The Mind of Chow
Charles Burbee published this grim set of vignettes in Terry Carr's Innuendo shortly after the death of his close friend Francis Towner Laney. The piece is one of the strangest expressions of grief that I have ever read.
Directly at the head of Francis T. Laney the mallet came flying.
This is the same Laney who edited the #1 fanzine ACOLYTE, the #1 FAPAzine FANDANGO, who was a one-time dignitary in the NFFF, and besides being an officeholder in FAPA a couple of times, was more than once the Director of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society.
If I could remember the exact chronology of this affair, I might even discover that he was Director of the LASFS at the very moment that the mallet came flying at his head. Can you imagine anyone throwing a mallet at the head of the Director of the LASFS?
This happened back in 1946 or 1947 when Laney and I worked in the same shop and each working day was like a protracted meeting of a fan club.
A fan club with only two members. For about a year it had three members. Gus Willmorth, founder of the adzine FANTASY ADVERTISER, worked there for a while.
Laney, in response to a loud warning shout, looked up just in time to see the mallet and to duck. The mallet whizzed over his head and crashed into a partition.
Chow, the Chinese machinist who had thrown the mallet at Laney and shouted the warning at him also, came up to him laughing, “Old Chinese joke,” he said. “I almost kill you.”
Laney, shaking his head, laughed too. It was an incredulous, wry laugh, the laugh of a man who, not quite understanding, was trying to be a good sport. Chow demonstrated his sense of humor in peculiar ways at times, Laney knew. And so he laughed, without much humor in his laugh, because he could scarcely believe that this thing had happened.
I could hardly believe it myself and I had just witnessed the entire sequence. Chow had picked up the mallet and, standing a dozen feet away, had swung it underhand at FTL’s head, shouting, “Hey, Laney!” as the missile left his hand.
For a long time afterward that was a standard shop joke among the three of us. Nobody else could see anything humorous about it. In fact, several people said that they hated having Chow tell them jokes because they could never tell when it was time to laugh. On the other hand, when they told him jokes they never could tell whether he would look at them blankly or laugh uproariously. There seemed to be no pattern.
Laney claimed it was the fault of us inscrutable Occidentals.
One day Chow came to work fairly bursting with a story to tell us. He could scarcely wait to tell us what had happened the night before.
It seems that Chow and his sister lived with their father. Every night the old man came home around eleven o’clock after closing up his little grocery store, and he entered the house by the back way in total darkness. He had a system for finding the dangling light cord on the back porch. From the door he reached for the washtub, followed along the washtub so many paces and, having reached a certain spot would reach up into the blackness and grasp the light cord without a miss. He was very fond of telling people how he could do this every time.
One day Chow noticed, in changing the light bulb, that the outside metal shell was electrically live - he got a shock from it. So he attached a wire to it and ran the bare wire down in place of the switch cord. That night his father came home late as usual, felt his way along the washtub as usual, reached the locating point, reached up and grasped the light cord. . . . Chow said his father’s yelp of fright and pain could be heard most of the way down the block.
“My golly,” I said when he told me the story. “He was grounded to the washtub! He must have gotten a terrific shock. You might have killed him.”
“Only old Chinese joke,” laughed Chow. “I almost kill him.”
“Did he find out you’d rigged the light switch?”
“Sure, I tell him. I say, ‘Oh boy, old Chinese joke. I almost kill you.’ So he laugh too.”
I guess the old man saw the point.
The other day in the shop the foreman started feeding a piece of material through one of the table saws with the direction of rotation. This is not common practice and this foreman has been running these saws for more than twenty years, but there he was, feeding the strip the wrong way. Of course the saw seized up and shot the piece through the air at a speed we later estimated to be 100 mph. It screamed past, six inches away from the ear of Chow as he sat operating a drill press. It struck the wall with a sound like the crack of a rifle.
The foreman went over to Chow. “I’m not hurt. Are you” he said.
Chow said, “I didn’t even have to turn around to know who did that. Only one man in the shop stupid enough.”
The rest of the day Chow would come over to me at intervals, usually announcing himself by throwing something sharply against my machine or the wall, then coming up and saying quietly to me, “I’m not hurt. Are you?” Then he’d tell me the story all over again.
About the fourth time he told me the story, I said to him, “What are you so annoyed about, anyway? Old Chinese joke. He almost kill you.”
To Chow’s eternal credit, it must be admitted that he laughed. It was a laugh that reminded me of Laney’s laugh, so long ago. A sort of wry laugh, without much humor in it at all.