Two oldsters explain why everyone needs a sideline, even if it's a strange one. A chapter from I Got Stinky Feet.
We drove on the next day and stopped to camp for the night in a national forest in eastern Arkansas. To our surprise, a couple was camped there. They were staying in an old, beat up silver camper that reminded me of an eggshell on wheels.
Dave wanted to talk to them, figuring we could hit them up for money.
“Old people always feel generous to young travelers like you and me,” he said, “because they see us as doing some of the things they didn’t have a chance to do. They get a good feeling by being generous to us, and we get their money.”
Before we could decide on what to do, the people had walked over to our campsite and invited us to a dinner of homemade beef stew, bread, juice, coffee and cake.
Their names were Jim and Martha. He was sixty-seven. She was sixty-four. He had a permanently deformed back, or curved spine that caused him to walk hunched over. His hands trembled; he chewed tobacco and drooled on his shoes, which were nothing more than strips of brown animal hide sewn to cardboard soles. The little hair that he still had was brown. It seemed that his left eye was not only larger than the other, but that it was a quarter-of-an-inch higher up on his face than the other. He noticed my interest in his shoes.
“Make ‘em myself, sonny. Dig the cardboard out of garbage cans, and any time there’s some animal smashed by a car on the side of the road, I jump out and cut me out a piece of skin and dry it on top of the car and that’s how we get shoes. Started doing it about ten years ago when I lost my job and money was tight. Money’s still tight and so we still make our own shoes. They work okay for homemade jobbers.”
Martha’s hair was grey, and with the exception of a bald spot about the size of a silver dollar on top of her skull, she had a full head of it. Her eyes blinked uncontrollably, both her arms twitched and her mouth and purplish lips seemed permanently locked into a half smile that climbed slightly up one side of her face. They both wore blue, double-breasted woolen jackets with sleeves much longer than their arms. They weren’t much to look at, but they were friendly and they didn’t smell. The food was hot, tasty and filling.
“How did you lose your job and what is it you did?” Dave asked Jim.
“Was a janitor. Cleaned the same building for thirty years. Lost the job when the building collapsed one day. It just fell down from old age, I s’pose. Anyway, couldn’t find another building to clean ‘cause there were only a few other buildings in town and they already had janitors, and so, being unable to do anything else, we just started living by our wits, our small savings and Social Security. And I’ll tell you, the situation taught me a mighty big lesson.
“And that lesson is this: You got to have a sideline, something that’ll bring you in a little extra money or keep you going when things go bad. Because you never know when your building might collapse and you’ll lose a job. It ain’t no fun losing a job, boys. You can look at it either as insurance in case of disaster or as something extra. Now for Martha and me it’s something extra. Without that additional income, me and Martha wouldn’ta been able to take this trip. So I’m a big believer in having one. Have you fellas got sidelines?”
“No. We don’t even have jobs,” Dave answered. “We quit our jobs to take this trip, and I think we’re young enough where we don’t have to think about stuff like that. Besides, someone like me, a bold man, will always find, not a good job, but a great job that pays tons of money.”
“No, son, you’re always going to need a backup. And let me tell you, there ain’t much that a fella with a crooked back and shaky hands can do.”
“Well, what is your sideline?” Dave asked.
Martha, who hadn’t said much up until then, put her arm around one of Jim’s hunched shoulders and smiled and said:
“My Jimmy has done so good. I am so proud of him. He is just the best.”
Jim smiled, straightened up a little, wiped the drool from his mouth with his coat sleeve and said in a strong, proud voice:
“In my spare time I study and perform brain surgery.”
“Brain surgery?” we both shouted at once in disbelieving voices. “You can’t do that. You’ve got to study years for that.”
“Yessiree Bob I can do it, and I have studied, fellas. A few years back I picked up two brain surgery books from a library disregard sale, and even though lots of pages were missing, I got a lot out of them books. I studied them and then I picked me up some tools and I started working out of my basement. I started in and learned on animals, you know, neighbors’ pets and strays, and I’ve also done some work on the neighborhood kids, you know, the loud ones, to try and quiet them down.
“I’ll tell you this, ain’t never had a complaint from them kids. Not from the animals either. And them kids ain’t been loud after I finished with them. Anyways, I do brain surgeries all the time, everywhere I go. Brought my tools with me on this trip ‘cause you never know where you might be able to make a buck or two. I say hunt opportunity everywhere. Come here fellas, let me show you my tools.”
We followed Jim to his car. He opened the trunk, and by the light of his flashlight we saw a rusty, blood-stained wood saw, three dinner forks, two steak knives, a drafting compass, several large needles, a hand-operated wood drill, a razor and can of shaving cream, an ironing board, two belts, a pair of pliers and a big stapler.
“That ironing board’s my operating table and I can either saw a head open or drill a hole in it and I just sew or staple you back together. Used the drill when I operated on Martha a while back and that’s why she’s missing all that hair. But I sure did give her a pretty smile, now, didn’t I? And the government and Medicare paid for it. I just had to fill out the proper forms and whiskaroo, I got
lots of money for operating on my own wife.
“Now that’s my equipment, fellas, what do you think?”
We were too stunned to answer. I had expected to see odd things on the trip, but a car-trunk brain surgeon was too much for me.
“Now,” Jim continued, “I’m working up a sideline to my sideline, something else that I can learn in my basement in my spare time, and that’s spaceship repair. I’ve read a pamphlet on it, and as soon as I can sneak me in to the rocket base in Florida, I’ll be in business.
“But back to the brain surgery, fellas. You’ll have to forgive me for this, but you’ve got to be aggressive these days if you’re going to make money, and I’m thinking that you fellas could use a little fine-tuning upstairs. Any mental problems you need fixed? Won’t take too long. Any tumors up there? I finally finished both of the books and I’m pretty good now. I don’t make too many mistakes no more. So come on, let’s open up the ol’ noggins and have a look inside. The brain is just a big ol’ blob of noodles and it won’t take long to pick some of the bad ones out.”
He picked up the saw and the drill, and with a hopeful look on his face, started walking toward us. “Just a little fine tuning. Won’t cost you a cent. Now Martha here ‘ll strap you to the ironing board, we’ll knock you out with liquor and in no time at all you’ll have a smile as pretty as Martha’s. Whaddya say?”
We stumbled backwards. I covered my head with my hands and arms. Dave laughed nervously. With each step Jim advanced, Dave laughed harder and louder. Soon, he was laughing uncontrollably.
Jim smiled. “There’s got to be something wrong with that fella, Martha. Anyone who laughs for the heck of it has got to be crazy. Get the saw.”
The laughing rendered Dave defenseless, and when Jim grabbed his head with his hands, Dave could do nothing to resist. Jim shook Dave’s head violently, and while in Jim’s feeble grasp, Dave managed to ask what he was doing.
“Listening to see if there’s any tumors rattlin’ around up there. There’s got to be a tumor up there ‘cause you’re laughing so hard. I think I heard one. We’ll rip it out and stop that laughing.”
He then started pounding Dave’s head with a rubber mallet in an effort, Jim said, to test Dave’s mental reflexes. Then he broke six eggs on Dave’s head to test his “centrifugal fluids.”
Martha ran up with a bigger hammer and a saw.
“He’s a feisty one, Jimmy, we’ll just have to open him up right here and right now, no operating table. Here’s the saw.”
Jim was about to make the first cut when I charged into him and knocked him down. Dave and I ran to the bikes and drove away fast.
We drove a couple of hours before collapsing in a forest in Texas. After we calmed down and put up our tent, lit a fire and some cigars, Dave talked about the value of the experience.
“We’ve learned a big lesson,” he said. “Never laugh in the presence of crazy people. It just makes them crazier.”