life skills

Random recollection: My mom told me she wanted to teach me and my brother some basic housekeeping skills: cooking, cleaning, that sort of thing. Dad wouldn’t allow it, apparently because it was women’s work.

Fast-forward a couple years: I was living on my own in an apartment in England. I had to call my mother to ask how to bake a potato. I did actually try to bake it myself before I called her. I don’t recall what I did wrong, but it was not at any time during my kitchen experiment what I would have considered edible, and back then I was okay with a lot of canned foods that I would not eat now except as a last resort following a global catastrophe.

I suppose eventually it would have occurred to me to visit the library to check out a cook book, but honestly I had no clue at all and could conceivably have starved during the lag between trying to learn through trial and error, and twigging to the idea that I should put my hands on at least a few examples of one of the most well-documented human activities of all time.

Maybe some day I’ll tell you how long it took me to warm to the idea that I should, from time to time, vacuum the floors of the rooms I lived in. Maybe. Maybe not.

John Valuk is dead, he fell on his head

The other night, I told my youngest son the story of how I fell from the second story of an open stairway. I’m not sure he entirely believed me.

When I was born, my parents lived in a small apartment which was really the upper floor of a big frame house that had been divided up into flats and rented out. The only way to get into the upstairs apartment was by way of a wooden staircase that ran up the outside of the house, ending in a small landing outside the doorway into the apartment.

One night, after my parents returned from a trip out of town, my father took me in one hand and a suitcase in another and climbed the stairs to the upper floor. At the top, he set the suitcase to one side and let go of me to dig his keys out of his pocket and unlock the door.

I had been sleeping in the back seat of the car and was still very sleepy. Half-dozing, I leaned back against the suitcase, which tipped under the handrail and fell off the landing. I wasn’t any taller than the suitcase, so I fell off the landing right after it.

As luck would have it, my mother was immediately under the landing and saw me fall. She tried to catch me and almost did, grabbing me by the ankle. If she hadn’t, I would have fallen on the cement walkway below, but the tug she exerted on my leg changed the direction of my fall just enough that I landed in the dirt under the stairway. Even so, my father said she was so sure I was dead that she wouldn’t touch me. He put me back in the car and they took me to the hospital.

My head struck a glancing blow to the edge of the cement walkway, which raised a knot, but I was otherwise unharmed. I spent one or two nights in the hospital, closely watched, then went home.

“That doesn’t seem possible,” was all that Tim could think to say when I told him the story. Maybe not. But here I am.


Hello, boys and girls! Welcome! Welcome to Story Time with Unkle Knuckles. Gather round and I’ll tell you the story of how Silly Putty came to be banned from our Christmas stockings. Ready? Let’s begin.

This would’ve been so many years ago that Sean was still a toddler and Tim was no more than a notion. Back then, my Mom and Dad lived in the O-Folk Ancestral Manse, far, far away in The Frozen North. In the year which our story takes place, we made the long voyage there to spend Christmas day with them.

In Sean’s stocking, he found one of the classic toys: A plastic egg with a blob of Silly Putty inside. It was the first Silly Putty he’d ever played with, so we showed him all the nifty stuff he could do with it: Bounce it like a ball, break it like a piece of china, and copy a panel of Calvin & Hobbes off the funny pages. That last one was the corker: He was having such a good time that we left him to play and didn’t give the Silly Putty another thought.

Long after we had opened all our gifts and the morning had lapsed into the time of day when we were all blobbing out on a sofa or were slouched in an overstuffed chair, my Dad decided he had to get another cookie or a drink from the kitchen. When he tried to rise from his chair, he discovered that the chair wouldn’t let him go! He sank back into the chair, then tried to get up again. The chair seemed to be following him! He tried once more and finally bulled his way into an upright position.

Good thing the chair he’d been sitting in was one with a removable seat cushion, because the cushion was well and truly glued to his butt. The glue? Silly Putty, of course. As we all learned that day, if you sit on a blob of Silly Putty, your body heat makes it spread itself evenly across your whole butt, and if you’re wearing pants, it works itself so deeply into the fabric that it’s never going to come out. Same with the fabric of a chair cushion, if you happen to be sitting on one. The only way Dad could get away from that chair cushion was to take his pants off.

And that’s why Silly Putty was never seen again in the stockings of the littlest O-Folk.

plugged in

While I was knocking out windows and cutting plywood in the basement yesterday, it reminded me of when I was helping my dad build a darkroom. When he bought the newspaper in Manawa it came with an office building, sort of. There wasn’t much to it. It was just the basic shell of a building with a wall about ten feet beyond the front door to divide the innards into an office in the front and a work room in back. Behind the front wall was what we rather grandly referred to as the bathroom, really a narrow closet with just a toilet in it, and what eventually became the darkroom, where we developed film and printed photographs.

I don’t think it was built to be a darkroom, but I’m saying that only because the walls were full of nail holes. If the previous owners tried to develop film in there, the photos must’ve turned out just awful. To fix that problem, dad covered the holes with dozens of tiny squares of red cellophane tape. You can expose photosensitive paper to red light without fogging it, and even film would tolerate the small amount of light from the constellation of tiny red stars that swam all around me in the dark as I wrapped it around spools and dropped it into developing tanks.

Aside from the old Kodak enlarger and the few other pieces of precision machinery we bought to expose and develop photographs, almost everything in that darkroom was home-made. A sheet of pegboard and an old vacuum cleaner became a rather clever easel for the enlarger. He made a shallow box with the pegboard on top, then drew outlines on the pegboard that were the standard sizes for the photographs we printed in the paper. All I had to do was center the photo in the outline, cut a piece of photographic paper to size, lay it over the outline, cover it with a transparent sheet of plastic and turn on the vacuum cleaner. The hose of the vacuum was connected to the side of the pegboard box so it sucked air through the holes, flattening the photo paper under the clear plastic. Make the exposure, turn off the vacuum, done!

Dad also made a sink out of plywood. We needed one big enough to hold the three wide plastic trays we used to develop the page-sized negatives that the newspaper pages were printed from, so he took a big sheet of inch-thick plywood, boxed it in on three sides and painted it with a couple coats of epoxy. Drilled a hole in one corner, hung a faucet from the back, and voila! A sink.

The darkroom was full of lots of impressively simple stuff like that. Dad could be pretty clever when he got an idea in his head. There was this one time, though, when he tried to ventilate the room through a hole in the wall over the door that he fitted with a squirrel cage fan. For some reason, he didn’t wire the fan to a switch. He gave it a power cord with a plug, as if it were an appliance that he might want to someday take to another room. That baffled me, but I didn’t say anything. There wasn’t an outlet close enough to plug it into, so he replaced the light switch with a combination switch/outlet, but when he hooked the wires up, he connected them to the wrong lugs. Didn’t realize what he’d done, though, until he plugged the fan in and the lights came on. I think I hurt his feelings when I laughed and laughed and laughed, but dammit, it was funny.

cat story

Poor B had a stuffy nose that woke her up this morning. I had a cat that woke me up. If I had to pick one, I guess I’d take the cat. If the cat wakes me up, at least I don’t feel like I’ve been smothered with a pillow, unless the cat wakes me up by parking on my face. None of our cats do that, thank goodness. None of our surviving cats. Kidding. I have never snuffed a cat. Wanted to, many times, dreamed of it, particularly when they won’t let me sleep at night, but never done it.

Last night, just after lights out, one of them, probably the fat one, came creeping into the room, probably stalking the skinny one, because they launched into a flurry of chasing each other across the house, but just before they did, the stalker stepped on the loose floor board in front of the bedroom closet and the creaking noise it made sounded exactly like the tippy-toe approach of the axe murder. I jerked my head up off the pillow to look but of course nobody was there. Seeing that nobody is there is almost worse than seeing the axe murderer. If it’s not the axe murderer, it could be the monster under the bed! Or a ghost! Or a swarm of killer cockroaches!

Then the cats went on their crazy tear and I started counting the minutes until they settled down.

Story time: My dad lived on a farm when he was a boy. This was during the depression of the 1930s. His dad was out of a job and his mom’s family had a big farm where they went to live for a while. Like any farm, they had lots of feral cats roaming the place. There were so many cats that they became a nuisance and had to be culled from time to time. One day, my dad was handed a burlap sack stuffed full of kittens and a big rock and told to take it down to the bridge and drop it in the river. I guess he walked all the way down to the bridge with the sack but couldn’t bring himself to do the deed, having to listen to those kittens mew and cry the whole time from being stuck in that bag. As Grandma told the story, she found him standing on the porch in tears, sobbing sorry, sorry, sorry, as he handed the sack back to her.


I drove up to Manawa yesterday to bring my Mom’s laptop back to her. I drove home with a car full of tools and camping gear.

Mom’s moving house soon. She put the ancestral manse up for sale last week, and she priced it to sell. She already has a couple buyers looking at it. She may be months or weeks or days from moving out, so she got rid of the last of the things she doesn’t want to take away with her by showing them to me while threatening to toss them in a dumpster. That worked.

The first thing she showed me was an odd assortment of hand tools she’d spread across my father’s work bench in the basement. The man had something like two dozen screwdrivers of wildly differing sizes. I’ve no doubt that was in part his way of ensuring he stood a better than even chance of finding one in a house where his sons routinely walked off with his screwdriver, wrenches and pliers, then either put them back in the wrong place (which I guess wouldn’t technically be “putting them back,” would it?), or dropped them on the spot and forgot about them. No wonder the man was constantly stamping around the house grumbling, “Where the hell is my [insert name of lost tool]?”

Mom also wanted to get rid of a tent and some other camping equipment like a lantern and a cook stove. I took it all off her hands on the slight chance that I might somehow figure out a way to get B to give up a few days in her garden to spend a weekend at Penninsula State Park or one of our state’s other lovely campgrounds in the summer. I’m no closer to figuring that one out than I am to building my own moon rocket, but the possibility’s there. It could happen.

She also bequeathed to me a stack of newspapers my father kept for reasons that remain unknown to us at the moment. For a very short time he worked at a tiny tabloid newspaper in Marquette called The Mirror until it folded (har!) shortly after he was hired on. Mom found a bundle of them, eight inches thick, tied up with a cord. Maybe he kept them as no more than a memento, or maybe I’ll leaf through them at some time in the future and, who knows, find an amazing story. It seems more likely, though, that I’ll remain mystified and the newspapers will end up in the recycling bin.

Once everything was loaded into the car, ready to go, Mom made us a couple hamburgers, threw them on the grill, and we sat down to lunch. That was nice. Not only did she fill my trunk with camping equipment and tools, she filled my tummy with hamburgers and beans.

We sat in the front room for a short time afterwards to talk a little before I had to go. She saw me off from the end of the driveway in proper Wisconsin style with a wave before turning to head back to the house as I motored off toward the highway.

The Vaseline Story

Dad was mowing the grass in the back yard. My brother Pete and I were working on something in the garage with the back door open. Dad was about as far away across the back yard as he could get when suddenly the growl of the lawnmower engine died and was replaced just moments after by Dad’s voice yelling across the yard, asking one of us to bring the Vaseline.

Pete and I turned and gave each other the puzzled dog look. “Did he say ‘Vaseline’?” Pete asked me, and I answered, “That’s what I heard, too.”

So I shouted back: “You want the Vaseline?”

“Yes! The Vaseline!” And then he added, as if it would help to clarify the request: “For the lawnmower!”

It was your standard lawnmower with a three-horsepower, two-stroke gasoline engine, and we had a yard so big it took most of an afternoon to mow it, so the gas tank ran dry at least once. It would make sense if he asked for the gasoline, but he hadn’t, or at least we were pretty sure he hadn’t. We were pretty sure he asked for the Vaseline. Pretty sure.

But there was a can of gasoline in the garage, in plain view, and there was also a big jar of Vaseline on the work bench that we used to grease up stick bolts and axles and whatnot, also in plain view. He hadn’t checked the gas tank on the lawn mower after he shut it off, so it’s just possible that he really did want the Vaseline instead of the gasoline, but why he would want the Vaseline was a mystery. But that’s what we both heard him ask for.

The problem here was that our Dad had a ferocious temper that neither one of us wanted to risk triggering if we could help it. If Dad had indeed asked for the Vaseline and we brought him gasoline, our misinterpretation would unleash a force-five tornadic tongue-lashing just a sure as if he’d asked for gasoline and we brought him Vaseline.

We asked again, yelling across the back yard, “Did you say ‘Vaseline?'”

“Yes!” he answered, a trifle miffed this time. Our hesitation was starting to annoy him. “Vaseline!” he barked again, in a tone of voice that clearly implied: What in hell do you think I’m asking for? Gasoline?

We tried once more, this time experimentally changing the question to “Gasoline?” Well, we had to try.

He finally cut loose with a magnificently full-throated roar that flushed his face and rattled windows for a quarter mile in every direction: “VASELINE!” If we didn’t act within moments, he would explode with the force of a supernova. We couldn’t let that happen. I can’t recall for sure now which of us finally went out there, but as I’m telling the story I’m going to say I took one for the team by scooping the jar of Vaseline off the work bench and starting across the yard. With each step I grew more confident. He could easily see I didn’t have the gas can, yet he didn’t raise a word in protest. We must have heard him correctly.

No, of course we hadn’t. He watched me march all that way across the lawn in silence because he was in shock, not because I’d brought him what he’d asked for. As I extended my hand, proudly presenting the jar of Vaseline to him, I mewled, “You asked for, uh, Vaseline?”

He stared. He blinked. “Vaseline?” he finally yelped, still puzzled, and then his sun went supernova and the shock wave hit: “I asked for GASOLINE!” he shouted, all but hopping up and down. “What in hell would I want with Vaseline?”

It’s still a mystery why I didn’t just take him both the Vaseline and the gasoline.

Dad Does Books

I found out the other day that a guy I know collects books as rabidly as I do, if that’s possible. He’s got bookshelves all over his house and apparently likes them as much for their smell as their looks or their content. And what sane human doesn’t? Well, lots, it turns out, but that’s a litmus test as far as I’m concerned. Who doesn’t adore the smell of books, knows not the fragrance of life itself. I just made that up. Take that, Shakespeare.

While we were talking about the kinds of books we like to collect, he mentioned that he has a huge collection of science fiction books, which reminded me of the story of the time my dad found my sci-fi collection. In high school and through most of college, science fiction was the genre I read voraciously. Many people don’t know this, but the word “voraciously” was coined to describe the way I gobbled up sci-fi paperbacks. That’s not some urban legend, it’s from no less an authority than Wikipedia. You can check it out … in just a minute. Wait, not yet. Okay, now.

Before I went off to begin what I thought would be my first and only enlistment in the Air Force, I stashed my hundreds of books in a deep, wide drawer under the clothes closet in my room. Two layers of books stacked three or four high made the drawer so heavy it would open an inch or so if I dug in my heels and jerked on the handles with all the piss and vinegar I was worth. I hated leaving them behind but I wouldn’t have anywhere to put them for at least a year and a half while I was in basic training, then in tech school, so I shoved my butt up against the drawer and closed it up tight as Tut’s tomb, vowing to return one day.

I was halfway through a year-long tech school when my dad had a medical emergency. An aneurysm in his brain blew open like a cracked radiator hose and he was bedridden for quite some time with nothing to do but learn to speak and read and write all over again, among other things. Lucky for him, he found my stash of sci-fi books, but the funny thing is I didn’t find out about this until many months later. He started on the nearest book in the top layer and worked his way to the back, and every time he finished a clutch of books he’d carry a bunch down to the local library, where they had a policy of trading paperback for paperpack. So not only did he get to read the two or three hundred books I’d salted away, he got to read another couple hundred he got in trade.

When I came home on leave from tech school and jerked open the drawer, looking for a favorite story, it flew open, being empty by then. My anguished cry echoed back and forth inside it.

“Does anybody know what happened to all the books that were in the closet drawer in my room?” I asked both my parents when I finally recovered my wits enough to get to my feet and stagger into the living room.

“Oh, sure,” Dad said, and told me all about the library paperback trade. “Those were a lot of fun to read,” he added. He probably even thanked me for saving them all for him to find later, too. Well, I couldn’t get mad at him, could I? And he did get a doubly good deal out of them. I sure did miss those books, though.