Monday, February 8, 2010

Am I blue?

“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” — Will Rogers

Summer days in the Sacramento Valley are scorchers. Back in the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up we didn’t have air conditioning. Nobody did. Our home had a swamp cooler on the roof directly over the hallway to the bedrooms, adjacent to the kitchen. The hallway had a gray tile floor. Not nice ceramic tiles, just the cheap asbestos tiles that came as standard equipment in a 12-thousand-dollar house.

Asbestos, of course, causes cancer but since we didn’t know that at the time, none of us got it.

On summer days, I could generally be found lying on that cool, cancer-wreaking floor, bare-footed and bare-stomached, reading Little Lulu and Sad Sack comic books directly beneath the huge hole in the ceiling and the water-dripping blast of air from the swamp cooler above. It was cool, the floor was hard, but I was seven. As nice as it was I couldn’t lie there all day.

Eventually I would wander outside and run through the sprinkler to cool off. Then I’d look around and see if anything interesting was going on.

(They didn’t charge us for water in those days and we apparently had more than anybody needed. We’d leave it running all day, soaking the front yard and pouring like a river into the gutter, down the street, into the drain and who knew, or cared, where from there — just in case we wanted to run through the sprinkler.

Sometimes we didn’t. But the water ran, just in case.

I know that sounds like wanton criminal behavior now but at the time we thought no more of leaving the water running than we did about smoking cigarettes in church or the grocery store. Our dads spent a couple of hours each evening talking with neighbors, all the while washing the dirt off the driveway with the hose. Water was water as air is air. We had all we needed. Nobody hassled us or tried to make us feel guilty or threatened to fine us for using water. I guess it just hadn’t occurred to them yet.)

One day I wandered into the garage where my dad was fiddling around.

My dad loved to putter in the garage. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Now that I’m older and thinking with some perspective I’m wondering if maybe he was just bored to death and puttering was nothing more to him than lying in the dripping hallway with Nancy and Sluggo comics was to me.

Sometimes Dad would work on the car but most of the time he just puttered. What else was there to do? The TV only had three channels and unless it was time for The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports there was nothing to watch in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

(Channel 6, the educational channel, had seemingly nonstop French lessons which I thought was pretty cool but my dad was from the World War II era and in no mood to learn French.)

So, on this particular day Dad was puttering in the garage, as usual, painting something blue with a spray can. I don’t remember what he was painting. That’s actually the definition of puttering: finding something that would look or work better with a minor, thoroughly irrelevant “improvement” that nobody else would likely notice or appreciate.

When he was just about finished spray painting whatever it was the paint can neared the end of its cargo and began to sputter. Dad shook it mightily but it would only spit a blob of blue here and there while farting useless blasts of aerosol propellant (which didn’t cause cancer but, in our blissful ignorance, was obliterating the ozone layer of our atmosphere and destroying life on Earth as we now know it.)

You see where this is going, don’t you?

Never one to waste a drop of paint, my thrifty dad grabbed the ever-handy churchkey on his work bench, gave the can one more good shake just for the hell of it, and punched a hole into the bottom of that fourteen-ounce rocket.

It took off like a Kamikaze woodpecker with a firecracker up its ass!

That paint can flew around the garage with the thoroughly chaotic and mindless pattern of a balloon released before being tied off.

That can had more paint left in it than Carter’s had pills.

By the time it landed the can had spent its passion, smiling weakly, surprised and yet victorious at its expense.

Everything in the garage was spotted blue. It all looked like a three-dimensional Rohrshach inkblot.

I was blue from head to tummy to legs and toes.

The garage floor and walls were blue. The ceiling was blue. Our lawn mower, camping gear, boxes of Christmas tree ornaments and all the weird, useless crap that doesn’t have a place and no certain use, but which you can’t bring yourself to throw away…it was all blue!


I don’t remember what I thought of it all but I do remember Dad.

His glasses were spattered blue, as were his nose, ears, lips and the cigar stogie on which they were still puffing furiously.

Our beautiful collie, Rusty, still lying sedately at my feet, was blue.

Mom wouldn’t let us in the house.

Well, it’s not that she wouldn’t. She just couldn’t. She was incapable. After Dad rapped on the sliding glass patio door for her she dutifully responded, saw us, immediately assessed the situation and collapsed in a helpless heap of rubbery-legged hysterics.

Dad fumed, snuffed out his blue panatella, grinding it into his expensive self-poured concrete patio with a blue-spotted flip-flop

Eventually, Mom was able to regain the use of her legs, find the floor and unlock the door. Snorting and giggling she followed Dad’s instructions, taking a gas can to the filling station and returning with a full of “regular” gas so that Dad could scrape the blue off of every square inch of our bodies.

The toxic, cancer-causing (these days) fumes of fully-leaded gasoline nearly killed us in the shower.

We all survived that day and even my darling, now-departed Dad was eventually able to recount it at family holiday dinners with a smile and a rueful shake of his head.

But these days, as Mom gets older, I avoid the story altogether lest it send her to join him beyond the pale.

Copyright © 2010 by Dave Williams, all rights reserved.

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