Wednesday, March 2, 2016
All art is escape, and yet these escapes comprise our reality.
I first learned of Harry Houdini from a book we had on the shelves when I was growing up. The book had images on the cover associated with the adventurous stories within. A lion rearing back on its hind legs. Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard the Pirate. A scuba diver. And Harry Houdini depicted similar to the sketch in the lower right hand corner. That's based on a photo taken prior to Houdini escaping from a jail cell.
I learned he was born Erich Weiss, from Budapest, Hungary. That his father was a Rabbi who moved to Appleton, Wisconsin. That Erich was especially devoted to his mother, and that he had a younger brother. When I was in my early teens, I soaked up everything I could find on Houdini. It has been said that he was America's first superhero. Not true. That was Daniel Boone. But Harry Houdini was second.
I used to practice escaping from handcuffs. Got a paperclip? No problem. I used to keep a paperclip on my person specifically so I could escape from handcuffs. Always looking for locks and keys and chains, always wanting and never finding a genuine straight jacket. It was a big deal when Paul Michael Glaser, Starsky from "Starsky and Hutch," played Houdini in a made-for-TV movie. Then of course there was the Tony Curtis movie from the '50s.
It's still the seminal Houdini flick. Better even than the silent movies in which Houdini himself starred, such as The Man From Beyond. We had an English teacher at the high school who started out as a substitute who entertained the students with displays of magic tricks. He claimed to have worked as a technical adviser on the The Great Houdini. Maybe this was true.
A more theatrical fellow you never saw. I don't necessarily mean that in a very good way. He was also a priest, and a raging alcoholic. I'm an alcoholic. I don't blame a person for getting stuck on drinking. But he was theatrical in self-serving toxic ways. Plus the image of a magician priest was always off-putting and self-contradictory.
As a teacher his specialty was penmanship. He wrote on the chalkboard real good. He told us one day in class--we were Sophomores--of the Young Writers' Conference to be held at Humboldt State University soon. We were all supposed to write a piece with a short word limit. We could also opt to pull an extract from, or worse yet, condense, a preexisting work. Three of us were chosen. Of the two others besides myself, one was a lad and one was a gal. Our teacher the magician priest liked for kids to call him Wondie. (He was also the drama teacher.) Wondie offered to take all three of us out to dinner the Friday night before the Saturday afternoon event. The gal wisely chose to decline, but the other guy and I figured what the hey.
Wondie was pear-shaped and toddled around with a halitosis-cursed Spaniel named Tinkerbell that he cried out to in a whiny voice. The other kid and I had been buddies more or less off and on since the Second Grade. He was a mensch, and as such revealed unto me various informations. For example, the gal completing our triumvirate of literary promise had, he assured, actually cheated by exceeding the word-length stipulated. Wondie fudged it for her, which bugged us because if we'd known we could do that we would have done things differently and represented our work more fairly.
And because Wondie had fudged the rules for the absent girl and not for us, decisions were made regarding what he sat on in the car. Tinkerbell had been waiting for Wondie in the front seat and left him a little gift that went unnoticed most of the evening. After school he chauffeured us to an Italian restaurant in Fortuna. When he got out of the car we saw it. A beige patty of dog shit smashed on his ass. He'd sat on it, and it stuck to his ass like a Milk Dud. We stared amazed while he waddled off...