Reminiscing with my brother and our wives one evening, which is a retired occupation as we get older, the past much safer than the scary future, a strange soul, who lived an unconventional life, came to mind.
I am going to change his name to Bernie Kaplan to protect perhaps the most innocent person we never knew although the chances of his reading this are about as likely as our waking up tomorrow morning twenty years old again. Back then we laughed at Bernie, good-naturedly, only somewhat derisively we chuckled at this odd bird. He was a self-appointed poet, the self-named poet laureate of our burgeoning counter-culture community back in The Day as we called those glorious and confusing times of the late 60’s when anything went. He was our yellow submarine, writing perhaps some of the worst poetry anyone has ever penned, an Ichabod who went from house to house, person to person trading his poems for food and company, the poems so bad that in another world he would have had the door barred to him, been hooked from the stage, had rotten tomatoes hurled his way. But we were all peace and love back then and who would not take the time to read a poem about a pickle and his animal and plant friends.
When the subject of Bernie came up, we asked if anyone had any of his books stashed among the piles of memorabilia some of us still kept. No one had any or didn’t remember coming across one, but, of course, someone suggested we Google Bernie and Tickle the Pickle for that was the main character in all the poems, a bumpy ex-Cuke with a perpetual smile, maybe a simulacrum for his poet creator. We did and instantly we found several sites and brought up his main book. We read it as we passed the lap top around. By bits and pieces we established his amazing biography, a poet only in name.
We found out some astounding tidbits about our poet acquaintance from our research. His main book of several was simply called Tickle the Pickle but titles like Tickle the Pickle Meets Marsha the Mushroom and Tickle the Pickle Meets God were more than intriguing. All in all, he published fifteen books including Wheat Germ, Journey Into the Banana Sea, A Pleasing Mixture of Mushrooms and Poetry, Chippity Chip Flip, and Be Happy, which was definitely his mantra. Bernie’s most famous line: “Bernie Kaplan says Relax.”
Mr. Kaplan traveled the world, a Johnny Appleseed of poetry, moving around the world via his feet, donkeys and airplanes according to his brief book notes. He was a freelance photographer, a cowboy in Scotland, a developer of university apartments, worked with special needs children, and helped at a halfway house. Mostly though, he offered his poems for “meals, lodging, and an occasional kiss.” He sat “on pavements reading to children of all ages…being encouraged by freaky people and straightly (sic) business-women” when he was in the Midwest, his most frequent stomping grounds. He received over three hundred letters of congratulation, a third of them from children. There are 6,000 copies of his work in print including a Spanish edition and an unfinished one in Danish.
We remembered what it was like to encounter the poet. You would be doing whatever we did in those days to perpetuate our counter-culture/hippie/freak lifestyle and Bernie would come sauntering up to you or whatever group you were in. He was a thin, sandy-haired, plain looking young man of medium height who always wore an old button down shirt, jeans, and well broken-in sandals. He walked more like a stork than a man, loping toward you with a huge welcoming smile and a big Hello! whenever he leaned our way. He always had a backpack of course and he always had a supply of his hand printed, mimeographed poetry books with him. When we saw him, if we thought we were busy, a word that just didn’t fit into the rhythm of our lifestyles then perhaps the way it did later when we joined the real world, we might shoo him away like a fly. But the quixotic Bernie was nothing if not persistent and his welcome always involved asking if he could read a new poem to us. Although we could only find a copy of the one book, we remembered that Bernie was prolific and was always creating new poems for his Pickle friend. The poems were dreadful, lacking the wit of the classic nonsense poets, and made no sense at all, but we listened patiently, laughed a bit, patted him like a good dog and, when he had a new book, forked over either a dollar or two bits depending on his asking price if we weren’t giving him food or a place to flop that night.
Before I tell you more about what Bernie meant to us and why he stood so stark in our memory as an example of someone who refused to join our crazy world but worked to make it crazier and happier than it is, you should know the plot of the one extant book—the original Tickle the Pickle.
It was a beautiful Spring day and Tickle the Pickle was busy doing his daily task of grinding 3,000 watermelon seeds so he could drink the juice and become invisible ( move over Harry Potter’s more mundane cloak) and avoid being eaten. Once he drinks it and disappears, he goes for a walk in the woods where he lives and encounters Bump Bump the Bucket who reads him a poem he has just penned, Bump Bump being the equivalent of Bernie in our world. The poem is entitled A BANANA SEA and I would be remiss if I did not insert that ditty to illustrate the quality of the poems with which Bernie regularly regaled us.
I see the banana sea.
Me, me, me, me, me, me
I see the banana sea
Flowing wild in the blue breeze…
Blue me, I see the banana sea
So free, so free, so free
This blue banana sea
So free, so free, so free…
Be me by me I say
And I see the sea I say
The sea so free by me
Hiss hiss free sea I say.
Be me by me I say and see
This blue shaded sea I see by me
This sea so free by me I say I see
This blue banana sea I see by me.
Tickle liked the poem but said he could not understand it. (In our world, we could understand his poems easily but didn’t much like them as even the most unimaginative among we hippies knew that his poetry was just plain bad.)
Then the action begins to accelerate as a crisis invades the scene. Bert the Bunny races up and informs Tickle and Bump Bump that Egbert, the eleventh bunny child (reminiscences of Uncle Wiggly?) has been captured by the only human in the book—The Hunter—who is building a fire with the aim of eating the rabbit morsel. Cloud ex machina, Breezy, creates a rain storm to hold off the dinner and Pickle, racing through the Plumbum (yes) Forest, invisible, steals in and rescues the bunny, which could have been the happy ending.
But there is more! The next day all the woodland friends decide to hold a celebration. Bert the Bunny tells Tickle about the party when he is in the middle of grinding up this watermelon seeds because he evidently has to drink a new potion every single day to avoid being chomped on. Bert is in a hurry and persuades Tickle to take some of the seeds with him so they won’t be late and grind them up later. Fatal mistake! Visible, Pickle is seen and captured by The Hunter who is angry because he lost his rabbit repast and will gladly eat a pickle instead if not from hunger than from spite. Enter Todd the Mushroom (related to Marsha?), just in the nick of time to get Tickle out of the pickle he is in, so to speak, Todd convincing The Hunter to allow the pickle one last drink before he eats him. The stupid hunter agrees and Tickle disappears after quaffing the melon juice and ending the crisis.
But what great book ends without a moral? The Hunter is furious and comes back the next day shooting at everything. It gets so bad that Breezy the Cloud pummels him with hail to get him to stop firing his gun at random. Tickle the Pickle promptly confronts the man and tells him that he doesn’t need to hurt others with his gun and asks him how he would feel if the animals shot at his family. Stop using your gun, Pickle pleads, and we will become your friends. The Hunter immediately repents, breaks his gun in half, and embraces his new friends.
That’s it! This was Bernie’s tour de force. We will never know what happened when he met Marsha the Mushroom or what it would have meant for a pickle to meet God because we don’t have those books and none of us could remember any of the other tales or poems that Bernie conjured but they were surely no more memorable than the tale of The Hunter.
Without a doubt, one of the most intriguing characters in all of literature is Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. What sensitive heart will not totally resonate to that forgotten man who resisted integrating into a life that is meaningless with his iconic response to the mundane tasks that so many in our world have to embrace to survive: “I’d prefer not to.”
Bernie Kaplan did not have the stoic heroism of Melville’s sad character, but he navigated an unfriendly world with his nonsense poetry and stories and, nursing our retirement drinks, we mused that perhaps Bernie had a better way of engaging our sometimes cruel world than did most of us.
Published in Quail Bell Magazine