Peeing on the Electric Fence
by Bill Hudson
At my age, the purpose of life is clear ... it is to help others. Others may be family, friends, or people we never meet; and help may take many forms of service, friendship, money, prayer, work, knowledge, inspiration, or just being a good example. In helping others we offer something from our personal value that we have developed over time with many lessons learned. I'd like to share a couple of those path-defining moments from early in my life when lessons learned were the most agonizing.
I was born and reared in Baltimore during our nation's glory days immediately following WWII. Our two industrial competitors, Germany and Japan, were defeated; jobs were plentiful; homes were affordable; the middle class was strong; kids were playing outside; and the U.S. led the world in nearly everything: cars, highways, TV's, appliances, toys, weapons, fashion, medicine, steel, aluminum, and so much more.
The population was exploding, freedoms abounded, and a kid needed some peer guidance to make decisions navigating through it all. I was blessed to have as my neighbors, and closest friends, the Wentworth brothers ... Mike and Dick. These were my childhood mentors ... natural born leaders who had no equal in teaching life lessons with a self-developed technique that involved no thinking, no planning, and very little preparation followed immediately by a mind-blowing demonstration that always ended catastrophically.
Every day they selflessly guided me by illustrating the enormous difference in outcomes when one fails to distinguish the fine line between an extremely poor decision and a good one. To the Wentworths, I remain grateful. When the tough choices came later in my life, I reflected on the Wentworth boys and asked myself, "Which way would they go?" and usually I headed down the alternate route with no regret.
To get a good visual of us as kids, here is a picture that Dick Wentworth sent to me a couple of years ago. This photograph was taken on a Saturday by Mrs. Wentworth in 1949 when I was five. That's me on the left standing next to Mike Wentworth who is next to his brother Dick, and on the right is my other friend and neighbor Butchy Stoermer. There were 20 kids on my block alone and we were allowed to go as far as our bikes would take us to see other friends. Just be home for dinner. On Saturday mornings at 9:00 a.m. kids under 12 could get into The Colony Theater down the street for just 7ȼ and watch cartoons like "Heckle and Jeckle," "Woody Woodpecker," and "Bugs Bunny" followed by a serial like "Rocket Man" which preceded the featured cowboy movie with Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers and his sidekick, Gabby Hayes. We were encouraged to bring our cowboy gear and cap guns because when Hoppy got ambushed, he'd jump off his horse for a shootout with the bad guys and he always needed our help. The bushwhackers had little chance as smoke filled the entire theater with every kid yelling and firing their guns at the screen until the caps were gone.
Anyhow, take a close look at the Wentworth boys in that picture.
It gives you a feeling for the rest of this story.
Wentworth lessons began early in life. There was the sunny mid-summer afternoon in 1951 as the three of us were walking along Harford Road, the busiest street going north and south through the center of Parkville where we lived. Dick and I were only seven years old; Mike was a year older at eight. We were near the corner of Hiss Avenue and Harford where we knocked at the front door of our older friend Johnny DiFatta, but there was no answer. Selectively bilingual, Johnny is the guy who taught the entire neighborhood our first three words of Italian ... "baciarmi il culo." Imagine, the only phrase you know in a Romance Language at the age of seven is "Kiss my ass!"
We went next door to Sam's Barber Shop where Johnny was often sweeping floors for the owner, his dad Sam. The barber shop was closed that day and we remembered that the entire DiFatta family had gone on their annual summer vacation to Ocean City, Maryland. So there the three of us were (Mike, Dick, and myself) with nothing to do but look through the huge 10-foot x 4-foot front window of Sam's Barber Shop, seeing no one, seeing three empty barber chairs, seeing no lights "on", and seeing (wait a minute ... make that fixated) on the unattended cash register! Strange thoughts entered our minds, and they grew even stranger for the Wentworth boys. Mike uttered something familiar in Italian and without wasting anymore time, picked up a large rock, gave it to me and said, "Hey Billy, you got a good arm, why don't you throw this rock through the window and we'll check out that cash register."
There are three kinds of men: The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves.
About here we begin life lesson #1.
I said, "No." And with that there could have been a good outcome, but not necessarily a colossal lesson learned and retained for a lifetime. For that the Wentworth boys would now give a demonstration. Dickie picked up a brick in Mrs. DiFatta's nearby flower garden and said, "This'll work better" as he heaved it at the window. At the precise moment that brick hit the window, a tragic series of events began typical of the Wentworth lesson format.
(1) The window shattered; glass was falling everywhere as an unexplainable vacuum began to suck us through the opening.
(2) We climbed over the broken glass entering Sam's like magnets being pulled to the cash register.
(3) We did not get any money because either the cash register was empty or we couldn't open it; I honestly can't remember.
(4) Coincidentally, some other patrons dressed in blue suits then entered Sam's right after us, but unfortunately they were the cops who escorted us home where they introduced themselves to our parents.
(5) My father was short on remorse and I felt the sting of sin.
(6) My father, Mr. Wentworth, and Sam DiFatta entered into some negotiations which resulted in dad having to pay our share of the window replacement costs.
That day with the Wentworth boys was followed by six more intensive years as an apprentice gaining the experience, the wisdom, and the confidence to make far better decisions in my future. For one thing we Hudsons and Wentworths learned that our haircuts had gotten embarrassingly bad from Sam. We decided to change barbers.
The Last Wentworth Lesson
After a few years, I noticed a trend: the more monumental a Wentworth demonstration, the bigger and more predictable the resultant travesty. I was learning my lessons, actually feeling the pain, by merely observing the Wentworths in action. Little things like sawing the legs off their Mom's brand new dining room table no longer needed my participation to foresee the outcome. I knew the danger associated with, "Billy, you know how to use a hacksaw."
Then came the Saturday morning when I was thirteen that Mike and Dick knocked at my front door where we discussed another impulsive idea.
Mike asked if I wanted to go for a drive. "Hey sure," I said, "With who?"
Dickie said, "With us."
I said, "In what?"
Mike said, "In my dad's car. It's okay. My parents are gone for the day." Once again, you recognize the simplicity of Wentworth logic.
I said, "So, who's driving?"
Mike said, "That's where you come in!"
Dickie explained how his mom and dad had just left for the day in their grandmother's car. So their old, stick-shift, 1948 gray Ford sedan was sitting vacant and ready to go on Willoughby Ave. Mike opened his hand to display his dad's keys which he had appropriated from their mantle. I asked how they expected to drive a stick shift. But their reply seemed rehearsed. "You can do it Billy. You're good with those kind of things." There it was again; the Wentworth boys always starting off with a compliment like "Throw this rock, you got a good arm."
I told Mike and Dick a couple of relevant things: First, I had never driven a car except to steer my dad's 1952 Chevy fastback while he was driving, and second, I thought this drive was a bad idea. Things could go wrong especially with a stick shift. Those sticks are complicated and I didn't even know the location for each gear. Mike and Dick began talking about how they had watched their dad push the clutch pedal down as he moved the gear shifter up and down. They said, "It's really pretty simple" but I remember our confusion discussing which pedal was the clutch and which was the brake, and did the gear shift start in the up position for first gear and go down for second, or was the up position really reverse? I was convinced this plan had some flaws and told Mike and Dick that I was definitely "out." That may have been one of the best decisions of my life. Yes, I had finally witnessed enough Wentworth demonstrations. I had learned that common sense isn't really that common. You may even say I graduated from Life Lessons 101 that day. I watched the brothers leave my front porch, walking side-by-side, still discussing the merits of an afternoon drive and debating where the clutch was and where was reverse.
So, it wasn't a big shock when I met up with my friend Alverta a few hours later, and she asked me, "Did you hear what happened today to Al & Fran's Candy Store?" which was a block up the hill on Harford Road. When I asked, "What?" she told me how someone had stolen the Wentworth's car. For some unknown reason the robber abandoned the car at the top of Putty Hill Avenue and failed to either put the car in gear, or put the emergency brake on, or put his cigarette out. The empty car drifted backward down Putty Hill picking up speed through the busy Harford Road intersection where the car made a sharp U-turn by itself and crashed rear-first through the huge front window of Al & Fran's where it was now sitting in the middle of their
store with smoke coming out of the windows. Miraculously, no one was hurt.
As Alverta talked I had a vision of Mike or Dick stalling the car while climbing the hill and attempting to shift from first to second with a Lucky Strike hanging from his lips. I could feel the panic in the car but I was wrong to assume it was just Mike and Dick fumbling with the clutch. They had recruited another driver, their older cousin Bobby, who was equally incapable; yet all three had safely vacated the drifting car.
Coincidently, it wasn't long after the Wentworth's car was "stolen" that my father made the decision to move our family from Parkville out to the country. At the time I thought his decision had something to do with lousy haircuts.
Southwest Arts Festival (Indio),Jan 26-29, 2017
La Quinta Arts Festival, Mar 2-5, 2017
Indian Wells Arts Festival, Mar 31, Apr 1&2, 2017
Just as I was about to send this letter, my son sent me this. If you want a good belly laugh, listen to this man leaving a voicemail for his boss as he witnesses a minor traffic accident involving four elderly ladies in Texas.
The Helen Mar
Watercolor, 20" x 14"
by Bill Hudson
The reference for this painting is a photograph taken in 1871 by Stephen F. Adams. This is the bark Helen Mar, a whaler being fitted for new sails in New Bedford, Massachusetts which was then the whaling capital of the world. The Helen Mar "set out for the North Pacific on September 26, 1871 and returned four and a half years later, laden with sperm whale oil and 36,085 pounds of baleen."¹ On October 6, 1892 the Helen Mar crashed into an ice floe and sank within 10 minutes taking 34 men to their grave. Five men leaped onto the ice and survived.
1 Whitman, Nicholas, (1994), A Window Back, Photography in a Whaling Port, (p. 15), Spinner Publications Inc.
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