Sunday, March 28, 2010

Headphones Only

Why did 98Rock have to play "Headphones Only" so late, and only on Tuesday nights? Tony "Mad Dog" Colter's hour of "progressive rock, art rock and fusion" was relegated to one o'clock in the morning on a school night. This fact, and the headphonic nature of the music itself, made staying awake for the entire show nearly impossible, but I gave it my best shot, week after week. T.C. played music that simply could not be heard elsewhere on the radio. He introduced me to Kraftwerk's "Autobahn," which despite its brilliance was a tough twenty-three minutes to survive awake. He dug up some great old Moody Blues, Yes, Traffic, Genesis, Weather Report, Vangelis and Baltimore's own Crack the Sky. Unfortunately he also loved Pink Floyd, and he tended to play "Welcome to the Machine" every single week. Most of what he played was amazing, especially through headphones.

It was during those first couple of years of the 1980's that I became best of friends with Chuck and Staub. We were nerds, by and large, but we always managed to create a relatively good time for ourselves. We were a little slower than our peers to outgrow video games and when we finally did, we grew straight into weird music. None of us particularly cared for the mainstream. It was this mentality, plus a magazine article or two, that had led us to lucid dreaming.

Simply put, lucid dreaming involves being aware enough during dreams to consciously alter their course. All three of us tried it and compared our experiences. We were fiercely competitive and tried to one-up each other's dreams, to the point where we all were undoubtedly resorting to wild exaggeration. We kept notepads by our respective beds and, in accordance with the articles' instructions, tried to jot down whatever details we could so that we'd have a better shot at recalling the dreams in the morning. Half the fun was trying to decipher the notes the next day, as they were written by 3/4-unconscious fourteen-year olds in the pitch dark. Staub's notes were completely illegible. We liked to think he was channeling some ancient spirit whose primary mode of communication was hieroglyphics but sadly, he just had really frightful handwriting.

On Wednesday mornings there was no competing with my dream experiences, lucid or otherwise, because I'd gone to sleep the preceding night to Headphones Only. Chuck and Staub always had dreams like, "We were riding our bikes on Edmonston, over the train tracks toward the Pike, and a train was coming, and Amy Peters was on it, and it wouldn't stop, so I turned my bike into a motorcycle and caught up to the train and made her get on, and we like, totally made out." Mine, especially on Headphones Only nights, were different.

"We were in Mr. Mohpstein's class, and Mr. M caught Billy Stein helping that guy behind him cheat on his make-up test. Mr. M stood up really fast and his chair flew back and crashed into the wall. Everyone just sat there staring at him with their mouths hanging open. Except Chuck. Chuck was turned around in his seat, talking around me to Heather Moore. Mr. M goes, 'I'll deal with you two in a minute,' and he was looking at ME and Chuck! He took Billy and what's-his-name over to the math office to kill them or call their parents or whatever, and came right back. He slowly picked up his chair and put it back, and walked over – like really, really slow – to Chuck's desk, and just stood there, rocking on his feet and smiling at him. He just kept grinning his evil Mr. Mohpstein grin at Chuck, until after forever Chuck goes, 'What?' and Mr. M goes, 'Chuck, I like you. And if Joe here is your friend, then I guess I like him, too. But enough is enough. Come with me.' Heather just sat there, knowing that her life had been spared, and gave me this 'who, me?' look. As we reached the door just ahead of Mr. M, I decided that I didn't like where this dream was headed. So all of a sudden there was this really loud rumbling sound outside the classroom window, like a helicopter was landing on the tennis courts. Mr. M turned around and three Marines Special Ops commandos crashed through the window and yelled for everyone to stay down and promptly blew Mr. M to a million pieces with a bazooka, then shot Heather about 75 times with their M-16's. Then they saluted me and Chuck, climbed back out the window, one by one, covering each other's retreat, jumped back into their chopper and took off. Then, Chuck and I went and found Amy Peters and Katy Griggs and totally made out with them."

After a night when Tony the Mad Dog had taken up a quarter of the show with Kraftwerk's "Autobahn," I gave this report:

"I was lost in the woods somewhere near Lake Needwood, looking for you two. There was no path, and I kept getting spider webs in my face. I had Staub's dog with me, and she kept wandering off and coming back with weird stuff in her mouth. First she brought me an umbrella, then a history book, then an old Atari cartridge РI think it was 'Maze Craze' Рand finally she came trotting up to me with a Nike running shoe Рwith a foot still in it! It was all nasty and full of flies and maggots, and one of the flies was Mrs. Palmetto, and she was yelling at me to hurry home and to make sure Chuck brought his sister's bike home. I tried to tell her that it was actually Staub's sister's bike, and she flew away, laughing. I thought I heard you guys, so I yelled and yelled and ran toward your voices. A guy dressed up as Hitler came up behind me, grabbed the dog and flew away. I came out of the woods beside what I thought was Avery Road, but it looked more like the Beltway Рfour lanes on each side, with just a grassy median between them. And every car was a red Ferrari Testarossa, Porsche 928S-4, Lotus Esprit Turbo, Mazarati Bora or Lamborghini Diablo. All red. And they must have been going at least 150. And they were all being driven by Gary Coleman, who kept yelling, 'What chu talkin' 'bout, Willis,' out the sunroofs and t-tops. I started walking along the road, and all the signs were in German or Austrian or something Р'ich' this and 'ein' that Рand what looked like a speed limit sign said, 'H̦chstgeschwindigkeit 200 k/h.' It was getting late, and I was gonna get in trouble if I came home after dark, so I made one of the Lamborghinis pull over. Turns out it was Katy Griggs with a Gary Coleman mask on and she was wearing her cheerleader skirt and a tube top. She drove like a maniac and got us to the elementary school parking lot behind my house in like 15 seconds, so we had plenty of time to totally make out, before I ran home through the back yard and she turned into a horse and galloped away."

The night I failed to stay awake through the entire 12 minutes of Tony's favorite Jon & Vangelis song, "The Friends of Mr. Cairo," was the most memorable. I perched at the border between conscious and unconscious for at least a half-hour after it had ended, then went lightly under:

"We're at Putt-Putt and you two are playing Xevious, and Chuck is totally cruising through every level and you're getting totally annihilated right and left. I go to get some more tokens and the machine goes crazy and starts spitting out hundred-dollar bills, tons of them. So I just keep grabbing them and stuffing them in my pockets as fast as I can, so no one can tell what's going on, and a line starts to form behind me, and kids start yelling at me to hurry up. It goes on forever – money just flying out, and me just grabbing and stuffing, grabbing and stuffing. Finally, when I can hardly walk 'cause my jeans and shirt and jacket are so full of money, it stops, and I just head back toward you guys like nothing happened. But Joan Lunden is patting you down and putting handcuffs on you, and former First Daughter Amy Carter is reading you your rights, and you look at me and your faces are switched and your eyes are bleeding. They stuff green putt-putt balls in both your mouths and put you in a red plastic Bradlee's shopping cart and wheel you out to their ice cream truck, and I'm like, 'Hey, what's your problem?' and they start flinging Chinese throwing stars at me. So I run back into Putt-Putt, only now it's some kind of meat locker, and I'm freezing and I turn around and the door's gone. So one of the sides of beef says, 'And that's the way it is,' and I turn around and it's that old evening news guy, in a scuba suit with blue and yellow flowers all over it. He kicks me in the chin with one of his flippers, but it doesn't hurt, so he whacks me over the head with a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee. Now I'm mad, but he just laughs and kicks off his flippers and runs away, disappearing among all the sides of beef. Next thing I know, there's somebody pushing me – forward, right, left, forward some more – and all the meat is doing Humphrey Bogart impressions – badly. Then I'm pushed through a door and into a room with ceiling fans and potted plants and huge wicker throne-like chairs. Willie the Weatherman from Channel 9 is there, and he's going, 'Well-done, well-done Mr. Cairo,' and that guy from 'It's a Wonderful Life' is crying about something being useless, and there's a really hot girl there, totally sitting on this Cairo guy's lap and messing with his tie. He looks up and sees me and says something about how the word on the street is that I want more than my five percent, and how he thought I had more respect for him than to go around yakking about my cut behind his back. He nods at one of his goons, and this huge dude pats his underarm, winks at Mr. Cairo and says to me, 'Let's you and me take a little walk, Johnny.' I'm like, 'Dude, my name's not Johnny,' and he's like, 'Whatever you say, kid – but let's go, just the same.' So I'm not liking this at all. I make the guy turn into Kelly McCleary in a bikini, but she still has the underarm holster and the Lugar, and she's still leading me back into the meat locker – and she's really strong. So I try to turn the meat locker back into Putt-Putt, but it ends up looking more like the gym showers in the boys' locker room, and Doug Hardy and Mr. Atkins are there with machetes, hacking toward us through thick bushes. I change Kelly into a Kawasaki 650 with dual chrome exhaust, and get the hell out of there. Once I'm out in the hall, the bell rings and Harvey Korman starts chasing me up the stairs. When we get to the top of the stairs, I'm like I have really had just about enough of this, and he turns into Becky Winkler and we go into the band room and totally make out."

Chuck and Staub didn't feel like sharing any more lucid dream stories, after that.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Somebody Up There Likes You

"Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen, and welcome aboard Pan Am flight 1077, providing nonstop service from Baltimore-Washington to San Juan. My name is Bambi [I kid you not – her name was Bambi], and it's my pleasure to be with you today. As soon as everyone is seated and all carry-on bags have been securely stowed, I'll be back to go over some important safety guidelines with you. We are in good shape for an on-time departure today. Thank you…

Hello again, Ladies and Gentlemen. As we push back from the gate and taxi out, we have some important safety information to go over with you. This information can also be found in the brochure located in the seat pouch in front of you, right there with the spew-sack and the complimentary copy of Pan Am's Fly Away 1985. This year's edition features a great article by Bishop Desmond Tutu on how to pick up flight attendants, and the ten secrets to joining the 'Mile High Club' without getting caught. Please note that your flight crew has read both of these pieces, so don't even think about it. I can't believe I even have to mention that, but there's always one idiot – well, two idiots, I suppose – who feel compelled to give it a shot. Please, not on this flight.

For your safety and that of your fellow passengers, please note the emergency exits. This aircraft is equipped with eight such exits: two aft, two over each wing and two in the forward galley. If you don't know what aft means, or where you might find the forward galley, I guess you'd better find out pretty quickly, because in a crash most of the fire starts in these areas. If we should experience a sudden drop in cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from the ceiling above you – assuming that they work. If you are traveling with small children, by all means do NOT give them any of your oxygen. It will only make them hysterical. You may distract them with one of our complimentary Pan Am Down in Flames coloring books, available on request from any member of your flight crew.

In the event that we should have to make a water landing . . . who are we kidding here? Have any of you ever heard of a DC-10 making a water landing? What a crock. Baby, if we end up in the water we have crashed there, and we might just as well have hit a wall of granite. But in the unlikely event that we should become the first wide-body jetliner ever to make an actual water LANDING, you'll have approximately forty-five seconds to get the hell out of here before the aircraft sinks like a stone. Please note that there are two large auto-inflating life rafts on board, but I'm afraid we can't tell you where they're stowed. The flight crew will take care of the rafts. On the last plane that actually did end up in the waters of Jamaica Bay, after skidding off the end of JFK's runway two-niner, some passenger got hold of one of these rafts and pulled the cord before getting it out of the aircraft, rendering it uselessly inflated – not to mention totally in the way – inside the cabin. Please bear in mind that these rafts can only hold a few of us, and if those passengers who are left in the water start thrashing about, fighting to get into the rafts, crew members may be forced to shoot them with the flare guns. Besides, your seat cushions are designed to be used as floatation devices. Just slip your arms through these straps, and hold on tight. Sadly, due to recent problems with unruly passengers using these as weapons during flight, all seat cushions have been bolted to the seat frames. Sorry. It's no big deal, really – if we end up in the water, we're shark food anyway…

The captain has informed me that we are second in line for takeoff, so at this time I invite you to relax and take a deep breath, make sure all loose items are on your tray tables, kick off your shoes, put your seats back, loosen up those seat belts and make your peace with God. Once again, welcome aboard Pan Am, and enjoy your flight to sunny Puerto Rico. Oh, and smoke 'em if you got 'em."

"Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is your Captain speaking. We're experiencing a slight delay, but will be underway shortly. See, the wind-shear alarm keeps going off, indicating an extremely hazardous condition in which a successful takeoff is risky at best. But my copilot and I are pretty sure that either the alarm indicator or the sensors themselves are just broken, because it really doesn't look that windy out there to us, so we're gonna go ahead and ignore the stupid thing. Here we go…"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

We're On A Road To Nowhere

June 10, 1985. D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. Actual transcript of my friend's valedictory address to the Rockville High School Class of 1985, as I remember it:

"Doctor Koop, Principal Whats-your-face, honorable teachers, family, friends and fellow members of Rockville High School's graduating class of 1985 – I consider it an honor to speak to you this afternoon. Before I get to my hastily- I mean, thoroughly-prepared words of wisdom for my classmates, I would like to take just a moment to acknowledge some of the people who helped me reach this podium. Obviously, one cannot complete four years of scholastic perfection without the love and support and encouragement of one's family. Family – thank you for all that you've done, and continue to do, to help me to become and remain perfect. Second, I must thank some teachers who have gone above and beyond their respective calls, and assisted in my perfect development. Mr. Kelly, I know you were counting on seeing someone else up here today, but once you accepted the fact that your favorite student couldn't hack it in the long run, you were downright decent to me. Dr. Talbott, I know that my work in your AP English class last year was mediocre at best – hey, we invaded Grenada, and I was very stressed over it – but you gave me an A anyway. See me after the ceremony. I have your check. And of course Miss Chaney, who somehow had the wisdom and compassion to give me an A in Chemistry, despite my repeated unauthorized attempts to create C-4 explosives during lab time, including the incident with the melted windows and the seventeen paralyzed mice. Thank you. Your check is here as well. And finally, Stephen Broadhurst. Thank you Stephen, for having that total emotional and mental breakdown last fall. I was really not looking forward to having to eliminate you. No one who helped me along this path will be forgotten. Well, not until at least July.

Now, my classmates, it seems we have reached the end of our journey together. But life is made up of multiple journeys, and the end of one is generally the beginning of another. We begin and end these trips all the time. This particular ending just happens to be one of our first really big ones. Some of us are preparing to say goodbye to friends we've known as long as we can remember. Up until today, we've all more or less been taking the same path; elementary school, junior high and finally high school. After today, our paths diverge. Come September, many of us will find ourselves in colleges far away. Some will live at home and attend the University of Maryland, or even Harvard-on-the-Pike – I mean, the Thirteenth Grade – I'm sorry, Montgomery College. Some will be starting full-time jobs immediately. Some of those who are starting jobs will never again associate with the rest of us. In fact, many of them will be forever telling us that our perfectly-functional automobiles are in dire need of costly repairs.

The fact that from now on our individual missions in life will take us in so many different directions is at the same time both exciting and unsettling. What we've been thinking of as such a roller coaster ride has turned out to be merely that huge first hill you have to climb before the real ride can begin. Today we crest that hill, hang for a surreal moment in time, and plunge into the valleys and hills and twists and turns of real life with unimaginable speed. Whether you're the type who holds on tight or throws your hands in the air, who keeps your eyes closed or wide open – here we go.

Call it fear or excitement; you cannot ride a roller coaster without greatly increasing your heart rate. Life's about to get very fast indeed, friends. Here we go. High school commencements seem to make everyone in the graduating class act like they've been friends forever, regardless of how bitter their divisions may have been throughout the years. I have six older brothers and sisters – I've seen this before. Suddenly, people who have never spoken to you are hugging you, and your fiercest rivals are talking to you and about you as if you're blood brothers. It's interesting. Maybe it's because now, looking at the start of the real ride, all those other ups and downs of our relationships appear to be so tiny, so utterly meaningless going forward. Maybe it's similar to trench warfare. We've been different in our approaches to this war, but now that we're all just emerging from the trenches intact, we're more able to accept whatever different m.o.'s got us here. Maybe we're just so overjoyed to be free of high school, we'd be nice to Qadafi if we found him sitting next to us. Maybe, just maybe, our minds are already at the best of tonight's parties in Twinbrook or Flower Valley. [Two minute standing ovation.]

Of course, it goes without saying that our teachers and parents have been working hard to prepare us for this moment for many years. We have learned so much. We don't even realize how much we know. Many times we've resisted learning, preferring instead to remain in the safe confines of childhood. But more has gotten through to us than we currently realize. Our teachers and parents know this. When they say, "you'll see," they're not just trying to exit gracefully from an argument with a teenager. They know. Soon, we will know exactly what they mean.

A wise man once said that the best preparation for a journey is a deep understanding of where one has been. Well, I said that. Just now. I seem to be missing a page of my speech. But you get the idea. With this in mind, I feel compelled to take a look back at some of the significant Rockville High memories I will carry with me. I'll be brief, as I can see some nodding off out there. First, there was orientation. Was anybody else scared to death of that? Nobody? Fine. Liars. Okay then – that hostage thing, when the deaf kid held his teacher at knifepoint for 2 1/2 grueling hours over in A-wing. I didn't know Montgomery County even HAD a SWAT team! And kudos to Principal Whats-his-face for keeping cool in a crisis. Remember his little "updates" over the P.A. system? Of course you don't. He was supposed to be heard in the entire school except A-wing, but Teddy Rivers screwed up the wires, and he was heard only in A-wing, thus keeping the suspect fully informed as to the cops' every move. Ah yes. Good times.

And I know I won't be the only one who will cherish the memory of that week last year, when the drama club was performing "Godspell." The first day it was kind of cool. In each lunch period, about six of the cast members would carry their crucified King through the cafeteria on their shoulders singing, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." On the second day, we realized we were going to have to sit through this all week. By Wednesday, there was booing. Thursday, there was a barrage of 85-cent lunches raining upon the singers, and chants of "Burn the witches!" I still can't believe they came back on Friday, singing louder than ever. At least they had the sense to bring their little prop-shields. Of course, what's a miniature cardboard shield going to do to protect you from rocks and chairs? The image of the crucified Lord Jesus rising, bloodied and bruised, from beneath a pile of metal folding chairs and ferociously whacking anyone he could reach with his eight-foot wooden cross is certainly one I will not soon forget. And hey – it got us on the news!

The most riveting story of course, is not so much about us as it is about one of our distinguished education professionals. [Wild applause, but only from the students. On-stage faculty exchange nervous glances.] You know of whom I speak. I speak of none other than our favorite, most respected former Vice-Principal, Mr. Vice. Excuse me? Yes, I know he's still Vice-Principal, but please allow me that little fantasy. We've been hearing in science classes for years how we must get outdoors and observe nature, blah blah blah. Who knew that we could go just a mile from our school and witness such a display of wildlife, right over on Avery Road? [More wild applause] Mating ritual, I believe is the correct term for what some lucky (or perhaps very, very unlucky) Rockville students got to observe first-hand. And not just any mating ritual – the mating rituals of the 42-year old white professional suburban male. The story would be pretty kick-ass if it ended there, but no. The willing partner in this unsavory scene was none other than a 17-year old girl from some neighboring high school. Bravo, Mr. Vice. Bravo! I think there are lessons in that one for all of us. Where'd he go? Oh well – if anyone sees him, I've got a check for him, too.

In conclusion, I think there's some sort of tradition that says I'm supposed to leave all of you with inspiring words of sage advice. Sorry. No can do. I can't advise you – I'm one of you. Well, the one of you with a 4.0 GPA, but certainly not one to give you words of guidance. However, Principal Whats-his-face said he wouldn't give me my diploma if I didn't at least try, so here goes. My friends, to thine own selves be true. I say this not as something you can do immediately, but as something to keep in mind for the rest of your lives. We're still only seventeen and eighteen years old – we're not finished products yet. But we're on our way, and as of this moment we leave behind the only life we've ever known. Go into the world and find your place. Remember how you got there. Know yourself. And be happy. Here we go."

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cheese Fight!

My first job, if you don't count a once-a-week newspaper route, was working at Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre. I started in September of 1983, as I began my Junior year of high school. Like most of the first-time-employed at Chuckie's, I started as a busboy, cleaning up little pizza disaster areas for minimum wage. As first jobs go, this place was pretty cool. Free videogame-playing after hours, noise and pizza everywhere, a wacky teenage crew – and they paid us, too! There was also the occasional clandestine cup of beer, smuggled to us by the of-age cashiers. Life was very good, indeed.

After a week or two of working on my table-clearing, shaker-filling, chrome-polishing craft, my manager, undoubtedly sensing my limitless potential, let me start learning other areas of the operation. I picked up each new skill quickly. Before long, I was regarded as a master of the scullery. During peak hours, they'd usually have someone assigned exclusively to scullery, but when I was around I'd get that plus bussing duties in one or two of the dining rooms. Yes, stretching before me was a bright future of cleaning up after people. Eventually I made it to the kitchen, then to oven/cut. Oven/cut was fun, because I got to call out pizza orders and Orioles playoff scores on the P.A. system. Kitchen was even more fun, because it afforded me the opportunity to create works of pizza art, and it was out of sight of the customers, making it one of the best places to goof around with coworkers. Hot, though.

My proficiency in the kitchen, especially in terms of keeping it clean through a big rush, earned me several "special projects." When I spent four hours meticulously sanitizing the walk-in refrigerator, my manager slipped me a cash bonus worth 2 1/2 hours of wages – a ten-dollar bill! As I toiled away at all these unglamorous tasks, I kept myself focused on eventually making the Big Time. Here, the Big Time was climbing into a furry gray suit and becoming Chuck E. Cheese himself. I knew that not everyone could expect to ever earn such an honor, but I hoped.

My hard work and dedication, my study and dogged determination all paid off on that glorious day when I first got to wear the coveted costume. Actually, being "Chuckie" turned out to be a mixed blessing. I found it to be really easy, compared to most of the other posts. All one had to do was don the costume and walk around hugging kids, shaking hands and pantomiming goofily. Chuckie got to go out into the fresh air and wave at cars. Chuckie was often escorted about by one of the cuter girls of the crew. But the costume was very hot. There were two or three full suits, and I don't think any of them had ever been washed, so they were getting pretty nasty. There was always danger for Chuckie, too. For every kid who ran up to hug Chuckie, there were three who wanted to abuse and/or expose the human in the suit. The little monsters would lift up my huge Chuckie feet to see my sneakers, grab my plastic Chuckie nose and peer into the screened mouth and eye holes, try to knock my Chuckie head off, pull my furry hands and don't even get me started on that TAIL!! Chuckie wasn't defenseless though. One of the costumes had a pink felt-covered vacuum cleaner hose for a tail, and I found that with it I could inflict a serious whack upon my little enemies while maintaining the appearance of playful innocence. Also, hangers-on could be led into freezing rain and snow outside. In an emergency there was always the "nose bonk" wherein I'd stay upright and give my attacker a vigorous hug, bringing that hard plastic nose down sharply upon the unsuspecting cretin's head, often with devastating force. All things considered though, being Chuckie still beat the hard work and heat of the kitchen, scullery or oven/cut.

Chuckie also provided his share of thrills for the crew and customers alike. On one of my first nights, Chuckie knocked me into the sundae bar, sprinting in his huge shoes to escape the vicious kicks and punches of his female escort. Apparently, Mr. Cheese had "copped a feel" as she led him through the crowded game room. Seeing Chuck E. Cheese being chased through the restaurant by a high school girl with murder in her eyes was more than most customers could bear, but the crew found it uproariously funny. I was impressed to see how even under spectacular assault, the young man in the Chuckie suit stayed completely in character. He clutched his tail as he ran from his attacker, pantomiming his terror as he went, occasionally trying to hide behind customers, using them to shield himself from the girl. I didn't see how management could possibly have failed to see the humor in this.

There was also the tail-fire incident. Chuckie was visiting one of the birthday parties in the Pizza Time Theatre (the fact that they spelled it with the "re" still cracks me up!), when a youngster tugged on his arm. As he turned to greet the child, his tail hovered over the burning birthday candles just long enough to ignite its pink felt covering. Screams and shouts filled the darkened "theatre," but screams and shouts always fill the place, so Chuckie continued patting the heads of children, some terrified and some wildly amused. People started gesturing frantically at the mouse, but people always seemed to be gesturing at him, so he just acted coy and waved back, now with a significant portion of his tail alight. One of the managers rushed through the crowd toward him and, as is his wont, Chuckie playfully scampered away, trailing smoke and flame as he went. Two or three employees finally got hold of the burning tail and doused it in a pitcher of Sprite, to the cheers and laughter of the customers. Again, Chuck E. Cheese stayed in character. He gingerly held his blackened tail with one paw and fanned it with the other, as his boss led the stricken mouse away to the break room.

But nothing could top the incident that came to be known simply as "The Fight." I was clearing tables in the Theatre when I saw one of my kitchen buddies, Mike, slip into Chuckie's dressing room with one of the girls. This was normal; Chuckie would often emerge from his dressing room already armed with his escort. But Mike was a wild man, and action followed him wherever he went. It was Mike who came tearing through my kitchen from oven/cut with a flaming trash can one day, only to panic at the alarm-equipped back door and dump the burning contents onto the floor. It had also been our hero Mike who was caught in a state of mutual half-undress with Wendy in Chuck E. Cheese's dressing room. And yes, Wendy was the girl he'd "pawed" as Chuckie a month earlier. With Mike's track record in mind, I made sure I hung around the Theatre until he made his big Chuckie entrance.

The lights went down and a buzz of excitement went through the mechanical supporting cast of characters along the Theatre wall. Then came the spotlight on Chuckie's door, the drum roll and the pre-recorded introduction. As was his style, Mike-as-Chuckie grandly flung the dressing room door open and strutted out. How he managed to strut in that costume with those enormous feet was beyond all of us. Pattering after him came his escort, Wendy – tucking in her shirt. Immediately, there was a problem. In mid-wave, Chuckie froze. I saw Wendy's eyes go wide as the smile fell off her face like an undercooked strand of spaghetti off a kitchen wall. She and Chuckie were staring right past where I was lingering with my bus cart. I turned around and instantly understood their grave expressions. Just behind me, with everyone's eyes upon him, was another Chuck E. Cheese.

Everything stopped as the two huge fuzzy gray mice stared at each other with their hands on their hips. No one knew what to make of it. Was it part of the show? The kids began proclaiming their astonished observations that "There's another Chuckie!" Before I could finish saying, "Well what do you know – It's Chuckie's twin brother, Chachi Cheese," Mike-Chuckie started stomping toward Chuckie #2. Chuckie #2 gave him the Universal hand gestures for "you want a piece of me?" as Wendy tried in vain to hold Mike back. I joined the vain effort to keep them apart, but Mike gave me a wicked nose-bonk, before lunging at Chuckie #2 over my bus cart. Chuckie #2 side-stepped the initial lunge, sending Mike-Chuckie and a mountain of plastic cups and plates, pizza crusts and coke crashing all over the Theatre floor. Someone screamed and parents rushed to sweep their children out of the room as Chuckie #2 landed a quick pair of body blows on Mike. His recovery was swift, and he punched #2 in the stomach, then kneed him in the side of his huge Chuckie head as he doubled over. Mouse #2, with his head now sideways atop his body, gave Mike a shove, toppling him over the wrecked bus cart and into the pile of table debris. By now several crew members and a manager were shouting and pulling at both mice, but Mike broke free and a flurry of furry punches was exchanged, eventually landing both combatants, me and the manager in the mess on the floor. Soaked with coke and pizza sauce, the rodents returned to their now-askew feet for another round of furious punches. As Mike began to get the upper paw, Chuckie #2 made a break for it, toward the front of the restaurant. But Mike-Chuckie was not to be denied, and he chased down and tackled his twin, knocking both of their heads off and prompting more screams. Both Chuckies, realizing that they had just committed THE Cardinal Sin of mascotdom, let up just long enough for the managers to drag them, heads in hands (literally), to the office to sort it all out.

After that day, nothing fazed us at the Rockville Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre. We spent the rest of our days there separated into two classes of employees – those who had seen The Fight and those who hadn't. I was one of the privileged few.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fun With Tombstones!

During a 1983 family trip to Rehoboth Beach, we had one really awful day. It was chilly and drizzly and foggy – perfect weather for Mom to introduce us to one of her favorite activities. She used to like wandering around old graveyards and reading tombstones – the older, the better. She took us to Lewes, where there are a couple of cemeteries that date back to the late 1600's. My little brother and I passed the time by trying to find the absolute oldest tombstone while Mom looked for "interesting" ones. She found a section with a family of children, all of whom died during the same winter. This made her kind of sad. We didn't really get that, at the time. We do now, I'm sure.

Later in life I would read about a grave marker in Key West that says something like, "I told you I was sick!" The cemeteries of Lewes featured some pithy inscriptions of their own, many of which I didn't fully appreciate until years later, when I went through some of the faded pictures I took that day.

On the headstone of a Capt. Van der Smoot, died 1701 – "His ship landeth in Heaven, where his beloved Elisabeth awaits."

Barely legible on an extremely old and weathered stone – "Here lyeth Peter S[illegible], killed by cows." Killed by cows?

"Loved by no one," was Jonas Burgess, died 1809. Nice.

Imogen Van Grimly's family was a little gentler – "Be not afraid, dearest Mother – the angels taketh ye now, and there will surely be pie."

One marker didn't have a name or any dates – just "Dead Old Bastard."

A large onyx obelisk marked the grave of Timothy Durst, who died in January of 1793 – "He said it was too warm to bother covering his head. Caught pneumonia and now he's dead."

Captain Dunkle, age 44 – "Gentlemen you have my word that we are well out of range of the English muskets."

Jonathan and Josef Christian, twins who died at age six on June 4th, 1754 – "Killed by Indians – should have listened to Mother."

"I don't need any leeches. I just need to rest for a couple of days. You'll see – I'll be right as rain in no time."

"You have to admit – it was pretty funny."

Jonas Silas – "Killed in a duel over the honour of Mary Fredericks. That harlot."

"If he doesn't ask me to the St. Valentine's Social, I'll just die."

On the headstone of one Vladimir Von Etter – "So much for vampire bats rendering their victims immortal."

"I'm so very, very tired."

"Faught with dauntless courage – got shot anyway."

Hester Steele, who died giving birth – "I warned thee that a twenty-third child would be the death of me."

"Now dost thou believeth that she be a witch?"

Robert Layton, age 11 – "Died of fright."

Bernard Winston – "Esther, put the damn knife down!" 

Lawrence Tillman, died August 15th, 1799 – "Death clutches me with cold talons, yet I fear not, for You are with me. Death pierces my flesh, yet I feel no pain, for You are with me. Death shreds my heart and drains my blood, but I cry not, for You are with me. Death chops my body into tiny bloody chunks and dances on them, but I weep not, for Death slips in the blood and falls down and looks foolish and it's really very funny. Plus You are with me."