Once Upon A Time

Prager_HeadshotOnce upon a time, I was a child. Although fairy tales and moralistic stories – such as those by the Brothers Grimm and Rudyard Kipling, and ones attributed to Mother Goose – failed to ignite my imagination, those by Hans Christian Andersen surely did. Perhaps it was Danny Kaye’s delighted and delightful performance in the title role of the lighthearted biopic which succeeded. With a screenplay by Moss Hart and Ben Hecht, and tunes by Frank Loesser, how could that homage to the legendary Danish storyteller have been anything but captivating and inspiring?

Many of Andersen’s fables have become iconic in their metaphorical applications: The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, and The Princess and the Pea being foremost in that regard. At its publication in 1835, he recounted having heard a version of the storyline in his youth: a prince seeking a true princess, one able to prove her authenticity, devises a test of sensitivity. And you know the rest, or will when you Google the plot summary.

Although we had scratched silver in Wilmington, Jo Ann’s masterpoints total in that category had fallen shy of the threshold required to merit designation of Life Master by the princely sum of Point One Seven – seventeen hundredths of a point, a one-trick whispering ghost of a deficit.

As surely as we know that cows cannot fly, I knew that Point One Seven would be an implacably vexatious hard pea, a nemesis not to be denied, regardless of how many sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilting, or genealogical research projects which she might undertake to occupy her time and conscience in denial of the insistent knock on the slumber chamber door by the pesky ghost. That hard pea would disrupt her sleep and haunt my days.

“I’m just going to put it out of my mind until the club’s next STaC week,” she declared.

I am quite familiar with the tenor of such earnest vows to kick the can down the road. Often, they are made more to persuade oneself than to convince another. The theory of compartmentalization of nagging bugaboos and emotional distancing from them is a noble one; in practice, however, execution of such sincere intentions is at best problematic.

It was the “out of my mind” portion of Jo Ann’s declaration which deservedly cried out for putting a merciful end to the prospect of three months in wedded purgatory. Self-preservation of spousal sanity demanded that I seek remediation much, much sooner rather than later.

On the wings of Mercury, I sped to my desktop Dell, went to the ACBL website, clicked on Tournaments, then Calendar/Results, searched for Sectionals in Maryland, and therein found salvation: Hagerstown, September 12 to 14 at the American Legion Hall. Hallelujah!

I had come to know Hagerstown during the course of the four years which established the foundation of my lifelong career in the fields of insurance and corporate risk management. As an underwriter and sales rep for The Travelers, I plied Maryland’s central and western counties running from Carroll through Frederick, Washington, Allegany, and Garrett, visiting agencies in their respective seats of Westminster, Frederick, Hagerstown, Cumberland, and Oakland.

Those were the days when the term rural could be taken either in its most positive sense as pastoral, bucolic, uncomplicated, and relatively less afflicted by the urban maladies and sins of congestion, crime, and pollution – or, by citified snobs, as implying lacking in sophistication and street smarts, its denizens sadly trapped in a time capsule of the pre-industrial age.

Contrary to the latter’s unflattering preconceptions, I found the people within my assigned ambit to be most gracious and welcoming, brightly engaged in the issues of the times, proud of their communities, generous of their time, and profoundly adept in the art and science of down-home cooking, wholesome and scrumptious beyond belief.

Hancock’s Park-N-Dine diner immediately became one of my favorite mid-mission stops. The burg is located at Maryland’s narrowest border-to-border passage, a corridor measuring less than two miles between the horizontal of Pennsylvania to the north and the craggy jut of West Virginia thrust up from the south. Viewing a map of the region, one could readily envision a minor temblor splitting the state in two. There, bordering Route 40, the then National Pike, Park-N-Dine dished up heaping platters of savory goodies served piping hot – as they do to this day. My standing favorite comprised chopped steak with onion gravy, French fries, coleslaw, sweet butter dinner rolls, and full-throttle Coca-Cola.

Each and every venue along the way featured abundant local charm and earnest, hard-working business associates, many of whom became fast friends.

It was with those fond memories in mind that I eagerly pounced on the opportunity to accelerate the quest for fulfillment, help purge my partner’s One Trick Demon of Regret, and revisit a happy hitching post of yesteryear in one swell foop. (Please excuse the foregoing Spoonerism, folks: I truly did inadvertently swap the leading consonants in what I had intended to tap out on the QWERTY keyboard as one fell swoop.)

Jo Ann was tickled pink, especially given my track record of resistance to away games. Interstate 70, bless its gently undulating concrete artery, is a motoring pleasure compared to its beastly Northeast Corridor counterpart, the dreaded I-95. Nevertheless, I found my thoughts drifting into nostalgia for the old, parallel Route 40, in its heyday a congested circus train of cars, trucks, vans, lumbering farm equipment, and the occasional horse-drawn conveyance.

Absent from I-70 were Route 40’s instantly accessible attractions and insistent notices hawking their proximity in less than a mile on the right or the left. Roadside produce stands bordering the fecund farmlands from which they were sourced. Billboards beckoning a visit to the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant and its signature candies and hot turkey dinners. Mennonite food markets offering gloriously rich homemade butter, pickled chow-chow, and deep-dish fruit pies with crusts owing their flaky, melt-in-the-mouth goodness to lard, an ingredient not then subject to campaigns waged against arteriosclerosis. Tavern windows beaming brightly with neon tributes to Rolling Rock and Pabst Blue Ribbon and Broasted Chicken. Service stations of yore – Flying A and Esso – where one could count on finding hefty refrigerated chests, fire engine red with cursive white lettering, chockablock full of Coke at a nickel a pop. And, of course, the ubiquitous, whimsically humorous presence of Burma Shave signs.

Our proximate goal was to arrive in plenty of time for the Stratified 749er Pairs game at noon, which we accomplished with a comfortable half hour to spare. Morris Frock American Legion Post 42, hosting the sectional, evoked instant memories of my father-in-law’s V.F.W. hall in Telford, Pennsylvania, where Ernie and I had lifted many a pony glass of brew, seated at a bar bedecked with massive jars of pickled eggs and robust quivers of barely digestible Slim Jim treats – and where Jo Ann and I had held our wedding reception, once upon a time.

Alas and alack, we lacked the magic in the noontime session. Five tables, quirky bidding all around, hard chairs, poor acoustics, pedestrian snacks – altogether off-putting circumstances and defensible rationalizations for less than stellar play on my part.

I felt as if I had let Jo Ann down, but it was she who offered encouragement and proposed bold action in defiance of defeat. “Hey, don’t let it get to you. Games like that are unpredictable, and there’s no wiggle room in the averages. Plus, we got fixed twice. So, for the five o’clock session, let’s go for the Stratified Unlimited Pairs. Lots more tables – and larger rewards for successful swimming in the deeper part of the pool. Whaddaya think?”

(To Be Continued)

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