Sunday, November 18, 2007

One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night

In my old neighborhood of Indian Village the D. family had a shed in their back yard next to 'The Swamp'. 'The Swamp' was soupy woods mostly and offered an amazing, messy playground for us young boys to romp around in whenever we were bored ... which was often in the suburbs.

A long dirty cement drain pipe, just perfect for single filed troopers to crawl up and clog their noses with moldy dust, and god knows what else, snaked itself down from the road a few hundred yards up a weed and vine entangled hill. It emptied its effluence after rainstorms into a small pool at the mouth of the conduit. That pool would often harbor crayfish and other pincered and antenna'ed alien life forms put there undoubtedly for our amusement.

'Check for ticks!' was a common exclamation upon exiting this mysterious and murky land of skunk cabbage, shoe sucking quick-mud, curly prehistoric fiddlehead ferns and voracious sock clinging burrs. The more bloodthirsty parasitic denizens of 'The Swamp' would contentedly start consuming you alive if you sat in one place for more than a few minutes time.

One of youth's most poignant and impressive lessons: sit still too long and the world will begin to devour you!


'The Shed' was used to store wood - it was a woodshed.

Every summer the woodshed would inevitably get infested with mice. The tiny gray and black rodents would hide under the heavy cord of dried cut logs stacked there in preparation for the long New England winter months. These unwelcomed pests were nesting inside the wood and making a mess of it to the point of ruination so the argument went.

In that event, Douglas D. would dutifully go out to the Shed by order of his parents with a flat iron shovel and 'slam' mice. He did this without so much as a twitch as he struck each rodent square on its back, crushing its spine and then watching it convulse until it finally broke its lease on life. Perhaps another blow was delivered to end any unnecessary suffering.

Though his tactics were severe Doug was neither cruel nor sadistic; he was merely professional in his demeanor. I think he may have even been paid a small allowance to partake in this gruesome undertaking. A quarter per mouse maybe? Decent wages for the time.

One early Fall evening my brother, and I went with Doug out to the Shed (purely as observers mind you!) to hunt for the wilier mice: the ones that would only come out after dark. Doug had a large lensed plastic flashlight with him to illuminate the way down the grassy path to the Shed. Once inside we would all sit quietly in the corners of the structure in total darkness. At the first instance of any scurrying sound the light would dilate the gloom and the slaughter would commence. A good night would normally harvest him between three and five kills. His practiced accuracy made him extremely lethal. He usually met that quota easily.

When that evening's run of mice were finally done away with and disposed of we entertained ourselves by reading the penciled prose offerings left on the old shack's inner walls. There were several years of limericks, initialed hearts with arrows piercing them and crass iambic pentameter to leave young boys in stitches for a very long amount of time.

There was one particularly memorable piece of foolish poetry scrawled on one side of the wall closest to the Shed's sliding door. It was written in a crooked penmanship and given the title One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night.

It went something like this (and there are several variations but the following verses are considered the most common):


One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.

One was blind and the other couldn't see,
So they chose a dummy for a referee.
A blind man went to see fair play,
A dumb man went to shout "hooray!"

A paralysed donkey passing by,
Kicked the blind man in the eye.
Knocked him through a nine inch wall,
Into a dry ditch and drowned them all.

A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came to arrest the two dead boys.
If you don't believe this story's true,
Ask the blind man he saw it too!"


Scholars have since dissected this doggerel and given it credence as a legitimate folk poem. Those same scholars have described it as a "Ballad of Impossibilities" as it follows no reason in its rhyme. Nonsense poems such as One Fine Day... date as far back as the mid-19th Century and were originally collected from children's playgrounds and schoolyards on the British Isles.

Whatever the academic merits it was mostly just a form of wild entertainment for us lads.

In fact, after invoking each stanza aloud we would play-act out how these actions might transpire in spite of their defiant opposition to one another. Our lofty imaginations failed us time and again as we could never quite muster decent enough visualizations that would do any adequate justice for the poem.

But Doug was so humored by this contradictory brain-teaser that he laughed himself pink.




It was a deliciously devilish riddle that could never be divined! No solving this one any time soon...

What a hilarious hoot we had!


Of course, I simply had to memorize this subversive in~verse for myself in order to enlighten the elementary school masses of its outlandish nature. Once my ability at recall was proficient enough I recited it to friends at recess time, in the cafeteria lunch lines and during gym class. The Two Dead Boys Town Crier! Gleeful bemusement would surely follow each performance. Soon afterwards many of the schoolyard rank-and-file were all merrily repeating its phrases. Subsequently the boys' bathroom stalls were eventually vandalized with its various black inked interpretations ... only the word fight was replaced with fuck and the word swords replaced by dicks... you get the picture.

It was a small victory of sorts for me, though; to think I was aiding in the propagation of a cultural phenomenon! Hoo-Wah! Score one for the viral nature of human language!


But then something really frightening happened that changed everything.


One fine summer day several months later, in what would become Doug D.'s darkest middle of the night, he was in a terrible motorcycle accident.

The front wheel of his bike sideways'ed on a patch of "Caterpillar Grease" (a mash of road- crossing gypsy moth caterpillars crushed into a dangerous and slippery pulp by passing cars) while speeding up Route 2 on the way home from high school one day. He tumbled several terrifying times down a long stretch of highway pavement before finally coming to rest in a busted heap.

He broke his arms.

He broke his legs.

He broke his back...

But he was still alive.

However, the operating surgeons added a painful *asterisk to that state of being alive by inauspiciously declaring that he would never be able to walk again.


After several weeks in the hospital Doug was brought home. He lay immobile on his back for what must have felt like an Eternity to him. He was supported by a pulley-and-rope contraption for a bed that a team of medical specialists had designed for just such a god-awful occasion.

His parents grimly looked after him. They would provide sporadic news to the neighborhood of any improvement in cautionary spurts.

After a while even his closest friends became afraid to visit him because he had been such a strong and athletic kid. Now everyone had to pose themselves some fairly dreadful questions: How could this happen? What could one possibly say to a young man who had so much going in his favor, so much life to live? How was anyone supposed to process meaning through this unholy perversion of youth on display; a broken teenage body simply defies all comprehension. This was supposed to be the prime of your life!




Doug... how will you ever 'slam' mice again? Was this payback from the animal kingdom's belligerent rodent deity?

What's going to happen to you now?

We beseech thee, Powers That Be, bring us your Virgin Mary's Face In A Piece of Toast moment! Reveal to us your small, but Faith restoring wonder.

We beg of you.

And then something really amazing happened that changed everything.


It wasn't long before Doug would prove to all of those nervy doctors with their sanctimonious prognostications just how completely and totally off base they had been.

One fine day after a year and some odd middle of the nights later ... I was riding my bike up the street. As I passed the D.'s house my eyes played a dirty little trick on me...

Because right there in front of me ... was Doug D.

In his driveway.


Damnit, standing!

All by himself - standing - in his driveway.

Yes, albeit in a bulky and clumsy looking back brace but he was standing! On his own! With a goddamn broom in his hands! The son of a gun was sweeping his driveway! Sweeping his driveway like some animatronic theme park character in stilted robotic movements - but sweeping as sweepers will do when they sweep with fully operational spines.




"Hi, Dennis!"


One fine day...

"Doug, you did it!" the middle of the night...

"You solved it!" dead boy, at least, did get up to fight.


1 comment:

James Welsch said...

I was just exploring the folklore archives at U.C. Berkeley, & I found, under nonsense rhymes, a folder full of hundreds & hundreds of versions of the poem, collected by students over the past three decades. There were multiple variations, & paragraphs with interpretations, such as it being a metaphor for the cold war. It reminds me of the nonsense logic in Carroll's poetry (i.e., "He looked again, and found it was A Bear without a Head. 'Poor thing,' he said, 'poor silly thing! It's waiting to be fed!'") or Dylan ("...he built a fire on main street & shot it full of holes.)

I published one of the folklore archive versions here: here.