No household crisis gets your attention quite like a plumbing leak. The night I walked into our kitchen and realized I was standing in a puddle large enough to float a kayak, I screamed for my husband.
We’re more fortunate than many; one of our old friends is a retired master plumber. After soaking up standing water with old towels, two adults, with framed college diplomas hanging on the wall, did what we always do in the face of a plumbing emergency. Minutes later, Charlie and his tools came to our rescue.
I thought about our ‘plumbing disaster’ the night I watched President Obama address the nation’s school children. Despite one’s politics, it was an inspirational speech with excellent advice for every child.
Unfortunately, the success stories our president shared almost always concluded in a college education — as though success is defined by a four year college degree. Certainly, every person who truly wants a college education and has the ambition to work for it, should have the opportunity. But the reality is that not everyone has the resources or the desire to earn a four year degree. Our friend, Charlie, did not — and I, for one, am grateful! He was blessed with a mechanical aptitude — a curiosity to know how and why things work — and the ability to use a tool to get the job done.
In his next talk to students, I’d like to see President Obama address alternative options to a BA or a BS degree: the countless good trade schools, vocational technology courses, and available apprentice programs.
The next time the air conditioning goes off in the White House on a one hundred degree day, let’s see what those Harvard graduates in the Cabinet advise…
The ‘Fourth of July’ was one of those shallow holidays, like Valentines Day and Halloween. The Rowes celebrated with a cookout in the backyard, and depending on the temperatures and the likelihood of heat stroke, a parade. In the late afternoon, a trip to the pool was a must.
Then, with the sun sinking in the western sky, and the dog taking refuge in the cool, quiet basement, we grabbed a blanket and some mosquito repellent, and headed to Fullerton Field for a dazzling, deafening fireworks display.
Our children knew why we celebrated the holiday. Their father taught American history, after all — but the story behind The Fourth of July was never the major focus of our day…
Until the summer of 1976.
My husband has always had a flare for the ‘dramatic.’ The ‘reader of choice’ in our family, he was greeted at the door each evening by three children waving their favorite books.
When all he really wanted to read was the newspaper, John took off his tie and settled into fantasy land.
“Fe, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman…” His booming voice rattled the living room windows and left his sons wide-eyed and trembling.
When he read Uncle Remus in his convincing, deep-south dialect, the kids rocked with laughter.
“Drown me jes az deep as you please, Brer Fox. But please don’t fling me in dat brier patch!” Brer Rabbit’s pleas were followed by more pleas: “Read that part again, Daddy — read it again!” Even after our children became fluent readers, nothing brought a character to life quite like their father’s voice. I read to them, also; my specialty was bedtime stories and putting everyone to sleep — including myself.
On week-ends, our living room was a repertory theater, with ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ topping the playbill. With a wooden spoon striking a cook pot to simulate goats’ hooves on the bridge, the story unfolded — over and over, until everybody had a turn at the most cherished role — the menacing troll beneath the bridge.
When John began acting in community theater, the boys helped him learn lines. It was a rare opportunity to boss their father — “That’s wrong, Daddy; do it over. You left out a word, Daddy. Do it again.” As if that wasn’t reward enough, they got to see each play, usually the final dress rehearsal, when tickets weren’t required. When John returned home after each performance, the boys asked, “Did you mess up, Dad? Did you forget any lines? Did everybody clap?”
The night John came home from a performance of Don’t Drink the Water with a black eye, it was like a gift from the theatrical gods. The boys stood mesmerized as John recounted the disastrous scene in excruciating detail. Their jaws dropped when they heard how the ticking time-bomb their father was supposed to catch, had bounced off his head instead, and sent him diving headlong off the stage to retrieve it — almost landing in the audience. It was like a pile-up on the Indianapolis speedway — and they couldn’t get enough!
In 1976, two hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Baltimore County Bicentennial Committee sponsored the musical, ‘1776.’ When John accepted the role of Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Second Continental Congress, our children became obsessed with the story and the music.
At fourteen, eleven, and nine, they drilled their father on his lines. They raced through homework in order to attend rehearsals on school nights and memorized each and every line as well as lyrics. They were the first to know when an actor missed his cue or sang off-key.
‘1776’ played to packed audiences throughout Baltimore County in that year of the bicentennial, and we attended every performance. Our sons watched, starry-eyed, and fantasized about being on stage. They blinked back tears when the young courier brought disheartening news from the battlefield, then sang, Mama Look Sharp, as he imagined his mother finding his body in the meadow near the red maple tree. When the impassioned Edward Rutledge of South Carolina sang of the slave trade, in Molasses to Rum to Slaves, our children sat, transfixed. And the final dramatic scene of the actual signing of the Declaration Of Independence, was viewed with reverence.
The boys discussed their favorite characters, and hummed, sang, and whistled the music. Song lyrics seeped into everyday conversation. When their father came late to the dinner table, he was treated to congress’s admonishment of John Adams: “Sit down, John! Sit down, John! For God’s sake John, sit down!” And on a hot day, the inevitable line was, “Somebody aught to o-pen up a window. Cuz it’s hot as Hell in Philadel-phia!” Theatre enriched our lives. The children would go on to share the stage in future amateur community productions with their father.
1976 was the year that brought to life the enormous responsibility of the members of the Second Continental Congress — and the year the Rowe family gained an appreciation for the men who answered John Hancock’s invitation to “Step up and sign–and commit treason.”
Everybody had a father when I was a kid. My dad, Carl, left for work early in the morning and got home after I went to bed. On the week-ends, he hoisted me on his shoulders so that I could touch the kitchen ceiling. He was hopeless at ‘Old Maids’ and ‘War;’ I always won.
Daddy shoveled coal into the furnace, and lit the hot water heater. He was the only one strong enough to push the lawn mower and open the upstairs windows. When Bessie died, he used his tools and brought the old car back to life.
He didn’t make us eat our spinach or do our homework.
Daddy wasn’t much for hugging. His face turned pink whenever Mom kissed him on the cheek and called him, ‘Sweetie.’
He never once told me he loved me. Yet, I was his favorite person in the whole world. My sister thought she was. Imagine! Read More...
My father received his ‘dreaded’ letter from Washington, DC in 1941. I was only four at the time and too young to remember, but my mother spoke of it often in later years — as only she could. The mailman at the door — the official envelope — that ominous return address… She slipped it into a drawer, scooped me in her arms, and cried. By the time Dad returned from work that evening, Mom had come to terms and was resigned to doing her part for her country and for President Roosevelt, as she knew her husband would.
After the children were tucked in bed that night, my mother handed my father the letter. He read it aloud, and Mom cried again — only this time they were tears of joy. Due to the war, there was an urgent need for master electricians in the nation’s capital, and our government was offering my father a job. Dad’s only war stories, it seemed, would be of exhaustive seven day workweeks, and horrendous daily commutes from Baltimore to Washington. With the country’s best resources channeled to the war effort, rubber tires lasted months instead of years, and automobiles of inferior quality required constant maintenance.
In my small world, war was little more than a large ‘Air Raid Warden’ sign on our front porch, and strangers meeting in our living room to talk of sirens, black-out curtains, and first aid treatments for broken bones, bleeding, and burns. My beloved sandbox and swing were dragged to the alley behind the garage when our backyard was plowed under and turned into a ‘victory garden.’ To compensate for my loss, my mother gave me a patch in the garden to dig in and watermelon seeds to plant. My wartime sacrifice finally paid off when the small, green ‘victory melons’ grew large enough to eat.
Our next door neighbor hoarded bags and bags of sugar when we couldn’t find any to buy. When her pantry was overrun with ants, I heard my mother say to my father, “It serves her right!” which surprised me since I wasn’t allowed to talk ‘mean’ about anybody. I kept a close watch on my garden patch just in case our neighbor decided to start hoarding watermelons. Twice a week I got to eat a picnic lunch at church and play with otherkids while our mothers rolled bandages and assembled packages for the soldiers.
Uncle Charles visited from Virginia, looking handsome in a dark blue uniform and white sailor hat. The pretty girl from across the street came to visit us for the first time while he was there. The next day he boarded a Navy ship and went to war. Aunt Betty became an Army nurse and traveled to far-off places our family had only read about in books. Grandma Daisy held onto her two carved wooden elephants sent all the way from India, as she studied a big map and almost ruined it with her tears. My mother wrote letters, and we all prayed for their safe return. It worked. When Uncle Charles came home, he married the pretty girl from across the street; her name was Ada.
Years later, I married a man who had spent sixteen months in Korea with the Army. His father had been a soldier, his step-mother an Army nurse, and three of his brothers also served in the armed forces–Nelson in the Navy, and two younger brothers — Robert, in the Air Force, and David, with the Marines on the ground in Viet Nam. We sent food and messages to Uncle David in the thick of battle and prayed for all our servicemen and women.
I made sure our children were in another room when we watched the evening news, night after night, with disturbing footage from the front. Often, I joined the children and let John watch the news by himself. I looked at our three young sons, under six, and tried to imagine how it must feel to send a child off to war.
To this day, I avoid war movies and documentaries with actual footage. My husband knew better than to invite me when he saw Apocalypse Now and Gettysburg. And the week before Memorial Day when Private Ryan and Band of Brothers is on television, John knows he’ll watch alone.
“For goodness sake, it’s just a movie; they’re actors,” he reasons over and over. How can I explain that the mere reminder of men and women sacrificing for my family’s peace of mind and safety, is overwhelming. No one returns from war unscathed — even when they escape without physical harm. I learned from our Marine, David, that you cannot witness extreme inhumanity, lose your best buddy, and live in fear of your life every single day for more than a year, without bearing scars.
Thank you seems so inadequate, but as Memorial Day approaches, it’s what I want to say to all those brave men and women serving now and throughout history whose lives have been defined by their military service. Whether on a submarine, flying missions over enemy territory, marching into battle with a heavy pack, filing letters in a military PO, keeping the lights on in the Navy Yard and the Pentagon in Washington — or, enlisting in peacetime as our youngest son did… you have my undying gratitude.
I don’t remember exactly when it happened, my transition from over-protective, fussy mother to world-weary show-biz mom. I just know that when I turned on the television recently and saw my first born stripped to the waist and standing in fresh manure with his arm up the rear end of a bull, I didn’t reach for a Valium. I merely shook my head and wondered for the hundredth time, how did this happen?
Five years ago, my husband and I were enjoying the retirement couples dream about. We had sold the house and moved into a condominium. Our three sons were on their own, and we were enjoying the pleasures of life.
Then came Dirty Jobs.
John and I sat in front of the TV that first Tuesday night like two wide-eyed children before the tree on Christmas morning. The record light flashed on the VCR, soda fizzed in our glasses, and the smell of buttered popcorn filled the den.
The opening credits appeared, and we smiled proudly as Mike’s name appeared in the title of the little show he had created. It was good that Mike was paying tribute to those unsung heroes who do the jobs that make our lives comfortable.
Suddenly, there he was, our son, standing knee-deep in guano, surrounded by blackness and deadly fumes. As urine and other bodily fluids from millions of bats rained from above, a biologist warned Mike that the guano was filled with dermestid beetles, committed to cleaning the flesh from his bones.
At the first commercial break, we turned to each other with our mouths open, the soda and popcorn untouched. When the phone rang, we knew before answering, that it was Mike’s frantic grandmother — but, that’s another story.
With each episode, I am still filled with wonder – and sometimes horror. How does someone born into a middle-class home in the suburbs of Baltimore smile when he’s sloshing through human waste or make jokes while he’s straddling a 500-pound sow during artificial insemination? I not only marvel that I continue watching, I marvel that the adult on the screen is such a contrast to the child I nurtured.
I can still see that toddler in a high chair waving his hands after every bite and demanding, “Wash sticky fingers!”
When I learned how many millions of people worldwide watch the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, I remembered a shy kid who dove beneath the kitchen table or made a beeline for the hall closet every time the doorbell rang.
“I don’t want people to look at me,” he would explain quietly. I used to lie awake nights envisioning my child’s future as a pitiful recluse. Mike’s amazing transformation came at Overlea high school.
“What’s the matter?” Mike asked, as his father and I stared dumbly.
“Uh … ” I said. “Are we invited?”
“Sure. It’s Oklahoma!”
We huddled together in the school auditorium chewing our fingernails on opening night.
“Surely, they wouldn’t let him do this if he weren’t capable,” my husband said.
We were dizzy from holding our breath by the time the curtain rose, and a rich, deep voice floated from the wings. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow …” Read More...
The National Bureau of Labor statistics would have us believe that women did not start ‘working’ until the mid-nineteen hundreds. Having married in the early-nineteen hundreds, my grandmother, Daisy Williams, was one of the lucky, earlier women who didn’t have to ‘work.’ While her husband was at sea fishing, she merely lollygagged around the homestead — with only six children and the occasional chore to save her from a life of hopeless boredom.
Her day began in the side yard before sunup where she gathered hens’ eggs for breakfast, lopped the heads off roosters, and raked manure for garden fertilizer. Then the idle fun began in earnest as Grandma pulled on her high rubber boots and moved on to the backyard vegetable patch.
In between trips to the house every five minutes to investigate screaming, extinguish fires, and wrestle sharp scissors from toddlers, Daisy hoed weeds, picked butter beans, dispatched poisonous snakes, and scrubbed clothes in a metal wash tub beneath the apple tree.
Hauling water from the well, wood from the shed, and slop buckets to the outhouse, wasn’t really work. After all, it’s not like Grandma Daisy was being paid. She was merely filling the empty hours until the 1950s when women could ‘work.’
When Mother’s Day was first recognized as a national holiday, in 1914, my grandmother celebrated in a big way. She came in from her outside fun — fed, washed, and dressed the kids, walked them to Sunday School, then came home and cooked dinner for twelve. Her husband, who knew how to have a good time, had invited friends to a home-cooked meal to help honor the mother of his children.
Whether the food was fresh, or came from the pantry where shelves sagged beneath the weight of canning jars, the Williams table brimmed with the bounty of Daisy’s garden and fruit trees.
Whether the company was ‘comin’ from ‘round the mountain’ or across the peninsula of Virginia’s northern neck, it was up to Daisy to ‘kill the old red rooster’ before they arrived. And that she did, as well as prepare the fresh seafood her husband had contributed to the meal. Grandma Daisy was one lucky woman!
While watching Dirty Jobs these past five years, I’ve often wondered what my grandmother would make of her great-grandson. Mike has reprised virtually every job she did as a country housewife in the early nineteen hundreds — with the possible exception of giving birth six times — and some (men, mostly) might argue that delivering dozens of baby calves at Fair Oaks Farm was pretty darn close.
Some of those dirty jobs like: gutting fish, picking crabs and prying oyster shells open are still done like they were in the early-nineteen hundreds. Likewise, canning jellies, making taffy, fudge, and cheese.
But the night I watched Mike stick the goose carcass into a machine that magically removed all the feathers in seconds, I thought about the laborious, tedious process my grandmother endured in the backyard. The wood was chopped to heat the water that was carried from the well, in order to scald the carcass so that the feathers could be plucked, then singed.
And just imagine — an inside toilet — that flushes. Grandma Daisy would probably have considered Ms. Frazier’s backup a small price to pay for such a miraculous convenience.
Happy Mother’s Day, Grandma Daisy, and thanks. I’ll think of you on Sunday as I’m sitting in a restaurant eating a crab cake and fresh vegetables — and feeling pretty silly for having thought of myself as a ‘working woman.’
It felt like torment at the time but as usual, mother knew best
The Baltimore Sun - May 09, 2010
By Peggy Rowe
When I was 7, my mother decided our family needed some culture. She bought a secondhand piano and started calling our den “the Music Room.” She loved referring to “the Music Room” as though it were “the Conservatory” or “the Drawing Room.” (None of our friends had music rooms.) Before long, a floor-model Zenith radio and an RCA record player joined the piano. My father built shelves for albums of classical LPs.
Our family dined to Strauss waltzes and symphonic suites. On Saturdays, my older sister, Janet, and I were forced to listen to live performances from the Metropolitan Opera while we did our chores. In the evenings, my mother would sit at the piano for an impromptu concert. What somewhat limited the performance was the fact that Mom could only read notes in the treble clef. While she picked out the melody, her left hand free-ranged, striking bass keys at random. Houdini had nothing on my mother, who could make an entire family disappear simply by sitting on a piano stool.
When December came, the “Blue Danube Waltz” gave way to the “Nutcracker Suite” and Handel’s “Messiah.” As Christmas approached, Mom’s eyes twinkled, and she smiled all the time. Could it be? Would I finally receive the pony I’d been begging for since I was 2? My mother’s excitement peaked on Christmas morning as my sister and I reached into our stockings and found — vouchers for piano lessons.
While I galloped through neighbors’ yards in my cowboy boots, whinnying and jumping over lawn furniture, my sister practiced the piano, nonstop. Tuesday afternoons at the Maplewood Music Studio found me butchering the same beginner exercises, while Janet played duets with our teacher. A half-hour on Ms. Shindler’s wooden piano bench was a cruel substitute for Misty of Chincoteague.