IT’S MAGIC

Last night I viewed an episode of American Restoration. If you’re not familiar with the History Channel show the basic premise is that people bring old objects to the shop owned and run by Rick Dale to get them restored to their former glory. Some are genuine antiques but don’t be surprised if you see someone drive in with a carnival game to be restored or a mechanical nail gun from the 1800’s or even a cannon.

This episode featured an old commercial stove that had once been used in a church. The customer who paid for the restoration was doing so to honor and remember his late father who had been the pastor at the church.

The gas stove with multiple burners and a couple of ovens…a heaping hunk of iron…looked wonderful. I could easily envision it being utilized in the church for various affairs when the father preached there.

Unfortunately I have no physical reminder of my father, Merritt “Doc” Hammond, and his interests, at least none that I can possess. Several years ago I suffered an apartment disaster and was left with just the clothes on my back. I mean I lost everything from my furniture and electronics to my Roberto Clemente replica statue of the one now at PNC Park, to all the pictures, cards, letters and tokens that marked various stages of my life.

Foremost among my losses were the photos of my sons and me from a Washington, D.C trip and the birthday and Fathers’ Day cards they gave me.

Also irreplaceable were the few brochures I had that my father used to promote his magic act. In the brochures were pictures of my sister and me being tortured by sundry knives, swords and guillotines that were the tools of Dad’s trade/hobby.

The slash exists since my dad didn’t really make his living from his magic. He was a draftsman for a monument dealer and his main responsibility was designing the tombstones placed on graves by grieving families.

Honestly I could drive through any cemetery in the vicinity of my Washington, Pa. home town and know there is much of his work there. But two public examples are easy to find. He designed and helped build a World War II memorial which sits in front of the county courthouse. He also designed some of the stonework of the local synagogue, Beth Israel, including Hebrew characters for the Ten Commandments.

Both projects were done in the 1950’s.

From time to time Dad supplemented the family income through sales. A good friend of his, Dan Sheehan, owned an appliance store and my dad sold vacuum cleaners for him. Dad also sold a contraption called a SaladMaster. It had a stainless steel base and an upper part to which various cutting devices could be attached and then a handle was turned as vegetables were fed in to be sliced or shredded or whatever. VOILA! You got SALAD!

But Dad’s pride and joy was his ability to do magic tricks. He didn’t make 747’s disappear. (Though he may have, I never saw a one of them in our town in the ’50’s. Which reminds me of one of the jokes in the books he used to build up a humorous patter for his shows. Guy #1 to Guy #2, “What’s that powder you’re spreading?” Guy #2, “It’s to keep elephants away.” Guy #1, “but there are no elephants within a hundred miles.” Guy #2, “See, it works!”

Anyways Dad did the closeup magic… sleight of hand…that was suitable for performances before church groups, civic clubs, Cub Scouts and the like. He used audience participants for many tricks. If it was a man Dad would ask his name and then, “Bill, are you married or happy?”

At one show he had three helpers, siblings. The oldest was Kenneth “Doc” Schott. The girl was Karen Schott, the same age as and a friend of my sister. The youngest was Johnny Schott. After the first two had given their names Dad turned to Johnny, quite a bit smaller, and remarked, “You must be Half Schott, ”

In the early fifties Mom would be Dad’s assistant on stage. It was neat seeing them dress up for an event, Dad in his tux and my mom Helen in  her cocktail dress.

Also nice in those days were the occasions two or three times a year when my dad and a few of his magician friends would gather at one of their houses (most often ours…we had the littlest kids) for a Sunday afternoon. The magicians would trade tricks and tips while the women prepared dinner. After eating, our showmen would demonstrate their craft to everyone’s delight.

As the ’60’s arrived, Mom no longer acted the assistant but a number of times I accompanied Dad to a show and simply helped with carrying his props. I watched every show and never failed to enjoy them even though the tricks and the corny lines were a constant.

One I recall well. Dad didn’t work with live animals but he did have a furry rabbit he could employ. He performed his legerdemain and that bunny disappeared to be replaced by a strand of white rope. Whereupon Dad quipped, ” I will now do a trick with a long, thin rabbit”.

Surely you wonder why I didn’t follow in his footsteps. The answer is pretty simple. My father would have been enormously pleased to help me learn the tricks of the trade. I attempted a few tricks, ones anyone could purchase in a novelty store, but was rather ham-handed when performing them. Plus I was just a kid and probably unwilling at that time to put in the necessary effort to be even merely competent. Dad’s pride in his craft was such that he wouldn’t reveal his secrets just to satisfy my curiosity.

So, I was not to be the successor to “Hammond The Great’ as Dad billed himself.

No mind, I have my talents. (Please, someone PLEASE, tell me what they are.)

The last time I saw my father do his magic was at one of my fraternity parties early in 1968. Five or six of my brothers were also from Washington and knew of Dad through their exposure in their own youth. So I was persuaded to ask him to do his thing at a party while the band took a break.

He and my mom drove to Morgantown on a February Saturday, checked into a motel, and came up to the house where they would be our official chaperones for the evening (a quaint practice you may not have heard of). Mom spent much of the time playing two-handed Bridge with our housemother , Mabel “Mom” Clark, while Dad prepared for his appearance.

Believe it or not but in that nearly Animal House atmosphere Dad was a huge hit! The brothers and their dates loved him and several were called up to be teased while they did as they were instructed to get the tricks done.

It was even a fun evening for me, save for one thing. I had never drunk alcohol around my parents and I wasn’t about to start. Getting pulled out of school and becoming reclasified 1-A wasn’t particlarly enticing. As it had begun snowing and Dad hated driving in sunny weather, let alone snow, I drove the folks back to their motel for the night and returned to the house where i quickly found some booze.

One byproduct of his show, exhibiting his corny jokes, is that my brothers now claimed they understood MY sense of humor, as if learning that I was a dwarf because my dad was.

I graduated from WVU in 1969 and the folks gave me a down payment for my first car as a present. It was a Fiat 850 Spider, a two-seater sports car. Dad’s duties with Kurtz Monument, Co had broadened and grown so in the ensuing years he had little time for his magic. More than once my dad asked me to drive him on some business which invariably involved a cemetery visit to check his work. It was nice to cruise with the top down and chat casually about…really nothing…but baseball, a shared passion, would come up often.

I was away from home again as I spent my six months on active duty for the reserves in late ’69-’70 and several months after that I left home for good for a job in central Pa.

There were some family tensions that made things rough for a time and I did some traveling across country for the first part of 1972. During that summer I  reunited with my parents and any wounds had healed and we thoroughly enjoyed our time together.

Dad died suddenly in August of 1972.

There was no more magic.

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Comments

  • little_minx  On October 26, 2012 at 12:44 PM

    Well-done, UMOC!!! Since newspapers have strict word-limits — unlike the luxury of one’s own blog — I urge you to consider preparing an appropriate-length version of this piece, as it would make a superb submission for consideration for a Father’s Day edition of one or another of the regional fish-wraps.

    • Steve  On October 26, 2012 at 4:37 PM

      You are quite the raconteur, Bravo

  • Anonymous  On October 28, 2012 at 7:25 AM

    Well done, Son of Hammond the Great!!

  • little_minx  On October 29, 2012 at 5:17 PM

    How ya doin’ riding out Hurricane Sandy in your neck o’ the woods? Rain or snow? Winds? Power still on?

    • umoc193  On October 29, 2012 at 7:00 PM

      Just rain here, doen’t even seem to be that much wind. Higher elevations will be more affected. Snowshoe is already covered in snow.
      Thanks for asking
      You take care

      • little_minx  On October 30, 2012 at 12:47 AM

        Still have utilities Chez Minx (watched TV all evening!), but who knows what the morn will bring?

        • umoc193  On October 30, 2012 at 4:47 AM

          All’s well here in Mo’town, too. I’m working on my endorsement for President. Thought I was near done with it but tok some time to reflect and believe I can make a better argunment for Gary Johnson. (Just kidding!)

          It will be out this morning. Also just read Tony Norman’s latest and it may have inspired another post. I’ll have to try some things.

      • little_minx  On October 30, 2012 at 8:57 AM

        Made it through the night without utility outages. Some basement seepage, which Mr. Minx mopped up and bailed out. Heard on WVPR re lots of school closings, incl. Monongalia Co. Stay safe, warm, dry.

        • umoc193  On October 30, 2012 at 3:51 PM

          In town we got a dusting of snow. Schools around here close too damned often. They get more snow days in one year than I did in my 12 years in public schools. Just looked out the window and we have some flurries. I pay little attention to forecasts so I don’t know what this means. Really don’t care. I’m safe inside my high rise.

  • Mary Decker  On June 16, 2013 at 8:38 PM

    That was a great piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Well written and quite a tribute to your father.

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