We have a multitude of inside jokes in our family. Most of them have something to do with us kids saying something goofy. For instance one brother, as a young child, took a shot at stand up comedy by telling us all this classic Knock-Knock joke at Christmas.
“Knock, Knock.” Says young boy.
“Who’s there?” We all say as one with various levels of enthusiasm.
“The tree fell down!” Young boy bursts out laughing at his brilliance.
“Whaaaat?” Family says in confusion. Young boy can’t speak because of laughter. Family looks for things to throw at him but he runs away.
Fortunately, a bright and promising career in comedy died that day. There are many more of course and some are even funnier than the Christmas Knock-Knock joke of 1971.
However, there is one family story that towers over all the rest. When any family member announces that something good has happened in their lives like landing a new job or buying a house, one or more of us will put a hand over one eye and say, “My eye hurts.” Immediately the rest of us howl with laughter.
At that point new people outside the immediate family naturally look at us like we are clowns that have escaped from the Killer Clown Psychiatric Hospital. Then we explain what the laughing is about. Interestingly, the response isn’t what you necessarily assume it would be. (Of course that makes it even funnier to us!)
They say they understand and smile politely maybe even give a half hearted guffaw but that alarmed look doesn’t always go away completely. My long suffering wife, Kerry, still gives me that look after 35 years. Lets be fair though. It’s not just the eye thing. When we tell a story as a group it resembles a dramatic Greek chorus and takes some getting used to. You have a cacophony of voices telling the story and many times contradicting one another. There will be hand motions and speeches possibly with a smattering of song and dance. Usually at least one member changes the subject entirely for a moment until someone, usually Mom, gets us back on course. The audience is expected to pay attention to all the voices, figure out the plot and chime in with relevant questions or observations. The funnier the better.
By the way that’s how you know you have a “keeper.” If a boyfriend or girlfriend can hold their own against the noise and contribute to something they know nothing about? Pure gold!
Anyway, let me tell you the story and we will see if you think we should all be locked up. Be sure to comment below!
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Back in the early 1970s when we were all kids, my brother Pat came up with the idea to sell worms to passing fisherman to make some cash. The state highway in front of our house led to all sorts of fishing spots so a worm business made perfect sense. At first Pat sold nightcrawlers we caught by flashlight at night in the backyard. In case you don’t know, nightcrawlers are big worms. Here’s a link for those of you who are interested. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lumbricus_terrestris
Have you ever done that? Caught nightcrawlers, I mean. First you put red cellophane under the screw-on lens so the light turns red and doesn’t spook the nightcrawlers. They may be really big compared to garden worms but they are also very fast when threatened so you have to sneak around looking for them as they lay partially out of their burrows. When you see one you creep up on it, they are very sensitive to vibrations in the ground. Then you use your fingers or toes to quickly pin the slimy things against the ground so they cant withdraw into their burrows. Then you pick them up and put them in a can. Its pretty labor intensive and the neighbors gave us funny looks through their curtains but it’s fun in its own way and we got to stay up past our bedtimes which was a definite plus.
Demand was heavy, however, and our yard just couldn’t produce enough nightcrawlers. Pat’s dream of a Worm Empire was in trouble but then he found an ad for Red Wiggler worms from a worm farm (yes, there are worm farms) in the classified section of an outdoor magazine. After consulting with his bankers (Mom and Dad), he sent away for them.
Pat and Dad built a big bin out of a sheet of plywood and set it up in the cellar. There was quite the ceremony when the worms arrived and were placed in the bin. Pat followed the instructions that came with the Wigglers carefully as far as bedding and food goes. We had to check the card board box they came in to be sure some hadn’t squeezed in-between the layers of the cardboard. Mom made a very nice stenciled Worms For Sale sign and we hammered it into the front yard by the road. The first customer arrived while we were still admiring the sign. Business just boomed from there.
Pat charged a little more, 75 cents a dozen as I recall, than most bait places, but he explained that was because these were special Red Wiggler worms bred specifically for fishing. They stayed alive and wiggling under water much longer than normal worms. You could even use them for ice fishing! His marketing ploy worked wonders. Pat even had Mom add “Red Wigglers!” to the sign in big letters and he tacked red plastic ribbons to the sign to attract attention.
Because of demand we were a little worried that we didn’t order enough worms but we didn’t need to be. Those little buggers reproduced at an astonishing rate. Soon we needed a second bin. They ate coffee grounds and vegetable scraps from the kitchen. We had to add some stone dust grit from time to time so the worms could digest their food but other than those few things they were pretty maintenance free.
Besides selling them, Mom used the castings ( worm poop for you city folk) for her flowers and vegetable garden and the plants loved it.
Thinking about it now, we may have started the first neighborhood recycling center in our county, maybe the state, and we will never get credit for it.
At any rate, the worm business got so busy Pat built a self service bin out by the road with a can inside for money. That way we didn’t have people blowing their horns or banging on the front door at 6:00 in the morning. We never got ripped off, even though some of us were sure we would. Then Pat raised his price to a dollar a dozen hoping to slow demand down a little bit figuring cheap New England Yankees would think twice about buying dollar a dozen worms. It didn’t matter. People loved his worms. Pat was a budding entrepreneur and something of a neighborhood celebrity.
One night at supper, Pat announced his big idea. He said he wanted to buy something for the whole family. Mom and Dad tried to persuade him to just save the money or spend it on himself but he said fair was fair. We all ended up selling the worms and doing the work so we should all get something out of it. After all, Mom and Dad financed the whole operation in the first place.
Mom looked at Dad and shrugged with a smile. Dad asked what Pat had in mind and how much did he have? Pat said he thought we should go to the Bronx Zoo but he wasn’t sure what it cost and pulled out a wad of cash from his pocket. I think my parents were a bit stunned at the sight of all that money. I sure was. Dad said he would cover any expense after the worm money ran out and just like that we were going to the Bronx Zoo!
You have to understand what a big deal this was. Dad worked seven days a week. He always had at least one side job besides his full time construction job. Mom made extra money from the house teaching singing lessons and stuffing envelopes for businesses not to mention singing at funerals. ( Yes, she sang for money at funerals. Its not weird at all.)
They worked a lot because there were a lot of us at home and we ate a lot. We didn’t get to go too many places that cost money, not that we thought about it at the time.
But now because of worms we were going to drive down to The City (that’s what you call New York City when you live there or are near there ) and go to the legendary Bronx Zoo. This was truly going to be epic!
Turns out we went on free entry day which sure helped with stretching the worm money and it was just as much fun as we hoped it would be. Everything about the Bronx Zoo was wonderful. The animals didn’t look unhappy and we learned all about the animals and their habitats. Everyone got to see their favorite animals , reptiles and birds. We had French fries and hamburgers. Usually on day trips Mom made sandwiches and we would get a big bag of chips to go with it. Not this time! We even had ice cream! Pat just kept counting out dollar bills with a grin on his face.
Finally it was time to go home and Dad stopped to get gas for our Volkswagen van, one of the very few vehicles big enough to carry all eight of us. Pat gave him the last of the worm money and we headed home. I remember there was a lot of laughter on that ride. Dad laughing loudest of all.
“Imagine.” he said, “We all went on a big trip and it was all paid for with worms!”
With that he popped a celebratory cigarette in his mouth and lit a matchbook match. The match head burst into a flaring yellow flame and snapped off the cardboard match stick simultaneously. The flaming head flew under Dads sunglasses and hit him square in the eye. It was a one in a million accident.
Suddenly the van was careening back and forth across the highway. Us kids, not understanding what was going on, were being thrown back and forth and screaming.
Dad was bellowing, “Barbara, I cant see!”
Mom , the baby in one arm and also not understanding what happened, grabbed the steering wheel with her left hand.
“I’ve got it Jack. Let go! ” She yelled. “You have to let go of the wheel!”
The two of them were wrestling over the wheel when Dad just took his hands away, threw his sunglasses off his face and covered his eyes in obvious agony.
“Jack, downshift and brake easy. I’ve got it.” Mom said in a much calmer voice. We had all stopped screaming and were just staring forward with a mixture of horror and curiosity. What the hell had happened?
He carefully went through the gears and braked with Mom coaching him. She steered us on to the shoulder where we gently rolled to a stop. Dad was in serious pain and told Mom what happened. Fortunately we had a cooler full of ice and drinks. Mom gave the baby to my sister and dragged Dad out of the van yelling for me to help. I held on to him and opened his eye with my fingers while Mom kept pouring water in trying to rinse out ash or whatever junk the match head had left.
His eye sure didn’t look good, I thought it had a blister on it but I tried not to look too close because it made my hands shake. He was awfully quiet considering how much it must have hurt but he squeezed my arm so hard when Mom was pouring the water, I was sure I would have permanent marks from his fingers.
Mom bundled him back into the van and I made up an ice bag and loaded the cooler back up. Mom put the ice bag on his eye and placed his hand on it.
“Don’t let go Jack and stay with me! ” she said and we took off like a bat out of hell ! Mom dumped the clutch and did a little hole shot! The tires screamed and everything! Later we kids were talking about how impressive that was. Funny what kids think about isn’t it?
We ended up at the ER where they examined Dad and called him lucky. Dad replied he didn’t really feel lucky but they ignored his negativity. They put gel in his eye with a patch over it. We boys were excited by the idea of an eye patch but it wasn’t a black patch like a pirate so that disappointed us a little bit. Finally, they gave him an eye cup with a solution to rinse his eyeball out three times a day. The eye cup interested us a lot because we had never seen one before. It looked like a miniature Holy Grail we decided after some deliberation. Dad never offered an opinion but Mom said that was because the ER had drugged him up a little to help with pain.
The bill must have been a lot of dollars because we heard Mom saying something to Dad about it in a quiet voice so we couldn’t hear details. So Mom drove us the rest of the way home. She was silent and looked grim. Dad sat slumped in the passenger seat with his head back with the ice bag on his face. The one eye we could see was closed. We were all very quiet.
Our dream trip had turned into a nightmare. It could have been worse and would have been if Mom hadn’t been a quick thinker and if Dad hadn’t listened and trusted her but it still was a disaster. In the quiet of the van I stared out the window and started thinking. What would happen now? Could Dad work? What if he went blind in that eye? I don’t know if those thoughts were going through the other kids heads but they sure were in mine. I could feel fearful tears coming and closed my eyes pretending I was falling asleep to hide them.
Finally after what seemed like days we pulled into the driveway. Mom parked, shut off the van and we all just sat there for a moment. It was kind of odd. Then, frightening. We didn’t act like this normally. We normally poured out of the van like a river but we were just sitting there like we were waiting for something. For what, no one knew.
Then Pat piped up.
“I could probably sell enough worms to pay for another trip by the time your eye gets better. ” he said.
Dad opened his good eye, turned in his seat and glared. Pat had a big grin on his face. I could see Mom looking in the rearview mirror at Pat and put her hand to her mouth. I thought she was going to cry and so did Pat. The grin faded from his face in a flash.
We should have known better. Pat could always make Mom laugh no matter how bad something was. She looked out her driver side window and we saw a grin. Then she started to laugh. Then of course we all began laughing. All except Dad. He closed his good eye and laid his head back on the headrest and put the ice bag back on his face.
“What do you think Jack?” Mom managed to squeak out while trying and failing to look sympathetic.” Do you want to go on another worm trip?”
“My eye hurts.” was all he said and family legend was born.
You must have family stories that still make you laugh. Tell me about them! I’ll even print some here in The Anvils Ring and yes the names will be changed to protect the innocent or not so innocent. You can put them in the comments below or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
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In the mean time, keep your nose into the wind and I’ll see you on the trail.