Saturday, May 26, 2012

I Want to Ride My Bicycle

My first bicycle was a red 24" single-speed Schwinn cruiser. My father taught me to ride it on Pam Street, the next street over from ours, because there was hardly any traffic there. Time after time he ran alongside me, holding me up, then letting go. Time after time I fell over, and, each time, I wanted to give up and go home. But Dad convinced me to stick it out, and I eventually got the hang of it.

Having a bike gave me so much freedom. My world suddenly grew exponentially bigger. During the summer, my friends and I rode all over town: the library for books, Boyce Theater for a Saturday double-feature, Judd's Drugs for a phosphate or soda, the fairgrounds during the county fair, Pike Lake for fishing or swimming (taking the shortcut through the cemetery). I'll never forget the exhilaration of the wind in my face as I coasted down a hill.

My favorite place to go was Readmore Bookstore, on the courthouse square. (My friend Jim told me that the store was named for its owners. Jim was a year older than me, and I believed everything he told me. For years I called the owners "Mr. and Mrs. Readmore.") Not only did Readmore's have the best selection of books and comics, they had penny candy and one of those enormous old Coke machines with an open top. You had to pull your bottle along a slot and up through a hatch that opened when you put your money in. Once, I got my hand caught in there.

I remember the first time I rode all the way downtown by myself: south on Harrison, west on Sheridan, south on Lincoln (past the school), west on Center to the courthouse square. It was only a couple of miles, but at the time it seemed an impossible distance. I stopped in to visit my father at his firm's law offices on the second floor of the Lake City Bank Building. (I don't remember why—probably to ask him for money to spend at Readmore's.) He must have been busy, but he took time to visit with me, show me around the offices, and introduce me to his partners. I can still remember the smell of that place: a spicy blend of pipe tobacco and old law books.

I kept raising the seat and handlebars on my old red Schwinn until I finally outgrew it and traded it in for a used three-speed. My last bike was also a red Schwinn—a five-speed touring model my parents gave me when I was in high school. I got rid of it about sixteen years ago. Loretta and I had quit riding, and our bikes were just gathering dust and taking up space in the garage. But I'd like to ride again sometime. I'd like to once again feel the exhilaration of the wind in my face as I coast downhill.

The trouble is, you can't coast downhill without pedaling uphill first.

I want to ride my bicycle;
I want to ride my bike.
I want to ride my bicycle;
I want to ride it where I like.
—Freddie Mercury

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

I recently began reading Treasure Island again. It's been at least 30 years since I last read it, and I'd forgotten what a cracking good story it is. (By the way, have you read it? If not, you should. Here's a link to Project Gutenberg, where it's available as a free download. Go ahead—I'll wait... Finished? Good! We'll continue...)

Robert Louis Stevenson was single-handedly responsible for just about everything we know (or think we know) about pirates: from peg legs and parrots to treasure maps and the dreaded "Black Spot." Without Treasure Island, there would be no Pirates of the Caribbean—not to mention Pirates of the Channel Islands, a mystery dinner theater script I wrote for the Gypsy Players and Murder-in-Mind Productions (apologies for the shameless plug).

I felt compelled to re-read the book after watching a recent adaptation on the SyFy Channel and hearing myself say, again and again, "I'm pretty sure that wasn't in the book." (By the way, why is it now the SyFy Channel, instead of the SciFi Channel? And what do pirates have to do with science fiction?) I have to admit that Eddie Izzard did a fine job as Long John Silver, but for the most part I was very disappointed. I particularly disliked the way the characters of Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney were portrayed: Livesey as a sniveling coward and Trelawney as a snobbish, greedy bully. At one point, Jim Hawkins seriously considers throwing in his lot with the pirates. No wonder, considering what jerks his companions are.

Give me the 1950 Disney version any day. It's a faithful adaptation, perfectly cast (with the possible exception of glaringly American child actor Bobby Driscoll as Jim Hawkins). Robert Newton is especially brilliant. To quote Wikipedia, his Long John Silver "became the standard for screen portrayals of pirates. A West Country native where many famous English pirates hailed from, Newton is credited with popularizing the stereotypical West Country 'pirate voice' by exaggerating his West Country accent. Newton has become the 'patron saint' of the annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19." (That's right. If it wasn't for Walt Disney and Robert Newton, pirates would never have known how to say "Arrgh.")

My parents were married on August 17, 1950—the hottest day of the year. My father, stifling in his wedding clothes, went to the movie theater to cool off. It was one of the few places that was air conditioned in those days. The movie was Disney's Treasure Island. I don't know if he was able to thoroughly enjoy it at the time—he had other things on his mind. But it was to become one of his favorite movies.

Arrgh, mateys—shiver me timbers if it don't be one of me own favorites, as well!

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest—
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Duck Tale

WARNING: The following TRUE story may be considered too graphic for some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

I had all sorts of short-lived pets growing up—from the mundane (goldfish and hamsters), to the unusual (frogs and crawdads). They invariably ended up buried in milk cartons in our back yard. Perhaps the strangest and shortest-lived was the duck that belonged to my friend Bill and me.

When I was a kid growing up in Warsaw, Indiana, we lived on the edge of town, just a few blocks from a duck farm. The kids in the neighborhood were in awe and a little in fear of the owner of the farm, the man we called "Old Man Beyers." There were stories that the fence surrounding the farm was electrified and would fry you if you touched the wrong part, and that Old Man Beyers always carried a shotgun—if he caught you trespassing, he'd fill you full of buckshot. Of course, none of the stories stopped us from taking the shortcut cross his field.

One day, inevitably, Old Man Beyers caught Bill and me trespassing. Instead of giving us the butt-load of buckshot we were expecting, he took us to his duck pond and showed us his ducks. "Do you want to take one home?" he asked us.

Oh, boy, did we!

I don't remember the duck's name. We had him for such a short time, maybe we never got around to naming him. We made a pen for him in Bill's back yard, which was adjacent to my back yard, so that I could come and visit him any time. Old Man Beyers gave us enough duck food to last a few days and told us where we could buy more. As it turned out, we didn't need more.

A day or two after we brought the duck home, Bill showed up at my house, crying.

"He's dead!" he sobbed.


"Our duck! Aliens got him!"


Bill showed me the scene of the crime. There was the duck's body, huddled in one corner of the pen. But where was the head?

"It must have been aliens!" Bill said, "Who else would take the head and leave the body behind? And there's no blood!" There was a certain logic in this.

We buried the body in the empty field across from Bill's house. We never did find out what happened to the head. Our parents told us it was probably a dog, or maybe a fox. But we preferred to think that our duck was the subject of some bizarre alien experiment.

Who knows? Maybe he's still alive in some way—out there exploring new worlds and new civilizations, boldly going where no duck has gone before. I'd like to think so.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Young at Heart

It's the first weekend in May, which means it's the opening weekend of another Fairy Tales in the Park season. Every year, members of the Ventura County theatre community get together to write, direct, and perform free shows from May through September, in parks throughout Ventura County, California.

My friends John and Roxanne Diesel started Fairy Tales in the Park in 1995. When I joined the troupe in 1996, performances were only at Rancho Simi Park in Simi Valley (at the amphitheatre in front of the duck pond, where performances were occasionally interrupted by a duck living under the stage). Since then, the program has expanded to include four additional locations throughout the county.

This is real seat-of-the-pants theatre, with no stage manager or stage crew, and usually no stage. Costumes and props are kept to a minimum; in fact, the original intention was that we would be able to carry everything we needed for a performance in a trunk (hence our name: "The Gypsies-in-a-Trunk Players"). Performances always end with our theme song, which we invite the audience to sing along with us:
Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you,
If you’re young at heart.
For it’s hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind,
If you’re young at heart.

And if you should survive to a hundred and five,
Look at all you’ll derive out of being alive.
And here is the best part—
You have a head start,
Because you are among the very young at heart.
This weekend and next, my friends Gabriel Vega, Chris Carnicelli, and I will be reprising a wacky, wild-west version of Peter Pan that we first performed five years ago. If you're in the area, I hope you'll join us.

You'll discover what I've known since I discovered Fairy Tales in the Park—that there is something truly special about children's theatre. It really does keep you "young at heart."