Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What Would Erma Say?

(post copyright 2012, Dawn Weber)

Three days, I was away.

And while I was gone, I can guaran-damn-tee you that no one at my house ate vegetables and no one applied sunscreen. Not a one of them sat up straight.

Utter chaos, when I travel. I really don't know how they survive without my bossiness guidance.

The whole time I attended the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop last week, I worried about my family's lack of vegetable consumption, good posture and general disregard of common health practices. I worried at the conference, on the drive home, up the driveway, through the door. And then I saw them, there in the living-room.

They were breathing, but smelled of Doritos. Also, I questioned the recent hygiene habits of the little one, the boy.

I hugged him anyway. I'm brave like that.

"Hey Levi, I missed you!" I lifted his body - almost as long as mine now - swung it side-to-side like a pendulum and inhaled into his neck.

Nacho Cheese. Perhaps Cool Ranch. Or maybe, both.

Same as it ever was.

"Hi Mom. Happy Birthday," he said, rubbing and smearing his face on my shoulder, the way he has since babyhood.

Well, they were alive. That was something. Doritos aside, I guess my long-suffering husband does a good job with the kids when I travel for work or writing. And by "good job" I mean everyone has a pulse when I get home. Usually.

And these days, he's not the only one in charge while I'm gone - my teenage daughter often runs the show. She feeds herself and her sibling from their four main food groups: pizza, pizza rolls, pizza Bagel Bites and chips. I complained about all this on Facebook last week. Have you met me? Of course I complained. On Facebook. My cousin Mark replied:

"What Would Erma say?"

Hell. I don't know what she'd say. I know she'd say it much better than me. With less cussing. I am no Erma - not even close - and I can tell this when I look at my checkbook balance.

Anyway, as a young mother, before her success, Erma didn't have much chance to leave the house the way I do. Even though she held an English degree from the University of Dayton, society generally frowned upon such endeavors in the 50s and early 60s. A woman? Leave her kids for a career? What's a career?

Erma powered through anyway, starting a column for a small local paper in 1964. They paid her $3 per piece. Her hilarious, realistic essays on life as a suburban housewife grew wildly popular, and over the next few decades her success snowballed to the point of three weekly columns published by hundreds of newspapers across the U.S. and Canada. These became anthologized into a series of best-selling books.

And oh, these books, these BOOKS! There they were on the back of my grandmother's couch and sometimes, the toilet. My mother bought them and then passed them on to Grandma. And her couch. And her toilet. That's where they fell into my grubby eight-year-old hands.

At Wit's End. . . Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession . . . If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? The title alone of The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank had me in a giggling fit, tears rolling down my cheeks, for at least 30 minutes one evening as I hid the book under the blankets, reading before I fell asleep at my grandparent's house while Mom worked the night shift.

Grandma busted me. The undercover laughter gave it away. But once she saw what I read, I received the go-ahead, because my grandmother - a former stay-at-home mother and child of the Great Depression - loved Erma. My mother - a baby boomer, a working woman - loved Erma. And I - a tom-boy not yet in a training bra - I loved me some Erma.

So after merrily plowing through all available Erma paperbacks from the back of the couch and toilet, I began waiting for her newspaper columns to arrive. I parked myself in the front yard on a webbed lawn chair, until I heard Alice the Paper Lady's VW Beetle buzzing down Garfield Road. Jumping up, I waited for the very blonde, very bee-hived Alice at the Youngstown Vindicator box, where she handed me the paper, and I raced back to my chair.

My eyes devoured Erma's column. Then, even though I didn't much understand them, I read Art Buchwald's and Mike Royko's pieces, which sometimes gave me a bewildered chuckle. During my time there in the lawn chair - and with those eight years under my belt - I figured that someday I would write funny columns. After, of course, becoming a vet and a forest ranger.

But even though I eventually earned a photojournalism degree and worked at newspapers, both as a photographer and a reporter, I never became a columnist or vet or forest ranger. A few times, I pitched the idea of a humor column to my editors, but we already had someone on staff who wrote such a piece, and then I left the newspaper business anyway to find a job with a salary above poverty level.

The years flowed by like water, like a river. A husband, a couple babies, a few jobs later.

I blinked.

And then I was 40.

Cliche. I know. But I started thinking it was time to do the things I had always wanted to. At this point, I worked in a state communications department, the contacts at my former newspaper, the Newark Advocate long gone. And Lord, I was tired. Also, I was old.

One day, feeling blue, I Googled Erma Bombeck to read some of her stuff and cheer up. Amongst the links were bios, so I clicked on them and did some math. Approximate age Erma began her first real humor column?


She was 37. I was 40. A little late, but not much difference.

Still, I was tired. Also, I was old.

But I had nothing to lose. I called an old acquaintance, the editor/owner of a tiny paper, the Buckeye Lake Beacon, and asked if I could write a humor column for him. He agreed, worry and uncertainty in his voice. 

Of course he worried. Have you met me?

I began writing the "Lighten Up!" humor column in April, 2009, the month I turned 40. The editor ran it occasionally, when he sold enough ads to make space - not an easy task in this economy. In June, 2011, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) gave me a third-place award for humor in newspapers under 50,000 circulation.

However, with ever-dwindling ad-sales, the paper barely runs my column anymore, and with similar cash problems and ever-shrinking staffs, no other newspapers have expressed interest. The state of modern journalism (and whatever it is that I write) sometimes saddens me.

But I wasn't thinking about any of this the other day when I got home. I was worried about my Doritos-scented family. And before I even unloaded my bags from the Erma conference, my husband grabbed my hand and pulled me to the bedroom.

It was clear I was not going to achieve my birthday dream of taking a solo nap.

"Oh shee-zus honey, I am tired. Also, I'm old," I said.

"Shhh. . ." he said, pulling me over to the wall. There, he showed me this:

For my gift, he had framed my NSNC award. I have been so busy working and blogging and mothering and chauffeuring and possibly peri-menopause-ing-shut-up, I forgot all about the certificate. So I said:

"Wow, thanks! I forgot all about this certificate!"

He laughed. "I squirreled it away. Got the frame at Walmart. I hope it's OK."

"Oh it's awesome. I love it," I said. He had me at 'Walmart.'

He looked intently at my face, then his eyes wandered to my shoulders and chest.

Oh boy. There goes my nap.

"What? What is it?" I asked. "I am tired, also I'm really old now."

He lifted his hand and rubbed my blouse.

"On your shirt. . .Dorito dust. . .from Levi's face," he said.

I looked down.

Nacho Cheese. Perhaps Cool Ranch. Or maybe, both.

Same as it ever was.

Thank you, Erma Bombeck, for your legacy, your laughter and the motivation you gave me in 1977, again in 2009, and ever onward.
       -Your devoted fellow Buckeye (and World's Youngest Erma Fan, 1977),

With Bill Bombeck, Erma's husband, and Betsy Bombeck, her daughter
at the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop. Erma's family is very involved
with the workshop, and Bill and Betsy were so sweet, as I stalked them
to get a photo. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

This One Time? Up Home? We Discovered the Underground Railroad. And the Soul Train.

(post copyright 2012, Dawn Weber. Image made at

We were just kids.

But clearly, we were going to be famous.

That's because we found the Underground Railroad, back there by Mr. Nesbitt's tree.

Word around New Springfield was the famous freedom train ran through our town in the 1800s. Some said the ancient bar down the road - the Springfield Inn - had been one of its stops.

At age seven, or maybe eight, I had this all figured out. Of course I did have you met me? In my mind, a giant black steam engine - just like the cartoon at the beginning of "Soul Train" - roared and pulsed underground hundreds of miles from down South - through a giant underground tunnel - bringing the slaves North to freedom. And the Springfield Inn.

I pictured this, but really didn't give it too much thought. It was ancient history. Marshall the Neighbor Boy and I were very busy - things to do, you know. We spent a good bit of the 1970s - and probably part of the 80s - merrily and obliviously ruining the yard of our other neighbor, Mr. Nesbitt.

After the rains, around his place, we dug into all the mud we could find. We climbed each of his trees and broke the branches. We slid barefoot in the marshy puddles of his grass until we wore it to a bog.

Mr. Nesbitt watched us from his porch chair, with a PBR and a smile, but worried eyes. He didn't say much about our havoc. At the end of each week, he scooped out great handfuls of grass seed from a bag and scattered it over our paths of destruction.

Mr. Nesbitt had to scatter a lot of grass seed.

His tormented yard was where we found the Underground Railroad one summer day in 1977 or so, industriously demolishing digging around the base of his old maple tree with our mothers' garden spades. Marshall's hole was deeper than mine. This made me mad, and I was busily trying to catch up when he pulled something from the dirt.

"Look!" he yelled. He held up a rusty nail.

"Wow!" I replied.

Fascinating! Obviously, we were perched on the edge of something fantastic.

We stepped up our mining efforts. My spade hit a rotted piece of old lumber, and I tugged it from the dirt.

"Whoa. . ." I sat back on my heels.

Marshall looked at my finding, then me, and jumped up to get his sister Shelly.

She was a few years older than us - the prettiest girl in town - and I worshipped the very flip-flops on which she flapped. I was a tiny, scrawny, raggedy little thing, but Shell never let anyone pick on me. Marshall and I consulted her on all urgent matters. Such as arguments, kickball and lunch.

On this particular day, we knew she needed to see our trash discoveries and help us figure out what trash we found. I sat holding and examining the timber and the rusty nail when she approached, with Marshall jogging up behind her.

"Look, Shell, look at this stuff," I put the garbage items in her hands. She turned the nail and the board over, held them closer to her face, and squinted at them. Then she looked at us with raised eyebrows.

"Do you guys know what this is?" she asked.

 We did not. We shrugged.

"I bet you this is part of the Underground Railroad!" she said. "If you find it, you'll be famous. Mom will call the news - they'll put you on TV and in the (Youngstown) Vindicator . . ."

Marshall and I gaped at each other, simultaneously dropping our jaws. We fell to our knees and began plowing furiously at the earth. Without speaking, we knew that we would dig until we found the railroad and the tunnel. And the Soul Train.

Shelly hung around to supervise our efforts, and even helped us dig some. We found lots more rubbage things, like old, broken blue Milk of Magnesia bottles and clear liquor containers.

"The slaves probably used this stuff on the train," she told us.

Though she didn't stick around too long, Marshall and I kept mining. Wasn't easy, burrowing through tree roots, but this did not stop us from our mission. We were going to find the tunnel. And the Soul Train.

We failed to locate it that day. Exhausted and muddy - but still excited - we each went home at dusk. I relayed our discovery to my mother.

"Hey Mom. . . Mom. We found the Underground Railroad back by Mr. Nesbitt's tree!"

She looked up from the Vindicator, and gave me a slow smile. "You did? Wow. . ."

"But we didn't get down to the tunnel yet . . ." I told her.

She held her smile, but quickly looked back to the paper. "Well, keep digging then."

Marshall called me on the phone that night, said his mom told him the same thing.

So the next day, we reported back for duty back at the tree. Marshall brought a bigger shovel, I still had Mom's little garden spade.

"Where's Shelly?" I asked.

"She said she'd come out here later," he told me. And he sliced the shovel into the mud.

We dug. And dug. And then we dug some more.

The day wore on, and we worked hard, but we weren't unearthing bottles or nails anymore.  Nothing but dirt. When Marshall walked over to the tall, weedy field to pee, I made sure he wasn't looking back towards me. I put my ear to the ground to listen for the train.

This is the kind of genius I was.

Shelly didn't show up. But Marshall and I kept digging, like our moms told us to, and met up again the following day with our archeological tools, the garden spade and the coal shovel. We gave up on our deeper holes, moving all around the tree, plowing up smaller cavities.

Mr. Nesbitt was running out of grass. Fast.

We kept at it. On the third or fourth day, while Marshall and I sweated in the sun, I looked up and across the yards to see Shelly languidly hanging out on her front porch.

"Hey Shell!" I yelled. "We aren't finding much anymore - just a bunch of dirt and worms and sticks. How far down do you think this underground railroad is?"

She turned her head to me.  "Just keep digging!" she hollered back.

Huh. She wore the same slow smile as my mother did a few days before. Odd.

But one does not have time to ponder facial expressions when one is making history.

So we did as we were told. We kept digging. Missed "Happy Days," AND "Laverne and Shirley" on the TV that week. Missed the "Lawrence Welk Show," which was fine by me, but we missed Saturday morning cartoons too.

That was a shame.

We dug in the dewy morning, in the afternoon hot sun. We dug until the streetlights came on.

We dug all damn week.

But we never did find the tunnel. Or the Underground Railroad. Or the Soul Train.

Saturday night's streetlights popped on, and finally - sweaty, muddy and defeated - Marshall the Neighbor Boy and I gave up. We stood from the ground, brushed off our dirty knees and began dragging the shovels home.

Old Mr. Nesbitt, with worried eyes and a smile, put down a PBR, rose from the porch chair, picked up his bag and walked out to the maple tree.

There, he scattered great handfuls of grass seed.

Marshall the Neighbor Boy and I, 30-plus years later. Not Famous. We tried.