A manhole cover labeled Storm Drain

The Day Robin Did Not Turn Green

This is a story that actually happened to me, exactly as written. I didn’t add or change anything at all, because I didn’t need to. I mean, it was funny enough as it was!

I used to tell it at conventions, and it was a great favorite, so I decided to tell it here, too.

Note: When trying things happen to you, start to write the funny story then. You know you’ll laugh when you look back on it. Why wait? 😀

This story happened in the Long Ago, many years before computers were common.

In those days, the only way to get words onto paper (besides hand writing) was a mechanical typewriter.

If you’ve never seen one, all the letters were cast on the ends of hammers, sort of like the hammers that hit the strings in a piano. Except, as you pressed the keys, the hammers leapt up and struck a ribbon that was impregnated with ink. (Don’t touch the ribbon; that stuff is hard to scrub off.) This left an impression of the letter on the page, which was very cool. But if you typed too quickly, several hammers would try to hit the paper at once, and they would jam. Then you had to reach up, and untangle them with your hands, wipe the ink off, and keep going. So you had to learn to type fairly slowly.

Electric typewriters were an improvement, although the only real difference was that hitting the keys closed a circuit, instead of using a mechanical linkage. At least the keys didn’t jam as easily; but you were stuck with the font the typewriter maker had chosen.

But when this story happened, there had been a breakthrough. Electric typewriters had been invented that had little balls, about the size of golf balls, that bounced along as you hit the keys, and could never jam. Better yet, there was a little lever on top that let you remove the type ball, and replace it with a different one, so you could have regular and script fonts on the same typewriter!

I had my heart set on replacing my old mechanical typewriter with one that had a type ball; but there was a small problem. The typewriters came in two different pitches.

I wanted an elite typewriter, which typed 12 characters to the inch. (Everything was monospaced, in those days.) My then-husband (not the wonderful man I’m married to now,) wanted pica, which typed 10 characters to the inch.

Back then, as now, I hated to argue. So after some attempts to persuade him, I agreed to get a pica typewriter, and we picked out the make and model we wanted. Using paper catalogs and flyers. There was no such thing as shopping online in those days.

He was in the Army, so he went off TDY (Temporary Duty, or Temporary Duty Yonder, as it was affectionately known) to Boston, leaving me in Maryland, with no car, but with instructions to buy the typewriter.

So I called my friend, Rosa, explained my dilemma, and asked if she could possibly take me out shopping. She was agreeable, so the next day she picked me up, in her little yellow car.

It was one of those gray, drizzly, hazy days. We went to the first store, and found that they had the make and model I wanted, but none that were pica. All they had were elites.

So we set off for another store.

On the way, as the car splashed through the misty rain, a golden-retriever-looking dog darted out into the street about a foot in front of us.

Rosa slammed on her brakes and jerked the wheel, but there was no time, and she clipped the dog. I spun in my seat, tracking the pup, and was just in time to see it slide on its side across the wet pavement, and straight down a storm drain in the curb, with a look of wild amazement on its face.

Rosa stopped the car, and craned around. “Where’s the dog?”

“It went down the storm sewer.”

“It couldn’t! It was a great big dog.”

“It did. Flat on its side, slid along, right through the slot, with a look of wild amazement on its face.”

“That’s not possible,” said Rosa.

“Let’s go look,” said I.

So we got out of the car, walked over, and sure enough, there was the dog, walking back and forth in the storm sewer, looking around, clearly wondering, “Where am I? How did I get here?”

“Rosa,” I said, “His people will never ever, in a hundred million years, look for him down there. We need to get him out.”

“How?”

“I dunno! Do you have a tire iron in your car?”

“Yes.”

“Well, go get it!”

So she got it, handed it to me, and I levered up the cast iron manhole cover that was conveniently located in the sidewalk right over the drain.

I put it carefully to one side, and then reached down, and lifted the dog out.

Now, being young and in good shape at the time, I had no problem bending at the waist, reaching considerably lower than my feet, and lifting out a dog the size of a golden retriever. Sadly, however, my white painter’s jeans were not up to the task, and the right leg tore, riiiippp, right below the buttock.

I put the dog on the ground, where Rosa checked him over, and finding that he seemed to be perfectly okay let him go. At which point he took off without looking, which is how he got in trouble in the first place.

I reached down, picked up the cast iron manhole cover, and lifted it over the opening so I could put it back in place.

At which point it broke in half in my hands, just like a cookie. Snap.

My right hand was strong enough to hold up its half of a cast iron man hole cover, but my left was not, and that half fell down into the water at the bottom of the sewer. Plop.

So I balanced the right half very carefully over the opening, stood up, and said, “Rosa, I want to go home.”

“Why?”

“Why?! You just hit a dog, my pants are torn and no longer white, and I just broke a cast iron man hole cover in half with my bare hands!”

“The dog didn’t leave that much muddy water on you, you can’t see the rip unless you sit down, and then you’ll be sitting on it, and we’ll write down the street address and call in the man hole cover when we get back to your home.

“Besides, this is the only day this week I can take you out, and your husband told you to get the typewriter. We have to keep going.”

“Okay.”

So I sat down on my ripped, wet, filthy pants in her car, and off we went.

To get through the rest of the day quickly; Rosa did not hit the couple stepping off the curb; she missed them by a good inch. She did hit the dumpster, but not very hard. She did not hit the guardrail, there was at least a quarter inch of clearance. She did hit the wall, but just barely.

We did not find a pica typewriter, but we did find the pica script ball I wanted, and at the last store, they called another store that had one, and would hold it for us for a couple of days.

As each thing happened, I said, “Rosa, I want to go home.” and she would tell me no.

But after the wall, when I said, “Rosa. Take me home. Now.” she agreed to do so. Because it was starting to get late.

So we got back to my place, I let us in, and the first thing Rosa did was pick up the rawhide mallet that was lying on my table, (I’d been doing some leather tooling,) and fling it at the windows.

I took it away from her, handed her the phone, and said, “Sit down, and call about that man hole cover. I’m getting clean and changing into something that’s not torn.”

So she did. The call, as she told me after she hung up, went like this.

“Hi! I’m calling to report a broken manhole cover.”

“Thank you. What’s the address?”

She told them.

“How did you discover it was broken.”

“My friend broke it.”

“How?!”

“She just snapped it in half.”

“What does your friend look like?” (increasing incredulity.)

“She’s a white woman in her twenties, tall, medium build.”

“What did she use?!”

“Her bare hands.”

“WHO IS THIS?”

“I don’t have to tell you THAT!” said Rosa, and slammed down the phone.

I hope they did go and look, because it really was broken, and dangerous.

So I kept Rosa for a while, until everything seemed calm and normal, and then sent her on her way.

Where, she told me later, she stopped at the drive-through to the bank, someone pulled up right behind her, and she had to just watch as the driver ahead of her took his foot off the brake, drifted gracefully and slowly backwards, and crunched her right headlight. Amazingly enough, that was the only damage the car took for the whole day.

But it left me with a typewriter that was being held for me, but no way to go and get it.

So I called my friend Bill, and told him the whole story. To which he responded, “Did you turn green?”

“What?”

“Well, you burst out of your clothing, and snapped a cast iron manhole cover in half with your bare hands. I just wondered if you turned green?”

“No, Bill, I’m not the Hulk! Now, can you take me, or not?”

“Sure.”

So Bill came and got me, and off we went. I had good, written instructions from the last store the day before, and thought it would be fairly simple. But I wasn’t counting on the vagaries of the Beltway around Washington DC.

You see, at that time (and probably until this day) there are some exits that you can only get to if you’re going clockwise, and the one I needed was one of those. The trouble was, we had left from my house, not the store, and were going counter clockwise. So we watched the exits, looking for number 17. (I’m making up the numbers; this was nearly forty years ago, after all.) And there they went, 20, 19, 18, 16… wait! What happened to 17?

Arrrgh!

So we turned around, and now we were going the right direction, we found the exit, took it, and almost at once found ourselves at an unexpected T intersection. The name of the street matched the directions, but the guy at the store had neglected to note which direction to turn.

“Which way do you think we should go?” asked Bill.

“Right.”

So, since Bill knew me well, he turned left. I didn’t argue. My reverse sense of direction is generally pretty good.

But in this case, it swiftly became apparent that the street was becoming increasingly residential. When we could read a couple of house numbers, we knew we were going the wrong way. So we turned around.

And found, to our surprise, that in the five or so minutes it had taken us to drive a bit, turn, and drive back, a cherry picker had stopped at that T intersection, put out bright orange safety cones, and covered the road with coils of wire from a four foot spool.

There was a man in the cherry picker, hanging onto one end of the wire. As we watched, he was lifted to the height of the telephone poles, at which point he tried to pull the wire taunt.

Oddly, he couldn’t move several hundred pounds of wire as thick as his thumb, and the coils in the street barely stirred as he strained.

The other guy, down on the ground, waved and shouted for a few minutes, but it didn’t help. So that guy had them lower the cherry picker, and changed places with the first man.

I thought, oh good, they’re going to use the cherry picker to lift the wire. But not a bit of it. He had himself lifted to the top of the pole, and then found that he, too, couldn’t pull that massive wire taunt.

So he had the cherry picker lowered again, kicked the coils out of the way in disgust, threw the cones to the side of the road, and motioned us to go on through the intersection.

I hope he used the cherry picker next, but I’m guessing that before that, he and the other guy both got in, and tried to pull the wire taunt.

Anyway, however they managed (and they did manage, the wire was in place, and all the machinery gone when we passed going home,) we got to the store, where, indeed, the typewriter was waiting for me, a beautiful pica machine, exactly the make and model that I was looking for.

I paid for it, and Bill drove me back to my apartment with no further adventures.

But that night, when I called my then-husband to tell him mission accomplished, and just what it had taken to accomplish that mission, I told him, “But I still think we should have gotten the elite.”

“No,” he said. “I like the smaller letters.”

Which… is the elite.

Which I could have gotten at the first store, before we even hit the dog.

But if I had, I wouldn’t have had this story to tell you.

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