Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Class Act: Wurl Plays Klade

Eli Wurl recreating history for Toma-Walk patrons

I wondered how he’d do it. Last weekend, Eli Wurl had a challenging job. He needed to portray me as a shoe shine boy 67 years ago without benefit of my original equipment. He did well.

As you can see (scroll down a bit to the July 11 post, “The Geezer Goes Historic”), Eli’s chair lacked the altitude of mine. But his attitude was just fine, as he indicates in the photo above of his portrayal during Toma-Walk activities. Pete Wurl, Eli’s dad, kindly sent the photo and observed that the young actor “really enjoyed” his experience. True to reality, Eli advertised “Shoe Shine 15 Cents, The Other Shoe Free” just as I did.

Eli greeted walkers in front of a “Main Street” building in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, constructed by my grandfather in 1911. That’s where my stand was, although I was positioned on the west side of the building entrance, not the east. Actually, Eli picked the better of the two locations. My stand was in the way when people wanted to use the door to the second floor stairway.

The building originally housed grandpa’s tailor shop and mens apparel store. At the time I worked in front of it, my father operated the tailor shop in the rear of the building and the main section housed Central Drug Store.

Several ladies who took a look at the photo of Eli as me commented on what a handsome lad the young actor is. They seemed to imply I came up a little short in the comparison.

Oh well, that probably is something historic figures played by the likes of Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Eli Wurl just have to put up with.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

. . . and Justice for . . .

“. . . with liberty and justice for all.”  In my time, school kids in America started the classroom day by reciting that description of the land we pledged allegiance to.

As we grew older, every thinking person came to know that this phrase could only be taken as a promise, not a fact of life in the U.S. In a broad sense, we all enjoyed liberty, but justice for all was a work in progress. My life began in a racially segregated society and one in which women were subservient to men. Progress toward social and economic equality has been dramatic, but much remains to be done.

Inequality and injustice go hand in hand. Who would dispute the fact that wealthy Americans who can
afford teams of top-notch lawyers often “beat the rap” in courtrooms? Who would argue that minorities always experience full justice when they encounter majority law enforcement and seldom face juries of their peers in our courts?

That does not mean Americans don’t try to be fair and impartial. I’ve served on several juries. Without exception, I thought everyone I served with sincerely tried to mete out justice. And I think we succeeded. But we did not face any racial or “rich man, poor man” issues in the cases we heard.

I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the six jurors who found George Zimmerman innocent of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin. They apparently tried to be just. From the many accounts of the evidence presented in the trial, it appears they were correct in finding Zimmerman not guilty of murder. There was plenty of reasonable doubt about that charge.

But it also appears the jury should have convicted Zimmerman of manslaughter. Zimmerman admitted he killed Martin. There was no doubt about that. Is it plausible to believe that a big, strong man trained in martial arts had to shoot to kill an unarmed kid to defend himself?  Hardly.

If justice was not blind in this case, what can we learn from the experience?

For one thing, people who value justice need to be vigilant at every level. Florida’s self-defense law, for example, deserves careful scrutiny and perhaps changes now that we see how it can be misapplied. Concern about laws that foster injustice should not be confined to national laws and Supreme Court decisions. A much larger part of the justice system is local and state-wide. That’s where people of good will can get together and have a big impact in moving America forward in the quest for true justice for all.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Geezer Goes Historic

Today is the seventh anniversary of this blog. That’s not especially notable; many bloggers have been at it longer, and a whole lot produce more interesting posts and have many more followers.

Like my fellow bloggers and all the writers throughout the world, the geezer thrives on knowing someone out there reads the stuff he creates. So it is gratifying to learn from automatic counters
It's number 7 for Gabbygeezer
attached to this blog for most of the seven years that viewership has expanded more than ten-fold since the days when only a handful of neighbors and close friends checked out Gabbygeezer occasionally.

The best thing by far about the seven years has been the opportunity to find other bloggers who I now consider to be friends, even though we have never met. I've looked at hundreds of blogs over the years, and am pretty picky about deciding on a few to follow closely. So my group of “blogging buddies” is rather small. I place high value on what they write and any comments they make on my offerings.

I’ve been a writer, editor, or both for more than five decades, and think I've learned a thing or two about writers. Most important is the fact that writing is hard work. Attaching one’s bottom to a chair and engaging a sometimes reluctant brain for a period of solitary exercise is not fun. And it is an exercise that doesn't become much easier with repetition. I thoroughly disagree with those who maintain that they write because they enjoy the act.

Writers write because they enjoy the fruits of their labor, not the labor itself. Unless they are very good at it and earn scads of money, the reward comes through comments on their work. A favorable comment from a respected source can send a writer to cloud nine. That’s why people who developed huge social networks such as Facebook cleverly included a “like button” right from the start.

Even a negative jibe is better than silence. At least it shows someone cared enough to read the item. One of the small disappointments during my seven blogging years is that members of my little family, the people I care about most, rarely or never say anything about my posts, formally with a written comment or informally in conversations. Other bloggers say they have the same experience. None claim to understand why. The lack of family interaction is a minor matter, however, considering the many new acquaintances I've made throughout the U.S. and some countries overseas.

One small group I was not aware of before I started blogging consists of the folks who make the historical society in my hometown, Tomahawk, Wisconsin, a vibrant organization that sponsors some interesting activities. Several members of the society have been good about sending me material for posts over the years, and I appreciate their thoughtfulness. One of the society volunteers recently notified me that an early Gabbygeezer post will be a factor in a special event, a “Toma-Walk” to be held next week (on July 19 and 20).

During the walk, local historians and friends in period dress will be available throughout the old business district to tell visitors about the history and folklore of the buildings and businesses in the four-block “Main Street,” which really is part of Wisconsin Avenue. A young actor, Eli Wurl, will portray—believe it or not—me.

Eli will be telling visitors the story of the shoe shining business I conducted in 1946 on Main Street. I wanted to be there to see him in action, but family commitments prevent that. The young man should have a sufficient audience without me; Tomahawk is the hub of a summer vacation area and lots of tourists attend special events.

The story Eli will use for most of his material has been published in the Tomahawk newspaper and in two books after first appearing here. It was re-posted two years ago on the fifth Gabbygeezer anniversary. But for those who haven’t read the tale before, here it is once again:

A Very Small Business

As small businesses went in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, mine had to be one of the smallest. And as business owners went, at age 10, I was probably one of the youngest.

In the summer of 1946, Billy “Barrel” Schmidt and I were hanging around my dad’s tailor shop voicing the usual complaint of youth that there was nothing to do. Barrel’s uncle Louie, who ran the Central Drug Store in front of my dad’s shop, suggested we do something useful and start up a shoe shining business to make a little money.

We thought that was a pretty good idea. My dad found a shoeshine box somewhere, bought us a few supplies, and we were in business. The partnership lasted only a couple of weeks. Barrel decided going swimming at Crystal Lake and other typical Tomahawk summer activities beat heck out of work. He left me as the sole proprietor of the business.

One of the group of downtown businessmen who met every morning for coffee at Rouman’s Restaurant told my dad he thought the Hotel Tomahawk once had a shoeshine stand in the lobby. Sure enough, it was in storage at the hotel. Dad got it for me, and I hauled it out in front of Central Drug every morning, ready for business.

My only advertising was two cardboard signs attached to the arms of the chair. They read: “Shoe Shine 15 cents, other shoe free.”
This postcard provided a measure of fame
When business at the stand was slow, which was often, I toted the shine box to the local barber shops (I think there were three in those days) looking for customers. My recollection is that the only shop where I did much business was 
Charlie O’Rourke’s. That’s where I got my hair cut, and Mr. O’Rourke returned the favor by trying to gently persuade the men awaiting their turn in his chair to let me shine their shoes.

I think my dad suggested my other regular “house call.” If my mom had found out about it, the business would have ended right then and there. On Friday nights, Dad worked until 9 p.m. so Mom thought I was tending to business at my stand until we came home together. Actually, I was at Scorch’s Bar with my shine box. Business there was great, often netting me $2 or $3 for a couple of hours work—big money in those days for a little kid.

At 15 cents a customer, making that kind of cash depended on how much beer was flowing at Scorch’s (usually quite a lot) and some help from my friends.

My friends were two single ladies who worked at the A&P Store and always showed up at Scorch’s about 6:30 on Friday nights. They sort of adopted me, and since the males at the bar were trying to adopt them, they convinced a lot of drunks to get shoe shines—and woe to him who didn’t include a tip in the payment. One slightly absent-minded, or more likely very inebriated, guy paid me to shine his shoes twice in the span of 10 minutes!

I also did some “carry out” business. The best customers were Myron Veith and “Bev” Beverson, who owned The Gift Box across the street from my stand. On Saturday mornings, they left the door to their upstairs apartment unlocked and set out a half dozen pairs of shoes for me. I carried them across the street, shined them up, and took them back.

Another regular customer was Terry Small, who worked at the Quality Meat Market owned by his parents. Terry always dropped off two pairs of shoes for my attention, also on Saturdays. This was easy to recall because Terry was a very big man. His shoes were size 13 EEE. However, he always paid 25 cents a pair, so I didn’t complain about needing to use extra polish and elbow grease.

I worked all summer and occasionally in the fall after starting the seventh grade. Then work got a little old, and in the spring playing baseball was a lot more attractive than popping shoeshine rags and wielding brushes. I sold the stand and my supplies for $5 to Bob Gilley, an older man with some physical handicaps. Mr. Gilley shined shoes at the stand in the entryway of Nick’s Casket Factory on Wisconsin Avenue for quite a few years. He, however, was not known to solicit business in barbershops or bars.

Photographer Claude Venne gave my business a small measure of fame when he sneaked up on me one day when I was taking one of my frequent breaks, reading a comic book and eating a popsicle. Venne made his photo into postcards, which he sold at the Tomahawk Drug Store across the street with some other local scenes he had snapped. He had a note on the shoeshine card display that said something like, “Business is lousy, ain’t it?”

Business wasn’t too lousy. In addition to paying for popsicles, I saved nearly $100 from my summer’s work 60 years ago. I still had the money in the Bradley Bank seven years later to help pay for my first year at the University of Wisconsin. In those days, tuition for one semester at UW was $90.

                                               * * * * * * * * *

Eli, here’s hoping you “break a leg” in your youthful venture into show biz. And if you actually shine any shoes during “Toma-Walk” be sure you price the service a lot higher than the 15 cents I collected in 1946. And thanks, historical society members—you made my otherwise routine blogging anniversary something special. 

Friday, July 05, 2013

Ours Is Best!!!

We were trying a new appetizer in our favorite local restaurant. As I chomped on a “Brew Pub Pretzel” coated with "beer cheese" dip, I exclaimed, “This might be the best pretzel ever.”

Beautiful wife Sandy snickered and said, “A few thousand Germans might give you an argument about that.”

She was right. I’d momentarily forgotten a lesson we learned in visits to Deutschland. We loved the pretzels, especially those just out of the oven in small bakeries that seem to be everywhere.  We soon discovered anyone within earshot who heard us admiring pretzel flavor was more than ready to tell us “the best pretzels in Germany are made here.”

They couldn't all be right, but it was obvious that residents of every area were convinced the local contribution to elegant breakfasting or snacking was without doubt the best. Any American claim to pretzel excellence would be scorned.

Going home after our pretzel snack we passed the Plainwell Ice Cream Company, a reminder that 
Small store, big flavors
Germans may have their pretzels, but Americans have their ice cream. In a state-wide poll a couple of years ago, Plainwell Ice Cream was named one of “The Seven Wonders of Michigan.” It is that good. Yet, not many miles away Hudsonville says its flavors are better. And several other Michigan producers boast their ice cream is at least equally wonderful.

What about elsewhere? I've been around enough to know that people all over the U.S. think the local ice cream is the greatest.

At my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, students and alums have been going gaga over Babcock Hall Ice Cream for more than 90 years. The dairy on the agriculture campus churns out thousand of gallons a year. Delightful flavors can be ordered from Babcock by phone, mail, or the internet, and shipped to almost anywhere.

Another ag campus institution claims its product is better. Aggie Ice Cream is a famous attraction at Utah State University in Logan. I know scoops of “Aggie Blue” or any one of many other flavors are great, because it was an easy walk to the ice cream parlor from the U.S. Forest Service laboratory I occasionally visited on business some years back. That was a walk worth taking.

Our son, Lee, is somewhat of an ice cream junky. He swears that the best cones served up in the nation
Farr claims to be better throughout the West
come from the Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream Store. The store is near the historic Connecticut home he owned for several years. Sandy thinks Lee is right, and I must admit the ice cream dispensed in the store by the bridge deserves a claim to fame.

Who makes the best claim to being the best? In Ogden, Utah, where we lived for many years, when folks want to enjoy outstanding ice cream they head downtown to Asael Farr and Sons Company for some Farr Better Ice Cream. It’s hard to beat that name when staking a championship product claim. The old-time soda fountain atmosphere in the store also is hard to beat. Scoops of Farr Better, first served in 1920, now are sold throughout the West.

Where do you go when you crave “the best” ice cream (or pretzel) in the whole wide world?