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Ripper

By Tim Hayes

We recently attended a lovely wedding of two lovely young people in a lovely little church, followed by a lovely reception in a lovely facility.  The whole experience was, well, lovely.

Then I asked where the happy couple would be honeymooning.  And all the loveliness of the proceedings proceeded to crash into shards of disillusionment and disappointment.

“Oh, we’re going camping for a week,” bubbled the new bride.  Camping.  Ugh.  To a man whose idea of roughing it means no HBO on the hotel room TV, the very notion of camping feels like an oppression.  A penance.  An infinite loop of pushing a giant stone up a hill, only to be crushed as it rolls back to the bottom, again and again and again.  Like spending time in Purgatory trying to work off the residue of your earthly sins for eternity.  A dark, disorienting, distortion-inducing, cold wet fog that never lifts.  A hopeless, joyless, pointless existence.

Not that I feel strongly about it, mind you.

This visceral reaction probably stems from a single weekend trip to the woods of northwestern Pennsylvania, circa 1973.  My Dad and I were coerced into spending a weekend under a tent by an old school buddy of his.  This friend owned a little plot of land about a mile outside of some tiny podunk town up toward Erie someplace, and he wanted to show it off a little with us, himself and his son, and one of his son’s classmates.

“Ripper.”  Don’t ask.  A shrimpy little kid, who came from a family that struggled somewhat.  His hair never combed, his hand-me-down wardrobe always a size or two off either way, Ripper fought the good fight to win attention and acceptance any way he knew how – and some ways in which he had no clue.  But that didn’t stop him from trying.  It wasn’t that hard to like Ripper.  But it could be damn near impossible to bear him for more than an afternoon at a time.

Now, the fellow’s son and his buddy Ripper were a couple of years younger than me.  From what I knew, the son seemed pretty harmless, an occasional pain in the ass, but overall just a typical pre-teenager. Ripper’s reputation as a high-energy, trying, annoying millstone preceded him, however.  And little did we suspect how spectacularly he would live up to that reputation on this particular weekend.  Otherwise, my Dad and I would never have stepped out of our house that Friday.

So we drove north, the old Chevelle packed with sleeping bags, tubs and cans of insect repellant, extra socks, thermal underwear – even though this adventure occurred in the springtime, but what did two city slickers know from outdoor living? – and what we thought would be adequate rations.  After getting lost and rerouted a time or two from a well-worn state map in the glove compartment, in the olden days before GPS and cellphones, we at last pulled up to the end of a dirt road and carted our stuff to the campsite.  God’s Little Acre.  Right.

The host’s son and Ripper came over to help us.  Ripper grabbed the food bag, hoisting it with such overzealous, eager-to-please force that he managed to tear it, sending our supplies bouncing and rolling into the dirt, grass, sticks, mud, and whatever creepy little life forms could be found down there.

Next came pitching the tents, which turned into every cliché from every movie where people not used to doing such things made absolute fools of themselves.  My Dad’s buddy and his kid had a grand old time watching and laughing at us, and it was pretty funny.  Ripper, as was his wont, added an unintentional level of danger and drama to the proceedings, though, finding a spare hammer and managing to drive spikes so far into the ground that making adjustments became impossible.  He also smashed about three of his own fingers in the process.

After a fitful night of choppy sleep, the sun rose on Saturday morning and out came the mini-bike, a scaled-down motorcycle just right for three early-adolescent male campers with hormones just starting to percolate.  The son, who owned the mini-bike, took the first couple of laps around the perimeter of the site, revving the engine, showing off, and scaring away scores of birds and critters in the surrounding trees.  I took a spin next, concentrating like mad on remaining upright and not taking the turns too fast.

Then Ripper climbed aboard and opened up the throttle full-blast.  The bike flew straight up in the air, Ripper got dumped on his keester, the bike landed beside him upside-down, then fell onto his leg.  Nothing broken, but the incidents had begun to mount noticeably.  I could tell.  We were slowly being Ripperized.

That evening before dusk, the two dads sent us off into the woods to find sticks to build a fire for weenie and marshmallow roasting, and maybe some storytelling once it got dark.  So off we went, unaware of what Ripper had in mind.  The other kid and I began accumulating sticks from the forest floor.  Ripper had bigger plans, though.  He had brought a small, hammer-sized axe and would chop his awesome timber contributions straight off of the trees.

He must have been a good 100 feet away when we heard: WHACK! – silence – AAAAAAHHHHH!!!!  MY HAND!!!!!

We ran over to him only to see that he had chopped off most of his left thumb, blood gushing like I’d never seen, and Ripper screaming his head off.  We told him to hold it on the best he could, and we all ran back to the soon-to-be-broken serenity of the campsite.

The dads sprung into action, wrapping the thumb to help staunch the bleeding, then my Dad put Ripper in our car and drove him to a hospital in Erie.  About six hours later, in the middle of the night, they returned.

“Tim, get up,” I heard my Dad whisper into the tent.  “Huh?  What’s wrong?” I slurred, rising slowly from a dream state.  “We’re leaving.”  “Now?  What time is it?”  “I don’t care what time it is.  We’re packing up and going home – now.  I can’t take any more of this.  I’m getting eaten alive by bugs and this Ripper kid is driving me insane.  Let’s go.”

If the other campers heard us schlepping all of our gear back to the Chevelle and driving away into the night, they never said so.  We got home at dawn, took showers, crawled into our respective beds and slept the sleep of the dead that whole Sunday.

A honeymoon spent camping?  Well, I guess that would be one sure way to test a marriage right out of the gate.  For me?  Not in a million years, my friend.  I’d rather try my luck in Purgatory first.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

The Hand of Truth

By Tim Hayes

Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to control every aspect of the reality affecting your life?  To simply brush away the tough stuff, the uncomfortable moments, the annoying people and obligations?

Yep, it sure would be nice.  If only it were even a tiny bit possible or feasible or sustainable.  But it is not.  Never was.  Never will be.  We’re witnessing some of this now, on a grandest stage in the world.  It’s only a matter of time before the situation implodes, explodes, whatever.  The hand of truth always rises.  You simply cannot wish – or fire – away nagging problems and personalities forever.

I know, because I got caught in the web of someone who tried it once, and who got slammed up against the cold hard concrete of reality for his troubles.

It was one of those times when every member of an in-house public relations staff had to really be on his or her game.  The company had made some bad mistakes, investors began getting restless, regulators smelled blood, and the media wasn’t about to let up.

My role in coping with this particular house afire was to develop a series of media questions-and-answers for executives to use during press conferences and telephone interviews with reporters – a standard tool meant to limit any ad-libbing under pressure and to ensure a consistency of message emanating from the company.

The Q&As developed for the executive team pulled no punches.  Every potential “gotcha” question made it into the document, along with verifiable and forthright responses.  Having been a reporter earlier in my career, I wanted our guys to be ready for anything the media could throw at them.  They were in for some uncomfortable give-and-take with the press, so realistic preparation remained paramount and prudent.

We sent the materials upstairs for review, and what came back to me from one of the denizens of the plush top-floor C-suite still blows my mind.  He had slashed in angry red marker across the entire first page: CHANGE THE QUESTIONS!

My first reaction?  Stunned silence.  My second?  Nervous laughter quickly spinning into raucous guffaws that drew the attention of my compatriots in the Corporate Communications Department.  My third?  An icy numbness down the center of my cerebellum as I realized the CFO wasn’t kidding.

Change the questions.  Change…the questions!  I read his furiously scribbled nonsensical command over and over, the lunacy shimmering brighter with each read.  Change the questions.  Good grief.

So instead of manning up and properly preparing for the media firestorm minutes away, he decided that adopting an alternate reality where nobody asked unpleasant questions about touchy subjects made for a better, smarter, more winning strategy.  Ridiculous didn’t begin to describe the situation.

Since the Q&A was my responsibility, it fell to me to go into his office and explain that we couldn’t actually tell the reporters to rephrase their questions, no matter how prickly or unnerving they may sound to us.  His pushback came strong and forceful, as expected.  I held my ground as a realist trying to help this senior-level scaredy-cat survive with his dignity intact.  He remained just as convinced that changing the questions in an internal preparatory briefing document would provide greater value in the real-world parry and thrust he would be entering within the hour.

So eventually we compromised, although I don’t think he realized it.  I reworked the Q&A document just enough that the questions, slightly rephrased, covered the exact same topics and led to the exact same answers.

When the press conference got underway, though, the questions pounded him high and hard – pretty much in the way they’d been phrased in the original brief prepared for him.  He blanched at a few of them, but generally recovered and made it through with minimal damage.  He got lucky.

In the end, good preparation always will help an organization deal with crises, even if you have to assuage egos a little along the way.  This particular executive dealt with his blossoming, ripening anxiety by making a ludicrous demand.  By altering the “means” and humoring him a tad, the organization reached its desired “end” – media coverage that kept our overall message fairly clear, credible, and consistent.

But the fact remains, you can’t alter reality to fit your comfort zone.  The world has never, ever worked that way.  You can push people around, get rid of those who get too close to uncomfortable truths, and convince supporters to back you for a while.

There comes a time, however, when the firm, unyielding, unstoppable, undeniable hand of truth rises to claim its rightful place again.  That day always arrives.  It may take a while, but it always arrives.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Seventh Avenue Stroll

By Tim Hayes

We had driven from Pittsburgh to New York City, checked into our hotel, situated right on Times Square, and had dinner at the Carnegie Deli before the big show.

Total tourists, but there for the best reason of all – our daughter and her high school chorus were performing that night on the world’s most famous stage, Carnegie Hall, about 12 blocks from our hotel.  The pre-concert Carnegie Deli stop-off was no accident, in other words.

We walked to the concert hall, found our seats, and waited for the music to begin.  Our high school joined about nine or 10 others from around the country, selected as some of the best performers at this level.  The kids had been in Manhattan for a couple of days, working with a guest conductor for the combined choral selections.  Those were nice, of course, but we were there to cheer on our collection of hometown singers as they performed on their own.

About three hours later, the concert concluded and it became a mad dash to find the buses our kids would be boarding, to tell them how great they did, and that we couldn’t wait to see them back home the following evening.  By the time all of that congratulatory parenting had finished, the time was getting on to about 11:45 p.m.

On a delightfully warm spring night in May in New York, we decided to take our time and stroll back to our hotel.  We were in the city that doesn’t sleep, for God’s sake.

That description sure held true that night.  Unlike walking 12 blocks in a downtown like Pittsburgh’s, where you’d be lucky – or, on the other hand, very unlucky – to see even one other person, our leisurely jaunt back down Seventh Avenue to Times Square felt like it was noon, not midnight.

Even as we neared the cacophony of light and sound at the intersection of Seventh Avenue, 45th Street, and Broadway – Times Square – the constant flow of people and conversation felt electric, exciting, 100% New York.  Oddly comforting, in a high-octane sort of way.

At this point, I should offer the fact that this all happened the night of May 2, 2011.  Why is that important, you may ask?  Well, it’s for one simple reason.

That’s the night U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden.

We didn’t realize that had happened until we got back to our hotel room and turned on the TV while getting ready for bed.  I tried not to let on, but my entire mental condition completely flipped with that news.  It went instantly from a “calm, relaxed, grateful to be with my wife and see my daughter on the stage of Carnegie Hall, what a joy to be in this amazing city, safe and sound and happy” mode to one of “Oh my God they killed bin Laden and here we are in the middle of the most famous spot in the most famous city in the world, where they’ve already once made a horrifying and successful terrorist attack, and why are we still here, and why don’t we tell them to bring the car around right now and we’ll drive all night to get back home safely.”

But by the time I was finished freaking myself out, my wife was sound asleep.  So we stayed the night, got the car early the next morning, and started the drive back to Pittsburgh.  The high school kids were staying at a hotel in New Jersey somewhere, so I assumed they’d be safe, and they were.

It still amazes me, though, that with such a huge news event happening that same night, the people and the energy of New York didn’t waver or wane.  No wild celebrations in the streets, but no demonstrable fear of retaliation either.  And there the two of us were, two rubes from western Pennsylvania, walking down the wide thoroughfare hand-in-hand without a care in the world.

This country – and that island on the Hudson especially – are nothing less than remarkable.  I suppose it’s true what the song says.  If you can make it (safely to your hotel room in Times Square on the same night bin Laden is killed) there, you can make it anywhere.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Friends are Everywhere

By Tim Hayes

Another day of shining sunburst broke through the hotel window, another day full of promise and potential during a week in central Florida with my son, Chris, following our beloved Pittsburgh Pirates around during Spring Training 2017.

We got up and ready to head out, jumped in the rental car, and started off.  Not to McKechnie Field – the Bucs’ home stadium in Bradenton – that would come a little later, closer to game time at 1 p.m.  No, our first stop this day would be Pirate City, a training complex of multiple baseball fields and an impressive central building where players could eat, attend classes, get medically treated, and bunk if they needed to.

Going down to Spring Training had long been a “bucket list” item for Chris and me, and even though it might have stretched the budget to its outer limits – and then some – we decided to quit talking about it and go for it while he was still in college.  The trip to this point had been all that we had hoped for, and more.  Two guys, two buds, turned loose in the gorgeously warm and inviting month of March in Florida.

Chris and I took a similar guys-only trip to Phoenix three years ago as a high school graduation gift.  And, as one would expect given such circumstances, we came back with some awesome and awesomely funny stories.  Our Floridian odyssey was turning out to be no different.

For instance, our plane needed to be de-iced in Pittsburgh, which meant we sat waiting on the tarmac for two-and-a-half hours.  A college-age girl sitting next to Chris fell asleep.  When she woke up, she said, cheerfully, “Wow!  We’re here!”  Then another seatmate told her we hadn’t left Pittsburgh yet.  The way that poor kid’s face crumbled and transformed from joy to shock to sorrow to anger to acceptance – all in about three seconds – struck me as nothing less than astounding.  The Seven Stages of Grief, in fast-forward!

Then we lived through the week-long Bob Evans follies.  For whatever reason, we got breakfast almost every day at this Bob Evans restaurant across the highway from our hotel.  I think, after a certain point, it was primarily for the comedic value.  Our first morning, the line was out the door, so we sat at the counter.  Abby, our young, fresh-scrubbed waitress, wiped off the Formica countertop, took one look at the two of us in our head-to-toe Bucco garb, and chirped, “Pirates…that’s baseball, right?”  This, in the city where the Pirates have held Spring Training since the Truman Administration.

The next day, Marianna sidled up to our booth and said, “You fellas ready to order?”  “Uh, we don’t have any menus yet.”  “Oh.  Well.  Umm.  This is my first week.  Do you know what you want?”  “No, we don’t quite have the Bob Evans menu completely committed to memory just yet.  Could we get two menus, please?”

Later in the week, a different waitress took our orders and as she collected the menus, said to Chris, “Thanks, Darlin’!”  Then looked at me and said, “Thanks, Lumpy.”  I dare say they could use some more staff training at that particular franchise.  It kept us laughing, though.

So, back to our morning at Pirate City.  We’d never been there, of course, so it was all new to us.  We parked the car and started walking down this long pathway to the practice fields, passing a small set of bleachers under an arched canopy, then through a wide-open gate that led to the point where about five fields converged.  Each field buzzed with practice games and other activity, the smell of fresh grass and infield dirt wafting on the breeze, the lively chatter of players and the crunch of metal cleats being heard.  To diehard baseball fans, especially Pirates fans like us, we had arrived.

If someone had asked us, like in the movie “Field of Dreams,”  “Is this heaven?”, there could be no doubt what we would have answered.

Taking tons of photos with my iPhone, I suggested to Chris that we go up onto the second floor of a small building at the vortex of the fields.  Not noticing any signs prohibiting our ascent, we climbed the stairs and got an even better view of all the action across the diamonds as I kept snapping away.  Then we heard another sound, not quite as pleasant or friendly.

“Get down!”  Who’s that?  Who needs to get down?  Down from what?

“Get DOWN!!”  Chris leaned over and said, “Dad, I think that guy’s yelling at us.”

“You two!  GET DOWN…NOW!!!”  Yep, a security guard in a red windbreaker, getting madder and madder, had indeed been shouting at us to get off that second-floor perch.  We came back down the steps and got screamed at for going up to where only the families of players and coaches could sit.  I apologized, while pointing out that no signage explained that fact, and that it was an innocent mistake.  The guard looked at me sideways, huffed a little, and walked away.

We hung around for a while longer, eventually taking a seat on the bleachers we’d passed on the way in.  After another inning or two, the practice game in front of us finished and visitors started heading back to their cars.  I said to Chris, “I have an idea.  Follow me.”

Walking back toward the central facility, I handed Chris my iPhone and said I wanted to find that security guard again and have us take a picture together.  “Are you sure about this?  That guy sounded pretty mad at us,” asked my son, who in so many ways is wiser than me.  (He takes after his mother that way.)  “Yeah!” I replied.  “What’s the worst that can happen?  If he throws us out, we were leaving anyway.  But I think something else will happen.  Watch this.”

We waited until the guard finished closing up one of the gates to a practice field, then I called to him.  He came over, still kind of giving me the side-eye.  Then I said, “Sir, I feel bad about what happened before.  Would you mind if we took a picture together?  My son can take it for us, if that’s okay with you.”

And, in similar fashion to the sleeping girl on the airplane, this fellow’s face transformed, but in reverse order – from suspicion to shock to surprise to doubt to joy.  “Why sure, I’d love to do that for you and your son!” he replied with a smile.

He and I stood arm in arm as Chris took the shot, and it remains one of the absolute highlights of the trip for me.

As Chris and I walked back to our car, I said, “Did you see what happened there?  I wonder whether anybody has ever asked that fellow to pose for a photo before.  Yeah, he was pretty mad at us, but I had a feeling we could turn him into a friend.”

Friends are everywhere.  All you have to do is be a friend to them first, I guess.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Brother

By Tim Hayes

The first time we met, I didn’t even know he was in the room.

Sophomore year of college, sitting in a small auditorium in an administration building at the far corner of campus, listening to the new editorial staff of the school newspaper describe plans for the coming year.  As a raw journalism major, I’d written a handful of stories as a freshman, but knew my output needed to increase.

When the editor-in-chief asked if anybody had a question, I raised my hand, stood up, and declared, “I’m sick of getting lousy story assignments.”  Even as the words escaped my lips, somewhere inside my head a voice screamed, “Shut up, Stupid!  You’re blowing it!”

The other kids laughed and the editor promised to try harder.  I sat down, red-faced but somehow proud of stating my case so bluntly.  What I had no way of knowing, though, was that another journalism major, sitting a few rows behind me, witnessed that declaration and made a mental note of it, thinking “I’ve got to get to know this guy.”

That fellow, also named Tim, would become my closest confidant, my college roommate, and a lifelong best friend to this day.

A year later, he became editor-in-chief and I moved up to news editor of the school paper.  We made a good team, surrounded by a lot of other highly driven j-majors.  The university’s student co-op provided a small salary, but at one point during the year, our pay became a possible target of cost-cutting.  Tim and I swooped into action, writing editorials supporting our side of the story, and calling on the entire student body to back us up by taping the front page to dorm windows and classroom buildings.

When exactly no one did, we took matters into our own hands, staying up all night with stacks of newspapers and rolls of Scotch tape, manufacturing our own grassroots protest in support of our still getting a check for date money every other week.  Our salaries were saved – not by our half-ass PR stunt, but by some backroom deal cut by the paper’s business manager and the co-op.  Sure was a fun night of self-delusional failed activism, though.

As roommates in an off-campus apartment, we shared stories, worked on assignments and projects, and accumulated what may have qualified as the Guinness world record for the hairiest bathroom in the western hemisphere.  My girlfriend absolutely refused to use it, walking the four flights of stairs up to her apartment in the same building whenever nature called.  Couldn’t blame her.

Dubbed “Tim” and “Tim Jr.” by my future father-in-law, we lived above a pizza parlor that sold thick cheesy slices for a dollar, the aroma filling our second-floor apartment constantly.  Digging into sofa cushions, jeans pockets, and behind stoves for enough dimes and quarters to run downstairs and get a slice took up almost as much time as studying.  Probably more.  Well…yeah, definitely more.

After graduation, we both ended up writing full-time for the newspaper in that college town, me on the news desk and him on sports.  Helping him move into his first apartment after college (I was married by then), we tried for over an hour to hoist a seemingly 10-ton, massively unwieldy and uncooperative sofa up a flight of steps, trying every angle, every position, to no avail.  Sitting on those stairs, hot, drenched in sweat, exhausted, and laughing at the hopeless, ludicrous situation, I looked at him and said, “One more try.”  And, wouldn’t you know it, we got that damn couch to the second floor in one shot.

In the years to follow, we both pursued our careers that took us in different directions and different locations.  One Thanksgiving, when my wife and I lived in eastern Pennsylvania and couldn’t make it home to Pittsburgh, Tim and his family invited us to spend the day with them near Harrisburg in the center of the state.  During the meal, his mom asked about my family, and I told her about my parents and two younger sisters.  She said, “Oh, so you don’t have any brothers?”  To which I leaned over, put my arm around her son, and said, “This man’s my brother, right here.”  I know he felt – and still feels – the same.

In time, my career brought us back home to Pittsburgh, where Tim and his wife also had settled.  Not long after our return, I learned that I had cancer.  Caught very early, I went through surgery and a regimen of radiation treatments, before eventually being declared cancer-free.  Within five years of my experience, Tim went through the cancer gauntlet, as well.  His took a tougher road to overcome, with chemotherapy and radiation, the loss of strength and hair, but he too came through healthy and whole.  The night he told me the diagnosis, I jumped in the car and drove to his house where we sat outside and talked for hours.  Didn’t think twice.  Had to be there for him.  To let him know he could get through it, like I had.

I served as his best man, and he ushered at my wedding.  He honored me by asking me to be godfather to one of his daughters.  As more kids came along, we’d bring our families together at Christmas and other times during the year.

We have been the keeper of each other’s secrets, a mutually empathetic ear and reliable shoulder to lean on, the one guy in the world who will always be honest and supportive and just plain old there to have the other guy’s back.

For nearly 40 years, he has been the best friend in the world, but so much more than that.  He’s been my brother.  Thanks, Timmer.  Love you, Bro.

= = = = = = = = = =

[I encourage you to check out Tim’s first book, available on Amazon.com at:

https://www.amazon.com/My-Boxes-Nostalgic-Collection-Stories/dp/1539826902/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1491528619&sr=8-1&keywords=my+boxes+tim+wesley]

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Taking One for the Team

By Tim Hayes

We all know one.  The dad who misses the first inning of a big game to park the car and walk to the field from a distance.  The lineman who sacrifices his body to protect the quarterback so that the team can score.  The mother who spends that Wednesday shopping and cleaning, then cooks a turkey and a bounteous meal that special November Thursday, while everyone else snacks and talks and watches parades and football.

These people rarely get the credit they deserve and have earned, but they’re not looking for credit.  They’re not looking for glory or fishing for compliments.  They’re the great unsung heroes, and they carry out their heroism humbly.

I was an unsung hero once.  But I demanded some credit.  I longed for glory and compliments.  I was not humble.  I was mad, and wanted restitution for my sacrifice.  Here’s how it went down.

Age nine, Cub Scout den meets at my house, Mom serves as Den Mother, the big Halloween Pack Meeting looming and our little den wants to blow those other dens’ doors off with something spectacular, unrivaled in the annals of Scouting.

Before long, eureka!  We will recreate the (then brand-new) Peanuts story of the Great Pumpkin!  And not as ourselves as recognizable Cub Scouts, but with actual 3-D recreations of Charlie Brown and everyone in the TV special.  Hah!  Take that, you sorry other dens.  Prepare for epicness at the local Moose Hall in three weeks.

We actually had a spitting chance to win first place in this talent competition, unlike my cursed luck with the Pinewood Derby races, where no matter how fast my little “Yellow Lightning” car zoomed around my bedroom, when it had to perform in front of more than two people it forgot how to run in a straight line.  But this Peanuts thing felt like a stroke of genius.  A sure thing.  A slam dunk.

Mom performed above and beyond with this project.  She took the leap and led 10 little male doofuses into the tricky, sticky quicksand of papier-mâché.  Bless her heart, she’s the most courageous woman I know.

If memory serves, we started by blowing up some really big balloons, then dunked long, wide strips of newspaper into the goop and draped them over, around, and under those balloons, ending up with pretty good “heads” for the characters.  A week later at the next den meeting, the papier-mâché had dried, so we popped the balloons and started paining on faces, poking holes so we could see out, and making an opening big enough to get the things over our noggins.  All the main Peanuts characters had a part—Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy, Pig Pen, the Great Pumpkin himself, and…Lucy.

LUCY?!

Hold the phone here, Mom.  This is a gaggle of Cub Scouts.  We can’t have a Lucy!  We are of one mind on this point, right guys?

Well, we not only ended up with a Lucy—who was pretty integral to the story—but guess who got to play the role?  Yep, yours truly.  Taking one for the team.  The unsung hero, that’s me.

Some are born to perform in drag, others have it thrust upon them.  But I did not go quietly into that papier-mâché performance.  I had some clauses built into my contract to protect myself from the avalanche of Monday morning abuse this Friday night fiasco would surely produce in class, should word get around who was inside that big round female head.

My terms.  One: I would absolutely not wear a dress.  Two: No dialogue for Lucy.  She would work in mime for the first time ever.  Three: The whole troupe would enter the Moose Hall’s big meeting room together in full giant-head regalia and nondescript sheets, and leave the same way.  We would accept our applause once we had returned, completely out of costume.  Four: Everyone in the den would swear to keep his big trap shut about this forevermore.  These conditions were accepted, and the show went ahead as planned.

Fact is, we killed at the Pack Meeting.  No one saw it coming.  We won the competition, hands down.  We blew their doors off.  A theatrical triumph in every way.

I had it made in the shade Monday morning as our class settled in for the day.  Or so I thought.  Just before the morning prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, the kid behind me leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Nice wig…Lucy.”

So much for Scouts honor.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Newsprint and Maple Syrup

By Tim Hayes

One of the best experiences of high school never took place in our high school.

It would happen four times each academic year, 75 miles away from the high school building, when a bunch of students working on the school newspaper would pile into one car and drive to the tiny headquarters of a rural weekly to spend the day.

I never got it straight in my mind why this peculiar arrangement had been concocted.  The assumption was that this little town’s publisher would make a few bucks, but how our faculty advisor ever found this place remained beyond my detective ability.

We attended Carrick High School, part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools system.  Our school newspaper was named The Carrickulum.  I know, clever, right?  Our sojourn took us to the offices of The Meyersdale Republican in the heart of that quaint borough tucked in a faraway corner of bucolic Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Believe it or not, besides a carful of kids from Carrick showing up every couple of months to liven up the place, Meyersdale also became known as the “Maple Syrup Capital of Pennsylvania,” with its annual Maple Festival that draws tourists—seriously—from far and wide.  In college, in fact, my wife had a roommate who had been crowned the Maple Queen one year in Meyersdale.  Heady stuff, and high praise indeed.

With each visit—after securing clearances from the teachers whose classes we’d be missing that day—this jolly caravan of budding journalists would drive the 90 minutes south, arrive at the paper, pencil out each page’s stories for that issue of the Carrickulum on layout sheets, and then the real fun started.

In Meyersdale, PA, in the mid-70s, computers remained in the realm of cheesy science fiction movies playing down at the Bijou.  Real people—real newspaper people—instead used these hulking, cast-iron behemoths known as Linotype machines.  We would retype all of the approved article copy we had brought with us, hearing the great Linotype lining up the words in order, filling the ancient production room with clinks and clanks.

We’d write the headlines in larger type, with the Linotype assembling all of this inside a wooden frame containing thousands of tiny chunks of raised letters on metal for each page.  Photos got sized by hand to fit their available spaces, then transferred to a series of microscopic dots in reproduction.  Once each page—each box—had been proofread by two people, we tightened the box so that nothing fell out or got misplaced, then fit the box into another large cast-iron machine to be inked and printed on newsprint.

It took hours to complete this process for an eight-page newspaper, but we did it and loved every second of it.  There were few moments for me as satisfying as picking up a finished, flawless newspaper that you personally helped to write, assemble, and print.

At the Republican, a couple of old hands hung around to help us figure things out, but mostly to make sure we didn’t destroy their irreplaceable equipment.  Those machines had been around, probably, since the turn of the century.  In between their smokes, those guys couldn’t let a bunch of city punks from Pittsburgh do anything too stupid to their printing house.

The rides to and from Meyersdale had a few interesting occurrences.  One time, driving down a lonely two-lane blacktop out in the country, somebody saw a deer not far from the road.  Having grown up in the city, we hadn’t seen a deer since—well, none of us had ever seen a deer at all, actually.  And here one stood, looking at us, standing perfectly still, as if to say, “Yes, please come over and be my friend.”

What a bunch of mooks we were.  A couple of the girls walked up to the animal to pet it, confident that they would be met with gentleness and affection.  But when they got within two feet, the deer grunted, stomped its front hooves, and ran like lightning away from us—all within a second and a half.  The girls shrieked, the guys froze, and we all stumbled over and pushed each other out of the way—just like in the Scooby-Doo cartoons—to get back in that car.

Then came the time that the guy driving his dad’s car for the trip stubbornly left Meyersdale in the wrong direction—despite the rest of us telling him so—and kept going until we saw a sign across the roadway reading, “Welcome to West Virginia!”  Mortified, he turned the car around.  Twenty minutes later, we ran out of gas.  And none of us had any money.

Somehow we made it home from that trip and all the others.  Each one loaded with its own stories, adventures, frustrations, and friendships.  It lit the flame for me to pursue a life in journalism that still burns today, nearly 40 years later, as a professional writer.

The Maple Festival is coming up pretty soon in good old Meyersdale.  Maybe I’ll wend my way down there to see the old Linotype and tap a tree or two.  Making a run at Maple King is not out of the question, either.

Narrowing the Gap

By Tim Hayes

Each of my kids had braces.  Each of my kids needed to have their wisdom teeth pulled.  Retainers, tightenings, chipmunk cheeks, twilight sedation, and some loopy re-entries when that happy juice started to wear off.

We did our part – more than our part, if you ask me – helping one local oral surgeon’s cash flow over the years with the wisdom teeth extractions.  We got off a lot lighter with the braces, though.  My cousin, the orthodontist, put us on the family plan, and I will be buying him drinks at any bar he chooses for the rest of our natural lives in gratitude.

But why did all three of my children require all this toothy attention, when I never needed braces and never had one wisdom tooth even make an appearance?  Not one.  Ever.

In fact, my stupid mouth actually has two baby teeth that never left.  To this day, there’s a tooth on either side that I’ve had since toddlerdom.  They moved in when the neighborhood was brand new, and there’s been a lot of turnover.  They’ve made friends with the bigger folks on either side of them.  They haven’t looked for something better after all this time, and it looks like they have no intention of ever leavin’.  No adult teeth ever came in behind them, so they’ve been successful squatters for 50-plus years.

I think, when my parts were being put together before being born, they ran out of teeth – a couple grown-up samples, and four wisdoms – at the DNA store.  There are worse things.

Another anatomical anomaly.  While growing up, my two front teeth had a gap between them so big, it looked like the Batcave.  Adam West could have driven the Batmobile right through the front of my face.

Here’s the difference between dental care in 1967 versus 2017, though.  If I were a seven-year-old kid today, there’d be no question about getting braces.  There’d be so much metal in my mouth, I’d look like I belonged on an MTV rap video.  I could pick up radio from Saskatoon.  With every sneeze, garage doors in a two-mile radius would open inexplicably.  Orthodontists in 2017 would be breaking down the door for a shot at my David Letterman-like dental Grand Canyon.

In time, my Mom talked with our dentist – an older, no-nonsense gentleman named Dr. Ratchinski or something (this was a long time ago) – about narrowing the gap, as it were.  This dentist had been around a long, long time, and was not about to ship me off to some high-flyin’ orthodontist.

“All of his other teeth are right where they should be,” he declared.  “It’s just those two front ones.  So here’s what we’re going to do.”  He rummaged around in an adjacent room, came back and placed a tiny object in my hand, no bigger than a dime, if that.  A tiny rubber band – but one that had very little “give” to it.  It took a lot to stretch it, in other words.

“Now listen, Sonny.  You put this around the outside of those two front teeth every day,” he told me.  “Push it up as high against your gums as you can.  Nobody will be able to see it.  You do this every day for a year, and your teeth will be perfect.”

And you know something?  It worked like a charm.  It felt weird at first, but I learned how to move it up and down with my tongue, which gave me something to do when class got boring, if nothing else.

The point is, there’s no school like the old school.  For the price (free!) of a handful of “gum bands,” as we called them, this neighborhood dentist saved my folks thousands in bills for braces.  He relied on tension and time, instead of big-ticket tinsel.

How many other practices and products could be replaced with simpler, easier, less expensive options?  More than we realize, is my bet.  Thanks, Doc.  Been smiling ever since.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

The Truth Always Wins

By Tim Hayes

We’re hearing a lot about what’s real and what’s fake these days.  It’s a ridiculous argument.

There may be things you’d like to be real, that you wish were real.  But that’s not reality.  Something either is actually, verifiably true and real, or it isn’t.  And the truth always reveals itself.  How could it not?  The truth is just another way of describing what’s real.

I knew a guy in college who proved this point in an unforgettable way.  He lived on my floor and I got to know him pretty well.  Or so I thought.

Sitting in the dorm room or study lounge, working on papers or reading for classes, the other students on our floor would talk about things as any group of college kids might do.  This fellow, we learned, had led an incredible life.  Class valedictorian, homecoming king, winner of state and regional debate competitions in high school.  A song might come on the radio, and if someone said they really liked it, he would tell us that he and his steady girlfriend back home had sung that tune as a duet at their commencement ceremony.  Amazing, unbelievable stuff.

Little did we know how incredible and unbelievable – literally – these tall tales would turn out to be.  This went on for a year and a half, until other groups of this guy’s friends would bump into each other in the cafeteria or other places around campus, and start repeating some of the remarkable stories they’d heard from him.  Eventually, the discrepancies, contradictions, and outright falsehoods became too glaringly obvious to ignore.

He had concocted a completely different life story in front of different groups of friends, driven – we surmised – by those friends’ interests, likes, and preferences.  In his deep need to be accepted, he created multiple narratives for himself out of whole cloth.  Most of what he had said turned out to be utter lies.

Can you imagine the pressure of trying to sustain such an existence?  Keeping straight which people knew which “facts” about his story?  Keeping each autobiographical train of thought headed in the same direction, independent of two or three other, totally different, trains of thought?  And hoping to heaven that the people who heard these separate stories never talked, traded notes, or realized what a house of cards he had built?  It had to be torture.  And every bit of it self-inflicted.

When his parents would come up to campus to visit, they always seemed overly thankful to us for being his friends, almost uncomfortably appreciative.  After we realized what had been going on, their actions made more sense.  I never saw him again, after that semester.  I hope he got the help he needed and is happy and healthy today.

The point here, again, is that you can’t escape the truth, because the truth is what’s real.  To try and deny reality simply is not a sustainable strategy.  When everyone operates according a shared reality and you don’t – it doesn’t take long to figure out who’s the odd person out, Sherlock.

In high school, one guy, a trumpet player in the marching band, never could stay in step.  Never.  Ever.  It just was not part of his DNA to go left/right/left/right in time with the music like everybody else.  His mother called the band director one day to ask, “Why is my William the only one in step?”  And she was serious.  That would explain the DNA thing.  But it also explains the difference between what’s real – what’s true – and what is not.

William and his mother remained convinced that the whole band – 200 other marchers – had it wrong, and he, God bless him, was the only one doing it right.  That sounds nuts, and it is.  Everyone else knew the truth, because it was the shared, verifiable, irrefutable reality of the situation.

So we’ll keep hearing about what’s fake and what’s real, I’m sure.  And plenty of people will keep buying that argument.  That’s human nature, I suppose.  But just keep in mind one simple rule – the truth always wins.

It may take a while, and it may get uncomfortable along the way, but never fear – the truth always wins.  Always.

Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes

88 Little Keys

By Tim Hayes

She couldn’t have been older than second or third grade when it magically appeared in their house.  Made of dark wood, with gleaming gold pedals and a playing surface of shining white, just waiting for her.  Only her.

So she clambered up on to the padded seat, marveling at this gift, so unexpected, so wonderful, placed her hands on the keys, and started to play.  Very simple, rudimentary melodies at that point, but in time this little girl – my mother – would make music on that piano that filled our home, our lives, with memories to treasure.

A George Steck upright model, with a “birdcage” system of hammers and strings inside the body, that piano served as the centerpiece of some great family sing-a-longs when all of the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents on my mom’s side would come over on a Sunday afternoon.  Mom would be on piano, Uncle Ed would bring his banjo, and the rest of us would sing our heads off together.  Neighbors be damned, we were having fun making music.

“The Impossible Dream,” “Mississippi Mud,” “Shine On Harvest Moon,” “The Shadow of Your Smile” – we knew them all.  In fact, I think I was the only kid in my class who understood the joke when Jane Jetson sang, “Won’t You Fly Home, Bill Spacely?” on “The Jetsons,” because the old standard, “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” always remained in our family repertoire.

My mom is a great lady, very petite, with smallish hands.  How she was able to play some of those chords and songs, where the notes were pretty far apart, baffled and amazed me.  If she wasn’t exactly breaking the laws of physics, she sure was giving them a hell of a stretch.

As kids, we would tinker around on the keys, trying to figure out that catchy Charlie Brown Christmas song.  I’d work on the lower notes, the rhythm, while my sister pecked out the melody.  We got it going pretty good a couple of times.  Eventually, my sister began taking piano lessons and became quite accomplished herself.

In time, as we left for college and careers, the piano stayed in its designated spot along the wall in the dining room for many years.  Not sure how much Mom played it while we were off building our lives, marrying our spouses, populating the family with kids of our own, but I hope it was more often than not.

After a few years, it made more sense for the piano to move to my sister’s house.  But a few years after that, it came to my house, where my daughters could learn to play in preparation for their music degrees in college.  It remains in our family room today, where it still gets played fairly frequently.

The keys may not shine quite so white, the body looking a bit weathered, the pedals worn from years of being pressed.  But it still makes the same magical sound it did when that eight-year-old girl discovered it, the gift of a lifetime, a lifetime ago.

When I think of everything that piano has seen and been a part of over the past almost seven decades, it’s impressive.  All of the family history, the highs and the lows.  The endless hours of practicing.  Dozens of toddlers smashing the keys to make that big crazy sound.  The women of our family, playing, when the house was empty, just for the sheer joy of creating and experiencing music for herself.

And, mostly, when all of us – this wild, wonderful, extended Italian family – would crowd into that tiny dining room to sing old songs at the top of our lungs.  As a family.  You can’t buy that kind of love, a love that has bonded each of us ever since.  All it takes is 88 little keys.

Wont you come home again, Bill Bailey?  The piano’s right here.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes