The Talented Mr. Abercrombie: Tales of the Boy Jamie

Oh, see, now you’re thinking that I’m going to write another clever treatise about my father, but no.  In honor of his 54th birthday, I am going to attempt to capture the spirit of the other James R. Abercrombie–the guy three boys call ‘Dad’, one baby girl calls ‘Papa’, and one hot babe of a wife calls ‘Jame’.  To those of you who think you know Jamie, let me tell you, you only know the adult version.  I’m here to shed some light on the youthful Jamie.  And I’ll try to spare him any embarrassment in the process.  Maybe.

My grandmother once remarked that my brother Jamie was born old.  This could not be more accurate.  Jamie is the oldest child in our family, which probably does not surprise many of you given his hardworking nature, his decisiveness, and his level of responsible behavior.  He exhibited those virtues as a child, also.  But what you don’t know about Jamie is that, as a child, he was ruled by his sister Becky, 16 months his junior.  She could talk Jamie into nearly anything, but she was careful to limit his conduct to things that would ultimately be to her future benefit. 

Take the first incident with the matches.  Long before I, Jamie’s youngest sister by four years, was cognizant of that special relationship between my two sibs, Becky proffered a rather dangerous dare to Jamie involving the lighting of matches.  Becky talked Jamie into lighting matches in the room that was, at that time, our dining area, but what later became known as the back porch.  The back porch was a little square room surrounded with windows, many windows adorned with fluttering, frilly curtains.  Matches were lit, curtains caught fire, and Jamie—though later to prove his über intelligence through his academic achievements—decided that the most resourceful way to suppress the fire was to spray the flaming curtains with Lysol. 

This story had a happy ending; I just don’t know what it was.  Obviously our house did not burn down, but the incident with the matches—and the second incident to follow involving Jamie lighting matches in the woods in front of our house—provided Becky with enough leverage to get just about anything she wanted.  How do I know this?  Because she blackmailed me on any number of occasions.  Masterful manipulator that she was (is?), she had Jamie and me right in the palm of her hand.  While most boys Jamie’s age sought out boys of similar age with whom to toss the football, play catch, shoot hoops, and conduct games of torture, Jamie had a built-in playmate in Becky.  As for me?  I was the pitiful recipient of their cruelty and subsequent source of amusement when it was too cold for them to go outside to play.

But in the end, one can only take so much Becky, so, as a respite from her antics, Jamie would often escape to the safety of his room.  One of my most indelible memories of Jamie as a boy involved those little green army men that boys in the 1960s played with.  Understand that this was the Vietnam era, and those of us who remember that time will recall that video footage of the war as it was happening was taped and later broadcast on the nightly news.  An historic first.  Parents at that time never felt the need to filter whatever was on TV for their wide-eyed children, so at least for me, I thought war was perpetual.  I think Jamie did, too.

As a result, Jamie learned to stage epic battles using those little green army men.  Meanwhile, Becky and I were in our room performing beauty pageants with our Barbie dolls—forgive me, with my Barbie dolls (hers remained upon the shelf with the protective wrap still around their heads—mine had the toes chewed off, had chopped off hair from when Becky played beauty shop, and were always naked).  In the safety of his room, Jamie would have carefully researched the most famous battles of World War II and would accurately re-enact these clashes on his bedroom floor.  We never actually witnessed these battles; instead, we heard them.  Jamie had a unique talent for making bombing noises—a sound that I could not hope to reproduce no matter how hard I tried.  Ask him today to make the war sounds.  You, too, will be impressed.

Decades before the sagas of Bella and Edward, Jamie harbored a fascination with vampires.  On any given Friday or Saturday night, after growing tired of his war games, he would painstakingly remain awake so that he could stay up and watch Weirdo—a late-night offering that showed old horror movies—in the hope that some Mystery Science Theater-ish Dracula movie would be featured.  His enchantment with the dark side was so real to him that he took to hanging garlic around his neck, sleeping with a crucifix, and asking my dad if we had any hawthorn branches that he could use to make a stake.  Apparently, the danger of a vampire attacking him in the middle of the night was imminent, and he wanted to be safe.  He was nothing if not well prepared.

In addition to his partiality to vampires, Jamie loved space.  Becoming an astronaut was just about every boy’s fantasy in the 1960s, and this boy was no different.  Perhaps it was the Tang he drank or those chocolate space food sticks he downed, but Jamie was NASA ready.  And when I say ‘ready’, I mean husky-sized Star Trek Captain Kirk pajamas and all. 

Vampires and Apollo 11 fell by the wayside when Jamie started playing Little League baseball.  I cannot remember Jamie ever having played any position other than catcher, but he undoubtedly could have been a more versatile player, given the right circumstances.  He was a ‘Cub’, and twice weekly, my parents kept vigil from the bleachers at the Linesville Little League while Becky and I wore a path back and forth to the concession stand.  Jamie’s goal–the goal of every Linesville Little Leaguer–was to shatter the front window of the Dairy Isle (a parking lot away from the outfield fence) with a game-winning homerun.  I don’t know if he ever reached his goal; I was too busy stuffing my pie hole with Jolly Ranchers.

Back at home, the obsession with baseball continued.  Adjacent to our property was a large field owned by our uncle.  This field was perfect for baseball, and throughout the summer, the neighborhood boys and my sister Becky would assemble on non-Little League nights for a marathon game.  With the exception of Becky, no other girls in the ‘hood were interested in baseball except for me, and because I lacked my sister’s substantial skill on the diamond, Jamie magnanimously made me the behind the plate umpire.  I really had no idea what an umpire was to do during a baseball game, not really paying attention to Sheena calling the game at the Little League field, but Jamie assured me that it was the most important job in a baseball game, more important than that of the pitcher.  All I had to do was stand behind the catcher for the entire game, or until I got tired of being bitten by mosquitos.

Jamie’s athleticism, combined with his inordinate ability to memorize just about anything, was impressive enough that my parents bought him a subscription to Sports Illustrated.  Jamie devoured the statistics, facts, minutiae, and trivia about every player in the major leagues.  While some men of his generation proudly show off their boyhood collection of Playboy magazines, Jamie would be proud to show off his rather impressive collection of Sports Illustrated.  I’m convinced his wife would be even more elated to toss the entire collection in the dumpster behind the Yarn Barn.

I experienced a couple of firsts with Jamie.  He took me to see Star Wars when it first came out (I think I fell asleep), and one night in 1975 we both stayed up to see the debut of Saturday Night Live—John Belushi played Captain Kirk in a Star Trek parody, and we both laughed so hard we nearly puked.  Also, for the very first time, we gave back to Becky all that she had given to us when she introduced us to her new boyfriend.  In a lovesick burst of heartfelt sincerity, she had foolishly revealed to both Jamie and me that the new guy in her life raised rabbits, as in bunny rabbits.  Upon meeting Randy for the first time, Jamie and I welcomed him by doing the bunny hop.  That was the last time she ever brought a new boyfriend home to meet us.

So you see, there is much about young Jamie that you never knew.  He’s certainly not one to talk much about himself, or brag about his accomplishments, unless they involve his wife or his sons.  Lucky for me I have all the crayons in my box to color a picture of this husky-then-not-so-husky-explosion-sound making, space loving, vampire fearing, Little League catching, Sports Illustrated memorizing guy!  Happy birthday, Jamie!  

Now don’t be hatin’ on me for telling all your secrets.



My Dad and Billy Graham: Some material may not be suitable for all family members. Reader discretion advised

Just as Christ turned the other cheek and forgave sinners, I’d like to think that when Billy Graham enters the gates of Heaven, he’ll look for my dad.

To say that my dad was a contrarian is like saying that the Pope is from Argentina.  The principal JRA, known as “Mr. A.” to the high school students he shepherded was an avuncular figure, a hand on a shoulder, an understanding adult in an otherwise tumultuous environment.  The real JRA, the one we called “Dad”, took sarcasm and cynicism to a whole new level.  And was kind of hilarious in the process.  Most of the time.

My dad was an equal opportunity critic.  I don’t apologize for this particular attribute of his—it was what it was.  Any man, woman, or child who happened to irritate him was fodder for his misanthropy.  He would find one particular aspect of a person—be it one’s countenance, social class, suspect parentage, or peculiarity—and run with it.  Usually he had names for people that somehow related to one or more of the aforementioned characteristics, like his college acquaintance Jim Balog.  Jim Balog, apparently, ate like a pig; ergo, the name ‘Jim Balog’ was synonymous with having bad table manners.  If, at the dinner table, we failed to hold our knife correctly or forgot to place our napkin on our lap properly, we were compared to the ill-mannered Jim Balog.  That was just the way my dad was with people for whom he had any degree of disdain.

Take my father’s relationship with Billy Graham.  Today when we think of Billy Graham, we place him in the same category as Mother Teresa.  Billy Graham represents the best of Christianity, and he is revered and honored, just as he should be. In the 1960s and 1970s, Billy Graham was often featured on television preaching to his enraptured followers in packed revivals, delivering the Gospel to stadiums full of Christians eager to hear his interpretation of the Word.  His popularity among believers was and remains steadfast.  Few would dispute his ability to incite a crowd of the faithful to rise to their feet in adoration.  Who among us could find fault with that?

Who indeed.

Before I describe my father’s rather merciless and prejudicial one sided affiliation with BG, understand that JRA was a devout Believer; however, his attendance at Sunday services—any Sunday services—were non-existent.  He blamed his failure to attend Church on his upbringing.  It seems as if his parents’ lives revolved around the Church, and, being a contrarian, little Raymond had to be dragged there each week under extreme duress.  Once he became an adult, he claimed that he attended Church while he was riding his tractor plowing a field to prepare it for a crop he would plant but never harvest.  Though he wasn’t technically a farmer, he loved driving his tractor, and he loved plowing, so if riding on his tractor plowing the crap out of a field was his Church, far be it for us to keep him from his worship.

Dad worked long hours as a high school principal, and he faithfully attended every basketball game, every baseball game, every band concert (such as they were), and chaperoned every dance and prom.  Since he so faithfully attended each school activity , maybe he felt the need to faithfully attend church simply more time spent away from his tractor, I don’t know.  I do know that when he finally came home each evening, he was tired, he wanted to relax, and he wanted to watch his programs.

It was a Thursday night after my dad had enjoyed a few pulls from a recently purchased fifth of Seagram’s 7 (only top shelf for the Old Boy), that the unspeakable occurred.  All week my dad looked forward to Thursday night so he could watch Ironside starring Raymond Burr. After a hard day of herding adolescents, Dad just wanted some Burr.

That night, though, Billy Graham’s ability to draw faithful viewers trumped Burr.

Upon hearing the words, “Tonight’s episode of Ironside will be pre-empted so that we may bring you this special program” followed by the text “The Billy Graham Crusade” crawling across the screen, my dad lost his shit.  He called Billy Graham names I’m not going to print here out of respect for my dad and for Mr. Graham. With a furious energy that belied his inebriated status, he began scrambling in the junk drawer, found the phone book, and surprisingly was able to locate the long distance number to Erie, Pennsylvania’s NBC affiliate WICU Channel 12.  Making long distant phone calls in those days was an expense usually reserved for Grandma in Florida, but Dad considered the station’s preemption of Ironside such an egregious breach of contract between him and Channel 12 it wouldn’t have mattered if the station had been located in Bangladesh, he was going to let them have it.  We could only hear his side of the conversation, of course, and it went something like this:

“Why is it that every g*d-damn time I want to sit down and watch a show you have to interrupt my program with that insufferable preacher?”

“Of course I believe in God!”

“Well just because I can’t stand his ingratiating preaching does not mean that I’m not a good Christian!”

“How dare you ask me if I go to church!  That’s none of your g*d-damn business!”

“No. I. Have. Not. Been. Drinking!”

“My name?”

I cannot recall just how many Billy Graham crusades I had to suffer through—not necessarily because I disliked altar calls or group hymns, but because we knew Dad would come unglued and it would be up to us to put Humpty back together again.  What we wouldn’t have given for cable TV, a DVD player, or even the Internet to placate him, but that technology was a few years down the road.

In later years, my dad’s relationship with Billy Graham softened somewhat, and a kind of one-sided rapprochement occurred. He actually began to enjoy the man’s quiet and dignified approach to the Gospel and revered his message once Mr. Graham’s esteem and popularity had evolved to such a degree that his telecasts never again encroached upon Dad’s nighttime television lineup.

Just as Christ turned the other cheek and forgave sinners, I’d like to think that when Billy Graham enters the gates of Heaven, he’ll look for my dad.  Hopefully he’ll be able to find him.

An Homage to the Snow Day

Typically, when snow is forecast for central Indiana (and maybe other places, I don’t know), the projection of accumulating inches far exceeds the reality.  How do I know this and why do I care?  It goes back to being a teacher—of course.  Doesn’t everything?

Teachers live for snow days!  Oh, some may say, “I don’t want a snow day because I don’t want to make it up in June” but the reality of that argument is that the day in June that is “made up” is more or less a day spent wrapping up loose ends.  Tests are already taken, grades are submitted, books are returned to their summer storage place, and the time is spent signing yearbooks, cleaning out lockers, and possibly taking the whole class outside for an impromptu field trip.  So in reality, that make up day is not nearly as painful as finally having to schlep your sorry and slippery self into school, fishtailing your way into the parking lot (while the parking lot of the district administration building next door remains empty well into the morning).

The next best thing to a snow day is the two-hour delay.  For the uninitiated, a two-hour delay just pushes the day back two hours, meaning two additional hours of sleep.  Über teachers I’ve worked with (there’s a couple in every school, apparently) would stoically brave the icy and snow covered roads so they could proclaim to the rest of us, two hours later, that they used that time to work in their classrooms.  Not me.  I considered the concept of the two-hour delay a slice of serendipity in an otherwise mundane week.

The drama that precedes the announcement of the snow day or two-hour delay is nearly as exciting as the announcement itself.  Will they or won’t they?  Who actually makes the call?  My dad, a man my readers will get to know on a whole new level real soon, was a high school principal in northwestern Pennsylvania from 1952 until 1973.  In the 1960s, it was his job to “make the call”.  That meant that at around three in the morning our phone would start ringing.  “Mr. A?  Are yinz havin’ school today?  I need to know if I should hitch up the plow so’s I can git the young’uns to the end of the driveway…” or “Mr. A?  Clyde wants to know if he should start milking now, ‘cause he’s guessing with all a this snow, the cows are going to be slow gettin’ into the barn, and he don’t want to miss the bus, but if yinz aint havin’ school, then he can sleep a extra hour…”  My dad would suit up, walk down to the end of our driveway with a flashlight, check the road, then traipse back up and “make the call”.  Making the call involved calling WICU TV in Erie to tell them that the Linesville schools would be closed that day.  He then gave them what I can only guess was a secret password, then our phone number so that they could call back to confirm that he really was James R. Abercrombie, principal of Linesville High School and the man charged with making the call.

Now that I’m no longer teaching and my kids are older, snow days and two-hour delays have lost their sparkle.  I do, however, rally in spirit for my teacher friends.  Even if they moan at the prospect of having to go to school past Memorial Day weekend, I know that deep down they’re secretly delighted at the prospect of having a day all to themselves.  To me, snow days and two hour delays were little gifts that allowed me to snuggle with my kids, make a big breakfast, and maybe take a long nap on a snowy afternoon. What’s not to love about that?

Mona and Robin

My mother Susan was far ahead of her time.  I was born in January, 1963 (yes, thank you for the half-century mark birthday wish, now can we go on?).  Though I’ve no one to ask, my guess is that as soon as she could walk properly again after delivering me tushie-first into this world and could manage to fit into her size six wool skirts, she returned to work as a physical education teacher (do not make the mistake of calling her a ‘gym’ teacher).  Obviously, I needed to be taken care of because, brilliant as I am, I doubt that at three, five, or even six weeks of age I was adept at mixing my own formula, changing my own diapers, or putting myself down for a nap.

Enter Mona.  No, not ‘Mona’ as in ‘Mona Lisa’, but ‘Mona’ as in M-short ‘o’-n-a.  Rhymes with ‘Donna’.  My parents hired Mona to care for me during the day.  Mona was about ninety thousand years old, widowed, and if I remember correctly, didn’t particularly care for children all that much.  She drank copious amounts of Red Rose tea, and each day opened a can of Campbell’s tomato soup for her lunch, feeding me the second half of the watered down mess along with a half of a can of Golden Dawn peaches–in heavy syrup.  She ate the other half.  Might explain my current love affair with food, I don’t know…

Since Mona subscribed to the belief that children should be seen and not heard, I had to make my own magic each day.  Watching Jeopardy! followed by her “stories” simply did not fulfill my toddler and preschool needs.  Jamie and Becky, siblings about whom my readers will learn in future entries (with nom de plumes, of course), were already in school, leaving me to my own devices.  Readers, you have to remember that this was a time when at the end of the day if you were still alive, the adult(s) charged with your care could consider themselves as having done their job and done it well.  So, because I was essentially alone all day, I had to make up my own special friend.

Enter Robin.  Robin was everything to me.  He was a boy, she was a girl, (and how clever was I to have chosen a special friend with a unisex name?  Brilliant?  I think so.), but more importantly, he/she was whatever I needed at the time.  Looking back, I believe that Robin was based on the boy wonder character from Batman that my more seasoned readers will remember as a television series from the (cough) 1960s.  A baby girl’s crush?  Perhaps.

Robin and I were inseparable.  We did everything and anything together, from picking dandelions to catching houseflies and storing them in mayonnaise jars with holes poked through the lid so they could breathe (done with a full-sized hammer and a six penny nail).  I talked about Robin as if he/she was right next to me, and yes, Robin had his/her own place at the lunch table.

Mona was not impressed.

When she said to me, “Why do you insist upon this ‘Robin’ character eating with you?  He’s not real.  You’re just making him up!”  I responded with, “You don’t know Robin.  You’re nussin but an old yady.”

Well, after that less than unacceptable remark, she made sure that she informed James R. Abercrombie of my abject impertinence.  Though I was not present at the time, I am certain that, as my dad drove her back to her daughter’s home that night in our 1966 Ford Falcon station wagon, he feigned shock and aversion at my reported indolence.  But later (1994) he informed me that my ‘old yady’ comment was about the funniest damn thing he had ever heard.

Since the time of my infatuation with Robin, I’ve learned that children who make up imaginary friends tend to be gifted.  Obviously, I am far from gifted—affected, but not gifted.  And here’s another dirty little secret:  Robin was the first person I ever slept with.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mona!

And now for something completely controversial…

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week that may transform the status of gay marriage in this country.  Not only is Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, being challenged, but so is the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages even in states that allow them.  Let the games begin.

Let me be clear:  I am not in favor of gay marriage.  Marriage was designed and ordained by God as a union between a man and a woman for the purposes of creating more little men and women. I’m not stupid enough to argue with God.  For my part, I have proudly fulfilled God’s commandment times three (kids not marriages).

And now here’s the part where everyone is going to roll their eyes at my apparent wishy-washiness:  Though I do not believe in gay marriage, I feel even more strongly that the  government has no right to tell two men or two women that they cannot be joined in a union.  I wouldn’t call it a marriage, since you can’t have it both ways, and that would negate my previous assertion about marriage being between a chick and a dude.  But certainly, with all of the great minds in this country, we must be able to come up with a legal means that affords gay couples the opportunity to be officially joined.  Call it a union, call it a merger, an alliance, call it a knot-tying ceremony, a partnership, call it whatever you like, but I can’t for the life of me understand why the SCOTUS needs to hear these arguments because the two arguments in question should never have come about in the first place.

When the government gets involved in people’s private lives, I have a problem.  I have a problem when the government funds Planned Parenthood which performs the majority of abortions in this country (more about abortion later…no wishy-washiness there).  I have a problem when Planned Parenthood gives out free birth control to middle school girls.  I have a problem when the government tells restaurant and bar owners that their patrons can’t light up a stogie after dinner.  I have a problem when the government attempts to tell New Yorkers they can’t get their caffeine and sugar high by slurping down a Big Gulp.  And I have a problem when the government tells grown men and women who want to legitimize their relationship that they cannot.

“But Kelly,” you’re saying, “that’s just the thing!  The government has no right to tell a woman what she can do with her body!”  Oh, that’s where you’re clearly a victim of incorrect thinking.  ‘Her body’, when pregnant, holds within it a tiny baby who has no rights.  Women make the “choice”, for the most part, when they “choose” to get jiggity with a man (that’s how most pregnancies begin—let’s not get into the rape and incest arguments here).  That little baby that was created has to be protected somehow.  Grownups can generally take care of themselves.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to my gay and lesbian friends.  The ones I know in committed relationships, with or without children, demonstrate far more responsibility and right-mindedness than most of the idiots legally “married” to one another in Hollywood.  So Kim Kardashian’s short-lived, pathetic, E!xcuse of a marriage to Kris Humphries was “okay”, but Cam and Mitch tying the knot is wrong?

I must also say, though, that if you are a person who does not think that two men joined in unity or two women officially proclaiming their everlasting faithfulness and fidelity is the best thing for the greater good, your views and opinions should also be met with tolerance and understanding, as long as you’re not hating.  Once the hatin’ begins, you weaken your position.  That goes for both sides.

When I started this blog, I told you I was going to remark upon things that would make most people turn tail and run.  If you disagree with my position, fine!  If you agree with me, fine!  If you thought I took the coward’s way out and tried to have it both ways, fine!  But the right of people to live their lives in freedom and equality is an issue that I take quite seriously, and it would have been cowardly of me not to have stated my piece, especially in light of this week’s pending decisions. For what it’s worth, I think it’s going to be gay marriage for the win.