“I miss my friends tonight, their faces shine for me,
The clamor of their singing like some mad calliope.
Still ringing through the Lion’s Head until the morning light,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…
– Tom Paxton, ‘Comedians & Angels’
My fortieth high school class reunion weekend commences tonight – two evenings and a Sunday afternoon of remembering, reflecting, reconnecting; relationships reconstituted and rejuvenated. For some of us, festivities have already begun; coming into town a few days early, staying with friends:
Coffee and donuts with a friend, followed by a solitary, reflective walk through an old neighborhood.
Longtime besties and their respective spouses getting together.
A spontaneous, uproarious, karaoke outing lasting til the wee hours.
Old flames on a long-pined-for dinner date.
But tonight is our initial group outing; a mixer at a tavern near our old school. Beer and pizza, lively conversation. Scorekeeping; who is here, who isn’t, will be duly noted – some solemnly, some with a measure of relief. Some will not be remembered by many, as it is in a large school, with over four hundred-fifty graduates. The actual tally can be a daunting eye opener: just over four-hundred located, 39 deceased, 42 listed as ‘missing’.
Casualty numbers from the war of time.
Toasts will be offered to those not with us, a few tears will be shed, some rueful laughter; memories will be shared.
“A song for every season, a smile in every fight,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…”
My hope is tonight will not be one dedicated to mourning, but of celebration – of what those no longer with us meant to us, individually, collectively. We were more than classmates, not just friends. We were, in many way family. Make no mistake, those no longer here left their marks.
Great anecdotal stories, heartfelt toasts, tears shed: legacies not taken lightly at this stage of life. The indifference and sadness of youth has given way to appreciation for what – who – was lost, and what gifts and opportunities those of us who have preserved, survived, have been allowed to enjoy.
“I wonder where they are now – could be anywhere in hell, or California, or back in Sheridan Square! They left us where they left us, so we put o ut the light,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…”
Some of those we will raise a glass to were not even members of our class, but dear friends a year ahead of us, a year or even two behind. Part of us, members of our ’77 family.
“Each one drained a parting glass and sailed out to sea,
And what a crew of rogues they made, in gleeful anarchy!
They sang to the horizon a song no pen could write,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…”
Comedians and angels, indeed. Also rouges and connivers, charmers and brusque ne’er-do-wells. Not always the easiest to live with, not often recognized or saluted. The innocuous, the brash; those humble, and the ego-driven that often drove us.
Like I said, family.
The list of those no longer with us is lengthy, and the names vary in memory and significance to each of us, but on behalf of all of us still here, still carrying the banner of the class of 1977.
Godspeed, my friends.
And thanks to you all. We miss you, and hope we’ve done you proud.
“They sang to the horizon a song no pen could write,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight.
Father’s Day. A bit pretentious of a title for a holiday, but it is what it is. ‘Dad’s Day’ just doesn’t have the panache – except to me, because I had my dad.
A bit pretentious of a title for a holiday, but it is what it is. ‘Dad’s Day’ just doesn’t have the panache – except to me, because I had my dad.
Dad died in 1986 – now more than half my life ago, which is an interesting realization to come to – I have lived more of my life without his physical presence than with. In a way, that makes no sense to me.
It’s quite natural to wonder what he would think of the here-and-now; what his family has become, his grandchildren, great- grandchildren – life in general, the world in which we all live.
I don’t need to think too hard to reach a definite conclusion; he would see my life as it is today with a sense of pride, but also a heightened level of amusement and bemusement.
My dad wasn’t highly educated, topping out the formal end of things with a high school diploma, but he was knowledgeable and well read, a man of continual curiosity about the world. He would have some definite opinions the recent state of affairs of the country and it would be a blunt, probably sarcastic, enlightening and entertaining – LOL commentary. He would have appreciated his grandchildren’s fairly sophisticated interest in things social and political.
Life would still be pointedly funny, as would he
Aside from all of the typical moments I regret my dad and I missed getting to share – the wife and children of mine he never met, my career and creative and milestones, the man I have become – one thing I get oddly wistful about is the fact that my dad and I never got to sit down in front of a VHS or DVD player and watch funny movies.
That many sound funny as a major regret.
Dad was an aficionado of comedy. He spent the bulk of his working years as a television station film editor in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and then Denver. This was back in the fifties, sixties and seventies, when television was still a fairly new and burgeoning entity, and most places had only four-or-five channels to choose from, and aside from their network programming, had lots of local air time to fill. TV stations ran a lot of old movies; my father edited them to fit time frames and insert commercial breaks. He loved movies, and did some community theater work himself in his younger, pre-me days. He also made a few appearances in front of the camera at both stations he worked at; as a menswear model in Minneapolis, and for a number of years in Denver as Santa Claus. Dad was gregarious, willing to try new things and to have fun.
Dad knew comedy.
Most of all, Dad knew comedy and loved a wide array of comedic films and performers. Comedy of all kinds, actually. A favorite stand-up comedian’s appearance on a show noted in TV Guide or the newspaper listings and the television was thus appropriated for that time frame: my first, youthful experiences with ‘appointment television’ were comedic in nature. Comedy (and humor – a distinction, to be sure) and an appreciation for things humorous, was a trait he passed on to me, though we had somewhat divergent viewpoints on what/who was funny, and who wasn’t.
Hence, my regret over his not living to see the home video age come to full bloom.
Born in 1916, Dad’s early experiences with comedy were vaudeville and silent films. He was a fan of silent stars Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, and also the Keystone Cops. When I was a teenager, any public television salute to either of those guys was duly noted and watched by my dad, and since we only had one t.v. in the house, me too.
I easily came to share his admiration for most of it.
Dad’s true passion, the guys he found funniest of all, were Laurel and Hardy. They were his heroes – especially Stan Laurel, the skinny straight-man of the classic duo. My dad did a pretty good Stan Laurel impersonation, and even as a young kid I was aware that I was seeing a different look in my dad’s eyes when we watched Laurel and Hardy versus other movies or shows.
Nostalgia is funny; sometimes you look back on something fondly, and wonder why, but this is truly not one of those times. I still enjoy watching Laurel and Hardy – probably even more so now that I am older, and grasp far more of the subtle nuances of their humor – the verbal mastery of the language of humor, the pathos in the true to life friendship that their humor (even when absurdist) came from.
I always laughed along with dad when watching Laurel and Hardy; now I know why he laughed much harder at some things than I did. I now laugh at the same things he did.
Watch a Laurel and Hardy short sometime, and you will see that even the physical, slapstick humor has a certain humanity to it, a gentleness. Chaplin is much the same, and Chaplin I also get in a much different way now than I did as a kid. Dad liked Charlie, and even portrayed him a couple of times for costume parties. He had Chaplin’s waddle and cane twirl down pat.
We did diverge, at times.
In a very different vein, Dad loved The Bowery Boys; I got quickly bored with their antics. Abbot and Costello did nothing for dad, I found them mildly amusing – though they don’t wear as well as the years move on, so maybe my sense of humor is aging like good wine – or my dad’s.
Dad loved the Three Stooges – about as far removed comedically from Laurel and Hardy as you can get, in some regards. There is little subtlety in the Stooges and their eye poking-head smacking mayhem, but my dad enjoyed them tremendously, as do I, as do both my sons – his grandsons. There is something timeless in a pie in the face or a poke in the eye. Don’t believe me? As an adult, I have, by way of actual demonstration, won a couple of bets on whether or not a pie-in-the-face would get a laugh in most any public setting.
Dad would be proud.
But while I grew up sharing dad’s appreciation for Laurel & Hardy and the Stooges (among others) we parted ways over the Marx Brothers. I was, and still am, a big fan; dad didn’t really find them funny, which is one thing that has always puzzled me. All he could say in response to my not-concealed disappointment was that he just didn’t find them all that funny.
Funny how serious a guy can get about a disagreement sbout what is funny with his dad.
As well read and cerebral as my dad was in terms of comedy and satire (both on-screen and in real life) the Marx Brothers would seem to be a natural for him. Oh, he watched some Brothers stuff with me a few times, but it just wasn’t really his thing. When I was in high school, PBS resurrected Groucho Marx’s ‘You Bet Your Life’ quiz show from the fifties and ran them on Saturday nights. I became hooked, and dad actually found Groucho Marx to be a funny guy, much to my relief and vindication of sorts. He still never really cared for their movies, though. Conversely, when PBS resurrected Ernie Kovacs old shows, I was puzzled as what Kovacs bits he liked and which ones he really didn’t. The Nairobi Trio did nothing for him, had me in stitches. Subjectivity reigns.
When asked on his deathbed if he was finding it difficult to leave this life, acclaimed actor John
Barrymore was quoted as saying, “No. Death is easy; comedy is hard.”
I get that.
Even though we didn’t get to plunk down in front of a t.v. with a handful of classics in black-and-white on DVD, my dad and I shared numerous moments of comedic television brilliance through the 60’s and 70′, and had quite lengthy and spirited debates about who and what was and wasn’t funny.
Comedians were prevalent on television when I was growing up, and not just late night with Johnny Carson; The Ed Sullivan Show, the Carol Burnet Show, Flip Wilson – there was always somebody funny on. He loved (and I came to appreciate) Myron Cohen and Morey Amsterdam; he couldn’t stand Buddy Hacket or Shecky Greene, puzzled over my love for the insult humor of Don Rickles or the confetti-throwing antics of Rip Taylor. We both liked Jonathan Winters, and I could stay up late with him on non-school nights to catch Carson when a comedic favorite was scheduled.
Dad was not so old school that he couldn’t enjoy contemporary stuff: he would sit with me on Monday nights and watch The Monkees. He enjoyed the antics, tolerated the music. Looking back, this makes more sense to me; while I used to equate The Monkees humor with the Stooges, viewing them now, I see much more of the love and affection of friends evident in Laurel and Hardy.
TV of the time of my youth was something my dad and I got to share.
Sitcoms we mostly agreed upon and enjoyed watching as a family: The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in The Family and M*A*S*H* were favorites.
Dad also loved Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, and my daughter Lindsay, now in her thirties, became a fan watching Laugh In reruns in her teens. She now owns some DVD’s compilations of Laugh In and uses a number of the shows memorable lines regularly in her personal repertoire, which would please my father to no end – probably even more than it amuses me.
But the quirkiest bit of humor/comedy that my father and I shared was The Muppet Show.
The Swedish Chef in particular always sent him convulsing with laughter, and he really enjoyed Rolf the piano playing dog. And Fozzie Bear and Kermit, of course. But the Swedish Chef was a whole different level of gut-buster for my dad. No, he wasn’t Swedish himself, but marrying into an extended family of Norwegian immigrants and their Swedish cohorts, he could somewhat identify. I think. The Muppet Show aired five nights a week at six-thirty, and if there was a particularly intriguing guest star that night, we had dinner on t.v. trays in the family room – a treat generally reserved for Apollo blastoffs or something equally noteworthy. Or to watch The Muppet Show.
Movies is why I really regret my dad missing out on the home video era.
One of the few ‘grown-up’ movies I ever saw with my dad in a theater was The Pink Panther Strikes Again, starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. My father loved the earlier Pink Panther movies, and thought Peter Sellers was brilliantly funny. I had only seen bits and pieces of the earlier films on t.v. and was unsure what to expect from a whole movie of Seller’s antics.
It was a memorable experience on a whole lot of levels, as I never saw my dad laugh as hard or as frequently as he did that evening in a Denver movie theater.
Two things vividly stand out in my mind from going to sse that film with my father. One is a scene in which Clouseau is chasing a villain, and exits a hotel as the bad guy drives off. Clouseau summons a waiting taxi, jumps in the back seat, and in his French drawl yells at the rotund cab driver to “Fullow that caaaaar.” The overweight cabbie responds by looking at Clouseau blankly, shrugging his shoulders, then jumping out of the cab and running down the road – following the bad guy’s car. The camera then cuts back to a close up of Seller’s face, mostly his eyes and eyebrows, as Clouseau realizes the result of his order.
It was the late 1970’s, dad had recently had heart surgery, and was laughing so hard I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Seriously, I did.
I could watch that scene a hundred times and laugh just as hard as he did then.
The other thing of note from that film has less to do with my dad, and more with my relationship with my sons. A few years ago I rented the original Pink Panther movie and my sons and I watched it together. My dad loved one particular scene, and my boys do now too, and they have been able to watch that particular bit over and over via YouTube.
Assassins are trying to kill Inspector Clouseau. One assassin disguised as Clouseau enters his hotel room, while another assassin follows and kills the first assassin, hiding in the bathtub, thinking it is the real Clouseau. When the lovely Russian assassin, Olga, enters, she declares her love for Clouseau and seduces the second assassin in a dimly lit room. He leaves and then the real Clouseau arrives, moving throughout several rooms turning on lights and turning off others while Olga is doing the same in his wake. He’s befuddled as to what is happening with the lighting and even more surprised when he gets into bed with some “cold hands.” Olga thinks she is with the same man, and a confused Clouseau then escapes to the bathroom, where he now finds the body of the first assassin in the bathtub.
To this point in the scene, there has been no dialogue. Clouseau goes to the phone and calls the front desk, matter-of-factly informing them of what he has discovered.
“Hello?… Yezzz. There eez a beautiful woman in my bed, and a dead man in my bath. Thank you.” Again, a close-up shot of Clouseau’s face – a pause, then his wide-eyed look when he realizes what he has said – the subtle, played straight absurdity of it all, makes the whole scene.
That line has become a piece of family folklore.
Whenever we check into a hotel room, one of the Lucker males is sure to pick up the phone and intone, in suave French accent, “Hello?… Yes. There eeze a dead man in my bathtub, and a naked woman in my bed. Thank you.”
With any luck at all, we remember to hold down the button on the phone so the call doesn’t actually go through.
Treasured keepsake hand-me-downs from my dad. Or at least, of my dad.
Father’s Day weekend is my ‘take stock’ time; gratefulness for healthy, happy, successful-in-their-own-unique-ways children, a self-check on how I’m doing as a father and grandfather. It is also a time of reflection and a reminder of the men who played the codified dad and grandpa roles in my life: my dad, Gramps, my pseudo-grandfather Ivar, my uncle Don and stepfather Gary. The value of what I received from all of them is incalculable – the sum only as great as it’s multiple, generous parts.
I am simply thankful that I was blessed by having them all.
Along with dad, Gramps, Ivar, Don, and Gary, there are other men that I think about on Father’s Day – gentlemen whose lives intersected with mine in a wide, ongoing array of ways for many years each; they all brought something special to the smorgasbord that is me.
There were Elving, Albert, Art, Cleo, and Harold, helping ride herd on me every Horseshoe Lake summer of my youth. Len, Henry, Win were family by choice, not blood. Hjalmer and Palmer, father and uncle of boyhood friends and our up-the-street neighbors; master mechanics, guardians of our block.
It’s an impressive roll call, and humbling when I stop to think of all the time and wisdom they invested in me. Each of them played very significant roles in making me into the man – the husband, father, grandfather, teacher, and leader that I am.
The list of tactile, hard skills that I learned from these guys would fill a flash-drive: plumbing, house painting, carpentry, roofing, lumberjacking. Ivar and would be proud that I still know my way around underneath a sink and can still handle a pipe wrench with aplomb. With satisfaction, Elving would see that with house paint and brushes, I’m pretty damn good at cutting a doorway or window.
The lines of memory blur when I try to place a specific skill to the individual in learned it from. Even so, I learned things then learned that everyone has their own way of doing things. So much the better for me.
Truth be told, it was a village effort. No matter who may have shown me how to do something, each person added their own take on how to handle, for example, chainsaws, splitting mauls and axes, logging chains and cross-cut saws – among other tools of the wood cutting game, and when and where (and why not) to use each of them. Knowing the difference between a framing hammer and ball peen hammer is good; skill with each of them, better. A number of these guys took a hand in teaching me the nuances (and their own peccadilloes and quirks) about how to drive a stick shift, change spark plugs or oil in Detroit’s finest, bait a fish-hook, hoe the weeds from a potato patch, scale and filet a sunfish.
Len showed me how to use a lathe, Albert how to properly seine for minnows, Harold showed me how to whittle. I remember each of those initial lessons vividly, and later looks of accomplishment and satisfaction when I showed some mastery at them. Those were just some of the unique slices of expertise I was served that stand out. Those guys were all present (and responsible) for so much more.
I also remember others who played lesser, but powerfully remembered roles as additional father figures; Mr. Keuken across the alley, Vic the taxidermist, Joe the bartender, and Birkland the electrician. That’s how I knew them, anyway, and what everyone else called them. Vic and Joe did have last names, Mr. Keuken and Mr. Birkland had given names. There was also Ray, the anthropology professor-cum-writing-coach/encourager, and Super Joe the grocer: laughing boisterously is a learned skill
As I peruse this list, I know I am forgetting somebody.
To this day, I tend to get more than a bit peeved with someone when they marvel at some skill I have displayed, or expertise I have shared. “Wow, where’d you learn how to do THAT?” Their ignorance, my bliss, I suppose. In my days as an employment counselor, I helped develop and then taught a class on skills identification – an easy and fun assignment, as I have significant expertise – and the thrill of acquiring it.
Writing that curriculum came rather easily to me. I saw it as a tribute to all of the men on this list, and quite a few others.
There is a popular meme that makes its rounds on Facebook pretty regularly stating ‘Well, another day has passed and I still haven’t used algebra.’ I used to share that attitude, but I now know better. Algebra? Maybe not; but the skills that go into solving equations, the critical thought involved…oh yeah, I use all of that. But I am still lousy at algebra itself. As an English teacher, I constantly have students complaining that (fill-in-the-blank) skill I am trying to impart on any given day will never be of use to them.
Their ‘aha’ moments will come for them. In time.
One more aspect to the men listed above that I have always been aware and in awe of: I wasn’t their sole focus. For the most part, there was no palpable obligation to include me in much of anything; these guys were volunteers in the purest sense of the word. They had their own children and grandchildren, other things to occupy their time.
The skills were hands-on, as was the problem solving; the lessons often implied, frequently not grasped until after the fact. Thanks, guys.
If you were to Venn diagram all of the key dads, granddad and facsimiles thereof in my life, the outlying rings – the ‘not in common’ stuff – would be filled to overflowing. As a village, ‘eclectic’ would be a good name for this tribe. The inner circle – the ‘in common’ – would be full and diverse as well, and would make a good primer for how to live a life: treat people with kindness, respect, dignity. How to develop patience and put it into practice. Do onto others. Help somebody. Follow your gut and your heart, but don’t lose your head doing it. Don’t get frustrated – figure it out. Have faith, live it out.
A good instruction manual for how to live a life.
No, I do not regularly use most of the skills I mentioned here on a day-to-day or even-year-to year basis. As an urban guy, I don’t have much need to lumberjack anymore, and adjusting a carburetor is not something I will probably ever need to do again. It is unlikely I’ll anytime soon be needing to shingle a cabin, patch a fiberglass canoe, or lathe a wooden flower vase. Maybe I will someday get a chance to again pilot a pontoon boat. Will I have to treat a maple dance floor with dance wax again? Probably not – but there is always hope in that one.
Oh, I may someday get a chance to play cribbage, or whist again, hopefully. Or canasta, chinese checkers, mumbly peg, the harmonica. But I will definitely have to fix another toilet, and there will always be a room that needs a new paint job, something to be repaired or replaced, and each day brings something that needs to be brainstormed, benignly finagled or simply figured out.
I will always write, always need to think. I will forever need to laugh, need to cry, need to empathize.
This is where the rubber meets the road; because of what I learned back then, refined and cultured through the years, I can dive in with confidence – anytime, ay place, anywhere. I am Mr. Problem-Solver, because of all of these guys
If anybody wonders how I can always say “I got this” it simply because….
My mom found the
I surreptitiously brought home
from the lake at the end of the
summer I was ten;
lifeless, stripe-tailed rodent
in a black-and-blue JC Penney shoebox sarcophagus on which
I had scrawled ‘stuff’ in obvious
‘keep out!’ black Magic Marker
He was well-preserved, lifelike.
I, the accidental taxidermist.
A car, perhaps the Jeep, had
run him over on the long
driveway leading to Ivar and Lila’s
catching him dead-on from
behind as he was in full-gallop,
running uphill in the sandy
right-rut, flattening his chipmunk
carcass into a faux-bearskin rug
fit for use before the hearth of
Barbie’s Alpine Chalet
Absolutely flat, a
silhouette, all four
With two sticks I gently
moved him to the cement fringe
of the garage slab where the
north woods sun used July to bake
him into perfectly-tanned,
odorless, furry, hide
I placed the chipmunk in the box
for transport home in our solemn,
dark-blue, Plymouth Fury
then slid him, sans fanfare, into
where he was soon forgotten
Until the week before school
archeologist mom was cleaning
my room, found the box
did not share my
She phoned up the block
to where I was playing,
tersely ordering me home
Mrs. Gilberg stifled a laugh as
as I left, non-challantly
and very unaware
(doubled over, she told me,
laughing still, years later)
once I had gone out her door
as my mom had confided in her
of her Tut-like discovery
Once home I caught
all sorts of hell about
dead animals, germs,
unwelcome surprises in
shoeboxes under beds
To my mother’s everlasting
credit at least I never got
my hide tanned, put into
a box, shoved under a bed.
– Deathbed quote, famed character actor Edmund Gwenn
The world is a little less jovial than it was a few days ago. I learned today of the Saturday passing of an old high school friend, Dave McGrew. As so much does these days, the news reached me stealthily via a Facebook messagefrom a woman I never had the pleasure of meeting, his new wife.
Dave and I shared a rather off-kilter sense of humor and a love for old comedians: The Marx Brothers (both of us) and W.C. Fields (mostly Dave). We also shared an affinity for the more contemporary antics of Johnny Carson, Johnathan Winters, Henny Youngman and Don Rickles.
What can I say? It was the 70’s and we had a good ear for things funny.
I came to know Dave because of his friendship with another Denver South friend, Randy Hill. While I knew them both for a while, we really didn’t our stride as friends until midway through our junior year, when we found ourselves in the same afternoon drama class, headed by the illustrious J. Joe Craft. Randy, Dave and I were enthusiastic in our theatrical endeavors, though our depth and range as thespians was not extensive. J. Joe appreciated our efforts, though the finished products were probably more than a little uneven.
Still, in a drama class producing one-act plays our little cadre stood out due to the sheer volume of productions we performed. In one semester we pulled off three one-acts, dave mostly a behind-the-scenes guy. Most of the other groups spent their semester honing a singular production. With the added participation of one of my locker partner and good friend Kirke Fox, plus whoever else we could drag in for a given show, we had quite the gallant little troupe.
Room 204, our drama classroom, had a small rehearsal stage, and we gave it quite a workout. For both Randy and Dave, it was their first time performing. We had a blast.
It didn’t hurt that we would spend a lot of lunch hours and much after school time honing our comedic timing with/on one another – Dave and I alternately utilizing Randy as the straight man/verbal punching bag. It was never a competition, though Dave had impeccable timing and recall of Youngman one-liners, while I excelled at the Rickelesque insult shot. We each had a good ear for voices and were reasonably proficient at impersonations, although we never had the confidence to ‘go live’ in a public setting with that. Ironically, we never did a stand-up routine together on a true stage, though we both did comedy bits in a talent show our senior year; Dave and Randy did a bit, and I teamed with pal Rick Hunter for an esoteric set didn’t get near the laughs of Dave and Randy.
As our senior year approached, we learned that our beloved Mr. Craft was going to be leaving us to take on teaching duties at Denver’s brand-spanking-new Career Education Center – a facility that was geared for students who wanted to learn everything from drama and dance to auto mechanics and retail business. It was a huge facility with performance areas, a store, restaurant, auto shop – all staffed by students in a true learning environment.
Somehow, perhaps through pity if nothing else, Dave, Randy and I all applied and were accepted into J. Joe’s inaugural class at the CEC: Children’s Theatre. The idea was to create and perform small-scale productions (much like the one-acts we had done at South) that we could take on the road to various elementary schools. Now there is childish, and childlike – we were more the latter, but could devolve into the former, so performing for children was a double-edged sword – a tough crowd, and we had to know our limits. The CEC experience was fantastic; along with students from three other area schools, ten of us wrote, produced and executed an eclectic mix of traveling shows including Little Red Riding Hood and the Tropical Talk Show, a parody featuring Dave as a pseudo-Johnny Carson, me as Alley Oop the caveman, the evening’s featured guest.
Even our bus rides to-and-from South and the CEC were a hoot, as we were joined by Kip Craft (J. Joe’s son, a good friend, who was in the CEC dance program) and another good friend and locker partner of mine, Johnny Wilkins one of our BMOC’s, who was training to be a paramedic. Johnny and Kip laughed easily, making for a great, easy to please and captive audience.
But our crowning children’s theatre triumph was in the spring; we appeared in a production called The Wise Men of Chelm, from the stories of Sholem Aleichem – tales from the same group of stories which formed the basis of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ What made the show so special was not just the material, but the venue – the main stage of the Schwayder Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. It was big time, and thanks to J. Joe we managed to pull it off.
Dave told me many years later that it was his one and only appearance on a main stage, and he loved every minute of it. I never really realized until tonight what a privilege it was for me to share in something like that. In the nearly forty years since, I have done a lot of theatre, spent twelve years in radio, and appeared in all sorts of stuff and a lot of unique places, but that Schwayder Theatre experience was, indeed, something special, for a lot of reasons. It is even more of a singular experience now: not only is Dave gone, but so is Randy. He died about ten years ago. Kip, he of the bus-backseat audience was our technical director for the Wise Men of Chelm, died tragically just a few years after graduating from high school. Same for Johnny; member of our practice audience, tireless encourager and real audience member when it counted.
I can’t help but think that all four of them are somewhere, riding on a rickety old school bus somewhere – the other three laughing their fool heads off at something Dave has said. Probably at my expense.
The last twenty years or so were not easy for Dave; a bad motorcycle accident cost him big chunks of his life due to a severe head injury, among others. I only found out about the accident because he contacted me out of the blue after finding me on a genealogy bulletin board somewhere. He would pop in and out of my life via email (and later, Facebook) sometimes going two years between contacts. The first few times, he was plying me for information, trying to recover bits and pieces. His messages were at times rambling, and filled with medical minutiae. Then, as time went on, more of the old Dave emerged: emailed jokes, reminiscences, comments on current affairs. Sometimes he had been looking through old yearbooks, and he would ask me about certain people and events. Sometimes, quite tentatively.
In later years, the emails were few and far between, but more of the ‘before’ Dave (his words) would shine through. Even the chronic pain and other issues provided fodder for humor. I only wish there had been more emails, more Facebook posts. But, unlike one-act plays in drama class, sometimes there is something to be said for quality over quantity. Good friendships are like that.
David, my friend, may you rest in peace. I have no doubt that you brought joy and happiness into a lot of lives through the years, whether you ever stepped on another stage or not. Thanks for being there, and letting me be there with you – bad Yiddish dialects, obnoxious kids, groan-inducing punchlines and all. You done good, kid. Rest well.
I know as I type this there is only one thing Dave could or would possibly say to me in response to this salute, and in his best W.C. Fields voice, I can hear him just as plain as day:
“Well, Mark, on the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
And the rest of the guys are cackling madly, as the bus drives slowly away.
Old habits of youth die hard, but are easily resurrected.
It is July; the heat of the summer of my fifty-fifth year and I am walking along a northern Minnesota country road much as I did nearly a half-century ago. As I walk, my attention centers on the gravel at my feet, though I alternately glance furtively at the wind-swayed birches to either side of the road.
But I am concentrating on the rocks and stones that I trod.
I am seeking two specific kinds of rock; white quartz, and shiny silica, favorites of my youth. In part it is a mental exercise to see if my powers of observation are still as keen as my youthful days of filling up partitioned whiskey boxes with various stones, neatly organized.
It does not take long for old behaviors to kick in, though to be fair, milky white quartz is amongst the most common minerals in the world, and the alluvial and glacial till that paves rural Midwestern roads is as ubiquitous and unquestioned as the air itself.
I walk these woods whenever my family and I return home, no matter the time of year. I am walking today not so much to rekindle my youth, but as a comfortable respite from a hectic and at times stressful summer off, away from my New Orleans classroom where I teach high school English.
What was supposed to be six weeks of part-time employment, touching base with friends and family and general decompression concluding with my daughter’s wedding before an early August return to prepare for the new school year has been something else entirely.
Ahh, the best laid plans.
An unexpected death and subsequent funeral, car troubles, a stove conking out and needing replacement, a broken nose (not mine) and an array of other fits and starts have turned the summer into one more of mental gymnastics and retooling in many respects than relaxation and rejuvenation.
On the other hand, there have been unexpected and heartfelt reunions and revelations, surprising others seeking my input and counsel, some genuine and spontaneous moments I would not have predicted but am very grateful for.
It is all about perspective.
The first draft of this missive is being written in a black leather-bound journal given to me just the other day by dear friends of over thirty years. It belonged to their son, who died tragically this past spring at age twenty-two. The journal is (or at least was) empty save for two quotations about writing taped into the front and back covers. His parents had discovered this particular journal along with a number of others of various styles, sizes, bindings – mostly blank, awaiting their calling. In addition, there were dozens of filled notebooks and journals: poems, stories, quotes, song lyrics. Thoughts and ideas, random musings.
They are overwhelmed by the volume of books and have not had time to read through much of it as yet. The sheer number of filled notebooks is staggering to them, but I get it. I, too, have stacks of notebooks and journals filled with…life.
This one they wanted me to have, and I am grateful. I only hope I am up to the challenge of filling it properly.
The gift touched me, even more so now that I have it with me, outside in the summer sun. The heat warms the leather, releasing the richness of its aroma. The scent permeates the pages themselves, as does Aidan’s presence, mingling with the fragrance of good wood pulp – the kind that makes an elegant, gliding, scratching sound when creased by the tip of a sharpened pencil.
The sound of words filling the page keep time with the rustling birch leaves. Orioles and chickadees provide backup harmony. Aidan played guitar.
We sat yesterday, his father and I, in Aidan’s room, taking it all in. The poems and song lyrics painted on the walls, the journals. Leafing through page after page of Aidan’s thoughts both ordinary and profoundly mundane. Sad and amusing, poignant and quizzical.
I knew Aidan all of his short life. I was, in fact, one of the first non-family members to hold him, though as families we had not seen each other much the past few years. He spent most of his life in and around the northwoods of Minnesota, and of Lake Superior. His relationship with nature was solid. Mine is deep but comes and goes; a city kid who spent the summers of youth on a northern lake, and only periodically returns to the woods for family visits and vacations, I don’t have the same relationship with nature that Aidan did.
As I walk along I take note of the freshness of the familiar; wild daisies and ferns, scrub and Norway pines, the ever-present birch trees – to me the most fascinating of trees in part because of the bark. The duplex in Minneapolis where I spent the first ten years of my life featured a large birch in the backyard. At the age of seven I nearly killed it stripping off its lower bark in order to make an Ojibwe canoe as I had learned about in school…
The rocks around me are in no such danger.
On Aidan’s dresser sits a large mayonnaise jar filled with crystals. I looked at them for a bit as we sat in his room, put my hand in the jar and picked up a few, running them through my fingers. They reminded me of the milky quartz I had collected those many years ago – though without the spiritual aspects that seem to go along with crystals. At least in theory.
The chunks of quartz that I am kicking up today, that I am picking up and putting into the torn off corner of a plastic grocery bag that I have lined my cargo shorts pocket with, are asymmetrical chunks and in varying sizes. Most are dirty, there is nothing terribly unique about any of them. But they are remindful.
I am back in professional youthful rockhound mode; I walk the gravel road with purpose, taking it all in, observing, catching a glimpse of white or shiny mica, or some other oddity, picking them up in stride, filling my bag-lined pocket. I am twelve again, walking through the woods, picking up rocks just because they are cool, communing with nature and then stopping to write about it.
Notebook filling, the old-fashioned way.
The afternoon is fading and I turn to head back to my brother-in-law’s house. I am now walking mostly westward, into the latter-day sun; the small pieces of
mica in the gravel glint in a way I have not noticed before. The white lumps of quartz take on a shinier quality, and thanks to the angle of the sun I even find some less common rose quartz pieces mixed in the aggregate.
I am back at the house with a full pocket and a beginning to be filled journal. It is a good start.
Aidan, we hardly knew ye. But in some ways, I know you better now than I ever did before.
I just celebrated birthday number 55 – as a friend so euphemistically put it, my ‘speed limit birthday.’
The Double Nickel. Stay alive, drive 55.
The 70’s called – they want their slogans back.
I’ll go with ‘Thrive 55.’ No copyright or datedness issues, plus it’s mine and I am. Thriving, that is.
For the most part I am. My health, and that of my family, is good; we are all happy and in relatively good spots in our lives. I am keenly aware of this blessing as many long-time friends struggle with a myriad of different chronic ailments. Even the dogs got clean bills of health from the vet this week.
I am blessed.
Approaching this mid-decade birthday, I have been paying extra attention to my health and well-being. Having dropped thirteen pounds since January the first, I can honestly use my new, self-appointed nickname: Lean, Mean Aw-What-the-Hell? Machine.
O.K. it’s a bit clunky.
I am generally of the just-another-year mindset with birthdays, but this year seems to have a lot of quirky numerical significance of milestones and anniversaries.
It’s a busy year. My daughter Lindsay turns thirty in June, and is getting married in July. She does not wish to be reminded of the former and eagerly anticipates the latter. Her two-and-a-half year old son – my grandson – Felix plays a prominent role in the festivities and I am greatly looking forward to it all.
Felix is a bright kid; he has figured out how to call or Skype me when he gets his hands on his mom’s phone. We pick up where we leave off whenever we can.
My eldest son Willi graduates from high school in a few weeks; he was accepted into two top-notch universities and has settled on where he will go. Thus begins the process of his nest-leaving.
Meanwhile, youngest son Sam is wrapping up his freshman year of high school on the upswing after hitting a few fairly typical first-year-of-high-school rough patches. He now begins the process of flying more solo than he has had to up until this point in life. Daily life without his brother around to torment, nurture, harangue, bicker with, cajole and love (in all directions and all combinations) will be an interesting transition for all of us.
I recently realized that fifty-five is a big deal in part because of all the stuff that happened 40 years ago, when I was fifteen, which I have been thinking about a lot because that’s how old Sam is now. Looking back, fifteen was filled with all sorts of good stuff.
Driving legally comes to mind.
By the time my driving privileges were codified by that little yellow paper permit in 1974, I had been behind the wheel of various vehicles for a few years during my summer sojourns to Horseshoe Lake in northern Minnesota. I had driven Ivar and Lila’s ’64 Jeep pickup, in which I had learned to drive a manual transmission (though for the first few years, Ivar had to work the clutch from the passenger seat) which I proved my clutch prowess with by mowing down a sapling at age thirteen. I had also driven their ’66 Plymouth Valliant, a zippy little automatic transmission number that was compact enough for the smallish, pre-teen me to handle effortlessly.
Fifteen was also the age at which Ivar let me use the Homelite chain saw, and it was also the summer I occasionally (VERY occasionally) got a full bottle of beer to myself. A story for another (and from another, very different) time.
2014 is also the 40 year anniversary my first job…of the approximately 72 different employers I have worked for to this date. Unless you include all the different things I did and places I did them while employed by five different temp firms. And of course, there was all the stuff I did on the side and sometimes off-the-books. Add in all the fun and funky stuff and the number of gigs I have actually been paid for easily tops 200. (see my poetry blog for more on that: http://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/walking-down-sesame-street-with-studs-terkel-at-graduation-time/)
As Sinatra sings in my was then/still is now theme song, That’s Life, “…I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet…a pawn and a king…..”
If it is not illegal, unethical or immoral, there is a good chance I’ve dabbled in it.
Fifteen, the summer of ’74, was also when I discovered that girls were…? Aww hell, that they were girls. Different but still the same girls as in previous summers. They were something entirely new and familiar.
Fifteen was also the age when I began filling notebooks with teenaged profundity on solo cross-country Greyhound jaunts from Denver to Minneapolis at the start of the summer and back again before school reconvened. At fifteen, I was old enough to roll solo. Add in shorter Greyhound hops from Minneapolis to Crosby, Minnesota and back, and I put a lot of miles on those spiral notebooks. That was over two-thousand miles a summer of life and writing about it, experiencing a wide array of people, different places. Big city kid soaking in small-town stopovers and all-night truck stops. Best scrambled eggs and link sausage I’ve ever had were at a truck stop in North Platte, Nebraska, somewhere around two a.m. on a June morning surrounded by bus vagabonds and truckers, great conversationalists and monologists straining their necks to see just what I was writing down in my green steno book.
I had seconds on those eggs from the truck stop buffet, more sausages, too. They were great eggs.
When I wasn’t writing, I was watching and listening. Sometimes to my fellow travelers, sometimes to Sinatra or Dean Martin on the little Radio Shack cassette player with the single earphone I had squeezed into my travel bag. Now and then I listened to all of the above simultaneously, and I vividly understood how movies soundtracks really enhanced the flow of a story.
Forty years have passed. An anniversary of a coming of age.
Fifteen was a crucial demarcation point for me. Now, here I am, some forty years hence.
“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king; I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing – Each time I find myself layin’ flat on my face… I just pick myself up! and get back. in. the. race! That’s life…”
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.
As You Like It Act 2, scene 7
Like a traveling minstrel of Shakespeare’s day, my adult life has found me front-and-center on all sorts of stages in a long-scrambled accounting of locales and situations; small towns, big cities, rural and urban.
I’ve been the star attraction and the stagehand, watched from the wings and took some center stage bows, brought up the lights and brought down the house. Sometimes I’ve been the guy quietly sweeping up the stage after everyone else has gone home.
I started out with twelve years in broadcasting, spent a decade working in the hotel business then moved into social services, then training. I finally got my college degree, and now find myself at midlife as a high school English teacher working with at risk youth.
A real traveling production; five states and counting.
Shakespeare’s seven ages? I’ve opened and closed most of those shows multiple times. In stage parlance, I have been master of the revival.
The first curtain went up about three-and-a-half decades ago.
Like a first love, I remember very distinctly the first real stage I actually set foot on: the worn, lacquered boards of an intimate thirty-by-twenty foot stage in room 204 of Denver South High School, home of the drama department and headed in my day by Mr. J. Joe Craft.
Mr. Craft (‘J. Joe’) was one of my favorite teachers and arguably the one who had the most profound, tangible effects on my life; to say I go back to what I learned on that stage in Mr. Craft’s classroom and under his direction on a regular basis is not just a nostalgic turn on my part.
There were the fundamentals that you’d expect from a high school drama class; voice and diction basics, stage directions, the vernacular of the theatre, that sort of thing. There were also the byproducts of all that: self-confidence and self-awareness, the ability to deal with overcoming fears, dealing with rejection. (Auditioning and not getting a role, rejections from publishers, students who fail your class – been there, done that. I learned how to deal with all of it via Mr. Craft.)
It was there that I also experienced Shakespeare for the first time; Mr. Craft had studied for a time at Stratford-upon-Avon, and just sitting on those metal folding chairs as he stood on that classroom stage in rattling off a soliloquy from Hamlet or Midsummer Night’s Dream in his booming baritone is still fresh in my mind. It really came back to me a few years ago, as I had a small role in a Shakespeare in the park production of Merchant of Venice in rural, southwestern Minnesota.
Stage learning was not confined to our drama room. South was known throughout the city for its year-long slate of full-scale theatrical productions; a drama in the fall and a musical in the spring being our hallmarks. We all had the chance to partake in everything involved with a production from stage building to marketing and ticket sales; everyone had their shot from the hangers-on to the divas.
Being a part of a drama department, putting on a play or show of any kind, is a great environment for learning how to successfully collaborate with others. Mr. Craft’s insistence that everybody have a hand in every aspect of putting a production together that taught me how to function as part of a team; that is also where I learned how to put together and lead a team, and how to give meaningful but tactful redirection when needed. Skills I have continually refined and used successfully through the years in both my personal and professional lives. Abilities I began cultivating under the direction of Mr. Craft.
One very specific example of how I put what I learned in room 204 into practice: Mr. Craft taught me how to coach job seekers.
One of the biggest issues for young or new actors is the idea of emoting; being on stage means you have to play things a little larger-than-life, or it doesn’t translate well to the audience from up on stage. You need to be a little over the top, not hold back. One of Mr. Craft’s reminder mantras to young actors was, “Just when you think you’re pushing things too far is where you are just starting to get to where you should be.”
In other words, just when you think you have gone wayyyy overboard, anyone watching you is just starting to get a feel for you putting out any kind of emotion or observable, believable characterization. The trick comes in pushing yourself over the threshold from wooden to passionate, but still conveying honesty and believability in your performance.
Hence my success in coaching job seekers.
About a decade ago I found myself working as case manager and trainer for the Minnesota Department of Economic Security in Minneapolis. As a classroom trainer, I taught weekly four-and-a-half hour classroom sessions in how to find a new job; Creative Job Search. I also taught classes in networking, resume writing and Internet job search, and devised and led a class on Skills Identification.
I saw the job search process as putting together a show; you needed a script to follow, and some lines to learn. Under some good direction, it was easy to go out on stage and ‘knock ‘em dead.’
As a trainer, these were tough crowds to play to; most of them had a chip on their shoulder because of their situations. They had been laid-off, fired or merged out of a job, and all they knew about finding a new one was checking the want ads. Aside from the valuable information I was having to convey and the old-style mindsets I had to change, I needed to keep the enthusiasm level relentlessly positive and keep the class looking ahead, not back. Plus, in any given week I was likely to have minimum-wage line workers and six-figure executives sharing table space in my classroom; those eight-to-twelve-thirty sessions could be draining.
Roll playing the networking aspects of the job search process with attendees, going over the same ideas, critiquing and then cajoling a better result out of them was a piece of cake – because I had done it all in play rehearsal under Mr. Craft.
Along with the group classroom instruction, I also had a case load of about 125 job seekers that I assisted with resume and other logistical advice, help in getting them additional training or certification, that sort of thing. But the most complex part of my job was playing the role of director of a little dramatic production called interview practice.
Interviewing for a job is one of the most stressful things in life, a terrifying proposition for many. A big part of being an employment counselor was to coach my clients in how to conduct their part of an interview, and that meant role playing (with me as the director/hiring manager) in a one-on-one production in my cubical or one of our conference rooms. Countless times when coaching my clients I could literally hear Mr. Crafts voice in the back of my head; “Just when you think you’re pushing things too far is where you are just starting to get to where you should be.”
I always went into an interview coaching session trying to push my clients to a ‘Brando’ – a ten on a personal, varied-with-the-client, 1-to-10 scale – figuring if I could get most of them to a six or seven, they would be in good shape. I settled for a lot of fours and fives, but that still put most of them light-years ahead of where they started
All the worlds a stage; my clients had a pretty good track record of good reviews – interviewing successes.
Drama was my favorite class in high school. Five days a week exploring everything from Greek drama to Shakespeare to the American canon to more contemporary stage fare was great. Getting to act out scenes on that thirty-by-twenty foot stage was eye-opening and liberating. We learned how to expand our boundaries and how to handle failure. We also got to direct one-act plays, learning in the process how to lead and manage, coach and coax the best out of people who aren’t always sure they can do something.
Those are all wonderful things to have a solid grasp of as you head on into the adult world.
At the end of our junior year, Mr. Craft left South to lead the theatre department at Denver’s new Career Education Center, a magnet school featuring hands on training in a wide range of disciplines ranging from theatre and dance to E.M.T. training. It had a vocational focus which included its own store and café; very cutting edge in 1976.
I spent the mornings of my senior year there as part of Mr. Craft’s Children’s Theatre Class. I was one of three students from South in the class, and none of us had been anything more than bit players or chorus members, but in a class of twelve students from seven different schools, we all got our shot as we took a production of Little Red Riding Hood on the road to a few schools, produced and videotaped a Tonight Show satire that we wrote ourselves, and capped the year with a full-fledged production of The Wise Men of Chelm, at the Denver Jewish Community Center’s prestigious Schwayder Theatre.
That year was memorable in many ways; not the least of which was getting to be on stage as Shimmer-Eli, the enchanted tailor who buys an unruly goat in Chelm, and mastering the Yiddish dialect for our interpretation of the stories of Shalom Aleichem (his many Chelm stories were the basis for his classic Fiddler on the Roof) for a largely Jewish audience, including my father.
The Schwayder was a far cry from room 204.
There was a trick Mr. Craft showed us to make my goat: a thick, hemp rope was slightly unwound so straightened coat hangers could be pushed into the center of it to give it form. The resulting mutant-pipecleaner was then bent into a collar and leash, and I was believably able to lead around (and also be lead by) an invisible goat for the entire play. The bobbing nature of the hanger-reinforced rope made it seem like I really did have a goat on a leash. I have used the same rope/hanger technique successfully through the intervening years to portray various animals in Christmas pageants and Cub Scout skits.
There was also the aluminum foil, masking tape and rubber cement mask making techniques Mr. Craft taught us to transform me into Little Red’s nemesis wolf I have used a number of times since, in everything from church programs to radio promotional events. As I now live in New Orleans, I have to think that somewhere along the line I’ll be using foil, tape and rubber cement for some sort of Mardi Gras facial adornment.
New Orleans is where what I learned from Mr. Craft comes full circle.
My wife and I came here to teach in 2008, part of a program that recruited people from the business world to come into the classroom as the city struggled, post-Katrina, to rebuild one of the worst public school systems in America; a system that was abysmal before being obliterated by a hurricane. It is an ongoing, daily challenge, as we deal with kids from poverty, single-parent and no-parent homes and a litany of other issues. Most of my tenth and eleventh grade English students are at least two-to-three years behind grade level in reading. Some are motivated, most are not. Some have a need and desire to express themselves, but have no idea how.
I try to get them to write…every day. I use the same “Just when you think you’re pushing things too far is where you are just starting to get to where you should be” with my students when it comes to my students writing. The results aren’t where I would like them to be – yet.
But I am a patient guy. You have to be, as I learned long ago, a show takes a while to go from rehearsal from being ready for opening night, and that it rarely goes totally according to the script at hand.
I have been thinking a lot about Mr. Craft lately as I have spent the last three weeks working with my inner-city sophomores on getting through Julius Caesar. Not the easiest of reads, but Julius Caesar is in our textbook and highlighted and encouraged in our state curriculum. Shakespeare in general is a hard sell for these kids, but oftentimes street-smart kids from the environments that we are working with can connect on some level to Caesar’s concepts of loyalty and betrayal, and certainly the violence and mayhem of the play should ring true here in the murder capital of America.
We’re getting there, very slowly.
Once again, much as with my job seekers, my audience here is oftentimes angry, resentful, and fearful. ‘Why-am-I-here-and-what-relevance-has-this-got-to-my-life?’ attitudes abound. In a way it seems that I have been in rehearsal for the last three decades for this three-week stretch.
I have also been thinking about Mr. Craft as we begin to wind down the school year, and look ahead to fall. I have had a good year, and for the first time in my four-years here, it appears that I will be back at the same school, but teaching what? A month or so ago, our administration had us fill out forms about our intentions for next year, and what we might like to teach. My school is trying to remake itself, and would like to offer more electives. The form asked if we were certified for any specialty, or if we would be willing to get certified. One of the things the school would like to offer is a drama class of some sort, and I could add the drama certification to my license simply by passing a national certification test.
I listed ‘drama’ as one of the electives I would indeed be willing and eagerly able to teach.
If the timing is just right, and they decide to go that route, maybe I’ll get the part.
Meanwhile, my fifty-three New Orleans tenth graders and I will continue to work our way through the last acts of Julius Caesar. It isn’t a festival and nobody will hear them reading the lines, but I hope some of it will resonate with some of them on some level.
So here I sit, thirty-five years removed from my last classroom or stage session with J. Joe, and I am still using what I learned from him on a regular basis. The curtain always goes up, the show never closes. Life is like that; you play to whatever audience happens to be in the seats.
As it should be. The show must, of course, go on. I learned that from Mr. J. Joe Craft.
It would be cliché to say that some of the greatest teachers I have had in my life never stood in front of a classroom; the best lessons rarely came framed by chalkboard proscenium. One of the most unique teachers I ever encountered, I had the privilege of seeing in action holding class for his solitary student in a south Denver donut shop.
I matriculated, pushing maple bars.
Ray Rector was an anthropology professor at the Denver University; I was the seventeen year old nighttime clerk at the Donut House, a small, ma-and-pa shop in a dingy, half-block long strip mall at the busy intersection of Illiff Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.
No ivy-covered hall of academia, except maybe to me.
I began working at The Donut House in the summer of 1976, just before starting my senior year of high school. Ray was a regular at the shop, which was just a five-minute drive from the D.U. campus, and he could be found there many evenings grading papers or reading, and drinking copious amounts of coffee.
Morning was the busy time of day at the shop; evenings providing the chance to eat donuts and write, as my more sporadic nighttime clientele consisted mostly of some local beat cops (who always got free coffee) the guys from the Chicken Delight restaurant down the block, and friends of mine from school. We would also get the stray D.U. student or two who would hang out and study.
And there was Ray.
We met early in my Donut House tenure. My usual perch in the evening was on a bar stool situated in the doorway leading from the donut frying area to the back office. This elevated vantage point was centrally located, and high enough that I could easily see over the glass display cases, affording me an unobstructed view of the front of the shop and door.
Sitting on the stool also allowed me to brace my right foot on the door jamb, so I could use my propped-up thigh as an easel for my notebook: ‘The Thinker’ in apron and paper sanitary hat.
This is how Ray saw me one night as he came in for coffee and a cruller. I had chatted with him a few times before, but this particular night I was apparently a little too much in what I was writing, and was a little slower than usual to react to the jingling bell of the door opening.
He greeted me with a chuckle, commenting on how engrossed I was in what he assumed was homework, when in actuality I was actually me writing a poem. Our casual small talk that led to this discovery piqued his curiosity, and he asked if he could read some of my work sometime.
‘Sometime’ became a regular thing.
I worked three or four nights a week at the Donut House, and rare was the week Ray didn’t pop in at least one or two of those nights. He became an ongoing reader and editor of my stuff, offering up elaborate, eloquent critiques from a little round table in a neighborhood donut shop.
That is, when he wasn’t grading his real/classroom student’s papers from the same table by the wall, or when he wasn’t regaling me with anthropological insights on all things word and language related. Ray loved words, as did I. The volume of my writing amazed him, and the quality impressed him. Every night I went to work I brought at least one or two of my notebooks along, hoping for enough time between raised glazed sales to get some good stuff down on paper, and in hope that Ray would stop in – not just to share my latest work with him, but simply to engage in fascinating conversation.
Ray was middle-aged and divorced. He had grown up in rural Oklahoma, traveled a lot, seen and done a lot, and was more than happy to share his stories and expertise. And I was a willing listener, soaking it all in. As an anthropology professor, he had a curiosity and interest in all things human-oriented. This included my regaling him with tales of my yearly summer Greyhound bus jaunts from Denver to my ancestral homeland of Minnesota, and all my summers at the lake. Tales of the northwoods and young love got special attention.
As interested as Ray was in my writing, the process of my writing fascinated him; tales of writing while watching Nebraska roll endlessly by through SceniCruiser windows, my purchase and reading of small town newspapers from various, obscure stops. Overnight layover stays in depots in Omaha and Des Moines, all perfect locales and people-watching, behavioral fodder for my writings.
My perspectives of small-town middle America as a city kid fascinated him, and his interest only intensified after I graduated and moved on to a career in small-market radio, and we continued our friendship via the U.S.P.S.
But that year wasn’t just about my writing; Ray was expanding my horizons.
As often as he was in residence at one of our tables with a stack of papers to grade or a book, he would frequently find himself engaging other patrons (D.U. students, my favorite beat cops, fellow professors etc.) in various lengthy and in-depth conversation on politics, religion, philosophy, sports and more over coffee and raised glazed. I was always invited to participate, which I did when customer traffic (or lack thereof) allowed.
Learning of my Minnesota background, Ray familiarized me with the work of proletarian and feminist writer (and fellow Minnesotan) Meridel Le Sueur, gave me off-beat books on vocabulary building. We discussed my literary hero Sinclair Lewis, and Ray also introduced me to the quirky history of E. Haldeman Julius’ ‘Little Blue Books.’
(Beginning in the early 1900’s Haldeman-Julius began printing 3.5″ x 5″ pocket books on cheap pulp paper. The Little Blue Books were consciously directed at “Mr. Average Man.” Through them, for a nickel, he could buy works by Thoreau, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, Sophocles and many more classics, along with contemporary scientific journals and Socialist-leaning political tracts. Haldeman-Julius called his books ‘A University in Print.’)
Ray gifted me with two-dozen of these classic little books as a graduation gift, and I still treasure them.
I have almost always been surrounded by people who encouraged and supported my efforts at writing, but Ray took it to a whole other level; he was my first serious editor – and a damn good, brutally honest one at that. Ray Rector didn’t teach me how to write, but he made me a better writer. And, I’d like to think, a better person.
That’s what the best teachers do, isn’t it?
My senior year of high school had a lot of high points, and one of those was a part-time job working nights at small donut shop. Off all the classrooms I’ve spent time in, The Donut House was one of the sweetest.
Ray and I communicated via mail and phone for a number of years before losing track of each other in the late 80’s. I’ve tried to track him down a number of times since using everything from the D.U. alumni association to a website for anthropological studies and the SSI Death Index, all to no avail. I’m betting he would see the Internet as the ultimate anthropological petri dish.
I’d love to reconnect and get his take on contemporary society – over donuts and coffee, of course.