Buy 2 get one free

Sometime in the 1960s I am sitting in front of the black and white TV in our home in Penn Square Village and on comes this commercial for a new type of pen. A ball point pen. You don’t buy new ink cartridges for it when it needs refilling. You just throw it away. Part of our new disposable society. The quarterback says to his fellow players: “OK boys, here’s the play; buy two Bic Clic pens; get one free.”  

TAKE A PUFF. For reasons I absolutely do not understand that commercial stayed with me. Kind of like “Take a puff; it’s springtime” a commercial for cigarettes that lasted an interminable 60 seconds. Fast forward to the 1980s in Havre, Montana. I am married. We have a daughter; a son on his way just a few years hence. We are renting this one-story shotgun house with basement more reminiscent of a medieval dungeon. New neighbors move into the nice-looking house behind us. Charlotte and Dan Taylor, homeowners from Oregon; in town for Charlotte to rocket through the local college’s two-year RN program.

We start hanging out with them. A game of Hearts from time to time. A hike in the Bearpaws. Dan proves to gyrate from extreme reserve to outrageously hilarious. Charlotte finishes her RN training and goes back to Oregon. Dan stays where he is. The marriage is over. So now we’re having dinner at our house pretty regular. Somehow the topic of that strangely memorable pen commercial comes up. Among his many talents Dan is an actor. Most of his living as an actor has come doing TV commercials. He tells us HE was the quarterback in that Bic Clic commercial. And I think about it awhile. I try drawing from memory what little of the face I could see under the football helmet; the tone of his voice. He was just in his early 20s at time. Yes, it is conceivable. He could have been the guy. I think he WAS the guy.

LETHAL WEAPONS. Having an actor for a sister I know they can be rather dangerous people. It’s like a boxer who gets into a fight; his fists are recognized by law as dangerous weapons. Actors can BE just about anyone they want. Once I heard a spoof on public radio in which an unemployed actor gets a job as a junior high school assistant principal. It’s the eyes, he testifies. If I can stare at a kid down a long crowded hallway and get him to pull up short; that’s the equivalent of a standing ovation.

In Havre, winters are long and hard. On Halloween some years kids are so bundled up going door to door you’d have to invite them into your home and get them to strip just to see their costumes. Diversions in a town of 10,000 that kisses the Canadian border can be hard to come by during the indoor season. Some years if it warms up to minus 10 Fahrenheit everybody’s outside in their shirtsleeves celebrating the heat wave. We were in the habit of throwing an adult Halloween party that had as an unspoken rule the expectation everyone will come dressed in an original costume. There would be some good ones. Mike Pavlovsky is the invisible man, wrapped head to toe in bandages. James Spangelo is, I dunno what Jim comes as … an attorney; well, in fact, he IS an attorney.

WHAT AN ASSHOLE! For the first time we have invited Dan to our party. We tell our friends they’ll really enjoy meeting him. He’s very funny, we tell them. Dan is fashionably late. He comes in the side door seeing as he is walking over from the house behind us. He’s not dressed up. Just wearing this gray knit sweatshirt. As we introduce him, Dan is talking with everyone about his great tools. He’s bragging about stuff he’s built or fixed. He shows no interest whatever in the conversation at hand. And, yeah, Dan is a handy guy; has filled in with a lot of carpentry jobs over the years. But obsessed with his great tools? Garage? What garage? Dan doesn’t have a garage. But we just don’t get it. He’s acting like a complete asshole.

He stalks back out our side door without saying a word. He’s gone for a time and the party seems to have folded back into itself. After awhile someone asks … hey, where did Dan go off to? The words barely leave his lips when this horrific roar issues from our tiny kitchen. Rrrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmmmgggghhhhh rrrmmmggggghhhhh. A small gasoline engine seemingly sans muffler fires into action. I rush into the kitchen thinking someone is reenacting the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There I find Dan, a deranged grin on his face, holding his rumbling chainsaw. The cutting part of the device is not attached. What the f*** I shout. Wendy is close behind and she figures it out. You’re the guy on the corner! She almost screams above the din. Our common neighbor. He has a detached garage facing the side street filled with every kind of tool and equipment one can imagine. Especially if it makes noise; a LOT of noise.

With Wendy’s exclamation, Dan shuts down the chainsaw engine. He has delivered a perfect rendition of our neighbor. One of these guys who is largely benign if socially unaware. Actors. They often are the shy retiring types believe it or not. My sister was painfully shy as a child. But when it’s showtime …

TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Where is Dan today? In Missoula we’re told. Dan went back to school, to Northern Montana College where Charlotte had got her nursing diploma, and became a math teacher. We stopped to see him in Forsyth where he had a second or third or what … career as a high school math teacher. We had to ask around about him but this being a very small town someone knew where he lived. If we want to find him in Missoula someone is going to have to remind us about his new name. He’s retired from the school district in Forsyth.

Wendy is pretty sure there is a whole ‘nother guy behind that tough exterior. Someone he could not afford to let anyone see until it didn’t matter anymore. That’s right, the Dan Taylor we knew — who so effectively delivered our neighbor to our Halloween party — almost certainly was just another of his characters. Maybe his greatest of all; a longstanding daily performance. And for that I believe he deserves, as they say in showbiz, a standing O.

In honor of the U.S. Supreme Court DOMA and Prop 8 decisions this week. 

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