My mother-in-law thought I was a sneak

I’m probably breaking some unwritten man-rule by writing this.
I’m supposed to poke fun at my mother-in-law. But, I consider this, crafted as Mother’s Day approaches, a tribute to Kay Bladel.

Kay Bladel
My mother-in-law in her earlier years

I met her one sunny day outside the big, busy house where she raised her eight children, six of them boys. I was dating her oldest girl Lynn, and had come to pick her up. We had met and become close in college but I had not met mom yet.

Kay looked shocked when I drove up. Stupid me, I had not considered the potential effect of my mode of transportation in this part of Pittsburgh. I grew up in a poorer part of town, where plastic and duct tape instead of a window wasn’t that uncommon.
Kay looked horrified. And she didn’t hide her feelings.
“You’re not going in that,” she announced to Lynn, as I pushed aside the plastic and crawled out the driver’s side passenger window. Lynn had warned me to try not to engage mom too much, so I just stood there, until my eventual-wife-to-be spoke up.
“It’s fine. It’s just the window and a little bit of the door. A lady ran a red light and hit him the other day,” Lynn said.
Kay shrieked her rebuttal: “But look at it!”
I was trying to get Lynn’s attention to hurry her into getting her bags.
But we weren’t going anywhere yet. Kay inspected that car like an NFL agent investigating a first-round draft pick. She even called Lynn’s dad Lou out to look at it. He just laughed and stayed on his porch. His oldest daughter — he called her his “Princess” — kissed him goodbye.
Kay turned  that inspector’s eye toward me, actually walking around me in a circle, asking about my beat-up shorts, my unkempt curly hair, my weight.
“You are skinny.” “Don’t you need a haircut?”
She knew she only had a few minutes and did her best to ensure her daughter wasn’t leaving town with a serial killer.

Not sure why I would have worried my mother-in-law back then
Not sure why I would have worried my mother-in-law back then

If I remember correctly, Lynn interrupted her mom as Kay asked where we were going to church on Sunday.
“C’mon mum. We gotta go,” Lynn said, tossing her bags in the car.
I thought of crawling back through the window but decided I better slide in through the passenger seat before Lynn got in. Kay grimaced as she walked up to the broken window but she leaned in close to me anyway.
I wish I could remember her exact words. For a great number of years they were etched in my mind like an epitaph. The exact quote eventually faded after I earned Kay’s trust — I swear that took about a decade after Lynn and I were married.
That day, closing out our inaugural meeting, she whispered something that made it very clear that she disagreed with premarital sex, and that it could be dangerous for anyone going out with her daughter to have a different opinion. She explained in terse, street language about my genitalia not necessarily remaining connected to the rest of my body.

No kidding.
It was just a summer family gathering at the home of one of Lynn’s relatives. So, dress was casual.
I didn’t have a lot of nice clothes so I decided to wear one of my newest T-shirts. My mom said the blue background complimented my eyes.
That was lost on Lynn’s mom. She didn’ts see the background. She saw the silhouette and shouted: “He’s wearing a naked lady on his shirt!”
It was actually only an outline of the body of an American icon, Marilyn Monroe. One of my sisters had gotten it for me. No one else had thought it obscene.
By the time that party was over, Kay had everyone at the party convinced that it was.
I was pretty skinny back then and bought my shorts from the thrift store. They didn’t always fit well.
Now, I’m certainly not saying I started the fad that became so popular with teenage black kids, but I did walk around for years with sagging shorts.

So, eventually, Kay discovered I didn’t often wear underwear. She grilled me about that — in public, no less — so often that I had to buy more.
I was getting better at dealing with Kay. I was blushing less. I even fired back on occasion.
On this particular fall afternoon, I didn’t even flinch when she casually announced to the crowd on Lynn’s front porch that I probably wasn’t wearing underwear. But, in assessing my sagging shorts, she noticed something else — the round bulge in my back pocket. She asked loudly:
“Dave, when did you start to chew?”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, until I reached into my back pocket. Then, I not only turned beet red, I stood there mute, frozen, searching for a plausible lie.

I simply could not tell the truth about this one.

Kay asked again as I stammered, speechless, trying to find Lynn to bail me out. Everyone stared at me.


To understand, we need to back up a little.
You men out there probably remember a time in your lives when you were younger and more lusty — when you would do just about anything to ensure your girlfriend stayed in the right mood. To ensure your … well … needs were taken care of. To keep from running into traffic like a rutting deer.

This porch scene happened when I was in my early 20s. Back then, when it came to certain situations, I did whatever my beautiful girlfriend told me to do, without a whisper of complaint.

My wife-to-be Lynn Bladel
My wife-to-be Lynn Bladel

This included, on this particular day, letting her slip something into my back pocket that should have been carried more discretely. In her purse. Inside a shirt pocket in a backpack. Anywhere but where it was.
But, no, my lovely, shapely girlfriend wanted me to carry it. I think she was sending a message. Like, “I have to worry about this thing all the time, so you can be responsible for it for once.”
She hadn’t counted on her mom’s eagle eye.
Kay thought the bulge meant I had a new vice. She didn’t realize her daughter and I were practicing a very old one.

Back on the porch, Kay expected I would simply pull out a tin of tobacco. She pressed onward. She wasn’t going to let this go.

This was so traumatizing I have blocked out specifically what happened next.

I know it went something like this. Lynn, finally out the front door and to the rescue, goes on the offensive.

“Let him alone, mum. It’s just candy you goofballs. It’s mine. I didn’t want him to let you guys see it.” she says.
“Why?” Kay asked.
“Because you pigs would eat it all,” Lynn said. Those brothers — did I mention there are six of them? — knew they couldn’t argue with that.
I finally breathed again, as I stuffed the object deeper in the pocket above my right glute and fled to the car. Driving away, I handed Lynn’s diaphragm back to her and asked her, nicely, to hide it in one of the bags.

Right about now, you might be thinking this doesn’t sound like a mother-in-law tribute, as promised at the outset. Think again.
Kay’s motherly instincts were right on target.

Kay softened up, but not much, after our 1980 wedding
Kay softened up, but not much, after our 1980 wedding

She thought I was sneaky, and I was.
I had to be, growing up where I did. She helped keep me on the straight and narrow, at least when it came to her daughter.
And she did it with unflagging resolve.
I saw over the years that I wasn’t the only target, either.
She cared enough about all her kids to challenge those who would enter the Bladel inner circle. Dinner at Kay’s house always included an abundant array of tasty stuff but also an inquisition.
If the newest invitee was amorous with a Bladel offspring, watch out.
Of course, none of them showed up in a half-crashed car, or looking like a reject from a homeless shelter.
So, I believe I was honored with the most extensive Kay cross-examination on record. Seemed like a grueling gauntlet at the time but it helped me earn her friendship. And once you got past the interrogation, she loved you and protected you like one of her own.

That paid off big-time. Help with our five babies. Help with money. Help making vacations happen.

She even became my best audience, laughing at all my jokes.
As a bonus, every time she came to visit our home, everything in the ironing basket ended up pressed and hung in the closet before she left, even after arthritis had curled her fingers and stiffened her ankles.
Kay has passed now, but her legacy lives on.

My wife and her mom on a recent trip
My wife and her mom on a recent trip

The surviving kids continue to grill newcomers to the family, sometimes with aggressive candor that rivals their mom’s. I have to admit I have joined in on occasion, too.

No questions about underwear or pocket bulges, though. I wouldn’t inflict that on anyone, unless he or she reminds me of me.

Then, of course, all bets are off.


OK you millennials, time to tango

Now I’m angry.
I’ve been listening to sports radio and numerous callers, as well as some DJs, have decided it is OK to make fun of old people. Here’s the kind of banter becoming commonplace:
“He’s no youngster. He played when the NBA players wore their shorts higher than the cheerleaders.”

Or “He’s so old that his coaches drew up plays with stone tablets and chisels.”

Or, “No one cared about the colors of their uniforms back then. TV was only black and white.”
Think “yo mama jokes” but start with “He’s so old.”
I’ve let it slide for some time, in part, because when you pick a battle with millennials you gotta realize that some of them have a lot of time on their hands. Those temp jobs don’t require a lot of hours.

We older folks are generally pretty stoic but these attacks have become pervasive. These mean millennials fire away with impunity, probably thinking we older folks are too tired or feeble to fight back. They forget we survived the ’60s, ’70s,  all those Die Hard movies … paraquat.

It’s past time to mount a counteroffensive.
We have them outnumbered. Can you say Baby Boomers? Here are some comebacks to “He’s so old” that I have  developed with my aged, cobweb-ridden cranium.

That goofball is so young that …

… He thinks Vladmir Putin is a character on Game of Thrones.

… She told her entire yoga class that John Wayne was Lil’ Wayne’s dad.

… He thinks the Great Depression is something you can catch after too many years living in your mom’s attic.
… You tell him to act his age and he immediately poops his pants.
… You can’t drive through a warm, dark tunnel without him reverting to the fetal position.
… That same dude’s salivates at the low-cut tops worn by NFL cheerleaders. For the wrong reason. He’s hungry.

… Ask this millennial if she has a land line and she says she doesn’t like to go fishing.
… She wrote a stinging Yelp review complaining that she couldn’t withdraw money from a pay phone

…. The Cold War? She vaguely remembers hearing about that on a NyQuil commercial.
… He heard his mom ask for Wite-Out and he called her a racist.

… He told his friends he was going to quit his job at Kmart, move to the country and make a fortune raising Dalai Lamas.

— He admitted to everyone on his Ultimate Frisbee team that he thought the Bay of Pigs was an X-rated, reality TV show.
… Then he confessed he thought “Tricky Dick” was a porn star. Same for Alfred Hitchcock and Dick Tracy.
… He tried to make a photo copy of his naked butt on a fax machine.
… She thought if you stood by a fax machine long enough you got smarter. (Get it? Facts? Yes, she had just done mushrooms with her entire shift at the call center.)

… Drunk, he spilled his $12 craft beer all over a Vietnam vet who sneered, “It’s time to tango.” This millennial started dancing.

… Asked if he had heard of the Pentagon Papers, this guy said, “Man, I didn’t think you were allowed to smoke pot in the Army, let alone roll your own! Sign me up!”
… She had a big fight with her boyfriend because he told her, no, Keith Richards was not one of the Flintstones.
… She thought Mother Teresa was Madonna’s mom.
— He bet his dad that Ho Chi Minh was an expensive Asian call girl, lost the bet and had to clean up his room in the basement.

Then, he had to move out.

My wife is tougher than yours — usually

My wife amid the cloth diapers that kept us from going bankrupt when the kids were little.
My wife amid the cloth diapers that kept us from going bankrupt when the kids were little.

Years ago, with the kids in bed, my wife and I were doing clean-up chores when she uttered a simple comment. Actually, it was a musing.
“There’s a hundred of them,” Lynn said, stopping her work for just a second to marvel at her realization.
“A hundred of what?” I asked.
“A hundred I have to deal with.”
“Huh?” I was totally lost.
Still clueless, I stared, stupefied.
“The kids’ nails,” she explained. “There’s five kids, 20 nails to a kid, so that’s a hundred. Not even counting my own.”
Man, I hate cutting even my own nails. The realization she was cutting so many knocked me right off my pedestal as breadwinner. Sure I brought in the income but she was the kid groomer, food shopper, dinner maker, clothes washer, clothes mender, clothes buyer, homework checker, travel planner … and on and on.
I am still breathing today so I obviously pitched in.
But, the “nails” comment really stuck with me. It was one of the many times over our decades together that I stopped to truly appreciate the difficulty of her my wife’s jobs. Did I mention family barber?
Lynn handled a lot but did not complain a lot. We wouldn’t have made it this far had she been weak. The kids, now grown and appreciative enough to give us credit when they reminisce, talk about their mom’s toughness and her stoicism.
They recall her at-times inappropriate laughter — she became a nurse but cannot hold back guffaws when someone falls down. On the flip side, the kids all recollect in detail how well their mom dealt with adversity, her ability to steady the ship in rough waters, her knack for handling unpleasant surprises with resolve, not tears.
Except that one time.

“You remember when momma cried?” one of our kids will ask, and they all recount the same story. They answer in unison and more quickly than when any other question about the past pops up.
To understand, a little background is necessary.

Lynn and the kids before we had to move, quickly, from a home we owned to a rental.
Lynn and the kids in our backyard in Warren, Ohio, our first home that we owned.

Some of our busiest times with the children came in Warren, Ohio, where we lived from the beginning of 1988 to the end of 1994. We bought our first home there and eventually got it set up to accommodate five kids close in age, the oldest still not even a teenager.
Once I redid the attic, we had enough room. We had a garage. We had a yard. My wife started nursing school. We were comfortable.
But, a problem developed. I knew I was going nowhere in my Ohio job, and an opportunity developed in Pennsylvania. But we had to act quickly. My wife didn’t disagree. So, after some candid conversation, we realized the enormity of this challenge, took a deep breath and got moving. Just action, no tears.
This was not easy. We had to move ourselves and this was mid-school year. With me still working, it was up to Lynn to make the five-hour drive with our oldest Luke to visit our prospective new town, search for an apartment for seven people, a giant lizard and a dog, figure out where the kids would go to school, get through the background checks, sign a lease and ensure we could move in quickly, within two weeks. She took this on with a steely determination. She accomplished all this over one snowy December weekend.

It's not easy moving mid-school year from a  house to an apartment.
It’s not easy moving mid-school year from a house to an apartment.

I never saw the place before we arrived with our U-haul, trying to fit what we had accumulated in a decent-sized home with a big garage into half a house with no garage. It was what they in this old coal region in northeast Pa. called a “half-double.”
The transition was tough. Older kitchen. Tiny yard. Crowded bedrooms. The landlord hadn’t cleaned like he said he would. And, as expected in a rental, nothing worked as well as expected.
Still, just action. No tears.

We made do.
The kitchen, though, proved especially nettlesome. Of course, as fate would have it, that’s where Lynn had to spend a great deal of time. In addition to finicky appliances — it had a crappy stove and one of those portable dishwashers that hook up to the faucet but always leak — the big drafty room was just plain ugly.
Dreary walls. Beat-up linoleum on the floor. Cracked ceiling tiles. Fluorescent lights designed to shine through those clear plastic ceiling tiles that turn yellow in about a month.
I was working when I got the call.
At first, my wife sounded angry, but I could also hear panic in her voice.
She was uncharacteristically unclear and spoke frantically. Something about a toilet. Up above the kitchen. No, no one was hurt.
Here’s how our son Scott remembers it:
“Mia had a tendency of rolling up the toilet paper when using the potty. This clogged the second story bathroom which happened to be directly above the kitchen. Mommy was on the phone and it was literally running down the walls in the kitchen.”
“She said, ‘ “Dave, DAVE, there is SHIT on the walls,” while sobbing-crying into the phone. I remember Mia felt really badly because she had the flush that broke the camel’s back that started the poop waterfall.”
After Lynn’s outburst, I listened to my tough, strong, resilient, resourceful wife crying. I felt horrible, but I was also embarrassed.
My new job had me sitting very close to reporters to help coach them. I was trying to keep them from hearing that my wife was freaking out over an overflowing toilet.
But of course it wasn’t just an overflow. It was about being overwhelmed.

It was an overwhelming move, with overwhelming responsibilities and overwhelming chores — can you imagine ensuring five kids are ready for a new school, mid-year?
Think about a hose to a washing machine with a small section weakening. The pressure builds into a small bump on the hose, like a tiny Adam’s Apple, and it grows bigger and bigger, with more pressure … and the kids start fighting … the dishwasher leaks … is the oven working? — what’s that? — shadows on the sink, coming from above, in the fluorescent lights, weird, like clouds above me, with — oh my God! — that’s crap!!!
The kids froze. They tiptoed around this woman who looked like their mom but certainly wasn’t acting like her. I tried to talk Lynn through it, promising to help ensure it was all clean when I got home. I couldn’t leave work; I was the only editor on duty.
She recovered quickly. OK. Deep breath. Get that crying out of the way, breathe again. No more tears, just action.
Before writing this, I emailed our kids asking if they recalled other times when their mom’s tear ducts opened. Other than the “poop waterfall,” the moments they recalled were typical, after deaths of loved ones or when someone was in danger.
No tears when all five kids got chicken pox at the same time, over Christmas. No tears when the cops showed up when after one of the twins scraped an arm and would not stop screaming. No tears transporting our oldest with a dislocated elbow from a rural wrestling match to a hospital where he could get help.
No tears moving all those kids and the dog five times in about eight years.
Heck, I don’t recall her crying while giving birth. And she bore twins.
They say opposites attract. I am a big blubberpuss. The kids’ replies to my email poked some fun at me, saying they would have difficulty answering the crying question regarding me. They were too many to count. Mostly, that’s because I get nostalgic thinking back to our days as a tight, clever family juggling life and laughing at obstacles. I also have a tendency to mix beer with my musings.
My wife doesn’t get maudlin. She’s planning the next chapter, not looking back. Figuring out a night out with friends. Scheduling the summer vacation. Planning the next trip to see the kids. Where are we having Thanksgiving this year?
Knowing I was writing this, I asked her the other night if she would help me with some hangnails. “Will you give me a pedicure?” I asked.
“Hah!. You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.
“But you did it for the kids when they were little,” I pushed.
“Yeah, but they were babies.”
I thought about pretending to cry. But, with my history, I don’t know if she would notice.
She’d also probably rat me out to the kids.

So, before I grab the nail clippers, I leave you with this:

Life can deal you crap. You gotta take it. You gotta clean up after it, too.

That’s tougher when you can’t see because of the tears.

Gotta use your noggin for more than headers when playing the mean girls


The girls on the opposing team — from the suburbs — were being especially mean.

They taunted before the whistle blew, and, as the soccer game went on, it was difficult to tell if they simply enjoyed making insults or had a strategy to try to distract our team.

Either way, they were winning.

Our team included smart, funny girls who happened to hail from a public school in a challenged part of our city. They were tough, but this had them visibly upset.

During a break, I got close enough to the sideline for my daughter Mia to give me a quick rundown of what was happening. Players on the other team were loudly making comments like:

“Watch out you don’t get head lice!”

“Why do they even bother trying to beat us?”

“Why don’t they go home to the projects?”

Mia and her teammates got angry and played hard. These were fighting words. Problem was, this was soccer, not a cage match.

The head game was working. Focus on the insults and you lose focus on the game.

A disclaimer: the game happened years ago so I don’t recall all the details — including the final score — so it’s possible I’m recounting some aspects through rose-colored glasses.

 I do recall specifically how it was close enough for our team to try hard to win, to outplay the mean girls – not worry about one-upping them with insults.

Still, I could understand our girls’ anger. I fumed from the sidelines; my wife couldn’t believe the opponents were so brazen to use the “projects” insult. It wasn’t even accurate.

Sure, our school was located in a declining part of Wilkes-Barre City and was much less affluent than the outlying private seminaries and rich, suburban schools in its soccer division. Sure, our school had problems with absent parents, troubled kids, violence, bullying, and drugs. But it also was rich in other ways, with many kids getting along across racial and economic barriers, with some great, empathetic and hard-working teachers and parent-volunteers helping at every turn.

But the mean girls didn’t seem to appreciate any of that. For not having gangs in their school, they sure had a gang mentality – at least on this day.

They decided to take their spoiled brat card and play it, hoping our girls would take the bait and get slapped with other kinds of cards —  red and yellow ones.

Half time came and this game was not shaping up to be much fun. We were on the wrong side of the score board, angry and getting angrier.

Meanwhile, arrogance dripped like very expensive maple syrup from those rural opposing players, who were now smirking as they prowled the sidelines.

About a minute or two into the second half, though, something changed.

It started with a collision involving one of our smallest forwards. It seemed like the whole team walked over to surround her on the ground. She got up hurt, holding her belly and wincing, near tears. But, oddly, as she and her teammates got closer to our bench they were all smiling, trying to hold back laughter.

Another collision a few minutes later brought a similar scene. Despite concern and fearful looks as our girls huddled over this same forward, the young ladies turned to their coaches and us nearly in giggles.

The Meyers team when our daughter Mia was a senior.
The Meyers team when our daughter Mia was a senior.

This forward, Katie, continued aggressive play despite the injuries, and other girls continued to feed her the ball.

The next time she hit the ground, near our sideline, she again needed help to get up. Again she held her belly. This time, once the other team got out of earshot, we could hear our players laughing so hard they were snorting.

But, as play resumed, everyone appeared stern again.

My wife and I didn’t know what the heck was going on. Neither did any of the other fans from our sidelines. I think the coaches were in the dark, too.

Only after the game did we learn the joke.

And it was a good one, that took some fine acting, collaboration and team smarts. I reveled in the irony that “the projects girls” were able to pull it off on their uppity peers.

Katie, the “hurt” forward, was darkly clever. Turns out the first time she hit the ground, she suffered some sort of blow to the stomach. As other girls huddled around, she asked loudly: “Do you think the baby will be OK?”

Our team picked up on it right away.

Of course, a “projects girl” would be unmarried and pregnant in high school, so the other team would fall for the ruse right away. For the rest of the game, every time Katie fell or slipped or even used a slide to try to take the ball, someone would mention the “baby” or ask whether the clinic would be open after the game or, glaring toward the other team, ask Katie:

“Who hurt the baby this time?”

I never did hear whether the ref fell for it. Maybe he just figured that “Baby” was Katie’s nickname.

As I said above, I don’t recall whether the joke led to a victory or not.

I asked my daughter and reached out to a couple other players for help with this recounting. While they remembered the joke, they didn’t recall the specific team they had played that day or the final score.

Which, I think, is great.

It’s so much cooler that the story of the “baby” survived all this time instead of who won or lost yet another game.

We remember who won the important battle.

Those mean girls left that field at best outwitted and at worst wondering what just happened — still scratching their heads.

And, no, it wasn’t from lice.


Mia in the Meyers high blue and gold.
Mia in the Meyers high blue and gold.

Ha ha. I got to meet Lois Lane and you didn’t!

IMG_1684I got to see the movie billed as Batman versus Superman the other day.
I won’t spoil anything here but I do suggest you see the film with someone who knows something about the heroes and villains of DC comics. More fun than the movie itself will be debating whether the plot lines work, whether the story holds up to scrutiny, whether the  super powers displayed so fantastically on the big screen make any sort of sense.
“So, if Batman doesn’t have any super strength, and Superman punches him, why doesn’t his head just pop right off his body?”
“Is Kryptonite deadly to Superman or not?”
“What the heck is Wonder Woman’s lasso made of?”
Discussing these MIND-BOGGLERS takes COMMITMENT! COURAGE! CHUTZPAH! Those who choose to do so must brave the QUINTESSENTIAL QUAGMIRE of QUIZZICALITY!
ENTER THIS ENIGMA! at your own risk!
Remember those wonderful warnings and commands that jumped in all capital letters from the pages of comics when you were a kid? I remember being stumped by the word “enigma” from a Spiderman comic, while my oldest sister was standing nearby. She saw me looking for the dictionary and stopped me. She taught me the definition by challenging me to figure it out from the context. I was about 9 years old.

I was never “puzzled” by “enigma” again.

Lots of vocabulary sleuthing would follow over the years, and lots of debate over the characters, plot, even the way the heroes were drawn.
After the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie, we (my daughter, wife and our foreign student) wrangled over which scene confused the most or needed the most propping up. Later, I heard my wife (who prefers books over comics) on the phone asking our son in Seattle about the movie and getting a detailed rundown of various superpowers harbored by DC Comics characters.
She looked like she was sorry she asked.

For me, the discussion after the movie took me back to my time as a kid when my friends and I dissected comic books religiously. We looked for flaws in plots. We debated who would win in a fight. (Always bet on the Hulk. Crazy beats strong every time.) We actually tried to write to the comic book authors, trying to get a letter published.
Yes, all DC and Marvel comics at one time had letters sections. They were back by the ads, the ones selling hot pepper bubble gum, The Book of 1,001 insults and “How to stop muscle-heads at the beach from kicking sand in your face, you 98-pound weakling!”

The published letters would sometimes applaud the comic artists and writers. But, similar to newspaper letters, these missives would also complain, or ask pointed questions.


“OK, so if Spiderman shoots webbing by using his fingers against his palm, how come it doesn’t shoot out when he makes a fist?” Or, “Issue 558 had Jimmy Olsen with a blue briefcase. When did he get that red one he was carrying in Issue 567?”
My buddies and I had high hopes to get a letter published to show how smart we were. Plus, the comics writers and editors responded to questions with sass. They were smart alecks. It was really cool to catch them in a mistake.

Also, we really really really wanted to win a “No Prize.”

What’s that? you ask.  Unless you loved Marvel Comics in your youth, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about.

The “No Prize” was an ingenious idea.
If a comics reader offered a significant criticism, he or she got a certificate back saying an editor had chosen you as the recipient of a No Prize.” It was just that — nothing but a certificate. No free comics. Not even a discount coupon on that BODYBUILDING BONANZA BOOK! back on page 22.

Still, everyone wanted one.

They gave you notoriety. You got your name printed in the letters section, with an explanation of how you had corrected the writers or artists. Sometimes, Marvel also awarded a No Prize to readers who offered the writers or artists a way to explain away goofs.

For example, a hero with the power to turn invisible disappears, while carrying a giant diamond. The gem is nowhere to be seen in the comic panel. Well, how did the diamond also disappear? It didn’t have the power to turn invisible, a No Prize winner pointed out.

As a fix, the writer suggested the followup issue explain that the hero was not the one with invisibility in his arsenal. He was the one who could shrink himself to the size of an ant, while still possessing super strength. Of course, he just ran away with the gem. Duh!
My good buddy and I came close to a No Prize a couple times but we were too slow. Stuff we noticed — for example a character whose middle name mysteriously changed in only one panel — ended up discovered by someone else before we could write in.
Sadly, I never realized my childhood dream of getting my name published in the same comic as one of my favorite, powerful, benevolent superheroes.
Not as a kid anyway.
It took decades. I finally hit the bigtime.

I was 29.
A comic book artist captured my image in pen and ink and put me (yes, my real first and last names) on pages 1 and 3 of Action Comics 567, a DC Superman issue.

As you can see, I somehow grew reddish hair but there is a likeness to 1984 Dave Iseman
As you can see, I somehow grew reddish hair but there is a likeness to 1984 Dave Iseman

I got to speak to the Man of Steel and shake his hand. I traded some witticisms with Lois Lane, too, as she made fun of me for working as a reporter in a smaller town than her.
So how’d that all happen?
Not how you might be thinking. No, I was not one of those nerds who collected a gazillion comics, read them over and over, kept them sealed in my attic and wrote letter after letter to Stan Lee begging to have my name in a comic book. No, I also did not pay extra for an issue made just for me.

I actually made it into a real, publicly circulated Superman comic book. It was part luck and part skill. Being a dogged news reporter in real life also helped.
Here’s what happened.
It was the mid-’80s and I worked for the Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise, a tough, fun and well-edited small newspaper in central Pennsylvania that covered the Town of Bloomsburg and nearby. Part of that nearby was the beleagured Borough of Centralia, where an underground minefire burned for decades.

My mugshot that ran with the column about meeting Superman.
My mugshot that ran with the column about meeting Superman.

I got assigned to help report on a $42 million government buyout of residents who wanted to move, after the feds decided those residents deserved a break. It was a serious story and I wrote lots of copy about it, especially after a group of “stayers” decided the government was all wet and too late, arguing the minefire had moved away from Centralia.
There were lots of raucous town meetings, records to pore through and even some fraud.
When Superman entered the picture, I welcomed the chance the chance to do a lighter story with a Centralia dateline.
Action Comics 558 hit the stands in the summer of 1984. In it, writer Bob Rozakis decided a fictional Pennsylvania old coal mining town (of, well, gee, how about naming it Coaltown?) needed Superman to save it from an underground mine fire. Rozakis had seen a short news story about Centralia as inspiration.

The Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise in 84 decided that Superman saving a town from an underground minefire was news, and I loved getting that assignment.
The Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise in 84 decided that Superman saving a town from an underground minefire was news, and I loved getting that assignment.

Someone at our paper saw the comic and we saw the fun in writing a feature story about it. We also decided Centralia residents might want the chance to comment on their nettlesome and expensive problem being solved with Superman’s heat vision. The Man of Steel needed fewer than two pages of a 25-page comic to choke out a fire that government scientists could not douse for decades, no matter how hard they tried.

Comments from Centralians and ex-Centralians helped me write a cool little tale. It had a bit of friction, too, because some residents criticized the comic’s author and artist. The residents were penned to look like were stuck in the ’40s. They looked like rubes, they complained. At least one also lamented that DC Comics had become the latest to “cash in” on the minefire disaster.
I needed to find the writer, Rozakis, to get his side. But that proved more difficult than I had hoped. He wasn’t at his office. He wasn’t even in the country. But, I persisted, and found him, at a restaurant in Montreal.
This was before cell phones, mind you. To get to Rozakis, I had to: 1) find someone who knew where he was; 2) find someone else who happened to be with him and wore a pager; 3) hope that person gave Rozakis a message to call me back; and 4) hope for that crucial call-back.
Surprisingly, that all worked. I scrambled a lot like that when I was a reporter. Make a bunch of calls, throw out the net, drop a lot of lines in the water, hope for a bite.
Rozakis would later write to me to say: “By the way, editor Julius Scwhartz and I have voted you the Clark Kent Award for Determined Journalism for the way you tracked me down in Montreal.”

One letter from DC artist Bob Rozakis
One letter from DC artist Bob Rozakis

In fact, he was so impressed with the paper’s story and coverage, as well as the pride and grit of the people of Centralia, that he decided to actually go there and talk with residents. Superman would likely return to Coaltown for “Superman Day,” he said, though he didn’t share a lot of detail.
Fast-forward to Spring 1985, when a package from Rozakis arrived at my home. There I am in Action Comics 567, in Coaltown, covering a dedication of a Superman statue.
“Hey Bob, you didn’t ask if you could put me in the comic,” I later told him.
His retort: “You didn’t ask if you could quote me for your story.”
Fair ’nuff.
After my auspicious comics debut, I was feeling pretty special.
I had people asking me stuff about Superman like “Did he hurt your hand when he shook it?”

I wrote a column for the paper about meeting the Man of Steel. I included what I thought was a clever joke about worrying if my underwear were clean. (Ya know, Xray vision and all.) In the column, I pondered threatening to reveal Superman’s secret identity if he didn’t fix other stuff in the Bloomsburg area. The column ended with me blabbing so much that Rozakis erased my mouth.
For the first time after years of reading comic books, I used one of those plastic covers to protect this one. My claim to fame.
Rozakis later brought me down a peg or two. He told me my comic book appearance wasn’t that special. “I’ve put most of my friends, neighbors and relatives in stories at one time or another.”
Yeah, but how many get to actually talk to Superman, shake his hand? Meet Lois? I asked.
Quite a few, he said. Some actually got to hang on to his cape and fly. Some were used as villains. Some were given special powers.
Still, I’m not sure I believe him.

I think he was dishing out some payback for me tracking him down in Montreal, interrupting his lunch.
After all, it’s been 30 years and I haven’t yet run across anyone else who met a pen-and-ink superhero.
If you know differently, just keep it to yourself, eh? I’d really like to keep my notoriety a little while longer. Besides, if you do prove me wrong, what good will it do ya? What’s in it for you?

It’s not like you’re going to win a No Prize. Trust me, those suckers are almost impossible to get.

The back of a letter from a DC Comics artist.
Superheroes grace the stationery  from DC Comics, which allowed us to use its Superman registered trademark to cover the story about Coaltown v Centralia.

Part 8: Avenge Harley and Velma! Answer the ‘Gray Threat’

Hattley had finally gotten some sleep. But, she awoke to the tweets.

They came faster than she could read them.

Aliens apparently kill elderly couple #graythreat @freedomfellows

Elderly NRA official shoots to death 1 gray monster; 2nd kills him, wife #aliensmustgo @mygunsforever

How many more will die? Feds must say how they will deal with ‘Gray Threat’ @FBI @CIA @Whitehouse @libertyisnotfree

Remember Harley and Velma! We will avenge them! @minutemenbranson #graysmustdie

Donald Trump, the presidential candidate, was the first politician to weigh in on Twitter.

“Where is Obama? Where was the Air Force? How were killer aliens able to land in USA?” @makeAmericagreat #killersfromsky

He also fired off another one, then just as quickly pulled the tweet back. Hattley made a note of it:

“Black. Brown. Yellow. Red. No, the real threat to USA is GRAY.” #killersfromskies #graythreat

Headlines and stories offered some detail, but not much. The deaths had happened only hours earlier and reporters were being kept at bay at that scene, too.

One headline on a local website said: “Branson couple dead near scene aircraft crash; apparent alien body also found”

Another, brief from CNN was headlined: “Sheriff: Gunfire preceded deaths of Branson couple, alien”

A Branson newspaper had this headline: “Coroner on scene but no cause of death yet for Branson couple, alien”

Hattley knew the coroner who would be working this case; he had been a good source in the past and she knew he would help her if he could. She also had successful dealings with the Taney County sheriff, though her last story had pissed him off.

She texted her editor, Amos, that she would try to reach those two officials. His reply surprised her.

“CNN wants interview. Work the deaths but then get ready to Skype.”
Huh? Me? CNN? Why? Hattley shook her head to make sure she was totally awake.

As she thought it through, it made sense. She had probably gotten closest to the gray visitors than any reporters — before the feds swooped in.

Too close, she worried. Amid all the excitement, she hadn’t taken enough time to consider what had happened with the gray creature near the big balloon. How he had grabbed her leg, how she felt. Was that news? How could she explain it?

She needed to tell someone, probably Amos, but she worried she would sound crazy.

How would she describe what had happened? Could she explain it? Could she stay objective toward the creatures? Would she get pulled off the story?

The biggest story of her life, she thought. Maybe the biggest that would ever drop in her lap.

No answer on the coroner’s private cell. She left an urgent and pleading message. The phone for the sheriff’s office went straight to voice mail; it probably had hundreds of messages by now. Still, she tried reminding him that they had talked before and she stressed how she could give him the chance to comment for a big story to a local reporter, one who knew the Branson area and its people.

She also played on his ego, telling him that whatever he told her would probably, eventually, reach millions across the country.

She decided to confide in Amos and to ask for advice about CNN.

“Hey, I need some …”

He cut her off. “You OK with the Skype?” he asked, without trading any pleasantries. “Contact them asap. I texted you info. I got Julie waiting on the other line.”

“Yeah, I can do the interview from the car, but …”

“Good. Just stick to the facts with those TV folks. Make sure they get your name right. It’ll be good for your brand. Make sure they have our name right, too. Say who we work for and more than once, OK? Give yourself some credit, too.

“You’re doing great. Gotta go.”
“But …”
“I gotta go. Julie texted that she might have pix of the dead gray thing. Text me later.”

He was gone.

Hattley didn’t have time to allow herself to get more nervous. The coroner texted her to come meet with him.

“Nothing on record yet. But swing by the morgue. You can’t come inside. Wait by the ambulance bay. FBI everywhere. Tough to do my job.”

“Shit,” Hattley said aloud, worrying about a total federal clampdown on information. She grabbed her laptop and car keys.

She would stop and do the Skype from the lot of the coffee shop, she thought, sitting at her kitchen table long enough to scan other news sites covering the aircraft crash. No one had photos from the shooting scene. Good for Julie if she got them.

Wait. Take that back. There was one photo, partially blurred, sent to one of the local TV station, probably by a rescue worker or a neighbor who likes monitoring the scanner and made it to the scene early, before the authorities cracked down on rubberneckers. The shot was mostly tarp but the caption said three bodies were underneath.

Enlarging it, Hattley saw the stock of a rifle in the top corner. She could also make out what looked like a woman’s work boot in the bottom right. Scrolling further left, she thought at first she was looking at a hand print in mud.

She gasped and moved her open palm to her mouth when she realized what was actually pictured.

A hand stuck out from under the tarp. It was gray. It had those long fingers. On the index finger was a ring, a distinctive ring. It was silver. It had an orange hypocycloid.