Monday, September 27, 2010

Did Oliver Hardy use a Flowbee?

Terry Stephan

I was looking in the mirror saying, “Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into.”
You may remember Oliver Hardy saying that to Stan Laurel. Laurel and Hardy were making films in the 1920’s and 30’s. I watched those movies and short films decades later, in my formative years, along with Rocky and Bullwinkle when I got home from school in the afternoons.
The ‘nice mess’ phrase usually comes to my mind over simple problems, like trying to cut my own hair and getting results I don’t expect. Operating a pair of scissors in the mirror, for me, is a physically dyslexic challenge. When I’m done, my hair in disarray, I envision Oliver nervously twiddling his tie atop his big belly, admonishing Stan Laurel. “This is another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”
I have a long, sadly comical history with haircuts. I avoid the barber shop like the plague. The cost has nothing to do with it, I don’t mind paying for a haircut; it really isn’t a lot of money when you consider the amount of time it takes, the space and tools needed.
I do resent that extra thing on my list of ‘to dos’ on a trip into town. I go with the intention of getting a haircut, wedged between shopping and the drug store. I become impatient after being in line at a couple of stores and end up driving home with all the hair I came to town with.
I’ve considered other possibilities, never getting my hair cut, for instance. I did that in the seventies. After a while the warm weather gets to me. Washing all that hair is a tough job as well.
I thought of the “Mr. Clean” look, just shaving my head. I already spend an inordinate amount of time shaving; I can’t manage to get all the whiskers off my face at one time. I think my skin head look would be a constant state of stubble. My knobby skull would scare people.
When I was a kid my mother blamed the bad haircuts she gave me on the bowl she was using. Her attempts at barbering my hair (and my three brothers’ hair) abruptly ended when she cut a chunk out of my ear with her scissors and I bled profusely all over myself, the table and kitchen floor. I was only 8 or 9. It scared the wits out of her.
My barber nowadays is a spicy woman I’ve known for years. We have a sort of an understanding, I think. A week after she cuts my hair I begin to trim it myself, just a little at a time. I think it looks pretty good for a while and then one day, in the mirror, I realize it is very long, well; it’s long in several places.
I steadfastly soldier on, trying a few more times to make the sides match, hoping no one comes to the door. When I get to the point where it looks like I was raised by a pack of wolves who just chew their hair off, I pull a hat over my head and go see my spicy barber friend. She fixes my hair, no questions asked, and with a straight face.
Then, my wife bought a “Flowbee” at a garage sale. It is a hair cutting device that you hook to your vacuum cleaner. It sucks your hair out straight through a tube and then cuts it off. It has varying lengths of tubes to cut different areas of your head. The cutting head is the size of a small toaster mounted at the end of a vacuum cleaner hose which in turn is a attached to a “brick” wall power unit and then to my shop vac.
I put the whole thing together, turned on the loud, rattling clipper unit, switched on the louder, jet engine sounding shop-vac and looked in the mirror.
The vacuum hose was around my neck and I held the toaster-like clippers to my head. Through the cacophony, I did my best Oliver Hardy, “This is another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”. I may have to visit the spicy barber girl again, very soon.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My Old Tractor

This is my beautiful tractor with front bucket and wood splitter on the back. The paint is kind of faded and worn twenty five years after the rebuild.

Last week my old tractor sprang a leak in the wood-splitter hydraulics. I am determined to sell it.
I bought it more than 25 years ago and it was old and beat up then. It has four-wheel drive, a 45 horse-power engine and a brand name few people recognize. It had been used for logging. Massive wrinkles and dents in the hood and fenders matched the shape of tree trunks dropped on the poor machine by reckless chainsaw operators.
The front tires were sliced and bald. The front-end loader, manufactured by International, is of high quality, but was so mismatched to this tractor; it wobbled side to side even while driving on a smooth surface.
Because the front-end loader was mounted so poorly, to attain your position on the operator’s seat, you had to climb up and over the three point hitch controls and framework in the back, or use a stepladder from the side.
The engine and transmission performed well enough so I could drive the tractor into a heavy duty straight truck in which to bring it home. Once there, I unloaded it by driving off onto a hill of dirt, made for that purpose.
If you wonder why I bought such a wreck, it was cheap (and should have been). I had more time and energy than money, and I loved a mechanical challenge. These days, I have no time, energy, or money. I can easily let a mechanical challenge slip past me, unanswered.
I removed the front-loader, torched it apart, built a new bucket for it, refurbished and welded it back together so it no longer wobbled and I could climb aboard simply, from the side. I repaired the power steering, the front drive shafts, and the brakes. New tires were added, and I rebuilt, cleaned and painted the rest of the tractor and fabricated the wood splitter. It was all hard dirty work; the machine is made of heavy stuff, iron and steel, and runs on diesel fuel, grease and dirt.
It was one of the early, mass-imported tractors built in the early 70’s in what was then, Yugoslavia. The same drive train was imported by half a dozen major agriculture manufacturers in the states. They used it as a basis for models of Oliver and Allis Chalmers tractors to name a few.
American corporations bought the chassis cheaply, by the many thousands. They shipped them to the US, and then finished them up, each adding their own individual company’s sheet metal, tires, and other bolt-on pieces. Most of the components from these other brands fit my tractor so I have always been able to get parts easily.
A favorite saying among mechanics back then was that the Yugoslavians used yardsticks instead of micrometers. My tractor still runs smoothly after all these years so someone measured pretty well with their yardstick.
As I worked on my tractor last week, I sprayed myself in the face with hydraulic oil (nasty stuff) got a ragged steel sliver in my finger and dropped a brand new hydraulic cylinder on my ankle and foot, causing a great deal of pain.
While I was thinking up fresh expletives to describe the cylinder and its forbearers, I swore I would sell the tractor as soon as I got it back together again.
Since my original rebuild, the tractor has required very little maintenance. I’ve performed grease and oil changes annually and installed a new battery every half dozen years. To save money when I rebuilt it, I reused old hoses, fittings and cylinders. It springs a hydraulic leak every decade.
The tractor is back together now and working fine. I got the sliver out of my finger and washed the hydraulic fluid out of my hair. My foot doesn’t hurt too much but is black and blue (coincidently the same colors I painted the tractor). I am still going to sell it. I guess I’ll just hold off another six or ten years..

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Little People and Ma

The Photo is of my mother during WWII she is about 17 years old here. One of the luckier war brides, she spent several of her first married years alone but her husband came home.. She sent him the photo of her and my eldest brother. You can see how important the photo was to him - he encased it in the heavy plexiglass.

Each time I peruse my file cabinet for whatever reason, it is my intention to throw out at least one obsolete folder. If I did that, it would make room enough so I could find other files I really need. Many of them should go in the garbage, including one I stumble upon often, a thick file of my mother’s papers. She passed away in 1991, so I always wonder how long I should keep them.
There are cancelled checks, important a long time ago, cards and letters which were significant to her, as well as her death certificate and other “official” papers. I thumb through the file three or four times a year, and consider it a candidate to toss.
Her file is usually a pleasant surprise though, a few moments of reflection, bringing her back to life for a short time, often in the middle of a busy day.
There are pay stubs in the file; for a while she worked at Fisher Price Toys. My mother used to call me a couple of times a week to talk about the “little people”. No, she wasn’t talking as a ‘royal’ or a BP executive speaking about Gulf Coast residents; she was talking about Fisher Price Toys’ “little people”.
As the little people passed her on a round-table assembly line, she would have to stamp eyes on their little faces or put a little head on a little body or hair on the little head. Some of the little people had faults, cock-eyed hats or maybe eyes on the back of their heads. Employees could take home the mistakes; they called them “misfits”.
My mother watched over the misfits in her apartment. They sat tucked here and there on shelves or end tables.
Some evenings when she phoned, she would be quite agitated about her job. The round table seemed to go too fast and she didn’t think she could keep up, or on other days workers on the line didn’t put the heads or eyes on properly, too many little people turned into misfits.
Thinking back on it now, I wasn’t always polite to my mother. I picked up the phone, and as she told in detail of her latest quandary concerning the little people, I would sink back in a chair, and massage my temples. I began to get headaches from little people stories.
Here was a woman who went through the depression as a child, in a family that was dirt poor. As a young bride with a baby she survived separation from my father for much of WWII. She was widowed at age 36, raised four boys on her own, and had a turbulent second marriage that ended in divorce. She was an intelligent well-read woman with a great sense of humor and now her primary subject of conversation boiled down to Fisher Price ‘little people’.
She didn’t miss the absurdity in the fact that her life revolved around the little people, we laughed about it often, especially when she started giving them human attributes.
She loved her work, and the real (big) people there, but I told her I didn’t want to hear about them anymore, her life had to be about more than just little people. She called several days later and we spoke about my brother for a minute, then she launched into a little people anecdote.
We reached an agreement. I would listen to twenty minutes of little people talk, no more than twice a week. She would have a chance to vent and make jokes about them, but then we moved on. If we didn’t have another subject to chat about, we would talk another day.
I imagine her hanging up the phone from our twenty minute talk and saying to the nearest little person with its crooked hat and lopsided smile, “He just doesn’t care about you misfits the way I do”.
She would chuckle at herself.
I still can’t toss her file out.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ozone Rangers Float Again

Emmy and I went on a Buffalo Harbor boat cruise August 21. This isn’t your ordinary boat cruise; it was the second annual Ozone Rangers cruise. The band kept us entertained, for three hours and a number of nautical miles. I had forgotten how good the group and its lead guitarist/vocalist Bob Muhlbauer are.
Muhlbauer, a local Western New York luminary, started the Ozone Rangers over three decades ago. He is well known around town and has become a fixture at Springville Griffith Institute. He is the audio-visual technician for the school, and its six buildings including the district offices and bus garage.
Bob Muhlbauer tried for a number of years to make music his only profession. In the past decade and a half there have been numerous changes in the way people enjoy themselves. The legal drinking age has increased and drinking and driving laws have been stiffened. For years the Ozone Rangers worked most nights of every week. There are unintended consequences for all actions good or bad, new laws hurt music venues where legal beverages are served.
“From 1981 to about 1995 that is all I did, we used to play five nights a week. Then the bar scene just quieted right down. You are lucky now to get people coming out at all on weekends,” said Muhlbauer.

During those years, the group cut an album entitled “Long Way to Rock and Roll” and played gigs from Fort Lauderdale to Quebec.
The members of the band have changed through the years; it may be a figment of my imagination but I think more than one of them had a ZZ Top-type long white beard as Muhlbauer still sports these days. Other people remember the Ozone Rangers in the same way, and think of them as a ZZ Top tribute band.
Long time fans have said “I remember when all you played was ZZ Top.”
Muhlbauer indicated that a lot of people think that, but the group has always had a diverse playlist, much as it is today.
Their song list can be found at They do perform a healthy amount of ZZ Top hits but have always played a variety of classic rock and roll, from Beatles and Steely Dan to Foghat and Queen.
On our cruise the other afternoon, when Miss Buffalo departed the dock, Bob Muhlbauer, and bass guitarist Xeno had a hard time getting their sea legs, even the seated drummer/vocalist Brendan Komenda seemed close to losing the beat, or possibly an entire drum. Unlike a normal stage, the Miss Buffalo bucked and rocked under their feet. It took them only minutes to become accustomed to the movement. Soundman extraordinaire, Howard "Dude" Wallace, with the expectations of some rough seas tied his speakers to the overhead canopy before the performance.
The four man combination performed well, Brendan Komenda, from the Buffalo based band, Sky, has a great voice which compliments Muhlbauer’s. Recently added bassist and vocalist, Xeno, from the Buffalo area band C.T. Ryder rounded out the band with backup vocals. Soundman Howard Wallace makes sure the sound levels are right and no one looses an eardrum.
Muhlbauer said of ‘Soundman’ Wallace, “We trust Howard- we will always sound the best we are able, with him out there.”
There were folks from all over Western New York at this years’ Ozone Ranger’s cruise, but plenty of room for more. It was a great afternoon for classic rock and roll. Dates for next year’s cruise, other upcoming shows and interesting commentary can be found at