Looming Rainbows

Another year has come and gone. Looking back at my blog post from a year ago, I see that I resolved to learn to teleport. This was because I had recently returned from a trip during which I spent a significant amount of time on an airplane with lots of strangers and their germs. I wrote that I was sick with “the worst cold of my adult life.”

Frankly I have my doubts. I honestly would not have remembered said illness if I hadn’t blogged about it. Besides, I clearly have the worst cold of my adult life right now, just at the start of 2014.

Tissue Box Cozy
Tissue Box Cozy: What I should have requested for Christmas. (Photo credit: María Magnética)

I can’t even blame this one on air travel because that wasn’t a part of our holiday plans this year as we now live so much closer to our families. There was a great deal of togetherness spread over the holidays, on both sides of the family. Food was eaten, games were played, germs were shared, and rainbows were loomed.

If you happen to have an American grade schooler in your life, you no doubt understand what I’m talking about, but in case this phenomenon has not reached your corner of the world, I’ll explain.

The latest craze to hit grade school is these bracelets made by linking together small colorful rubber bands. There’s a special loom you have to buy and then there’s about a gazillion patterns you can make. And like all of these fad kid crafts, the more complicated the pattern, the greater the cool points.

Rainbow Loom Bracelets for Sale
The way to a third grader’s heart, for now. (Photo credit: Shopping Diva)

When my third grader first mentioned it, I didn’t know what he was talking about (By third grade standards, I am apparently not cool.) Then I walked into a craft store and the first thing I saw was a mountainous display of the looms, accompanied by the sign: “No Coupons or other discounts may be applied to Rainbow Loom products. Limit of 20 looms per customer transaction.”

First of all, WHAT?! Just who is trying to buy more than 20 of these things? I bought one, which earned me a few cool points with my son.

It turned out his cousin also received rainbow looming gear for Christmas and so the holiday saw all of us adults sporting a lot of rubber bands as the cousins got to work sharing looming secrets and exchanging highly sought after colors.

Besides being a source of endless entertainment and a continuing supply of stylish jewelry (and possibly a vector for contagion), the rubber bands did also spark controversy. My son has in his toolbox of bands a color that is clearly purple, another that is clearly blue, and one that is somewhere in between. My husband tried to call it indigo, to which my son replied: “Oh, so that’s indigo.”

Because no one knows what color that really is. And I do mean no one.

English: Extract of Indigo plant applied to paper
Extract of Indigo plant applied to paper. I’m not saying it isn’t a color. Even Crayola (the gold standard of all things color) has an indigo. I’m just saying, I don’t see it in the rainbow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rainbows have been formally studied since Aristotle. Likely it was Shen Kuo of 11th century China who first more or less accurately explained how rainbows occur. But it is Isaac Newton we have to thank for this most troublesome of colors indigo. In 1672 he published a study detailing the color spectrum. His initial description included five colors and then, a few years later, he added orange and indigo because he thought it would be “pretty neat-o” to have the same number of colors as there are musical notes, days in the week, and known heavenly bodies.

Newton's color circle, showing the colors corr...
Neat-O! Newton’s color circle, showing the colors correlated with musical notes and symbols for the planets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And it would have been, except that we now know that there are nine planets in our solar system (just back off, all you Pluto-haters!) and that, really, Newton has just gotten us into a whole mess of disagreement. It even turns out, when we talk about indigo, we probably aren’t talking about the same color Newton was describing. What we call indigo, he called blue and what he called blue is more what we think of as cyan (or blue green if, like me, you prefer the Crayola color spectrum).

So why is indigo still there? I think we have to blame Mr. Roy G. Biv for that. Of course we owe him a lot. Without Mr. Biv we would have a terribly difficult time remembering the order of the color spectrum and I love a good pneumonic as much as the next gal, but I think I have a solution for that. How about Ronnie Only Yodels Great Big Vocals? It’s a work in progress. I’m certainly open to family-friendly suggestions.

But I think with a little tweaking it could take off, just like the way we all learned the order of the planets in our solar system: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas (or as the Pluto-hating scientists would prefer: My Very Evil Mother Just Served Us Nothing).

Pizza
Pizza: way better than nothing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here are my predictions for this new year:

  1. I will not learn to teleport.
  2. The rainbow loom will go out of fashion and the braided embroidery thread friendship bracelet will make a comeback.
  3. Indigo will at last be expelled from the rainbow.
  4. Pluto will be reinstated as a planet thanks to the hard work of the advocacy group Very Educated Mothers for Pluto.
  5. I will have the worst cold of my adult life on the dawn of 2015.

What exactly is the function of a rubber duck?

A few weeks ago the boys chose to watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for a family movie night. In it, the character Arthur Weasley (who has recently charmed the family car to make it fly) is delighted to meet young Harry Potter and almost immediately asks him to clarify, “What exactly is the function of a rubber duck?” The silly line always makes the boys giggle because, of course, rubber ducks don’t really have a function. Or so I thought.

Then I saw a headline that caused me to revisit the question. About a week ago a stunned crowd attending the Taoyuan Land Art Festival in Taoyuan County, northwestern Taiwan watched, heartbroken, as officials dragged to shore what is being called (on the infallibly accurate “Twitter”) the first victim of Taiwan’s recent 6.3-magnitude earthquake. The victim in question (as I’m sure you would expect) is a 59-foot tall yellow rubber ducky.

Rubber Duck and Florentijn Hofman
Rubber Duck and Florentijn Hofman (Photo credit: Jon@th@nC)

Designed by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, the deflated ducky was one of several that have been touring the world’s waterways since 2007. The duck’s pumps lost power after the earthquake causing the sculpture to deflate. It burst during the process of re-inflation.

Pressure Guage
Perhaps they should have used a pressure guage (Photo credit: Mark Morgan Trinidad B)

This isn’t the first time that one of the ducks has been damaged. They have been knocked around and accidentally deflated a few times. While on display in Belgium, one was even stabbed by (remarkably angry) vandals a total of 42 times.

But the fans in Taiwan have taken the demise of their web-footed friend hard indeed, lighting up social media with viral tributes to the beloved duck. The grief was sharp enough even for county councilor Chan Chiang-tsun to call for a 10-second silence in honor of the fallen, to which the county commissioner said, “Dude, it’s a rubber duck.”

Assuming that you are not the commissioner of Taoyuan County (or perhaps a remarkably angry Belgian), I’m guessing you have at least a twinge of appreciation for the giant rubber duck. With his project, Hofman is “spreading joy around the world.” He insists that “when we are living on one planet, all global waters become your bathtub.”

Private cast iron bathtubs with porcelain inte...
I think that me and my regular sized rubber ducky will stick to this, thank you very much. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, eww. But I assume that what he means is that the rubber duck has become something of a worldwide symbol for childhood innocence. I can get behind that. The simple little (or not so little) bath toy is so ubiquitous that it has become difficult even to trace its origins. The rubber ducky simply is.

Rumor has it that the first rubber ducks were produced in New York. Of course Akron, Ohio also makes a claim to the favorite of all bath toys and (as it is the “rubber capitol of the world,”) I might have to give it the benefit of the doubt. Either way, what’s fairly obvious  is that the rubber duck industry rose alongside the rubber manufacturing industry itself. Around 1900, tire giants Goodyear and Firestone established plants in Akron (because, after all, it’s the capitol).

Around the same time and for several decades after, rubber toy manufacturers also started popping up in Akron (again, the rubber capitol), producing all kinds of lovable characters, including the beloved rubber ducky.

This is important to understand because of a recent announcement made in the city of Akron. You see, in addition to being the rubber capitol of the whole entire world, Akron is also host to the Double-A Cleveland Indians affiliate baseball team, long known as the Akron Aeros. But for next season and beyond, the Aeros will now be known as the Akron Rubber Ducks.

Monster Truck
Baseball’s Akron Monster Truck Tires, rolling over the competition since 2014. I could see it. (Photo credit: Enokson)

As you might well imagine this change has upset a few of the Aero faithful who complain that rubber ducks don’t really intimidate anyone (well, unless maybe they happen to be 59 feet tall). The team’s owner Ken Babby insists that the change was made to “[reflect] Akron’s heritage and the type of organization [they] are building, steeped in family fun and entertainment at an affordable price.”

So I get it. They could have chosen to call the team the Akron Monster Truck Tires (intimidating even to a 59-foot tall rubber duck, I would think) and I doubt anyone would have complained. But that probably would not have had as much draw for the lion share of their market, the young families who don’t yet have the money or the level of kiddo interest to invest in a trip to Cleveland just for a baseball game.

And it turns out that Taoyuan officials may have had a similar motivation for recovering their duck as quickly as possible. Their first call after the collapse of the floating sculpture was to the city of Kaohsiung to see if they could borrow the Hofman-designed duck on display there. The duck, which had been in Kaohsiung for about a month, had drawn 4 million visitors (and their money) to the city, during a typhoon!

Typhoon Haitang 18 jul 2005 0220Z
Yes, that kind of typhoon, which, by the way, would make a much better mascot than would a rubber duck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The function of a rubber duck, I think (at the risk of sounding like a remarkably angry Belgian), is to make a lot of money. Then again, perhaps that’s too cynical. Joe Wos, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Toonseum, which recently developed a rubber ducky exhibit to coincide with the city’s hosting of one of Hofman’s oversized quackers (a decision that I’m sure was NOT driven by any commercial considerations), had this to say about the project:

“It doesn’t need to bring about world peace; it doesn’t need to unite us. In the end, it’s a giant rubber duck, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

So to my sons and to Mr. Weasley I guess I have to admit that a rubber duck really doesn’t have much of a function, unless of course it’s 59-feet tall and charmed to fly. I’d probably pay to see that. Just don’t fly it too close to Belgium.

No Shoes Required: My Life as Well-Traveled Sock Monkey

Just over thirteen years ago, a young newlywed couple moved into their first home together in the small city of Rockford, Illinois. You could say that it was the beginning of a wonderful journey on which they would earn a couple of degrees, begin careers, change jobs a few times, travel the world a little bit, have a couple of amazing kids, and own homes at various times in three different states. But theirs wasn’t the only journey to have begun in Rockford, Illinois.

The Swedish-born inventor John Nelson immigrated to the US in 1852 and settled in Rockford where he worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker before establishing several manufacturing businesses of his own. But it turns out what captured Nelson’s attention the most was the quest for a comfy pair of socks (and who could blame him?). He sold his other manufacturing plants and invested all of his energy into producing a machine that could manufacture everyday work socks for the everyday working man.

The Symbol, a large piece of modern art sculpt...
“The Symbol.” at Rockford’s Riverfront Park. It’s nice, but I think a giant sock monkey would have been even better. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After partnering with fellow inventor W. W. Burson, Nelson patented his first knitting machine in 1870 and by 1873, the two had created the world’s first seamless sock produced by an automated process. The partnership between Burson and Nelson dissolved, Nelson founded the Nelson Knitting Company, and then he died in 1883.

But the quest of sock perfection continued with his three sons. The Nelson boys started Forest City Knitting Company, eventually merging with Nelson Knitting to become the world’s dominant sock producer.

Business was humming along, but over the years the industry had attracted a number of competitors, all of them producing brown work socks with a tan toe, top, and heel. To distinguish the original and best out there, Nelson Knitting decided to get a little wild. In 1932 it introduced to the world what it called the “De-Tec-Tip” sock, which was a brown work sock with (and I’m sorry if this sounds a little shocking to more delicate readers) a RED heel.

It was certainly a risky move, but the world was ready for it. Within an hour of the first red-heeled socks hitting the pages of Sears & Roebuck, craft bloggers had begun sewing the first sock monkeys, photographing each step to include with painfully detailed instructions. History has forgotten who was first to pin it to their Pinterest page, but Nelson Knitting was rewarded the patent for everyone’s favorite stuffed animal in 1955.

All buckled up and ready for takeoff!
All buckled up and ready for takeoff!

No worries, however, for the craft bloggers out there because the patent expired in 1970 and since then sock monkeys have been popping up everywhere. And that’s where our two stories come together.

A few Christmases ago, when our sons were very small, my husband received a sock monkey (alas I am not a craft blogger so this one was not homemade). The boys named him “Steve” and he became a permanent fixture in our family culture, taking on quite a mischievous personality (because he is, after all, a monkey).

So fast forward a few months. The not quite as young and not quite as newlywed couple got the opportunity to leave their two young children with Grandma and Grandpa and take off for a week together in Hawaii.

We had gone away for a weekend a few times, but this was the longest I had ever planned to spend away from my little guys. So I was trying to figure out a way to help them know they were on our minds and feel like they were in some way part of our trip. It was my wonderful mother-in-law (and yes, I do mean that sincerely) who suggested that we photograph a favorite stuffed animal along the way and post the pictures so the boys could follow our adventure. We stuffed Steve in a suitcase and we were off.

Steve kicks back at a luau and sips some "pineapple juice."
Steve kicks back at a luau and sips some “pineapple juice.”

Steve has been our family’s travel mascot ever since. When either “Mom” or “Dad” heads out for a conference, Steve travels with us. He always shows up on family vacations. He kept family and friends posted during our cross-country move this past year.

Most recently Steve and I attended the Ozark Creative Writers Conference in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. If you’ve never been there, just trust me when I tell you that a lady walking around taking pictures of her sock monkey doesn’t really garner much attention. At one point I posted a picture of Steve sitting behind a friend’s book table at the conference and captioned it: “Steve is hoping to sell some copies of his self-published memoir entitled No Shoes Required: My Life as a Well-Traveled Sock Monkey.”

The crazy thing is that I’ve had several people tell me they would be happy to buy the book. Now, I’m fond of Steve. And I am delighted to know that his journey and ours began in the same place long before our paths crossed and we started to travel together. But I don’t want to get pigeonholed into the sock monkey genre (Worldcat lists 33 new sock monkey entries for 2013-2014) and I do NOT have time to ghostwrite for a stuffed animal.

I do apologize to Steve’s many fans out there. A blog post will just have to do.

The ladies sure do love him.
The ladies sure do love him.

You’re It!

A late 19th century stroll through the open spaces in German towns may have brought you face to face with a group of laughing children engaged in the fast-paced game of Iron Tag. This is according to the writings of philosopher, teacher, and folklorist William Wells Newell. Newell, who is best known for founding the American Folklore Society in 1888, had a particular interest in the habits of belief he found among children.

His book Games and Songs of American Children published in 1883 explores the persistence of folk beliefs that have leaked into the imaginations of children and manifested as imaginative play. Among the discussion is a description of the classic game of tag pretty much as we all know it still today in which a selected “it” must chase and tag the other children, whose job it is to stand on base and relentlessly tease their hot and sweaty pursuer.

Nederlands: of uploader heeft geen info achter...
Children’s Games (1560) by Pieter Brueghel. I think I can see an intense round of toilet tag in there. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Newell traces the origin of the game to the “original form” of iron tag, which according to him was still common through Germany and Italy in his day (apparently American children had already moved on to the highly advanced “Toilet Tag” version).

Iron tag, as the name suggests, declares that the pursued children are safe as long as they are touching something made of Iron. This is of particular interest to a folklorist because of an ancient superstition that iron is a great source of protection from evil. The belief is prevalent across many cultures probably because the highly useful element occurs naturally in large quantities in the earth, because blood (the life force) contains and smells of iron, and because the wearing of an iron suit powered by a fictional inexhaustible energy source makes one a virtually invincible superhero.

The Mark III armor as featured in the 2008 fil...
I don’t know about you, but I feel safer with Iron Man around. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Newell, the “it” in a children’s game of tag represents an evil spirit from which the pursued children must escape, mostly because he is quite the risk taker given that he recently caught a tiger by the toe leading his mother to sock your mother right in the nose.

Newell’s point is a good one, I think. Folklore, he argues, is not merely the realm of adults, but also influences the lives and creativity of children, which we can see in the history of the way even silly games (except of course for “toilet tag” which is serious business) have developed over time.

Where I think he’s wrong is in his assertion that “iron tag” was the original form of the game. It turns out it’s not actually so easy to trace the history of tag. I suspect this is because the game is more or less innate (kind of like Monopoly). We can see lots of young animals engage in tag-like play as they are learning life skills like pouncing, escaping, and irritating the adults in their lives. Human children, too, seem to play versions of tag as soon as they are old enough to chase.

Lion cubs Serengeti
You’re it! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And I have it on good authority that the assassination of Julius Caesar and the eventual fall of Rome was really just a byproduct of a game of tag gone wrong. If you want details, you can check out the insightful and thorough treatise on the subject by The History Bluff (who’s blog is nearly as authoritative as this one) here.

But however the game began, it has persisted through the ages and emerged as just plain old fashioned fun. There’s even a group of ten friends from Spokane, Washington who have been engaged in a single game of tag for twenty-three years even though they are now in their forties and living all across the country from one another. The men say the reason they still do it is because it keeps them in touch with one another and fosters lasting friendships among them.

While the rest of us scrape by making the occasional comments on photos of our growing families on Facebook, these men actually fly across the country in order to tag the next “it,” thereby turning this childhood game into the great force for networking and relationship building it was probably always intended to be.

I say this because I recently had the honor of being tagged in a similar game. No one caught a plane and hid in my trunk awaiting my arrival so that they could hand off the terrible burden of being the slow kid. Instead I was “tagged” by a fellow blogger and writer with some questions to answer and pass on to three lucky new “its,” specifically writers who have blogs.

First I’d like to say a big thank you to Donna Volkenannt who is the winner of 2012 Erma Bombeck Global Humor Writing Award and the genius behind the blog Donna’s Book Pub, which is a great resource for writers. Donna claims that she just brushed my arm with her finger tips, so, you know, whatever. I guess I’m it.

English: Children playing a variant of tag. In...
Okay, okay. You got me. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Questions:

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW?

I am in the process of seeking representation and publication for my first historical novel, the story of a fortune-teller from 19th century New York State with a troubled past, a unique talent, and a secret with the potential to unravel one of the most successful deceptions in US history.

In the mean time, I have returned my attentions to short fiction and essay as I research my next novel which will center on a movement among some American abolitionists to establish the nation of Liberia.

HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM OTHER WORKS IN THE GENRE?

I’ve found there is a lot of variance in historical fiction, but that it basically boils down to two ends of a wide spectrum. On one end are the novels that closely follow the life and story of a known historical figure. The other end of that spectrum would be novels that take place in a particular time and place, but that include only wholly fictional characters that are drawn from the details typical of people from the era in which the author has placed them. My first novel fits between the two. My main character is entirely fictional, though throughout much of the novel she interacts directly with a known historical figure and her experiences include actual historical events and people.

I chose this approach for this particular project because my character has discovered the “smoking gun” in a historically significant conspiracy theory for which there is no known resolution in scholarly writing. Since I was faced with offering an explanation that history itself has never revealed, I thought the best vehicle for doing so would be a character who is a representative of her era rather than a real-life participant in it.

WHY DO YOU WRITE WHAT YOU WRITE?

I write the kinds of things I like to read. I most appreciate fiction that re-introduces me to a world I thought I knew and makes me look at new details that draw connections I never suspected before. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to historical fiction because it immerses me in this world that is familiar, but that I’ve typically considered only through the lens of my own contemporary perspective. When I experience it through a cast of fictional characters, suddenly I find myself immersed in the era and attempting to bridge the gap between my experiences and knowledge to that of a person (whether based on a real person or simply drawn from the era) who approached the same story with an entirely different set of circumstances than I did. My favorite fiction makes me want to do my own research. I write what I write because I would love to inspire that desire in others.

WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART ABOUT WRITING?

I think the hardest part for me is generating that first, terrible rough draft. Most writers, I think, will agree with me that the real work on a story begins when the rough draft is over and the revision starts, but you never get to that part if you don’t first get the thing written. It can be really uncomfortable to return to an unfinished draft to forge ahead with the story when I know darn well that what I’ve already written is full of obvious holes, lazy word choices, and even the kind of bad grammar that would embarrass me right out of the industry. Still, forge on I must, because until I’ve written that overly sentimental ending that I will most certainly change later, I don’t stand a chance of completely restructuring the first chapter.

Corona Typewriter
If I had to use one of these, I’d be in trouble. (Photo credit: alonso_inostrosa)

And now it’s time to tag three more writers so we can all benefit from what I am sure will be their insightful answers to these questions. So…

Chelsea Brown (The Jenny Mac Book Blog)

Samuel Hall

Michelle Ule

I totally got you! Oh, and, of course, no tag backs.

Here We Go!

This morning I sent my youngest son to his first day of first grade. He’s a smart boy, usually pretty well-behaved (or so I hear from other people), friendly, and very funny. I know that he will do well with school this year. But for some reason he is incredibly nervous about this venture into first grade.

The poor kid ate very little breakfast and wouldn’t say much. When I asked him what he wanted to wear for his big day, he thought for a while and then chose a camouflage tee-shirt because he wanted to be able to hide if he got scared. I gave him a hug and told him he would be a great first-grader. Then I told myself he would be fine. And I told my husband (apparently several times) that our little guy would be just fine.

I have to hand it to the brave little man. When it came time to go, he looked slightly panicked, but he shouldered his big blue backpack and went willingly into the building. I found myself whispering, “Here we go” and, once again, “he’ll be fine.” I started thinking back over this summer’s many adventures and smiled to realize that these were almost the same words I had whispered to him as I sat next to him on his first roller coaster ride.

In 1850, at the tender age of twelve, LaMarcus Adna Thompson successfully built his own butter churn and ox cart. But believe it or not, this was not the height of his mechanical prowess. After a time, young Thompson grew up (as all young men must), apprenticed as a carpenter, and designed a machine used for the production of ladies’ stockings.

English: LaMarcus Adna Thompson, the inventor ...

He soon founded the Eagle Knitting Company in Elkhart, Indiana. Alas, as the well informed (which no doubt means you) will likely already realize, the ladies’ stocking industry is incredibly stressful and really is no place for a young man destined for greatness. For the sake of his health, Thompson took some time away from his growing company for a doctor-prescribed trip west.

He then apparently disregarded his doctor’s advice (or he was not a particularly competent map-reader) and found himself in Pennsylvania where he observed the Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill and Switchback Railroad. The railroad was a clever way to cart coal from Summit Hill to the Lehigh River at Mauch Chunk (today that’s Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania).

What Thompson saw was a cart full of coal and a couple of bewildered mules, rushing on a track through a series of switchbacks down the mountainside as fast as gravity would carry it. At the bottom, the cart was unloaded so that mules could haul it the long way back uphill.

Switchback R.R. (railroad), Mauch Chunk, from ...
Switchback R.R. (railroad), Mauch Chunk, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And an idea began to form in the inventor’s mind. Perhaps he thought about the mules (likely more stubborn than stupid) that willingly took the carts back up the mountainside to repeat the process. Or maybe he observed them carefully as they flew downhill and noticed that though they screamed they also threw their hooves in the air and smiled as though someone might snap their picture on the hairpin switchback turns.

Whatever the reason, Thompson thought the railway looked like fun and he hatched a plan to design and build something similar for people. His “Switchback Railway” opened at Coney Island in 1884 and was an immediate success, giving LaMarcus Thompson a claim to the title “Inventor of the Modern Roller Coaster.”

Mind you Thompson doesn’t have a great claim to the title. Russians started slipping down huge ice slides as early as the seventeenth century and the French built the first wheeled coaster by 1817. Still, Thompson can take credit for the first successful introduction of the roller coaster to the United States, where it’s been soaring to higher, faster, and “upside-down-er” heights ever since.

Thompson's Switchback Railway, 1884.

And I, for one, am grateful for his contribution. I experienced my first roller coaster as soon as I was tall enough to pass the safety precautions and once I started, I never looked back. On more than one occasion I have arrived at the entrance of an amusement park in time to be among the first through the gate for the sole purpose of running to the back of the park and riding the best coaster two or three times before the rest of the crowd caught up and the line got long. I have also been the kid who chose to ride the coaster back-to-back-to-back many times over as the park neared the close of the day and no one else was left in line to take my place.

So I was thrilled to take my two sons to Six Flags this summer and introduce them to the rides that defined many of the summer days of my youth. My eight-year-old is tall for his age and would qualify to ride any coasters he cared to try. My six-year-old, though too short for some, seemed determined to conquer any rides that frightened him.

It turned out that they weren’t as brave as I had hoped. I did get my older son on a few rides, with mixed reviews (for some reason the feeling of his heart thumping in his ears and his stomach turning somersaults doesn’t especially appeal to him). My six-year-old took a long time to get up his nerve, but he surprised me in the end, choosing to ride one of the smaller wooden rollercoasters, one with a large hill and a dark tunnel.  I admit I was concerned that he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Still, once he had decided to give it a try, I doubt he could have been dissuaded (smart as he is, he is easily more stubborn than a mule).

As the lap bar lowered, I held him close and whispered, “We’ll be fine.” And as the train began to roll, “Here we go!” He did conquer his fear and though I don’t think he would say that he loved the ride, he is pretty sure he will try it again someday. I just hope he feels the same way about first grade.

Backpack fashion
Backpack fashion (Photo credit: aka Jens Rost)

Why I Don’t Trust Underwear Salesmen

Last week I got a call from a friend I hadn’t seen in a while asking me to substitute in her Bunco group that Friday. Because I haven’t been in my new community very long I don’t know a lot of people yet. So even though my friend lives on the other side of St. Louis (about an hour drive from me) I was flattered she’d thought of me and I readily agreed to join in.

Of course if I had been thinking of my history, I might not have been so eager. In May of 1885, Joseph Ramsden arrived in New York on vacation from Manchester, England. A successful businessman, Ramsden set out to explore the city and was delighted when just a day into his vacation he was recognized on the street. A gentleman claiming to be the nephew of the captain of the ship Ramsden had recently arrived on, told the flattered businessman that the captain had spoken well of him.

The new acquaintance, himself a successful manufacturer of women’s undergarments, offered Ramsden a guided tour of Broadway. The two found they had a lot to talk about (I’m guessing mainly women’s undergarments) and Ramsden (unwisely) agreed to accompany the captain’s nephew into a small second-floor office where he claimed he needed to buy a train ticket.

Ladies' underwear advertisement, 1913

As the man dug around in his bag for the money he used to pay the ticket salesmen, he also pulled out items necessary to his business (perhaps samples of women’s undergarments?) to show a fascinated Ramsden. Then at the bottom of the bag, the man happened to discover that he also had a deck of cards. Logically, he showed his latest and greatest card trick to a suitably impressed Ramsden and ticket-salesman.

So the next step was for the ticket salesmen to ask the two new friends if they knew how to play three-card monte, a popular gambling game of the time, sometimes played with a combination of cards and dice. Ramsden (wisely for once) declined the ticket salesman’s invitation to play the game, which prompted the salesman to suggest that perhaps Ramsden didn’t have enough money to play (he may have also called him a chicken). Still Ramsden was (again, wisely) reluctant to play, but as his pride was at stake he (alas, unwisely) took ₤50 from his pocket to prove his worth. That’s when Ramsden’s new acquaintance (who it turned out was neither the captain’s nephew nor a manufacturer of women’s undergarments) snatched the money and ran.

A photo of American confidence and bunco man J...
Do not agree to buy underwear from this man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ramsden pursued the man to no avail and when he returned to the ticket office, he found only an abandoned room. Joseph Ramsden had been swindled by one of the most famous bunko men of the age, variously known as William Howard, John Astorhouse, Henry Post, Louis Alcaser, Charles Clayton, and most often as “Hungry Joe” Lewis. And Ramsden was in good company with military and political leader John A. Logan and poet and writer Oscar Wilde, both also bunkoed by Hungry Joe.

The game of bunko as it’s played today descended from a game called 8-dice cloth that was a popular social pastime in 18th century England. When the simple dice game arrived in the United States in the 1850’s, it had become a swindler’s game. At first referred to as Banko, the simple dice game merged with the Spanish card game “Banca” (called Monte in Mexico) and became a vehicle for elaborate set-ups designed to swindle money from gullible marks.

It wasn’t long until “bunko” came to refer to any con designed by a “bunko man” and perpetrated on the gullible who found themselves “bunkoed.”Seedy Bunko parlors sprang up all over the nation in the late 19th century and were resurrected in the speakeasies of Prohibition. Bunko men were common and city police departments maintained regular bunko squads to counter the problem.

But even though the bunko of today is essentially a game of chance, it really is more of a social outlet for (primarily) busy ladies (“bunko babes”) who for one night a month can pay $5 to leave their husbands in charge of the kiddos and enjoy a margarita with other busy ladies. If they are the big winner they may even get to take home a kitschy prize.

I am happy to report that my friend has never claimed to be a manufacturer of women’s undergarments (apparently an untrustworthy group of folks) and the invitation I received to play bunko wasn’t an elaborate set-up. I was not, however, the lucky winner when I played. After stringing together more than a dozen low scores in a row, I guess you could say I lost my shirt.

But Bunko has become a much friendlier game over the years. My spectacular loss meant that I went home with a prize, too. Actually as a substitute, I didn’t even have to pay $5 for dues. I think my friend’s group may have been bunkoed.

English: Four coloured 6 sided dice arranged i...