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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Charles and Mary

As a child I had no control over any aspect of my life. My parents made every decision for me, which I imagine was not too unusual for little squirts like me at the time (I didn’t get to purchase a pair of Levi’s until I was 19). I thought it was a little odd that my father got to decide when it was appropriate for me to take a dump in the morning. He had some odd notions about how the body functioned and could always be found in our only bathroom each day around 6:30 AM. He thought it was important to have that morning movement at the same time regardless of what his sphincter had to say about it.

This led to many a crisis when our other family members had urgent need of the same room while he was waiting for nature to take its course. It was not unusual for him to spend an hour or more sitting on the toilet waiting for something to happen. He also thought there was a one-to-one relationship between passing gas and the need to defecate. If I accidentally blew one at the kitchen table, he immediately sent me to the bathroom. I think this is when I learned to lie, because even at the age of 11 I vaguely understood the relationship between certain foods and their ability to create gases in the intestines. I would sit on the toilet for five or six minutes, flush, and return to breakfast where I was interrogated about the contents of my deposit.

I had no recourse but to lie, otherwise I would have spent the rest of the day sitting there waiting, waiting, waiting for Godot…

It was at about this time in my life when my mother decided I should learn to play a musical instrument. My other friends were playing the piano, but the unilateral decision for me was the clarinet. Mind you, I did enjoy that instrument, especially later in life when I picked it up again, but to me the tyrannical disposition of my mother with regard to her choice of instrument for me led to many unpleasant moments -- and quite a few nice ones also.

Saturday morning we made the trip by foot to the Charles and Mary music store in Wilkes-Barre. I had a very old, no-nonsense teacher who managed to ingrain the basics in me for this marvelous instrument. At 11 years old the 30-minute lesson felt more like six or seven weeks long, and I kept one eye on the clock and one eye on my music sheet as I tried to force the second hand around and around.

$2 for that lesson every week seemed like a lot of money to a kid who was only getting twenty-five cents for an allowance. I endured what I considered to be unimaginable pain for those 30 minutes -- for the marvelous adventure that happened directly after my 11:30 AM lesson. My mother and I would go across the street to the cafeteria in the Boston Store. I always ordered the same thing for lunch, as I still do today. Back then it was a chopped beef steak with brown gravy and a side of green beans (today it’s a hot turkey sandwich with fries -- lots of gravy on the fires).

My mother was a miserable cook, so this was an escapist adventure of the highest order for me. The meat was tender and juicy, as close to heavenly as was possible. The green beans were served fresh in a light butter sauce. In my entire adult life, I have never had an order of green beans that came close to what I enjoyed in that cafeteria every Saturday afternoon.

To return to Wilkes Barre 20 years after high school graduation and find both institutions closed left a sad punctuation on some relatively happy memories of those days. I think it was at this point in my life that I began to experience nostalgia for the first time, yearning for what I thought was a simpler and better life.

I watched Wilkes Barre change so dramatically that I pretty much cast most of it aside during my yearly visits back home. The uglier aspects of life and cultural decline that we experience today began to invade my hometown like a virus -- and as we know, viruses cannot be killed without killing the host organism also.

I started making my trips back less frequently, and had it not been for Barry and Dave and a couple of other old friends, I'm not sure I would have returned at all. About seven years ago I purchased a very nice used clarinet online, hoping to rekindle my fascination with that instrument and the beautiful music it produced. My dreams were quashed quickly when an X-Ray uncovered the news that my right thumb could not support the instrument as I played. I managed to pass through 40 years of life with a broken thumb, now completely calcified and somewhat useless, with the damage unbeknownst to me.

My martial arts teacher broke it while displaying what we call a come-along-technique. These are very effective methods of quickly disabling an attacker by applying pressure to one of the many nerve meridians in the body. Today they are referred to as “pain compliance”, because when they are utilized correctly the pain evoked would truly bring a giant to his knees. We divide them into three classifications: hurt, cripple, kill. Initially discovered by the Chinese somewhere around 100 BC, these forbidden techniques we're only passed down to advanced students whom the instructor knew would only utilize them when absolutely necessary (and yes, I did use one of them once).

While I can endure the passing of Charles and Mary, those green beans meant something to me. Every time I open a can of Del Monte, hoping for a resurrection, I am disappointed. California is famous for the way it murders its vegetables, and if I were the boss around here, I would consider that a capital offense.

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