Saturday, December 24, 2005

Hidalgo: The Beginning, or I Am Born (23)

Hidalgo: The Beginning, or I Am Born


Hello. Allow me to introduce myself. I am the second best known writer from Hidalgo, Illinois (POP. 100). Which means you won’t be seeing me hawking my book on the Today Show any time soon. (My “book” is incomplete, similar to my high school geometry grade.)

And who is Hidalgo’s best-known writer? It’s probably on the tip of your tongue, isn’t it? No? Give up? His name was Winfred (or “Winnie”, as I like to call him) Van Atta, author of Shock Treatment, which was made into a movie that Mr. Van Atta later sniffed at: “It ran the gamut of emotion from A to B”. This line was stolen from Dorothy Parker of course.

Incidentally, Van Atta’s family name was Vanatta. He thought this was too plain for an Author so he changed it to Van Atta. And of course he became world famous. You have heard of him, haven’t you?

What say we have a little quiz? Class, name three of his other novels. How about just one? I’m sure Van Atta won some prizes. He made a famous Oscar speech; he got the nod for his screenplay (category: based on work from another source which means only the title was used) of his novel, Shock Treatment. He gave an emotional speech: “You really, really like me!”

Come to think of it that was Sally Field. I’m sure Van Atta won some awards, probably the William Faulkner Ole Miss Award for Best Regional Novel Featuring Weird People That In Real Life You Would Drive Hundreds of Miles Just to Avoid Running into Them.

Actually, I think one of his books was nominated for The Edgar Award, which is named for Edgar Allan Poe who wrote all those very popular Vincent Price movies (The Pit and the Pendulum, The House of the Seven Gables, and Lassie, Come Home.) Poe’s Oscar speech was also a humdinger. I’m sorry I don’t have the space to quote it, but it was for the best murder mystery based on material (calico) stolen from another source.

As soon as my book is finished (working title: My Life on the Prairie: The Early Years, 1910-1950), I plan to write the movie version. I’m sure it will fit the best screenplay or story or long-winded tale adapted from another source category. It will probably be a shoo-in for the Oscar. My speech will begin: “I’m proud to represent Hidalgo; I’m only sorry my old friend, Winfred Van Atta, another Hidalgo boy, is not able to be here. I know he would have been proud…” I’m sure there won’t be a dry eye in Hidalgo.

It is now time to move on to:

CHAPTER ONE (in which the hero manages to get born without going to a hospital, or calling anybody on a cell phone)

“Who said we were going to call him Denny”? Dad said about 4:42 AM, local time.

It was a very cold morning when Dad inquired about the baby’s name. It had been the coldest winter since records were first kept by the folks who invented handwriting (the Good Sumerians). This was odd as the date was March 25, when it was technically spring, on that day in 1945 when I was born. I don’t remember much about it. I’m the baby of the family, if a sixty -year old person can be called a baby.

Although all of us seven children-I have four brothers and two sisters-- are still at large, it is unclear to us exactly what happened that night .The mystery of the baby’s name was solved, eventually, but it was still a long day’s journey into the night and the predawn hours before things broke loose.

It had not been an easy birth. The baby didn’t come out right; he had to be assisted into the world with the doctor’s tools. (Many years later when the baby was supposedly grown up he heard on TV that the sort of birth he had experienced was traumatic; that a child never got over it, that it marked him for life, etc. “It was almost enough to make you give up TV”, he said.) And the birth was at home, like that of the other six children born to this family. Still everything was all right with mother and child except for the confusion over the baby’s name.

Brothers Jack and Jim were the only children still living at home at the time. Jack was nearly ten; Jim had just turned twelve. When the boys heard that a baby was coming, they decided to continue living at home, at least until they had jobs. Jim’s birthday in fact had occurred only five days before the birth of the boy whose name, according to Dad was not Denny, “for crying out loud”.

Jack, who is our star witness and principal supporting player in this drama, says that they (the Brothers Dunne) were sent to town just when the situation was getting interesting. . Being sent to town meant going to Hidalgo, a place where things tended to fold up early. So we’ll assume this was early in the evening, well before bedtime. This was in the dark ages, 1945, B. T (Before Television).

What did the boys do to occupy themselves until it was time to go home? I had thought about making this story into a reality show and having Jack and Jim return to Hidalgo to reconstruct the scene for us. They could have easily played themselves, although their appearance has changed somewhat after sixty years (they are a little taller).

I thought maybe the three of us might work up a little video to go with the script, which would show how things went on that important day. But I decided to go with my usual method of research, which shuns legwork in favor of making stuff up.

As to what the boys did, there weren’t that many options available; the nightlife of Hidalgo consisted of three or four grocery stores. They probably dropped in at Reba’s (sometimes pronounced “Reebie’s”) Meeker’s Grocery. Reba’s sign also said “Home Cooked Meals”, but not many people took her up on that as they could, well, get that kind of grub at home.

I like to think the boys each had the Pepsi and Planter’s Peanuts combo. The peanuts were not necessarily eaten on the side; the preferred method was to pour a few peanuts into the Pepsi bottle and then drink a little pop and chomp on a few peanuts at the same time. Very tasty.

You say you’ve never heard of Pepsi-soaked peanuts? Try them sometime—they’re delicious. Still with Pepsi at a nickel a bottle, the boys wouldn’t have gone overboard by drinking themselves into a sugar-salt coma.

Clarence’s Pool Hall may have been open, but the boys were a little young for billiards. So they probably drank pop and discussed why they were went sent to town.

“Mom’s having a baby, that’s why”, Jack said.

Jim responded: “There’s more to it than that. You’re just too young to know about it, that’s all.”

This remark infuriated Jack who was already wound up; he had been waiting for weeks for Mom to have this baby, which was supposed to be a girl named Judy Kay. That a girl’s name had been chosen led to unforeseen consequences. Namely, that there was way too much time spent on girl rather than boy names. (This is just speculation on my part, though I was considered to be a remarkable child, I took no notes at the time, preferring to spend my early hours mastering the art of burping.)

After an exciting evening in Hidalgo the Brothers Dunne walked home—a two-block journey-- in silence, as Jack instructed Jim to never speak to him again. (Jim was not necessarily crushed by this idea: “Fine with me, Buddy!”) The brothers early on practically invented sibling rivalry, but they both were very kind to me even beyond my “cute period”, which only lasted about two weeks.

I doubt that they called Dad for a ride home. I almost wish they had; I’m sure his response would have been interesting, but not necessarily suitable for home viewing. Although he normally used phrases that sounded like he was swearing, they were really harmless. A favorite exclamation was something that sounded like “Galnt dang it!” short for maybe, Gal Dang It. Anyway on his particular evening, I’m sure he was not in a mood to be bothered. Besides, kids weren’t carted here and there in 1945, not in Hidalgo, particularly.

At the same time the family was waiting for the birth of a child, another drama was taking place. Sister Betty was making plans to be married, which she did the day after I was born. Years later I congratulated Betty on her excellent timing in getting out of the house before it was time to take care of Baby. It was just a coincidence, but it makes a better story to say that Betty knew when to light out for the territory.

So it wasn’t a restful night for anybody, particularly for Jack who woke up every hour wondering if his sibling had been born. The event finally occurred around 4:00 AM. Jack was so excited he burst out into the streets of Hidalgo and began knocking on people’s doors to let them know about his baby brother. This was much appreciated of course.

Jack caused such a commotion that lights came on all over town, which led some people to believe that the War had ended. One neighbor lady explained it to her spouse, who was modeling his red flannel underwear on the street in downtown Hidalgo. “Oh, it’s only the little Dunne boy gone crazy telling everybody about his new baby brother.”

Her husband was disappointed: “Damn! I was hoping Hitler had been shot, or something”. Eventually, everyone went back to bed.

After Jack’s early morning excursion to take the good news to Hidalgo, he somehow managed to have a chat with Dr. Massie, who had a few questions for him. Why Dr. Massie decided to interview a not quite ten year old boy in the early morning hours has never been satisfactorily explained. Apparently no adults were around to grill. Mom and Dad were with the baby, no doubt stunned after having six children already; they were probably wondering if they would ever get all their offspring raised. (They were quite right to be concerned, as I lived with them for over thirty years.)

Dr. Massie was a fairly young man who was somewhat excited himself. He got a shock after the birth when Dad asked him how much he owed him. The fee was $45, a considerable amount of change at the time. For Dad, the hard times of the Depression and World War II had eased somewhat, so he quickly pulled out his billfold and handed over the cash. Dr. Massie was so overcome—he was used to people paying him in produce and promises—he said, “You mean you’re going to pay it all now?”

It is my theory that Dr. Massie was so stunned by collecting $45 in cash that he plain forgot to ask the parents a few questions including the name of the just born.

On his way out of the house he realized that his work was not quite finished; he stopped in the kitchen where Jack was fixing himself a little breakfast, a fried egg sandwich. (It had been a long time since the Pepsi-Planters snack of the previous night.)

Jack was happy to accommodate the good doctor. He was proud to have his baby brother; it made him feel kind of important to be finally included in the process. Jack was the youngest, and was always getting left out—he was sick and tired of it.

The only problem was he didn’t quite have his facts straight. He proudly (and innocently) reeled off the baby’s name as “Denny Kenneth”: Jack was close, according to the authorities (Mom and Dad); the name was Danny Kenneth, or Danny K., which Mom later said was her choice.

The birth certificate managed to get all three names wrong, even the last name by omitting the “e” in Dunne. Thus it read “Denny Kenneth Dunn”. Still no harm was done.

No harm except Dad wanted to know, “Who said we were going to call him Denny”? When this storm broke, Jack was in another part of the forest (under his bed upstairs), and Jim wisely played innocent. It all blew over.

Sixty years later, though, some family members still call me Denny, or Den. I kind of like it, actually.[1]
[1] No wonder the boy became a writer: he was plagued with an identity crisis from the beginning. This has probably accounted for his tendency to try on different hats. In his cowboy days, which lasted until about age fourteen, he pretended to be Roy Rogers. Later in his so-called maturity he liked to pretend to be somebody else for a day. Currently he is Hidalgo’s second best known writer.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Annotated Diary Entries of D. K. Dunne (22)

The Annotated Diary Entries of D. K. Dunne (22)

There is great excitement in the literary world today, as it was announced that an early diary has surfaced that reveals that D. K. Dunne, the author of “Hidalgo: The Town, Not the Horse”, was once a high school sophomore.[1] The diary, written when the budding author, was fourteen going on fifteen, sheds new light on the teen years that have so mystified latter day critics.

The man at the center of this literary storm --D(anny) K(enneth) Dunne--has been silent thus far. A spokesperson(someone who did not want even his gender revealed) said that the author is not answering his door; but that he does, however, occasionally sneak a glance through the peephole.

It is thought by some observers that the author has been behaving strangely lately, but other sources say he has recently seen The Aviator, and is only doing his Howard Hughes impression. In any case Dunne, it is said, plans to lie low until the diary hubbub dies down.

And indeed much has been made of the very first diary entry dated 2-16-60, 8:00 PM. It reads: Went to school as usual. Latin test today. Don’t think I did too well. Well, back to TV. 2]

This entry indicates the author’s early interest in popular culture. It is no wonder that he later wrote several articles about TV detectives. It was his thesis that Cannon and Barnaby Jones, to name only two of his subjects, were landmark series that deserved close study if one wanted to get a grip on Western Civilization, not to mention the early use of car phones. [3]

The next diary entry of 2-25-60 6:00 PM indicates a gap of nine days between posts. Scholars speculate that the intrepid boy diarist was honing his craft by taking time out for real life experience, such as the adventure later described in “Newspaper Boy”, when he got lost in downtown Greenup.

Other scholars, however, are quick to note that the author was reputed to be twelve, not fifteen, when he delivered papers. Thus there are many unknowns in the life of the man often called the Toast of Hidalgo.

The second entry, or the next diary entry as described in Paragraph six above, [4]reads: Had big snowstorm today. School let out early. Don’t know whether or not there’s going to be school tomorrow.[5] Dad got stuck in Kenny’s ditch when we were going after Mom. [6] Jim had to pull him out with the propane truck. [7]

This entry indicates the author’s early preference for short sentences; it will doubtless be copied/pasted by all PHD candidates who plan to examine the diarist’s life and works in toto.[8]

An even longer gap occurs before the next entry of 4-1-60; the date is uncertain as Mr. Dunne's handwriting when he was young is almost always difficult to read.

The entry in question reads: Betty brought Aunt Maude up yesterday. She brought me a tie for my birthday. I am getting ready to go to school. Will report later.[9]

Mr. Dunne’s birthday is on March 25, which indicates that the April 1 date is inaccurate; it is also possible that Aunt Maude was late in delivering the tie. It is likely that we will never know the answer to this conundrum.

Although the literary public is eagerly awaiting the release of the complete diary, insiders say readers may be disappointed, as it has many gaps that may raise more questions than it answers.

A spokesman for Mr. Dunne, who only wishes to be identified as First Reader, is encouraging the author to include the diary in a revised version of his autobiography, “A Very Modest Book Proposal, or My Life on the Prairie.”[10]

[1] The “Hidalgo” story is set in a small town (POP. 100) in the Midwest during the 50’s; it is a humorous memoir of a boy and his pony. It later served as the basis for a made for TV movie, which proved so popular, it is repeated every year during the Christmas season. Fans of the story, however, were offended that Jiggs the Pony was played by Eddie, a Jack Russell Terrier.
[2] “Word” indicates that “Latin test today” is an incomplete sentence. The young Mr. Dunne (picture John-Boy Walton with his nickel notebook) was either ignorant of this, or was hell bent on being original.
[3] Some critics say his chapter on “Mannix” includes a complete summary of Western Thought from Aristotle to Sartre. We (the staff of The Washington Post) think he was just kidding.
[4] The Reader is advised to skip returning to Page One and counting paragraphs; it’s not important. You’ll never get through this article and its various and sundry footnotes if you question everything.
[5] This sentence indicates the author’s early preoccupation with future time.
[6] It is assumed that “Kenny” was a neighbor, but what his last name was and whatever happened to him are questions not answered by the diary. PHD candidates who are bent on solving this mystery are already in the field canvassing the old neighborhood, or would be if they could find it.
[7] Jim is the diarist’s older brother who figures in the Hidalgo story, as he and his brother Jack were given the job of chasing Jiggs the Pony with a lasso whenever he tried to get the heck out of Dodge. Jack, according to a source close to the story (his baby brother), once said that Jiggs made his life a living hell. Childhood, this report from the front indicates, is not all it’s cracked up to be.
[8] If this makes you think of The Wizard of Oz, it can’t be helped. Such is the power of words!
[9] “Will report later,” indicates the author’s keen interest in recording his life; it is clear the itch to express himself was strong even at that early age. He did not, however, post again for another six days. One can only guess as to his activity during this period. Some early speculation--people always want to jump to the wrong conclusion about these matters-- centers on the possibility that this was Mr. Dunne’s “coming of age” period. A source close to the author (Peter Pan) says he has never come of age. We (the Committee appointed by Congress to write this report) suspect Mr. Dunne is dodging this question. Other observers assert that this matter was cleared up in Mr. Dunne’s celebrated blog, which at last count had an e-mailing list of thirteen.
[10] Not sold at better bookstores.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Losing It (21)

Losing It (21)

My new worry—I try to come up with a new one every week—is not that I’m getting older, fatter, balder, the usual suspects, but that I’m slowly and surely, losing what little memory  I have left.

I used to be good at remembering important stuff like who starred in the Saturday morning TV shows back in the 50’s. When friends of a certain age (i. e., those almost as old as me) discuss the Saturday morning shows they usually bring up Fury (about a horse), or My Friend Flicka (also about a horse), or Rin Tin Tin (about the U. S. Cavalry in the Wild West despite being named for a German Shepherd). I have a theory about this dog: I think he also played Bullet on The Roy Rogers Show; he probably led a double life, though not as confusing as that of Lassie who pretended to be a girl.

My friends can tell you all about Peter Graves and Bobby Diamond (the stars of Fury, as I’m sure you remember). I like to chime in with my favorite example, the TV series The Gallant Men. Now I’m not even certain the show was called The Gallant Men. But I’m sure it concerned the French Foreign Legion and what tough fighters they were. (This was in the 50’s before the French became the weenies they are today.)

Although I’m no longer certain of the show’s title, I still remember the stars: Larry “Buster” Crabbe and Fuzzy Knight. Some people accuse me of making these names up. Nowadays I just refer skeptics to Google, which settles any arguments, as there are whole web sites devoted to these worthies. Even though I seem to be losing my grasp of trivia, at least I still know who Elmo Lincoln was (the first movie Tarzan whose yell never quite came off as he was a silent film star)[1].


Not being able to remember trivia is one thing, but what really bothers me is I can’t recall what little history I once knew. At one time I could name all the Presidents of the U. S. in order; now I usually get lost around old No. 7. (He’s on the $20 bill—I’ll think of his name later).

The War of 1812 is my favorite date, as it helpfully tells you what that very important year was about. It turns out the War of 1812 was actually a mini-series which technically ended in 1814-- during sweeps week-- with a peace treaty. But General Andrew Jackson didn’t hear about it and beat the stuffing out of the British at the Battle of New Orleans (from the song of the same name) in 1815, technically after the war was over, according to that great historian and popular singer, Johnny Horton.[2]

Andrew Jackson was known as “Old Hickory.” (You couldn’t be a general in the 19th century unless you had a catchy name like Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too)[3]. The “Old Hickory” nickname had its origins in Jackson’s hot temper; when riled he was apt to pick up a hickory log and lambaste the daylights out of his soldiers. (With civilians he was a little more composed: he merely slapped them with a glove and challenged them to a duel: “Pistols or swords—name your poison!”)

When questioned by the press (a bunch of anti-war fruitcakes) about killing British soldiers after the war was over, the General said: “I don’t give a crap about any peace treaty. I beat the redcoats, I’m going to be President, so watch your mouth.” Jackson liked to shake his finger at the press while he lined them out. He later posed for the famous "Uncle Sam Wants You" poster.

Most historical dates—unlike the War of 1812-- are bare of any hints. Strangely enough, I often remember exact dates, but can’t for the life of me recall what happened. For example, December 17, 1903 comes to mind, but was that when Wright Brothers first flew, or did they just fall off their bicycles that time?

April 3, 1882 also sticks in my mind: I think that was the date that Bob Ford shot Jesse James, but maybe it’s F. D. R.’s birth date.[4]

When I still had some memory for historical trivia, I used to tease people with questions like: What office did Aaron Burr hold when he shot Alexander Hamilton?[5] Was Burr arrested, impeached, imprisoned or otherwise chastised for killing Hamilton? I don’t remember now. All I know is Hamilton’s portrait is on the $10 bill. Hamilton was also inducted into The Founding Fathers Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (be sure to look him up the next time you’re at the Museum in Akron, Ohio).

At one time I would have known the answers to all these pressing historical questions. Of course at one time I could have bent over and tied my shoelaces without getting dizzy.

No, I’m not going to think about being dizzy—that will be next week’s worry.

[1] Larry “Buster’ Crabbe also played Tarzan; Fuzzy Knight, however, did not. Fuzzy spent his days competing for character roles; he usually found that George “Gabby” Hayes had beaten him to the draw.
[2] Jackson was bitter the rest of his life that no one told him the War of 1812 was already over; he blamed the news media, particularly “those knuckleheads at CNN.”
[3] William Henry Harrison was the victor at the Battle of Tippecanoe and was President for about 30 days before he keeled over from getting a bad cold on Inauguration Day and eating strawberries and cream. (Probably too many preservatives.) His running mate (Tyler, Too) became President and thereafter was called John Tyler, as it would have been too silly to call him Tyler, Too.
[4] I'm sure you remember that very popular bar room ballad with lyrics that included " 'Twas a dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave”. (This little ditty was covered by, I believe, The Sex Pistols.) “Mr. Howard” was the alias Jesse was going by at the time he was dispatched by Mr. Ford, the “dirty little coward.”
[5] Burr was Vice President of the U. S. Thomas Jefferson was somewhat put out with him; he began shopping around for a new vice president, preferably one that had a nicer hobby than dueling.