Thursday, March 2, 2017

An Uppercut I Remember

Dad hit me only once, an upper cut to the solar plexus. It nearly lifted me off my feet. I was 17 then and already fairly tall, 6’1.” He was 48 and of medium height, 5’8,” a fireplug who if provoked could whirl like a dervish if you can picture that. 

He had been a prisoner of war in Ireland and then became a boxer in the United States after the English expelled him from Ireland around 1920. 

Fortunately, he caught on with the Commonwealth Edison Company in Chicago and worked there as a trouble-shooting electrician for almost 40 years. 

One day he reached over a hot wire too fast to save a rookie from experiencing a shock of 12,000 volts. He took the volts instead and that crippled one arm and brought about an early retirement. While recovering, he seemed more concerned about ruining his accident-free record. 

But I’m getting years ahead of myself. I’m talking now about the day 30 years previous when he caught me with that uppercut in the dining room. 

What had I done, you might ask? 

Well, in the ignorance of youth, I had hidden an open jar of catfish stink bait between the cushions of the living room couch where I knew my father would sit to talk with my friends, all of us just home from high school. 

He liked to talk with them and they with him.

In no time at all, the stench from the catfish bait filled the living room and he stopped talking and started looking around in a rather menacing way. 

I had thought he would laugh because 10 years earlier he had told me, when I was perhaps in the second grade, about the time he and a fellow worker, Oscar Bergman, another electrician, had been making the rounds in their Trouble Truck, as it was called, in the alleys of Chicago. They would stop as required to take turns climbing poles to get the electricity back on after a strong summer storm. 

As the saying goes, it was 100 in the shade and not much shade was available that day in the alleys. 

Apparently it was Oscar’s turn to climb the next pole and while he was up there, my father flattened a patty of horse dung he had found in the alley. He put it in the pocket of a jacket Oscar had left on the back shelf of the cab of the truck, a jacket Oscar had worn in springtime. 

Horse dung in Chicago’s alleys was common in the 1940s. Vegetable vendors would ride up and down in horse-drawn carts hawking their produce, all of it fresh from one of the farms on the outskirts of the city. 

But on this day when Oscar got back in the truck he yelled something to my father who was then climbing the next pole. 

“Joe, there’s a helluva stench in the cab of the truck.” 

Oscar had a very thick Swedish accent, as thick as my father’s Irish brogue, and as a young child I had a chance to hear them converse when my father brought Oscar over to the house. They had become close friends, different as they were, and the music of their two accents was wonderful to hear. They communicated with gusto. 

Oscar’s remark about the stench from the dung patty, however, has remained with me all these years: 

“Joe, there’s a helluva stench in the cab of the truck.”

In childhood I said it over and over with more relish, I’m afraid, than a nighttime prayer I had been asked to memorize. I think it is still a prayer taught by some parents. It was called “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” 

In any event 10 years later when my father found the stink bait I had hidden in the couch, he didn’t find my trick as funny as the one he had played on Oscar Bergman. 

No doubt he was embarrassed in front of my friends who I had told about the set-up in advance. No doubt they were smiling if not stifling a laugh. 

I ran out of the living room as soon as I saw my father leap off the couch. He caught me in the dining room and delivered that uppercut. 

Decades later now there are times when I can still feel that punch although he didn’t turn his fist when it sunk into me. I always wondered why he failed to do so.

When I had gotten eyeglasses for myopia in third grade, he had taken me down the basement to teach me how to defend myself based on skills he had learned as a boxer. 

Showing me how to fake with my left and deliver my right, he told me that if I ever got in a fight to turn my fist each time I landed a punch. Telling that to a third-grader was a remarkable event in itself. But I remember it to this day. 

I listened to my father all through childhood and also watched what he did. Like many children fortunate enough to have a father in the home, I learned good things and bad things that way. 

It turned out at school that he was right about other boys bugging me about my new glasses. Three fights in three days, all of them broken up by the nun in charge of the playground during recess. 

But the day my father got me with the uppercut in the dining room, I didn’t cry and I didn’t flinch, just leaned back against the wall. To cry would have been bad form for the first-born son of an Irish immigrant. 

Crying wasn’t an acceptable response to physical pain in the house I was raised in. No doubt that was because my father had endured much physical and emotional pain throughout his life, especially in that British prison in Ireland where the guards broke both his legs with rifle butts and then let him sit on the cell floor for quite some time without medical attention.

So I kept my mouth shut and watched him walk away. First time I ever saw him with his head down. 

He was obviously ashamed and embarrassed that he had hit me, something he had never done before or after in spite of infractions I would have thought far worse. 

I did well in school, which saved me in his eyes, but I was far less than a well-behaved child. 

I learned a couple of things, however, from that uppercut, one of them funny and the other quite important later on in life as an adult. 

The funny thing was I kept thinking how lucky Oscar Bergman was to escape with just a horse-dung patty hidden in the pocket of his jacket. 

But later in life, memories of the uppercut reminded me never to strike any of my five kids, whatever the problem. Looking back, that is something I am happy never to have done. 

I can tell you, though, some of my children's mischievous deeds were far worse, I thought at the time, than hiding stink bait between the cushions of a living room couch. And those are stories dear to my heart I hope someday to write. 

Who knows what my kids might think if they happen to read them, especially those of them still in the throes of raising children of their own.


Donal Mahoney
Freckles They Called Him

Walter Branham, a retired teacher, and his wife Victoria went to Applebee’s, the chain restaurant, for lunch one day last week. First time they had gone there. Usually they go to an ethnic restaurant but Victoria wanted a salad. Walt as always was obliging.

The restaurant host was a young man who as a child had attended the middle school where Mr. Branham had taught for years. 

That was a long, long time ago but Mr. Branham remembered him for one reason. Back then everyone had called him Freckles. 

When Freckles recognized him, he said, "Mr. Branham, it’s good to see you. I haven't seen you in 30 years. I never had you for class but it was always nice to talk to you at recess. You were a lot of fun.” 

Mr. Branham said he was glad to see him too. 

Freckles turned to Victoria, bowed slightly as some Southerners are still apt to do, and said, 

"Miss Victoria, I never met you, but I have heard so much about you from my friends."

Mr. Branham looked at Freckles sternly and said, 

"I divorced Victoria four year ago. This is my new wife Agnes. She can cook." 

Freckles was very embarrassed. “I'm so sorry, Mrs. Branham. I didn't know. It’s been so long.” 

Victoria looked at her husband and said, “Walt, you should be ashamed of yourself. I am Victoria, and I am his wife. He’s not married to any Agnes. There is no Agnes. At least there better not be.” 

Freckles looked at Mr. Branham, laughed and said, "You got me again, Mr. Branham.” 

At their table the Branhams overheard Freckles telling the waitresses about the joke. They all laughed, including Freckles. 

Mr. Branham told his wife he never knew the story behind the nickname. He was afraid it came about more as ridicule than good-natured ribbing. 

He had always called Freckles by his surname. Jackson. 

In fact he called him Mr. Jackson. He had called all the children by their surnames—Mr. Smith and Miss Jones, whatever the name might be. It made the children feel grown up and they seemed to like it. 

Mr. Branham told his wife he couldn't imagine any adult wanting to be called Freckles but he couldn’t remember Mr. Jackson’s first name if indeed he ever knew it. 

At the middle school, even the guidance counselors called the boy Freckles. 

In this small Southern town, Jackson was a surname as common as briars in a briar patch. 

But thirty years ago when he was in middle school, Freckles was likely the only black child for miles around with that nickname.


Donal Mahoney

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


JD DeHart
Eight Men Who Are Doing Quite Well

A notice appeared in the paper recently with the names and faces of eight men who have a combined wealth of $426 billion. According to Oxfam International, in 2015 this would have equaled the amount of wealth held by half the world’s population, the poorest half.  

Oxfam International is a confederation of charitable organizations in 90 countries seeking to stop the injustices that cause global poverty. They have been tracking wealth and poverty in the world for a long time. 

It’s remarkable that six of the eight men are Americans: Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg and William Gates.  Only Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire, and Amancia Ortega, the Spaniard, are from other countries. 

Oxfam blames what it calls this "obscene wealth” on laws that have shifted the tax burden form the wealthy to the middle class.  

Supposedly this concentration of wealth has grown a great deal since Ronald Reagan's administration.  President Donald Trump has said that he supports an additional tax cut of 15% for billionaires.  Some say this might result in an even smaller middle class although the dynamics of the connection are not entirely clear to the average layman. But many people would probably agree the six wealthiest Americans don’t seem to be in need of any additional tax breaks.

According to Oxfam, America is not the only nation where the wealthy seem to be living quite well, thanks to the failure to collect proportionate taxes. 

In Africa, Oxfam says that $15 billion dollars is hidden from tax collectors, quite a sum on a poor continent. Critics say that the $15 billion, if collected, could bring health care to four million residents in Africa and put a teacher in every African classroom whatever number of classrooms that might be.

In Europe, says Oxfam, Greece and Italy lead the way in citizens avoiding taxes. Both nations are enduring difficult times. Some critics maintain that uncollected taxes if collected would bring relief to these overburdened economies. 

Failure to collect taxes, according to Oxfam, endangers the European Economic Community. Germany is being asked to fill the gap and Germans are not happy about that and perhaps understandably so. And the current situation will not improve if Greece renounces its debt and firms across the world, long-suffering creditors in waiting, no longer have anything to wait for.

Meanwhile, in America, concern grows about what some people call “tax equity,” meaning the need for new laws to make the rich pay their “fair share,” whatever that might be. It is admittedly difficult to arrive at a “fair-share” percentage with economists differing on the amount.

Similar concern grows over the need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage whatever a living wage today in America might actually be. 

Minimum wage workers are lobbying hard for $15.00 an hour. Whether that would be a living wage or not is debated. Whether that amount should be enacted nationally or not is, of course, debated as well. 

But proponents of raising taxes on the rich and paying a higher minimum wage say that if something isn’t done to solve these problems, poverty will continue to grow and people will continue to suffer. 

Back in the early part of the 20th century, Henry Ford was asked why he was paying employees $5.00 a day and he is said to have responded, “Somebody has to buy this stuff,” meaning of course his automobiles. 

Today, if too many Americans max out their credit cards and have little cash in their pockets, who is going to take advantage of the sales at Walmart? Who is going to be able to buy enough of the products to make the economy grow?

These are very difficult problems but it seems obvious that something isn’t right if eight men, six of them in the United States, have a combined wealth greater than half the people in the world. 

And in the United States it doesn’t seem that a step in the right direction would be to reduce the taxes on our wealthiest six billionaires. Perhaps better to listen to arguments as to why their taxes should be raised and then have Congress make a decision. The bill would of course require the signature of President Trump but who knows what he would do. He is still in the early stages of his unexpected presidency and no one can be certain what he will do in many matters of great importance.

To do nothing and remain in the status quo is to risk increasing the number of poor and the United States, like the world, obviously has enough poor people as it is. 


Donal Mahoney