Monthly Archives: May 2009

Boys Will Be Boys: Snipe Hunting

Travis and his brothers

Here at Kevin Nelson, Writer, we are introducing a new feature: Boys Will Be Boys. It is separate from, but not unrelated to, The Dangerous Quest, my attempt to do every challenge in The Dangerous Book for Boys with my sons in a year. It came about after I put out a call a couple of weeks ago for “inappropriate” childhood activities, and I was deluged with emails from men remembering all the hell-raising they did as boys.

We’ve already discussed 52-Card Pickup and Arm Farts, Pull My Finger, and Competitive Belching. In the weeks to come we will share more of these tender moments of boyhood, such as lighting farts, shooting rubber bands in class, chasing a babysitter with a dead mouse, setting off firecrackers, catapulting water balloons through open windows, and putting a shotgun shell on a fallen log, shooting it with a BB gun, and watching it explode.

Our initial offering is a childhood classic from Travis Roste of Minnesota: snipe hunting. Travis, the father of two daughters who has been mentioned in this space before (see here), grew up in a family of five boys and two girls. Above is a picture of three Roste boys: Travis and twin brother Trevor on the outside, and another brother Chad in the middle. When Travis and Trevor were young, their dad Myron took them into the woods to go snipe hunting. Here is how Travis remembers it:

“I grew up on a hobby farm, out in the country. It was a fantastic place to play and explore. I don’t have a lot of pictures when I was a kid, a couple of dozen, but hardly any of them show my dad. He wasn’t the kind of dad to pose for pictures. You had to kind of get him in a candid shot when he wasn’t looking.  He didn’t want his picture taken if he could help it. He was the old-fashioned type of dad. Didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. He showed us he loved us by taking us fishing and hunting and things like that. He’s 71 years old now and in great shape; he cuts wood and is active.

“My dad took me and Trevor snipe hunting in the woods not far away from our house. Here’s how you play: Go to a woodsy area when it is getting dark. Tell your boys to hold a burlap sack open to catch the snipe. You turn a flashlight on and put it in the bag, and tell them it will attract the snipe. Then tell them you are going to walk around in a big circle to drive the snipe toward them, but that they have to hold the bag perfectly still. Otherwise the snipe won’t come and they won’t catch any. To make sure they believe you, tell them that you did this as a kid.

“That’s exactly what my dad did told us, and Trevor and I went along with it all the way. We held the sack with the flashlight in it while my dad drove the snipe to us, as he said. We sat there for a long time while it was getting dark. Finally, when we didn’t see our dad anywhere, we went back up to the house, and there he was inside laughing at us. He told us that his dad had taken him snipe hunting too. We didn’t really get the joke too much back then, but of course we do now. It’s a grand tradition in the U.S. and we were glad to be part of it.”

Myron Roste and friend

Myron Roste and a friend.

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The True Story of a Girl Who Shot a Book (1 of 3)

Lillian 1.6.1953 Among the many fascinating things about Lillian Kaiser (pictured here on the year of her graduation from Bryn Mawr), she is the only person I know who has ever shot a book. She did this when she was eleven, in 1942, in the basement of her family home on Summerland Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. The book was The Past Lives Again, by Edna McGuire, and why she chose this book to shoot I do not know. But shoot it she did, one summer day when her brothers were away and her father was sleeping upstairs in the house.

This last fact-her brothers Chuckie and Alfie being gone-is perhaps the most pertinent because they would have never let their younger sister shoot their .22-caliber rifle had they known about it. It was their gun, and many a time Lillian Smith (her maiden name) had sat at the top of the basement stairs watching Chuckie, Alfie and Bruce, her oldest brother, fire away at a metal target. “I would sit at the top of the stairs desperately wanting to take part,” remembers Lillian, but her brothers never let her, although later on Alfie did relent and show her how to break down the gun, clean it and reassemble it. These skills came in handy when her older brothers went off to fight in the second world war and Lillian, shouldering her rifle, walked around the neighborhood with her mother making sure that all the homes had drawn their black-out shades down during air raid warnings. This was serious business for her, her way of helping in the national emergency, and although she did not really need to carry the gun her mother understood and let her do it.

The basement was perfect for target practice because its concrete walls were “like a fortress,” says Lillian. With her father sleeping upstairs, and her mother off visiting Aunt Suzy, and her brothers off somewhere, Lillian stole into the basement, uncovered the gun, and experienced the thrill not only of using a firearm for the first time, but of doing something that was forbidden to her. “The use of the book,” she explains, “was so that the noise of the impact would not wake up my father.” Her father worked nights at Allied Chemical and Dye and slept days, and he would not have liked it, not one bit, if she had woken him up. Nor would her brothers have liked it if they had found out what she was doing with their gun—”surely would have beat the hell out of me,” as she puts it—but she cleaned it afterward and picked all up the casings and none of them was ever the wiser.

The bullet passed through the cover between the words “Lives” and “Again,” and it’s fascinating to flip through the book and mark its progress: small and circular in the front but gradually widening out as if a person took his thumb and pushed down on the paper and indented it and made a hole in the exact same spot throughout the pages. Shot book coverThe bullet eventually slowed and made less and less of an impression as it went along until on page 397, there is no more trace of it. What happened to the bullet fragment? Lillian may have thrown it away when she was hiding the evidence so her brothers would not discover her and punish her for her rebellion.

As interesting as it is to shoot a book, it is not the best part of the story, however. The best part was revealed when we saw Lillian, now in her seventies, at a Mother’s Day celebration when, as part of The Dangerous Quest, she showed her grandsons Hank and Gabe how to wrap a package in brown paper. The package she chose to wrap was none other than The Past Lives Again, and to learn how she did it, please read on.

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How to Wrap A Book: An Expert’s Guide (2 of 3)

While The Dangerous Book for Boys, the bestselling manual for boys that serves as the inspiration and guide for this quest, concedes that “wrapping a package in brown paper and string” (p. 180) is hardly a dangerous activity, it argues that boys will nevertheless derive a hands-on satisfaction from knowing how to do it. Thus I recruited Lillian Kaiser to help me on this challenge, for she used to own a bookshop, Chimney Sweep Books in Santa Cruz, California, still sells books online, and has wrapped many thousands of books for mailing over the years. But after reading the DBFB’s package-wrapping instructions that called for the use of string, she objected strongly, saying string would jam the powerful and fast-moving Postal Service machines that sort and distribute packages. “It would destroy the machines and the Post Office would come and sue you,” she joked.

Having rejected string as being unnecessary and perhaps a tad nostalgic—a trait, it is true, the authors Conn and Hal Iggulden sometimes fall prey to—Lillian set about to show the boys how to wrap a book using only ordinary paper, a brown paper grocery bag, a plastic bag, cardboard, scissors, and two-inch wide mailing tape that can be purchased at any office supply or mailing store. Here are the steps:

1) Fold a regular piece of 81/2×11 computer paper over the cover of the book to protect it. Books are hardy and resilient things but they are also fragile in their way and no one likes to receive a book in the mail that has been damaged. Helping Gabe

2) Place the book with the paper around it inside a plastic bag. Push the book down to the bottom of the bag so there is no extra space, and wrap the plastic around the book tightly.

3) Place a piece of scrap cardboard on each side of the book, front and back-again, for protection. The cardboard should be about the size of the book.

4) Rip the handles off an ordinary brown paper grocery bag. Stick the plastic- and cardboard-wrapped book inside the bag horizontally. As before, all the way down to the bottom of the bag to remove any extra space.

5) Fold the paper bag over according to the size of the book. Then tape it lengthways and sideways with the mailing tape, making sure the package is tight. “Now it can be thrown against a machine at 70 miles per hour and it will not break,” Lillian told the boys. “And no machine can eat it up.” “What about a chain saw?” asked Gabe. “Well,” replied his grandmother, “a chain saw would eat it for sure. But I don’t think the Post Office has any chain saws.”

In Lillian’s practiced hands, the procedure took only a few minutes and her factory worker of a father, if he had been able to see her, would have marveled at her assembly line efficiency. The boys fumbled around a little at first but they picked up the techniques quickly and each wrapped a book. And as I was writing this up a week later, I was puzzling over my notes and unsure about some of Lillian’s instructions. So I called Hank up from downstairs, and he went through the steps and wrapped a book while I watched. He also quickly created a cool bookmark that Lillian showed us how to make, and I will share that in the next post.

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Give Your Books a Little Hat (3 of 3)

Lillian Kaiser, who studied Spanish literature at Bryn Mawr-she much admired Don Quixote, also one of my heroes and another inspiration for this odd, tilting-at-windmills quest the boys and I are now embarked on-likes to read weighty philosophical and religious works with footnotes, indexes and bibliographies. But even if your tastes run to lighter fare, you may find this easy-to-make bookmark useful. Few materials are needed: sheet of paper (white is fine but red, green or another color is a livelier choice), scissors, glue and a round object. This round object can be a roll of masking tape or a drinking glass, needed only for drawing a circle.

First, place the masking tape on its side and draw a circle on the paper. Cut the circle out. Fold the circle in half and fold it in half again, forming a quarter of a circle. Open the paper up and cut out a quarter of the circle. Fold the top right corner over. Put a little glue on the bottom piece and fold it up. In Lillian’s words, “it makes a little hat” that rests on the top right corner of a book page. This little hat marks where you left off reading the book or, as in Lillian’s case, shows the index or footnotes page for easy reference while she’s reading.

After shooting The Past Lives Again and graduating from college in 1953, Lillian Smith married, became Lillian Kaiser and had three daughters. But she never told her daughters the story of how she had shot the book with a .22. She waited more than sixty years until she brought it out on Mother’s Day to show her grandsons how to wrap a package in brown paper. Now Hank and Gabe own the book, and they are talking about taking it to school to share in class.

Celebrating package

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Priceless Writing Tips for Free: Observe Hemingway’s Dictum

Hemingway as a young manHemingway’s dictum for better writing was simple: Run it through the typewriter one more time. We no longer have typewriters but the advice is still sound.

Almost without fail a second draft is better than a first: shorter, smoother and less of a burden on your reader’s attention. What, you don’t have the time to write well? For this item I went through three drafts. 1) I wrote my thoughts down on a legal pad. 2) I typed up the piece on my Powerbook. 3) I left it for a moment, came back and made a few last edits, and I was done.  The whole process took twenty minutes.
Your next paper or report or article can be better than the last one you wrote. Just send it through the word processor one more time.

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That’s Inappropriate! 52-Card Pickup, Arm Farts, and More

kevin-nelsoncropped1Man, talk about an unexpected turn of events. Last week I stumbled onto the most surprising and astonishing discoveries to date in The Dangerous Quest:

Competitive belching. Pull My Finger. Indian rope burn. Ringing the doorbell of someone’s house and running away, aka Ring and Run or Knockout Junior. Rubberband fights. Spitballs. Prank calls. Secretly placing Saran wrap across a toilet bowl so that when someone goes to the bathroom … aw, you get the picture. Dog poop in a flaming bag (on someone’s doorstep). Lighting a match with your teeth or pants zipper. Riding strips of cardboard not just down a grassy hill, but also down the stairs of your house. Tossing firecrackers into the sewer to wake up the neighbors. Egging houses. Toilet papering a house (a common suggestion). Filling someone’s bathtub with instant mashed potatoes. Letting frogs loose in the community pool. Wet towel snapping in a locker room on someone’s bare bum. And on and on and on.

I plan to talk about all these activities, in all their glorious and inappropriate detail, but first let me explain how I came to hear about such things, and how innocently it started. The other night after dinner Gabe, Hank and Jennifer were playing Fish, and I sat down for a hand. After a few minutes Jennifer asked if we were going to teach her how to play Texas Hold ‘Em because she had missed out on our games a few weeks ago when I had shown the boys how to play poker. (See Playing Poker—And Dress-Up.) I brought out a jar of pennies for gambling, and each boy dealt and shuffled a couple of hands. I drew a terrific hand—a two-to-six straight—and raked in the last pot.

After we were done, just as a lark, I asked Gabe and Hank, “Wanna play 52-Card Pickup?” Both eagerly nodded their young, angelic faces. I had them cold. Two easy marks, aged eight and ten respectively, and they had no idea what I was about to do.

I held the deck in my right hand, bending it slightly, thumb on the bottom, middle finger on top, index finger pressing gently against the back with the top card facing out. Then I let ‘er rip, spraying the cards across the kitchen floor. The joke is, of course, that whoever agrees to play has to pick up the cards. The boys were absolutely delighted, laughing hysterically while Gabe ran around picking up the cards so he could do it too.

I was equally delighted-but also slightly aghast. “Haven’t you ever played 52 Card Pickup before?” I asked. Both boys shook their heads. “Don’t you have any bad influences down on the street corner teaching you these things?” I continued. “No,” they repeated. “Oh well,” I said with a laugh. “I guess that’s my job.”

If I wanted to go all sociological on you, I could talk about the deterioration of our neighborhood social structure and how young boys and girls today don’t play outside as much anymore because of the lure of electronic games and computers and because their parents are afraid to let them out of their sight because they might get snatched by a kidnapper. The idea of “free play”—kids just going outside to play with other kids in the neighborhood—has been largely replaced by “play dates” scheduled and organized in advance and usually being held inside the safety of the home or in the fenced-in backyard. But even if kids did want to play outside, where are they supposed to go? Here in suburban northern California where I live, there are precious few empty lots or open spaces left anymore, because real estate is so expensive and everything has been or is being developed. Even the parks, lovely and welcome as they are, represent another form of land development.

So kids in the neighborhood don’t play with other kids on the streets as much as they used to, and maybe that’s a good thing in some ways because cars and giant SUVs are whizzing by all the time and there truly are poisonous people out there, pushing drugs and destroying innocent hearts. But, on the other hand, when boys in the neighborhood aren’t playing outside with other boys, especially the older ones who teach some bad things but also many good things, how are the younger boys ever going to learn such inappropriate activities as arm farting?

I actually showed Gabe how to arm fart a few months ago, not as part of The Dangerous Quest but as part of the normal teaching that fathers do with their sons to prepare them for adulthood. I guess the experience was touching for me on some level because I wrote about it in a notebook. This is what I said:

“11/14. I showed Gabe how to do an arm fart this morning. Maybe there’s a more delicate way to say that: simulate a gaseous explosion by the use of the arms. Nah, that’s not right. An arm fart. Gabe started it by saying that Hank knows how to make farting sounds with his arm. Always the adult, I said, ‘So do I,’ and proceeded to do it. He wanted to know how, and this is what I told him: You stick your left hand under your right arm and make a sort of cup with your left hand to form an air pocket. Then you flap like a bird with your right arm and this blows air out of both sides of the cup that you’ve formed, producing the simulated gaseous eruption. Actually, there’s nothing gaseous about what you do; it just sounds like a fart. But Gabe couldn’t quite get it. He started out by placing his left hand flat on his armpit, which of course didn’t work. Then I took my shirt off to show him exactly how I did it. Then he took his shirt off too. I showed him how to cup his hand over the armpit, which actually is a natural indentation and thus the site of a perfect air pocket. Gabe did it once or twice but mostly struggled with the concept. He’s young. He’s got a bright future ahead of him. We’ll keep trying. I’m sure he’ll get it.”

Reading this now, I realize that I have not practiced arm farts with Gabe for months and have no idea what degree of competency he has achieved since our first lesson. We may need to work on that. Nevertheless, it did occur to me that there might be other inappropriate things that boys do that I might not know about, and so I decided to ask some of my friends for their suggestions. And, at that moment, things got wild.

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Pull My Finger, or Why You Can’t Take the Boy out of the Man

Finger. CroppedSo, as I was saying, in the truly genuine desire to find out more about the secret lives of boys, I sent out this blast email to a bunch of men I know:

Okay fellas, I need your help. As part of The Dangerous Quest (what, you’re not hip to that? See it and subscribe at: kevinnelson.wordpress.com), Gabe, Hank and I were playing cards and I taught them 52-Card Pickup, which they had never seen before and loved. So it occurred to me that younger boys today are not hanging out at street corners enough and learning enough inappropriate games and activities from older bad influences. They need to know, in essence, all the activities such as 52-Card Pickup that we played when we were boys and that mostly you tend to learn from other boys. So I need you to come up with “inappropriate” games/activities that you played (no sex or drugs and alcohol, age 12 and under) or know about. These I came up with myself: Arm farts. Ring and Run. Spitballs in class. But I’m looking for more. Help!

I sent this only to men at first (the ladies would get their chance later and their response was much different), and in all my years of writing emails to people, I have never gotten a response to match this one. It was instantaneous and overwhelming, like a damn breaking. In less than a half hour I had gotten twenty-four inappropriate boy activities—and they were all different. There were very few repetitions, and this has held true even as I continue to send the email out to other people not on the original list and hear from them.

I’m not saying to people, “Oh, I’ve got that one. Gimme something else.” People are sending me original, unique activities all their own. There’s a lot of inappropriate creativity being shown out there.

One of the most commonly mentioned pranks is toilet papering somebody’s house-and this is something it seems every young person has done, boy or girl. “TP-ing” appeared on the inappropriate lists of both the guys and the gals-that is, when the gals chose to get back to me. Whereas one man (Gary Grillo) ripped off eight inappropriate things in a single email (tipping outhouses over, pulling out chair when a person is about to sit down, etc.), and another (Bob Newlon) sent a two-page, single-spaced treatise on how to hook junk metal pieces to the bumper of a moving car so that it drags the metal down the street, the women tended to be more muted in their replies. While there were some glorious exceptions to this rule (thank you, Katie Lynn!), they were hesitant about the whole thing.

There are many reasons for this I suppose, but one thing I see already is why so many stupid, crude and inappropriate Hollywood comedies are made by, for and about guys. Generally speaking, we like to do stupid, crude and inappropriate things because we think they’re funny, and often they are. And this doesn’t change much even as we get older and become (it is hoped) responsible adults and fathers. You can’t take the boy out of the boy—and you can’t take the boy out of the man either.

For instance, Pull My Finger was one of the inappropriate activities suggested by Scott Lynn, a Silicon Valley software engineer, father of two, and the husband of Katie Lynn. When I asked him what that was, he said, “I thought for sure you’d know “Pull my finger.” When you know you need to fart, you ask someone to “Pull my finger” and then let it rip. I had a friend ask me this recently.  When I didn’t he said, “Come on.  Give me an assist.” He’s fifty-one!” Although he thought it was a little “weird,” Scott grudgingly agreed to his friend’s request, for after all, what are friends for? More to come, and some of it of a far more inappropriate nature.

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