A Rain of Frogs ~ WWII on the Home Front

Garfield marginalia and the Ed and Harley stories
by Rob Hunter

Stuffed Owls and Death by Grommets

Harley Pigeon’s WWII tires were called Camelbacks by the War Production Office—recapped with reclaimed rubber, plus what was left of shredded old tires.

“Postwar USA, and I had my first set of new tires in four years—no telltale pink bubble of ancient inner tube poking out through bald, tweedy recaps. Real tires, real rubber, no rayon. Whole tires, four of them, not the Akron camelbacks that peeled off in a couple of months. Oklahoma, On the Town and South Pacific were the big shows. I could get you tickets for the White Sox, Cardinals, Cubs and Bears. Salesmen are all bluff and bullshit; knowing things is an important part of the job. I knew sports, Broadway show tunes, heavyweight title fights and the up-and-coming welterweights. How’s about Sugar Ray Robinson and Kid Gavilan? One hell of a fight. I do my research with the racing form, Variety and Sporting News. Baseball, USA—ask me a question, go ahead. How’s about Bob Feller and those Dean brothers, Dizzy and Daffy? The Second World War was over and, after years of gas rationing, America was finding its wheels. And so were Harley Pigeon and Ed Seitz. I’m Harley.

“Home—that magic word: a floor of unvarnished oiled hardwood with red crumbs of sweeping compound ground into the cracks, frosted glass that sagged in the partitions, walnut paneling warped from generations of steam pipe leaks and floorboards that heaved around the radiators—a cubbyhole office on the second floor of Zabloski Bros. Tannery, this was home for Factory Findings.

“Things were palmier than ever. No Depression, no OPA, ration books, save your fat and win the war. No victory gardens and saving big balls of twine and tinfoil to help repel Hitler and the Japs, no more tires made out of reclaimed galoshes—that was all behind us. Ed and I were on the road passing out steak dinners and sports tickets to grease the skids of commerce.

“Did I mention Ed and I sold twine and brass grommets?”

Baseball and the Zabloski Brothers.

from Cherokee Purple, the second Ed and Harley tale

As renters on the second floor of the Zabloski empire, Ed Seitz and I were honorary members of the big Zabloski Bros. family. We got invited to the company picnic. Ed loved free beer. And those raw pork patties set out on oilcloth-covered picnic tables in the shade of old elms on the Wisconsin state fairgrounds. Raw pork—schlach—is an old Milwaukee delicacy. Or was until after the All-Star Game when half the parishioners of St. Stanislaus got wiped out by toxoplasmosis from contaminated pork. That was July 8th of last year, 1947, a Tuesday to allow travel time and an extended 4th of July weekend. Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees was in the outfield along with Ted Williams from the Boston Red Sox. One hell of a game—Ed and I listened to it on the radio at the Antlers bar—the American League took it 2-1. The St. Stanislaus church picnics were always held during the All-Star break. It took the Health Dept. a couple of months to dope out what actually had happened but the dead weren’t picky about what killed them. Six hundred died, but Joe DiMaggio escaped the stain of blame and the buffet caught the rap.

There was this company picnic that the Zabloski Bros. threw at the end of August. Sort of to beat the Labor Day do’s of the AFL-CIO by laying out a free feed with free beer to demonstrate to their 300-plus employees the extended hand of the bosses could bless as well as curse. This was called a schlachtfest. Don’t know about those? Well, visualize raw ground pork patties. On every top, contained within an onion ring, a freshly cracked egg jiggles and blinks, peek-a-boo, pumpernickel optional. They had barrel beer. With an assist from unlimited Schlitz on tap, Ed could down prodigious quantities of raw pork patties with pickles and baked beans. The Bros. took over the State Fair Grounds—free rides all day long, bring the kids and pack pop back in the family wagon when he starts upchucking.

At this same Zabloski Bros. wingding a kid peed down the front of my best starched summer shirt. And tie. And pants. A woman with a couple of inches of brown at the roots passed me her kid to hold while she threw baseballs at a triangular stack of cement milk bottles. She was after a big plush panda named Andy.

“Lady, your kid is peeing on me.”

“You should feel special, ’cause he don’t do that to just nobody.”

She took the kid back and, great big panda in one arm, kid under the other, sauntered off without even a Thank you.

The next year the Zabloski picnics were scaled back to grilled bratwurst due to the St. Stanislaus die-offs. Ask the Cherokee Purples. See, no one remembers what actually took place a thousand years or even a couple of hours ago. The Cherokee Purples foretell the past. History is opinion.

Screamin’ Leslie Funderbunk

from Allnite Waitress at the Diner of Doom, the third Ed and Harley tale

The stations are fading in, fading out. Then Ed jumps, right up, ass in the air. I swear there was daylight between Ed’s shiny serge and the Buick’s upholstery. No small feat for a man of 68, appropriately overweight with a loosened tie that does not quite cover the chili stains on yesterday’s shirt. Ed had got an AM station, the only kind our car radio picked up. Through the heterodyning and subetheric sleet, a woman’s voice caterwauled:

“Dixie Dictionary says: No matter how much you applaud the jukebox an encore’s still gonna cost you two bits. That means pony up or shut up. This is Screamin’ Leslie, your Allnite Waitress.” The squealing from the speaker as the old Buick topped a ridge said we were losing Screamin’ Leslie.

“Harley, turn this Buick back around. I can’t lose that woman,” said Ed.

I did a Johnny Dollar U-turn, leaving wheelies of black rubber across the center line, and we were headed back up the ridge.

The Allnite Waitress faded back in.

“Come on, all you bumper jumpers. The drive-in’s closed, it’s time to wake up and get on home. This is Screamin’ Leslie, your Allnite Waitress at the Diner of Doom. If you hear me, let me know. Call me at WSLF—Last call for Tuesday, it’s almost midnight—and you’ll get a stuffed owl all your own...” Screamin’ Leslie yowled from the radio.

“I gotta get me that stuffed owl,” said Ed.

“You don’t even know what that stuffed owl stuff means,” I said.

“Nope, but she does, that Allnite Waitress,” Dilly said. And that was that.

“I gotta get me that owl,” Ed repeated.

We plunged down a series of crossroads and false trails on the West Virginia line and, on an elevated mountain plateau, Felker’s Bald, lay a little town with a tall radio tower with a red light blinking through the mist and ground fog.

A man was out back of the cement block building, emptying wastebaskets into a dumpster. He stared at Ed. “You have the look. You an owl man?”

“Not yet. But he’d sure like to be.” Dilly. Right to the point as always.

Now Ed was blushing. “Nah, I’m too old for that sort of thing.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, mister,” said the man. “Leslie Funderbunk always wanted to be in show business. Leslie was a pretty young thing. One day—this was during the war—Leslie Funderbunk just changed. She got wild. Boy chasin’ you know. She didn’t have a fella in the army. She might have figured nobody eligible was ever comin’ back again.”

Alexander Graham Bell didn’t kill the President, the doctors did it.

One week after the shooting, Simon Newcomb of Baltimore was interviewed by a reporter for the Washington National Intelligencer. Newcomb had been experimenting with running electricity through wire coils and the effect metal had when placed near the coils. He had found that when metal was placed near the coils filled with electricity that a faint hum could be heard at that point in the coil. The problem was that the hum was so faint that it was very difficult to hear.

While in Boston, Alexander Graham Bell read the newspaper account mentioned in the above paragraph of this article. Upon reading this account, Bell telegraphed Newcomb in Baltimore and offered to assist him. Further, he suggested that perhaps his own invention of the telephone was the answer he had been seeking. His telephone amplified sound made through wire!

As a final test, before using it on the president, they went to the Old Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C. where they solicited Civil War veterans and lined them up in open fields. They passed the wand over each volunteer’ s body. As some still had bullets in their body from doing battle in the war, this provided a very close approximation of what they hoped their invention would accomplish—locate a bullet inside a human body. In each case, the soldiers with bullets still in them, and where the bullets were, were identified. Now was the appropriate time to try the invention on the president.

On July 26, Bell, his assistant Tainter, and Newcomb had an appointment at the White House. In the early evening they made their first attempt to locate the bullet using their apparatus. There were also five White House doctors and several aides present for this experiment. The president looked apprehensive as the wand was passed over his body. He expressed a fear of being electrocuted. Bell offered reassurance and tried to explain how the apparatus worked. The apparatus didn’ t work.

The last day of July they went back to the White House to try again. It was the same thing again—no matter where they placed the wand on the president’ s body, a faint hum could be heard. When they moved the wand away from the president’ s body the hum could no longer be heard. All were stumped. It worked fine on everyone else but the president. Feeling dejected, they again left the White House. Bell continued back to Boston and gave up trying to perfect the invention.

A few weeks after their last attempt, President Garfield was moved to his home in New Jersey and died on September 19, 1881. * So what is the answer to why Bell’ s and Newcomb’ s invention worked on everyone except the president? It wasn’ t the president that was the problem. The problem was the bed he was in. Coil spring mattresses had just been invented. The White House was one of the few that had the coil spring mattresses at the time. Very few people had even heard of them.

Factoid: Alexander Graham Bell suggested “ahoy” as the way to answer his new telephone and operators at the first exchange did just that. It’ s sometimes erroneously said—by the way—that “hello” was invented by Thomas Edison because he didn’ t like “ahoy”. This story has been finally scotched this week by the Oxford English Dictionary through the publication online of a revised entry for “hello”, which notes evidence from the 1820s, long before the telephone was thought of.
— Michael Quinion, in World Wide Words issue 592

And, of course, the tomatoes

Tomatoes as prophesiers was something Harley’ s child bride already knew. “You shall return to claim your bride. Me,” Dilly said, picking her nose. Dilly, that’s Delilah,a child bride in truth. The Cherokee Purples are a patch of tomatoes. Tomatoes are reliable; they just require some interpretation. In their lonely patch in the Great Smokies the tomatoes kept their own counsel, what they knew they didn’t volunteer.

Then there’ s Alexander Graham Bell’ s failed metal detector, the Tooth Fairy and a Calumet City stripper whose defining achievement was spinning her tassels in opposite directions.

Guiteau, the assassin, had his song, too:

Come all you tender Christians, wherever you may be,
And likewise pay attention to these few lines from me.
For the murder of James A. Garfield I am condemned to die
On the thirtieth day of June, upon the scaffold high.

CHORUS: My name is Charles Guiteau, my name I’ ll ne’ er deny.
I leave my aged parents in sorrow for to die.
But little did they think, while in my youthful bloom,
I’ d be taken to the scaffold to meet my earthly doom.

’Twas down at the station I tried to make my escape,
But Providence being against me, there proved to be no show.
They took me off to prison while in my youthful bloom
To be taken to the scaffold to meet my earthly doom.

I tried to play insane but found it ne’ er would do,
The people were all against me, to escape there was no clue.
Judge Cox, he read my sentence, his clerk he wrote it down,
I’ d be taken to the scaffold to meet my earthly doom.

My sister came to see me, to bid a last farewell.
She threw her arm around me and wept most bitterly.
She says, “My darling brother, this day you must cruelly die
For the murder of James A. Garfield, upon the scaffold high.”

Lyrics as recorded by Kelly Harrell, vocal, & The Virginia String Band (Posey Rorer, fiddle; R. D. Hundley, banjo; Alfred Steagal, guitar), RCA Victor Studios, Camden, NJ, Mar 23, 1927.

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The Garfield quickie bio www.whitehouse.gov
Alexander Graham Bell and his metal detector (Feather Schwartz Foster)
How Alexander Graham Bell didn’t kill the President, his doctors did it (Anthony Bergen)

copyright 2020 Rob Hunter

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