About mikeelphick

I'm a retired engineer and writer, editor, and publisher of technical magazines and web sites. I'm now trying to write fiction and play jazz.

REMEMBERING ROOKIE

crow

One summer day, when I was about eight years old, I was sitting under an elm tree watching a cricket match in the local recreation park. Then something plopped in front of me. It was a ball of fluff with short black feathers sticking out. I turned to my friend Sam.

“Look Sam, a baby bird fell out of its nest. I’m going to take it home.”

“You can’t have it, I saw it first,” he retorted.

“You didn’t know it was there until I told you! You can have the next interesting thing we find.”

“Okay. Nursing baby birds is too girly for me anyway.”

Unfortunately for Sam, the next thing we discovered was an unexploded German Butterfly bomb. Sam grabbed it eagerly. “I’m going to cut it open and get the powder out.”

I stayed as far away as possible, so I wasn’t there when Sam tried to dismantle the bomb. Apparently, he clamped it in a vice and attacked it with a hacksaw. When the bomb exploded, he was killed instantly, and his tool shed was demolished.

I carried the baby bird home in a paper cup.

My mother helped me make a nest for the bird by filling an old shoe box with worn-out socks. Then we used a clean ink filler to feed the bird by squirting milk into its open beak. The bird rapidly recovered from its trauma and had no serious injuries. After a couple of weeks we switched the diet to bird seed, which it ate without assistance. The bird was black, so we thought it was a rook—and we gave it the name “Rookie.” A few weeks later, we went to the aviary at Regents Park Zoo, where we compared all the black birds—rook, raven, crow, blackbird, magpie, etc. We found that Rookie was merely a common crow. But because rooks and crows are related subspecies, we figured the name was close enough. Also, of course, “Rookie” suggests a beginner, so it seemed appropriate.

We never intended to keep Rookie captive. As soon as he could flap his wings, we put him and his food outside. Soon he learned to fly and forage for food. But he still stayed close to the house. Then he reached maturity. We assumed he was male, because he didn’t lay eggs or build a nest. One day he wanted to find a mate, so he attempted to join a huge local flock of crows. But they figured he wasn’t a real crow, and chased him off. It suddenly made sense that a group of crows would be called a “murder.” However, researchers have found that crows are actually very social and caring creatures, and also among the smartest on the planet. They can count up to five, and they can recognize people’s faces.

After his rejection by the local murder of crows, Rookie seemed to understand he would have to spend the rest of his life in the human world. He no longer did much flying, and became cranky—perhaps because he knew he was never going to get laid. He developed some very human emotions. Local children started to taunt him–so he started to attack them and chase them away. However, Rookie also retained some annoying crow characteristics. He kept stealing shiny objects (such as people’s jewelry and coins) and stashed the loot on top of our tool shed. Also, he would peck holes in the silver foil on top of bottles of milk that had been delivered and left on our doorstep. Perhaps he had developed a taste for milk as a baby.

One day, Rookie disappeared. My parents said he had probably rejoined the flock. But I knew that was impossible, because he had already tried and failed. Later, I learned that my father had taken Rookie to the local chicken farm, and had him destroyed. I don’t know why he did that—he was probably afraid of being sued by the parents of the obnoxious children that Rookie chased away. But my father had lied to me and had killed Rookie–a sort of surrogate kid brother (I was an only child). And that wasn’t the first time my father killed a pet bird. A couple of years earlier, my mother took me to Wales for a few weeks in the summer (to get away from the bombing in London). When we returned, the pet canary had died because my stupid father had forgotten to feed it.

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RAVE AT THE TROC

TROC

“Rock Around the Clock is playing at the Troc,” was the police constable’s explanation for the huge traffic jam that had paralyzed most of London. The offending cinema was the Trocadero in the Elephant & Castle section of South London. We were driving from West London to Soho, so that we could hang out at the Nucleus—a basement club where jazz musicians jammed all night. At first, it seemed incredible that a single film showing could tie up traffic so completely. But thick fog limited visibility to about thirty yards. And the Troc was a huge grey stone building that occupied an entire city block–with a seating capacity of around 3500.

***

Several years later, we heard that the Troc had closed and was soon to be demolished. That gave us a crazy idea. We had been running parties in vacant buildings ranging from houses to large barns. If we could take over the Troc before it was demolished, we would have our biggest rave yet.

Three major players were involved in the criminal enterprise. Stan, the group’s intellectual, was responsible for organization and promotion. Ken, a big muscular guy, did all the heavy lifting—both literally and figuratively.  He was our expert on breaking and entering. Lastly, I organized the music and transportation.

A couple of weeks before the event, Ken broke into the Troc to check it out. The place had been left unlocked for the convenience of the contractors preparing for demolition. The only security was a few chains and padlocks. The seats on the ground floor had all been removed–which would be okay for dancing, though the floor sloped somewhat. Most of the power had been cut off, but there was a temporary supply to provide light for workers and to power their tools. That meant we might have to use musical instruments such as horns that did not require amplification. For lighting we could use kerosene lamps, including a huge red lantern we had stolen from the bridge connecting Eel Pie Island to the shore of the Thames.

After we decided on a date, Stan started promoting the event via the usual grapevine. But because this was going to be our largest rave ever, he decided to promote it on a pirate radio station as well.

The rave started out just fine. There was enough electricity to power the amplifiers for the guitars and singers, and the kerosene lamps provided enough lighting—but with an appropriately spooky atmosphere. A couple of hundred people arrived before the cops shut us down.

Surprisingly, none of the three conspirators were arrested. I had slipped out to get some food and booze for the musicians. When I returned, the place was cordoned off by the police. Early arrivals were detained for questioning. By threatening them with arrest for trespassing, the cops hoped to get them to identify the organizers. Most of the people had merely heard about the rave at their local coffee shop or on pirate radio. A couple of the musicians identified me as their contact—but I wasn’t there and I wasn’t the only named contact. Ken pretended to be just a dancer and to be too dumb to understand the questions.

When the cops arrived, Stan climbed into an empty storage attic over the projection room. He took a bottle of Scotch and a couple of reefers. The police did a pretty thorough search of the building. But they didn’t feel inclined to climb into the attic. Instead, they shoved a police dog up there. The dog found Stan and licked his face. Then Stan filled the ash tray with Scotch and the dog drank it. So Stan kept refilling the ash tray. Pretty soon, the dog got drunk and fell asleep. Eventually, the cops climbed into the attic and dragged out Stan and their dog.

“If you hurt that dog, you can go to jail, because it is the same as assaulting a police officer,” said the police inspector. “In that case, Constable Rover is in big trouble, because he got drunk on the job,” replied Stan. Though the police were pretty sure Stan was an organizer of the rave, they finally released him because they knew his story about the dog would merely amuse a judge and jury.

AN ANONYMOUS WOODCARVER

Image result for pictures of woodcarvings

I wrote my autobiography recently. But nobody wants to publish it.  Nobody really wanted to read it either, and that’s why the publishers show no interest. A few of my closest friends read it, because they didn’t want me to feel rejected. However, when they read it, they became addicted and couldn’t put it down.

Apparently, people only want to read about celebrities.  But I’m not a celebrity, I’m a woodcarver.  These days, woodcarvers don’t become celebrities. Perhaps they did back in the days when people were building lots of churches, castles and large estates, and when furniture was ornate instead of being functional kits from IKEA.  Today, woodcarvers are as rare as blacksmiths. Most of the items they make can be simulated in plastic materials. Computerized three-dimensional printing may be the final nail in the woodcarver’s coffin.

Of course, there is little hope of me becoming a celebrity and thus creating a market for my biography. These days, celebrities are all wealthy.  They don’t need to have any specific talent—just the good luck to be in the right place at the right time.  At one time, many celebrities were movie stars.  But Hollywood got tired of paying big salaries for actors, so more and more of the TV stars perform in so-called reality shows—such as “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”  One of those New Jersey housewives is currently serving a one-year jail sentence, and she will be an even bigger celebrity when she gets out. With most of the newer celebrities it is difficult to discern any significant skills or attributes. For example, Kim Kardashian’s major attribute appears to be a big butt. But her father was a wealthy though shady lawyer (he hid OJ’s golf clubs before his trial), thus she had money to spend promoting her large butt.

One way to get my autobiography published might be to turn it into a fictional novel–don’t let the truth obstruct a good story.  A recently released movie named ‘The Woodcarver’ had a fictional script. But the plot was less interesting than my real life story. In the movie, a troubled youth vandalizes a church and winds up in a close association with the woodcarver whose work he destroyed. Then they carve wood together and pray together. It was a so-called “faith based” movie.  Most independent reviewers hated it. They said, “A corny Christian movie…” and “Don’t choke on the message being rammed down your throat…” However, it got high ratings from most viewers–presumably faithful Christians.  So the movie illustrates another way to build high readership—appeal to a captive audience with a specific religious faith or political ideology.

In my story, my mother died in an accident when I was very young.  My father wasn’t around much. He joined the army in WWII, but deserted while in Italy and lived with an Italian girl for a while. After the war, he served a year in jail at Leavenworth.  And when he was around, my father frequently beat me if I annoyed him. I had no brothers and sisters, and other kids weren’t allowed to play with me because I lived next to a remote lighthouse. I got way behind in my school work because of poor eyesight. Then I had to wear horn-rimmed glasses, and kids bullied me. After I dropped out of school, a judge gave me the choice between going to jail and joining the army–which shipped me to Germany.  I got into a lot of fights with other GI’s.  After I returned to the US, I got beaten up by a cop after a false arrest. So many beatings throughout my life caused severe depression when I grew older.

My only self-expression is in my craft. My wood carvings and sign paintings are all over the Northeastern US—from Bar Harbor, Maine, to the Connecticut shore. But with no outlet for my life story, I’m just an anonymous woodcarver.

Fact or Fiction?

Many good stories are based on personal experience.  So writers are often advised to “Write what you know.” But personal experiences usually are not structured like good fiction. So fiction writers are also advised not to let the truth interfere with a good story. My next short story here starts out as a personal memoir–but has a fictional ending. The swan really did crash into the bridge, and the cop really did start to arrest me. However,the swan was not resurrected nor beaten to death by the constable..

SHARING THE PAIN

One pleasant summer evening, I was leaning on a railing alongside the Thames River, watching ducks swimming in the sanctuary of Eel Pie Island. Then a swan came flapping down the river. Swans fly like heavy freight planes, and they seem to have poor eyesight. Anyway, this swan slammed into the side of the bridge to the island, and plummeted into the river.

“Drop the gun and raise your hands!” A police constable was running towards me.

“What are you talking about, I don’t have a gun?”

“Somebody just shot that swan, and you’re the only other person here.”

“Nobody shot anything. The swan hit the side of the bridge and knocked itself out.”

“If you shot that swan, you’re in big trouble because it’s a capital offense.”

“You’re crazy. First you say I shot the stupid swan without a gun, and then you say I can get hanged for that alleged crime.”

“You could have just thrown the gun into the river. Also, it is a capital offense. A law written centuries ago says all swans belong to the Queen. If you kill a swan, that is treason and you can get hanged for it.”

“Shouldn’t you be chasing terrorists instead of standing there making stupid accusations? Go ahead and arrest me. A judge will laugh you out of court.”

“Show some respect. I don’t write the laws, I just enforce them.”

While I was arguing with the cop, the swan had surfaced and was paddling to the shore. Though it had been merely stunned and not killed, it appeared to have a badly damaged wing. When it reached the shore, it hopped around and feebly flapped its wings, but was unable to launch itself into flight.

“Hey officer, looks like the swan has risen from the dead! That means you can’t arrest me for treason and swanicide.”

“That’s a different swan.”

“Oh, really? And your different swan just happens to have a broken wing from a recent accident.”

The swan made a supreme effort and started flying toward us. But the pain from the broken wing was too much, and the swan couldn’t climb any higher. It crash-landed on the head of the constable, and immediately crapped down the front of his face, shirt and tunic.

“I’ll kill that godamned bird!” The cop screamed, as he pulled out his baton and started bludgeoning the swan. It desperately tried to fly away, but the cop’s first savage blow had broken the swan’s other wing. So now it was helpless, and soon it was dead.

Meanwhile, a small crowd had gathered. One guy in the crowd was video recording the violent scene, while a woman was in tears as she phoned the police.

Two police cars and an Animal Control van arrived while the constable was still pounding on what was left of the swan. A policeman in the second car appeared to be the senior officer. He sported a gold badge and was giving orders to the other cops. Two cops escorted their crazed comrade to the second patrol car and pushed him into the back seat. This walk of shame was accompanied by abusive chants from the crowd of onlookers: “Put him in cuffs”, “Throw him in jail”, “And throw away the key”.

***

The police hoped that the incident would be forgotten. But repeated showings of the incriminating video on TV, plus numerous abusive letters to local newspapers, convinced the brass that stronger action was needed. So they dismissed the constable from the force, and charged him with treason and animal cruelty. The judge subsequently dismissed the treason charge, but delivered a suspended 90-day sentence for animal cruelty.

I felt some sympathy for the former constable who believed the swan had deliberately attacked him. Nevertheless, it seemed appropriate that he should share some of the pain that he wanted to inflict on other people—and swans.

BLIND

Image result for picture of saxophone player

After a couple of successful high-tech startups in Silicon Valley, Bob Abrams had become a multi-millionaire. Unlike most other entrepreneurs, he cashed in his chips and didn’t try to pyramid his millions into billions. Instead, he returned to his first love—jazz. He decided to launch a record company to preserve the work of aging jazz musicians.

He lived in San Jose, but most of the musicians he wanted to record were on the East Coast. So he called some New York contacts to locate active musicians. One contact was Mike Baker, a former classmate at NYU, who now lived in New Haven, Connecticut. Mike pointed out that Connecticut also boasted some great jazz musicians, including Bob’s favorite sax player, Sam Wilson.

After a few days in New York, Bob visited New Haven to check out a recording studio Mike recommended, and to listen to some of the local jazz talent. Mike suggested they have dinner at a club called ‘The Ninth Note’, which featured a weekly jam session.

The session started with just the rhythm section led by multi-talented Nick Biello playing organ. When Sam Wilson arrived, he was wearing shades. Bob hoped that didn’t mean he’d become a junkie. The group launched into a slow blues, and Sam played beautiful long flowing melodic lines—unlike the choppy riffs of less talented musicians. Then they switched to a ballad, ‘The Nearness of You’. On this one, Sam demonstrated his versatility by tearing into a fierce double-tempo solo.

Bob was impressed. When the musicians took a break, he walked over to Sam and explained how he was lining up musicians for recording sessions. He handed Sam a sheet of music and said he’d like Sam to solo on the song (a slow blues head arrangement) for one of the recordings.

“Okay. Give it to Nick, and have him play it on keyboard so I can learn it.”

“But I thought you could read music.”

“I could read music, but I can’t see it anymore. I’m blind.”

“What happened? Did you have some sort of accident?”

“No. My eyesight just slowly got worse from year to year.”

“What did your eye doctor say? Is it cataracts, retinal damage or what?

“I can’t afford health insurance.”

Bob, a liberal among entrepreneurs, went into an extended rant about how the US should have single-payer universal health care like civilized countries. He finished with, “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.” When he calmed down, he decided to deal with the problem.

“Mike, do you know any good eye doctors here?”

“My guy is an excellent surgeon. He did my cataract surgery and checks regularly for retinal damage. But he doesn’t take Medicaid. He came here from Canada because he couldn’t make enough money there. “

“Okay, take Sam to see your guy. I’ll give you a check for $3000 as an advance. If he needs any more, just call me.”

***

Sam had cataract surgery for both eyes. A few months later, he was back at the Ninth Note. Bob grabbed a front row seat for that. But Sam’s playing style was completely different and it sounded terrible. Instead of flowing lines, he played short, hesitant, phrases that didn’t seem to fit together. Also, his intonation sounded harsh. At intermission time, Bob asked Sam why his playing style had changed. Sam felt terrible, because Bob had paid for his surgery, but now he couldn’t deliver on his side of the transaction.

“When I was blind, I would get into a trance-like groove while I was playing. My solos seemed effortless. But when I got my sight back, there were too many distractions. I wanted to watch movies and read books, so I wasn’t getting enough practice on the horn. And when I’m playing, I’m distracted by anything that moves. Now I understand why Sonny Rollins got into yoga.“

“Apparently, what’s good for the musician is bad for the music,” Bob groaned.

A Little Memoir

Though I’ve concentrated on fiction since retiring from a career in technical and business journalism, not all of my Writers Hangout stories have been fictional. The following story, written last year, is a personal memoir and tribute to Dominic Behan–Irish troubadour and younger brother of playwright Brendan Behan. The required theme for Writers Hangout was “fountain.” In my story, Dominic wrestled with the cops under a Trafalgar Square fountain, and was a fountain of creativity (with around 450 songs to his credit).