Look Before You Leap
Doug types too much...
April 18, 2020
In November of 1967, daredevil Evel Knievel attempted a motorcycle jump over fountains at the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas. It didn’t go well. He was badly injured. Many broken bones. But as Jack Nicholson said to his discouraged inmate pals in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “At least I tried!”
You can only imagine what stupid thoughts come into a kid’s mind when they see an American “hero” like Evel. I know my brother and I set up makeshift ramps and royally tried to hurt ourselves repeatedly attempting jumps on our cheap banana bikes. We never crashed like Evel at the Palace, but let’s just say it was almost accidental that we were both able to sire children in our adult years.
But way before Evel, there was America’s first professional daredevil who surfaced to fame in the 1820s. His name was Sam Patch. Sam was a self-taught jumper.
Back before people had electricity and running water, entertainment came in some exotic forms and there were personality types who forged their own fortunes by being unique. Sam Patch was one of those spirited Americans who invented his own legendary self.
He started by jumping off stuff that was around. Sometimes only in a shirt and/or his underwear. As a child laborer in a cotton mill, he entertained other boys by jumping off the mill dam. As he got older and continued to jump off things like bridges, factory walls, and ships’ masts, he attracted crowds with money in their pockets.
In 1829, he leapt off a 125-foot ladder extended over Niagara Falls. That made him a household name nationwide. He was the only person to have ever jumped into the falls and lived.
I have to say when it came to picking out a career, it never occurred to me to be a jumper. I did not have lofty goals. Other kids wanted to be a fire fighter or a police officer or a doctor or a nurse or – hell, I don’t know – some profession that would benefit the world. Not me.
When I was a kid, Parker Brothers had a board game out called Careers. It was all about setting goals for yourself, culminated by achieving some level of success based on your path in “life.” You had to accumulate a mix of fame, happiness, and wealth. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the formulas for success because my goals were different and the jobs I was curious about were not featured in the Occupation paths.
In my youth, there were 3 jobs I remember lusting after that never came to fruition. Not because I was no longer interested – the jobs simply disappeared from our society. None of them were complex in nature. Far from it. But as far as jobs went, they looked like fun.
The first shine I took to a profession was during the early 1960s in Portland, Maine when I frequented The State Theater. I spent many hours there alone without adult supervision.
I was in love with the ushers. Not because they were attractive. Most of them weren’t. But they had a smart bellhop-like uniform and a little hat to top things off. They got to watch movies all day long for free. Plus they carried a heavy suitable-for-blunt-instrument flashlight.
I know there are currently theaters that feature ushers, but they’re not really ushers. Not like the ones I grew up with. If they even have an usher now, it’s someone who skulks a quick single pass down to the front and back out again. They hang their heads and don’t make eye contact. They don’t take any action even when there are situations when you wish they would. They act like they don’t want to be there.
Ushers back in the day had authority and they weren’t afraid to dish it out. As a consequence, you didn’t see much rabble-rousing in the theater. Patrons normally followed the rules of civility. But on occasion, the usher had to step in.
In the 1960s, smoking was still allowed in theaters, but only in the balcony. Still there’d be some guy (always a guy) trying to sneak one in the back of the main auditorium. The usher thought nothing of not only warning the offending patron to put out their smoke, they followed it with an eye-contact threat of being tossed out for not complying. And there was no argument. I never saw a smoker bite back and threaten the usher. Never. They just begrudgingly put out their smoke.
Ushers told people to take their feet off the backs of the chairs in front of them. They complied.
Ushers told people, especially women, to remove their hats while seated. The hats came off.
When they weren’t on patrol, the ushers stood watch at the back of the theater.
We didn’t have mobile phones then, but once in a while, people would do the next best thing and talk out loud. The usher would come down the aisle, snap a flashlight beam on them and tell them to be quiet. And if they didn’t, the usher used their flashlight to guide you out of the theater.
During the winter season, bums would sit in the back, passed out, snoring. The usher thought nothing of bopping a shoulder with his flashlight and offering an instructive “Either stay awake and watch the movie or leave.” Even the drunks didn’t argue points with ushers.
The State often ran double-features continuously. If you arrived before dinner hour, you got in for matinee prices which for a kid was 50 cents. For 2 movies. And they didn’t make people leave between showings. Back then, if you wanted to watch the 2 movies over and over until closing time, you could. On one such occasion, I’d made it late, just under the wire to pay the minimum 50 cents. By the time the second movie came on (Billie starring Patty Duke who I adored from her TV show), it was dinner hour.
An usher came up to me sitting alone in the dark. He snapped his light on me and asked me why I was there when I should be home for dinner. I attempted to plead my case, but he was adamant. He trained his beam on the floor and instructed me to follow him to the lobby. This greatly upset me. I felt I was being wronged.
My mother did, too. She marched me right back to the theater and accosted the manager and the usher together. Many apologies were extended and I ended up getting a free movie pass to come back and see Patty Duke on another day. Any day and time I wanted.
Sly Stallone said he was working an usher job when he got the offer for Rocky. When the call came in, he had $200 in savings and a plucked-chicken hairdo. The theater he worked in required him to get a haircut and he couldn’t afford one, so he cut all his locks with a set of nail clippers at home. So clearly being an usher decades after I was considering it was not a well-thought out career move.
During that period, I spent a summer attending a YMCA day camp. The kids were taken on field trips that were tons of fun and one of them was a day at a Portland bowling alley where I was introduced to pin setting.
Back in the mid-1960s, there were still some bowling establishments that had not made the transition to automatic pin setting. There was no rack that descended from above and cleared and reset pins. No. At the end of the lane were humans whose job it was to sit on a perch above the ball-capturing pit. After each ball, the human jumped down into the pit, returned the ball on a rail and cleared and reset pins.
During our day of bowling, kids had to take turns being the pin setters. Nobody really wanted the job. Except me. Don’t ask me why pin setting appealed to me more than actual bowling. I’m still sorting that out myself.
I tried the bowling once or twice. It was new to me and I had no idea what I was doing. When I threw something lame down the lane, the pin setter would harass me verbally. It occurred to me that I had more interest in being the one who catcalls. So after I put my toe in the water with the bowling part, I settled on being a pin setter for the rest of the day. I volunteered.
The job allowed me to be an entertainer of sorts. Okay, an ass. If a bowler got a good shot in, I would praise them, but if they fumbled the roll, I made fun of them. Loudly. I distinguished myself among the other pin setters. I taunted.
Where this backfired was in the responses I got from those I taunted. They started to shout down the lane at me. That only fueled my internal Don Rickles. At the height of our back-and-forth exchanges, one pissed off kid waited for me to get down into the pit and then he rolled a fast ball at me which was totally not cool, but instead of it incensing me, I kicked my antics up a notch.
Then it became a game of who could nail me with a ball while I was in the pit. But you have to remember I was a little wiry fella and I was used to moving fast if I had to. So it became game on. I had a blast.
Now that I’m older, I can see why it was a good thing facilities shifted to auto-pin setting. While I had speed and agility as super powers in my youth, being a pin setter would not pan out well for me in my present state. Part of the problem would be avoiding breaking an ankle jumping down into the pit between balls and the other part of the problem would be the changed and charged audiences of today. Nowadays, if I were to heckle someone, they wouldn’t just throw balls my way, they’d stomp down the lane and shoot me in the head with a concealed carry.
The last job I salivated over dried up decades ago. I wanted to be a TV repairman.
When I was 13, we lived in a rented farmhouse in Warren, Maine. It was very rural and we only had one TV. It was black and white and got lousy reception, yet it was a lifeline in more ways than you know. Even a snowy sound and picture with frames constantly losing their vertical hold was better than radio silence.
Our TV repairman was also our postal carrier. So anyone who had a TV that needed to be fixed stopped the mailman during his delivery and handed over their TV. He’d take it back to his shop full of parts and tube testers and with some luck, you’d get your set brought back a couple of weeks later along with your daily mail.
Here’s what I learned about TV repairmen. People LOVED those folks. Couldn’t WAIT to see them coming. Customers were HAPPY TO PAY the repair person.
On one occasion, I got to visit the stealth repair shop, tucked away in an old concrete building. My mother and I stood amidst a sea of televisions, all in various states of disrepair. Years later when I saw the droid factory in Star Wars, it reminded me of the TV repair shop atmosphere – a little dark, a little dusty, a little stale feeling, and slightly hot with no air conditioning.
The mailman sat in front of a TV he was replacing a tube on. A lit cigarette with way too much ash hanging off hung from his old-man lips. He and my mother talked about our TV and he explained it would not be fixed that day because he had too many other jobs in front of us.
My mother wasn’t particularly happy, but she knew better than to mess with the repair guy. You might never see your TV again if you didn’t play your cards right. But me? I marveled. I looked around his shop space and thought to myself, “This is cool as anything. You NEVER have a lack of business. You’re not on anyone’s timetable. And everyone has to be nice to you or no TV for them.”
Oddly enough, in later years, that job still tugged a bit inside. But my hopes were dashed in the late 1980s when our terrific living room SONY television developed a greenish discoloration in the lower right part of the screen. I took it to a SONY dealer to get the picture tube replaced. And that’s when the dealer gave me the sad news.
“Sir, with the way TVs are made now, if I was to order a picture tube, it would cost you the price of a new TV. So my advice is to get rid of this older model and just buy a new set.”
Damn, man. Where the hell is Emmet the fix-it man when you need him? I need my toaster repaired.
Sam Patch died on a Friday the 13th at the age of 22. His final jump took place in Rochester, New York off of High Falls, many stories above the Genesee River.
Sam had done a 94-foot jump from the same location a week prior in front of roughly 8,000 spectators. As he was wont to do sometimes, he grabbed his pet bear cub by the collar and pushed it off the diving platform first. Once Sam saw the bear surfacing and swimming to shore, Sam made his leap.
Sam didn’t think he made enough at the gate on the first jump, so he scheduled a second jump from the same location. But he upped the ante on the second jump. He increased the height by building an extension to his stand making the jump 125 feet.
People who were there that fateful day couldn’t agree on whether Sam jumped or fell from his perch. Some said he’d been drinking. But they all agreed on one thing – it was one helluva belly-flop.
As he oft did, Sam delivered a short, rambling speech comparing himself favorably to great historical figures.
“Napoleon was a great man and a great general,” he said. ”He conquered armies and he conquered nations, but he couldn’t jump the Genesee Falls.”
Witnesses said the first third of his feet-first vertical drop went off as always. But then his body shifted in space as he fell.
Mr. Patch made a loud splat when he hit the water spread-eagled. He went under and didn’t surface.
Rumors were he’d hidden in a cave at the base of the falls. But 4 months later in early spring, his frozen body was found encased in ice some 7 miles down the river.
Hey, but at least he tried, right?
Sam Patch was considered inspirational and legendary. By many.
When Sam was buried, a wooden board (now gone) was placed over his grave – it read: “Here lies Sam Patch – Such is Fame.”
I can imagine any number of clever things being etched on my tombstone. If my life had taken a different turn, perhaps I would end up with:
“Here lies Doug Bari – He fixed your TV even if it costed less to buy a new one.”
My friends and I had the Careers game around, but we all hated it. We were much more keen on marathon Monopoly games and Risk battles that went on for days.
It was fortunate I didn’t get to live my early dreams. I floundered into alternatives. And if I may say, they paid better than being an usher. Or a pin setter. Or a TV repairman. Although, I really liked that one.
But hey. You never know. You can always change horses in mid-stream, right?
Maybe I need to revisit that Occupation path and pay more attention this time…