Zing and the Art of Furnace Repair

Update: Two days and $400 later I have heat and a new appreciation for the incontinence of PHAC corporations and for the erudition and arcane knowledge of the laborers in that field.

After visiting seven different practitioners of the art and craft of Coleman heater repair and purchasing the wrong replacement motor, we finally found a practitioner of the PHAC art who recognized that part numbers and model numbers are meaningless: all is determined by serial number. It’s like the doctrine of predestination.

But even a wizard can slip up and repair would have been delayed another day had a second PHACartist not contributed a little known bit of expertise: the Golden Grommets without which the motor could not be reinstalled.

These little double-ended screws with rubber in the middle cost $5 each and either five or six of them are required, depending again on serial number.

When I murmured about the cost of them, he said that I should be glad that the motor was going into a heater and not an air conditioner or refrigeration unit because those grommets, identical except that the steel parts were made of brass, were $20 apiece.

I asked if they can realize that steel will corrode in the condensation of refrigerated air, why can’t they realize that rubber will bake to brickosity in a furnace vent and make the softer parts of silicone?

He just shook his head, like all practitioners of the dark arts, he knew when he must bow down to Mystery.

Starting the New Year Cold

First night this winter it actually got below freezing here and my furnace went out at 10 p.m. last night. I didn’t get to sleep until the dog got under the covers with me about 2 a.m. because SHE was cold.

Got the repairman outside looking at it now, if it’s an electrical problem, he should have it fixed soon. If it’s the heat exchanger, well, that furnace is old enough to have run for president against John McCain. Third party ticket though, so no hope of winning.

Got to take Cuddles to her eye checkup in an hour, looking forward to the heater in the Nissan.

The Ugly Truth

I had a dream last night and I remember much of it this morning. Like a lot of my dreams, it had a title and seemed to have been constructed by the Writing MachineTM I keep in my head. This one was called, The Ugly Truth.

It was both a movie and a card game, a la Steve Jackson’s Munchkin; dreams can be like that. And like Munchkin, there were several different versions. The Ugly Truth about Life, The Ugly Truth about Marriage, The Ugly Truth about High School, The Ugly Truth about Cats and Dogs, The Ugly Truth about Politics and The Super Ugly Truth which was an expansion set that could be added to one of the others.

So this dream was The Super Ugly Truth about High School. We all know that one.

It was a game and a story at the same time. In the story, a group of friends and acquaintances in high school battle with the usual zits, proms, swots and finks while also dealing with super powers and the occasional monster. And also in the story, the kids were playing the card game. Very meta.

The deck is shuffled in a hand of The Ugly Truth and each player is dealt a number of cards, five or six, I think. There are personality cards in the deck and there’s a list of precedence for them, whoever has got the highest precedent personality card in their hand goes first, playing the card and becoming that personality for the hand until replaced. That player draws a replacement card and play begins.

On your turn, if you have any Ugly cards in your hand, you play those first and they take effect. For instance the Massive Zit on your Forehead card prevents you from scoring until it is replaced. You have to have a Beauty or Brawn card to replace an Ugly one, Brains cards can’t do it but Brains cards let you play Ugly cards in front of someone else. Details of how this worked were not clear in the dream.

The Super Ugly Truth added superpowers to this. One Super Ugly card was Bulk Out – you go on a super-eating binge and devour the snack bar, lose two turns.

Oh, the art on the cards was by Brad Guigar of Evil, Inc.

I wonder if this is an actual commercial idea. I know there would probably be a novelty market for the Super Ugly Truth about Politics every four years, what with cards for RepUglycans and DeMonstercrats, but could it ever become a perennial like Munchkin?

Probably not because the Ugly Truth about the game is that nobody wins.

Peanut Butter Fog

There’s something surreal about traveling at night on the freeway. A bubble of greenish dashlight around you, outside the white lights come toward you and red lights convoy alongside. The multicolor lights of cities and towns pass quickly with the hot yellow roadlights of exits and overpasses standing like sentries.

Away from the city it is only more intense. The desert night can be very black and the small hours of morning can bring fog so dense you’re tempted to drive by Braille, hitting the raised-dot lane markers you can’t see anymore with a satisfying tunk-tunk-tunk.

Turn off the radio, you need to concentrate. Dial down the inside lights to cut the glare. Peer into the darkness. Somewhere, you see a white glow in the blanket of fog, a big rig approaching on the otherside of the median strip?

Pea soup fog in the Bay Area, tule fog in the Central Valley — peanut butter fog in the Mojave, thick as a Dagwood sandwich; why are you driving in it? If you pull over and turn off your lights, you’ll be alone in a darkness so complete you’ll feel like a cave fish. Pull over and leave the lights on and you take the risk of someone rear-ending you, thinking you’re moving. Even leaving your emergency blinkers on won’t be safe; you’ve passed two cars doing that already and you didn’t see them till the very last moment.

So you keep driving, slowing down, trying not to overdrive your lights. Then someone blows by you in a quad-cab dualie, doing at least sixty, seventy, maybe one hundred ten, you can’t tell. How fast are you going? You can’t tell that, either, you’ve got the dashlights turned off. Speed up a bit. If you hit the right speed, you won’t see anyone at all because you’ll all be going the same speed.

The fog is so thick, you don’t even see the cotton candy lights of traffic on the other half of the road. You roll down the windows. The fog is cold, blowing in the window like frigid steam but it keeps you awake and you can hear the traffic on the other side of the road, when there is any. You can hear the dots on the pavement better, too.

Tunk-tunk-tunk.

You turn the dashlights back on to check your speed. At forty-five miles an hour, it will take you three hours to reach the towns along the Colorado. Three hours of cold desert wind coming in the window, wet with fog. Three hours of peering into the darkness, wondering if there’s a car stopped in the road with its lights off, or a deer crossing the highway or someone trying to wave you down ’cause they have car trouble.

Going slower would be intolerable, going faster would be insane. You memorize the sound of your current speed, the rhythm of the dots, and turn the dashlights back off. You drive.

That was an exit. What did it say? Eagle Mountain? You’ve never heard of Eagle Mountain. You’ve driven this road in daylight and don’t remember that name. Are you still on the right freeway? There are no mountains here, just flat desert. Is Eagle Mountain a town? Would they have coffee? Too late now, you’ve passed the exit. You make a mental list of who you would kill for a cup of coffee. The list gets longer.

Tumbleweeds appear out of the fog, like golden chandelier-spiders in your headlights, scuttling across the road. Alien-looking, it’s a Steven Spielberg sort of thought.

Tunk-tunk. Tunk. One of the dots must have been missing.

Lights up ahead. Is the fog lifting? You can’t be coming to a town yet, there are no towns on this freeway for another fifty miles. Someone with road flares? An accident or just a breakdown. You slow down and steer off the dots, not wanting anyone to see you doing that.

The fog lifts suddenly, the immense desert opens up around you under hard bright diamonds in a jeweler’s showcase black velvet sky. The tension flows out of your neck and wrists and the open window is suddenly much too cold. You roll it back up.

A road sign says, Blythe 70 miles. Less than an hour away and you won’t have to kill anyone for coffee, there’s a Denny’s there. Talk about surreal.

But the lights in the road ahead of you — maybe you shouldn’t have been thinking of Steven Spielberg?

My Christmas Present from Daniel Ford

Daniel is the artist on the webcomics I work on, Quillian and Sam Valentine. He’s also a sculptor of some skill. He did these beautiful little figurines of the characters Alistair and Zook from the strip I write and draw myself, Alistair2Zook. Click on the image to go to the online archive of the strip.

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Thank you, Daniel. I can’t think about when I’ve been more excited about a Christmas present. :)

Uncle Hank and the Cold Potato Part II

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Daddy’s brother, Uncle Virgil, dropped in on the New Years party that had turned into an Arkansawyer wake for Hank Williams. Naturally, the story had to be retold about the time he had shown up at Ma Dale’s and eaten two whole fried chickens all by himself, with biscuits and corn on the cob and buttermilk to drink. Uncle Virgil stood five-foot-five and weighed about 120 pounds but he was a legendary eater.

He claimed he hadn’t come to eat this time but Pa and Uncle Charley snuck out back to wring the necks of a couple more fryers and Mom and Aunt Opal, the quiet sister, plucked the hens clean after dipping them in the scalding water kept heating in a big boiler sitting on one of the stoves on the back porch.

Aunt Eunice, Uncle Virgil’s wife, was too pregnant to help in the kitchen so she sat in a rocker and told funny stories. She wasn’t a Dale or even the wife of one, being Mom’s sister-in-law but Ozark hospitality didn’t care. Her boys, Jimmy and Billy, disappeared out the back door taking Roger with them.

The older boys played baseball in the stubble of a cornfield but they let the smaller ones who could hold a bat play, too. Both Robert and John would later go on to have Major League tryouts as pitchers but neither ever played professional ball. The older girls took over the front bedroom and talked about clothes, and babies and boys between bouts of helping out in the kitchen. Kay shuttled between the bigger girls and us littles, both groups probably boring the socks off her.

The friends and neighbors and shirt-tail relatives that showed up were welcomed, even if they did push the mid-day meal back a couple of hours. Everyone wanted to talk about the man I kept thinking of as Uncle Hank and his music.

Hank Williams was a tragic figure, dead at twenty-nine after a hard life, poor health and bad habits. There wasn’t anyone there over the age of fifteen who did not understand poverty, pain, bad luck, bad choices and country music. They mentioned his son, Hank Jr., who was just about my age and whom I would later meet, in the late 60’s, and tell him about the New Years party where I thought his father must be a relative of mine since everyone I knew cried so hard when he died.

The radio played Hank Williams tunes all day and the adults sometimes sang along, especially when they played, “I Saw the Light.” My own favorite Hank Williams song at the time, “Kawliga,” about a lonesome wooden Indian came on frequently, too. I also liked the nonsense sound of “Jambalaya” and the one about howling at the moon. Nearly sixty years later, I still know the words of most Hank Williams tunes.

The front porch and living room became where people sat and talked about “Uncle Hank”. The cane-bottom chairs were arrayed across the wide front porch with the older people given preference for seating. But Pa and Uncle Charlie and a few other of the old men preferred to “hunker”, sitting on their own heels. Pocket knives came out and mounds of “whittlin’s” grew around the old men as sticks and small chunks of wood disappeared. The whittlings were carried inside and dumped into the steel box used to store kindling for wood fires.

Ma Dale and my mom and aunts cooked on a big kerosene stove in the kitchen and another older wood-fired oven sitting next to the more modern appliance. Ma tested the heat in the ovens by seeing how fast the hair on the back of her arm would curl, even though the kerosene stove had a built-in thermometer. Pa Dale and my Daddy had cut up logs from the little ten-acre woods behind Pa’s farm back in the fall and they were stored on and under the back porch.

Some of the boys who got pulled away from the baseball game to carry the wood inside to fire the oven complained about spiders. Ma scoffed. “It’s winter, the spiders are all asleep,” she said. Still, sticks and wedges of wood were thoroughly thumped against the ground or the porch to dislodge any sleeping spiders. It would be bad luck for an Arkansawyer to burn up a spider in a cookfire, everyone agreed. I took it to heart and have always been careful not to kill a spider unless it was necessary.

Two or three older kids were detailed to pump and carry water and were kept busy at this task. The pump was on the back porch, too, along with a small bucket that always had to be kept full of water in case the pump lost its vacuum and needed to be primed.

The line at the old two-holer outhouse behind the chicken coop grew and a few people trekked the quarter-mile to the next farmhouse to use an inside toilet rather than risk splinters after a long uncomfortable wait. If you weren’t moving around much, it got cold outside just standing because it was, after all, January and only a week before the place had had one of Missouri’s chief weather-related joys: a Christmas icestorm.

The heat from the kitchen and the coal-burning stove in the living room and a bright if mild winter sun led to piles of coats and scarves and sweaters in the front bedroom. We littles wanted to play in such an inviting and colorful assemblage but we were told that we couldn’t so we had a pillow fight with the bigger girls instead.

Anyone who couldn’t wait for the meal to be ready was given a slice of raw potato, peeled and washed, to gnaw on. Aunt Ava passed out pieces of “tater” to all us littles and we nibbled and crunched and chewed and wondered why no one ever served this delicious treat except when dinner was going to be late. I can still taste the sharp, slightly bitter tang that got sweeter as you munched away.

The radio stayed on in the living room while we ate dinner in every room of the house. It wasn’t a particularly cold day for early January but too cold for us kids to eat outside on the back porch like we did in warmer weather so we ate in the extra bedroom with planks laid across the feather bed to serve as a table. A few months before, Mom and Dad and I had slept in that same bed.

We finally had chicken and biscuits, gravy and potatoes, corn and peas, collard greens and bread and butter pickles, apple cobbler and gingerbread cake — the meal went on for hours that first day until we littles were tucked away on pallets in the back bedroom a few hours after sunset.

But not before each of us had a small helping of ham and black-eyed peas, even if we hated black-eyed peas, for luck in the new year.

Better luck than poor Uncle Hank had, anyway.

Uncle Hank and the Cold Potato Part 1

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Mom taught me my letters and how to sound-spell and I would puzzle out some of the shorter words, getting good enough that with my supply of imagination, a lot of people thought I could read. By the middle of the following summer, before my fifth birthday, I really could though I still needed help with some of the harder words.

A few things happened before that next birthday that I particularly remember, though. The biggest was probably that Hank Williams died. Mom, Dad and I and about forty aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends were at Ma and Pa Dale’s for a New Years Day feast.

Uncle Charley, Pa Dale’s eldest brother, was there. I described Pa Dale earlier as looking sort of like a taller Stan Laurel playing Jed Clampett. Uncle Charley looked like Benny Hill dressed for pickin’ and grinnin’ and he clowned for us little kids with all the enthusiasm of Pee Wee Herman.

He would get down in the floor and wool us around like a big dog and we would laugh until some of us needed diapers changed. He’d pick us up in his mouth by the back of our bibs and carry us around while we squealed and giggled. He was about to turn 76; he still had all of his own teeth, but only a little fringe of white hair around his ears.

Pa was a clown, too — pulling faces, telling stories complete with silly voices, and making toys for us from old spools; dollies for the girls and little tractors for the boys. He and Uncle Charley both got down in the floor and pretended to bury us in the linoleum. Pa had false teeth so he couldn’t do the trick with carrying us in his mouth.

In the middle of this hilarity while getting ready for the big festivities, somebody came in, I think Uncle Ross, my Mom’s brother, and told everyone that Hank Williams had died. The big radio in Ma and Pa’s living room was turned on and everyone had to be quiet while the grownups who had been sitting on the front porch in cane-bottom chairs chawing terbacky and dipping snuff listened to the news.

Hank Williams, the biggest star on the radio, had died in the back of a Cadillac while being driven from one show to another. The women cried and the men looked solemn. I started to cry, too. “Was he Mr. Williams or Uncle Hank?” I asked. Everyone seemed so upset I thought he must have been a relative I hadn’t met yet.

There were four of us cousins less than six years old but old enough to walk and talk. We had rooms full of grown-ups ready to spoil us when Uncle Hank had to go and die and put a damper on the party.

Brenda, Roger and I were all born in the same summer only weeks apart. Roger’s sister Kay was six and had started first grade a year early at five by following her older brother to school and refusing to go home. So she sort of counted as a big kid to us. Roger’s little brother Bill was two and talked around the fooler in his mouth. A fooler is a baby’s pacifier, binky, or maggie, if you’re wondering.

Bill looked like a miniature Uncle Charley, complete with fringe of white hair around his ears, except that he didn’t have all his teeth yet. He was a smart little guy though and had already become locally famous for a few zingers.

Like what happened when Ma Dale had introduced him to her quilting circle as her “Little Bimbo” after a popular song of the time about a little boy who had a lot of girlfriends. Bill had removed his fooler and announced to the old ladies that, “Bimbo is a little shit-ass.”

And even with very few teeth, he could bite like a snapping turtle and so had our respect.

Bill’s actual name was Roland, and his brother Roger was usually called Bud. Their oldest brother, Robert, was called Robert, though, presumably to avoid confusion. Their mother, Aunt Ava, had a Mississippi drawl as broad as the river, along with blue-eyed blonde cheerleader looks and a bouncy, good-natured enthusiasm that didn’t seem to go with being a mother of four at the age of 25.

My mother and my Aunt Myrtle probably distrusted Aunt Ava’s flatlander origins and her roping their brother Ross into marriage to a teenager but they traded barbs and quips with her exactly like they did with each other.

Aunt Myrtle had clearly inherited her sense of humor from whatever strand of ancestry had supplied Uncle Charlie’s; she had the kind of earthy humor that might suggest plugging an electric blanket into an unlikely place if the power went out. Mom had a quick sarcastic turn of phrase like a Katherine Hepburn character; but Aunt Ava could hold her own with a sly grin, a wink, a giggle and an occasional zinger of her own. She was Bill’s mother after all.

They all worked in the big farmhouse kitchen beside Ma Dale, a tiny woman with her hair up in a bun. If she let it down, it would lay on the floor for almost three feet and it stayed black for more than sixty years. Ma’s own grandmother had taught her some rather German twists on things like spice cake, egg noodles and potato pancakes. She cooked with enthusiasm and skill and liked nothing much better than a lot of people to show up and eat what she had prepared.

She knew how to handle a passel of daughter and daughter-in-law helpers but people kept arriving on hearing of the death of Hank Williams and the frying of Ma’s chickens along with the pans of cornbread, biscuits and cobbler, the pots of beans, black-eyed peas and cream corn, and the plates of winter vegetables like onions, potatoes and turnips. Thirty or forty people had been expected but the feast grew to more than seventy and went on for two days, with another day just for clean-up.