In Greek mythology, it was Charon who ferried the dead across the River Styx to Hades.

Dead Red had to settle for me and Freddy and a blue ’64 Dodge station wagon. And Athens, Ga….well, its resemblance to Hades depended a lot on which neighborhood you lived in.

Dead Red was apparently unhappy with the arrangement because he did not behave very well, and insisted on calling attention to himself.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Call.

The phone rang late one afternoon in our little apartment in Parkview Homes, a euphemism for some ancient public housing warrens just downhill from downtown. Mary took the call and said “It’s for you.”

It was Mr. Peeler, one of the owners of the funeral home where I had worked two years earlier, while I was still in high school.

“How would you like a trip to N’Awlins?”

Mr. Peeler was VERY Southern.

Turns out one of our local residents had traveled to see Georgia embarrass itself against the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl some weeks back, and had collapsed during the game. Well, the final score had Alabama winning 16-2, so there’s no surprise there. Unfortunately, the fellow’s infirmity had as much to do with about a half dozen conditions he had, all of them terminal, as did the Bulldogs’ sloppy performance.

His doctor had told him he should stay home and forget going to the game, but I can tell you, based on many years of experience with the breed, that the only thing that will keep an ardent Dawgs fan away from a championship game is a lack of pulse.

Well, Dead Red had one when he arrived. By the time Mardi Gras rolled around, he didn’t have one anymore. That’s where Freddy and Mr. Peeler and I came in.

Freddy was slick. He was a mortician at the home, and had been one of the drivers back when the funeral homes operated ambulances as a community service. I worked as an attendant on the ambulances, and as an apprentice embalmer. We weren’t EMTs. Most of us had no formal first-aid training. If you were still alive when we got you to the emergency room, it was because God didn’t have your room ready.

Freddy chain-smoked unfiltered Camels and drove over 100 mph in the ambulance, one hand on the wheel and the other flicking his cigarette over the ashtray. He was never nervous, even when we got sideways at 90 or so on a wet highway in the big Caddies. When I met him, he had just got out of the hospital after a wreck in which the attendant had died. In ambulance wrecks back then, it was usually the attendant who got killed.

I was the dead guy’s replacement.

My dad got me the job.

Anyway, I escaped unscathed, the funeral home stopped running ambulances because the insurance and minimum-wage requirements got too high, and I was out of a job. Still, I’d go sit with Freddy on the front porch of the old pre-Civil War home in which the funeral home was situated. We would smoke cigarettes and talk about the sort of things guys who have worked in the midst of mayhem talk about.

So, it was to be me and Freddy and a jaunt to New Orleans in one of those comfy Cadillac hearses, a nice night in a motel during Mardi Gras, and a trip back, with Dead Red resting quietly in the back.

Turns out, I was wrong about everything except that it would be me and Freddy.

Mr. Peeler was too cheap to give us the gas-guzzling Caddy or to pay for a motel. He gave us the auxiliary ambulance, which was an ordinary 1964 Dodge wagon with a gurney in the back. We were to drive straight to New Orleans, load Dead Red in the back, and come straight back. It was about 600 miles each way, on two-lane roads, as this was well before there were Interstate highways.

I was unemployed. The job paid $25 and my meals were covered. Not a bad deal. A weird deal, yes, but not bad.

So, when did we need to leave, I asked.

“Freddy will be there in about 10 minutes,” said Mr. Peeler.

So, at around five, Freddy and I took off down the Atlanta Highway, bound for the fabled city.

I assume the trip was uneventful, because I don’t remember a thing about it. We were both pretty excited because I had never been to New Orleans. Freddy had, but said most of his time there he was in such a condition that he didn’t rightly remember any of it except for needing a series of injections afterward.

We came to The Big Easy and the funeral parlor at dawn. The wizened old lady in charge of the place – think of the evil witch in The Wizard of Oz, but with Southern charm – took us into her office and had Freddy sign a bunch of papers, then took us back to the embalming room to meet Red

Red was a big’un.

I’d say he would have stood six-six or six-eight, if he was doing any more standing. He wasn’t fat, but massive, with big broad shoulders and size 13 or 14 feet. He also had a thick shock of blazing Dead Red hair that stuck out every whichaway, set off eerily by the line of stitches around his skull where the county pathologist had performed a cranial autopsy.

In point of fact, Dead Red was pretty much a mess. Between old surgery scars and the autopsy incisions, he had a certain country Frankenstein aspect to him, sort of a patchwork version of Huck Finn.

Freddy and I lifted Dead Red onto the gurney – no easy task, even considering he was sort of hollowed out and all – and right away we had a problem. For picking up dead folks, we always carried a burgundy chenille cover with an elastic edging. The idea was you laid out the deceased on the stretcher and snapped the cover over them so that when you went down the hallway or out to the waiting hearse you didn’t alarm the neighbors or frighten children. It fit sort of like a shower cap.

Did I mention that Dead Red was tall? I mean, really tall? Well, we got Highpockets on the thing all right, but the cover wouldn’t stay on. After a period of struggle punctuated by old Anglo-Saxon phrases, Freddy said to Hell with it, we’ll just tote the sumbitch the way he is, top half of his head sticking out one end, and his big old bare, ghost-white feet sticking out of the other.

So, we did. We locked the gurney in place along the driver’s side in the back. Freddy said to be gentle with braking when I was driving because the clamps that held the gurney in place were “no damn good” and could un-clamp if the car’s brakes were applied too hard.

And we headed off for the French Quarter, just as the sun broke the horizon.

We Take Dead Red to Mardi Gras, Sort Of.

It was full daylight when we rumbled the Dodge down to the French Quarter. We had hoped to see some of Mardi Gras, but it had just ended, so what we caught was more or less the dregs. The city had bulldozers collecting trash and confetti, gingerly, lest they scoop up the disoriented and somnolent.

Here and there a few souls walked or stood around. What with their collective states of mind, I could only imagine what they thought when they caught sight of rigid Dead Red in the back of the car. The station wagon did not have tinted windows, so Red’s mop of hair and glowing white feet really stood out. One sailor, desperately trying to keep a light pole from falling over, took off his cap and held it over his heart. He tried to get to attention, but the light pole started to teeter and he thought better of it.

We drove around for quite awhile, sometimes forgetting all about poor Red, until some kid would point and say “Mama, LOOK!” We tried as best we could to keep a low profile. And we were thoughtful. We stopped for breakfast at some little diner, and had the presence of mind to park around back while we went in for breakfast. We figured that leaving a dead man out in plain view in front of a restaurant would be detrimental to business, though it might make it easier to get a table.

We stopped at a liquor store so Freddy could stock up his den at home, as our own county was dry, at least in the sense that you couldn’t buy liquor there legally. Meaning that anybody who wanted it badly enough could get liquor just about any time they wanted without much in the way of real risk. Freddy joked that if he got caught, he’d say the liquor was Red’s.

Bootlegging was a real problem in Georgia. It was so bad that a couple of sheriffs I won’t name came up with the novel solution of taking over the bootlegging operation and running it themselves. It kept things running smoothly and kept out the criminal element.

Home Again, Home Again.

Freddy and Dead Red and I finally headed off for home quite a bit later than Mr. Peeler would have liked, but Freddy and I figured we’d blame our tardiness on traffic or some such, and Dead Red sure as hell wasn’t going to spill the beans. So, we took it easy, extending our chances for free meals. But it was winter and got dark early, and without the sightseeing factor, the trip got a lot less interesting. We were tired, maybe a little weary of one another’s company, and Dead Red sure wasn’t much for conversation.

That didn’t stop him from injecting himself into the picture.

The gurney clamps were worse than we thought. I drove most of the way back because I was more awake. Freddy alternately smoked and napped, slumped against the passenger door. Dead Red, however, was chummier. Every time I would hit the brakes, the gurney would slip from the clamps and roll forward, and I’d find myself with Red’s head on my shoulder.

Mind you, I’m not superstitious or all that squeamish. But having a corpse resting his cranium – one that looks and feels like it’s got a zipper around it — on your shoulder in the middle of the night is really a bit much. I must say, however, that I was a lot more awake after each time it happened.

Freddy thought it was pretty damned funny, even when it was his turn to click Dead Red back in his place and give him a few colorful admonishments. By around two in the morning, I was ready to leave the redheaded bastard, gurney and all, on the side of the road, but Freddy said it was against the law.

An hour or so from home, I told Freddy that I just had to stop for awhile. Nature was calling, and I needed coffee, preferably about a gallon of it.

We stopped at a little diner carved into a hillside. It had no “out back” to park in, so I parked right in front. And hurried in. When I came out of the restroom, I could see that the five or six customers were talking in hushed tones, now and then looking out at Dead Red, his feet and hair shining in the parking lot lights. Nobody said anything to us, which was just as well. I just wanted to get on my way and get the hell home.

Freddy had already gotten himself a polystyrene cup of coffee. I ordered a large. As the pale faced girl at the counter turned to get it, I stopped her.

“Tell you what. Give me two cups.”

I wanted plenty to take with me. The girl’s eyes got wide, looking over my shoulder. I turned and realized she was looking through the windshield of the Dodge, right at the top of Dead Red’s embroidered head.

I don’t know what got into me. I really don’t.

“He gets cranky if he doesn’t have his coffee,” I said.

Her eyes got REALLY wide. All talk in the diner stopped. It was so quiet, I could hear the hum of the electric clock on the wall behind the girl. Freddy froze, looking at me. I think he was trying to figure out if he could convince the crowd that I wasn’t with him.

And then the girl laughed. And then everybody started laughing. The place was roaring. Then, of course, we had to tell everybody the whole story, including the witch at the funeral home and the sailor’s saluting and the bulldozers pushing confetti. We were there for a long time, and we left with plenty of coffee, and some free donuts to boot. They were stale, but I swear they were the best I ever had.

Freddy dropped me off at the apartment. I said my goodbyes to Dead Red. Hell, I felt almost as though we were old friends by then. Freddy waited to be sure I got up the stairs to the door without getting shot or mugged. It was that kind of neighborhood.

Mary let me in and I went to run some water in the tub to wash off the road grit. She picked up my shirt and spotted the Dead Red hairs on the right shoulder and gave me a look. I started to laugh. Then I had to tell the whole story all over again.

==============================.
© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
https://burger2go.wordpress.com/
http://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/

Forgiving the Mouse

January 19, 2009

The little bastard looked right peaceful, smooth slate-gray fur, tiny ears, soft as velvet, his eyes closed. He was curled up in a crouch, there on top of the mysterious box of wires that told the furnace what to do and when.

Notice the past tense of the verb “to tell.”

He was dead as a box of rocks.

Long ago I did some reading about modern scientific thinking and theories and all that. Most of it was way over my head. I remember feeling something like vertigo when I tried to wrap my mind around what they call quantum physics, which is complicated enough that one scientist said “anybody who says they understand quantum physics doesn’t understand quantum physics.”

Anyway, one of the things I read had to do with the interconnectedness of things, and the consequences thereof. It went something like: “a butterfly fanning its wings in this country sets off a chain of events that results in a typhoon in Burma,” or words to that effect.

Being a simple soul, my first thought was, “damn. Musta been one BIG butterfly.”

Did I mention that I didn’t do all that well in the part of science that required logical thinking?

Well, the late field mouse on the box has a lot to answer for.

Don’t get me wrong. I confess that I rather like rodents. I once lived in a mobile home set on the edge of a cornfield in a windy valley, a place where the winter winds would sometimes pluck bits and pieces off the structure, never to be seen again. Sometimes the wind twisted the trailer enough that the hanging lamps would sway.

My only company was my cat, Phyllis Killer, and any number of field mice who would risk Phyllis’ appetite and prowess to come in from the corn for a little warmth and food.

I was not a very good housekeeper. At night, sitting at the table writing, I would watch as the little fellas would slip out of hiding and nibble on macaroni noodles I had left on the counter during one of my minimalist post-dinner cleanups.
They (the mice, not the macaroni) would sit upright, nibbling away and watching me with their bright little button eyes.

But, back to the rodent curled in state atop the box next to the furnace.

He was dead because he had been chewing on things. Rodents do that because their front teeth never stop growing, and they have to chew constantly so that the incisors will not grow overlong to the point that they do not allow the critter to eat.

Everything went fine for the little guy until he started chewing on one of the wires coming out of the box. His teeth met on the 24-volt copper wire. It arced and popped apart and the mouse died. Think of that butterfly, flapping up a typhoon in Burma.

The wire ran from the control box through the walls to the vacant upstairs apartment in the old farmhouse. The thermostat, set as low as it would go to keep pipes from freezing, was no longer able to send instructions to the furnace.

The temperatures plummeted the single digits. The pipes in the baseboard heaters froze, and one burst. Then, Sunday, the temperatures climbed above freezing. The pipes thawed. Hot water, pushed by the pumps elsewhere in the system, spread out over the floor, steaming in the frigid air. The smoke detectors identified the steam as smoke and signaled the alarm company that the 200-year-old farmhouse was on fire. By the time we got there, three fire trucks had arrived, and a small tribe of volunteer firefighters.

The firefighters made sure there was nothing actually on fire and left us to our chores. A couple hours of wet-vac and mopping – and a visit from the plumber – later, and the place was in a condition where the only thing to do was keep the heat on and fans running and hope not too much of the flooring or ceiling would have to be replaced.

And, of course, put out some tempting, tasty poison in the furnace room.

Sorry fellas.

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© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
https://burger2go.wordpress.com/
http://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/

The Song of the Ice

January 11, 2009

By God, this is more like it.

We just came through an ice storm. Black ice on the roads and on the walk to the house from where we park the cars. A thin rim of ice on the creek, the open water widening and narrowing as the temperatures fiddle around trying to decide if they are going to get serious about this whole winter thing.

It finally feels like winter, but there is still something missing. I miss the singing of the ice.

I dislike paying heating bills as much as the next guy, but if I’m going to live in a climate that has winters, dammit, I want the real thing. I grew up in Georgia, and I have to admit, our winters were pretty namby-pamby. Frosts, cold gray rains, the occasional snow or, more commonly, freezing rain.

When I moved up here to southcentral Pennsylvania in the mid-80s, I drove into a land of extroverted weather. Meteorologically, nothing seemed to happen in a small scale.

Summers were hot and humid, and temps above 100 were not uncommon. I felt right at home.

But the spring and fall storms made me think I must have led a sheltered childhood, because I was always going out to cover events that involved trees blowing over, or the roofs ripped off of houses. Deaths and injuries were not unheard of. Sure, we had tornadoes in the South, but even so, storms in the belly of Penn’s Woods seemed rather more Old Testament that what I had been used to.

But the winters. Good God the winters.

In my first winter I found myself one evening at The Lincoln Diner drinking coffee during a snowstorm so heavy I couldn’t see across the street and it had lightning in it to boot. I figured “I am NOT driving home in this!” and had another refill. I wondered if I was on the same planet I had grown up on. The place had really savage weather. I confess that I liked it.

A decade later, we moved out to this place on Marsh Creek. It’s above an ancient dam, so the creek is maybe 100 feet wide here. That year was the first I ever heard the ice sing.

Once the deep cold had set in, the creek froze over solid. The neighborhood cats used it as a way to get to the other side and tear into the population of voles, mice, and squirrels. Sometimes the ice got to a foot or more thick.

Even I could stand on it. I was impressed.

But it was the singing that riveted me. As the water level beneath the ice rose and fell, the ice cracked, lengthwise, up and downstream. The creek bed amplified the sound somehow, and the song in the snow-stilled nights rose up, haunted, hissing, humming, the twang of a hammered saw, whisper of arrows flying, the snap of whips.

The first time I heard it my hackles rose, not knowing what it was. Even after I understood, nights when I would stand by the creek in the moonlight and listen, I would wonder if that, indeed, was all the answer. It had voice, and song, to it, and I would catch myself trying to understand the words.

Over the past half dozen years, the winters have warmed or become more erratic, the bone-aching cold punctuated by periods of mild temperature, so that the ice falters, fails, and never finds its voice. The long nights are poorer for it, though we still find the occasional midnight with the ice-encrusted trees glittering under a robust moon, the breeze filling the air with the sound of ten thousand tiny bells.

Maybe the song has stilled because of global warming. Maybe it’s just a cyclical thing, and next year, or the next, or the one after that, the ice and music will return, and I can stand by the creek, under the moon, once again and hear the song of the ice whip back and forth in the silvered light.

But for now, the creek is silent, and all I can hear in the depth of the night is the trucks on the highway, a mile or two downstream. It’s a poor substitute.

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© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
https://burger2go.wordpress.com/
http://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/

First, I want to touch on a topic I wrote about in October. Yesterday, January 3, 2009, marked the 24th anniversary of the day a very green and nervous out-of-work concrete-mixer-driver stepped hesitantly into the rickety, dirty confines of the old Gettysburg Times building and became a reporter.

That was me.

I figured I might last long enough for warm weather to arrive and then go on out to the local concrete plant and get a job doing something I knew something about.

Two dozen years later, I’m still at it, and sometimes still wondering if I know what I’m doing. I do know that usually, driving a mixer-truck would be less stressful, but not as interesting. Considering the state of the newspaper industry right now, I must point out that Gen. George Armstrong Custer was in trouble at Little Big Horn. But he wasn’t bored.

And, well, here I am, in an industry that sort of feels like I’ve got a penthouse suite at the Towering Inferno, rack and ruin and uncertainty on every side.

As one of the resident “Chicken Little” and “Well, back in MY day” residents of the newsroom, I stunned myself by giving a pep talk to one of our whippersnappers.

Our newsroom is now filled with children of 30 or younger. I keep looking for Captain Kangaroo.

I told her that I wish I was 30 again, because the next five years are going to be really ugly in our business, but what she and I do isn’t really any different than it was when geezers like me were hammering stories out on manual typewriters.

My colleague Alan Hayakawa, who retired last week, sent out a farewell message. Part of it goes like this:

The keyboards have changed several times since then, but the work we do is very much the same. We’re the eyes, the ears, the voice and sometimes the conscience of our communities.

That won’t change as long as we can continue, whether we publish on paper, on computer screens or by projecting stories and pictures onto the clouds

I really hope I get to see what’s on the other side of all this mayhem, because I like what I do, and, dammit, it’s still the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on.

OK, enough of that.

I tucked away a piece I found on the Business Wire Dec. 10 that piqued my interest.

“More Americans Believe in the Devil, Hell and Angels than in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution,” the headline said.

OK, I can understand that. After all, it’s a lot easier to just buy all that creationism stuff than it is to understand enough about basic biology to understand how evolution works. And most of us have a really hard time picturing the huge blocks of time required in order to get the whole “changes in organisms over time” thing. In a culture where getting to the pick-up window at Mickey D’s seems to take an eternity, the hundreds of millions of years it took, say, for dinosaurs to become birds, is a stretch. I understand that perfectly: Sometimes the space between paychecks feels like a day of Eternity.

I don’t really have that much of a problem with religious belief per se. Every religion has its whacko quotient, but on the whole, the mainstream faiths are benevolent belief systems and, as Elton John and John Lennon once sang, it’s “whatever gets you through the night.”

But what gets me is that “substantial minorities believe in ghosts, UFOs, witches….and the belief that they themselves were once other people,” the story reported.

All these figures came from a Harris Poll in which more than 2000 adults were surveyed online between Nov. 10 and 17.

Creationism – which you may recall has been thoroughly debunked as religion dressed up as a patchwork of phonied-up science – is accepted by 40 percent of those polled, only slightly lower, at 47 percent, of those who believe in the theory of evolution first proposed by Darwin.

Critics of evolution, having little in the way of valid arguments, are fond of saying of it that it’s “only a theory,” as though that carries a lot of weight. Gravity is only a theory, too. So, go jump out of a window. I’m sure you’ll be just fine.

Both those figures, by the way, are only slightly higher than the percentage of people who accept the idea of UFOs (36) and reincarnation (24). Catholics are more likely to believe in ghosts than Protestants (57 percent vs. 41 percent,) and more likely to believe in evolution (52 vs. 32 percent.)

I have no idea what that means, other than being evidence of a fair amount of ignorance.

For example: “…only 26% of all adults believe that the Torah is the word of God, even though it is the same as the first five books of the Old Testament. Presumably many people do not know this.”

(BTW: If you’re interested and into this sort of thing, the full data tables and methodology for the survey are available at http://www.harrisinteractive.com.)

Well, I’ve got to sign off; I have to plan my work schedule for next week. I wonder what’s going to happen. Maybe I should roll some dice, or read some tea leaves.

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© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
https://burger2go.wordpress.com/
http://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/

Frogs. Again.

January 1, 2009

Burger to Go
Frogs. Again.
By T.W. Burger
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I approached the long, skinny Christmas gift from Wendy with some trepidation.

After all, One Never Knows.

It was just last Christmas when I opened an oddly shaped present from Wendy and discovered therein what I still refer to as the Fabulous Flying Frog Birdhouse. It’s about the size of a small toaster-oven, made of an indescribably green plastic. From its front and back legs, which are moveable, and from its little froggy butt sprout bright green feathers. On one side of the grinning frog is a circular hold a little more than an inch across, with a stick protruding beneath it.

It was pretty awesome.

The FFFB

The FFFB

This spring and summer it lived sitting on the porch outside the bedroom, high on a plant shelf among the begonias.

There were plenty of birds around, but none built their nest in it. It may be that the birds in our neighborhood are too conservative to live in a frog.

I wrote a column about the FFFB, and actually had a woman in the Midwest contact me and ask me where she could find one just like it. She just HAD to have one.

The frog itself was made in China, for “Pacific Rim…The Company for All Seasons.” The company, based in Seattle, went bust. So, my FFFB is probably now a collector’s item and worth tons of money. So there.

Let me make it plain. We don’t collect frogs. We HAVE a collection of frogs. We picked up a couple of fiberglass frogs for the garden, just for fun. And then we picked up one or two more. I’m not sure why. And a couple of friends, seeing a frog here or there, gifted us with more. But we don’t actively collect frogs. We just have them.

That said, there I was, on the evening of Christmas Day, and I had another gift from Wendy sitting in my lap, wrapped in happy green paper.

A box, maybe six inches by two inches and two feet long. What could it be?

I shook it. A kind of clanking, with a hint of a ringing. Hmm. Bells? A wind-chime? An Erector Set? A do-it-yourself, easy-to-assemble Honda Asimo robot?

Gingerly, I tugged the ribbon loose, shredded the paper away, and cut the tape sealing one end of the box.

Holding my hand out, I dumped the box’s content.

Frogs.

A frog buzzing around my head
A frog buzzing around my head

Again.

Note the plural.

FLYING Frogs.

Again.

Three of’em. Happy, goofy little fellers, pounded out of copper, I think, about six inches long, with butterfly-like wings, and attached to the end of a long metal rod, so I can stick it into the dirt so they’ll appear to be flitting about in my garden.

But we don’t collect frogs.

(Here’s wishing all of you a Happy New Year. Few of us, I think, will miss 2008 all that much.)
==============================.
© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
https://burger2go.wordpress.com/
http://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/