BERKSON: The amazing mind-reading machine claims a victim

Life Sketches

The amazing mind-reading
machine claims a victim

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

Sometimes my father would sit in his chair, lost in thought, for hours.

I’d often wonder what he was thinking about. Maybe it was about my mother who had a nervous breakdown several years before and was still in the hospital.

He used to take me in his yellow taxi to country auctions, where he’d buy things that we would need on the farm he would buy some day. Even as a kid, I saw the impracticality of some of his acquisitions. He bought a barrel full of canning jars, huge spools of copper lightning-rod cable, a two-man crosscut saw, a pedal organ, dishes, rat traps and more. The only thing he bought that I got some use out of right away was a little oaken box that had a beautiful red velvet-lined interior. It also had a big horseshoe magnet and something that looked like a sawed-off propeller. Two wires with metal, jump rope-sized handles came out of opposite ends of the box. There was a crank in the front that made the gears and the sawed-off propeller turn. The box produced an electrical shock that could knock you to Canarsie.

My cousin Charlie, who at that time was as big as a blimp, lived upstairs and was always on hand to parrot his parents’ derisions about my father throwing away his money on a lot of junk. Sometimes it would make me feel bad and I’d wish I knew what Dad had in mind. He never explained anything he bought. But when we brought home the oak box and I showed Charlie the jolt it could give, he had nothing but praise for the contraption. I developed a routine about the box being a mind-reading machine and on that ruse Charlie and I shocked just about every kid in the neighborhood.

One time, this kid Anthony came roller-skating onto our block. Sometimes I’d hear him singing opera in his alley. I didn’t think he had a bad voice. We got him to come over and take hold of the handles to have his mind read.

We were set up on Fernazzo’s stoop with a lot of kids gathered around. The machine didn’t always produce a charge. Anthony was just standing there skeptically. None of us knew anything about electricity, and we didn’t realize that his metal skates would ground him more than any of our previous victims. All at once the juice surged through the wires and into Anthony’s arms. Usually the stooge dropped the handles immediately, but now they seemed to be glued to Anthony’s hands. My cousin was still cranking away, his eyes closed in concentration.

The amazing mind-reading machine shocked half a neighborhood when columnist Terry Berkson was a kid.

Then, Anthony fell straight back, pulling both the wires and the box off the stoop. He was lying on the sidewalk, out cold, his skate wheels spinning. He didn’t seem to be breathing. My cousin leaned over him and rolled back one of his eyelids.

Mrs. Fernazzo opened her front door and brought out a glass of water. In a few minutes, Anthony was back on his skates again. I checked out the box. The wood was bashed in where it had hit the concrete, but when I opened the lid everything seemed in order.

I wasn’t sure what had knocked Anthony out, the fall or the shock, but from that time on, when I’d hear him in the alley, he never seemed to sing his opera on key.

Charlie and I didn’t use the box again for a long time.

One day, I went looking for it, but it wasn’t in Dad’s closet anymore. To my chagrin he told me he had given it away. Years later, I learned that the box was called a Kidder Box, named after its inventor, and that it was supposed to be for the treatment of nervous conditions.

Maybe Dad had bought the contraption to use on my mother. Maybe he actually went to the hospital and made her grip the handles as he cranked away. Maybe he got rid of it because it didn’t do any good.
He never told me and she never got better.

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