Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A true story...


Delivery Boy Blues


The engine began to sputter and cough and cut out, then surge again. I looked at the gas gauge and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. It wasn’t just on empty; the needle was below the “E,” resting on that little metal peg on the far end of the arc. After a few more coughs and spurts, there was dead silence as I steered the tiny BMW Isetta off to the side of the road, flat out of gas.

“Oh no! You idiot!” I yelled. “How could you not check the gas gauge?”

This was it, the final straw, a clear-cut firing offense. But wait a minute. What was that down the road about a quarter mile? It was a gas station with the lights burning brightly. Maybe, just maybe, I could still salvage this situation. I popped open the door and jumped out, slammed it hard and locked it carefully, and took off on an all-out sprint toward the lights of the station.

I was beginning my senior year at Vallejo High School, and my after school and Saturday job was to be the official delivery boy for Wessel’s Pharmacy. My ball-playing friends, Frank Bodie and Joey Butler, had worked for the Wessels, but they had graduated and were heading off to college. When I heard about the opening, I applied for the job right away. This was considered a plum position, especially when you considered that you got to zip all around town in the Isetta, affectionately known as the “Drug Bug.” The Wessels used it prominently in their advertising: order your prescriptions from Wessel’s and the Drug Bug will bring them right to your door.

Wessel’s Pharmacy was located about a block east of the El Rey Theater at the corner of Tennessee and Monterey streets. It was a pleasant storefront on the south side of Tennessee. There were rows of shelves filled with cosmetics and health aids and sundries as you came into the store, and the pharmacy counter was in the rear. Bud and Thelma Wessel were the owner-operators and, except for the delivery boy, were the only employees. If memory serves, the Wessels were only in their fifties, but the hard pace was beginning to take its toll. I heard that they were in financial trouble but determined to overcome the situation by sheer hard work. They were there to open the store in the morning, and they were there an hour or so after the 9:00 p.m. closing time, six days a week. And they were exhausted.

There is a story about Mrs. Wessel convincing her husband to take an evening off and go home to get some rest. When he left, he forgot something important that he intended to take home, so Mrs. W sent the delivery boy (probably Frank or Joey) to take it to him. When he arrived, there was Mr. Wessel parked in the driveway, sound asleep behind the wheel. He couldn’t even make it into the house.

Thelma Wessel was a short, heavy-set woman with a very sweet disposition. She smiled and laughed easily and it was easy to like her. Bud Wessel was another story. He was tall and slim with gray hair that was rapidly going white. He wore reading glasses that tended to slide down his nose and when he looked at you, he would drop his chin so that he could gaze over those glasses. That gaze could be withering when he was angry, but occasionally, you could get a smile and a laugh and his eyes would twinkle. He truly looked the part of the wise and trusted pharmacist.

I think it was Joey who warned me that Mr. Wessel was not easy to get along with. I was so happy to have the job that I paid little attention to that warning. My mom saw to it that I received an allowance every week and when I started working, we kept that arrangement. I just endorsed my paycheck from Wessel’s and gave it to her. It really wasn’t much, but it made me feel good to think that I was helping out.

Mr. W and I never really hit it off, mainly because I couldn’t seem to do anything right. When I got to the store after school, there were generally a half dozen prescriptions to be delivered, and my primary duty was to get organized and plan the route carefully, minimizing travel time and the distance between stops. There were maps available to assist in this task and, after all, I’d grown up in Vallejo. I thought I knew my way around. Somehow I just couldn’t get it right. I managed to get lost frequently and always took too long to complete my deliveries, at least in the eyes of Mr. Wessel.

Mrs. Wessel would occasionally give me a short list of items to pick up at the market when I was out. If she gave me five items, I usually managed to get at least two of them wrong. Three-for-five is good in baseball, but not so hot on a trip to the market.

On slow nights, they would give me busy work to do, jobs like dusting the bottles of medicine on the shelves in the pharmacy. I couldn’t even seem to do that correctly, prompting Mr. Wessel to patiently explain once again what he expected. I’d march in every day determined to do better, but the harder I tried, the worse it seemed to get.

Simply put, I had become a perpetual screw-up.

The biggest source of tension between Mr. Wessel and me was the Drug Bug. He loved that little Isetta beyond all understanding. It was his baby. It was a temperamental little beast and I never quite got the hang of it. When it had been sitting for an extended period of time, there was a strict sequence of steps you had to follow before you turned the key to engage the starter. If you didn’t execute the sequence precisely, the bug would backfire. That tiny vehicle could produce a cannon blast that was truly amazing. I seldom ever got it right. The Isetta would backfire and as I chugged off down the street, Mr. Wessel would pop his head out the side door of the building and glare at me over his glasses.

And now there I was, running as hard as I could for the bright lights of the service station, desperately trying to recover from yet another mistake. I raced onto the lot and headed for the small office next to the service bay. Suddenly a huge grin broke across my face. Sitting in the office was my friend Frankie Arellano. I was so glad to see him, I could have kissed him right there.

“Frank! I didn’t know you worked here.”

“Hi, Charlie. What’s up?”

“I ran out of gas down the road. I’m out delivering prescriptions for Wessel’s. Can I get a can of gas—fast?”

“Sure, I’ve got a can right here.”

In a matter of minutes, I was sprinting back toward the Drug Bug, the gas can banging against my leg. I dumped the gas into the tank, jumped in and turned the key. The little Isetta backfired happily as the engine sprang to life. I made a quick stop at the station to return the can.

“How much do I owe you, Frankie?”

“Forget it. It’s on the house.”

“Thanks, buddy. You’re saving my life.”

With that, I was back on the road. The whole episode cost me no more than twenty minutes. On the way back to the pharmacy after my deliveries, I decided that if Frank and I were the only people in the world who ever knew about this little adventure that would be just fine.

A few days later, I showed up for work to find Mr. Wessel sitting at the counter in the back of the store with a ledger book open in front of him. He was in a great mood and actually smiled at me as I came in. It seems he kept a detailed record of the Isetta’s performance and there had been a miraculous spike in the miles per gallon. He showed me the numbers and said, “Isn’t that amazing? How could that happen?” He was ecstatic. I felt my stomach drop as I realized that it was my “free” gallon of gas that had skewed the numbers. Frankie didn’t charge me for it, so I didn’t enter it in the delivery log. I didn’t know Mr. W tracked every detail with such precision. I just shrugged and went about planning my afternoon deliveries.

Years later when I would tell this story, I would say that Mr. Wessel was so happy, I didn’t have the heart to tell him what really happened. The truth is I didn’t have the guts to admit to another compound screw-up.

It wasn’t too long after that when things came to a head. I came into work on Saturday morning, received my paycheck from Mrs. Wessel, and set about doing odd jobs until some prescriptions were ready for delivery. Once again, I wasn’t performing the tasks to Bud Wessel’s satisfaction. He launched into a very calm, quiet, patient lecture about how he wanted things done. He might as well have been screaming in my face. I snapped. I couldn’t take anymore.

“That’s it,” I said. “Nothing I do is good enough for you. I quit!” With that I stormed toward the door.

“You know,” he said very calmly, “you got paid for today. It’s included in your check.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around. I had no clue what to do at that point. I was utterly destroyed, no longer the abused worker standing up for my dignity and self-respect, just a humiliated kid without a leg to stand on. I took a tentative step back into the store, deciding lamely that I’d have to finish out that day on the job.

“No,” Mr. Wessel said, “that’s okay. It’s probably better if you go.”

I headed for home, wiping my eyes on my sleeve, trying to decide how to tell my mom that I’d quit my job and why. My “career” with Wessel’s Pharmacy had lasted just a couple of months.

Mr. Wessel did an interesting thing after I quit. He wrote a letter to my mom. It arrived in the mail a few days later. He wrote that he was sure I was a fine, intelligent young man with a bright future. He was sorry that things had not worked out, but he wished only the best for me and our entire family. It was a kind and generous thing to do and I felt my anger toward him begin to melt away.

It couldn’t have been more than a couple of years later that I heard Bud Wessel had died. I knew exactly what had happened: he’d finally worked himself to death. I felt a heavy sadness for him and for Mrs. Wessel too.

Hopefully we learn something as we live through these experiences. So, what are the lessons learned from all of this? Don’t put extra pressure on yourself, because it won’t make you a diamond. Work hard and do the best you can, but don’t take it home with you. Don’t think you need to have all the answers, and if you are struggling, reach out for help.

That’s a pretty good list for starters. It’s great if you are smart and lucky and you only have to learn these lessons once. If smart and lucky aren’t your things, well then, you get to learn them over and over again.

           Six decades later, I’m only sure of one thing: I still owe Frankie Arellano for that gallon of gas.
_____

Thursday, November 29, 2018

A short story...


Saturday at the CPO


I loved Friday evenings when my old man got home from work. I’d be in my room, doing my homework—that’s right, homework on Friday evening—and Dad would knock on the door and stick his head in.

“Hey, Parker. Whatcha doin’?”

“Hi, Dad. Just some homework. Gettin’ a head start. What’s up?” I knew what was up and I couldn’t wait to hear him say it.

“Want to go to the CPO Club tomorrow? Have lunch, shoot some pool?” He’d give me a sly grin, because he knew what my answer would be.

“Heck yeah! What time you wanna go?” I’d try to be cool about it, but I couldn’t pull it off. It was September 1960, I’d just turned fourteen, and cool wasn’t my thing.

This scene didn’t play out every Friday, but when it did, it made my week. And getting to the Chief Petty Officer’s Club on a Saturday was almost as much fun as being there. We’d ride the Vallejo city bus from our neighborhood down to the waterfront, and then catch a ferry across the strait to Mare Island Naval Shipyard. The ferries were long and low, covered to protect against the weather, and could hold fifty men, if they squeezed in tight. The boats were named for fish or shorebirds—Dolphin, Salmon, Heron, Seagull—and equipped with powerful engines that could race across the strait in three minutes flat. A fleet of a dozen or more operated on weekdays, carrying shipyard workers back and forth across the channel. Fewer boats ran on the weekend, but we never had to wait long for a ride. I loved the feeling when the boat pulled away from the dock and the pilot shoved the throttle to full-speed ahead. The thrum of the engine came up through the deck, running from the soles of my feet all the way up my spine. It made the hair on my neck stand on end.

We’d get off at the dock on the shipyard, walk a couple of blocks west, and catch a jitney that would take us to the CPO Club. The Club was housed in a classic two-story Greek Revival structure with a wide veranda and columns across the front. Inside, the walls were done in mahogany paneling, the thick carpets a deep navy blue. Most of the lower floor was taken up by the bar and dining room. The tables in the dining room were set with spotless white tablecloths, plates and cups with the Navy insignia, and silverware polished so bright you could see your reflection. The kitchen produced the world’s best cheeseburger, with thick steak-cut fries, and every time the stainless-steel cup of catsup neared empty, a waiter would be standing by with a refill.

After lunch, my dad would take me upstairs to a room with high ceilings where two perfectly groomed pool tables sat side by side. I was always amazed that one or both of those tables would be open, waiting for us to rack up the balls and play. We’d shoot a game or two and then my old man would head down to the bar for a couple of beers with his fellow retired chiefs. I’d stay to work on my game. And that’s where I was one fall afternoon, ready to sink the 6-ball in a side pocket, when Michaela walked into the room.

“Hi, Parker,” she said, all bright and friendly.

Michaela Vincenzo was the prettiest girl in our class, the one most likely to be elected Homecoming Queen, or captain of the cheerleaders, or both. I looked up and whiffed the shot, the 6-ball missing the pocket by at least two inches.

I was surprised she knew my name.

“Hi, Michaela. What are you doing here? I mean, why… I mean, I didn’t know…” It was a total brain-freeze—and getting worse. Michaela put me out of my misery.

“My dad’s a retired chief. We come here for lunch once in a while. And Dad likes the bar downstairs.” She smiled, and I swear my knees buckled. “How ’bout you?”

“Yeah, me too. I mean, my dad’s a retired chief. He works on the shipyard now.”

Michaela was a vision in a blue cotton dress, her long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, a small gold locket on a fine chain around her neck. We didn’t travel in the same social circles. She was generally surrounded by what my friends referred to as the in crowd. My group? Well, we were dubbed the Poindexters, after the character in Felix The Cat. We were the geeks, the bookworms, the last ones picked for teams in P.E. class. The guys Michaela hung out with wore letterman sweaters and their names popped up in the sports section of the local newspaper.

“Hey, are you good at pool?” She was smiling again. “Can you show me how to play?”

Oh my God. Was this really happening? “Uh… I’m okay, I guess. Here, you take this cue. I’ll get another one.”

I went to the rack on the wall and grabbed another stick, forgetting to check it for balance or the condition of the tip. I came back to the table and Michaela moved toward me. She was even prettier up close. Dark brown eyes. Pretty lips with just a touch of red lipstick. I fought the urge to drop my cue and run for the door.

“So… what do I do, Parker?”

She was inches away and I caught a whiff of perfume. It was enough that she was beautiful without smelling delicious, too. I pushed my glasses up on my nose and began.

“Okay, the first thing you have to learn is how to make a solid bridge. Watch what I do here with my left hand. Try that.” She copied my bridge. “Good. Now here’s how you grip the cue...”

If there is a heaven, it must be something like this: the CPO Club on a Saturday afternoon, standing next to Michaela Vincenzo, with her hanging on my every word.

The Poindexters would never believe me.

**

Rollie was my best friend, neighbor, and fellow geek. We walked along the sidewalk, heading east toward the Hogan Junior High campus. It was Friday night and that meant there was a dance in the cafeteria. We’d meet our friends there and hang out for a couple of hours, talking about the happenings around school and keeping an eye on the other tribes, especially the popular kids. None of us ever asked a girl to dance. I told Rollie about my afternoon at the CPO Club.

“What? You’ve got to be kidding me. You hung out with Michaela Vincenzo?”

“Yeah. Taught her to shoot pool.”

“Oh, come on. You’re makin’ it up. When did this happen?”

“Swear to God, Rollie. It was last Saturday. I kid you not.”

“Jeez…” He shot me an admiring glance. “What was that like?”

“She’s really nice. And she…” I started to say, she smells really good, but I caught myself. “She’s just nice.”

We arrived at the cafeteria, showed our student body cards to the chaperones at the door, and went inside. A DJ was set up at one end of the large room, stacking 45-RPM records onto a record changer. A couple of very large speakers boomed the music across the floor where a dozen couples danced to the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown.” We found our buddies, Duane and Connor, and went to our usual spot on the sidelines.

“Hey, guys.” Rollie couldn’t wait to share the news. “Guess who our fellow Poindexter, young Parker McCaffery, has been hanging out with?”

“What? Who? Do we get three guesses?” Duane and Connor leaned in to hear the answer.

“Parker spent last Saturday afternoon teaching Michaela Vincenzo to shoot pool.”

“Get outta here. Porky McCaffery hung out with Michaela Vincenzo?” Connor laughed out loud.

Porky. God, how I hated that nickname, tossed out by a friend, no less. I was used to hearing it from the in crowd, but not my buddies. When your parents send you off to kindergarten and you are as wide as you are tall, it stays with you forever. I’d grown up having to shop in the Boys/Chubby section of the local department store. I’d been called Tubby, Fats, Chubs, and the one that eventually stuck: Porky, because it fits with Parker.

“Come on, Connor. You know I hate that name.” I wanted to punch him in the shoulder, but I held my fire.

“Sorry, man. Just kidding. Did you really teach Vincenzo to shoot pool?” Connor wasn’t convinced.

“Yeah. And you know what? She’s nice. And friendly. She’s more than just pretty.”

“Pretty is not the word, Parker.” Duane was looking at me in awe. “We’re talking gorgeous here.”

And then it started, and I couldn’t shut it down. The three of them insisted that I had to prove my story by asking Michaela to dance. If the two of you are so tight, then get your butt over there and ask her. Right now. Why not? Are you chicken? Cluck cluck cluck. You made up the whole story...

Peer pressure from the Poindexters.

I crossed the floor toward Michaela and her friends, my pulse so loud it drowned out the music. They saw me coming, surprise etched on their faces, and stepped back, opening a path to Michaela. I cleared my throat, sucked in my stomach, and held out my hand.

“Would you like to dance?” I tried to smile but it didn’t work.

“Sure.” She took my hand and followed me onto the floor.

The record changed and Paul Anka sang, “And they called it puppy love…” I put my right hand on her slender back, took her hand in mine, and did my best to fake a simple two-step. She followed smoothly while I racked my brain for something to say.

“How did you do on that English test?” Oh God, Parker, you are the world’s biggest geek.

She laughed. “Okay, I guess. I got a B. How ’bout you?”

“Me too, a B.” I got an A, but I didn’t want to admit it.

Then Michaela did something kind and sweet. She picked up the conversation, chatting away with ease, asking me questions, taking off on various tangents. I’ll never understand how girls make it seem so easy. The song ended and she thanked me. I walked with her, back to where her friends were standing, and managed a little wave as I turned away.

A guy in the crowd spoke up, loud enough for me to hear. “I can’t believe you danced with Porky. ‘Th th th that’s all, folks.’” There was a burst of laughter. I glanced over my shoulder. Michaela’s friends were laughing. Michaela was laughing. Was she laughing at me?

Rollie, Duane, and Connor greeted me like a hero, as though I’d done something spectacular. But I couldn’t enjoy the moment. I was sick to my stomach.

**

The dining room at the CPO Club was half empty. A waiter brought our cheeseburgers and Dad and I dug in. Michaela came into the room followed by a tall, handsome man. I assumed it was her father. They were seated at a table near a window. My dad saw me react; he followed my gaze.

“Whoa. Now that is an attractive young lady. Do you know her?”

“Yeah. Her name is Michaela. She’s in my class.”

“Oh my. What a doll. Is she a friend of yours, Parker?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. The silence went on too long. “No... I guess not.”

My dad looked puzzled, but thank God, he let it drop. We finished our burgers and went upstairs to shoot pool. After a couple of racks of 8-ball, my dad headed downstairs to the bar. I lined up a series of balls and practiced slamming them into a corner pocket, making the cue ball draw back, lined up for the next shot. Michaela came into the room and walked toward the table.

“Hi, Parker. How’s it goin’?”

“I’m good. How ’bout you?” I didn’t take my eyes off the shots I was firing, one ball after the other.

“Hey, can you teach me some more about pool?”

She was standing about a yard away and that crazy, wonderful perfume was in the air. I glanced at the clock on the wall and set my cue on the table.

“I gotta go. My dad wants to get home early today.”

“Okay. Maybe next time?”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

She reached out and touched my forearm.

“Look, Parker… I know you heard those guys laughing at you at the dance. And me, too… laughing, I mean. I’m sorry, Parker. Really sorry. And I would never call you Porky.”

Oh, sweet mother of God! Michaela Vincenzo said ‘Porky.’ She said my damn nickname. I wanted to jump out of a window, never mind that we were on the second floor. I brushed past her, out the door and down the stairs. I had to find my dad and get the hell out of there.

**

Another Friday night dance and the Poindexters were assembled, standing in our usual spot, watching the pretty people having fun. I didn’t want to be there, but Rollie talked me into it. There was a girl in his Algebra class that he was hoping to see, maybe even ask her to dance. I was his designated wingman. Kids were crowded around the table where the DJ was lining up records to be played. Chubby Checker blared through the speakers and the dancers twisted away with great energy and little skill.

My back was to the dance floor, listening to Duane recap the football game played that afternoon.  He stopped talking in mid-sentence and his jaw dropped, like he’d seen an angel come to Earth. I turned around. Michaela was walking toward us, a smile on her lovely face. No question, the girl knew how to walk in a way no guy could ignore, one perfect foot in front of the other. She was wearing a gray skirt and a black sweater, and her hair was pulled forward on one side, laying softly over her shoulder. Someone—it might have been me—said, “Oh my God.” And then she was standing in front of us.

“Hi, guys. How’s it goin’?”

There was embarrassed mumbling all around, as though we’d been caught with our pocket protectors showing.

“Parker, may I have this dance?” She held out her hand. I accepted. I couldn’t say no.

We danced to “A Summer Place,” and then “I’m Sorry,” and one more record I can’t recall. It was the best ten minutes of my life. All the while, she kept up a steady stream of chatter, so easy, so reassuring.

She saved the best for last. “Hey, my dad and I are going to the CPO Club tomorrow. Are you gonna be there?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Yeah. I hope so.” I tripped on my tongue.

“Maybe I’ll see you there. We’ll shoot some pool. Okay?”

“Yeah, sure.”

The song ended. She squeezed my hands and smiled. I watched her walk away, back to her group of friends. Our worlds had collided and we’d both survived. Now I’d have a new answer if my dad asked, Is she a friend of yours? I turned and hurried toward my buddies.

“Guys, I’m gonna head for home. Rollie, you wanna come with?”

“What? No, man.” Rollie looked stunned. “The dance isn’t over. We’ve got another hour.”

“Okay, but I’m gonna go, I’ll see you guys later.”

They called after me, but I wasn’t listening. I went out the door, across the parking lot, and onto the sidewalk heading west. When the music from the cafeteria faded behind me, I broke into a run. Home was a half-mile away and I had to get there before my dad finished watching the ten o’clock news and went to bed.

I needed to convince him we really, really had to go to the CPO Club tomorrow.
_____