a convenience store on the side of the road. Thrusting his left arm out of the window of his car, Mr. Perfect pointed at the convenience store and turned into the parking lot, jumped out and calmly closed the hood and trotted inside. Several seconds later, he emerged, smiling and holding a banana. Fade to black.

Mr. Dobchuk untangled his arms and legs and stood at the front of The Simulator. He was trembling slightly. “Now kids,” he said, “I hope you understood everything you saw today. Driving is serious business. Anything can happen. You have to be prepared to react at a moment’s notice.”

“This is wicked bud,” said one of the boys in the back to the other. “I hope Mr. Dobchuk gives us popcorn the next time we see a movie. Can we eat popcorn when we’re driving, Mr. Dobchuk?”

“No you cannot eat popcorn when you’re driving! If that man in the movie was eating popcorn, he would have been dead. Did you hear me? Dead!” Mr. Dobchuk punched wildly at the air to emphasize his point.

The girl with the thick glasses started waving her hand in the air. “Can we watch the movie again, Mr. Dobchuk? I’m not sure I could see everything.”

Mr. Dobchuk choked slightly. “The screen was eighteen inches away from your face. Do you think you need your eyes checked?”

“I’ve had these glasses since sixth grade. I can see just fine.” Twelve days later, my life would be forever changed as a passenger in a Driver’s Training car driven by this girl.

Common sense indeed.

 

Comedy, Humor, Satire

Sparky

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Many people consider their pets to be like their own children. They’re part of the family. Most of the dogs I have owned throughout my life have been very fine animals. They’ve truly been best friends, companions, and protectors.  No matter what else was going on, I could always count on their unconditional love.  Then there was Sparky.

Sparky was a Jack Russell terrier. I rescued him from a woman I worked with who was moving out of state and could not take him along with her. It was either a new home or the dog pound for this guy. As we were talking about her upcoming move, Sparky trotted into the room. His owner patted him on the head and told me, “He eats pretty much anything you give him. Other than the ear mites, he’s fine, and I have these ear drops you can use on him. He’s just a perfect little dog. ”

She lied.

I took Sparky home in the plastic dog crate that came as part of his accessory package. He seemed a little anxious, but I figured that was probably normal. Silver, our German Shepherd, followed him around the back yard for a few laps, then rolled him down the slope with her nose. So far, so good.

Back in the house, I discovered that Sparky did indeed eat anything you gave him. He devoured the plate of food that I put in front of him, then proceeded to roughly push Silver aside and devoured her food as well. I thought he looked a little underfed, but figured that going forward it was best to feed the dogs in separate rooms.

After dinner, Sparky retreated for a nice nap. Within minutes, unearthly shrieks began to emerge from the living room. I walked in and saw Sparky biting at his paw, pausing every few seconds to tilt his head at the ceiling and wail like a banshee.

I picked up the phone and called his previous owner. “Is there anything else wrong with Sparky that you might have forgotten to tell me about?” I said.

There was a long silence on her end. It was a welcome counterpoint to the earsplitting wails  on my end of the line.

“Did the vet say anything about his paw when you took him in?” I asked her.

Another long silence. “I never took him to the vet. I just bought the ear drops at the pet store.”

“But he’s wearing a rabies tag,” I said.

“That belonged to a dead dog that the guy who owned him before me put on him. I don’t know if he’s ever been to the vet.” Then she hung up on me.

My vet told me that Sparky had a fungal infection in both ears and would need surgery for the extensive calluses on his paws that had built up from the constant chewing. He also needed his anal glands compressed. I made the mistake of staying in the room while she did this. After she finished and removed her rubber gloves, she told me that I could actually do this myself at home. I told her I would make another service appointment with her if the need arose.

I asked her why he was chewing on his paw and shrieking all the time. She told me that I needed Behavior Modification Therapy. Dogs did not have problems. The owners were the problem.

“But I’ve only had him for three days,” I said.

“If you’ve only had him for three days, then where did he get this rabies tag?” she asked me.

“From a dead dog,” I said.

She glared menacingly at me and proceeded to outline a behavior plan that required several hours a day of bonding and enrichment activities, along with lots of yard time, liberally peppered with beef chew treats. I assumed these were for Sparky, but I wasn’t 100% sure.

I set up the appointment for Sparky’s surgery and bought some ear plugs on the way home.

When I picked him up after the surgery, Sparky was wearing a large bandage on his foot and a cone around his head.

“He just won’t leave that paw alone,” said the office assistant. “He’s really obsessed with it. I don’t see how you can live with those sounds.”

Sometimes smiling can make your teeth hurt. I thanked her and took Sparky home.

Back in the house, Sparky began to repeatedly bang the cone on his head against the wall, accompanied by his signature ear piercing shrieks.

After several attempts to reach his previous owner, I realized that she was probably screening her calls.

Once the wound healed and the cone came off, Sparky went right back to his old tricks. I was working out of a home office and it really got tiresome trying to explain to people on the phone exactly what was going on in the background of my house. I was obviously not a successful candidate for Behavior Modification Therapy. Time to try a new vet.

Sparky’s new doctor told me that he had allergies. I needed to replace the plastic dog dish with a metal one and give him doggy antihistamines twice a day. I wondered if I would miss the beef chews very much. Old habits are hard to break.

The antihistamines did their job, and Sparky became much more manageable. We decided to let him sleep in the bedroom and set up a little doggy blanket for him on the floor. I woke up in the middle of the night that first night and found Sparky sitting bolt upright beside the bed, staring at me. After several weeks, it became obvious that he was logging full night shifts like this.

PHTO0032Surveillance footage of Sparky captured midway through his shift


During the day, it became his habit to lurk around the house, waiting for the front door to open. As soon as he heard the hinges start to creak, he would materialize out of nowhere and shoot past my legs, out the door, and disappear down the street. He had a particular fondness for charging out in the middle of severe thunderstorms.  It was actually quite stirring to watch him charge off into the distance, ploughing through the streams of rushing water while bolts of lightning cracked around him.  Somehow, everyone in the city seemed to know that he was my dog. Regardless of where he wandered, I was guaranteed that absolute strangers would be knocking on my door to return Sparky to me.

My next door neighbor was a music teacher. One day she knocked on my door and asked me to please keep Sparky indoors. He was frightening her students. Apparently he had decided to add some extra hours to his schedule and was passing his time sitting on her sidewalk and staring at her students as they walked into her house. They thought there might be something wrong with him. I definitely knew there was something wrong with him, but you don’t have to share all your secrets with the neighbors.

Over the years, the antihistamines seemed to kick Sparky’s appetite into overdrive. He would eat his own food, force his way into the kitchen and eat Silver’s food, then force his way into the basement to devour the cat’s food. On his jaunts around the neighborhood, he would raid the neighbors’ garbage cans and come home with pieces of raw chicken and other garbage hanging out of his mouth. One day he brought home a pair of deer antlers. He carried home a dead bat and ate it. I soon found myself to be the proud owner of a 35-pound Jack Russell Terrier. When he would nap, he would sprawl out on his back with his stomach bulging into the air and his front legs tucked together, back legs splayed obscenely. He would usually remain immobile in this position for hours. There were many times when I would nudge him with my toe to make sure he was still alive.

One summer, my younger daughter enrolled in a Kids in College science program at Penn State. As part of the lab work, they could bring in snips of their pets’ fur to be analyzed under a microscope. My daughter brought in fur samples from Silver, Sparky and our two cats. Under the microscope, the technicians were able to identify Silver’s fur as canine and the cats’ fur as feline. The instructor said to my daughter, “What is this other kind of animal you have? This doesn’t match anything we have in our database.”

As I said, I knew that there was something very wrong with him.

We were never sure exactly how old Sparky was, but he spent a great many years with us. He was definitely part of the family, even if he was the little brother that nobody really liked that much. I started telling my kids that he might possibly be immortal. After all, the Penn State lab couldn’t even determine what species of animal he was.

We decided that Sparky was a legacy dog and was destined to be passed down for many generations. As the eldest, my daughter Elizabeth would be the recipient of this priceless gift.  For some reason, she was less than pleased about this. As with everyone else, the staring shifts creeped her out and she really didn’t appreciate the way he smelled. No matter how many new blankets I placed beside the bed, within a few days they always reeked to high heaven. It might have been his anal glands, but the vet never mentioned anything and I wasn’t about to volunteer.

One night we went out for an after school event with my younger daughter, and when we came back home, Sparky was lying in his usual position underneath the dining room chair. I nudged him with my toe, but this time he didn’t move. The legacy was over. My older daughter was away in New York City. We decided not to break the news to her until she came home.

I was downstairs in my office when my younger daughter screamed, “Mom! You need to get up here right away.”

I ran up the stairs to find my older daughter curled up on the floor, her face buried in Sparky’s foul blanket, wailing, “Why? Why did he have to go?”

“Get your face out of that awful blanket,” I said.  Dreams die so hard in the young.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a decade since he’s been gone.  Rest in peace, little buddy.

 

 

Bullying

Part of the Problem

My daughter asked me if I was open for ideas in my writing. Absolutely, I told her. What she said next stopped me in my tracks.

“Can you write about what I went through when I was a kid getting bullied? How you felt about it? Every time I try to write my thoughts down about the years when I was bullied, I have to stop. It’s just too painful.”

I prefer to write humorous pieces. Laughter is a gift that lifts our hearts and makes even the toughest times more bearable. I could find no humor in the things that happened to my child. I thought about what she had asked me to do for days. I remembered holding her in my arms when she was first born, gazing down at her tiny sleeping face, and wishing she would always stay this small so that I could hold her and protect her for the rest of her life. I write this for my daughter, to give her back her own voice, one that has been silenced for far too long.

According to our own federal government’s website, www.stopbullying.gov, the prevalence of bullying in our schools is so profound that as many as 1 in 3 students now report being bullied.

My daughter was bullied relentlessly from fourth grade through eighth grade. In the lunch room at the elementary school, her classmates built a wall of lunch boxes to isolate her from the rest of the group, calling her a space alien and telling her that they didn’t want to catch her weird disease. She spent recess time alone and was routinely and deliberately excluded from birthday parties. When I visited the school to talk with her teacher, I was informed that my child stared off into space and seemed to be in her own world most of the time, and it would help if she tried not to be so different from the other kids. The teacher made no attempt to disguise her contempt for my daughter’s behavior. Part of the problem. I visited the principal’s office and requested that the teachers monitoring the lunch room be made aware of what was going on at my daughter’s table and was told that no one had seen anything happen. The lunch box walls continued to be built but were invisible to the adults in the room. Part of the problem. The bullying continued the following year. When I visited the teacher, this time I was told that the best solution to stop the bullying would be for me to buy my daughter a new wardrobe so she would look exactly like the other girls. Part of the problem.

During this time, my daughter woke up one night and came into my room. She was unable to speak and the corners of her mouth were pulled down. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. I was terrified. She looked as though she had just had a stroke. I rushed her to the emergency room and we discovered that she had suffered a grand mal seizure in her sleep. She was diagnosed with benign rolandic epilepsy, a seizure disorder that she would probably outgrow within two to three years. The episodes of staring off into space that her teacher had noticed the year before were undoubtedly the early signs of this seizure disorder. The medications the doctor gave her made her groggy and unfocused and caused her to gain quite a bit of weight. Nonetheless, middle school would hopefully be a fresh start.

At the beginning of my daughter’s sixth grade year, she started to emerge from her shell and tried to form friendships with kids who had not been in her elementary school class. In response, the group of girls who had bullied her in fourth and fifth grade systematically moved in and broke up every friendship she made with other students. She left Girl Scouts after one of her bullies joined the troop and publicly humiliated her by pulling her underwear out of her camp bag and encouraged the other girls to shun her for not wearing the right underpants. When her science class was studying Mad Cow disease, her teacher, with the encouragement of the students, chose her to play the Mad Cow and she was dressed in a cow costume with spots painted on her face for a classroom skit. She spent the remainder of her middle school years being called a Mad Cow. I visited the principal’s office once again and requested that she be placed in separate classes from the kids who were bullying her. This helped a little bit, but there were still episodes of malicious gossip and routine taunting that were instigated by the same group of kids that had started the whole business back in fourth grade.

I considered pulling her out of the school district and enrolling her in cyber school, but feared that her education would suffer and she would become even more isolated. As an alternative, I enrolled her in multiple support groups to give her social skills training and an outlet to express herself away from the school. She made friends in these groups and her self-confidence started to grow slightly. Her high school years were better, although there were still multiple bullying incidents, most of them instigated by the same group from fourth grade.

My daughter is now a college graduate and well on her way to building a successful career in restaurant management. I’ve always told her that her strongest personality trait is resiliency. She has endured a tremendous amount in her young life, but she’s repeatedly found the inner resources that enable her to bounce back from any adversity. She usually  appears somewhat shy and hesitant in new situations, but she is one of the strongest people I know.  However, the scars she bears will remain with her for the rest of her life. Wrapped up with the pain of recalling what she endured is the difficulty of publicly expressing her feelings about what happened to her and  the potential for ridicule and further isolation. Part of the difficulty in recovering from a traumatic event is the repressed fear that the same thing could happen all over again. When a person is routinely persecuted and treated as a lesser human being, and the rest of the world doesn’t even seem to notice or care, that individual loses her voice and becomes invisible. As sobering as the reported bullying statistics can be, an even greater number of bullying incidents are never reported by the victims.

My daughter asked me to express how I felt about what had happened to her. Naturally, there was a great deal of anger and resentment, both towards the kids who bullied her and the adults who stood by and failed to intervene. There were nights after she went to bed when I would sit downstairs alone and cry, questioning God as to why he was allowing this to happen to my child and praying that the next day would be better. There were many times that I felt inadequate as a parent and cursed my inability to protect her, the impossibility of keeping her close to me and shielding her from harm as I had done when she was a newborn. There were also many moments when I was grateful for the help and support of the good teachers and friends that believed in my daughter and were brave enough to step in, speak up and stop the bullying when they saw it happen. They provided her with a safe haven that helped her survive the experience. They were part of the solution. There are many children who didn’t have that, and the results have been tragic. I am grateful that my child is alive and doing well.

One of my daughter’s elementary school classmates recently reached out to her on Facebook and apologized for not doing more to help her when they were young. There were actually quite a few good kids in that class, along with a handful of bullies. Given the right encouragement and direction, the good kids could have easily been converted from uncomfortable, silent bystanders to active interventionists. In the Bullying Statistics section of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center website          (www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/stats.asp) studies have shown that 57% of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the victim. In our modern world, the bad guys always seem to get a lot of press. It’s easy to believe that the world is taking a turn for the worse, that people are becoming meaner and more evil, that children are worse than ever. But for every Harvey Weinstein that has spent a long career harassing and abusing women, there are still plenty of great guys who treat women with respect and dignity. For every bully who has made someone’s life miserable, there is a group of good kids who could be encouraged to stand up and do the right thing. We can’t afford to wait until a celebrity or a football player speaks up and at that point finally join the chorus. We can’t wait until a bullying prevention group decides to show up at the school to give a talk. These are all great efforts, but they can’t be the only efforts. As parents and adults, we hold the responsibility for instilling the right values in our children and encouraging the right behaviors, every single day, whether or not anyone else is watching. We all want our children to feel good about themselves, but it is part of our job description as parents to make sure they don’t feel good about doing the wrong things. When someone remains silently in the background and watches another person being abused because they’re the wrong color, shape, religion, disabled, or just different in some obscure way, they’re part of the problem and should not feel good about what they’re doing. As individuals, we have the power to change our world one day at a time, one word at a time, and we should never be afraid to raise our voices and speak up when we see someone doing the wrong thing. Every moment we are blessed enough to walk on this earth is a teaching moment, with our children, our friends, our colleagues, even our own parents. We have choices to make that place us firmly as either part of the solution or part of the problem.  Silence is never the right option.

I appreciate my daughter’s fourth grade classmate reaching out to apologize for not speaking up. It required both courage and compassion to acknowledge that what she had done was wrong. Had she and a few others been encouraged to speak up in fourth grade, my daughter’s life would have undoubtedly been very different. The greatest gift this classmate can give to her own children is to ensure that they never need to say they’re sorry for not doing the right thing when they had the chance.