Friday, April 6, 2012

Pure Knack

If you've never read James Thurber, I hope you will real soon.  Maybe you'll have a free moment after you pay the gas bill, lower this month, since you negotiated that new price per therm.  Try to get hold of a copy of The Thurber Carnival and just read straight through.

My favorite introduction to his world is "The Night the Bed Fell," but all most people seem to remember is Walter Mitty.  Ask them about Bach, and to a person they will tell you he was deaf.  Bring up Ronald Reagan to hear about the Jelly Belly Candy Company, even though it wasn't incorporated until 2001.  People are fickle, so just read straight through, though "More Alarms at Night" makes an obvious companion piece to "The Night the Bed Fell."

Here, wet your whistle on the opening paragraphs of the story:

I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father. It makes a better recitation (unless, as some friends of mine have said, one has heard it five or six times) than it does a piece of writing, for it is almost necessary to throw furniture around, shake doors, and bark like a dog, to lend the proper atmosphere and verisimilitude to what is admittedly a somewhat incredible tale. Still, it did take place.

It happened, then, that my father had decided to sleep in the attic one night, to be away where he could think. My mother opposed the notion strongly because, she said, the old wooden bed up there was unsafe- it was wobbly and the heavy headboard would crash down on father's head in case the bed fell, and kill him. There was no dissuading him, however, and at a quarter past ten he closed the attic door behind him and went up the narrow twisting stairs. We later heard ominous creakings as he crawled into bed. Grandfather, who usually slept in the attic bed when he was with us, had disappeared some days before. (On these occasions he was usually gone six or seven days and returned growling and out of temper, with the news that the federal Union was run by a passel of blockheads and that the Army of the Potomac didn't have any more chance than a fiddler's bitch.)

We had visiting us at this time a nervous first cousin of mine named Briggs Beall, who believed that he was likely to cease breathing when he was asleep. It was his feeling that if he were not awakened every hour during the night, he might die of suffocation. He had been accustomed to setting an alarm clock to ring at intervals until morning, but I persuaded him to abandon this. He slept in my room and I told him that I was such a light sleeper that if anybody quit breathing in the same room with me, I would wake Instantly. He tested me the first night-which I had suspected he would by holding his breath after my regular breathing had convinced him I was asleep. I was not asleep, however, and called to him. This seemed to allay his fears a little, but he took the precaution of putting a class of spirits of camphor on a little table at the head of his bed. In case I didn't arouse him until he was almost gone, he said, he would sniff the camphor, a powerful reviver.

Briggs was not the only member of his family who had his crotchets. Old Aunt Alelissa Beall (who could whistle like a man, with two fingers in her mouth) suffered under the premonition that she was destined to die on South High Street, because she had been born on South High Street and married on South High Street. Then there was Aunt Sarah Shoaf, who never went to bed at night without the fear that a burglar was going to get in and blow chloroform under her door through a tube. To avert this calamity -for she was in greater dread of anesthetics than of losing her household goods-she always piled her money, silverware, and other valuables in a neat stack just outside her bedroom, with a note reading,: "This is all I have. Please take it and do not use your chloroform, as this is all I have." Aunt Gracie Shoaf also had a burglar phobia, but she met it with more fortitude. She was confident that burglars had been getting into her house every night for four years. The fact that she never missed anything was to her no proof to the contrary. She always claimed that she scared them off before they could take anything, by throwing shoes down the hallway. When she went to bed she piled, where she could get at them handily, all the shoes there were about her house. Five minutes after she had turned off the light, she would sit up in bed and say "Hark!" Her husband, who had learned to ignore the whole situation as long ago as 1903, would either be sound asleep or pretend to be sound asleep. In either case he would not respond to her tugging and pulling, so that presently she would arise, tiptoe to the door, open it slightly and heave a shoe down the hall in one direction, and its mate down the hall in the other direction. Some nights she threw them all, some nights only a couple of pair.

But I am straying from the remarkable incidents that took place during the night that the bed fell on father.  [CONTINUE HERE]

Thurber is the source of a particular sort of chuckle -- a complex guffaw / chortle type of thing that can, and will, if the circumstances permit, cause you physical harm. Were you to read him too soon post-appendectomy, for example. Were you to try and read a story aloud and fall out of your chair, for another.

As a teacher, I've always enjoyed "University Days," and still find young Bolenciecwz's dilemma a compelling one.

It's a pleasure to find a true raconteur in the course of a day's rambling.  I've been a fan of Shadowfax and his blog Movin' Meat for a while, and hereby confess that admiration to be based on pure storytelling knack.  One of several hundred bloggers I follow with Google Reader, he hasn't written much of late, so I checked out a new entry this morning with real hope for entertainment.  He did not disappoint.  After you've finished your Thurber refresher, head on over to Movin' Meat and read "He says he's not dead."

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