Sunday, June 27, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.32: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 32

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Full Time Grandfather: Tri

Morse Code

"Granddaddy, let me pull your beard!" my son said.

"Daw dit, daw daw daw," my father replied. "Dit daw daw, dit daw, daw dit daw daw. That means 'no way,' kid. No way."

He must have known he had no way to teach his grandchildren morse code. He brought up the code anyway, repeatedly. More than fifty years after Korea, he broke out into spoken code when he wanted to emphasize a point. He also tried to show his grandchildren simple ciphers. ROT-13 and ROT-5 were his favorites. He took his examples of ROT-13 from history. He liked to talk about how the system developed in ancient Rome.

As a child and as a parent, I noticed something odd about his ciphering and deciphering: he separated elements of any cipher into five-letter chunks. Several times, I tried to make him explain it.

"It's just convenient," he said.

That was frustrating to hear as a child but, in retrospect, it seems right. While he served in the Signal Corps, he used five-letter chunks. Those were the easiest form of transmission for telegraph operators. Our state of technology has moved beyond the telegraph, of course, but five-letter blocks are still a popular practice among cipher hobbyists.

In our home, my father didn't play with many other styles of cipher. He stuck with what the army had taught him. He knew about the playfair cipher, for instance, but he never used it.

"Granddaddy, do you have tootsie rolls?" my daughter asked one afternoon.

"Daw daw, dit daw, daw dit daw daw, daw dit dit dit, dit."

"No!" she shouted as he started speaking in code. She put out her hand to try and stop him.

"What does that mean?" asked my oldest boy.

"What do you think it means?"

He gestured past the clutter of his living room to the dining room, kitchen, and beyond.

In defiance of his diabetes, he hid candy around his house. His grandchildren discovered his caches of treats now and then. They raided them, over his protests, until he moved them or until the stacks of Necco wafers or licorice or other candies or chocolates ran out. Usually, the sweets ran out before he could be bothered find a new hiding spot. Then the kids would complain to each other ("You took the last one!" "No, you!") and they went to look for another cache.

"It means," my daughter said thoughtfully, "that I can have one."

"Hah!" he laughed. "Maybe. If you can find one."

Philosophy Rocks

"Get up!" my daughter said. The kids ran up to their grandfather in his lounge chair. "We want to go to the park."

"I'm up," my father replied, his eyes closed. He didn't lift his hands from the padded armrests.

"You're sitting in a chair."

"How do you know that?" he said. His eyes opened. "How do you know this is a chair?"

Two generations after college, he still thought in terms platonic forms. He snuck them into conversations when the kids didn't know what he was getting at. Sometimes he was explicit and quoted Herodotus, Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle. At other times, he introduced the concepts into his conversations simply because he continued to see the world through the lens of metaphysics. Asking how people understood the concept of a chair was, to him, an ordinary example. It was how the ancients questioned human thought and the limits of knowledge.

The family living room stayed rather dim during the day even with light spilling through the main window. The furnishings were blue and brown. My father kept stacks of videotapes on the end tables and also on his shelves next to the television. Above the tapes and DVDs, my mother kept her collection of knick-knacks from Germany and a row of ornamental boxes. On the top of the shelves sat photos of the grandchildren. Between the stacks and collections, my parents had long ago hung a watercolor painting, its protective glass darkened by thirty years of cigar smoke.

At the far west side of the room sat two lounge chairs, one of them ripped by cats and buttressed by black duct tape. The other was a recent acquisition, green-gray in color and not a scratching post. It was plush, comfortable, and my father's favorite.

The area was restful for him until there were grandchildren in it.

"Have you been reading that red book on philosophy?" he asked. He meant a title called Philosophy Rocks. He disapproved of it because it wasn't Plato or Aristotle. The paperback was meant for parents and children to read together.

What he did like about Philosophy Rocks, though, was that it started with Plato's story of the cave and moved on quickly through dozens of other foundational concepts. He liked to hear the kids creating counter-arguments. If philosophers wanted a god because they felt there had to be a prime mover, then who was the prime mover who created the god? If saving two lives were better than saving one, was saving two murderers really better than saving one doctor? He wanted to listen to them thinking.

"What makes this a chair?" he insisted, fully awake but not rising.

"It's got cushions." The youngest poked the cushion next to my father's leg.

"It's got legs." My daughter pointed to them.

"Well, a table has legs," he objected.

"We know it's a chair," said my oldest son, "because you're sitting in it."

He smiled. "Actually, that's a pretty good definition."

When he leaned forward, the kids shouted. "Come on!"

"I'm tired," he replied. "Who says we're going to the park?"


"Okay." He pushed on the arms of the chair and started to rise. "I guess we're going to the park."

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.31: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 31

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Full Time Grandfather: Tri

Modern Radio and Corny Jokes

My kids remember granddad telling corny jokes on long drives. The longest trip they took with their grandfather was to the Prairie Home Companion show at the Wolftrap theatre. They heard old gags and old music on their way to a show full of classic folk music and small town stories. It was a tough show for them. Their grandfather had to keep explaining what was going on. Despite that and the summer heat, they have good memories of the trip.

He kept repeating his classic quips, most of them borrowed from old comic standards.

"Despite the high cost of living," he said many times, "it's still pretty popular."

Sometimes he turned his stories about teaching into classic jokes. About a student who never seemed to bright, he started,

"He was playing catch. Someone threw him a softball. I thought it was funny that he squinted at it like he was wondering why the ball kept getting bigger and bigger." He leaned closer for his punchline. "But then it hit him."

Sometimes the kids didn't get it, not even with a jab from his elbow.

"Sorry," he said once when he misspoke, "I guess that was a Freudian slip."

"What's a Freudian slip?" my daughter asked.

"Ah." The way he sighed, most of us understood that he was mentally shifting into a different mode. "That is when you say one thing and mean your mother."

The kids chuckled although it was what they did, sometimes, when they weren't sure what they were laughing about.

My father had it easier when he sat down to enjoy corny jokes with his grandchildren courtesy of radio or television. In fact, once he noticed how my oldest child liked an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle, he bought the entire series that night. After that, he could lean back in his padded armchair, turn on the show, and make jokes along with the cartoon characters.

Rocky: Do you know what an A-bomb is?
Bullwinkle: Certainly. A bomb is what some people call our show.

The living room was cluttered and dark. The cartoon animation was crude. The puns were tortured. But the characters remained good-natured. They kept true to their heroic natures and stayed constantly in action. The television screen shone bright with primary colors. Sometimes my father laughed for different reasons than the kids. But all of them laughed.

Rocky: Hey Bullwinkle, we're in real trouble now!
Bullwinkle: Oh good, Rocky! I hate that artificial kind!

The context of the cold war has long been lost but the concept of doing good deeds was still clear to the kids. The heroic flying squirrel had an earnest, do-gooder intention that they could identify. Thankfully, there was no pretense from Boris or Natasha. They referred to themselves as the "greatest no-goodniks." Even if other things weren't clear, intentions were telegraphed like on other kids shows. The main difference for Rocky and Bullwinkle was their dad-joke style of puns, meant for adults. Even near death, the hero issued another dad-joke.

Bullwinkle: (as he sees Rocky lying unconscious on a pile of rocks) Rocky, buddy, speak to me! Don't tease ol' Bullwinkle! Say something!
Rocky: (regains consciousness) Something.
Bullwinkle: Well, that's something.

For a day, my father and my oldest son repeated, "Well, that's something" at every excuse. I hadn't seen the episode yet, so I didn't really understand.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.30: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 30

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Full Time Grandfather: Dva

Old Time Radio

"What evil lurks in the hearts of men?" the speaker blares. A chilling laugh follows. My father chuckles along. He recites the next phrase with the radio announcer, "The Shadow knows!"

That's how he listened to dramas in front of his children and his grandchildren. He spoke the key lines like, "X minus five, four, three, two, X minus one," or "The Lone Ranger rides again!" He grew up with all genres of shows on the airwaves. For crime tales or suspense, he had The Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Dragnet, and Johnny Dollar. For science fiction, he had Beyond Tomorrow, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, X Minus One, and Space Patrol. He got his cowboy adventures from The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke. To scare himself, he listened to horror tales as described by Lights Out, Escape, and The Whistler.

But his favorites were comedies. And the ultimate comedy of his childhood was the Jack Benny show. Something about the character, his unashamed cheapness, his bad violin playing, and his cleverness appealed not only to my father but to most of the nation. My father made time for most of Jack Benny's compatriots and competitors like Grace and Allen, Amos and Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Spike Jones, and more. He enjoyed the relatively short-lived Mel Blanc show. Mel, the "man of a thousand voices," performed the characters and part of the sound effects, too, for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Jack Benny, and a dozen other, popular shows. My father spoke of Mel Blanc's voice artistry in the same breath, sometimes, as the Mills Brothers when they were young and sang their own instrumental parts.

As a father, he tried to share his favorite episodes with me and my brothers. As a grandfather, he did the same. My kids found the radio horror dramas too frightening but they liked most of the rest. Although I sympathized with them, one of my fondest radio memories is a scary adventure, a half-hour drama from Escape called "Leiningen Versus the Ants."

The drama centers on a man who owns a Brazilian plantation in the rainforest. He gets news that army ants are headed his way. His neighbors flee. A contrarian, he decided to stay and fight for his farm. He convinces most of his staff to remain. They have a plan, too, and they flood ditches to create a moat at their border. However, the ants link up, climb over dead bodies, and cross the water. Leinigen and his crew burn the ants with torches. But they run out of fuel. The ants keep coming. Finally, Leiningen himself dons a makeshift protective suit and, in a desperate attempt to save his men, races through the ants to the dam upstream. From inside the dam, he floods his crops to save his people. However, on the return to his plantation, he is nearly eaten by the remaining ants and has to be rescued in return.

It was a good adventure. Most of the shows my father wanted to share were pretty good. Radio dramas are a tough sell to kids in the modern age, though. He had an easier time with movies.

Classic Films

The best old films are ones that are still loved by the entire nation. My father played 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,' 'Wizard of Oz,' and 'Mary Poppins' for my kids. They thought those were great. From there, he didn't have too hard a time getting grandchild enthusiasm for musicals like 'Singing in the Rain' or 'The Sound of Music.' The youngest two kids sang and danced along.

Once as a young teen, my daughter burst into her grandfather's house singing,

Good mornin', good mornin'
We've talked the whole night through
Good mornin', good mornin' to you
Good mornin', good mornin'
It's great to stay up late
Good mornin', good mornin' to you

When the band began to play
The stars were shining bright
Now the milkman's on his way
It's too late to say, "Good night"

So, good mornin', good mornin'
Sun beams will soon smile through
Good mornin', good mornin'
To you and you and you and you
Good mornin', good mornin'
We've gabbed the whole night through
Good mornin', good mornin' to you

My father gave us a mouth-open, shocked smile. The kids had watched 'Singing in the Rain' a few more times. They insisted so much that Gene Kelley was the best dancer in the world that my father turned contrarian and pointed out Frank Harrington and the Nicholas Brothers, because they were black, weren't as famous but they were still as excellent.

"What about Ginger Rogers?" my daughter asked.

"Oh, I guess she was pretty good, too." He chewed on the end of his cigar. "Come to think of it, even if Gene Kelly was best, there were a lot of other dancers ..."

The 'best dancer in the world' conversation slowly turned to being about the best dance routine. Months later, after treating the kids to another showing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, my father mused,

"I'd forgotten how good Dick Van Dyke was."

He was speaking about the rag-doll dance that Van Dyke puts on, partly as a duet with Sally Ann Howes. The dance mixes eye-catching mime (some of the moves look impossible) with perfect, in-character dance. It might not actually belong in the conversation because it's so different from conventional scenes, so full of character and clown mime, but it is impressive. I've re-watched it a bunch of times now, myself and I see what my father meant.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.29: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 29

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Full Time Grandfather: Odin

For years, probably on every other weekend in the summers, my parents took my kids to the Ridiculously Big Park that was Awesome. (That's how my adult children refer to it when they remember.) Its real name may have been South Germantown Recreational Park but there are other parks close by, too. The memories of our children may combine three parks. One had a pool with a slide. Another had a rock wall, a fort, and an obstacle course. Another had a stream, trees, and play equipment.

My father encouraged the park visits because he could wander off and smoke cigars. Rides to the parks gave him time to practice his comedy, as well. He tried to teach the young ones about classic routines.

Cigar in mouth, he puffed, "Did you know that Dizzy Dean was a real baseball player?"

"No." Sometimes all three kids responded. Sometimes, none did because they knew what was coming.

"Funny name, isn't it? Dizzy. He had a brother named Daffy. He really did!" This was his lead-in.

"Like Daffy Duck?" That was a line that usually got them excited.

"I guess so." He shifted in his seat as he tried to steer things to the right track. "Baseball players have funny names."

"Daffy Duck would be a funny pitcher."

"Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, there's a funny bit about the names. It was written by two men called Abbot and Costello. On their baseball team, Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know is on third."

"Granddad, you played that at home." The oldest had already heard the whole thing - more than once.

"You're supposed to say, 'That's what I want to know.'"

"We already know. Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know’s on third."

"Are you being funny?"

"No." He was serious.

"Am I being funny?"

"No." The oldest didn't laugh. The younger two did.

"You could ask me, 'Who's on first.' And I would answer, 'yes.'"

"Maybe 'I Don't Know' Wants to be on first." Sometimes the oldest would wonder about the characters as if they were real people.

"Well, what if I said, 'Who's on second?"

"No!" my daughter would shout because she got the joke. "Who's on first!"

"Right!" He puffed the cigar a little faster.

He was never able to finish. Without kids stepping all over the lines, here's how part of it goes:

Lou Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names?
Bud Abbott: Well I should.
Lou Costello: Well then who’s on first?
Bud Abbott: Yes.
Lou Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.
Bud Abbott: Who.
Lou Costello: The guy on first.
Bud Abbott: Who.
Lou Costello: The first baseman.
Bud Abbott: Yes.

If the children were capable of cooperating at that level, I suppose they would have had a snappy routine. My father earnestly yearned for the kids to appreciate the wordplay of piece. I'm pretty sure that he had it memorized. He never got far, though, with the grandkids interrupting and launching into debates about whether Daffy Duck was better than Donald Duck.

He didn't have much more luck in teaching them Russian. The grandkids learned, "Do svidaniya!" for goodbye and a handful of other phrases, most of which disappeared from their minds as soon as our car door closed and we headed back home. These are a few of the phrases I heard from him practice with them. 'Ye ne ponimayu' was one of his favorites:

privyet (hello)
karashow (good)
pechal'ka (too bad)
ya ne ponimayu (I don't understand)
kak zhal (what a pity)
odin, dva, tri (one, two, three)
mashina (car)
eta proklyataya mashina (this darned car)

The body of knowledge he passed on the best, maybe, was mathematics. As our oldest said, "He made it seem simple."

He showed patience and clarity of thinking as he sat down with his grandchildren to go over their homework. He listened on the phone to trigonometry and calculus, sometimes physics or chemistry. In return, the kids seemed to like his ideas for solutions. They responded to his leading questions so they could arrive at the right thought.

Sometimes he spotted their difficulty right away.

"Why don't you factor the equation first?" Even though our kids had heard that thought before, their eyes widened when he mentioned it. Sometimes they would start on his suggestion before he spoke his next sentence. "See what you can remove. Then whatever you do next will be simpler."

Not all of our kids went to him with all of their math. But all of them show awareness in their lives about his methods of problem-solving in their work or school. They understand the idea that they can find a simpler approach, a more fitting example at the start, or a methodical path to their solution.