Today's Story

This Blog site contains essays selected from my "Today's Story" series of writing exercises.

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Location: Delray Beach, Florida, United States Tom Shawcross was born in St. Louis, MO and now resides in Delray Beach, FL. He is the father of a daughter and a son. His hobbies are writing, travel, and genealogy research. Before his 1995 disk surgery, he liked to run and play tennis. He has never gutted an elk.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

This Is Where I Came In

© Thomas Wilson Shawcross 1 Jan 2006

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William Powell, “Asta,” and Myrna Loy

For Christmas this year, Lauren and Michael gave me a box set of the Thin Man hard-drinking comic detective movies. It consists of six films, inspired by The Thin Man novel written by the hard-drinking Dashiel Hammett (author of The Maltese Falcon). These films were highly popular in their day (1934 to 1947), as they featured the witty, flirtatious banter of the married couple Nick and Nora Charles (played by William Powell and Myrna Loy), which was inspired in turn by Dashiel Hammett’s relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes).

This was a great gift for me, as I prefer the old black & white movies over today’s new-fangled colorized ones, and besides, the set includes two movie shorts starring my idol, Robert Benchley! But, as Michael and I sat down on Christmas day to begin our Thin Man movie marathon (Lauren was not feeling well, so she stayed home with her mom), I realized that due to our disparate life experiences, Michael and I were seeing this movie differently.

In one scene of After The Thin Man, a party guest in New York City wanted to call his mother to wish her a merry Christmas, but he was despondent because he had “no nickels.” Nick tells him to use the phone in the hotel suite. As Nick hears the guest asking the operator to place a call to San Francisco, he does a slight double take. Michael’s life experience does not include asking telephone operators to place long-distance calls, and he does not remember when AT&T subsidized their local phone calls by seriously overcharging for long-distance calls. Hence, Michael missed the joke. Someday, I must tell him about two-party line telephone service.

As the movie progressed, I started noticing more things that would fly under the radar of today’s typical young person.

This Is Where I Came In

Some of these were visual subtleties. For example, why, in After The Thin Man, was Nora slicing bread and why did a deliveryman come into the Charles kitchen with a huge block of ice? I suppose Michael has heard me refer to the refrigerator as an “ice box,” but does he understand the origin of the expression “the greatest thing since sliced bread?” Why, wasn’t bread always sold pre-sliced?

However, it was another expression that inspired this story. When some murder suspects started repeating themselves during a police interrogation, Nick Charles announces, “This is where I came in.”

I asked Michael if he knew what that phrase meant, and if he had recognized the humor in it. It was under his radar.

For the benefit of my younger readers, I will explain this particular phrase. It is based on a former practice in which movie theater operators would show a continuously repeating loop of films – often a double feature of movies with cartoons and movie newsreels separating them (yes, Virginia, in the days before wide-spread television reception, one could watch the weekly news at one’s local movie theater).

Anyway, on Saturdays, when Mom and Dad would give Jim and me each a quarter and drop us off at the Crest movie theater on Gravois Road in St. Louis, we would enter the theater at some random point in the loop of films being shown that day.

Usually, we would come in during a cowboy movie, but sometimes it was Ma and Pa Kettle or maybe Francis the Talking Mule. I remember trying to figure out what the heck was going on, as we had missed all of the preceding storyline and character development. Eventually, the time would come when one full cycle had been shown, and we would recognize that we were now seeing the part of the movie that had been showing when we entered the theater. Hence, “this is where I came in” was a phrase that had meaning then.

The expression “this is where I came in” is one that I seldom hear any more. I wonder how much shelf life remains for it. Some expressions seem to go on and on, long after their original meanings have been forgotten.

Recently, my work colleague Chuck Englert (a fellow Baby-Boomer) was telling me about a co-worker who was “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” It occurred to me that I had not heard that expression lately, and I wondered if any of my younger co-workers (they are not hard to find) were familiar with it.

Some of the twenty-somethings had heard of the expression, but none knew what it meant. I think I am the only one in the building who has ever seen a chicken run around with its head cut off. I have a vivid memory of this, actually.

I was six years old. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Dad standing by the garage, holding a live chicken by the head. I have no idea where Dad managed to obtain a live chicken – since we didn’t raise them! But anyway, Dad could do everything, and somehow he had managed to acquire a live chicken, and I didn’t really question it at the time. In my mind’s ear, I can still hear that chicken squawking as Dad grabbed it and then started whirling it with his arm like an airplane propeller. The chicken’s wings were flapping as Dad gave it a ride (why was he doing that?). Then Dad paused to adjust his grip and continued giving that lucky chicken more propeller rides.

Almost as in slow motion, I can still “see” the chicken’s body separate from Dad’s hand, and silently cartwheel through the air, wings a-flapping furiously. The headless chicken body landed heavily on the gravel driveway.

Then, the most amazing thing happened.

Wings still flapping, the headless chicken managed to right itself and begin running at high speed toward Judy Nitsch’s house! Wow! How was that possible? The chicken had no head! It ran pretty well, considering that it had no head and presumably could not see where it was going. Perhaps that explains its rather erratic path, and why, at some point, it changed directions and started running back towards Dad. It didn’t run very long before it fell over dead, but I was impressed that it had run at all. Frankly, I still don’t understand how it could do that, but I certainly learned the meaning that day of the expression “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”

I should explain that Dad was a kind man and not generally inclined to do his own butcher work. He must have really wanted to eat some fried chicken that day. Mom must have too, for she then had to pluck the chicken, an act that seemed to me to be nearly as barbaric as watching Dad kill it. As I recall, Dad did not own an axe, so I don’t know how else he could have killed that chicken, short of running it over with his 1949 Pontiac. Nevertheless, this made a deep impression on me – but not so deep that I didn’t enjoy eating fried chicken that night.

But I digress.

The “this is where I came in” expression started me to wonder how many things are flying under my radar. How many things do I see and not understand?

Real life should come with sub-titles.

When I was a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, I wrote a column for our school newspaper, Student Life. My editor suggested I call my column “Local Color and Comments,” since there was no identifiable theme to my stories (sort of like my blogs today). Often, I would search microfilm reels of old St. Louis newspapers to get story ideas. One of the papers from 1928 had the following joke:

two flappers at a dance:
“Say, that saxophone player is really cute!”
“Yes, I wish he’d blow some my way.”

That particular joke would have flown under my radar if I had not already done so much research on the life of Robert Benchley and had read many magazines from the 1920’s. I particularly remembered this classic advertisement from 1926:

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This iconic advertisement appeared at a time when it was considered scandalous for women to smoke. “Blow some my way” did much to help the big cigarette companies to acquire the 50% of the market that they felt they had been missing – female smokers.

. . .

I will close today’s story with a memory that just occurred to me. As I was thinking about my afternoons at the Crest Theater, which no doubt led to my love of movies, I remembered one particularly scary movie that I saw there. It was Universal’s classic 1941 tale of The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr.

When I was ten years old, this movie scared the bejeesus out of me. The movie started out innocently enough, as a normal looking guy goes out for a walk one evening in a small village in Wales and gets bitten by a real werewolf (well, it could happen). Subsequently, on the night of a full moon, he finds himself transforming into a murderous werewolf! Hair begins to sprout on his face, his voice changes, and he is consumed by a lust for blood. I had never seen anything so frightening in my life! He was much scarier than Ma Kettle was on even her worst day.

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Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man

At some point, I just couldn’t stand to look at the screen anymore. I ducked down behind the seat in front of me. I suppose I must have been keening in fear, as I somehow attracted the attention of some kindly old lady whom I had not previously noticed.

“There, there, dear. It will be all right. Don’t be afraid.”

I knew the lady had good intentions, but what-the-hell was she thinking? Talking would just draw to us the attention of the real werewolf who was undoubtedly sitting in this very movie theater and who was helplessly being transformed into wolf form by the full moon that was showing in the movie.

Sheesh. Some people just never get it.

Somehow, I managed to get blabbermouth to stop talking to me, and after that show ended, Jim and I fled to the lobby, where we stayed until Mom & Dad came to pick us up. I miss those days . . .


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom: I just read your article about the movies, which I loved; it brought back many memories. I grew up in Edwardsville, and went to the movies every Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Often, my parents took us to ST. Louis to the Loew's, and Ambassador theaters for double
features. I don't believe I ever went to a theater on Gravois.
I read your bio and realize that you live in Florida, too.
My husband, Nick, and son, Chris, both went to Washington University Law School. I got part of my teaching credential courses
at Washington University in 1956-7.

11:14 AM  

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