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16 nonfiction The Reinvention of Ben Miller 17 1. Mr. Creighton invented an ice-skating rink that fit neatly into a cardboard carton, ready for shipping across the continental United States and Canada. Each kit contained bags of screws, many metal strips—dyed purple, for some reason—and a bundled tarp. After the rink’s perimeter was screwed together, cricket clips on the strips were affixed to the tarp that had been unfolded, forming the big blue surprise of a circle. The direction booklet advised covering the plastic with three inches of water but did not address the tricky question of where liquid would come from during a frigid season when outdoor spigots were ice-clogged. To create the Creightons’ own backyard rink, Mr. Creighton had rigged a garden hose to the kitchen faucet, and he trusted that others would also. After all, Americans were smart customers ! The patent was pending in busy Washington DC. An accountant had been retained in the Davenport Bank building, downtown’s lone tower. The largest PO box rented to absorb the expected tides of orders from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Montreal. Mr. Creighton , father of my third-grade classmate Brad, was an active dreamer. He followed through. This mattered an awful lot. Meant everything! A dream unfulfilled often being worse than no dream at all. I loved my own father—the failed politician, unpublished novelist, clientless lawyer—but his inertia put dangerous pressure on the rest of us. Too many crises could be traced to a living room recliner where he sat mashing cigarette butts into a brass ashtray, lost in reveries that were invisible shackles. (And the other crises, they were due to his peculiar actions: for example, wiring together backyard spruce branches to replace an unaffordable Christmas tree.) Mr. Creighton rarely slept, said Brad—not bragging, reporting. Brad had red hair and freckled chipmunk cheeks. He chattered only once a week. Otherwise he was quiet, respecting (maybe fearing?) my daily compulsion to depict cataclysm with crayons—armies atop opposing cliffs, flaming men falling into an abyss, dead moments after they were created. Brad was polite. He tapped my Angel of Death arm and then calmly turreted sentences with info. Mr. Creighton was not going to make a hundred grand from the rink, but $95,786. I did not differ. Brad smiled, the smile slow to grow, but wide, finally. He was stocky like Mr. Creighton, who wore flannel 18 ecotone lumberjack shirts and snowflake sweaters out of season. Mr. Creighton had red hair also, inspiring me to imagine what inventor Alexander Graham Bell would have looked like with crimson sideburns. (Not so hot.) Dad, said Brad, pulled all-nighters. Mrs. Creighton trailed right behind that action with checkered thermos, Brillo pad, and cleaners to cut through dream grease. She knew the score. Spouses of the dreamy always did. They must be there with Comet (in her case) or Chagrin (in my mother’s). Some husbands offered wives messy machinations of adoration, while other males remained distant, intent on concealing passion until—voilà!—dramatically unveiling the intricate inner workings of the heart’s mind, with an invention. Did Mrs. Creighton prefer the ordeal of being married to a genius because she had been betrayed by an Iowa Romeo? I knew only so much about her. But from the moment Brad, wearing Aztec-pattern poncho, whispered news of the mail-order ice rink, I was smitten by the concept, its creator, and the family behind him—including older sister Brenda, who had the longest red hair at McKinley Elementary. 2. It being the 1970s—decade of cultural meltdown and baroque morass—I pictured no epiphany light bulb above Mr. Creighton’s head, but, rather, the globular gleam-soup of a lava lamp. I pictured his blue eyes as battery cells hot-wired to his brain. I pictured a thick wrist twisting in midair, demonstrating invention physics to bespectacled bankers seeking golf gloves in the aisles of Kunkel’s Sporting Goods. Even so, from what Brad said, I gathered that previous inventions were not making money. Commercial prospects could change, however, if Mr. Creighton received patents for the electric pillow, thermostatic kite, motorized dog groomer, blade...


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