How I Learned To Fly When I Was A Teenager


Ever ask yourself where really wild ideas come from? And how come they arrive full blown?

Regular ideas take time to work out. You have to sit around working out the details one by one. But get a crazy idea and it’s ready to go right out of the box. No waiting in line. No need to take a number. Just here we come, stand back!

WAY back!

I don’t get it. These days I regularly waste 30 minutes after a shower just trying to figure out how to bend over far enough to dry my %$#@! feet.

And you ought to see what goes on if I have to trim my toenails. Trust me. A naked old guy trying to bend over that far? Not a pretty sight.

But when it comes to lunatic ideas, they arrive all ready to go. In complete detail. Start to finish. No thinking required. No parts to buy. Batteries included.

How can that be? Even the most lunatic idea has details in it. How is it that once the idea forms in your head and you decide to do it (which I always do, God help me!) you know exactly what to do — exactly where you’re headed and how to get there.

Let me give you an example: Back when I was a high school freshman, I had my first “newspaper job.” Had two parts. Part one was sitting in a press room a quarter the size of Walmart and twice as high while the presses roared.

The papers came out in a long line, wedged inside a two-layer coil spring conveyor belt that whisked them upstairs. To make it easier for the people up in the circulation department to count out papers, each 50th paper was turned at a slight angle by the presses just before it entered the conveyor belt.

But either the presses no longer turned them as much as they should, or the people upstairs had a hard time seeing the turned papers. So my job was to reach in there, grab that slightly turned paper, and turn it some more.

That job lasted as long as the presses ran, an hour or so, sometimes longer.

Then, stone deaf for the next 20 minutes, I toddled upstairs to roll up and label a couple of hundred papers which went in mail sacks. That took maybe another hour and a half.

Altogether, I worked about three hours a day, six days a week, for which I was awarded the princely sum of $7.84 a week, or 50 cents an hour, minus whatever — don’t ask me what — which came to 43 cents an hour.

One Friday payday, out of a clear blue sky, as we were opening our pay envelopes, a truly crazy idea popped into my head. I can remember it well. The day’s run of papers was over. I had come upstairs, and along with two other high school kids had slopped cheap flour paste on the edges of labeled brown wrap sheets about 4-by-12 inches long, laboriously rolled up 200 papers in them as the other two kids did the same, tossed them into mailbags hanging on a plain pipe rack standing behind us, closed up the bags, and tossed them down a metal chute to someone waiting at the bottom to take them to the post office.

By then my hearing had improved to the point where I could make out normal conversation. Prior to that, when I first came up the metal stairs from the press room I was stone deaf. To get my attention you had to tap my shoulder.

And even after I could hear again it was as though someone had stuffed my ears with cotton.

Why it never occurred to me that I was destroying my hearing for $7.84 a week I don’t know. I suppose it was ignorance, mixed the usual teenage stupidity. Amen! There had to have been a whole lot of stupidity in there. I worked in the press room with three adults who were deaf.

The boss was an overweight, cranky, mean-spirited, profoundly deaf, prematurely old man in his 50s who wore a hearing aid that looked like a transistor radio. An ear bud hung out of one ear. He could only hear if you yelled into the unit in his shirt pocket, and only then if you were close. I never said anything to him because I knew the response would be rude and angry, and would be likely to have nothing whatever to do with what I said.

Next rung down was a wiry, late 30s guy who rarely, if ever, said anything. He too, wore a hearing aid, but he smiled a bit now and then as he worked. With his strong arms and wiry frame he was the mainstay of the operation.

And take it from me, if you ever catch a glimpse of the size and weight of the immense rolls of paper from which your newspaper flows as those presses roar, you will understand why it took muscles to work in that press room.

The third guy was a dark-haired, Polish guy not much over 20 who also wore a hearing aid. The pounding of those presses, so loud you could stand a foot away from someone and yell at the top of your lungs without being heard, had already deafened him.

Anyway, there I was, tearing open my little manila envelope along with everyone else, when this wild idea crossed my mind. It didn’t come in bits and pieces. The entire idea popped into my head at once.

One piece. A gestalt, German psychologists would call it.

The way you see a face. You don’t look at someone, see the dark hair, the deep dark eyes, the full lips, the dimpled cheeks and then — adding them all up — say, “Lolly!”

One glance, that’s it. A gestalt. All one piece.

Oddly, I knew right from the beginning exactly what I was going to do. As we walked down the metal steps on our way out of the building after a hard day’s work, I ripped open my envelope, took out a five, two ones, three quarters, a nickel, and four pennies. Then I slipped the five and the two ones into my jeans, said, “Oh, this I can use,” held the coins in my hand, and added, “But I don’t want this crap,” and tossed them. The coins hit the metal steps and clattered down. The guys scrambled for the coins, laughing. I kept going, down the steps, around a turn and out into the street.

The guys told me later they expected me to turn around and try to get my money back because the joke had gone far enough.

I didn’t. I kept going. I knew right from the start I would.

Crazy, right? That was a BIG chunk of my slave wages.

Continued next week ...


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