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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Raised on Boring Workaholic Athletes Who Happen to be Super White


When the correspondent from ABC’s Good Morning America asked 10-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up I didn’t need too long to think. “Third basemen for the Philadelphia Phillies,” I responded.  I caught my reflection in the lens of the hulking television camera before me; I had burly side-burns and spit chaw, while clad in mid-80’s Phillies home pinstripes. All I needed was about twelve more years developing superior glove-work and defensive range while harnessing the hand-eye coordination and nearly superhuman raw power to lead the National League in home runs eight times and earn an NL MVP nod three times. Okay. Okay. I wanted to me Mike Schmidt. I wanted to me Mike Schmidt because I grew up emulating Mike Schmidt. I grew up emulating Mike Schmidt because he was my father’s favorite baseball player. He was my father’s favorite baseball player because he was the best player on his favorite team. He also embodied the default benchmarks that typified my father’s favorite athletes: he was boring and a workaholic who “played the game right.” 



Why was Good Morning America interviewing me? I was chosen as South Williamsport Area Grade School’s “Whiz Kid of the Year” and was invited to the White House to meet Ronald Reagan with other northern Pennsylvania “whiz kids”. Psyche! My Little League team was coached by a gentleman named Fred Heaps, who had been coaching Newberry Little League teams for nearly 40 years at that point. His most notable achievement was leading a local team to the Little League World Series in 1969. More importantly, he was known for doing kindhearted things like buying baseball gloves for kids who couldn’t afford them, or reminding his teams that he loved them, win or lose. What I remember most about him was how he preached “fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals,” and giving me a quarter for answering “Tony Gwynn” when he asked who was the purest hitter in the major leagues. ABC put together a piece on Fred Heaps during the MLB All-Star break in 1988. Coach Heaps passed away two years later, during my final year as a little leaguer.

Goddamn, I miss little league.

I read Mike Schmidt’s autobiography Clearing the Bases: Juiced Players, Monster Salaries, Sham Records, and a Hall of Famer's Search for the Soul of Baseball (ahem) a few years ago. Schmidt lays bare the lack of fun that accompanied his 18 years with the Phillies, from ’72-’89. Essentially, Schmidt put such incredible pressure on himself to be an elite player that he had tremendous difficulty squeezing enjoyment from playing the game. To the detriment of all life’s simple pleasures, his priority was training his body, and developing the mindset, to consistently be at peak potential. The theater of baseball was for the birds. Schmidt didn’t insult the pitcher, or the game, by brazenly flipping the bat after crushing a ball that would clearly sail high over the left-center fence, as Yasiel Puig does today. He didn’t take an hour and a half to leisurely trot around the bases after a home run, as David Ortiz has trademarked. He wasn’t known for childish off-field antics prompting observers to say, “oh well, that’s just Schmidt being Schmidt,” such as whenever Manny Ramirez pulled a boner and the world muttered a collective, and exhausted, “ugh, that’s just Manny being Manny.” (For purposes of supporting the premise, I’m excluding rumors that Mike Schmidt used cocaine during his playing days, or the time he was a guest Phillies color commentator and sprang an off-handed joke about beating his wife. Schmidt’s career has never been typified by drug rumors or “Manny Moments” so I think it’s okay to omit such from the conversation.)

Mike Schmidt the baseball player was exciting. He hit majestic home runs. He was a wizard with the glove as a third basemen. He was one of those generational players who had the capacity to pull off something dramatic or extraordinary at any moment during a game. But Mike Schmidt the personality was boring. And my father loved him. Schmidt was Dad's kind of player. If Mike Schmidt the personality was the equivalent of a career, that career would probably be -- banker. My old man was a banker for the vast majority of his working life. And he was a damn good banker, too. He was promoted to VP of Sun Bank during that glorious ’01 fiscal season. In fact, one could argue that my father was the Mike Schmidt, or at least a Mike Schmidt, of the north central Pennsylvania banking industry; he never brashly flipped his suitcase or trotted a victory lap around the stanchions in the lobby for, ah, any reason that would cause a banker to celebrate. Well, he certainly was no Reggie Jackson. Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson was that flashy post-season world-beater who said things like “I didn’t come to New York (to become a Yankee) to be a star. I brought the star with me,” and “The only reason I don’t like playing in the World Series is I can’t watch myself play.” Sure, Jackson was a terrific player, but what sickening bravado! He should’ve just shut up and played the game, I tell ya'. He was a “turkey,” as Dad was/is prone to calling strutting athletes like Jackson. On the other hand, one of Mike Schmidt’s notable quotes was “Anytime you think you have the game conquered, the game will turn around and punch you right in the nose.” Now that’s modesty, boy. That’s the mindset of a guy who plays the game right. Now where’s my damn briefcase and penny loafers; I gotta’ get to the office and crush a barrel-load of paperwork.

The Phillies' third basemen retired in 1989. About this time people began to notice that I was somewhat rangy for my age. Of course, no expression of my height was without the obligatory “You should play basketball.” So I did, honing what skills I had at the local playground. I also became a fan of the NBA. I hitched my fandom on to my father’s favorite basketball player, Larry Bird. Larry Bird was about as boring a basketball player as could be. I mean, he was exciting, in that he was dominant on the court. But he was boring in the sense that he didn’t finish fast breaks with a tomahawk jam, or hop on the scorers’ table and strike a triumphant pose, or spit catchphrases after the game. Bird? He finished fast breaks by laying the ball off the glass, energized fans by burying turn-around mid-range jumpers, and treated the media like invading bacteria. In fact, the single existing clip of him dunking the ball has appeared ad nauseum on Larry Bird highlight reels. As a matter of fact, his most notable highlight was an otherwise lackluster steal of an inbounds pass; And… now there's a steal by Bird, underneath to DJ and lays it down... What a play by Bird. Oh my God. This place is crazy.

Larry Bird was born in the tiny farm community of French Lick, Indiana. His youth was dedicated to back-breaking manual labor, and, as far as Bird knew, would always be. Even when he accepted a scholarship to Indiana University -- one of the most decorated collegiate basketball programs in the county -- he bailed out when life at a big-time university proved too overwhelming. He later enrolled in the less prestigious Indiana State University basketball program, where he single-handedly took the Sycamores to the NCAA national championship game in '79. Even when Bird's father committed suicide, he was resolute -- kick ass on the court and remain discreet off of it. THIS GUY, my friends, was not only born to win NBA championships, but also to be one of my father's favorite athletes. 

Larry Bird's greatest foil on the court was -- no drumroll needed -- Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Bird and Johnson met in the aforementioned NCAA championship game, and again in the NBA championships 3 times. But the comparison delves so much deeper. Their nicknames alone are clue enough that a discerning mind would recognize which player my father would idolize. 

"Magic": Flashy. Gaudy. "Look at me, everyone."
"The Hick From French Lick": See word "Hick."

However, Magic was the perfect antithesis to Bird. Magic's team was the "Showtime" LA Lakers. Magic's cheesing mug was on billboards and television commercials. Magic bedded nearly as many women as he had amassed career assists. One the other hand, Bird's Boston Celtics mirrored gangly white working class schlubs in both appearance and attitude (yes, Robert Parish did, too). Off the court, Bird's face only appeared in his defender's nightmares. And I'm pretty sure Bird is still a virgin.



Okay, here's the example that perfectly epitomizes Dad's affection for Bird over Magic. While Magic was romancing one woman after another on velvet bedspreads, Bird was putting in his mother's driveway. As a result -- Magic got AIDS, and Bird got a chronic bad back. However, my father respects  Magic. The ex-Laker was, and is, a true professional and a stand-up human being (despite now being part-owner of the blasted LA Dodgers). But whenever Dad is outside on a chilly November morning, building a retaining wall or hauling dead trees, he is Larry "The Hick From French Lick" Bird, but in Dickies work pants and a flannel shirt. 

The other sport my father enjoys is football. His favorite NFL player should be exceedingly easy to guess.  (Dad doesn't pay attention to hockey. His head would explode trying to determine a favorite player because every NHL athlete is either Mike Schmidt or Larry Bird on ice skates, more-or-less. I bet Alexander Ovechkin would be the only guy off the table.) That player is Peyton Manning, duh. Dad has always been a diehard Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts fan, to boot. Peyton Manning is the stereotypical overachiever. His workaholic credentials are legend. In fact, he's such an overachiever that he's ripe for satire -- he shows up to training camp before Valentine's Day; he breastfeeds rookies (in public) until they're mature enough to put on pads on Week One; he's competed in the playoffs with a severed head. 

The Colt's vaunted starting quarterback sat out the 2011 football season due a faulty neck. That year, replacement quarterback Curtis Painter "led" the Colt's to a 2-14 record, ensuring Indianapolis the number one pick in the 2012 NFL draft. The team had since decided to draft a young college quarterback to replace a departing Manning, The two choices were obvious: Standford's la-de-da pocket passer Andrew Luck or Baylor's super-charged field general Robert Griffin III. Both were tremendous talents who had celebrated college careers. Both were also dedicated and hardworking athletes who were, by all accounts, respectful human beings. Dad liked them both. Prior to Draft Day he stated in an email to me "I'd gladly take either Luck or Griffin." Either player seemed fully capable of eventually returning the Colts to the Super Bowl. To Dad, the variables of the quarterback were irrelevant; leading the team to victory was paramount. However, all else being equal, I knew my father preferred Andrew Luck. Why? He was boring. Moreover, Andrew Luck looked and acted as though he were divinely born straight from Peyton Manning's rib. 

During the 2012 NFL season, Luck spearheaded a Colt's offense to an 11-5 record. RG3 did the same at the helm of the Washington Redskins. Both teams made the playoffs. That Thanksgiving, I was watching the afternoon football games at my parents' house with my father when a Subway commercial aired, starring a hamming-it-up Robert Griffin the Third. Dad grimaced and shook his head, and said "See now, that bothers me. This guy is only a rookie and he's doing television commercials." I reminded him that Peyton Manning has literally been in every other friggin' commercial for five years straight. I should've imagined his response; "That's right. But he's already won the Big One." Touche'.

I never grew up to be the baseball player in the camera lens. Sure, I could've grown badass sideburns and stuffed chew under my bottom lip, but I was destine not to be Mike Schmidt. As much as I daydreamed -- even if I'd tried like hell since I was a little leaguer -- I could never have become Reggie Jackon, or Larry Bird, or Magic Johnson, or RG3. I never wanted to be Peyton Manning -- he who sacrificed a puppy to Satan in exchange for a first-round playoff bye, or appeared in enough Starbucks commercials to gain membership into the Screen Actor's Guild.

I'm not upset that I never achieved my childhood dreams. Nevertheless, I do possess the capacity to build a retaining wall or haul dead trees. Hell, I suppose I could even lay a driveway if I really, really want to. In the minds of some, completing such chores is the everyman's version of winning the Big One.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Thunk Tank 3



Oh, it’s you again! I was just sitting here by the fireplace, lounging in this silk bathroom and puffing on this gaudy pipe. Here are a few random thoughts…

--Stacked on the magazine racks are copies of a Time Magazine special edition celebrating Prince George’s—the royal baby's— first birthday. Time Magazines special editions should be reserved for transformative figures like Maya Angelou, and life-changing events like 9/11. But a baby!? A baby makes no conscious decisions. Babies should be relatively boring to everyone but their parents—even royal babies. Babies do not deserve to be covered, or exploited, by Time Magazine. They deserve binkies and clean diapers; that's about it. And what's with the outdated notion of a "royal" family anyway? Can we please mature as a society and starting calling them what they are…those blasted Windsors down the street.


--Right now, somewhere on Earth, one kid is starving to death in a hut made of plywood and particle board, while another kid is programming the rec room DVR to record Man Vs. Food. A 5-year-old is choosing between begging for a handful of rice or stealing stale bread from the corner market, while a grown man is being paid handsomely to do battle against a 3 pound bacon double cheeseburger on a Kaiser roll.

I guess some are blessed while others are lessed.

--The give-a-penny take-a-penny jar is a fine idea on which to base a financial system, in theory. The problem is, somebody needs to give a penny first and expect nothing in return. Otherwise, the jar will be perpetually empty.

--Why do so many conservatives take such issue with progressivism? Do they not realize the United States of America itself is a result of arguably the greatest progressive experiment in the history of mankind, spearheaded by enormously progressive thinkers?

No progressivism=no America=no place to flaunt your handguns in a Denny's.

-On the Dr. Oz program the other day (don't ask) a so-called medium was so-called talking to the so-called dead and relaying the so-called messages to living family members in the audience. If you believe that ghosts are whispering vague details about themselves to the few with the gifted ability to listen, you probably search for The Sixth Sense in the documentary section. Mediums are clearly shysters using age-old tricks. Regardless, they're on network TV at 6:00pm on a Tuesday, manipulating the fragile emotions of desperate widowers and grieving daughters, and whatnot. How can rational networks executives, not to mention Dr. Oz, allow this? The antics perpetrated by mediums are exceedingly cruel, and shouldn't be gloried. Dr. Oz has plenty of reasons to be ashamed, and this is chief among them, unless, of course, he is delusional too. Who made this man a doctor?

--Rush Limbaugh is like a terrorist. If people talk about him, he wins. Shhh.

--The crisis at the border is disturbing, indeed. Those demanding that the children be deported back to war-town drug countries are, by-in-large conservatives, who are, by-in-large, the WWJD contingency. Would Jesus herd fearful 12-year-olds into cargo planes and unceremoniously dump them back into a netherworld in which 1 in 5 will be murdered by the henchman of drug lords. Probably not. But then again, maybe Jesus requires the proper paperwork.

--If religious indoctrination of children ceased tonight, tomorrow's world require far less missile defense systems.

Frankly, a person shouldn't be allowed to explore religious options until he's old enough to drink.

--Too often, political talking heads and opinion writers refer to "the Republics" doing this and that, or "the Democrats" believing this and that. Almost always, not all members of one political party agree with every other member of the same political party on any particular issue. This kind of generalizing has become too pervasive, and it's lazy. Even one of my favorite celebrity personalities, Bill Maher, will say something like, "Those crazy Republicans always blah, blah, blah." Not ALL of them. Name names. I believe that this political generalizing in the media only causes prejudices in less discerning minds. How do you think the asinine term "libtards" was born?

--Politically speaking, I prefer to consider each individual issue holistically and then 
choose a position, instead of tagging myself as Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, thus choosing a blanket position on all issues. 

The following is a bunch of religious stuff that bothers me. Caution: I'm going to belabor the point.
  
--Faith, by definition, is belief or trust in something that lacks logical proof, or despite evidence to the contrary. Do you realize some US lawmakers dictate policy via faith!? If I told you I had faith that a loose leaf notebook could halt a SCUD missile you'd shrug me off. That is, until I became an elected official and contracted Dunder Mifflin to build a coastline defense shield. 
How did Occam's Razor get so dull?

--A pastor on the radio said that God has a plan for all babies (the pastor noted that God especially has a plan for Christian babies. Go figure!) and He knows what the future holds. (Some babies are born with heroin addictions or faulty livers or, ah dead, but whatever.) If God has a plan for all babies
—thus He has a plan for EVERYONE—then free will doesn't exist. If free will doesn't exist, than the whole premise of God's judgment is void. However, if free will does exist—meaning that God doesn't interfere with mankind—then why bother praying.

--And enough nonsense about God only giving a person tribulations that he can handle. Is that what they tell the orphans in the burn unit?  

--A friend's Facebook post recently claimed that Christianity is a religion of peace, but Islam is a religion of violence. Apparently, this particular Christian has never read the Bible. Perhaps Muslims simply have the courage to follow through with the crazy nonsense their god Allah directs. Read the Bible, especially the Old Testament. I have. The Christian god advocates or decrees activity that would arouse a spirited thumbs up from Allah. (I bet those two drink at the same bar. Imagine Jehovah and Allah, tipsily swaying shoulder to shoulder and wailing Piano Man in a smokey pool room, or puckering their lips for high-angled selfies.)

Okay. Enough funny business. Grab your snatch whackers Christian foot soldiers, and start murdering those who work on the Sabbath, as God suggests. Or make sure rape victims marry their rapists, as God instructed. And keep slaves. Surely, you will rewarded in Heaven.

--When the God who tells Earthlings "Thou Shall Not Kill" is the same God who murders the entire Earth in a flood (recounted just a few pages into His autobiography), explanations are needed.

Consider this, many children are read First Bible Stories at bedtime. Right there on page two is the Noah's Ark story. That's literally one of the first stories a child learns, the most widespread mass murder in the history of the world, perpetrated by He who watches you sleep.

And what's more, page one is the Adam and Eve story. One of God's first bits of dialogue goes something like "don't eat of the tree of knowledge." Right of the bat, the divine judge, jury and executioner is warning the reader not to question anything in the following pages, or face eternal punishment. Heeelllooo.

The (what should be) obvious...

--You don’t need religion to be a good person. Regardless to whom you pray before bedtime, you shouldn't be loving, or giving, or sympathetic only to impress a feckless god.

However, many people are various sorts of assholes—Muslim or Christian or whatever—because the same feckless god clearly and concisely instructs (or at least strongly suggests) them to be.

ISIS; Hamas; Westboro Baptist Church; Al Qaeda; Michelle Bachmann..."Imagine no religion."

--The Pope is the one-man royal family of Catholicism. Sure, he rides around in a bullet-proof phone booth on wheels, lives in the penthouse (or, ah, "guest room") of a snow globe, and requests that you collapse to your knees and smooch the gaudy ring on his finger because he's a living god on Earth and all, yet…he's soooooo humble.

--Speaking of…Pope John Paul II is a saint now. Apparently, medical experts have verified that he orchestrated two miracles (conveniently, the exact number of verifiable miracles needed to become a saint) during his residency as pope. Now, either Pope John Paul actually conjured his papal powers to manipulate physics and broach the fabric of the cosmos to, what, heal a leper or something? Or, the so-called experts fudged the numbers to allow for sainthood? Which is more likely?
"Congratulations John Paul, you performed juuust enough miracles to become a saint…two."

If, in a lifetime of attempting to perform miracles, all you can pull-off are a measly two, maybe pope-hood just isn't in the cards.




Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Chicks Don't Dig Pitchers' Duels

"Chicks dig the long ball." Well, that was the slogan of Major League baseball in the late 90's and early 00's when common players (those whose baseball cards are worth the obligatory 3 cents) were hitting 10+ homers per year, and the real brutes were clubbing upwards of 60. Things have changed since. Steroid use is closely monitored, and has presumably declined greatly. Advances stats have led to individualized offensive shifts, to the point where 7 position players are cluttered around short right field when Pedro Alvarez bats. Relief pitchers are more specialized; it seems each is bred and nurtured to foil a specific batter. For reasons such as these, offensive production in baseball is down. Here is a short, non-complete list of way to boast offensive production in baseball.

-No catchers. After a pitcher makes a pitch he has to quickly run to the backstop and retrieve the bouncing ball.

-No in-game pitching changes, no in-season roster moves, and no disabled lists. Did your pitcher just have Tommy John surgery a week ago? Too bad—play ball!

-Lower the mound to the point where it’s a 4-foot ditch under the rest of the playing field. (The pitcher would have to pitch the ball as if he's lobbing a hand grenade.)

-No force outs. Only tag outs.

-Shrink the strike zone to: bottom of batter's crotch to top of batter's crotch.

-Bats are filled with explosives. A well-struck ball causes the bat to immediately ignite into mini fireworks. (This will not increase offense per se, but it would be cool.)

-Legalize steroids for positions players only.

-Foul balls that make it to the upper deck are automatic three-run homers.

-Outfielders must walk/jog/run the ball back to the infield on balls in play.

-Allow ex-Pirates General manager David Littlefield to draft the pitchers for every team.

-The opposing dugout can target the other team's pitcher with pea-shooters, in-game.

-The whole outfield must shift one position to the left whenever one or more runners are on base—putting the left fielder in center field, the center fielder in right field, and the right fielder next to the hotdog vendor.

-Two players bat at once: a righty and a lefty.

-Play all games in Coor's Field.



Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A House In The Woods

A House In The Woods

I worked at a Kmart in Williamsport, Pennsylvania back in November, 2001. Williamsport is a city in the mountainous region of north central PA, best known as being the home of Little League Baseball, and lumber capital of the world until the surrounding mountains ran out of trees. I grew up in a much smaller town outside Williamsport's borders, called DuBoistown. DuBoistown is the kind of town where most folk know other folk's business. If Bob is cheating on his wife and Bob is walking down the street, bystanders see him and think "That's Bob, the guy who cheats on his wife." But folk in DuBoistown also grow up with that small town sense of morality; if someone needs a hand, well, by god drop what you're doing and lend a hand. If a neighbor knocks at your door at 3 in the morning because he needs 3 pounds of flour and a ballpeen hammer, you wake up and get him the flour and the damned ballpeen hammer.

***

I was manning Kmart's home center department one evening when I was paged on the overhead speakers concerning an incoming customer call. I picked up the receiver attached to the pillar between the paint shaker and deck wash, and I greeted the caller with the obligatory, "Hi. Thank you for calling Kmart. How can I help you?" The voice at the other end was somewhat meek. "Yes, hello. I have something to ask you. I'm a disabled veteran and I'm in the process of moving. I need a big favor. The doorknob on my front door is broken. Since I can't make it down to the store myself due to my disability I was hoping that you'd be able to purchase a door knob for me and deliver it to my house personally tonight. I'll pay you gas money."

I put him on hold while I processed the conversation. Kmart clerks don't typically take personal orders for merchandise and delivery them to private homes like pizza delivery services. And nothing screams "good idea" about driving god-knows-where to deliver a doorknob to god-knows-who late at night. But this fellow was a disabled veteran who lacked a vital household commodity. I imagined a geezer in a wheelchair becoming more and more disenchanted whenever he tried to close his front door and it invariably creaked back open when the latch didn't catch. I felt like it was my duty to lend a hand. But to be safe, I approached my two friends, Andrea and Dustin, who were also working that night. Normally the three of us would be seeking trouble anyway had we not been scheduled to work. So when presented the opportunity for an off-the-cuff adventure, both were predictably enthused.

I hit the hold button again and informed the disabled veteran that I'd be happy to help. But when the man replied, his voice now seemed quite sinister. "Great! But I don't actually have the gas money on me. You'll need to stop at a buddy's house. He lives near Kmart." Okay. Just a little more adventure, I suppose. "I live out in Trout Run." Trout Run is a hamlet way out where the buses don't run. It's called Trout Run because that's about all that lives out that way, trout. "When you take the Trout Run Exit, take a left and drive about a quarter mile down the road until you see a long gravel driveway that heads deep into the woods. Take it. My house is at the end. Now, I have no electricity, but you'll know it's my house because there'll be a Meet the Parents promotional poster in the front window." Okay. Meet the Parents was a big hit earlier that year. Perhaps he just really enjoyed the film. Regardless, I told him we'd be there by 11 o'clock.

I purchased a door knob prior to punching-out for the night, and I stuffed it inside my car's glove box. After work I followed the veteran's directions to the gas money pick-up point four blocks from Kmart, with Andrea and Dustin in tow. Throughout the drive the three of us joked about the preposterousness of our mission, which already seemed akin to a warped kind of scavenger hunt. When we arrived at the street address, I pulled to the curb along an inconspicuous residential street. Taped to the front door of the house in question was a white envelope with the name MATT written across the front in black marker. Frankly, the errand now seemed more like a booby-trap. Of course, none of the three of us volunteered to be the sucker to approach the front door and be ensnared by the giant net in waiting, or clip the trip wire en route, or succumb to the boogey man waiting inside the front door, who’d spring out and snatch whoever dared remove the envelope from its resting place above the knocker. Being adults, we submitted ourselves to the only fair way to determine the victim; we played paper, rock scissors. Andrea lost. So the only woman amongst two men leapt out of the car, sprinted to the door and snatched the envelope, and then rushed back as though she were being chased by a pack a giant rolling boulder. But sure enough, inside the envelope was 10 bucks for gas money.

Moments later we were climbing the on-ramp to Route 15 North, toward Trout Run. Andrea was still huffing and puffing; her heart was decelerating to normalcy. The Williamsport city lights gradually dimmed in the rearview mirror as we traveled amongst the rugged foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Moonlight cast a pale but widespread glow. Ahead, man-made illumination was scarce: a porch light on a faraway farm house in the hills, or a flood light outside of a silo. We mused about who exactly we would encounter when we arrived at the house in the woods. Andrea expected no one less than a secluded wild-eyed veteran turned Michael Myers. Dustin imagined a cockeyed but innocent hermit. Me? I still figured the mysterious veteran was just a little old man in a wheelchair, hoping to repair his front door.

We exited the highway at the sole Trout Run exit, four miles beyond the prior exit and four miles before the next. The last sign of life we'd encountered was a car southbound, about five minutes ago. We moved along the narrow road for about a quarter mile until we arrived at a driveway that headed into a cluster of skyscraper-like trees. I turned right unto the driveway, as instructed. We rolled along slowly. Pebbles popped underneath the tires as the car gently bounced along the rutted terrain. Eventually, two hemlock trees parted revealing a decrepit house awash in moonlight. Shingles were dislodged from the roof; gutters sagged; the chimney was slightly bent. As described, no lights were on despite the presence of porch light globes adoring the doorway. But, in the front window, an apprehensive Ben Stiller was taking a polygraph test from a scowling Robert De Niro. Believe me, there's nothing more intimidating than a scowling Robert De Niro in the moonlight, especially when your nerves are already on high alert. "This must be the place," I said as I stopped the car.

I plucked the door knob from the glove box. Then the three of us slinked on to the front porch, which creaked in meager support of our weight. Meanwhile, the scowling De Niro's eyes seemed to follow us like the eyes in those creepy Jesus paintings. I knocked on the front door, rattling paint chips dangling from cobwebs sagging off the door frame. Footsteps trudged toward the front door—not the sounds of a wheelchair rolling along hardwood. The doorknob turned. Yes, the door knob TURNED. The veteran pulled opened the door, revealing himself. He was clad in camouflage from his black combat boots to his leathery neck. His head was topped with a black bandana; bushy white hair exploded out the back. He wore Rawlings batting gloves on both hands. RAWLINGS BATTING GLOVES! He held a metal flashlight—one of those industrial strength ones that holds four D batteries long-ways—in his hand. This provided the only light in the house besides the moonlight pouring in above the scowling De Niro in the window. Behind him were several stacks of cardboard boxes scattered about the kitchen floor; each box was sealed at the seams with duct tape. A dining table rested in the corner beside a tilting bookshelf. In the opposite corner was a rusty Mad Men era oven between scuffed countertops. Everything was covered in dust.

The veteran turned the flashlight toward us and probed us with his eyes. His face was wrinkled and coarse; he had the eyes of a man who'd seen some shit in his day. Jack asked…I'm going to refer to him as Jack from now on, in honor of the scowling De Niro. Jack asked, "Do you HAVE the doorknob?" I held it into the oncoming flashlight beam. He smiled subtly and nodded. "Good," Jack said as he grabbed the doorknob and tossed it on the kitchen table. Dust kicked up. "Come on in," he said, motioning us toward him. We slogged forward a few steps. Jack brushed passed us, closed the door behind us, and then locked it. Andrea gasped as the deadbolt clicked. The DISABLED VETERAN who desperately needed a new door knob WALKED to the door and LOCKED THE DOOR behind us. We were prisoners now.  

Jack spun back around and perched his weathered eyes on mine. "Want to see my daughter," he asked. I gulped. His daughter!? She's in this house!? Is she locked in a dark, dark room? Is she chained up outside in a shed? Oh my God! Is she in pieces in the boxes on the floor? Rather than ask the obvious questions, I simply nodded. "Follow me," Jack said. He followed his flashlight beam to the bookshelf. I followed Jack, wincing with each step in anticipation of whatever crazy shit was about to happen. Andrea and Dustin followed me, walking slowly like they wore cinderblock shoes. Jack pulled a binder from the glut of other binders and hardbound books on the shelf. Then he turned his flashlight downward and opened the binder. It was filled with assorted letters written in pencil on tablet paper, and clippings from various publications. "There she is. There's my daughter," he said, almost proudly. He held up the binder, displaying a newspaper article from the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. The paper on which the article was written was wrinkled and yellow. I skimmed the piece, a human interest story about the owner of a newly opened pizza shop in downtown Williamsport. Accompanying the story was a low resolution photograph of the owner, a smiling woman with dark shoulder-length hair. I felt like I was looking at the missing person picture on the backside of a milk cartoon from three decades ago. The woman in the photo MAY have been his daughter, but she was long, long gone.   

Jack directed the flashlight beam over my shoulder and toward Dustin, who was hunkering behind me. "You. I want to show YOU something," Jack said. I had never heard such a foreboding statement. Dustin's eyes widened. Then Jack turned the flashlight to the opposite corner of the room. Dust slowly drifted through the beam. "See that red trunk. I want you to go open and it and see what's inside." When I recall this moment now, I imagine Jack is licking his lips and salivating. Dustin eyed the cumbersome red trunk and took a deep breath before uttering a single word, "Okay." Jack crept toward the trunk. Dustin followed, and stopped when told, a feet in front of the trunk. "Go ahead. Open it," Jack said. Dustin closed his eyes for a moment, as though he were thinking "Okay. This is it. It all ends here." Then he slowly bent down and slipped his fingers underneath the lid. Jack turned off his flashlight and set it on a stack of boxes. Moonlight enveloped the room. Jack proceeded to snatch a wrench from the nearby countertop, and gradually raise it above his head. I got a good look at the wrench in the moonlight as it hovered above Dustin's skull; this was the wrench a plumber would refer to as his "big gun."

I glanced over at Andrea. She was standing still, like a mannequin in a Macy's department store. The look on her face was just as blank. I slowly tiptoed backwards toward the front window, where the scowling De Niro still watched over the front porch like a guard dog whose master toyed with his prey.  Thoughts—rather survival plans—darted through my mind. Should I yell for help? No. Only the forest would hear me. Should I tackle Jack and save my friends. No. I'm too scared to play hero. Should I somehow muster the strength to thrust my elbow through the window behind me and run for dear life? Yes. If I must, I must. Then the thought occurred to me: I never told Jack I was bringing friends. He expected me to appear alone! I'm the one who is supposed to be moments from being bashed in the back of the head and stuffed into that red trunk! Because I decided to do a guy a favor, now my friend is going to be murdered.  

"See what that is?" Jack asked as he leered over Dustin, poised to strike. Only the sound of Dustin panting answered. "That's an Andy Gibb's guitar. He played it in concert," Jack said, lowering the wrench.

WHAT!? THAT'S what all this was leading too? This "disabled veteran" lied about needing a doorknob so he could lure us to no man's land to lock us in his house and scare the living shit out of us every which way, only to ultimately brag about owning teen icon— younger brother of the Brothers Gibb—Andy Gibb's fucking guitar?

Dustin was wobbling, a heartbeat from fainting. Andrea remained frozen. My elbow was cocked inches front the window, prepared to shatter it. Jack simply smiled. It wasn't a "gotcha'" smile, rather the seemlying proud and innocent smile an Andy Gibb's fan would flash upon displaying his prize possession.  He proceeded to grab the flashlight, turn it on, and then point it toward the front door. "Okay. I think you guys should be leaving now," Jack said, walking to the front door and unlocking it. Andrea Dustin and I all exhaled at once.   

As the three of us scurried through the doorway, Jack asked, "Hey. If the doorknob doesn't work can I bring it back to Kmart?" I chuckled, however nervously, as I thought to myself, "Oh, YOU can take it BACK to Kmart apparently, but you need a stranger to personally deliver it to your home." I stiffened. "No," I replied. "You can't bring it back. It's not Kmart's policy to take back defective merchandise." Of course Kmart takes back defective merchandise, but I was so disoriented and downright pissed-off concerning the night's events that I needed to feel empowered as I walked away. I closed the door behind me before Jack could do the same.

For the first ten minutes on the return drive to Williamsport silence was in command. Our psyches required time to ease back to equilibrium. When we finally came to we pondered Jack's true intentions. Was he truly a disabled veteran, but his disability purely of the mental sort? Is shellshock still a condition? Possibly. Was he actually planning a murder tonight, but decided at the last second to spare Dustin his life, possibly upon realizing that two unexpected "guests" might either be witnesses or complicate the plot too much? Perhaps. Or maybe, just maybe, Jack really was a just huge Andy Gibbs fan, and concocted a ploy to unleash his repressed fandom and flaunt his precious guitar that was once plucked by Andy Gibb's fingers.   


 Life had seemingly returned to normal by the preceding afternoon. I was again toiling in the Kmart’s home center department, mixing paint and recommending drill bits, when I was paged to the customer service desk. As I approached the desk, a mixture of rage and anxiety overcame me. Jack was leaning on the countertop, doorknob in hand. Of course, he still sported the camouflage outfit, bandana and Rawlings batting gloves. Cheryl, the customer service lady, motioned me over to the service desk. I obliged out of misguided loyalty to Kmart. Cheryl questioned me as to why the gentleman before her was told by me that he couldn't return the dysfunctional doorknob I so graciously delivered to him. I glanced to Jack, who sneered. That pushed me over the edge. "You can't return this doorknob," I repeated. "I told you that last night. You need to leave the store."  A look of sheer wildness overcame him. If Jack indeed was prone to shellshock, he must have suddenly thought he was back in the jungles of 'Nam. He stepped toe-to-toe with me and cocked his fist behind his head. "I welcomed you into my house. I showed you my daughter. I showed you my Andy Gibbs guitar. And this is how you treat me?"

Jack seemed totally pathetic now, almost sad. Had I raised a combative hand myself, I would've appeared to witnesses like a young asshole retaliating against someone who was clearly, at least in the broad daylight beside the service desk in a crowded Kmart, a disabled veteran just trying to return a defective doorknob. So, I just turned and walked away.

***

I grew up in DuBoistown. I was raised to help others when others need help. I still believe that, mostly.  But when red flags abound, perhaps it's better to just turn and walk away, and help yourself instead.