Life, Death, and Jelly-Filled Bismarks

Once again, for the record, I am old.

How old am I?

I’m old enough to remember a world without the internet, without cell phones, without personal computers, without ATMs, without cable or satellite T.V., without e-mail, without Facebook, without microwave ovens.  I’m old enough to remember full service gas stations, locally owned grocery stores, rotary phones, barber shops, and one income families.    School was filled with mimeographed worksheets, film strips, and cartons of chocolate milk.   I’m old enough to remember McDonald’s before the Big Mac, when all you could get was a hamburger or a cheeseburger.  I’m old enough to remember when we got our first color television. I’m old enough to remember watching The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show.

I grew up in a small town in southeastern Wisconsin, my family having moved there from northwestern Wisconsin when I was three and a half years old, in 1962.  It was a time when most households had one wage earner, and the moms, like my mom, typically stayed at home.  What seems so amazing about it now, looking at the way things are today, is back then blue collar, middle class working men earned enough to provide good lives for their families. There were, on the block surrounding the middle of Yorkville Avenue, three men, including my dad, who drove trucks of one kind or another, and they lived side by side with a school superintendent, the owner of the town’s grocery store, the town dentist and the town doctor, a pharmacist, an airport mechanic, an insurance salesman, and a bookkeeper.  They all lived in modest but comfortable 1960s era ranch homes.

My dad was an over the road driver, a Teamster, driving eighteen wheelers to various places in Ohio and Indiana, driving by night, home and sleeping in his own bed behind shaded windows that blocked out the daylight every other day, days that we’d only see him at the supper table.  On weekends he’d get an extra day, the one day of the week he was able to spend the entire day with us.

How old am I?

I’m old enough that when I was eleven years old, jelly filled bismarks at the local bakery sold for eight cents apiece.  Eight cents.  I can’t think of anything you can get for eight cents these days.   I remember too that a bottle of Coke out of the soda machine outside the gas station downtown cost fifteen cents.  So for a quarter, you could get a delicious jelly filled bismark and a bottle of Coke, which at the time sounded like just about the most perfect meal I could dream of.  Or, if you were returning from the barber shop with fifty cents in change, like I was one early summer Saturday morning when I was eleven, you could stop and buy six jelly filled bismarks, one for every member of my family.

Did I mention that I loved jelly filled bismarks?

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were living in a Norman Rockwell painting.  We played basketball games in our driveway, football and baseball games in our back yards.   We shot BB guns and played hide and seek and war in the small woods behind the houses on the other side of the street from us.  In the winter we built snow forts and played duck, duck, goose.  On warm summer nights kids from the entire neighborhood would be outside until well after dark, playing kick-the-can, our laughter echoing on the warm night breeze.  We mowed lawns and shoveled snow, we walked to and home from school.  We hunted for sasquatches and ghosts and evidence of UFO landings.  We watched black and white television, mostly westerns and war shows.  We were, within the confines of our small town, isolated and shielded from the outside world, the world we saw on television news reports, the world of assassinations and riots and cities burning and body bags. None of that seemed real, none of that could reach into our little village.

Then death came to town.

I was eight years old and it was summer when a new family moved into the house at the southern end of the other side of the street.  They had two boys, Joey, who was my age, and his younger brother Jerry, two years younger.  We’d just met when they came over to play with me in the sandbox my dad had made. We played for hours under a beautiful blue summer sky, lost in the discovery of new friends and new neighbors.  Then it was time for them to go home and something strange happened, something that to this day has never left me.  We got to the edge of my front yard, and Joey and Jerry, ages eight and six, stopped, held hands, and very slowly and formally looked both ways before crossing Yorkville Avenue to get to their side of the street.  This struck me as very peculiar, as Yorkville Avenue was about as quiet a street as you’ll find, especially during the mid summer week days when all the men were off to work.

I don’t recall who told me, but a few days later I learned that not long before moving to Yorkville Avenue, on the street where they used to live, their older sister had been killed, hit by a car as she ran across the street.  Now it made sense – the two brothers holding hands, looking up and down a quiet empty street, small under the vast and enormous midday sky.  Death was real to Joey and Jerry, and it was suddenly real to me, personified by the empty presence, by the absence, of the sister I had never seen or met.

This was about the time I became so terrified of the concept of death that I tried to avoid saying or even thinking the words “dead” or “death”.   I was old enough to know that everyone dies, that death is inevitable, but now, besides the nightmarish horror stories my brother told me about dead women with rotting flesh existing and occasionally coming back to life in our shared closet, as real and frightening as those stories were they were never as real as the empty space that stood beside the two small brothers holding hands in front of Yorkville Avenue.  That empty space didn’t give me nightmares the way the stories my brother told me did, but it haunted my waking hours, resulting not so much in fear as in the overwhelming weight of sadness the image of the boys represented for me even at that young age, the same sadness I feel when my memory conjures up the image now, over forty years later.

Now, at age fifty five, I’m old enough to know that the real world is never far away. I’ve lived through the death of three family members, including my mom and dad.  Not a day goes by without me thinking about them.  I still don’t understand death, and I never will.  It still terrifies me.

One of the earliest dreams I had that I still remember came to me when I was about six years old.  In my dream, for some reason, I was going to Heaven.   Heaven, it turns out, was a small, fluffy white cloud, with an American flag sticking out of it.  That was it.  I remember waking up and being disappointed that that was all there was.

I was too young to realize that it was just a dream, and that in reality, in my small home town with my family all around me, with nothing to do all day but to run and play and imagine, and with eight cent jelly-filled bismarks and fifteen cent cokes, I was already in Heaven.

I Saved Boomer Esiason’s Life Tonight

This is a true story.

I saved Boomer Esiason’s life tonight.

Yes, that’s right, the beloved former left handed NFL quarterback, winner of tBoomer Esiasonhe Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in 1988 and the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 1995, sportscaster and co-star of the NFL Today on CBS, that Boomer Esiason.  The same Boomer Esiason who took the Cincinnati Bengals to the super bowl after the 1988 season.

And although I like the guy, I’ve never even been that big of a fan.   I mean, I’m from Wisconsin, the geographic center of the football universe, where when cut we bleed not blood but green and gold cheese.  Why would a Packers fan give a rip about some left handed AFC quarterback from Cincinnati?  Don Majkoswki, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers – Hell, even Anthony Dilweg would make more sense than Boomer Esiason.

Yet there I found him tonight, laid out on my living room floor, helpless, about to be ripped to shreds.  Without thinking, without hesitation I leaped into the jaws of death and pulled Boomer out, saving him and his plus twelve on a roll of seven on a short pass guessed right by the defense.

My wife and I had just sat down to dinner when she pointed to the living room and said something to the effect of “Look!   Good God!  That carnivorous monster is about to rip that innocent man to shreds!”

“I must save him!” I cried, leaping into action.


The menacing beast in a calmer moment, being held by my daughter

“No, it’s too dangerous!”

“Never mind danger!  I laugh at danger!  Ha ha ha!”

(The above may or may not be an exact transcript of our dialogue, but covers the general gist)

I jumped off of my chair and hurtled myself at the deadly beast, reached straight into his jaws and pulled the body out to safety.  Then, using my amazing telepathic ability to control both predator and prey, I was able to calm the hulking menace of a beast down from his frenzied fury.   Turning my attention to the body I had just saved from certain disembowelment, I realized time was of the essence.

“He’s not breathing,” I said.  “I’ll have to do mouth to mouth.”

“What are you talking about?” my wife said, “It’s a card.  It doesn’t even have a mouth.”

A card?   “But it’s Boomer Esiason,” I said.

“That may be.  You must have left the doors open on your bookcase again.”


“Yeah, where you store your old Strat-o-Matic sets.   Tucker must have gotten into them.”

I’ve been a strat-o-matic sports game fan since I was a kid, and have several seasons of the football, baseball and basketball games stored in plastic bins behind closed doors at the bottom of my book shelf in my office.  So it was that I saved Boomer Esiason’s 1989 Strat-O-Matic football card from the clutches of our five month old English Shepherd puppy, Tucker.

So, technically, it wasn’t really Boomer Esiason.  So I let my imagination run away with me. At least I saved the card from becoming a puppy chew toy, and I saved the 1989 Cincinnati Bengals from having to rely on some guy named Erik Wilhelm as their only quarterback

So you can call me hero. You can call me courageous. You can call me nerd.

Just don’t read too much into my attempt to perform mouth to mouth on Boomer Esiason.


The 1989 Boomer Esiason Strat-o-matic football card, still preserved in all its glory, thanks to my heroic actions.




Fun With Telemarketers

I’m one of the few people who enjoy receiving calls from telemarketers.  It drives my wife crazy, but I just love taking up as much of their time as I can.  The key to prolonging a telemarketing call is acting stupid.  I’ve become so successful at it that my wife says it’s not really an act.  She may be right, but I enjoy myself anyway.   I know I’ve succeeded when I get the service rep to put the manager on the line.

The first time I ever got the manager was probably twenty five years ago, and remains one of my favorite calls ever.    It’s not verbatim, but the call went something like this:

My phone rang, and the voice on the other end said, “Congratulations, Mr. Gourdoux, your name was selected, and you’ve just won a free charcoal grill!”

“That’s great!,” I  replied.  “I was just going to buy one.”

“Well, now you won’t have to.   We’re going to have a representative in …”

“I just love to barbecue,” I interrupted.  “Don’t you?”

“Yes, sir, now we’re …”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Shirley,” she cheerfully replied.

“Well, Shirley.  I love hamburgers on the grill.  And brats.   And hot dogs.”

“Yes, sir, so do I.  Now as I was saying …”

“And ribs!  How can I forget about ribs! “

“Yes, sir, now, we’re going to have a representative in your area giving estimates on new windows.  We can bring the grill with us when we come out to give you your free estimate.”

“Ribs with the right sauce, wow, I can almost taste them already.”

“Yes sir, now when shall we come out to give you your free estimate on windows?”

“I’m sorry, I just purchased new windows.  Plus I’m working pretty late these days.  You can just leave my free grill on my front porch.”

“Sir, I’m sorry, we can’t do that.”



“I just remembered, a smoked Kielbasa is really good cooked on a grill.   Have you ever had kielbasa?”

“No, I don’t ….”

“Oh, you don’t know what you’re missing.  It’s like a polish ring bologna.   It’s really good grilled.  In fact, now that I think about it, that’ll probably be the first thing I grill on my new grill.”

“Sir, I must …”

“When will they deliver it?”

“Well, sit we’ll have some representatives in your neighborhood next week.”


“When can we give you your free estimate on new windows?

“I’m sorry, like I was saying, I just installed all new windows.  Just tell them to drop the grill off on my front porch.”

“Sir, I’m sorry, we can’t ….”

“Wow, what a lucky day.  I don’t normally win anything.   And now I’ve won a grill, of all things.”

“Sir, you have to talk to one of our estimators.”


“I’m sorry?”

“Have you ever grilled salmon?  That’s something I’d like to learn how to do.”

“Sir, you have to talk to one of our estimators in order to get the grill.”

“Estimators?  Estimators of what?”

“Windows, sir.  I told you that you have to receive a free estimate for new windows in order to receive your grill.”

“I’m sorry, I thought I made it clear, I just installed new windows.  I wouldn’t want to waste any of your time.   Just drop the grill off next week and leave it on my front porch.  “

“Sir, we cannot just drop the grill off. “

“Well, is there a place where I can come pick it up?”


“Pick it up.  If you can’t deliver it, maybe I could drive to your distribution center and claim it there.”

“Sir, how are we going to give you an estimate on new windows if we don’t come out to your home?”

“An estimate for new windows?”

“Yes, that’s right; you get a free grill in return for us providing you with an estimate for new windows.”



“Yeah, isn’t that what they call it when you cook those skewers of vegetables and meat over the grill? Shish-ka-bob?”

“I don’t know, sir. Now, in order to get your free grill, you have to let us give you an estimate on new windows.”

“So when do you think you’ll deliver my grill?  How about next Thursday?

“You’d like to speak to one of our estimators next Thursday?”

“Oh, no, I won’t be home next Thursday.  We’re going out of town for a long weekend.  You can just drop the grill off on my front porch, I’ll tell my neighbor to keep an eye out for it.  I can’t wait to tell him I’ve won a free grill!”

“Mr. Gourdoux, we cannot drop the grill off!”

“Tell me, does my new grill include a warming tray? Because a warming tray can really come in handy …”

“Mr. Gourdoux, let me put you on hold.”

I then listened to some tape recorded music.  When I was off of hold, there was another woman on the line.

“Mr. Gourdoux,” she started.  She sounded firm.

“Hello, who is this?” I asked.  “You don’t sound like Shirley.”

“This is Shirley’s  manager.”

“Oh, well, Shirley’s doing a great job.   She explained to me how I won a new grill!”

“Mr. Gourdoux …”

“I can’t wait to try it out!  I’m going to get some steaks and marinate them.  You ever …”


“What are you talking about?  Shirley said …”

“I don’t care what Shirley said, you HAVE NOT WON A GRILL.”

“Hot dogs, hamburgers …”

Click.  Shirley’s manager finally hung up on me.

. . .

My all-time favorite was the call trying to sell me a credit card, I think it was a Visa card.  It was sometime during the 1990s.  I listened very patiently to the woman’s long winded spiel, agreeing to everything, expressing my interest in the card.  Then it was time to close the deal.

“Now, I just need to confirm some basic information,” she said.  “Your name is David Gourdoux?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“And that’s spelled, D-A-V-I-D, G-O-U-R-D-O-U-X?”

“Well, that’s close.  It’s actually spelled I-G-O-R, S-T-R-A-V-I-N-S-K-Y”

“Your name is Igor Stravinsky?”

“It’s spelled Igor Stravinsky, but it’s pronounced David Gourdoux.”   I’d used this gag before, and it always ended up with the agent slamming down the phone in disgust.  Not this time.   The woman was going to close the deal no matter what.

“And your address is 99999 99th Avenue, Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin?”  (the nines are placeholders for my real address.)

“Close,” I said again.

“When you’re ready, sir, give me the correct address”

“Okay, “ I said, “It’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.”  The address of the white house.  I could hear her type away.  When she was done, she told me that my new card would be mailed out to me in a week or two.

I know I screwed up the zip code, but that didn’t keep me from imagining Bill Clinton opening up the mail one day to find a Visa card with Igor Stravinsky’s name on it.

One Headlight

He was awakened by the sound of the car leaving the road, the crunch of the tires in the snow, and he opened his eyes just in time to see the tree a split second before the car struck it.   He turned the steering wheel as hard as he could to the left, but it was too late. The air bag blew up in his face as the car tipped to its left side, and he felt something hard hit him, on the left side of his head.

He woke up again on his side, the air bag pressing on him, the dashboard and steering wheel caved in, leaving him barely enough room to move.  He got his bearings and realized the car was on its side, the passenger door up in the air above him.  He reached for it but it was difficult moving, with the air bag and the steering wheel pressing in on him, and with the angle of the car.   He was finally able to wiggle up the seat just enough that he could lunge and grab the side of the passenger seat closest to the passenger door.  His chest came to rest on the shift stick in the center console, and it hurt, and it made him aware that everything hurt.

He hung on to the passenger seat with one hand and pulled himself up and with the other hand he reached for the doorknob, but the door wouldn’t open.    It was locked shut, and he had no way of unlocking it – the power locks weren’t working.  It took him a long time to reposition his body so that his feet were over him, pointed toward the passenger door, and his hands were underneath him.  He bent his knees above him and kicked at the passenger window, both feet at the same time.  On the fourth kick, his steel toed hiking boots were finally able to break the window.  Shards and nuggets of glass rained down upon him, on his face and his flannel shirt and on the seat around him.  He closed his eyes and his mouth tight as he scooted his torso up closer to the window and stuck his legs out, bending them at the knees, the back of the joints resting on sharp shards of glass.  He tried to ignore the pain and lifted himself up until he could grab the top of the window with his hands.  It took every ounce of strength he had left to pull his body up and out of the window, and he laid against the side of the car for a moment before he dropped down into the snow.

The snow was cold and wet, but he didn’t feel it at first.   Gradually he became aware of his surroundings, and the blood on his hands and the wet dampness under his knees, from where he cut them on the glass crawling out, and then he felt the cold wind and the snow on his bare arms.  He became aware of the black emptiness that surrounded him, and of the one headlight that silently shone into the forest, week and inconsequential against the blackness that consumed its narrow beam.

He stood up and tried to remember where he was.  He looked at the highway for a clue but there was none, not even a sign telling him what road he was on or what direction he was pointed.  He looked for the light from a house or a town or another car or anything, but there was nothing.  He searched his pockets for his cell phone but it wasn’t there, it was in the car somewhere, and he knew, with the car tipped on its side like it was, that there’d be no retrieving it.

There’d be no retrieving his coat, either, and he stood there, in his flannel shirt, in the sub zero temperature.  There was no traffic on the highway.  He was unable to remember where he was before he fell asleep, and what time it was the last time he looked at the dashboard.  All of the information that his brain had recorded in the hour or so before the crash was inaccessible.

He started walking down the highway, looking for a house or a farm somewhere.   After about fifty yards, he reached to scratch an itch on the left side of his head when he felt thick goo tangled up in his hair.  He put his hand to his face but it was too dark out for him to see the blood.  It annoyed him, and he kept putting his hand to his head, absent mindedly rubbing the matted hair and the rough surface.

He walked in the black.  In the absence of light, he relied upon the sound of his feet on the pavement to keep him on the highway, to keep him on track.   After a couple of minutes he collapsed, and he lay in the middle of the highway in a crumpled heap.   His eyes were open and he could see the snow off to the side of the highway, and he looked up, and could see the night sky, thousands of stars shimmering in the blackness.  He stared at the sky and the stars and they gave way to the house he raised his children in. and he was sitting in the living room on the couch reading to his son, five years old again, sitting by his side.  It was a Dr. Seuss book, “Fox in Socks,” a series of tongue twisters, and he got to the page that always gave him trouble.  “Chicks with bricks come, chicks with blocks come,                          chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks come.”

Then he was up again, standing in the cold darkness.   He became aware of how alone he was, and how cold and empty the highway was.  He put his hand to his head again and he realized it was bleeding, it was blood that was all matted and tangled up in his hair, and it kept coming.  For the first time, he became aware that he could die. For the first time he felt panic.

He looked back to the car, silent and still, resting against the tree, its headlight still beaming into the forest.  He didn’t know what to do, should he continue walking down the road, or should he walk back and stay by the car?  Eventually someone would have to come down this highway.  Whatever he did, he knew he had to keep moving, to stay warm, to stay awake.  If he was moving he was alive, he wasn’t dead.

He pulled himself up and looked around.   His eyes had adjusted to the darkness to the point he could make out the silhouettes of trees and the contours of rolling knolls and hills, but there were still no lights, no signs of life.  He still couldn’t remember before the crash, where he was or what time it was.  He decided to head back to the car.  Somehow, the beam of the headlight, the only light, looked warm and safe.

As he walked back to the car, he became increasingly tired, cold and exhausted.  He got to the car and stumbled off the road into the white that was lit up by the headlight and he collapsed, in the snow.   In the beam of light he laid looking up at the sky.  Soon he was back in his living room, with his five year old son again.  They were reading when he saw someone approaching from the light of the hallway.  He turned to his son.

The state trooper ran to him in time to hear him clearly say:  “Chicks with bricks come, chicks with blocks come, chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks come.”  He lay there, still and silent in the headlight’s beam, his mouth turned upwards in a smile, his eyes open and lifeless.