You just never know what will make you feel better when you’re ill.
And the things that make you feel better are not always things to be proud of.
Take motion sickness, for example. There was a time when I was a boy that I’d get sick every time my family went on a long trip by car.
It may have had something to do with the seating arrangements in the family car, a two-tone bronze 1958 Dodge Sierra, a station wagon only a little smaller than our house.
The one really cool thing about this beast, or so I thought at the time, was the foldable third seat, which faced backward. I liked to sit in it with the big back window cranked down and watch the road reel away from me. Somehow, that was more appealing, as thought it was better to see where I had been than where I was going.
That’s still true, but probably a topic for another column.
Anyway, that was my favorite way to travel, at least, getting a ride to school or going places around town with my folks.
That all changed when we took the car on a trip from our home in Georgia to visit family in Pennsylvania. It was about 700 miles, in the days before Interstates. That meant hundreds of miles of two-lane highways winding through every ‘burg and city between hither and yon, stopping at innumerable stop signs and traffic signals. If we were lucky, Dad would stop at some little string of cottages somewhere in Virginia on the way north and south. If not, we just drove straight through, 16 or 18 hours.
We were in South Carolina when I started to feel a little bit queasy. Just a touch. I had sprawled out on that big rear seat, reading and watching the road fall away from me. The car had no A/C, so the window was open, and the hot air whipped around the pages of my comic book. I couldn’t figure out why I was starting to feel so lousy. Now I know that the open window was sucking in exhaust fumes, a design flaw that explains why you don’t see that kind of windows any more.
By the time we stopped for lunch, I was sick as a dog, with a splitting headache as a bonus.
We had stopped at a Howard Johnson’s, a now nearly defunct restaurant chain that was famous for its 28 flavors of ice cream and for its fried clams. I still say nobody makes fried clams as well as HoJo did.
Anyway, my parents and brother went in to eat. I said I was too sick to even look at food, which should have worried them because I would, and will, claw my way through a locked door for a good hamburger.
It was hot. I leaned out the back window of the station wagon, reeling with nausea and nearly blind from the headache. I thought I was gonna die. No, I hoped I would die. Soon. Please.
The door of the restaurant opened, the fierce summer sun flaring off the pivoting glass and into my face. I jolted at the pain from the light and glared toward the door.
A kid walked out. He was my own age, about 11, but really fat. I mean, he wore stripes so his parents could tell if he was walking or rolling. He jiggled, from just below his bristly flat-top haircut to where his ankles squidged out over the tops of his canvas sneakers.
In his pudgy hand he held HoJo’s biggest ice cream cone, about the size of a dunce cap, with what looked like about 20 scoops of ice cream in it.
It was strawberry ice cream. I could smell it. It was soft and runny on the outside and the kid, through either clumsiness or enthusiasm, had a solid smear of the stuff all over the lower half of his face.
Did I mention that, at the time, I HATED strawberry ice cream? I mean, hated in the way only an 11-year-old boy can hate; hated it like I did Brussels sprouts and spinach and visits to the dentist.
Fat boy looked at me, an obese, strawberry sneer forming on his half-acre face.
I looked at the pink goo oozing over his dimpled knuckles toward the ground. I looked at the frothy pink dripping from his lips, and doing roller-coaster maneuvers down his several chins.
Something happened, way down deep inside me. Something profound, even life-changing. All that unhappy, brewing, heaving stuff that made up my inside, all that nauseated, bubbling, belching mass, stood up on its hind legs, thought for a moment, and said “That does it. I’m outta here!”
There was not a thing I could do, any more than a mountain can stop a train that is heading for the mouth of the tunnel that runs through it. Whatever was in there – breakfast, supper from the night before, the insoles of my shoes and, for all I know, ancient scraps of baby formula, all rushed from the very center of my being, up my gullet, and out, damned near taking my teeth with them. I think that if they hadn’t been strapped in by my braces, I would have lost them, then and there.
Mathematically speaking, it was a beautiful thing, describing as it did a perfect arc from my rattling teeth to a brightly lit square of sidewalk right at Moby Pink’s feet, sloshing up all over his sparking white Keds.
The rosy sneer hesitated, uncertain, and then dissolved into an unhappy-if-cheerfully-pink O. The little sausage fingers sprang away from the HoJo megacone. The glistening rosy mass above the cone turned gracefully as it dropped to splashdown in the lumpy greenish mass on the sidewalk.
Namu the Boy Whale squealed like a boar only just that moment neutered, turned, and churned his way back into the HoJo, hollering “Mammmmaaaaa!” at the top of his lungs.
The parking lot seemed eerily quiet. Other than a really bad taste in my mouth, I realized that I felt pretty good. I climbed the rest of the way through the window, and, carefully avoiding the mess on the sidewalk, walked into the cool depths of the restaurant. I found Mom, Dad, and David at a table, ready to order.
“You feeling better?” my Mom asked. “Yes Ma’am,” I said. “I’m hungry.”
© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
July 9, 2007
It was supposed to be just another slow night at the funeral home, but Mr. Valentine put an end to that.
And for once, neither I nor Big George had anything to do with it.
George wasn’t any bigger than I was; he just seemed bigger, because he was sort of larger than life. We were both in the same high school, but at 18 he already looked like he might be in his mid-thirties, getting a little thin on top, a little ragged around the eyes. He smoked constantly and his favorite pastime, it seemed, was fighting.
We both worked for Trestle’s Funeral Home, a venerable establishment across town from Steinberg’s, it’s main competition. Trestle’s catered mostly to the blue-collar crowd, Steinberg’s mostly to the people they worked for, and for big shots at the local university.
There were other funeral homes, but those two were the big ones. It was the mid-sixties, right toward the tail-end of the days when funeral homes operated the local ambulance services.
That’s where I and Big George came in. We were attendants for Trestle’s fleet of “convertible cars,” which were Cadillac hearses that, with a couple of on-the-fly changes, could be turned into ambulances. George and I were the guys who sat in the back with patients while one of the older morticians drove helter-skelter to the hospital.
It was very seat-of-the-pants stuff. None of us, as far as I know, had even the most basic first-aid training. If you were still alive when we got you to the emergency room, it was because God wasn’t ready for you yet.
Trestles was in a spooky antebellum house in a part of town that had seen better days. The main floor held the offices, a couple of “viewing rooms” where services were held, a lobby, and the embalming room. Upstairs were showrooms for caskets, and rooms where college students stayed in return for being on call one day a week to help out with funeral calls. George and I were outside help, and worked on both ambulance and “death calls,” and helped out in the embalming room. While our friends were learning how to work on cars at their gas-station jobs, George and I were learning how to embalm people, a skill that, at least for me, hasn’t come in all that handy since.
In the basement was a room where extra caskets were stored in their shipping crates or on gurneys. Next to that was the Ambulance Ready Room, where there was a short-wave radio for communicating with ambulances and a radio to listen to police calls, and a telephone and a TV. A couple of side rooms held beds for those slow nights when nobody got hurt, sick, or died.
So, it was after midnight this one night. Big George and I were watching a horror flick on one of the Atlanta stations. Some students came in through the back, as they were supposed to, passing through the casket storeroom and through the ready room. They nodded, but didn’t stop to talk, but went upstairs to their rooms.
A minute or two later, we heard an odd noise coming from the casket store room.
OK, so I and Big George had seen some things in our days at Trestles, but still, odd noises in the basement of a creaky old funeral home, especially while one is watching a horror flick, are just a little unsettling.
“What was that, George?”
“Damifino,” said George through a cloud of smoke.
“Go see,” I suggested.
George’s response is not printable.
So, we both got up and walked into the storeroom.
One of the caskets on a gurney was moving. All by itself. And making noises. Muffled, panicky noises.
“Open it up,” I said to George.
George reiterated his earlier suggestion, which would have been medically impossible, in addition to unprintable.
Caskets typically have a dual lid. And dual latches. So, in the spirit of compromise, I said “let’s both open it.”
So, we walked over to the jostling gray embossed flannel casket. It was making sounds like something wanted out of it very badly. I looked at George. George looked at me. He took another hit off his Winston.
“Aw hell,” he said, and reached for a latch. I did the same thing. We released them both at the same time.
It seems that a week before, one of the pranksters living upstairs had hidden in that very same casket and lain in wait for some of his fellow roommates to come in. A group had passed by and the prankster had thrown back the lid, grabbing one of the boys and hollering.
This had the desired effect of scaring the bejesus out of everybody.
Fast-forward a week, to the night George and I were on duty. One of the group so effectively frightened witless had figured he wanted in on the fun and, dressed in his white sleeveless T-shirt and Valentine’s Day boxer shorts with big red hearts, slipped downstairs into the storeroom, clambered into the casket, and closed the lid.
Note: He closed the lid.
It will come as no surprise to most people that caskets do not actually have release latches on the inside. Most people, but not Mr. Valentine.
I don’t know how long he laid there, full of anticipation. But eventually a group of guys – the ones who walked through the ready room just as Count Dracula was about the rise yet again from the dead – walked by, talking and laughing.
Mr. Valentine threw back the lid.
Or, tried to.
He must have gone really cold when he realized that he was closed up in a casket that only had, at best, a couple of hours worth of air in it.
So, he started banging on the lid and yelling. Nothing. He banged and hollered and got more and more panicked.
Enter me and big George. Exit Mr. Valentine.
I mean straight up. You can tell me that levitation is impossible, but I was there and I saw it, and so did Big George. We stood there, cigarettes forgotten in lips, as this skinny, very pale young man arose, verily, from the grave right before our eyes. He came down and hit the ground running, which did not go well for him because it was a small room full of caskets and crates.
He ricocheted off of nearly everything for what seemed like a long time, though he never hit me or Big George. Eventually, and apparently by accident, he slammed into the back door and careened outside into the night. And that was the last we saw of him.
“Well,” said Big George, taking another pull on his Winston. “Damn.”
We found out later that a couple of local police officers had spotted Mr. Valentine tearing down the center of College Street in his skivvies and, given that it was 2 a.m. and 28 degrees, thought to stop him and inquire as to his state of undress and wide-eyed distress.
It took some doing. Neither gendarme was much of a sprinter, so they finally passed him in the police car, jammed on the brakes and stopped him that way. It didn’t hurt him much, and they took him off to spend the night with some friends on campus. He didn’t want to come back to the funeral home, though both cops came by a little later, after Dracula had been nailed with the wooden stake and the hero got the girl, and verified the story.
They tried hard to be all official and everything, but once they stepped back outside, they completely lost it and drove off howling. Mr. Valentine sent a friend over a day or so later to collect his stuff. His daddy, we were told, paid to have the liner of the casket replaced. It was pretty badly shredded.
George and I got a pretty good laugh out of it, too, but we were a little ticked off that we missed the best part of the movie.