Archive for the December 2009 Category

BUONO NATALE

Last week when I received a very favorable report as a result of my visit to a physician, I suggested to my wife that we should have lunch at an Italian restaurant here in Millburn called Basilico. Basilico is the Italian word for the herb basil. From that, the events on that day led to this essay being written on Christmas Day, 2009.

When the meal was completed, the co-owner of the restaurant brought us a package of panettone, which is a lovely cake. It is an Italian specialty baked mostly at this time of the year. As Angelo Delbecchi handed me the panettone, he spoke the words, “Buono Natale.” Unfortunately I do not speak Italian, but I understand many of its phrases and “buono natale” is one of them. It means “happy holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” and if you really get down to parsing the words, “buono natale” has to do with the birth of Jesus.

When Angelo Delbecchi said “Buono Natale” to me, the years seemed to fade away. It took me back to December of 1943 when I was in Italy under very trying circumstances. The war was going on and there was much debate about who was winning, ourselves or the Germans? In the end, everything turned out all right, as you may recall.

At that time, Angelo Delbecchi was not even born. But one way or another, the fact that he murmured the words “buono natale” made me feel like I was a young man again.

Automatically I said to Angelo, “Buono natale” and “Molte grazie,” which of course means “many thanks.” Those words came almost automatically and required no effort at all on my part. I was happy, of course, to receive the panettone, but more than anything else, Angelo was treating me as his compatriot in the Italian language. That to me is pretty flattering stuff. To those who want to make everyone speak English in this country, I would say, “Not so fast.” What is wrong with the Spaniards saying “Feliz Navidad?” It is the Spanish way of saying “Merry Christmas.” But I left the Basilico restaurant saying, “Buono Natale” to myself and feeling as though it were 1943 or 1944 once again.

Soon reality sank in, but at this time of year it was flattering for Angelo to use the term “Buono Natale,” and I was more than grateful that the little Italian that I know returned to me almost immediately. So in this Christmas season, I wish you a “Merry Christmas,” “Feliz Navidad,” and more than anything else “Buono Natale.”

E. E. CARR
December 25, 2009
Essay 428
~~~
Kevin’s commentary: It’s hard to believe that Chistmas 2013 is already more than three weeks behind us. I hope Pop had a good one! My family called up to Short Hills either on or after Christmas; if I recall the weather was not so bad and there was fish on the menu for the night.

SKID CHAINS

Just north of the home where I was raised was a road that ran from St. Louis to Clayton, Missouri. It is naturally called Clayton Road. West of our house was a road that ran north and south; it ran from Clayton, Missouri to Brentwood, Missouri and it was called North and South Road. As you can see, mid-Westerners are not given to fancy titles but tell things as they are. In recent years, however, the North and South Road has been dubbed Brentwood Boulevard. But I regard that as an avant garde designation and I continue to call it North and South Road.

On North and South Road as it approached Brentwood, Missouri, there was a winding curve that was widely known as Dead Man’s Curve. People who used North and South Road knew that they had to approach Dead Man’s Curve with a great deal of caution. If they failed to do that, they would wind up in the leaves after falling down a steep embankment.

I tell you about Dead Man’s Curve and North and South Road to set the stage for an essay about skid chains. Those of you with long memories in the automobile business will recall that as a general principle, in former days, most cars were driven by the two rear wheels. In recent years, since about 1970, front wheel drive has come into vogue. I have nothing against front wheel drive. There are times when I yearn for the drive wheels to be located in the rear. Other people have the same desire which has led manufacturers of high-priced automobiles to have drive wheels in the rear. But in ordinary automobiles the front wheels are the driving force. If you want to get fancy about this subject, these days there are vehicles that have four wheel drive.

So the era on which this essay is based would certainly be pre the 1975 models. The problem seems to be that I have never seen skid chains on front wheel drive automobiles. I suspect somehow or another that it has to do with the ability to turn the car. But that is just my supposition. Let’s go back to the era of this essay when skid chains were attached to the rear wheels in icy weather such as we are now experiencing.

Skid chains were attached to the circumference of the rear wheels which could best be accomplished by jacking the rear wheels up and strapping the skid chains around them. Fastening the inside clamp on the skid chains was a work of art. The outside clamp gave no problem but the inside clamp almost invariably had to be fastened with the workman lying on his back to make the connection.

As the youngest member of the service stations where I worked, it nearly always fell to me to fasten the inside clamp. That was dirty work in that rain and snow drops from the wheels were a constant companion. I can assure you that after nearly four years in the service station business, I hated to see a driver come in asking to have his skid chains attached.

Skid chains were exactly as they are described. They were chains that provided traction to the rear wheels. Because the chains, which were of metal, rubbed against the pavement, they soon wore out. When that happened, you could hear a person driving toward you several blocks away because of the clank clank clank as the worn out chains would strike the fenders. But in the old days of the 1950s and 1960s, nearly every motorist would place a pair of skid chains in his trunk. Tires in those days placed much less of their surface on the road than the tires we now have.

As you can tell from this brief account, skid chains were not a device that could be depended upon. They wore out and drivers were reluctant to install them because of the trouble involved. To alleviate this situation, in the 1950s or thereabouts, we had tire manufacturers introducing snow tires which had large cleats which theoretically would grab the snow and throw it behind the car. Snow tires were fine except that they made a large noise.

Then there was a later development involving studded tires. Tires with metal studs in them were embraced by only a few drivers and were banned not long after they were introduced, as I recall it, because of the damage that they were doing to the streets.

But skid chains have a special place in my memory. I can remember wrestling with the clamps on the inside of the tires while hoping that the chains would last so that the driver would never come back.

Today we are getting some 50,000 miles out of our tires, whereas in those days, the tires would be worn out after 20,000 to 30,000 miles. Tires these days put a lot more of their tire surface on the surface of the road than the old ones did and with the advent of front wheel drive nobody gives a thought to skid chains anymore. But in the weather that we now find inflicted upon us in December of 2009, my thoughts wander back to the days when skid chains were in vogue. I suppose that skid chains probably prevented hundreds of accidents on Dead Man’s Curve on North and South Road. To that extent, I salute skid chains and hope to never see another one in my life.

E. E. CARR
December 26, 2009
Essay 427
~~~
Kevin’s commentary:
I’d wager that Pop indeed has not seen any such chains in the past few years. It seems like a safe bet to me, albeit one that is in poor taste.
Growing up in Austin I didn’t really ever get to see chains on tires, but I thought for some reason that they were used all the time in the north. I thought come November, everybody just slapped on chains for four or so months. Alas, going to school with Northerners taught me that the chains are rarely broken out, and when they are it is for extreme conditions like mountains.

“AIN’T A DAMN THING YOU CAN DO”

I have lived in this town for a little more than 40 years. The last 11 years have been taken up with essay writing. When I stroll down Main Street, no one nudges anyone else and says, “There goes the philosopher.” For better or worse, philosophy has not been one of the main subjects of my essays. And so in this essay, I will set out to try to remedy that situation. And thus there is a philosophical essay to follow.

In the natural course of things, there has to be a setup before the philosophy is rendered. And that brings us to the audible presentation of The New York Times. For five days of each week there is a service to which we subscribe that provides a spoken digest of the news in The New York Times. There are three articles from the front pages, there is the international section, there are the sports and business sections followed by editorials and op ed pieces. In all it takes about one hour and five minutes for the digest of The New York Times to be presented. In addition, my wife, who presides over things around here, usually adds an article or two from The Washington Post. If there are other items of interest, she also includes those stories.

At the end of the news stories, Miss Chicka usually includes a song. The songs recently have been country and Western songs. I am very fond of opera and choral music and other civilized forms of musical expression. I am not fond of the people who try to present hip hop as a musical form of entertainment. In any event, I find the country and Western songs to be of major significance in that they tell a story. They are very much like folk songs in that they present a situation and carry it to a conclusion, all in the period of perhaps four minutes. That is largely what country and Western songs do.

Two country and Western songs have captured my attention. One is a John Denver piece called “Some Days Are Diamonds, Some Days Are Stones.” The second is one by Guy Clark whose title is “Some Days You Write the Songs, Some Days the Song Writes You.” The title of this essay is taken from one of Mr. Clark’s contributions and to a large extent it satisfies the philosophical portion of this essay.

If you listen closely to the John Denver piece, he will tell you that “some days are diamonds and some days are stones.” As we grow older, or at least in my case, as time goes on the stones outweigh the diamonds. The music to this song is captivating, but the major reason that I am attracted to it is that he says that “some days are diamonds and some days are stones.”

In the Guy Clark piece, Mr. Clark obviously is a song writer. He says that “some days you write the songs and some days the song writes you.” What he is saying is that some days songs come very easily and on other days the words and music are very obstinate. As an essay writer, I know a little bit about the failure of words to appear on a tape or on a cassette. It is in this context that Mr. Clark says words “have a way of their own.” If the words don’t come, Guy Clark has concluded that “there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it.” As in the case of diamonds and stones, in such an instance where the words don’t come, there is not much that can be done about it until some time has passed and a second try takes place.

Now for the philosophy part of this essay. It seems to me that those country and Western songs demonstrate the futility of men trying to control events in their lives. There comes a time when there’s not a damned thing that can be done about it. There also comes a time when the person doesn’t call the shots anymore but events take place without him. This is what Guy Clark was trying to say when he had that line, “Some times the song writes you.”

So the philosophical portion of this essay is that as life goes on, there are more stones than diamonds. Secondly as time takes place, we find ourselves not being able to control events, but that the events control us.

I believe that my efforts at producing a philosophical essay might be enhanced by producing the lyrics to these two country and Western songs. And so the lyrics are included here.

When this essay is circulated, I suspect that no one is going to proclaim me as a philosopher. But that is quite all right. I hope that you will remember that these country and Western songs contain not only a story line, but a bit of philosophy as well.

Now when I walk down Main Street, I know that no one will identify me as the philosopher in residence. But nonetheless the music of John Denver and Guy Clark will resonate in my head and that is all an old philosopher can ask.

The lyrics follow.

Guy Clark – Some Days The Song Writes You

It’s just one of those days you can’t explain
When nothing’s right or wrong
Too much wine or not enough
So you just play along.
There’s no rhyme or reason
Ain’t a damn thing you can do
Some days you write the song
Some days the song writes you.

Your sure voice and melody
Will sing my soul to sleep
Reaching for some harmony
Deep inside of me
Some days you know just how it goes
Some days you have no clue.
Some days you write the song
Some days the song writes you.

You can fall
You can fly
Get low down or get high
You can try or just leave it alone.
You can search for the way
You can curse, you can pray
But the words have a way of their own.

It don’t matter how much it hurts
You’ve got to tell the truth.
Some days you write the song
Some days the song writes you.

Now you may think I just made this up
But I would not lie, that’s true
Some days you write the song
Some days the song writes you.

Some Days Are Diamonds
John Denver

When you asked how I’ve been here without you
I’d like to say I’ve been fine and I do.
But we both know the truth is hard to come by
And if I told the truth, that’s not quite true.

Some days are diamonds some days are stones
Sometimes the hard times won’t leave me alone
Sometimes a cold wind blows a chill in my bones
Some days are diamonds some days are stones.

Now the face that I see in my mirror
More and more is a stranger to me
More and more I can see there’s a danger
In becoming what I never thought I’d be

Some days are diamonds some days are stones
Sometimes the hard times won’t leave me alone
Sometimes a cold wind blows a chill in my bones
Some days are diamonds some days are stones.

Some days are diamonds some days are stones
Sometimes the hard times won’t leave me alone
Sometimes a cold wind blows a chill in my bones
Some days are diamonds some days are stones.

E. E. CARR
December 25, 2009
Essay 426
~~~
Kevin’s commentary: We’re going to go counter-philosophical here. First up is that since diamonds are stones, every day is a stone. But that’s okay because secondly, especially if you’re blind, there is no inherent discernable difference between stones — all that really matters is how they are shaped, polished and presented. If I gave Pop a very nicely cut and polished stone and told him it was a diamond, he would probably believe me. Extrapolating back out we can say that days are neither inherently good nor bad but are rather what you make of them and how you perceive them. In Pop’s case, I’d say that having a wife who compiles over an hour of news, entertainment and music for me on a daily basis constitutes a pretty good presentation. Not to say that everything is always perfect, but rather to say that a stone ain’t so bad sometimes.

FRIDAY’S FISH

Most of you over the years have come to know how I feel about religion. There is one aspect from long ago that you may not know. As is widely known, in smaller and smaller circles, it was my fate to grow up in the suburbs of St. Louis. This would have been in the 1930s. At that moment, St. Louis was a German town, the Germans having succeeded the French by several generations.

Looking back on it from the vantage point of 2009, I wonder how a Catholic custom became entrenched with those Germans. I had thought that they were all the Martin Luther variety which means that they were Protestant to the core. But the fact of the matter was that at least on Fridays nearly every restaurant observed the Catholic custom of serving fish. The further fact is that at that time, St. Louis was a meat-eating place and fish was rarely seen on any menu on other days of the week. But nearly every restauranteur in the St. Louis area served a dish on Friday that may or may not have been in the fish family.

The fish was called jack salmon. It is very difficult to find the meaning of jack salmon. It is not a sword fish or tilapia or anything that we now regard as standard fare in most restaurants. There may be a clue here in that the fish was called “jack” salmon. At that time, a good many people would use the word “jack” to describe something that was unauthentic. My mother always used that term to describe jack-leg preachers, that is, those without theological training. I have no idea whether the “jack” refers to the inauthenticity of the salmon, but that is about the only explanation I can offer.

The fish that was offered on Fridays in St. Louis was always served heavily breaded. One of our most courageous dictionaries defines jack salmon as “sort of a wall-eyed fish.” I assume that the fish came from local waters such as the Missouri River or the Mississippi River.

I often ate at a small restaurant owned by a Greek, Leon Leakopolis who was an uncle to Talis Lockos, my best friend, who did some of the cooking and all of the serving. For all the years that I had worked in the filling station business across the street from this small restaurant, I had been eating hamburgers. At age 16 or 17, I knew nothing about fine dining, but Leon, the owner of the establishment, offered jack salmon on Fridays. I considered it sort of a luxury.

When the jack salmon arrived in front of the eater, the first thing that was done was to attack it from the back. As I recall it, the jack salmon fell apart very easily and fell into three lengthwise portions and, if you could get through the breading, was palatable. I did not feel that I was making a major step toward the Gospel but rather I viewed it as a change in my eating habits once a week.

The fish was consumed on my lunch hour, which was not really an hour at all. It was how much time I could take away from pumping gas at Carl Schroth’s filling station. That might have been accompanied by a soft drink but certainly wine was not served in Leon’s place.

Largely because my memory is such that it may be lost to the memory of man, it should be noted that I ate a fish one day a week. Now at this stage in life I consume a fish on perhaps five days each week. Leon served only hamburgers and after several weeks they could become tiresome. So the jack salmon was a welcome relief, even though it was so heavily breaded that most of the taste was lost.

I recite the eating habits of my fellow St. Louisians, who were not cosmopolitan in any sense of the word, but I suppose they got the job done and here I am in the 11th inning of my life, still plugging along on two or three cylinders. If the truth were to be told that the term “jack” salmon had tended to disappear from my memory over the years, one day it suddenly reappeared. I don’t know whether that is enough to justify an essay as distinguished from the fact that I can recall events of the 1930s. As I recall it, the Catholics patted us on the back for being fellow observers of their religion, which bothered us not at all. It was a matter of stuffing the jack salmon down the same throat that had consumed hamburgers for the rest of the week. The Archbishop of St. Louis was named Glennnon. He was a lovable Irishman and if it made Archbishop Glennon feel better to see us all eating fish on Friday, I had no objection to that at all.

Well, that is the end of my history lesson on the culinary habits of St. Louisians during the Depression period. I know that this disclosure is not earth-shaking, but for old-timers such as myself it is pleasant to see that I can recall memories of 70 years or more in the past. If this essay inspires you to order jack salmon the next time you go out to dinner, I am quite certain that you will be totally disappointed. The waiter will tell you that he never heard of such a dish and only old St. Louisians such as myself could tell the waiter what the diner wanted. I leave you now secure in the knowledge that dementia has not taken over my brain at the moment. For a good many of us, that is a hopeful sign and one to be celebrated.

So jack salmon is really a walleye fish, but consumed with French champagne it goes down quite easily. Perhaps there is one other benefit in this essay in that it might put me in good stead if the Pope ever came to visit me in New Jersey, but that is an unlikely event.

E. E. CARR
December 14, 2009
Essay

~~~
Kevin’s commentary: Reason #719 that I’d make a bad Christian: I’ve never actually developed much of a taste for fish, and have consumed beef, chicken, or pork almost daily for the last twentysomething years.
I also wonder if “jack” cheese is, by this logic, an inferior brand of cheese. I can’t think of anything else that uses “jack” as a modifier. In any event, I see it as no big loss that I’ve missed out on jack salmon.

FLIES

This essay has to do with how men’s clothing is tailored. It does not have to do with the insects that buzz around our heads in the summer time nor does it have to do with fly balls as in the case of baseball. Primarily it has to do with the opening in the front of male clothing that permits discharge of waste material. Men are constructed in such a fashion that they need this opening, and for reasons unknown to me those openings are called flies. Why they are called flies is not a subject of this essay, but in the future it might be well to look into that matter.

I had no reason to discuss flies on male clothing until recently, when American manufacturers elected to go outside of this country to get their clothing made. I use the term recently but in retrospect this has been going on for several years. I suppose that manufacturers, in an effort to save money, elected to have men’s trousers and underclothing constructed in low wage areas. But the point in this whole essay is that those manufacturers have cut down on the length of the fly. Whereas the fly used to extend from the top of the pants down to somewhere near the crotch, now the fly does not approach the crotch area. It is located nearer the navel than it is to the crotch. Having a very short fly on men’s clothing is not necessarily a disaster, but it is uncomfortable. It means that men’s clothing must be pulled down to permit proper use of the fly. This is not the way that it should be.

For all of the years that I was growing up in the era before zippers, men’s flies were adequate and were fastened with buttons. The trouble with buttons is that they often come off. So about 1945, at the end of the Second World War, buttons were replaced with zippers. I suspect that shorter zippers are more cost effective than longer zippers. That is my suspicion even though I have no data to prove it.

It seems to me that on purchases that I have made of men’s clothing in recent years, the men’s flies have become shorter and shorter. So much so is this the case that recently I took delivery of a pair of Dickie blue jeans with a longer zipper and it occasioned me to write a letter to the president of that corporation. Dickie is an old-line manufacturer and while his clothing is probably now constructed outside of the United States, he must understand the problems that men have. The letter was directed to a Mr. Williamson who is not only President and descendant of one of the founders, but also Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of the Williamson-Dickie company. In the letter I commended Mr. Williamson on providing me with trousers that look good, are long-wearing, and mostly have a long fly. He has had the letter only a few days and I hope to hear from him before time runs out here.

I had approached this subject with a certain degree of trepidation because a good number of my readers are of the female gender. However, none of them are in their tender years and I believe they understand how a short fly may cause their male counterparts considerable trouble.

But it seemed to me that a manufacturer who provided me with a pair of trousers that were good-looking, well-fitting, long-lasting, and with a long fly deserved to hear from me with my approval. I suspect that in time Mr. Williamson will reply to my letter, which I will bring to you forthwith. To all the world I must say that having trousers and underpants with short flies is a disturbance to the male temperament. Longer flies, as in the case of the Dickie trousers, contribute to world understanding and peace. Anything that accomplishes these objectives is worthy of great praise that should be recognized, even if it is only a letter from a satisfied customer.

For all these years, when a person does me a favor or contributes to my well-being, I think he is deserving of recognition. In the foregoing case, I believe that Mr. Dickie’s trousers or blue jeans accomplish all of these ends, hence the recognition.

E. E. CARR
December 14, 2009
Essay 424
~~~
Kevin’s commentary: First and most importantly, I would like to know whether Pop ever got a response to his note.
Secondly I think I have spotted the problem here. The problem is that Pop is an old man, and old men generally like to wear their trousers nice and high on their bodies. I believe this is probably Pop’s trouble because he said that his fly approaches his navel rather than his crotch which would indicate that the pants are being worn at at least navel height. Conversely if he were to wear his jeans around his hips instead of his waist, the fly could not possibly go to his navel since the waistband of the pants would be below it. I should probably start a career as a detective.