Health is bad for benches

Monday, December 2, 2002

There's an old bench down in Chautauqua Park by the Buddy Monument, located in a prime spot for catching the late afternoon sun and saying "Hey" to anybody passing from either direction.

I remember that bench from trips my family would take to Storm Lake when I was a child. I was fascinated by laggards tossing pocket knives blade first into the ground between their feet, and by old men who would tell you stories until their voices turned to gravel and they had to sneak a sip of "med'cine" out of slim chrome bottles carried inside their coats.

I've passed the same bench a thousand times in the past few years. Get that tickle that says something isn't just right. It just dawned on me the other day.

The bench is empty. Almost always. It sits unused even on the first sweet days of spring and on a warm Thanksgiving Day break in the weather.

Once, you would have had to show at daybreak to squeeze your way on.

The bench just doesn't have the same charm without them. The whiskey-sippers, story tellers, stick whittlers, time passers, people watchers and the generally worthless have disappeared.

I wondered why. Decided I had to find out. I went, of course, to the king of the bench-sitters, Caleb "Ol Cuss" Cuttler, 66, former Storm Lake ne'er-do-well who has since relocated to Arizona, where he dresses in pastel sports coats and works as an aerobics instructor.

"What's the story, Cuss?" I hollered into the phone, hoping his hearing aid would pick me up even with Jane Fonda counting out jumping jacks in the background on Cuss's stereo. "Whatever happened to the Bench Brigade?"

It was a sad tale he related. They had such fun in those days - drinking, puffing on their pipes of Prince Albert, passing around the cinnamon rolls hot from the bakery, shaking hands with old cronies and strangers alike, chewing "tobaccy," watching the cars go by, taking the sun, hiding out from their wives and just plain sitting.

Then the health craze set in, and the bench dwellers' days were numbered. First, somebody came along and told them that smoking pipes causes lung cancer. Then somebody came along and said cinnamon rolls were raising their cholesterol counts through the roof. A heart attack waiting to happen.

The poor guys never had a chance - they had thought cholesterol was a motor oil for little foreign cars.

Beginning to fret, they bought it lock, stock and barrel when somebody told them they could get HIV from shaking hands with the wrong person. The old boys started looking at each other a little more suspiciously, and a little more space began to show between bench-sitters.

Next, they were told that chewing tobacco causes mouth cancer, that breathing emissions while watching cars go by causes emphysema, that sunshine causes skin cancer. They were told they should spend more time with their wives because lack of "quality time" between spouses is weakening the fabric of America.

Even sitting on the bench hour after hour, they were told, was turning their bodies into living roadmaps of clogged arteries - cardiovascular wastelands on splintered haunches.

"Didn't seem to be much point left to it after that. The old gang just faded away," Cuss said. "Herbie took up golfing for his heart, which quit when he made a hole-in-one out at Lake Creek a few years ago. Bert gave up smoking and drinking and was doing real well until he choked to death on a wad of vitamins a while back. Andy became a jogger, and he almost outran that bus too, rest his soul." Meanwhile, the bench is empty.

If you're looking for a moral, it might be: "A coot on the bench is worth two in Phoenix." Or, more simply, health and fun don't always mix.

Ever notice that making money involves memorizing more letters than Vanna can spin in a week's worth of "Wheel of Fortune"? I'm talking about acronyms, of course, things that have letters instead of names because it makes the speaker sound more like he knows what he's talking about.

Here's a brief acronymical sketch on how to get rich: First, you get your Ph.D. in B.Ad. from BVU. Then you get a job with 60Gs in NYC.

You invest in T bills and 401Ks and slip a few bucks into the proper hands in D.C. You even toy around a little with your 1040A and hope the FBI thinks it's OK. You can write off your iMac and vacation in the UK, BTW.

Invest in IBM and RCA. Drive a BMW. Watch the CNN on your TV. Get NBA tickets, but pay COD. Meet clients at the YMCA and lie about your IQ. Join AA on the QT for a little TLC.

Vote GOP until your net worth equals the GNP and you turn up on the cover of GQ.

By all means, buy yourself an IRA or two, ASAP.

Oh, but we've forgotten one little bit of acronymical advice!

Whether rich or poor, you'd better keep your eyes on the IRS, or they'll wind up taking your BVDs.