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An ‘Alternative’ Biography

By Tim Hayes

I was born on a sultry summer morning in Baton Rouge.  Mother enjoyed a crisp autumn sunrise in Seattle that same day.

Life on the plains was hard.  Tending crops in the rain forest, and all.  But Father, being a jeweler, always knew what to do.  I used to walk the long way to and from school, to avoid the inner-city gangs.  Mother made all of our clothes from Sears, Roebuck & Co.

I attended P.S. 104, an exclusive private academy.  Classmates included Art Deco, Chuck Steak, and Dick Van Dyke.  What a rollicking time we all had, taking turns counting the student body, which numbered in the millions.  You’ve never seen such a student body.  It was the biggest in recorded history.  Believe me.

Before long, it was off to college.  I attended the main campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, located in Toledo, Ohio.  As a freshman, I met my wife, Britney Spears, who was in the middle of pursuing her doctorate back then.  The age difference never bothered me, Brit being 48 to my 13 at the time.  We somehow made it work.  Until, happily, it didn’t, I’m sad to say.

After college, I started working as a freelance writer on the full-time payroll of a major international conglomerate garage-based startup.  There I learned some of the basic lessons and truths about communications – pillars of integrity, accuracy, and credibility that have stayed with me all this time, can you tell?

My first boss, Jimmy Fallon, taught me to never stop digging for the facts of a story until you think of something else that sounds better.  Working for Frankie Valli, my first boss, showed me that it’s always better to be fast and loud than to be right.  And of course, who could ever forget the wisdom of my first boss, Carly Simon?

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  How can one person have possibly achieved all this?  It’s crazy to believe it, but it’s insane.

Over the years, as Lady Bird and I watched our four children – Moe, Larry, and Shemp – grow into fine adults and make their own mark on the world, it’s always been such an awkward comfort to come home to the Holiday Inn at noon each evening, spending quality time completely alone, surrounded by the warmth of family.

But don’t you worry.  There’s still a lot of steam left in this old kettle.  I’m so exhausted.  Knowing that there’s so much more left to pursue, so many dreams still to fulfill, makes me want to puke.  I’m so happy.

Well, this looks like as good a place as any to bring this thing to an end, as we get under way.  It’s been a real joy working on this pain-in-the-ass essay.  Just want to make absolutely certain you know that, but you didn’t hear it from me.

Most of all, I want to thank all of my wonderful friends and treasured mentors working diligently away at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, those wacky scamps.  They are showing all of us that “alternative facts” are the best facts, even if the fact of the matter is that there are no such facts as alternative facts.  There are misdirections and intentional exaggerations, which can be sketchy enough — but let’s not call them facts, okay?  Maybe this D.C. double-talk can be chalked up to growing pains, and once everybody settles in and settles down, we can get back to dealing in verifiable, validated, actual, factual information.  Let’s hope so.

But in the meantime, here’s wishing for the next Golden Age of Journalism to burst forth in relentless, fearless, tireless pursuit of nothing but the truth.  The Founding Fathers placed such trust in a free, vigilant, probing press that they made its protection the first – not the third, not the eighth – but the First Amendment.  The nation is counting on journalists to rise up to their responsibility, perhaps now more than at any other time in living memory.

As a final thought, here’s a real fact – a quote from the brilliant mind of Thomas Jefferson, a president who disliked the press but who understood and supported its critical role in a well-functioning republic.  He said, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Kitchen Table

By Tim Hayes

“Oh, no.  We can’t take this.”

Astonished, dumbfounded, shocked, we spluttered in reply to the St. Vincent De Paul guy, “What?”

“We can’t take this table,” he said, within two seconds of laying eyes on it.

Our kitchen table, a simple, round, wooden-topped table with solid wood chairs surrounding it.  We decided to donate it to charity, since a new kitchen island would be installed within a few days.  But the crew operating under the auspices of old St. Vinny had other ideas and an inexplicably higher standard of what constitutes an acceptable charitable donation, I guess.

“Why can’t you take the table?  There’s nothing wrong with it.  We’ve had it for 14 years,” we asked, still incredulous, mouths still agape.

“The finish on the tabletop is too scratched up,” came the reply, as matter-of-fact as telling us that it looked a little cloudy outside.

St. Vincent De Paul – the actual guy – lived and died in the 17th century as a French Roman Catholic priest who dedicated himself to serving the poor.  He was canonized as a saint in 1737, having become renowned for his compassion, humility and generosity and revered as the “Great Apostle of Charity.”

I doubt that a few scratches on an otherwise perfect kitchen table would have slowed him down from accepting the donation and presenting this perfect set to a poor family in the slums of Paris, circa 1652.

Somehow that memo got lost or really, really misinterpreted by the highbrow sophisticates who toss his name around these days.  Forgive my sarcasm.  I’m sure the guy was just following orders, sticking to some established guidelines about the acceptable number of tabletop scratches or something, but that doesn’t make it right.

Couldn’t they see the value of our kitchen table?  The thousands of hot meals prepared and served there?  The family board games played there?  The scores of injuries, major and minor, treated there?  The stressful late-night discussions about money, and the lack thereof, that my wife and I struggled through together there?

Most of all, couldn’t they see that we had raised a family around that kitchen table?  All five of us there, each in his or her own self-declared seat, doing homework, the kids fighting, the kids helping each other out, from the time they were tiny to the last meals each one had before leaving for college?

Does the table have some scratches?  You’re damn right it does.  And each one represents a memory, a moment, a slice of time or a thought shared or a hand held or a tear dried.  That table stands for more than a cold piece of furniture.  It has marked the very history of our family.

And you’re going to stand there, Mr. St. Vincent De Paul Guy, and tell me this kitchen table isn’t good enough to be donated to help some other family – some poor family looking to start a better life and create its own memories?  Are you serious?

Yes, he was.  And he got back in his St. Vincent De Paul truck and drove away, leaving us in a St. Vincent De Paul-scented cloud of disbelief and insult.

But then I had a thought.  Maybe our trusty old scratched-up kitchen table, our Rosetta Stone, our Magna Carta, our Huckleberry friend, wasn’t quite ready to leave.  Maybe it wanted to stay with us a little longer.  Perhaps there are higher furniture forces at work here.

So, for now, she remains in place, ready to host meals and hearts and conversations, at least for a little while longer.  Sometimes a scratch means more than a cold blemish on a piece of wood.  Sometimes it’s a marker of family history that deserves to be respected and treasured.

I’m glad it’s still here.  And someday, another family will be just as glad it’s still with them.  St. Vinny, you really need to talk with your descendants.  They’re missing the point in a big way, old buddy.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Long Division

[This story has been dramatized and adapted from actual events.  It is shared on this commemorative weekend to show how some attitudes from a half-century ago have changed and improved, but that we still have a lot more work to do.]

By Tim Hayes

An otherwise typical Friday morning.  “House Party” with Art Linkletter flickered on the television, as she ran the sweeper through the modest home.  Marjorie, a young mother, couldn’t seem to shake a nagging, gnawing sense of something amiss, though.

Her oldest child, Jimmy, had left that morning for his walk to elementary school with his friends, just like he had every other school day that academic year.  The parochial school he attended stood next to the parish church, built at the highest point of their little borough, at the very top of Ormsby Avenue.

“Oh, what’s the matter with me?” Marjorie said to herself, as she watched her other child, a three-year-old daughter, play with blocks on the living room floor.  “I’m getting myself all worked up over nothing.  My imagination running away with me.  Everything’s fine.  We’re fine.  Our neighborhood’s safe.  There’s no trouble here, and there won’t be.”

She decided to phone her mother, who lived three blocks away.  Just to chat and calm herself down.  It had been five years, after all.

* * * * *

Inside an apartment, deep within a complex of multiple buildings, another young mother paced the floor, equally uneasy.  But Stacy, an African-American woman, had a very clear idea why.

She had sent her son, Joseph, off that morning to school, as well.  A public school, located at the base of Ormsby Avenue.  But she had later thought better of it.  There’d been a lot of noise in the building the night before, the noise of tension about to snap.  Hard, jangling, tension.  The kind that makes the air itself vibrate.

With the morning’s light, some of that dissonance dissipated, but not entirely.  Their cluster of apartment buildings felt like dry tinder.  A single spark could set off a conflagration of race-related rage and riot sure to engulf their world.

And if a fireball loomed for her family – even one that had some elemental justification, considering what had happened the day before – she nonetheless wanted her boy safe with her, headed somewhere apart from any burgeoning chaos.  Stacy decided to contact the school, to pull her son out of there for the day.

* * * * *

Inside Sister Clarice’s fourth-grade homeroom, Jimmy’s class remained chest-deep in a seemingly unending sea of arithmetic problems.  Long division, the hardest one of all.  Carrying things from one column to the next, realigning the digits into new configurations of numbers as you go.  It never felt natural, it never got any easier.  But the result always made sense, you had to admit.  Getting there was the hard part.

One floor down, in the principal’s office, Sister Francis held the receiver.  Listening through the veil and wimple on her head, she nodded somberly.

“Yes, Captain, we are aware,” she said.  “We plan to keep the students inside all day today.  Please keep us informed.  Yes, thank you.  Goodbye.”

“Anything you would like me to mimeo for the faculty, Sister?” asked the school secretary.

“Not now, no, Mrs. Griffin,” the principal replied, observing out her window onto Ormsby Avenue.  “Not yet.”

In Room 207, the struggle of Jimmy and his classmates to conquer long division continued.

* * * * *

It took a good 25 minutes to walk from her apartment to the public school, so off Stacy went.  The phone call to the school never got answered, a potentially bad sign, which only served to stiffen her resolve to extract her son from his sixth-grade classroom, come hell, high water, or unresponsive principals.

“Lord help this world,” she muttered to herself, heels clicking on the cracked and uneven sidewalks, her spring coat ruffling in the wake of her speedy, crisp pace.  “But if He won’t, I will.  Help my family, anyway, small though it might be, just the two of us.”

It had been five years since Dallas.  Nobody thought it would happen again.  Until it did.  And now everybody had to figure out where they stood.  All over again.  Damn.

She trotted over the crest of Ormsby Avenue, past the parochial school, and headed down the long, steep hill.  Another seven blocks to safety for her and Joseph.

* * * * *

“So, what are you doing, Ma?” Marjorie asked her mother after the elderly woman picked up the phone.

“Oh, nothing.  Just put a loaf of bread in the oven.  You wanna come down later and bring the little one for a slice of homemade jelly bread?”

“I don’t know, Ma.  Maybe.  I’m feeling a little weird today, like something bad’s gonna happen.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’m watching too much TV at night or something.”

“Nothing’s gonna happen, Margie.  Those other places are having all the commotion, not around here.  The news never happens here.  Why don’t you come on down and have a nice cup of coffee?  I want to see the baby.”

“Ma, she’s four, she’s not a baby anymore.  I’ll see about coming down later.  I’ll feel better after Jimmy comes home for lunch, okay?  Bye, Ma.”

As she placed the receiver back onto the wall-mounted rotary kitchen phone, her anxiety didn’t get quelled.  Quite the opposite.  Marjorie felt more nervous than before, as though her adrenal glands had opened the floodgates.

* * * * *

The back of the eighth-grade classroom made no pretense of paying attention to anything the teacher said.  The mood started ugly and got worse from there.  These kids were hell-bent on making a statement.  A grown-up statement.  A statement that could not, and would not, be denied, delayed, or deterred.

“After what happened yesterday, we have to stand up and take what’s ours,” one ringleader said.  “My brother said they’re going to wreck the high school today,” another contributed.  “So, what are we gonna do?”

“We’re gonna ditch school at the next class bell, walk up the hill, and beat the shit out of those little Catholic kids up there, that’s what.  They kill one of ours, we push back where we live.  Who’s coming with me?”

And with startling speed, the plan to march up to the hilltop school to protest, frighten, and take out some aggression, picked up steam among students in the upper grades.

But while these budding demonstrators had not been listening to their teacher, he had indeed been hearing them.

* * * * *

Hot, perspiring, and flushed, Stacy marched into the public school’s front doors and straight to the principal’s office, just as a male teacher came out of the office, jogging past her, looking concerned.

“Good morning, Mrs. Harris. How may I help you?” asked the secretary.

“I would like to pick up my son and take him out of school today.”

“Well, that’s a bit unusual.  May I ask why?”

“You may ask anything you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want to pull Joseph out of school for the remainder of the day.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to talk with the principal about that, but she is a bit occupied right now on a phone call,” said the secretary, a thin veneer of contempt being poorly disguised.  “Would you please take a seat?”

Rather than cause a scene, she sat down, steaming.  About 10 minutes later, the secretary went into the principal’s office.  Fully expecting a confrontation, Stacy girded herself to state and defend her demand, once the principal emerged.

Instead, the secretary came back out and said, “We have notified Joseph’s teacher.  He’ll be down here in five minutes, and you can take him for the day.  As quickly as possible, actually.”

Wow, that sure turned around fast, Stacy thought to herself.

“Miss Lewis, could you get the police on the line for me, please?” came a voice from the principal’s office.

* * * * *

Sister Francis kept watch out her office window, as something unusual appeared to be coalescing at the bottom of Ormsby Avenue, down by the public school.  Just then, her phone rang.

“Sister Francis speaking.  Yes, Captain, I’m noticing that myself.  Thank you, but I believe we will be able to handle this ourselves.  I appreciate the call.  Yes, good bye.”

She stuck her head out her doorway and ordered Mrs. Griffin to turn on the PA system.  Picking up the microphone, her voice came crackling into every classroom, saying, “Attention, boys and girls.  This is Sister Francis speaking.  We have decided to dismiss all students early today.  We are contacting your parents, with instructions that they are to come to the alley behind the school in their cars to pick you up individually.  You will not be released from the building until one of your parents, or someone they have designated to act in their absence, has arrived to pick you up.  Please behave yourselves and listen to your teachers until you have been taken home.  I would now ask all teachers to lead their classes in prayers.  Classes will resume as usual on Monday, unless your parents have been notified otherwise over the weekend.  Thank you.”

When the kitchen phone rang, Marjorie knew her intuition was about to be proven right.  She listened to the message, hung up the phone, picked up the receiver again, and dialed.

“Ma?  I’m bringing the baby down to your place.  Something’s happening at Jimmy’s school.”

* * * * *

Joseph and his mother left the public school, with the intention of catching a trolley to the bus station Downtown, where they could buy tickets to her sister’s house in Erie.  Things promised to stay calmer there than they were here.  They began walking back up Ormsby Avenue to the trolley stop at the intersection with Janius Street, about halfway up the hill.

About 30 seconds later, a swarm of students burst from the same school building, shouting and shaking their fists, as they also started the climb up the hill to the parochial school.

A squad car left the police station, about a quarter-mile away, hoping to block the mini-mob’s progress and steer them back into the school.

Marjorie climbed into her car, dropped off her daughter at her mother’s house, and started driving to the parochial school to pick up her son.

But unbeknownst to any of these people, word had been spread from bystanders using nearby pay phones that an opportunity for angry, frustrated, simmering adult dissidents to hijack this kiddie protest now existed – and they did just that, in numbers that surprised everyone.

For this was not just any Friday morning.  This was Friday, April 5, 1968, the morning following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the nation had begun to explode in anger and righteous indignation.  While other cities saw riots and destruction, this little borough had been spared.  But that was about to change.

A couple of windows on parked cars got smashed, as the crowd made its way up Ormsby.  Many of the students got scared, realizing they had started something in youthful bravado that quickly careened out of their control into something truly dangerous.  They started running in all directions, some back to the school building, others toward their homes, some just running anywhere to get away from the growing violence that the adults around them started considering or committing.

Marjorie pulled the Rambler into the alley behind the school, and Jimmy quickly ran to the car.  They came around the corner onto Ormsby and saw a crowd heading their way, taking up the whole width of the street.  If she could make it to Janius Street before the demonstrators got there, they could take a different route and make it home safely.

Stacy and Joseph stood at the trolley stop, watching the mob get closer.  The trolleys ran every seven minutes, and they’d been standing there more than eight.  Where was that trolley?  As a car came past them, a driver rolled down his window and said, “Hey, the buses and trolleys stopped running today because of the protests and problems that are starting up around town.  There ain’t no trolley coming for you.  Sorry.”

Just then, some of the adult demonstrators coming up the hill shouted, “Hey, Lady!  You with us?  They killed Dr. King, and you and your boy ain’t gonna do nothin’ about it?  You’re just like us.  Don’t run away.  You need to be with us, or there’s gonna be trouble for you.”

Marjorie got to the corner, with the crowd still about a half-block away.  “Make sure your doors are locked, Jimmy,” she said, noticing a woman and young boy frantically looking about, a panicked expression on their faces.

Within seconds, Stacy ran to the Rambler, slapped her hands on the driver’s window, and shouted, “Can you please get us away from all this?  I just want to get my son to a safe place!”

“Mom, that’s Joseph.  He plays pee-wee football with me.  I know him, he’s nice,” said the young voice beside Marjorie on the passenger seat.

The squad car came tearing down Janius, blocking the intersection with Ormsby, just as Joseph and his mother climbed into the Rambler.  Marjorie hit the gas and took a hard left onto Janius, speeding away from the bubbling mayhem.

Once the police arrived, the mob dissolved in minutes, and any students still in the area returned to the public school.  Other than the guy with the crowbar who got hauled in for the car window smashings, no other arrests were made.  And students at the parochial school got a jump on their weekend – although most never understood the circumstances that led to it.

The borough remained safe for another day, although most residents remained blissfully unaware how close the situation had come to spinning out of control.

* * * * *

At Jimmy’s grandma’s house, the two boys, their mothers, and his little sister sat around the kitchen table, the grown-ups sipping coffee and the kids enjoying some homemade jelly spread on freshly baked bread.  The bus ride to Erie would not be necessary.

A “long-division” problem – people divided from each other for a long time, unnecessarily – got solved.  At least with one small group of mothers and sons.  And at least for one day.

Long division, the hardest kind of problem.  Carrying ideas from one place to the next, realigning attitudes and assumptions into new configurations as you go.  It may not always feel natural, it may not get any easier.  But the result always makes sense, you have to admit.

Getting there is the hard part.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes


By Tim Hayes

After six years of Catholic education, one learns that some things never change.  The playground will always be made of asphalt.  Up at the rectory, Father will always be shy one healthy sense of humor.  And the dress code will always be business casual – blouses and skirts for the girls, and dress shirt, slacks, and shoes for the guys.

But as the seventh year dawned, a golden ray of hope, a sliver of delicious possibility, a whiff of sweet deliverance, began to wash over us, tantalizingly teasing the chance to break free of at least one of our unbreakable truths.

Once-a month, Friday afternoon, Shop Class – where we rode a bus to a building about two miles away, operated by the city’s public school district, to learn about all different types of jobs and trade skills.  And, as if that weren’t a deep-enough dive away from our dark parochial classrooms into the milky froth of liberation, here came the true piece de resistance – we could wear jeans and tennis shoes!

Oh, Shop Class!  The joy, the celebration, one Friday afternoon a month!  And we got to do it during our eighth-grade year, too!

The building housing Shop Class had two floors where we could sign up for the various subject areas.  Things like merchandising, where you got to run a store and operate the cash register, or wood shop, where you got to use a jigsaw to create pieces from blocks of wood, or design, where you could make your own silk-screened t-shirts, and so many more.

My St. Joe’s School compadres and I felt like kids with empty bellies and full wallets turned loose in a candy store.  Limitless possibilities.  Teachers so much cooler than the ones we had.  Subjects so far afield of our standard diocesan curriculum that we could hardly believe our good fortune.

I tried to squeeze as much fun and enjoyment out of Shop Class as possible, naturally.  One subject area, though, gave me more satisfaction than any other, and it’s an area that I still, to this day, can’t believe I did so well in.

Metal shop.

Anyone who knows me, even a little, can validate that my skills as a craftsman leave quite a bit to be desired, to put it mildly.  My success in metal shop as a 13-year-old kid may never be explained by historians.  It promises to perplex the great minds of our time for decades to come.  I believe I peaked, some 43 years ago, in this regard.  Allow me to explain.

The task at hand was to form a small dustpan out of a single flat sheet of black metal.  The teacher gave us the materials, measurements, and instructions.  At that point, the success or failure of the project fell to each young teenager in that class.

Somehow, with the muses of minor metal crafting smiling down on me, I managed to cut, bend, and solder my hunk of sheet metal into a perfectly formed, completely watertight, fully functional mini dustpan.  It felt like a miracle.  Me, old fumble-fingers, having created this work of industrial art.  If anyone required proof that there is a God, they needed to look no farther than that metal shop that day.

The only logical explanation I have ever come up with that makes any sense at all, is that I attended St. Joseph School – and St. Joseph is the patron saint of craftsmen.  That’s all I got, folks, and that’s what I’m sticking with.

Riding that school bus back to St. Joe’s that afternoon, admiring my awesome dustpan, the world seemed a little brighter.  Busting down doors you never expected to can be extremely fulfilling.

That dustpan got put to use a time or two in my house, mostly to humor me, I realize now.  But at the time, it worked like a charm and I got the satisfaction of seeing other people get some benefit from something I had created.  It’s a feeling I still enjoy, but now from providing writing and other communications services.  That positive vibe never gets old, never loses its power and punch, let me tell you.

The dustpan triumph of 1973.  And it happened while wearing jeans and tennis shoes.  Can life get any better?  Doubtful, gang.  Doubtful.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Sky Chair

By Tim Hayes

The first time I noticed it, we were carting a nine-month-old baby to the pediatrician.  Our firstborn, fussing and crying in her little car-seat contraption in the rear of the station wagon, just a couple of weeks after we had moved back to Pittsburgh, our hometown, following an eight-year career-building sojourn all over the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

So, with all of these new experiences happening at once, when I first caught sight of it, way up there in the trees, it threw me for a loop.

High, high up in a 100-foot tree along the side of this two-lane blacktop in suburban Pittsburgh – way out, extended far on some thin branches – rested a small wooden platform and sitting on top of it, a white, molded-plastic lawn chair I dubbed the “Sky Chair.”

“What in the world is a chair doing that far up in a tree, and that far out on those branches?” I wondered.  “A person couldn’t possibly sit up there.  That thing wouldn’t support the weight of even a little kid.  And how – or why – would a little kid even get up and out that far?”  The whole thing made absolutely no sense.

But the curse of unending curiosity had been implanted in my brain with that first spotting of the Sky Chair.  Over the next 20-plus years, with three kids in tow, we drove that two-lane blacktop road literally hundreds of times to that pediatrician’s office and back home again.  And the Sky Chair remained ever atop its aerial perch.

Think of it.  Two decades of driving rainstorms, lightning strikes, microbursts of powerful wind, feet of snowfall accumulation, hot sunrays baking it.  Yet that crazy chair never fell, never even moved.  And do you think I ever saw a human being up there, tending to it?  Replacing it?  Sitting on it?

Never.  That ramshackle lawn chair, I started to think, would survive a nuclear explosion.  It would outlive the cockroach.  The human race could disappear, a new ice age could begin, and a million years from now, some bi-ped future dinosaur would be sipping a daiquiri, reading a newspaper, sitting on that freaking Sky Chair – which, by that point, would most likely be at ground level.

Heroes can be hard to come by.  Mine were Roberto Clemente, Fred Rogers, and that unsinkable, unbreakable, unbelievable Sky Chair.  It came to represent something important, something big.  It turned into a metaphor for surviving whatever came down the road.  Planted firmly on its sturdy platform, serving as a sentinel high above the people zooming to and fro beneath its lofty post, the Sky Chair came to represent permanence and stability in a world of constant change.

In a strange way, at least in my strange mind, it helped keep things in perspective as we worked to provide for our family through job losses, serious illnesses, tight finances, and all of the many challenges parents face as they evolve from rookies to experienced veterans of the child-rearing wars.

In time, the kids grew up, went away to college, started building their own lives.  Our final trip to the pediatrician happened quite a few years ago.

One day, traveling along that same two-lane blacktop on the way to a different destination, I looked up in the hope of catching a glimpse of my longtime lodestar again.  But it wasn’t there.  And, much in the same way as when I first saw it, its absence threw me for a loop.  The Sky Chair, gone.  Inconceivable, impossible, unacceptable.

Then, another thought came to me.  Maybe it had never been there in the first place.  Maybe it only existed in the mind of a nervous young inexperienced father, worried about his little baby daughter being sick.  And maybe it stayed there, purely willed into being, like a needed fixed point of reference and reassurance, as his family grew and grew up.  And now that they had all matured into intelligent, responsible, funny, confident, successful adults, maybe the Sky Chair simply had served its purpose and faded from view.

Maybe.  I guess we’ll never know.  But real or not, I’m grateful I could see it there, way up in that tree, all those years.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Talent Show

By Tim Hayes

Every year, like clockwork, the three brothers got the nod. Grandma’s basement, in front of the washtubs.  Showtime.

Down the stairs they came, three cousins of mine, bathrobes cinched tight, aluminum foil crowns perched atop their close-shaven heads, each carrying a decorated shoebox – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and singing “We Three Kings” to the rest of our extended family, sitting piled onto good Catholic wooden church folding chairs.  The annual Christmas Grandchildren Talent Show had begun.

I typically had to drag out a drum and do a few basic flourishes with my sticks.  Another cousin performed a jazz dance routine.  Others told stories or jokes, or showed us a particularly impressive school art project, or recited a poem that had been memorized, or sang other Christmas carols.

To a non-family observer, the whole thing probably would have reeked of a bunch of marginally talented city kids being coerced into doing their limited repertoire in front of parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents – with the irresistible lure of heaping mounds of homemade spaghetti and juicy, sauce-laden meatballs to follow as a reward.  Middle class Italian heritage bribery at its finest.

But to the adults crammed into that little basement theater, the ones whose kids got trotted in front for their five minutes of family fame, this is what made the holiday so special.  So unforgettable.  So ingrained into the fabric and DNA of our clan.  They loved every young performer, because they loved every one of us kids.

One year, some cousins brought cousins from the other side of their family to Grandma’s.  When the Three Kings kicked off the extravaganza, these other kids didn’t know what hit them.  Act after act, like a pint-sized Ed Sullivan Show knockoff, they’d never seen anything like it, you could tell.  When it was all over, and all the applause and hugs had been distributed, they looked shell-shocked.  We had rocked their little Christmas world.

They never came around to Grandma’s on Christmas Day again, though, now that I think of it.  Rookies.

In time, naturally, my cousins grew up, got married, started their own families, just like I did.  When my kids were little, we had them join their cousins at their Grandma’s house each Christmas, just like we did.  And you bet they put on a talent show, just like we did.  You can’t fight genetics, I guess.

But that kind of family-only tradition is what makes Christmas unlike any other day of the year, don’t you think?  Sure, there’s the excitement, anticipation, and magic of Christmas Eve.  Then the mad rush and euphoria of Christmas morning, opening presents and enjoying your new toys.  But when all of that’s over, and it’s time to gather together – just because you want to be together – and enjoy each other’s company, get a kick out of a little kid’s jokes, and realize how very, very blessed you truly are?  That’s when it all gets real.  As real as it can get.

My favorite part of the holiday movie, “A Christmas Story,” isn’t when Ralphie gets his Red Ryder rifle, or when his friend gets his tongue frozen to the flagpole.  It’s near the end of the film, where his Mom and Dad sit quietly on Christmas night, watching the snowfall outside the window.  Showered in love and contentment.  Peace on Earth, indeed.

I’d love to get my three cousins together again right now and recreate their classic “We Three Kings” routine, just for old time’s sake.  You bring the bathrobes and shoeboxes, fellows, I’ll bring the aluminum foil, and we’ll get together downstairs in front of the washtubs one last time.  What do you say?

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes

Fightin’ the Fogey

By Tim Hayes

The doctor stood in front of the exam table, where I had just returned after having X-rays taken a few minutes earlier.

“Hmmmm.  Hmmmm.  Yeah, I can see it now.”

“See what, doctor?”

“You have arthritis behind both kneecaps.”

Arthritis?  Me?  How has this happened?  I thought my knees were just a little sore from starting a regular twice-a-week workout with a professional trainer.  You know, like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.”  This was just a case of some creaks getting limbered up again, and a touch of soreness while the old bones got oiled up.  Surely not arthritis.  That’s what old people have to deal with.

But then I remembered two other experiences the same week that seemed to be making the same point – I’m getting old.  It’s time to start fighting the fogey.  The old fogey.

Doing two professional friends a favor, I agreed to appear as a guest speaker to two separate Public Relations classes at a local university.  You don’t realize the absolute disconnect between the frame of reference a classroom full of 20-year-olds has and the one you have until you open your mouth in their presence and try to make a point.

“I got interested in journalism when I was in high school,” I said.  “The two guys that inspired me the most were Woodward and Bernstein.”

Blank stares.  The occasional blink.  Side glances all around.  Crickets chirping.  They had absolutely no clue who I was talking about.

“Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.  The two reporters from the Washington Post who exposed the Watergate scandal that brought Nixon down.”

More crickets.

“Check your history books.  It’s all in there.”

Later that evening, as I thought about it, the students’ complete ignorance of what, to me, remained a major life news event, began to make a little more sense.  Watergate reached its apex in 1974 when Nixon resigned.  That’s 42 years ago.  If a guest speaker came to my college classroom in 1980 and made a reference to something that happened 42 years in the past, it would be something from 1938, like the Anschluss, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria!  Even before World War II began!

So no wonder they looked at me like I’d just landed from Mars.  I probably taught them one of the most important principles of good communication – by violating it in such spectacular fashion.  Know your audience.

Maybe I can chalk that particular brain-fart up to a sense that fuddy-duddy-dom is rapidly encroaching, encircling, enveloping me.  That, plus my increasingly rickety old knees.

Gosh, you never appreciate what a pounding you take during an hour-long Roman Catholic Mass until you have knee pain.  Standing, sitting, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, kneeling, sitting, and standing again.  They ought to pass out towels next to the holy water, for goodness’ sake.

After two shots of cortisone in the doc’s office, the knees have begun to get back to normal.  I’ll keep going to my workouts and talking to college classes.  I’ll keep doing what I do and maintain a healthy, happy, youthful attitude – or at least I’ll try.

Now, what the hell are those kids doing on my lawn?  Excuse me…

Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes

An Inconvenient Gift

By Tim Hayes

Deep in the recesses of my wallet, back where the kids’ old middle school pictures and expired AAA cards dwell, you’ll find a little sheet of paper from a small spiral notebook – the kind you could hold in the palm of your hand.

In blue and red marker, with letters of different heights, traveling up and down imaginary slopes despite the thin blue parallel lines on the page, and with a couple of letters facing the wrong way here and there, a simple message from a little girl to her Dad on his birthday can be read.

It took a lot of effort to create that teensy note.  A lot of thinking.  A lot of love.  That’s why I “laminated” it myself with a lot of Scotch tape and tucked into my wallet.  And there it’s been for the past 23 years.  Every now and then, I’ll discover it and it reminds me of that time in our lives when the kids were small and every day had an energy and a sizzle and all of it covered in a toasty caramel-colored blanket of warmth and family.

It’s those gifts that take a little more time, effort, thought, and sweetness that somehow mean the most.

A couple of Father’s Days ago, my wife asked me to go into the basement and get a bottle of water out of the spare refrigerator down there.  I did, grabbed the water, came back upstairs, and handed it to her.  She just stood there, looking at me with the strangest expression on her face.

“You okay?” I asked.  “Yeah,” she replied.  “Umm, I think I left the light on in the laundry.  Would you mind going downstairs again and checking it for me?”

Again the dutiful husband, I descended the stairs, poked my head around the corner, came back up and reported that no, the laundry light had indeed been turned off.

Now, she sounded downright incredulous.  “Listen, go downstairs again and take a good look.”  “I’m telling you, the light is off.”  “Just go take another look – a lonnng look.”

This time, when I got to the bottom of the steps, I saw – for the first time, even though it had been there all along – a brand new set of drums!  I hadn’t played the drums since high school, but always missed it.  For 35 years!  And now I had a beautiful, brand-new set that I could play whenever I wanted.

She had gone to a local music store months before, and over several visits and consultations with an expert on drums – and several payments, to boot – bought the set, brought it to the house, and had our daughter and her boyfriend assemble it while we were out for a Father’s Day lunch.

It was incredibly inconvenient for her to go through all that.  But I don’t know that I’ve ever appreciated the effort and love behind a gift any more than I did that day.  She knew how much joy it would bring me, and she went above and beyond to make it happen.

Back in college, I earned barely more than pizza money at the school newspaper.  Funds remained low during those years, but one Christmas I decided that no matter what it cost or how long or hard the search, I was going to find and give my girlfriend a really unique gift – the soundtrack of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” her favorite holiday TV special.  This being the late ‘70s, the only version came in the form of a vinyl album.  How ironic that vinyl has today become “cool” again.  But I digress.

By some miracle, a record store in the little town where we went to college actually had one remaining copy of the Rudolph album.  Problem was, I didn’t have quite enough dough to buy it the day I made this discovery.  I asked if they would hold it for me, but they wouldn’t, which was nuts, because nobody seemed to be clamoring for this record.  I found it completely by accident in a far-off dusty corner of the store.  I’ll bet they didn’t even know they had it.

Now it became a race against time.  Finals were in full swing, and the semester break loomed at the end of the week.  Don’t ask me how or where I found enough money to buy that album (because I don’t remember anyway), but I do recall trudging back up to town in a driving snowstorm, plunking down the cash, and walking back to my dorm with that treasure under my arm.

It’s too easy today.  You can grab an iTunes gift card from a convenience store rack on your way to paying the guy for the gas you just pumped, give it to somebody for Christmas or their birthday, and they can go online and download the whole Rudolph album themselves.  The entire transaction takes a combined total of five minutes.

Where’s the love in that?  Where’s the unspoken, yet very clearly heard, message that tells the person receiving the gift, “Hey, I wanted to do something really special, just for you, because you mean that much to me.”

The smile that lit up her face when she unwrapped that album, all those years ago?  Unforgettable.  Irreplaceable.  Yeah, it’s worth thinking about this Christmas and all year long.  The best gifts?  They’re the ones that were a little inconvenient, but totally worth it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re going to play our Rudolph album.

Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes

Matchstick Memories

By Tim Hayes

The room sat in near complete darkness, except for a bright cone of light directly above the workshop space where Adlai sat, hunched, special magnifier goggles strapped to his head, tiny tools in his hands, making repairs to a miniature rolltop desk the size of a salt shaker.

The tiny piece of furniture actually worked, the wooden slats moving up and down to cover or expose the desktop surface.  It represented just one of scores of miniature pieces that Adlai had acquired or built himself over the years – a passion born more than four decades earlier.

His repairs finished, Adlai carefully lifted the little rolltop, carried it across his second-floor apartment, and placed it inside the “office” of one of his display home models, resting on a buffet in his modest dining room.

Ava sat on the other side of his freshman English classroom, stunningly beautiful, with a winning smile.  Her questions and comments in class demonstrated an impressive intellect, as well.  Adlai came from a small town high school, shy and unsure.  College offered a fresh start, a clean break, a way to find and build a new life.  But all he could think of was Ava.  So he started writing her letters, sitting at the rolltop desk his mother insisted he bring to his dorm room – a piece of home, a thousand miles and a lifetime away.

As he placed the tiny desk in its place, Adlai looked at his collection of miniatures and decided to give them a good dusting and polishing.  The hat stand, the love seat, everything could use a little attention.  He didn’t mind.  It gave him something productive to do.  It had been a whole week since he dusted and polished his pint-sized gallery, after all.

After a week of letters, Adlai finally mustered the courage to approach Ava following English class.  She acknowledged receiving his letters, but asked that he wait until mid-terms had passed to have a date.  He respected that, and looked forward to dinner.  They began going out, sporadically at first, but by their junior year were a couple.  Adlai had an off-campus apartment by then.  He took extra care to help Ava with her coat and hat, hanging them on the hat stand, then joining her on the love seat where, well…

In the miniature dining room, with the two place settings resting in perfect symmetry on the tabletop, Adlai stopped dead in his tracks.  He stared at the little room, his breathing shallow, his hands perspiring.  This room might look clean and pristine and perfect, he thought to himself, but I know better.

As graduation approached, Adlai prepared to propose.  Ava brought such happiness to his life, that he wanted it to be that way forever.  He planned the big moment for a Saturday evening.  He would prepare her favorite dish, they would enjoy a wonderful meal together, then he would escort her to the love seat and ask for her hand.  He had transformed that bare-bones, off-campus kitchen into a culinary symphony fit for a four-star chef, the aromas and steam filling the apartment as seductively as the question he planned to ask later that night.

Still held in a frozen stare, Adlai looked at the tiny little telephone on the tiny little end table.  He thought he even heard it ringing, ringing, ringing…

The phone rang as Adlai cooked their dinner.  He ran into the next room to pick up the receiver.  Ava was on the other end.  Seems an old friend – an old boyfriend, actually – had come to visit from her home back in New York.  His family owned a large company that collected, shipped, and sold barges full of junk and scrap metal up and down the East River.  He would be graduating the same time as Ava, and had a big job lined up with his father.  He’d run the company within 10 years.  And he wanted her to come home with him.  He would give her a happy, loving, comfortable life.  And she said yes.  She felt terrible about this, Adlai had been so good to her all through college, but she had to think long-term.  She said she loved Adlai, and wished him a happy life, and said goodbye, and hung up the phone.  That was 46 years ago.

Adlai rousted himself from his temporary stupor.  He felt as though he was seeing his collection of miniatures with fresh eyes, for the first time in a long time.  Yes, they were lovely.  Yes, they were special.  Yes, they captured a time and a life that had once been very real and very good.

And yes, they had to go.  Now.  Today.  After nearly a half-century of wasted retrospection, these little pieces of matchstick memories had outlived their usefulness and purpose.  It hurt too much to have these little reminders of lost happiness puncturing his heart.  If a degree in English, and a career teaching English in middle school, taught him nothing else, it taught Adlai that after you’ve suffered enough, for God’s sake, pick yourself up and get moving again.

He thought about putting the miniatures on e-Bay and making a few bucks, but that didn’t feel right.  His birthday was coming up soon, though, so he decided to give himself an early present and just pitch the whole collection right into the dumpster behind his apartment building.  The same apartment he’d had since moving off-campus all those years ago.

As he carried the model across the back parking lot on the way to the dumpster, he took one last look.  The front door, with its three little diamond-shaped windows facing outward.  So lovely…

Nine in the evening.  The doorbell rang.  Adlai, startled, peered through the peephole to see who would be calling at this late hour.  He opened the door and saw a 67-year-old woman, who had married young, taken a lot of abuse from a wealthy alcoholic husband, had two children who both moved far from home, lived very comfortably but very unhappily, got divorced, and who had always regretted the one that got away – the just-scraping-by, middle-school English teacher, standing slack-jawed in the doorway.

Ava.  Ava came back.  The miniatures disappeared, and Ava arrived.  Happy Birthday, Adlai.

Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes

The Snow Globe

By Tim Hayes

When someone poses the question, “What’s the matter?” it most often gets misinterpreted.  The question does not mean, “What’s the problem?”  The literal definition equates to “What’s the situation?”

That’s what makes this particular question so crucial, so vexing, and so difficult to answer today.  What, exactly, is the situation?  What, precisely, is the matter?  The question does not assume the presence of problems or trouble, necessarily.  It’s an attempt to figure out a new, and radically altered, reality.

Those of you old enough to recall the 1980s TV show “St. Elsewhere” may understand what I’m driving at here.  For six seasons, viewers followed the funny, sad, dramatic events affecting the staff of an old, disrespected Boston teaching hospital.  Not until the final five minutes of the finale, however, did viewers learn the truth – the whole series occurred inside the mind of a young boy with autism, who liked to stare at a snow globe with a model of a hospital inside the glass.

His father – seen for six years as the chief medical officer of the hospital – was, in fact, a lower-middle class factory worker and a widower, whose wife went out to buy ice cream one evening and never came home, having been killed in an auto accident.  That cataclysmic shift in that family’s dynamic helped push the boy further into emotional hiding.  Imagining what happened inside that miniature snow globe hospital was how he handled his new reality.

But for the millions of viewers who loved that show, what did this jarring and unanticipated resetting of a basic reality, of the very fundamental premise, of the foundational environment in which the life of people in this program rested mean?  A new reality, delivered at the very end of the story, no less.  I have never forgotten the emotional jolt received that evening, sitting in front of the set.  And that was just a fleeting, superficial TV show.

A lot of people felt that same jolt earlier this week.  What’s the matter, indeed.  Our situation has changed.

And I blame words.  As a professional writer, on one hand it pains me to admit this, even though at the same time, on the other hand, I saw it coming.  When you’re a star, you can do anything.  Basket of deplorables.  He wants a puppet in the White House.  Such a nasty woman.

Even with some inspirational, aspirational language inserted during the big “set pieces” of the campaign, the level of discourse and dialogue sounded like it consistently descended more into disdain and diatribe.  And now we face a new reality, driven and produced by (or is it despite of?) those words.

This essay has never taken political sides, and still won’t.  Never.  The point here, instead, is to express the hope that now, as our new reality prepares to take the reins of government, the level and spirit of rhetoric can rise to the power, responsibility, respect, and basic decency of the office.  And, more important, that the actions taken and pursued match that higher standard of integrity, collaboration, and optimism.

Whoever said, “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” must have been an utter moron.  Words can hurt.  Words can injure.  Words can create fear and anxiety.  They already have.

But words can also heal.  Words can reassure.  Words can bridge a divide – even one as seemingly wide as we have today.  Words can change the world.  It depends which ones we hear, internalize, and act upon.

So, you ask, what’s the matter?  What’s the situation?  The situation is that we’re all finding our footing within a new reality.  It doesn’t have to be one where people feel either extreme — threatened or boastful, fearful or dominant, hopeless or classless.  There’s always a middle ground, one that can occasionally lead to higher ground.  Let’s pray that turns out to be the case.

Maybe the question isn’t: What’s the matter?  Maybe the question should really be: What matters?  And here’s the only answer the people of a great nation like ours can give: Words matter.  Let’s use them wisely, carefully, and constructively, moving forward together.

Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes