Column: Barfly takes swat at progress


I sat beside Ernie Bombeck at The Shaky Stool.

“Hey, it’s One Beer Scott,” Ernie slurred, a nickname he called me due to limiting myself to only one beer per visit.

“Barkeep, another,” he shouted. Ernie, forever the curmudgeon, looked both shaken and stirred.

“What’s wrong now, Ernie?”

“You’re not going to believe this, One Beer Scott, but the old Hoosier Desk building is missing.”

“It’s not missing, Ernie. It was demolished.”

He stared at me blankly.

“What? You didn’t know about this, Ernie? There were plenty of stories in the local media. Do you live in a cave?”

“I live in The Shaky Stool.”

“Same thing,” the bartender quipped, giving Ernie his beer. “I hope someone pays this Neanderthal’s bar tab soon.” Then, with fly-swatter in hand, he stalked a fly. Smack. Smack. “Missed!”

Ernie said, “The Shaky Stool needs a newsletter to keep me up on things like this. I could’ve led a protest march had I known.”

“I’ll make sure to publish it on bar napkins,” the bartender said with an eye-roll. Smack. Smack. “Missed again. It’s the fly from hell.”

“Why are you so concerned about that old building?” I asked.

“Once the no-smoking law hit—the bane of my existence—I had to find a place to light up. The Hoosier Desk building became my official smoking spot. I’d walk there several times a day.”

“It was Ernie’s only exercise program,” the barkeep said. Smack. Smack. “Man, I just can’t connect.”

Ernie continued, “I’d lean on its south wall. Mind my own business. Light up. Enjoy the fresh air. I depended on that brick wall. Then today there was nothing there to hold me up.”

“He didn’t notice until it was too late,” the barkeep said, pantomiming tipping a beer bottle. “He leaned into thin air. Fell victim to a gravity storm.”

Ernie continued, “I got up off the ground. I looked around. No building! My guess is UFOs.”

“Ernie, this is not the result of any extraterrestrial activity. Jasper has exciting plans for that property,” I said.

Ernie’s eyes lit up. “You mean they are putting a demolition derby track there? The lot’s the perfect size. Finally, something fun in Jasper.”

“Actually, it’s the spot for the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center,” I said. “It will house a new library and arts commission. It’s community progress.”

“Progress!? Pfft. First the city takes away my leaning place and now they cancel plans for a demolition derby track. The city has always had it out for us Bombecks.”

Ernie took a long, long sip from his bottle. He had the faraway look of someone in mental reverse time travel. I raised my eyebrow at the bartender, hoping he could explain.

“Two words: garbage disposals,” the bartender said, then told me about City Ordinance No. 356.

In 1950, that ordinance was put into effect under the advisement of then Jasper Mayor Herb Thyen, requiring homeowners to install a garbage disposal unit in their kitchen sinks.

Ernie spoke, “Back then, the flies were so thick in Jasper that they carried little children away—and even worse, livestock. Seeing an opportunity to help the town and turn a profit, Grandpa Bombeck invested his life’s savings into developing the perfect fly-swatter.”

“An autonomous fly-swatter,” said the bartender. “It was called the Auto Swat.”

Like all great inventions, the Auto Swat required more than its fair share of trial and error. It went after everything that moved except for flies. Ernie’s grandpa experienced endless swats to the cranium. The family pets escaped to new homes. The milk man, tired of Auto Swat attacks, refused to deliver milk—not that there were many cows left due to the fly swarms. His wife divorced him. His grandpa seemed oblivious to it all. He eventually quit his job, lost touch with society, totally obsessed with perfecting the world’s first autonomous fly-swatter. Finally, after months of modifications, he decided to open his first roadside Auto Swat booth.

“But first, he stopped here at The Shaky Stool,” the bartender sighed. “My own grandfather was the barkeep, so I know all about it. To celebrate his anticipated future riches, Ernie’s grandpa bought a round of beer for everyone. After everyone applauded and sang “for he’s the jolly good fellow,” Ernie’s grandpa heard a strange grinding noise coming from the kitchen. ‘Say, what’s that terrible racket?’ he asked. My grandfather told Ernie’s grandfather, ‘Why, it’s the new garbage disposal unit the mayor required all residents to install a couple months ago to get rid of Jasper’s flies.’ ”

“It’s a conspiracy man,” Ernie said, dabbing at his eyes with a bar napkin. “Grandpa was sitting on this very stool. He never spoke another word after that, ever, communicating only by seal barks till the day he died.”

“Jasper became famous for its no-fly zone status. The New York Times even wrote about the ordinance,” the bartender said. He swatted near us, this time connecting. “Finally,” he shouted triumphantly. The fly landed inside Ernie’s beer bottle.

Ernie looked into it. “Bartender, what’s this fly doing in my beer?”

The bartender held the brown bottle up to the light, jiggled it. “Looks like the backstroke to me.”

“Ah, what the hell,” Ernie said, not getting the old joke, and sipped. “I’d go out for a smoke but I’m boycotting cigarettes until that building returns.”

“See, Ernie, progress.”

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