It’s the end-of-the-season banquet at the bowling alley, and though I’m a notorious non-drinker, I tell the barkeep….
“Scottie, gimme a beer.”
I call the barkeep Scottie cause that his name. Hey, some readers are a little slower than others.
“Oh, big drinker,” Scottie says.
Then I wander over to where the championship’s being rolled. It’s a monumental showdown pitting the Hawaiians, who earned their name cause they wear Hawaiian shirts, versus the High Rollers, who have earned their name cause….
Well, I think even our slower readers can figure out how the High Rollers earned their names.
Normally, I’d root for the High Rollers. On account of the fact that if they win the championship there’s a longshot chance it might lead to saner marijuana laws.
Okay, it’s a very longshot chance. But, still — if notorious reefer heads can win the bowling championship it must say something positive about the drug.
I was playing the guitar like Hendrix….
On the other hand, the Hawaiians feature several lovers of the Blackhawks, who have just lost to Detroit. In particular, Pat the plumber looks like he might cry.
So out of sympathy to Blackhawk fans everywhere, I decide to be neutral.
Plus, I’m keeping score — an important task that I don’t take lightly. Actually, I’m not the official score keeper. The Young One is the official scorekeeper. I’m Tonto — his faithful sidekick.
A role I take no more lightly than if I was keeping score myself.
By the way, the Young One earned his nickname cause he’s young.
“Benny, tonight’s the night we get you drunk,” the Young One tells me.
“Great!” I say. “Order me Jack `n Ginger!”
“Fuck that — tonight, you will drink like a man!”
He goes to the bar and returns with a glass of Coke and something. Not sure what that something is, but there’s definitely a lot of it in the glass. I’m also not sure why Jack `n Ginger is less manly than Coke `n something else.
But I’m new at this drinking game.
And dancing like the Four Tops!
Within a few minutes, I’m feeling no pain. Jimi Hendrix comes on the jukebox and I start belting it out.
“Hey, Joe — where you goin’ with that gun in yo’ hand?”
Then I start playing air guiatar.
“Wrong hand,” says the Young One, who’s also playing air guitar.
Oops. I was using my right. Everyone knows Jimi was left handed.
Immediately, I switch to my left.
Hey, ma — I’m an ambidextrous air guitar player!
On come the Four Tops.
“Sugar Pie, honey bunch….”
I start to air dance.
At some point, the Young One gets me a refill. Whee!!!!
The Hawaiians win. Miraculously, we didn’t make any mistakes in the scoring.
Scottie — another round!
I must have made it home cause I wake up in my bed — with a pounding headache.
Shit. From here on out, I’ll leave the drinking to the pros.
See you next year, fellow bowlers!
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I have a chronic condition. It’s called the Bum Gene and it’s plagued me for years.
The Bum Gene, as my similarly afflicted friend, Bruce Diksas, explains it, is a parasitic component in the DNA that compels a person to make stupid choices, opting for instant gratification over delayed satisfaction.
Faced with a choice between a fleeting moment of pleasure or doing something constructive, a person carrying the Bum Gene will choose a brief moment of pleasure every time. When deciding between being a productive member of society or giving in to one’s worst instincts, the Bum Gene afflicted will always opt for the latter, no matter the consequences.
Although the condition affects both men and women, the Bum Gene is most commonly found in males of the species. Typically, the condition becomes apparent in the teenage years, when adventurous young men begin experimenting with alcohol, tobacco, and reefer, and spend countless hours unraveling the mysteries of poker or learning their way around a pool table.
By the time these dedicated young wastrels reach their 20s, they have become addicted to the high life. They may hold jobs, they may marry and raise families, but their true love is the old Rip and Roar. The Bum Gene is in control and the train keeps rolling all night long.
The party seems like it will never end – but it always does. You may continue rocking and rolling into your 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s, staying at the table way beyond prudence, but at some point a toothless, grinning hag of a waitress, representing the management, will present a check.
This particular check can’t be settled with cash, checks, credit cards, or promissory notes. The coin of this low-life realm is your health — ravaged lungs, swollen livers, leaky kidneys, balky hearts, hardened arteries, pancreatic woes, certain types of diabetes, and dozens of strains of cancer, all of them lifestyle related.
Despite the pleas of family and well-meaning friends, and the sound advice of doctors, those poor souls suffering with the Bum Gene can’t, or don’t want to, change their wicked ways.
My physician at the V.A. hospital, Dr. Frankie “Disco” Lopez, always gives it a noble effort.
“So, Milo, have you quit smoking yet?”
“I’m working on it, Doc.”
“What about the drinking? Have you cut down?”
“That’s another work in progress.”
“Have you been exercising at all? We’ve got a real nice gym here at the V.A., with all the latest equipment. It won’t cost you a cent.”
“No, thanks, I’ve never cared much for exercise.”
“Milo, I see dumb fuckers like you every day. They go through life doing whatever makes them feel good and never consider the consequences. They smoke, drink, abuse drugs, have horrible dietary habits, and never exercise. Then, when things go wrong, and they certainly will go wrong, they expect me to fix them. By then, it’s generally too late. The damage has been done. All I can do for the poor bastards is prescribe chemo or insulin, recommend some last resort surgery, or just make them comfortable and pain-free while they’re dying.
“And those are the unlucky fuckers. The lucky guys, the ones about your age, smokers and drinkers with arteries as hard as cast iron pipes, usually just die from heart attacks, quickly and relatively painlessly. In the end, that’s probably the best way to go. Plus, it saves everybody a lot of trouble and expense.”
“Well, Doc, I can’t recall when I’ve had a more pleasant conversation. I’ll see you in six months.”
“I’ll be here. I’m hoping you’ll show up.”
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Corporal punishment was an accepted practice in the Gary, Indiana school system. Misconduct was dealt with swiftly and painfully. The instrument of punishment was always a paddle, which was known as “the board of education.” Customarily, it was a heavy, two-foot-long piece of wood with holes drilled in it.
As explained to me by a member of the Slide Rule Club, the holes in the paddle decreased air resistance, which allowed it to achieve maximum forward momentum when it made contact with your sorry ass.
A few of the male teachers had reputations as being quick to punish students, but the worst disciplinarians were three of the brutes on the coaching staff. The three coaches, who I’ll call Coach Howard, Coach Fine and Coach Howard, were the school’s go-to guys when it came to paddling boys. Teachers that were too timid to punish students on their own sent their miscreants to the coach’s office to be straightened out.
The high school I attended was a hotbed of delinquency, the classrooms packed with ruffians, thugs, hoodlums, sneaks, and greasers. It was a rare day when there weren’t at least half a dozen guys lined up at the coach’s office, waiting to go inside, bend over and grab their ankles.
“Oh, man, I hope I don’t get Coach Fine. The fucker swings that paddle like Ernie Banks.”
“I rather have him than that creepy Coach Howard. Swear to God, he acts like he gets a kick out of beating on somebody’s ass.”
I was a troublemaker in school, especially during my freshman year, disruptive in class, a wise ass. As a result of my boorish behavior, I spent a lot of time, that year, in the coach’s office.
“Oh, no, it’s you again. When are you going to learn your lesson?”
“Coach, it was a misunderstanding.”
“What kind of misunderstanding?”
“Mrs. Shimkus said to turn to page 84 of Silas Marner. I thought she said turn up my transistor radio.”
“Bend over and grab your ankles. You’re getting three.”
The first swat always hurt like hell. The worst thing about it, however, was that you knew two more were coming. The second hurt as badly as the first, but the knowledge that there was only one more to come made it easier to take. The final swat was the most painful, because your ass was stinging and sore from the first two blows, yet knowing that the ordeal was over made the pain bearable.
The only thing the coaches hated more than unruly teenage students, were teenage smokers. If a kid got caught smoking, or with a pack of cigarettes, or even a pack of matches, he’d be required to report to the coach’s office.
After school, one day, I was walking along 5th Avenue, headed for the Club, which was my favorite pool room. I was smoking a cigarette as I walked, probably a Winston, when a car pulled up to the curb next to me. When the driver cranked down the window, I saw that it was Coach Howard. He gave me a stern look and said, “You be at my office before classes start tomorrow.”
I was a senior in high school, nearly 18 years old at the time, and would be graduating in a few months. I hadn’t been swatted since I was a freshman, three years earlier.
In those three years, I had grown a bit, lived a little, and learned a few things. One of the things I learned is that people’s motivations for doing things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes people take actions for no apparent reason and to no apparent purpose. Other times, they know exactly what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what they plan to get out of it.
More importantly, people are sometimes motivated by what others think of them.
Coach Howard was waiting for me when I arrived at the office the next morning. “I saw you smoking on the street yesterday,” he said. “You got anything to say for yourself?”
“Guilty as charged, Coach.”
“That’s an automatic five swats,” he said, as he rose from his chair and reached for the paddle. “Bend over and grab your ankles.”
“I said no. I consider grown men spanking boys to be sick behavior.”
“Watch what you’re saying, boy.”
“I can’t think of any normal people who make boys bend over in front of them while they slap their butts with chunks of wood. It’s what perverts do, in my opinion. Some people might enjoy this kind of thing, but I cannot, in good conscience, engage in such behavior.”
Coach Howard stared at me for a few tense moments, then said, “Get the hell out of my office.”
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I’ve forgotten a lot of things in my life. I’ve failed to remember anniversaries and birthdays, names, phone numbers and addresses. I’ve forgotten to pay bills, feed the pets and put the lid down on the toilet bowl. I’ve missed business meetings, great parties and all night poker games simply because they slipped my mind.
On more than a few fuzzy occasions I’ve even forgotten where I parked my car.
The one thing I always remembered, until just a few years ago, was the name of the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
I used to be a boxing fan. There was a time when I could have named every heavyweight champ since John L. Sullivan. I knew them all, from Dempsey and Tunney to Baer and Louis, from Marciano to Patterson and Ali to Holmes. A few years ago, around the time Lennox Lewis retired, I lost interest in boxing. The strange thing is that I didn’t even know I lost interest. My love for the Sweet Science just slowly faded away.
Now I don’t even know the heavyweight champ’s name.
I came to this horrible realization while watching the NFL playoffs. I had a couple of old friends over, Bruce and Dino, and we were eating heartily, drinking a lot and smoking a little, while watching the game. During lulls in the action I switched over to WGN to check on the Bulls-Celtics game.
It was while channel-hopping that I noticed a promo for an upcoming boxing match and, for some reason, it occurred to me that I no longer knew the champ’s name. For a moment I figured I was just drunk and had forgotten the name of the person Mike Tyson likes to call “the baddest man on the planet.” I searched my mind, trying to come up with a name but couldn’t do it.
I turned to my friend Bruce and asked, “Who’s the heavyweight champ?”
Bruce scratched his head, thought a while, and said, “Fuck if I know.”
Dino was equally puzzled. “It might be a Russian guy, but I’m not sure about it.”
It was bad enough that I didn’t know the champ’s name, but when Bruce and Dino, both manly men and die-hard sports fans, didn’t know who the champ was, then there had to be a serious problem with the boxing business.
It seems to me that boxing has lost much of its appeal in the last 10 or 12 years. I don’t hear people talking about it on the street. I don’t sense the excitement that I used to feel when a big fight, like a Haggler-Hearns or Leonard-Duran was on the horizon. And I rarely see any boxing related articles in the daily papers or hear a word about it on the sports segments of TV news programs. Boxing doesn’t seem to engage the casual fan anymore. It has become a cult sport, more popular than Jai Alai but not as big as televised poker.
Part of the reason for boxing’s dwindling fan base is the unfathomable rise of no-holds-barred, ultimate fighting contests. These events, which routinely outdraw boxing matches on pay-per-view programs, are basically nothing more than savage street fights where anything goes, including kicking, elbowing, headbutting, etc. If there are any rules in this “sport” I am unaware of them. Even if a fighter is down on the canvas, he can still be punched, kicked and stomped until he’s either unconscious or submits.
Apparently boxing is not brutal enough for the American public. A wise man once said that as a civilization becomes jaded and debauched, their entertainments tend to become more extreme.
The Romans had the same problem a couple of thousand years ago. Gladiator fights weren’t brutal enough. The public demanded more. Here is a transcript I found at the Smithsonian Institute of a discussion between the fight promoter at the Roman Colosseum and his VP of Marketing.
“The people are getting tired of sword fights and chariot races, boss. We can’t even draw a full house on Saturday night.”
“You got any ideas?”
“I’ve got a great idea. You remember all those lions and bears you picked up at that auction a couple of years ago?”
“Biggest mistake I ever made. I was drunk when that Visigoth cocksucker sold them to me. The mangy bastards cost a fortune to feed.”
“Here’s the idea. Let’s put all those ferocious animals in the arena, then bring in a bunch of people and turn the animals loose on them. I’m telling you, boss, there’s nothing like wild beasts tearing people apart to bring in the crowds.”
“That’s a brilliant idea!”
“Thanks, boss. It would also be a great way to get rid of a lot of those dumbass Christians that are popping up everywhere.”
Well, the Roman Empire lasted about 1,000 years and the Colosseum did good business up to the very end. The USA has been around for a quarter of that time and if our luck holds we should be around another 750 years. Of course, in 750 years we’ll be a more jaded nation, just like the Romans when the barbarians came knocking.
I wonder what blood sports we’ll be watching when the Vandals arrive at the gate.
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About a week after my father passed away, I drove to my mother’s house in Northwest Indiana to help her dispose of the Old Man’s belongings – mainly clothing – and return the hospital bed and other leased medical equipment that he needed in his last days.
Mom planned to donate Dad’s clothing to charity. We spent the afternoon sorting through my father’s closet, packing clothes into cardboard boxes. When we had finished sealing the cartons, Mom said, “There’s one more thing,” then reached into a dresser drawer and pulled out a .38 caliber, snub-nosed, Smith & Wesson revolver. Holding it gingerly, she asked, “What should I do with this darned thing?”
“Jesus, where the hell did that come from?”
“Your father used to carry it around. He usually kept it in the glove compartment.”
“I never knew he carried a pistol. I wonder why?”
“For protection, I guess?
“Did Dad ever use the gun? Did he ever shoot anybody?”
Mom shook her head. “I don’t think so. If he did, I’m sure he would have mentioned it to me.”
Gary, Indiana, the town where I was raised, was a dangerous place, populated by violent, thuggish drunkards, both male and female. Shootings, stabbings, random stranglings, savage beatings, and defenestration were daily occurrences. It was a foolish man, indeed, who wandered the streets of Gary without protection.
As a kid, I remember hearing stories about friends and neighbors who lost their lives because they hadn’t taken the trouble to arm themselves. There was Mr. Popovich, for example, who had forgotten to take his pistol along when he went to the corner liquor store to buy a pack of Luckies and a pint of Old Crow. He was found a few days later, shot full of holes, floating face down in the Calumet River.
Then there was Mr. Shapiro, who told his trusting wife that he was going down to the corner liquor store to buy a pack of Chesterfields and a bottle of Manischewitz, but forgot to arm himself when he left his house. They found his body later that night in the foyer of a whorehouse on Washington Street. He had been stabbed multiple times.
I also recall hearing about Mr. Gomez, who left his sawed-off shotgun at home when he went to the corner liquor store to buy a pack of Pall Malls and a pint of Dos Gusanos tequila. On his way home he was killed and partially eaten by one of the many packs of feral pigs that roamed Gary’s streets.
“So, what should I do with this?” Mom asked again, still holding the pistol.
“Give it to me,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
I didn’t know how to answer that question. The right thing to do, I supposed, would have been to get rid of it, turn it in to the police, or toss it in the Chicago River. Even though I’m a veteran of the U.S. Army and familiar with all kinds of weaponry, I have an abiding dislike for firearms. They are manufactured for just one purpose – slaughter. I would have felt uncomfortable keeping one in my home.
I was still planning to get rid of the pistol when an ugly thought wormed its way into my mind and made me think I might be acting hastily. Although not nearly as bad as Gary, Indiana in its prime, Chicago is a very dangerous place. Nearly 3,000 people, men, women and children, some of them infants, were shot in Chicago last year. They’ve been shot in playgounds, schoolyards, homes, back alleys and busy streets. It can happen anytime, anywhere, for any reason, or no reason at all. In some poor and neglected neighborhoods, leaving the house to run a simple errand, like walking to the liquor store, can be a life or death proposition.
Perhaps it would be wise, I said to myself, to carry some protection. Maybe one of these days the Old Man’s .38 would come in handy. After all, I regularly take trips to the corner liquor store to pick up cigarettes and whiskey.
The choice was mine. I could either be a wolf or a sheep. After giving it a great deal of thought and considering all of the options, I finally decided that the best thing to do was find a liquor store that delivers.
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As if being the Lifestyle, Society and Religion columnist at The Third City isn’t enough of a workload, now the editorial board wants me to take on the job of Military Affairs Correspondent. Benny Jay, who helps run this scabby crew of barely literate hacks, called last week to offer me the position.
“War is the hottest thing going right now,” Benny said. “We’re already fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and bombing Syria. And there’s a real good chance we’ll be taking on Russia soon. Every blog site in the world is writing about these wars. We need to get on the bandwagon.”
“I see your point. But why do I have to do the job?”
“You’re the only guy at The Third City with military experience. I’ve got your resume right here and it says you were a highly decorated Colonel in the Navy Seals and you’ve been awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Victoria Cross.”
“Heh, heh, I may have exaggerated a bit.”
“Well, you were in Vietnam, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, but I barely rose above the rank of Private. It was something to do with character issues.”
“Okay, Milo, let’s quit fucking around here and get down to business. How much money will it take for you to run the Military Affairs desk?”
I didn’t want the job. I was a disinterested soldier at best when I was in the Army and my feelings haven’t changed much in the last four decades. But Benny is a stubborn fucker and refuses to take “no” for an answer, so I named a price I knew The Third City could not possibly afford.
I was shocked when he accepted. “Okay, we’ll give you the extra 12 dollars a month. But I expect solid reporting and analysis, not like the usual shit you write. And don’t try to sneak any of your stupid dick jokes into the stories, either.”
My first assignment was to write a general asessment of America’s military situation. I didn’t want to write from ignorance, so I spent a couple of days studying the subject. I watched a few episodes of “Hogan’s Heroes” and “McHale’s Navy.” I reread Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22.” I even watched a military-themed porno called “Stalag 69.”
Still, I felt my knowledge was incomplete, so I called my old friend, Bruce Diksas, who had once reached the exalted rank of First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. I figured that as an officer, he had been privy to a lot of inside information that was inaccessible to me.
More to the point, Bruce used to lunch regularly with Colin Powell at our Division base camp in Chu Lai, in the former Republic of South Vietnam. Maybe Bruce picked up some insights simply from being in close proximity to the great man.
“Hey, my man, what’s going on?” I said, when he answered the phone.
“Ah, fuck, I’ve got a hangover.”
“You have my sympathies. Listen, I need to pick your brain about something.”
“I haven’t seen the Racing Form yet this morning.”
“No, no, I’m writing a blog piece about America’s current military situation. As a one-time officer and former gentleman I thought you might give me some tips.”
“I didn’t know anything then. I know even less now.”
“I thought you used to have lunch with Colin Powell. You must have learned something.”
“That was just a mandatory monthly brigade lunch. There were dozens of us there, mainly junior officers. Powell was a Major at the time. I don’t think we ever talked.”
“That’s it! That’s all you’ve got for me?”
“Well, one thing I do know is that officers love war. They need to cover themselves in glory. They have to prove that they are warriors before they can become leaders. Ambitious young officers will do anything to get a combat command. War is where reputations are made and promotions get handed out. You can’t climb the ladder in the Army unless you have combat experience. Even Colin Powell, as a young man, led an infantry company. I doubt he would have risen as high in the ranks without his Combat Infantryman’s Badge.”
“So, you’re saying that the military’s upper ranks eventually get taken over by scheming, brutal, bloodthirsty bastards who’d cook and eat their own grandmothers to win a promotion. You’re telling me the people who advise the President and set military policy, are a bunch of crazy, treacherous, gung-ho fuckers who owe everything they have to the glories of war?”
“I’d say that’s pretty accurate. It’s the nature of the military beast. War is what they do best. Ruthless, cold-blooded, conniving bastards make the best general officers. A well-developed mean streak is an asset to a combat officer. And it doesn’t hurt to be a little bit crazy. Nice guys generally don’t do well in life or death situations.”
“Damn, I’m glad the military doesn’t run this country.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”
The other day, the lovely Mrs. Milo and I had one of our rare civil conversations. During this friendly little chat, my wife happened to mention the name of one of her girlfriends, a woman I’ve known for many years.
The woman, who shall remain nameless, is a devoted wife, loving mother, and successful businesswoman. She is a pillar of the community. Her reputation is impeccable.
And yet, when my wife mentioned her name, I made a crude, totally inappropriate comment about her.
My wife shook her head in disgust. “Do you always have to be such a wiseass?”
“You knew I was a wiseass when you married me.”
“I thought it was just a phase you were going through. I was hoping you’d grow out of it.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
Being a wiseass is a mixed blessing. The joys are many, but the downsides can get ugly. I should know. I’ve been a wiseass all my life.
Sure, there’s nothing better than disrupting a classroom of high school students with a well-timed vulgar remark, but it’s hardly worth spending a week in detention hall.
Farting in church is always a crowd-pleaser, if you’re willing to risk burning in hell for eternity.
Introducing yourself as the guy who used to frolic with the bride, at her wedding reception, is usually good for a laugh, but you can kiss your friendship with the newlyweds goodbye.
Like most wiseasses, I discovered the pleasures of irreverence at an early age. By the time I reached adulthood, I had mastered the arts of the snide remark, smart aleck retort, nasty innuendo, and swinish comment.
Sadly, not everyone appreciates a wiseass. I have learned, through bitter experience, that there are some people who have no room in the lives for sarcasm, ridicule, derision or contempt. They have zero tolerance for wiseasses. That’s why I avoid drill sergeants, cops and judges like the plague.
There are two industries, however, where a wiseass is welcomed with open arms, where his unique skills are needed, valued and well-compensated. After all, when you need to sell a product or an idea that nobody needs, at a price nobody wants to pay, who better to do the job than a wiseass — a cynical, calculating, flippant bastard who’ll say anything to make an impression or achieve his goals.
The two industries are, of course, advertising and politics.
I’m glad I chose the ad business. I’m pretty sure I would have been a rotten politician.
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