Bestselling author Daniel Pinkwater's story of how Neddie, a shaman, a ghost, three pals, and a maneuver known as the French substitution determine the fate of the world.
Melvin the Shaman. Sandor Eucalyptus. Billy the Phantom Bellboy. Daniel Pinkwater's weird and wonderful tale of Neddie Wentworthstein's quest to save civilization features some of the most unique heroes and villains a reader could hope to meet. Despite the heavy responsibility that Neddie must carry (not every kid is charged with rescuing humankind from doom), his story is hilarious, warm, welcoming, and sweet.
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Daniel Pinkwater is crazy about writing, and has been trying to learn how to do it for fifty years. He has written about a hundred books, all but two or three of them good. People who own radios may know Daniel Pinkwater as a popular commentator and children’s book reviewer on National Public Radio. At one time, he lived in Los Angeles, went to a fancy private school with the children of movie stars, and ate in The Hat numerous times. He lives with his wife, the illustrator and novelist Jill Pinkwater, and several dogs and cats in a very old farmhouse in New York’s Hudson River Valley.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
We Take the Train I didn’t always live here. And by here” I do not mean the La Brea Tar Pits, where I am writing this down in a notebook I mean Los Angeles. When I was a little kid I lived in Chicago.
On Wilshire Boulevard, in Los Angeles, there is a restaurant shaped like a hat. It is called the Brown Derby, and that’s what it looks like one of those derby hats, with the round top and the little brim all around. There is a sign outside that says eat in the hat. And people do. I knew about this because I saw pictures in Look magazine. The pictures showed the restaurant, the eat in the hat sign, and two movie stars I think it was Bette Davis and Laird Cregar inside the hat, eating cheeseburgers. They were eating cheeseburgers with knives and forks! This was interesting too. I had only found out about cheeseburgers a short time before and had actually eaten only two of them. I did not know that some people eat them with knives and forks, but I thought of them as grown-up and sophisticated food even before learning that movie stars ate them.
Anyway, when I read about the Brown Derby and saw the pictures, it became one of my life’s ambitions to eat there. I have to confess, I was not clear about exactly where Los Angeles, California, was if it was not too far, maybe I could get my father to drive us over one day in the Buick.
So I mentioned it to my father, and I learned two things. I learned that Los Angeles, California, of which Hollywood is a part (the reason that movie stars eat in the Brown Derby), was way out West, and it took more than two days to get there by train.
The other thing I learned . . . Well, this is what my father said: Neddie, my boy! It is also my lifelong ambition to eat in the restaurant shaped like a hat!” And this is what he said next: Not only will we eat in the hat, we will all go and live in Los Angeles, California! We can eat in the hat all the time, and pick lemons off the trees, and live in the sunshine.” A week later, we had packed up our clothes, moving men had come and taken away the furniture, I had said goodbye to my friends forever, and my father, my mother, and my sister, Eloise, and I were on the Super Chief, which is a fancy deluxe train that goes from Chicago to Los Angeles.
You might think there was something weird about my family my father, anyway and there is. He is unpredictable and tends to do things that surprise people, until they get used to him. My mother seems normal at first, but she’s married to him and always goes along with his ideas like the parakeets, for instance. I bought a parakeet for ninety-nine cents at the dime store. Little blue parakeet. I named him Henry. At the back of the dime store they have this pet department: goldfish, canaries, and parakeets. The usual price for parakeets is a dollar and a half, but they sell the shrimpy ones for ninety-nine cents. A dinky wire cage costs twenty-five cents, and the guy in the pet department threw in a box of birdseed for free. My father thought Henry was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, and a week later he came home with eleven more, a big cage with a parakeet playground, ladders and bells and perches and mirrors, a book on parakeet care, and bags and bags of stuff for them to eat. After a week of playing with the parakeets and reading up on them, he made it my job to take care of them: clean the cage, spray them for mites, smear Vaseline on their feet also, I was supposed to train them to hop onto my finger, and teach them to talk. The talking never worked out probably because we had so many of them. The book said that in order to teach a parakeet to talk, you needed to isolate it and repeat whatever word you wanted it to learn while it was going to sleep at night, and again the first thing in the morning. With a dozen parakeets, they just talked to one another, chirping and whistling and screaming.
I didn’t mind being the family parakeet-keeper, but it was a lot of work. Also, I felt sorry for my parakeet, Henry, because all my father’s birds were bigger, and they picked on him and made him miserable. My father liked to let them fly around the apartment, the whole flock of them, whirring through the air and pooping on things. When it was time to put them back in their cage, I had to catch them one by one, which wasn’t easy.
What worried me was that he might bring home more parakeets or something worse. Sometimes he would talk about monkeys. I am looking for a monkey,” he would tell me. I just missed getting one no bigger than this,” he told me, showing me with his fingers how little it was. When I went back to the pet store, someone had bought it. But don’t worry, Neddie. We will find a monkey.” I did worry. I worried a lot. I worried thaat he would find not one monkey but twelve monkeys. Those were going to be hard to catch and they probably bit a lot harder than paraaaaakeets.
Don’t you think it would be nice to have a dog?” I asked my father. Just a regular dog?” You should have seen this monkey,” my father said. He was just like a tiny person.” I think maybe there was already a plan to move to Los Angeles and everybody just forgot to tell me about it, or maybe not. My mother was used to my father, as I said, and when he announced we were moving across the country in a week, she just started getting things ready. Eloise seemed to be all right with the idea as far as I could tell. She is a lot older than I am, was in high school at the time, and didn’t discuss things with me very much.
Or, maybe my father really had thought of it on the spur of the moment when I asked him about the eat-in-the-hat restaurant. My father is an eccentric. I didn’t know that word at the time, but I knew he was one. He’s not crazy or anything like that. He doesn’t rave or flip his lips with a finger and go bibble, bibble. He just does things such as suddenly move his whole family to California, or travel in a deluxe double drawing room on the Super Chief with a bunch of parakeets.
The Second World War had ended a few years earlier, and my father came out of the war a rich man. He had gotten rich selling shoelaces to the army and the navy. Brown shoelaces to the army and black shoelaces to the navy. Before the war started he had gone to this auction. An auction is where they put things up for sale and people holler out how much they are willing to pay and the highest bid gets it.
He was at this auction, and one of the items was a large lot of shoelaces it turned out to be a boxcar full of them. He won the whole thing for fifty-seven dollars. It turned out that along with the shoelaces came a shoelace-making machine. All this machine does is put the little metal or plastic tips on the ends of the shoelaces the actual shoelace stuff comes in big rolls. You want fourteen-inch shoelaces, you put the little metal tip, which is called an aglet, every fourteen inches; you want a sixteen-inch shoelace, you put the aglet every sixteen inches. He got more machines and had a shoelace factory. After the war, my father invented plaid shoelaces, and shoelaces in colors like pink and bright blue. People bought millions of them.
And this is why my father was rich, and why we were on the deluxe Super Chief going to Los Angeles without a care in the world.
It was exciting to be on a train trip. My father had booked a double drawing room that’s two of the largest compartments, with the wall between them folded open to make something like a tiny apartment, with two tiny bathrooms, armchairs that turn into beds, and long benchlike sofas that fold into beds at night, also beds that fold down out of the wall, and you climb a little ladder to get in. The walls and ceiling were made of steel, painted pale green, and the floor was carpeted. There was a little white button on the wall, and when you pressed it you’d hear a bell go ding somewhere far away and a Pullman porter would come.
There are these guys, Pullman porters, black guys with deep voices, elegant manners, and starched white jackets. When you travel in a double drawing room, the porters give you extra-good service, because you are obviously somebody important or rich. Our porters were Mr. Frederick and Mr. Jefferson. They called my father Mr. Wentworthstein, which is our name, and brought us newspapers, playing cards, and ice-cold 7-Up, which I had never had before. My father said that 7-Up was the perfect beverage for train travel, and I agreed with him.
Looking out the window I saw other travelers hurrying to get on the Super Chief, redcaps who are guys with red caps rolling carts piled high with luggage, chefs in white coats and those tall chef’s hats, loading boxes and boxes of things to cook into the dining car. There were conductors in blue suits with shiny brass buttons, the engineer in striped overalls, various railroad guys checking the wheels everyone hustling and bustling plus hot, steamy smells and powerful buzzing and hissing noises. The train itself was like a big living thing, like a dinosaur or a giant snake. You had to go up some steep steel steps to get into it. Once you were in it, it smelled . . . like a train I didn’t have anything to compare it to it smelled of leather and clean carpeting, and hot motor oil, and rich people.
There was a lot of scurrying around and getting settled into the double drawing room. Mr. Frederick and Mr. Jefferson made sure all our suitcases were on board; the conductor, in his blue suit, came by and punched our tickets with a shiny silver ticket puncher. We looked out the window again. The rush of people on the platform was thinning out, getting slower. There were clunks and thumps as the steel stairs were folded up, and the doors banged shut. Some of the people outside the train were friends and relatives of people who were taking the trip. They waved and made faces at their friends who were on board. Guys in blue railroad suits wrote things down on clipboards and looked at pocket watches.
All aboard!” somebody hollered. The people on the platform took a step back from the train. More bumps, thumps, and bangs. A guy in a railroad uniform, looking annoyed, walked fast alongside the train, up toward the engine. Then he walked back the other way. Everybody on the platform was standing still, facing the train.
Then we felt a bump, then a bump the other way. Nobody said anything. Another bump. The people on the platform were sliding to the left. Poles and columns and baggage carts too. We were moving! I could feel the wheels rumble under us. Slowly, slowly, the train was moving out of the station!
Let’s let the birds out of the boxes,” my father said. They need a little exercise.” My father was busy setting up his Zenith portable radio, a big thing, almost like a little suitcase, covered in black bumpy leather. It had the patented Wave Magnet, which was an oval plastic object the size of two dessert plates, with suction cups this you’d stick to the window, and there was a flat ribbonlike cable that connected it to the radio. My father had bought it specially for the trip, and we were going to hear all the usual radio programs while we crossed the country in style.
My mother was leafing through a magazine, and Eloise was reading a book about art history. From Eloise’s expression, and what I knew about her personal tastes, I was pretty sure she was pretending she was traveling with some other family one with no parakeets or little brothers or maybe alone.
As the train came out of the darkness of the station and into the semidarkness of the railyards on a gloomy winter afternoon, with the parakeets whirring and whizzing around the double drawing room and my family sipping 7-Up, I felt a kind of excitement I had never felt before. I knew I had begun my first big adventure.
Up to now, all my adventures had been either small or completely imaginary.
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