Trick or Treats – Money or Eats

October 31, 2008
Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams for a Prankster

Happy Halloween everyone! For the first time in years, people around here will be celebrating Halloween on October 31st. When I was a young trick-or-treater, Halloween was always celebrated on October 31st – regardless of the day of the week. Nowadays we seem to celebrate holidays when it’s convenient to do so. When I was working full-time, it was nice to get the three day weekends, but now that I’m a crotchety semi-retired senior citizen, moving holidays around simply gives me something else to complain about.

Notice the phrase “Trick or Treat” has two parts. When we were young, we took it literally. For a week or so preceding Halloween, we’d go out every night and pull tricks on people. Then, on Halloween night, we’d put on costumes and, like little angels, go to many of those same people and ask for candy.

The tricks we pulled were basically harmless. Unlike our parents, we didn’t go around knocking over outhouses. Truth to tell, had the outhouses been there, we probably would’ve knocked them over. Without outhouses, we had to find other forms of amusement.

The most common prank among our gang was what we called “Tick-Tack”. We would quietly sneak up to someone’s front door and either ring the doorbell or bang on the door. Then, we’d be gone in a flash and hide behind bushes or a parked car to watch the people open the door to find no one there. It was akin to calling a phone number at random and, as soon as the person answered, hanging up. There was no caller ID back in those days, so it was next to impossible for the person annoyed by our pranks to do anything about it.

Phone pranks were another of our favorite pastimes – “Is your refrigerator running?” “Why, yes it is.” “Don’t you think you should go and catch it?” Amazing how easily we were amused. “Do you have Prince Albert in the can?” was a question we’d ask shopkeepers… over the phone, of course.

Another popular prank of the time was taking bar soap and writing or scribbling across people’s nice clean windows. There was no permanent damage. The victim simply had the annoying job of cleaning up after some thoughtless child.

As for the ‘burning poop in a paper bag’ trick, we had heard of it but never tried it. None of us wanted anything to do with a paper bag full of excrement. Surprisingly, we were also concerned that it might cause a fire that could get out of control. We didn’t want to be responsible for such a thing.

The Halloween costume is another thing that was very different when I was growing up. Some stores had begun carrying a few items, but most people made their own costumes. Come to think of it, most masks being sold in those days were the kind the Lone Ranger wore; they covered the eyes and nothing else.

One year our older brother was stationed in French Morocco and sent us Fez hats as souvenirs. They immediately became the key portion of our costumes for that year. Mom made us robes from old sheets and we burned corks to rub on our face – it was a modified black face; we did not sing minstrel songs.

Another year I decided to be a football player. I had an older brother’s jersey and helmet. I made shoulder pads out of a cardboard box. I had the only squared-off pads in the history of football. Another time I borrowed one of my brother’s navy uniforms. I don’t know if it’s still true, but back then, a sailor’s pants did not have a fly. Instead, there was a flap that was closed with thirteen buttons. I learned very quickly that I had to plan well in advance before heading for the bathroom.

The highlight of my costumes was the year I decided to be a coffee pot.

Our neighborhood merchants held an annual Halloween parade and presented prizes for the best costume. I was sure I would win something with my coffee pot. I used a large cardboard box, added a spout and handle, painted the entire thing white, and quickly discovered how difficult it was to walk. Worse yet, I could carry my trick-or-treat bag, but I couldn’t reach out with both hands to open it.

Not only did I fail to win a prize, but, not being able to see very well, I tripped several times. Once on the ground, I was like a turtle on his back. My brother and friends had to help me back to my feet. Needless to say, they were not pleased with me. At every house they had to help me stick out my bag for the treats, and then walk beside me to catch me before I hit the ground.

One final thought on Halloween: Back in those days, we were given homemade cookies, popcorn balls, fudge, and candy apples, and there was never a question about whether or not it was safe to eat.

I’m not sure how the razor blades in the apples stories got started, but I’d be willing to bet that the original tales were urban legends. The few serious cases I’ve read about were instances of a parent trying to poison a child and using Halloween candy as a cover-up.

Unfortunately, we can no longer trust the basic goodness of people. While I’d guess that one hundred percent of the treats given out this year are safe to eat, I’d still have to check my child’s loot very carefully. What a shame!

What Was I Thinking?

October 30, 2008

Wow! Who wouldn’t want to see a movie like that one?

I was nine years old when my older brother and our friends convinced me to go see “Them” at the Crafton movie theater. Normally, when we went to a movie, we’d catch the Saturday matinee. For whatever reason, we went to see “Them” in the early evening… which meant it was dark when we came out of the theater.

And then, we had to walk home past the woods.

Our Beloved Woods

Our Beloved Woods

In many ways we were fortunate to have woods near our home. We did live in the City of Pittsburgh, but there were still many vacant lots… and woods. We spent countless hours playing in those woods while we were growing up. In fact, in the winters, we’d stand on top of the hill shown in the picture and throw snowballs at cars.

Shame on us! Naturally, we did many other things we should not have done while we were basically out of the sight of our parents. But those stories will have to wait to be told.

Getting back to “Them”, you might have noticed near the end of the video that the giant ants sounded a lot like crickets. We saw the movie in the middle of summer and our beloved woods were filled with crickets… and they were all merrily chirping as we walked past the woods on our way home.

Needless to say, it wasn’t long before we broke into a trot – make that a mad dash – to get away from whatever evil might have been lurking in the woods and pretending to be crickets.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising if I had sworn off monster movies from that day on. Walking home past the woods and the crickets made me realize “Them” had scared the pants off me! However, it wasn’t long after that experience that one of our older brothers offered to take us to a drive-in movie.

The feature that evening was “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”. I guess I was just a glutton for punishment. To learn about the effect that movie had on me, search this site for the word “plankton”.

Memories of Vienna

October 29, 2008


To avoid getting in trouble by using copyrighted material, let me point out that the above photo came from The exact web address for this photo is:


In the late 1980s I was working for IBM E/ME/A, that is, Europe/Middle East/Africa. I was still reporting to an office in Atlanta, but representing those other parts of the world. My basic duties were to take training materials created in the U.S. and see that they were translated for the other countries. Since I am not fluent in any language besides English, my main responsibility in translation was to remove American cliches and examples.

When I signed on to this two to three year assignment, I had high hopes of traveling extensively at IBM’s expense. My trip to Vienna for a three day meeting was the sum total of the extensive travel. As luck would have it, my good friend in London was still working for IBM, so I was able to add a couple of days to the trip to visit England while conferring with my friend. As I recall, much of our conferring took place in pubs.

Being an adventurous person, when I arrived at the airport in Vienna I decided to travel as the locals would; rather than taking a limo to my hotel – at IBM’s expense – I asked the person at the currency exchange booth for the least expensive way to get to my hotel.

The instructions I was given included a bus ride into town, a subway ride across town, and a short walk. I didn’t have a lot of luggage – one medium sized suitcase and a briefcase – so I didn’t see any problem whatsoever in taking the proposed route.

The bus ride was the easiest part. I’d instructed the driver where I needed to get off as I boarded the bus. He was very accommodating and gave me plenty of warning. From that point on, things got rather interesting. I walked for several blocks looking for something resembling a subway station. Finally, I stopped in a small cafe and asked for directions. Fortunately, everyone I had encountered up to that point spoke very good English and I was soon on my way in search of a sign with a large “U”.

Who would have guessed the Austrians call their subway the U-Bahn, which is short for Untergrundbahn? That’s a German word meaning Underground Rapid Transit. I soon learned that German is the official language of Austria.

Once I found a U-Bahn station, I encountered a new set of problems. There was no one in a booth selling tickets. Instead, I found myself staring at a vending machine.

While I knew the address of my hotel, there was nothing about the machine to help me decide which train to take and how far to go on it. All instructions were in German, which made it impossible for me to decipher. (Or, as my German coworker back in the states would say, “It’s UN-possible!”) Furthermore, the machine only took coins and all I had was paper currency.

I considered going back up to the street and hailing a cab. That’s when a gentleman came up and offered to help me. I hadn’t realized I looked that desperate! I explained where I was trying to go and he told me which buttons to press and how much money to insert. When I told him I had nothing by paper money, he took a bill from me and led me to a bakery counter several feet away.

Soon a heated discussion took place. Since it was all in German, I had no idea of the problem. Finally, the man holding my money gave it to the shop keeper and received change. As he handed the money to me, my friend said, “They wanted to charge you ten percent for the exchange, but I wouldn’t allow it!” That’s the first reason I refer to the man as my friend.

We returned to the machine, purchased my ticket, and walked down to the platform. He then directed me to the tracks on my right, told me to take any train going in that direction and to get off at the third stop. I set down my luggage and turned to thank him, but he was gone. I saw him as he reached the top of the stairs and was hurrying on to whatever he was doing prior to stopping to help me. And that, my friends, is the second reason I called him my friend. Obviously, the man went far out of his way to help a stranger.

It took a while for the train to arrive and my curiosity led me to pick up my luggage and begin to wander around to see whatever there might be to see. Suddenly there was an elderly woman taking me by the arm and leading me back to where my friend had left me. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but I definitely understood her meaning. She had observed my arrival and determined that I obviously didn’t know where I was going. She was going to make sure I didn’t get lost!

I gave a lot of thought to those two people at the U-Bahn station and have concluded that they had been victims of Hitler’s Nazis. All those years later, they remembered the people who liberated them and they were more than willing to go a bit out of their way to return the favor.

When I arrived at my station and got back up to the street level, I saw a trolley car similar to the one in the photo running along a cobblestone street. I was surrounded by small shops and the aroma of bakeries and coffee. When I looked down a street and saw the Danube River, I was immediately transformed back to my childhood visits to downtown Pittsburgh. As I child in Pittsburgh, I’d ridden trolleys that looked almost exactly the same as the ones I saw in Vienna. And many streets in Pittsburgh at still made of cobblestone.  To me, Vienna was Pittsburgh stuck in a time warp. As for the aromas, I guess they’re basically the same in any reasonably sized city.

The next three days were a whirlwind of meetings. I wasn’t able to do much sightseeing, but I did find time to eat many foods I’d never seen before. I also discovered that almost every restaurant made its own beer.

Usually in a situation like that, I’ll try as many different local dishes as I can. However, I found that after having Tafelspitz for the first time, I had to order it again. Had I spent another day in Vienna, I’m sure I would’ve ordered it a third time.

For those who have no idea what Tafelspitz is, my initial explanation will leave you wondering how it could possibly taste good. Tafelspitz is boiled beef. They start with plain old water and add a wide assortment of things including chicken feet. Then they boil the meat for hours. Finally, they serve it with a mixture of applesauce and horseradish. It’s tender and delicious. Makes me want to go back to Vienna right now!

Besides the great food and beer, the thing I remember most about Vienna is the warmth of the people. Someday I’ll return and take in the sights. I understand they have at least four opera houses and numerous palaces. If I’m not mistaken, Vienna is also the home of the Spanish Riding School that features the Lipazzan stallions.

I realize three days is not a long enough time to get a true feel for a city, but, based on my experience, I’d say it’s a place worth visiting.

Brusha, Brusha, Brusha

October 28, 2008

Anyone who is nearing the age of dirt now has a tune running through his or her head. If the memory is still intact, a vision of a buck-toothed beaver is sitting firmly in the middle of the mind’s eye.

To assist the younger readers, and remind the older folks of how easily we were once entertained, let’s take a moment for a commercial.

From information available on the Internet, Ipana lost so much of its market share that it was discontinued sometime in the 1970s. However, there’s good news for those who loved it – it’s available today… in Turkey. Perhaps you can find a company to ship some to your home.

Last week I had a post about things that were available in the old days. I debunked a number of items on the list simply because they’re still around. So I’ve done a bit of research to locate products that have definitely disappeared from the American scene.

My research consisted of trying to remember things… like clothes poles – that may still be in use by folks who either don’t believe in using a machine to dry their clothes, or live deep in the woods where there is no electricity to run that newfangled machine. I then did a Google search to see what I could learn about the products. In a number of cases, I was surprised to learn that certain items were still on the market… just difficult to find. I guess that’s what makes ‘specialty shops’ so special!

For example, Lava – the hand soap made with pumice, Lifebuoy – the first deodorant soap, Old Dutch Cleanser, 20 Mule Team Borax, and Phillip’s canned soups are still being sold.

While Carter’s Little Liver Pills were heavily marketed into the 1960s, they were forced to undergo a transformation. The government pointed out that the pills had nothing to do with the liver; the name changed to Carter’s Little Pills, and their sales dropped more than a little. However, I believe the pills are still available… without the liver.

People who lived in Western Pennsylvania may remember when the H.J. Heinz Company made condensed soups to compete with Campbell’s. The fact that people don’t absolutely remember illustrates why Heinz soups are no longer being sold – in the United States. The condensed soups are, in fact, available in the United Kingdom as well as a few other countries around the world.

Heinz made one other major effort to sell soups in the U.S. They even hired Stan Freberg to help promote their product. Come to think of it, they even brought in a popular actress and dancer of the time – Ann Miller.

The thoughts of soup led me to thinking about chicken soup as a remedy for whatever ailed me as a child. Now there’s a phrase that seems to have gone the way of the Atlantic gas stations. “That’s good for what ails you!” is something my mom told me more than once.

American business had a number of products for whatever was ailing middle-aged and senior citizens. One of them was Serutan, which was designed to turn all of us into ‘regular’ people.

If you were watching Lawrence Welk in that video, you may have noticed that Geritol paid a bit extra and managed to get a sign permanently positioned over Lawrence’s head. They were also aiming their product to whatever ailed older folks.

How many remember Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour?

Obviously it would take many pages to discuss all the television and radio shows that have gone away over the years. Some of them shouldn’t have ever seen the light of the air waves, but many more have left warm spots in our hearts.

Getting back to other products, there is one more that bit the dust some time ago. When it comes to harmony, the commercials for Ajax – the foaming cleanser – were among the best.

While Ajax is not longer being marketed as a cleanser for the home, it is sold as a commercial cleaning product. Evidently, there is a whole line of commercial cleaning products that bear the name of “Ajax”.

My list of products to Google contains a few more entries, but I had to stop my research in order to finish this post. Perhaps someone out there can fill me in on the following: Westinghouse and Hot Point home appliances; the Railway Express Agency; Bull Durham – roll your own cigarettes; Howard Johnson motels and restaurants; Palmolive soap; Sinclair gasoline; and H. Salt Seafood restaurants.

A Tribute to an Unsung Hero

October 27, 2008

In 1936, George Washington Vanderbilt III sailed his yacht, Cressida, to the Far East. His expedition is best known for a visit to Sumatra where he, with the aid of one of his passengers, was able to identify a number of new species of reptiles. Eventually they made their way to Tokyo and in 1939 were sailing out of Tokyo Harbor – beginning their return trip to the United States.

It was then that Vanderbilt’s passenger decided to take some pictures of the harbor. Within minutes, a Japanese military vessel pulled along side and forced the Vanderbilt vessel to stop. They demanded that the man surrender his camera and film. Because the roll of film also contained photographs of a zoological nature, the man refused. It wasn’t until Vanderbilt convinced the military of his close relationship with the Emperor that they relented and allowed the Cressida to resume its journey.

The photographer and zoologist was a man named Frederick Ulmer – the unsung hero who is being featured in this story.

The remainder of their trip home was relatively uneventful. They filed their scientific reports and life returned to normal until December 7, 1941. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the FBI appeared at Mr. Ulmer’s door. They asked to see the photos he’d taken of Tokyo Harbor. Those photographs, taken innocently by a zoologist who was acting as any tourist would in 1939, were instrumental in the first bombing raid of Tokyo on April 18, 1942. Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his pilots used those pictures to help them zero in on important targets.

Frederick Ulmer, who was more interested in wildlife than anything else, continued to work in the field he loved. Shortly after the war, he received another call from a governmental agency enlisting his help.

This time it was the State of Pennsylvania. They were planning to build the country’s first turnpike and were facing a major problem that could only be solved by someone with Frederick’s background.

Speaking of background, it would help if you had some.

In the late 1800’s, Andrew Carnegie decided that the railroads were charging him too much to haul his steel. He issued an ultimatum – either lower your prices, or “I’ll build my own railroad!”

The railroad men didn’t take him seriously until they realized he had enlisted the aid of William Vanderbilt and they were building a railroad from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. They had over one-half of the road-bed built and seven tunnels bored through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Although Vanderbilt went broke in 1885, the railroad barons got the message. Not surprisingly, the prices charged to Carnegie were soon significantly lowered and Carnegie halted construction of his own rail line.

Those tunnels that sat unused for more than fifty years had suddenly become the key elements of the planned Pennsylvania Turnpike. However, there was one major problem. The tunnels had become the homes for millions of bats.

For the next year or so, Frederick Ulmer and his crew captured the bats and sent them to zoos throughout the world. Many were released in other parts of the country, but the net result was seven tunnels that could then be used for automobile, bus, and truck traffic.

Frederick Ulmer later became the Curator of the Philadelphia Zoo and wrote many articles on various forms of wildlife.

There’s not much written about the man. In fact, this is the only place you’ll find that tells about his photos of Tokyo Harbor.

In case you’re wondering the source of my information, I had known about the turnpike tunnels for most of my life. My father told me that story while we were driving through one of the tunnels… about fifty or sixty years ago.

As for the Tokyo part, Ruth Morris told me all about it when I visited her in 2006. How did she know? Her maiden name is Ulmer and Frederick was her brother. Frederick passed away in September of 1995, at the age of seventy-nine.

Frederick and Ruth, as well as their brother Leeds, were the children of my Aunt Gertrude. So, this story is one of those family history tales.

It makes me wonder if I can find a way to rub elbows with someone named Vanderbilt. Perhaps my visit to the Biltmore mansion is as close as I’ll ever get.

Sunrise in the Garden of Good

October 26, 2008

Savannah Statue

Savannah Statue

A year or so ago my job took me to Savannah and I stumbled across a book entitled “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Although some sections of the book were humorous, most of the book dealt with the evil doings of the main characters.

After tossing around several ideas for today’s post, I decided to discuss gardening from the standpoint of the goodness.

Until Lu and I got married in 1999, I was living alone in a single-wide trailer and I told everyone that God was my gardener. My “lawn” consisted of dead leaves and pine straw. The assorted daffodils, tiger lilies, dogwoods, and azaleas were the result of efforts made by the former occupants of the property. Needless to say, my bride changed all that.

Now we have rock treatments, flowers galore, and a real lawn to aerate, mow, water, and fertilize. We also have a much larger home sitting in the midst of the beautiful gardens. The way I see it, God is still the Master Gardener. He simply found a way to get me to do some of the work.

It’s impossible to talk about God and gardens without thinking of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Personally, I don’t think God threw them out. I think they left on their own because they were ashamed – they had let God down. Although many wonderful things surrounded them, they couldn’t avoid the one thing from which God had asked them to stay away.

To this day, humanity seems drawn to that which has been labeled taboo. I think God knows that as well as we (if not better!) and loves us too much to inflict such a severe punishment when we fall to such temptations.

Consider the sequence of events after Adam and Eve fled the garden and struck out on their own. They bore children and suffered a parental nightmare – one of their children murdered his brother. As mankind spread, so did evil. Wars, famines, and all sorts of problems confronted the humans who refused to return to the love of God.

God decided to offer some guidance. He called Moses to meet with him on Mt. Sinai and sent him back down with a list of ten rules. While many people continued to ignore God and his guidelines, the leaders of the Jewish religion took those ten rules and added a few hundred of their own.

Considering how difficult the Jewish leaders made it for the people to be “Holy”, God probably threw up his hands in exasperation. He could have given up on us at that point, but instead, he decided to try something different. He sent his son.

Jesus came with the mission of healing the rift that had developed between God and humans. He tried to explain that the Law of Moses was all well and good, but people had to look beyond the law and do what was right for the sake of love. In fact, Jesus basically said, “If ten rules are too difficult for you to follow, try two: Love God and love one another.”

Think about that. If all of us acted out of love for each other and love for a loving God, how much sin would be left? Could a person steal from someone he or she truly loved? Could a person get extremely angry with someone he or she really loved? Could such a person kill that loved one?

How many rapes would occur? How many wars? How many prisons would we need?

Jesus came with a message and simpler commandments, but humans still couldn’t believe that God loved us enough to take us back to the Garden of Eden.

In one instance, Jesus specifically told us to ignore one of the Laws of Moses. He told us to forget “an eye for an eye”. Instead, we should “turn the other cheek.”

The “eye for an eye” business was an interesting Old Testament slant on restitution. To put it in modern terms, if someone accused me of stealing his car and I could prove that the car was never his, he would have to give me his car as retribution for his lying. An eye for an eye and a car for a car. Whatever the liar was trying to get from the defendant would be his penalty… if he were caught in the lie.

When the Jewish leaders told lies about Jesus, they wanted his death. Had Jesus spoken up and proved that they were lying, the Jewish leaders would have been put to death. Jesus had told his followers to “turn the other cheek”. He could do nothing less.

When he was hung on the cross to die, God experienced the same sort of horrendous grief that Adam and Eve must have felt when one of their children murdered another of their children.

God loved the murderers just as much as he loved Jesus. Because He chose to give us free will when he created us, he could do nothing but watch in horror as Jesus died. And yet, he used his dying son to try once more to tell us how much he loves us.

“Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Over the centuries many men have used the name of God to commit countless atrocities. Senseless killings in the name of God, Allah, or whatever name the killers choose deny the true nature of the creator of our universe. It’s easy to blame the problems on religious leaders who either encourage the killings or do nothing to condemn them. But we all have a responsibility for our own actions. If we truly believe that God wants us to be a peaceful and loving people, we all have the duty of spreading the word.

May the sun rise over your garden of goodness as you come to recognize the love of God.

Perhaps I should have added this to my section on sermons. Maybe I’ll move it… later.

Comic Books

October 25, 2008

While trying to remember the comic book characters I liked best, the first to come to my mind was Scrooge McDuck.

The lessons continue…

The cartoon you just watched was from 1967. I was a mere lad of twenty-three back then, but I’m sure I liked the thought of paying no taxes and having no government at all. I know I like that idea today! In the meantime, let’s hope the seven hundred billion the government is spending to get our financial systems out of the fix they’re in circulates in the right direction.

As for the other comic books that were available in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, we had Archie, Superman, Superboy, Captain Marvel, Batman, Aqua Man, the Hulk, and Mickey Mouse. More importantly, we had Classic Comics which were synopses of classic books – great for doing book reports without having to read the entire novel!

And then came Mad Magazine. Mad was first published in 1952 (were you quick with the math? I was eight years old.) and quickly became one of my favorites. Had my parents taken the time to look at what I was buying, it may have been placed off-limits as something that would adversely influence my young mind. Come to think of it, that may be exactly what happened… although Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” also had an impact on my thinking.

The first issues were ten cents, As I recall, other comic books sold for a nickel… except for Classic comic books that sold for fifteen cents… still a bargain when it came to book reports.

Here are a couple of videos that deal with the history of Mad Magazine. The first one demonstrates the mindset of the typical Mad Magazine reader.

This next one is a song that was recorded on a cardboard record that could be torn out of the magazine and played on a Hi-Fi or ‘old fashioned’ Victrola. I was once the proud owner of this recording.

Hopefully this gives you some idea of how easily children were entertained in the days before video games. As Alfred E. Newman always said, “What? Me worry?”