Everything is on the table

Our kitchen table is an heirloom in training.

Sitting alone at this table with open notebook, a pen, and a fresh cup of coffee in the early morning light of day I can, with an angular glance, see the extensive preparation and practice for remembrance that it has already put in. At a mere sixteen-years, the table is hardly an antique – yet its smooth, blonde-maple surface is already pockmarked with the memorable nicks and ruts left by stray utensils and homework-prodding pencils – stray treatises to family,  assorted Christmas cards and letters.

All embossed in memory and maple.

My wife and I assembled the table the first night we lived in a rural, southwestern Minnesota Victorian we had just moved into from big-city Minneapolis; a new board-with-legs for our small-town fresh-start. The nondescript table fit perfectly in our new, multi-windowed, breakfast alcove; perfectly seating the four members of our family.  While we read the instructions, inserting the right bolt into the right hole, our boys, then seven and three, were tucked soundly into sleeping bags in the bare living room, as our furniture still in transit. We labored to assemble the table, determined to have a place at which to properly commemorate our first meal together in our new home and community.

The last screw was secured in the final chair leg just after two a.m.

Today, a decade-and-a-half later, when the southern sunlight of our now-home in New Orleans smothers it, you will see the signs of the life the table has nobly earned in service to our family. Worn spots mark each place setting. Plates and bowls of china, paper, and plastic have been repeatedly set down, slid around, eaten upon, picked up again – sometimes dropped. A knot on one end of the table has dried out, a small crack has now settled into a browned notch out of the edge. If you put your face close to the table’s edge and look at its surface, you can trace the hard-scrabble pencil indentations of the two boys who completed their homework each night 100_49891while mom or dad prepared dinner.

Look more closely and you can find a worn two-digit, kindergarten math problem overlaid with something more algebraic, far more recent.  The ancient nine-plus-three-equals-eight-no-twelve is still bold from the pressing of a hot dog-diameter pencil; the more recent equation made by a more elegant and confident ink pen.

The table has made its way south with us.

A million small lines zigzag the surface;  swooping in graceful curves atop the now-worn maple, resembling a vacant skating rink in January. Every member of our family has triple-axeled this table countless times to the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ of each of the others. It is a spot of triumph, of place of individual and group confession, reflection, renewal. It has hosted countless meals, endless discussions, prompted numerous revelations; it has echoed the laughter of day-to-day  100_4986life, heard the solemnity of nightly prayers of thanksgiving and praise, sorrow and intercession. It has been spilled on, bumped into, lived on, all the while quietly, steadily. Always smoothly supportive.

It has served us well.

Some ten years ago, we uprooted our brood again – this time to New Orleans. The table that once bore mostly pedestrian, traditional Midwestern fare has become attuned to hosting more exotic and at times experimental and quirky meals of gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish.  I am certain the resulting changes in dietary spills and slops has only served to enhance the preservation and aging process of the maple; it is a seasoned patina – the spice of memories – adding character to the worn, blonde, wood

The table is loyal; it has been almost exclusively devoted to our immediate family; guests have usually necessitated a shift to the more expansive, less lived-on, dining room table.  It, too, has stories to tell, but nothing approaching the quantity of those with that our kitchen table could regale us. And now, our time here is coming to a close; both boys have graduated high school, one has completed college as well,  while the younger begins his collegiate experience. We are headed off on new adventures, different adventures.

Our inexpensive-when-purchased, still not priceless, D.I.Y. table will accompany us.100_4979_00

Boys who once needed help to scootch up their chairs now find little elbow room to spare when we are all together. The table’s chairs creak a bit beneath their more considerable heft. Still, neither of them has asked if we will ever get a new kitchen table, or why we just  can’t eat in the dining room. The table has adapted nicely over the last few years from a haven of group work, to more solo time with family members; a boy with a bowl of cereal and spread out newspapers or school project is now more common than then the full-fledged mealtime family foursomes of the past.

The table also spends more time sheltering two aging dogs seeking the relaxing companionship of their boy’s stocking feet –  adept as each has become at absent-minded, foot petting.  Both dogs are equally content to lay there, just soaking in affection, less time frenetically awaiting dropped crumbs from younger, less observant boys,  who used to provide ample treat-pouncing opportunities.

Mealtimes are cozier than they used to be, though this is just a phase of sorts. Our sons have more hectic schedules, and sporadic all-of-us-home home evenings often find us in the living room, munching pizza and binge-watching Netflix – another family ritual once confined to Friday nights, now preciously savored whenever we can scrounge one up. One son still lives at home; mealtimes for three of us frees up some of that vaunted, and coveted, elbow room, though probably to some occasional chagrin on our part.

Soon, the table’s adaptability will again be tested,  as the term ‘table for two’ will be de rigueur.

Someday the table may serve in an entirely different capacity – maybe a first-apartment-hand-me-down for one of the boys, or maybe someday many years down the road and to the 100_4977puzzlement of a spouse, a much-wanted keepsake for one of them.

Not that they are likely to ask about its eventual fate now, but if they do I can just tell them, to their confusion and my satisfaction, that this little kitchen table is, indeed, our heirloom in training.

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‘Kids, don’t try this at home. Again.’ A Valentine vignette

We were young, we were broke….we were living in rural Iowa, for cryin’ out loud.

My roommate Jim had a girlfriend, and one Friday night he was going to impress her with a nice, home cooked meal and an evening of romance. This necessitated me finding somewhere else to be for the night, which was no problem, but his plans also included a bottle of wine to go with his home cooked feast. That was a bit of a problem.

SEE: ‘we were broke’, above.

A plan was developed to overcome both limited funds, and lack of quality and variety (fancy-schmanzyism, as the locals might say) in the local municipal liquor store wine selection. Keep in mind this was Marshalltown, Iowa 1979 – stocking both Mogen David and Boone’s Farm qualified as ‘wide selection.’ The solution to Jim’s dilemma seemed to be simple: what couldn’t be procured could be made.

I’m not really sure how the initial idea unfolded, but our plan seemed sound when concocted in our living room – ‘concocted’ being the operative word here.

Part one of our scheme was to procure the container, and Jim had a friend who worked at a nice restaurant and got Jim an empty French wine bottle – cork included.

French! Even better than Jim had hoped for – and it had the cork, to boot.

Jim cleaned out the bottle, and then we made a trip to the grocery store for the ingredients necessary for one bottle of Jim’s date-night wine; Welch’s grape juice, a bottle of vodka, a box of Alka-Seltzer tablets. And a funnel.

Returning home to our apartment, we poured a couple of small glasses of the grape juice, in varying amounts, then added the vodka. A quick sampling led us to the conclusion that a 50/50 mix was pretty close to real wine – real French wine – save for the fizz.

Sophisticated palates such as ours would know this, right?

Taking the funnel, we carefully filled the empty (French!) wine bottle half-way up with the Welch’s, and then he filled most of the remainder of the bottle with the vodka.

Jim then got a couple of packets of the Alka-Seltzer, and opened a pack of two tablets. We had to break them to get them down the neck of the bottle, and once inside they began to fizz and foam, threatening to overflow the bottle, before settling down. Two tablets didn’t seem to add enough fizz (maybe for a chintzy domestic, but not for decent French) so he ended up opening two more packets of Ala-Seltzer and repeating the procedure until our little instant-ferment seemed to fit the bill. A couple of sips convinced us both that we had hit upon the recipe for im’s night success.

Jim was able to get the cork snugly back in the bottle, and the bottle into the fridge for proper chilling. (I know what you’re thinking; red at room temperature. Not this bottle, baby!)

One bottle of Jim’s Impress-A-Chick; vintage, Thursday – under four 1979 dollars!

Jim’s date night went off without a hitch – his home cooked meal, the accompanying wine both a big hit – though their evening ended a bit earlier than he might have wished. You see the wine was cheap and easy, the girl wasn’t.

The Bird

Thanksgiving 1979 found me in living in on my own in Marshalltown, Iowa and working at KDAO radio. I was going to be working on Thanksgiving, but what was cool was that my friend Rick Hunter was going to be joining me, on his holiday break journey home to Colorado from chefcollege life in Minnesota.

An actual guest! A real opportunity to make a full-fledged Thanksgiving!  A couple of cookbooks supplemented with phone calls home to mom in Denver to help iron out some nuances and I was ready. I was nineteen and knew my way around a kitchen, having worked in a professional one for most of my high school years.

O.K., I was a dishwasher. Still, I picked up more than a few tricks-of-the-trade.

With Rick scheduled to arrive sometime Wednesday, I thought I could get a lot of stuff done on Tuesday. Mom had confirmed my planning, but she also added a key point: thawing the bird. My initial plan was to pick up the turkey on Wednesday and be ready to go, but mom cautioned that thawing was a time-consuming process, that should start on Tuesday at the latest.

The bird.

As a Thanksgiving gift from the radio station, every staff member got a fifteen dollar gift certificate to the local Fareway store, and a gift certificate for a free, ‘up-to- twenty-pound’ frozen turkey.

Perfect.

The gift certificate covered the bulk of the non-poultry essentials: cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green beans, and gravy. Marshmallows, a box of instant mashed potatoes, a pumpkin pie, an apple pie, a package of a dozen (big) bakery chocolate chip cookies. Rolls, a jar of olives, a jar of pickles, a bag of Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing and a pound of Jimmy Dean Pork Sausage so I could duplicate my mom’s fabulous sausage stuffing rounded out the grocerieslist.

We also needed appetizers: cheese, sausage and crackers.  Just like mom would do it at home.  I also picked up a bulbous turkey baster, a six-pack of Coca-Cola, and a disposable aluminum turkey roaster. Fifteen bucks went a lot farther in 1979 than it does today. My out-of-pocket was less than three bucks.

Oh yeah. The bird.

Getting a free turkey was a big deal. Small market radio was not lucrative. Plus, popping into a store with a gift certificate from the radio station was a sign of small town prestige and celebrity. The dang things were a full sheet of parchment, like a stock certificate. People at the store knew who you were.

The key phrase here was  ‘up-to-20 lbs.’ This, of course, meant I could have chosen pretty much any turkey, but in my 20-year-old mind, the gift certificate screamed, ‘Free twenty pound turkey’.

Never look a gift bird in the mouth.

I picked out a prime, nineteen pound, ten-ounce bird; the twenty pounders all gone by the time I showed up at the store Tuesday afternoon. Arriving home as pleased hunter-gatherer, my next turkeyraw1order of business was to get that rock-solid bird thawed.

Dilemma one.

My apartment was on the third floor of an old bread factory where the former executive offices had been made into apartments. The rooms were spacious, with high ceilings, funky old moldings, and big water and steam pipes snaking their way through the place. But in redeveloping, they furnished the kitchen like an efficiency apartment; the gas stove was one of those old, narrow jobs with burners so close together, that if you were cooking more than one stove-top item at a time, you could only use small saucepans and angle the handles oddly so they would stay on the stove. The single compartment porcelain-sink-on-legs was so small the plastic dish drainer I got when I first moved in barely fit in it.

Where to thaw a 19-10 bird?

The refrigerator was small and filled with other stuff. I had a cheap, Styrofoam cooler the turkey dwarfed – that left the bathtub. What they had skimped on in the kitchen, they made up for in the bathroom: a Chester-Arthur-sized, cast iron, claw foot tub with single spigot that took roughly 20 minutes to fill to take a bath in. Or to get enough water to cover a twenty pound turkey to thaw.

Dilemma solved, provided I didn’t need to bathe.

The bird bobbed placidly in the filled tub, though I periodically had to refresh the water level. The rubber drain stopper was cracked and not very efficient, and the large, cast iron radiator next to the tub accelerated evaporation.

I called mom to update her on my progress to date, commenting about the hassle of filling the tub to thaw the bird.

“Couldn’t you just put it in the refrigerator or a cooler?” she asked quizzically.

“Nope” I replied, “It wouldn’t fit.” There was a pause.

“Well, how big is the turkey?” I told her about my free, nineteen-pound, ten-ounce bird. There turkeyraw1ewas another pause.

“What the hell are you doing with a twenty pound turkey!?” I knew that tone of exasperation.

“It’s what the station gave me.”

“For two people!? I thought it was a gift certificate. Couldn’t you pick out your own turkey!?”

“Yeah, I did. It was a gift certificate for a twenty pound turkey – so that’s what I got.”

“Oh, Mark!” She was trying to be cross. She was snickering (sort of) as I heard her turn away from the phone and exasperated, tell my father, “Mark has a twenty pound turkey for he and Rick.”

I heard my father reply dryly, “I hope they like turkey sandwiches.”

My mother then calmly tried to explain to me that even for the six guests she was expecting on Thursday, she did not have a twenty-pound bird, and that I had better make sure I had plenty of aluminum foil to wrap leftovers in.

foil(Extra foil had not been on my shopping list. I ended up needing two full large rolls of Reynolds Wrap.)

Wednesday arrived, as did Rick. The bird continued to bob and thaw.

My Thursday plan was to wake up early enough to get the turkey in the oven, prep whatever else I could, get to the station for my 10-to-2 shift, come home, watch some football and hang with Rick, and feast.

Getting the turkey in the oven was the biggest issue.

As noted, my oven was narrow. I plucked the bird from the tub, and began prepping it by cleaning it, taking out the gizzards, buttering it, seasoning it, stuffing it, etcetera, without incident. Rick awoke, joined me in the kitchen, observed the scenario and said, matter-of-factly, “Is that thing going to fit?”

Well, wasn’t that spatial.

The turkey didn’t fit – at least not at first shove. Fortunately, I had a disposable aluminum roaster and the sides were pliable enough to be bent on both sides, plus get scrunched up against the back of the stove. It took some extended shoving and pan bending, but we got the bird into the oven without getting ourselves burned.

That oven was wall-to-wall turkey.

A good turkey needs to get its moisture regularly, and I had devised a plan that would benefit everyone: the ‘KDAO Bird Watch.’

JackLaLanneEvery twenty minutes on-air I would announce “It’s KDAO Bird Watch time!” and remind people that it was time to ‘baste those birds’ – leading them through the process ala Jack LaLane with the mantra, “And baste, one…two…three! Baste! One…two…three…” as I then smoothly segued into the next record. Sometimes we basted on the beat of the music.

(It was a public service and programming success to the extent that, much to the bewilderment of Paul, the guy on after me got phone calls of complaint when he failed to announce the bird watch every twenty minutes, and he was also later blamed by some listeners for dried out birds.)

It was one fine, juicy turkey we indulged in that afternoon….save for the leather-tough burns on the outside of each drumstick, where they had spent their roasting time shoved up against the walls of the oven.

We ate, watched football, called high school friends in Colorado, ate some more. On Friday, Rick hit the road for Colorado with a load of turkey sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies and I can’t remember what else. If memory serves, he took the offered sandwiches grudgingly, as he appeared to be turkeyed out. Me? I had no such qualms…until about mid-December.

turkeydoneTo this day, I enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers almost more than the initial meal.

Mom was right about the foil, dad the sandwiches. Every last nook and cranny of my meager freezer was stuffed with turkey (pun intended) and the last frozen pack made its way out for freezer-burned consumption on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, 1980.

My best advice for a successful Thanksgiving feast? It’s pretty simple, kids: “Baste! One…two…three! Baste! One…two…three…””

A passed torch

I’ve become the old guys I grew up around.

My youth was filled with a fascinating blend of old timers that I joyfully gleaned much of what I needed to know about life by just hanging around with all of them. They were mostly retired, blue-collar guys; my grandfather worked on an assembly line making gramps-and-his-son-bowling-team-that-went-to-national-tournamentbatteries, and we had close family friends – integral parts of my childhood and life – plumbers, house painters, storekeepers and tractor makers, among them.

I learned about life through their eyes and thick, immigrant-dialect-honed English; specific and pointed advice was given when needed, but most of the lessons learned were implied; eye contact, a raised brow, a nudge or a nod during an event or incident of some sort that I instinctively knew meant I should be paying attention because I just might learn something.

I have now become that nudge-and-nod (though nowhere close to retirement) guy.

The other day I was at the chiropractor getting an adjustment. The doc is a good guy, twenty-six years young, and we chat amiably while I get my treatment. I was lying on my stomach while he worked on my back, and he was having trouble adjusting the exam table. After a moment of struggle, he got it to lock into place where he wanted, then joked, “That’s the most difficult thing I do all day.”

“I suppose a lot of people think that your job is kind of easy – spending your day massaging backs” I replied, as he continued working out my shoulder kinks.

“Yeah, kinda” he chuckled, adding, “They see me for twenty minutes at a time, then leave, and figure that’s what I do all day – wait for people to come in, spend twenty minutes getting them adjusted, then go back to doing whatever else I do.” He cracked a couple of vertebrae into place.

“People don’t realize what goes into a job like yours. You know the story of the guy and furnace1the busted furnace?”

“No, I don’t think so” he replied, bending my spine the other direction.

“It’s winter, and the guy’s furnace goes out. He calls the furnace guy, who comes over, looks around for a minute, then takes a hammer out of his tool box, whacks the furnace, and it starts running again. He puts the hammer back, then hands the guy his bill for a hundred dollars…” I feel a nice, loosening jolt to my neck. “The guy looks at the bill and says ‘a hundred bucks!’ All you did was whack it with a hammer! The furnace guy nods and says, ‘Yeah, that’s ten-bucks for the hammer tap, ninety bucks for knowing where to tap.”

The doc stops. Even though I am face down on the adjustment table, I can see him with my peripheral vision, hands on his hips, thinking. “Wow. That’s a great story” he says with surprise, “I never heard that before.” He starts back in on my neck

“It’s a good analogy for you.” I add.

“All the time I spent in school – yeah, it is. ‘Ninety bucks for knowing where to tap.’ I’ll have to remember that story. I’ll use that.”

“Feel free” I say as another disc gets pushed into place.

Just passing it on.

Onward

Faded are July’s warmth, summer’s cheers. Supplanted now by sundry, encroaching hints of cooler days; forgotten expectations, procrastinated chores now mothballed, he can only now muse without dwelling on what won’t be. Could-have-beens and maybes aren’t statistically meaningful; they never po2really were, except to others in relation to their expectations and dreams on his behalf.  The math was never his thing – nebulous nature of those with good intentions notwithstanding.  Regret is not something that taints him; he does not feel his talents wasted. He recalls every crucial moment as it was, for what it was.

Unburdened by excuses, unwilling to pass blame. Treasured character trait; a gift not wasted.

It was what it was, nothing more to be read into any of it. Done with. Droll, philosophical meanderings passé. He did what he had to and could – more than expected, less than some feared – and it has all come down to this: seasons of joy, of youth, of expectations – dwindled. He takes energy and solace in their uncertainty of numbers. Youth cannot serve that master. He revels in coming autumn and finds it no burden as winter creeps in to bury and renew. Spring will be welcome, but no more or less than its brethren. Seasons, as is their nature, gladly provide strategic resets.

No, it was not always this clear.

Memories are not sustenance; this he knows for fact. Cheers he once accepted have faded, substitutes and replacements have taken his place on various stages. He knows as many have forgotten as remember him. The field of honor which he once ruled by force and triumphant jousting he now benevolently maintains, in supportive peace. The thought occurs that maybe the soul is autumn grass; wearily vibrant, going wearily dormant by design. Ingrained need of a respite.  The patriarch emeritus he imagines smiles in triumph, allowing for sly winks to various fates.

He zips his coat, turning its collar turned upward against the gathering, refreshing winds of fall. He leans willingly, comfortably into the loving embrace of the breeze, securing  his resolve. The air is quiet, save the wind. He is at peace with the simple knowledge that spring will, someday, for whatever it’s own reasoning, return.

But for now, time is pleasingly in his comfortable grasp; he now understands its tenuous and uncontrollable nature. Time can be tucked safely away like a pocket watch in a vest, allowing him to stroll through the lovely, dark, and deep woods without fear of reprisal from any promises not kept.

– Mark L. Lucker
© 2016
http://lrd.to/sxh9jntSbd

@55

55 3I 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.

55 2For 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.

bouquetWP_20140420_015It’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 mortarboradwhere 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 various66 Valliant1964 Yeep pickup 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 oHomelite chainsawccasionally) 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 Grehound SeniCruisersolo. 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 cassetterecorderlittle 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.Sinatra singing

“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…”

At fifty-five.

 

The Thrill Is Not Gone

“Political elections are a good deal like marriages, there’s no accounting for anyone’s taste”.
– Will Rogers, American Humorist

Election day always makes me nostalgic; not for the things you might expect like civility, logic and actual hope that win-or-lose, my guys could work with the other guys. My wistfulness is more visceral.

I get sweaty-palms, heart-racing nostalgic for the adrenaline rush of being a reporter on election night.

I started my career in radio (first real, full-time, ‘grown up’ job) in 1978 in the town of Nevada, Missouri (spelled like the state but pronounced ‘Neh-VAY-da’) a town of some 10,000 folks ninety-eight miles south of Kansas City. I had moved there that summer from my native Minnesota after being hired to work at the local radio station, KNEM.

It was quite a cultural change after growing up in very urban Minneapolis and Denver.

Small-town/rural politics, I quickly learned, was quite different from the urban variety I had grown up with and dabbled in. In a small town there is no detachment for candidates or issues; everyone knows everyone on some level, and it is always personal; school board to county commissioner, assessor to sheriff. Win or lose, you will have to live together and encounter one another on a regular basis. The saying ‘all politics is personal’ is never more true than in a small town.

While election night 1978 was not a presidential year, it was a congressional mid-term, and there were a ton of local races, so it was shaping up to be a big night – my first as an on-air election reporter. Not that I had anchoring duties or anything; that role belonged to Ken White, the station owner, who had put KNEM on the air in 1949. He worked out of studio ‘B’ where we usually did all of our recording and newscasting from; it had a boom-mic and a big round table that allowed Ken to have all of the various accoutrements of reporting scattered all over but within easy reach, along with his cigarettes and ashtray. Ken was a diminutive, grey haired guy with oversized ears and a raspy, authoritative, smokers-voice; through the smoke-filled air of studio ‘B’ he resembled a Hobbit Edward R. Murrow.

The entire staff was involved with election coverage: Vernita the office manager handled the incoming phone calls (two lines!) from various officials while Tim and Rich, my fellow full-time announcers, were stationed at city hall and the county courthouse. As the new guy on the block I was relegated to the least desired, but right-up-my-alley, wire service duty tracking the regional and national scenes. This required me to station myself next to the UPI teletype doing a rip-n-read: tearing stories off the wire-service machine, then sitting down in front of a microphone in the control room and waiting for a cue from Mr. White to update anxious listeners on what was going with any congressional or senate races of note in Missouri and Kansas.

If you’re not familiar with a classic teletype machine, it was essentially a noisy typewriter in a large box that received news via a dedicated phone line before typing it out on 8.5 inch wide rolls of newsprint. The story came in, the machine finished typing it, you ripped it off the machine and headed for the studio – in our case, a full fifteen feet away. And woe be onto you if the typewriter ribbon in the thing either ran out or got jammed; there was no retrieving a missed story. Hence, a box of spooled typewriter ribbons next to the machine and extra rolls of paper beneath it.

KNEM was usually a pretty laid-back place – but not on election night. The excitement was palpable and with the phone constantly ringing, the teletype going non-stop and ringing like crazy itself as a series of bells indicated ‘bulletin’ status: the more bells, the bigger the bulletin. The damn thing rang constantly on election night. I can still close my eyes and here the typewriter keys clacking furiously, the return carriage banging out new lines of type, and the incessant dingdingdingding indicating big news.

I delivered no earth-shaking results that night (I actually got comparatively little airtime, and in very short bursts) but the frenetic energy and all-around excitement was intoxicating, even in a place where the biggest battle of the night was for county commissioner. It was live, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, late-breaking-developments radio.

I was hooked.

By 1980 I was in Marshalltown, Iowa where I had been working for small, local station KDAO before being hired to work part-time at KSO/KGGO in Des Moines. Even as a part-timer, I had built a good rapport with the news director there, and he promised me a role in election coverage. Unfortunately, I never got a shot at that. As luck would have it, in October I got what I thought at the time was my ‘dream job’ working for a station in my old summer stomping grounds of Brainerd, Minnesota, and they wanted me there in early November.

The evening of election night 1980 found me in my loaded-to-the-brim 1969 Plymouth station wagon leaving Marshalltown for Minneapolis; a roughly five-hour drive and the first leg of my move to Brainerd. Missing out on being a part of election coverage was a disappointment, but that isn’t to say I missed out on the excitement. Driving through the rural Midwest on election night in that era meant A.M. radio was my only companion featuring wall-to-wall coverage on a wide array of small town radio stations, all broadcasting earnestly and breathlessly live from county courthouses, Grange halls, fire station polling places and various party headquarters.

As the Reagan electoral blowout of Carter was not at all compelling, the local stations seemed even more intent on pumping up their local races.

While I never did hear of any municipality electing a dog catcher, I remember being mesmerized for a good ten-mile stretch of I-35 cruising through southern Minnesota, as two local-yokels used every ounce of gravitas they could muster for an extensive chat about the “Too close to call, hotly contested race for library commissioner”. They, unfortunately, faded quickly away into the prairie night, and I was forced to scrounge the dial for fresh political fodder.

The only non-political respite I was able to summon from my dashboard was when, about an hour south of the Twin Cities, I scored a late-night signal of a clear channel Mexican station. After a couple of mariachi numbers, an announcer came on with a commercial (as a radio guy myself, I knew commercial inflection when I heard it) speaking rapid-fire Spanish, the only words of which I understood were ‘Pepto-Bismol’. Due to the various inflections the guy was using on the ad copy (“PEP-toe Bizzzzzmol” “Pepto. BIZ-mollllll” “PEP -TOE BEES-MOL? Si”! to mention a few) I got to laughing so hard I had to pull over for a minute before returning to regularly scheduled driving and election returns.

That night of rolling through the darkness listening to the pulse of democracy just fed my election-night-action fire.

Fast-forward to 1982, and I was working at KKCM in St.Cloud, Minnesota. We had just launched the station, and had been giving the established local stations a pretty good run for their money both in our country music programming and in our news coverage. At the time, St. Cloud was a city of about 40,000 with surrounding suburbs bringing the population up to around 60,000. It was one of the fastest growing metro areas in the state, and a hotbed for all sorts of tightly contested legislative and county races, and a slew of local ballot initiatives concerning growth, annexation and all sorts of other local issues .As election time approached, we were also actively tracking mayoral and city council races in nine communities. To top it off, the city of St. Cloud sits on the apex of three counties: Stearns, Benton and Sherburne. This geographical oddity presented some unique municipal election quirks. Some of the cities precincts covered parts of two counties, but not all three; others covered different portions of a combination of counties. This had an effect on various legislative races, as well as voting for county offices. Ballots in neighboring city precincts a block apart  could look vastly different. Tracking these races was going to be a challenge.

Enter Les Kleven, our station owner and wannabe political numbers-cruncher.

Les was a curiously odd bear of a man; nearly three-hundred pounds with a rather squeaky voice that got even more high-pitched when he got excited (and Les got excited A LOT) he was a small town rancher-turned-radio tycoon hell-bent on sticking it to the ‘big boys’ of St. Cloud’s radio establishment. To this end, he had hired a great staff of top-quality professionals, including news director Mike Sullivan, who hailed from Chicago and new politics and political coverage from every aspect imaginable.  I was an announcer/reporter/public service director for the station, and Mike and I had a great relationship. He wanted me in the studio with him on election night to serve as his right-hand-man, keeping info flowing and spelling him on air from time to time. Mike had looked at the local geographic issues and had come up with a simple but seemingly effective set of spreadsheets to help track the myriad of races.

Then Les unveiled his new baby: a brand new, roughly the size of a Fiat coupe, Tandy computer. “This” said Les with great confidence, “Will be the tool that helps us kick everybody else’s ass on election night”!

It didn’t. Not that we couldn’t get the data input fast enough (Les was a keyboard demon) or that the miniscule screen couldn’t display data fast (or big) enough but mostly because by the time the even-large-than-the-computer printer spit out its voluminous dot-matrix precinct returns on the over-sized tractor paper which I then had to try and manipulate on the desk in front of me without blocking my microphone the results were already out of date.

I realized by Les’ second and third batch of ‘results’ that his numbers didn’t add up to the raw numbers we had already been reporting via our reporters and stringers in the field, and brought it to Mike’s attention. His solution was brilliantly simple: keep taking the reams of printouts Les was producing from his office and keep them in front of me so that it actually looked like I was using them. “Whatever you do” Mike warned me, “DO NOT throw any of those in the garbage or onto the floor! Make notes or something on them to seem like they are getting USED”.

That’s why Mike got the big bucks.

After I had unfurled a set of Les’ numbers once, they got crumpled and appeared pretty well looked over – like the map you can never get folded up and back in the glove compartment neatly. Add in some legitimately made notes and some coffee cup rings, and Les was never the wiser.  One lasting impression of that night and our data-or-lack-thereof was Les periodically bellowing in exasperation from his office “What about Sonia Berg”?!

Berg was a legislative candidate in one of those districts that covered parts of two of St.Cloud’s three counties; in some precincts there were no results to be had, which puzzled Les, and which also left a hole in Les’ data, which the Tandy apparently didn’t like and wouldn’t compute until you put something in, which we couldn’t do except for ‘zero’ and Les couldn’t/wouldn’t grasp that there were no Sonia Berg results for some precincts.

We got through that election night in fine style – and I do mean ‘through the night’ as Mike and I greeted Don the morning show guy and tromped through the morning reveling and recapping all the election action, toasting each other with a couple of cold Cokes after signing off our coverage about nine a.m…a mere fifteen hours or so after we had begun.

And “What about Sonia Berg”?! Became an uproarious KKCM battle cry for all situations in the months after our first great foray into electronic political journalism

There were other election nights at other stations for me, all exhilarating in their own different ways. By the mid 1990’s I was out of the radio business, save some freelance gigs, but had moved on into the hotel business as I worked my way through my first stint in college. Election night excitement was to be found there, as well, in a more personal vein.  There is nothing quite like a big city hotel that is hosting a campaign party for a major candidate on election night….

Except for maybe a radio station studio somewhere.

Election night 2012 will have me in front of the television, remote in hand, watching history unfold in front of me. There will be moments when my heart will race, my palms will sweat a bit, and I will be thinking, at least a couple of times, “Oh man, if only for a night”.

My kingdom for a microphone.
x

Like Son, Like Father, Like Wow, Man

“You young kids and your crazy ideas.”

That’s a phrase my thirteen-year old son Sam uses dryly when a topic comes up and I refer to something from the past, or throw in some sort of archaic phrase like ‘groovy’ into a dinner table conversation.

One of Sam’s favorite treats is a cold Dr.Pepper; so much so that he has, on a few occasions, been given twelve packs of the stuff as a birthday present. We limit his consumption of pop to just a couple a week, usually our Friday night family ‘Pizza Picnic,’ and/or if we are at some special event or gathering, so it really is a treat for him, and a gift that keeps on giving.

The other night at dinner my wife and I were discussing coffee, and Sam got to musing about how when he was an adult, he didn’t think he would drink coffee, and would probably stick to Dr. Pepper and root beer as his beverages of choice, adding, that maybe sometime, somewhere along the line, he would want a hot beverage of some sort, but didn’t think it would be coffee.

“Well” I said, “You could always heat up some Dr. Pepper. It’s pretty good that way.”

“Dad, who would ‘heat up’ Dr. Pepper…or any kind of soda?” as he shook his head dismissively.

“We did with Dr.Pepper. Put it in a pan and heat it up, add a lemon slice.”

An incredulous stare and cocked eyebrow were, for a moment, his only response. Then, “Annnnnnnd why would you do that?”

“Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“This was your idea, I suppose?”

“No. They marketed it like that for a while back in the sixties.”

“They did not.” Sam replied dryly, with just a hint of skepticism. He knows this is dangerous ground, as I had, some time ago, proved to him that the Mr. Potato Head toy of my youth was far superior to the plastic, pre-drilled holes version of today, because you needed to use a real potato. (See my post from last August: https://poetluckerate.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/kids-don%e2%80%99t-try-this-at-home-or-not/ )

“You really made…and drank… hot Dr.Pepper?”

“Yep.”

He furrowed his brow as I continued eating. Before adding a dismissive, “You young kids and your crazy ideas.”

One of the great things about the Internet Age is that things like this don’t have to become ‘because-I-said-it-was’ ‘no-way-I-don’t-believe-you’ things; a few keystrokes on the ol’ laptop, and presto!

Proof. It took all of about forty-five seconds.

As his mom and older brother cleared the dinner table, I went to the computer and summoned Sam. He looked at what I had pulled up, shook his head. “O.K. “You young kids and your crazy ideas.” As he walked away he calmly and defiantly stated, ‘I’M not gonna be trying it.”

I smiled with satisfaction, leaned back in my chair. The Internet: “You young kids and your crazy ideas.”

More memorable (and enticing) than warm Dr. Pepper.

Digging in the Dirt Pile of Memories

The other day I was standing on the front porch with my sixteen year old son Will, waiting for his family car pool ride to school, sophomore year now in the homestretch. I was on spring break from my school and was savoring the opportunity for a little morning one-on-one we don’t normally have; younger son Sam and wife Amy were already off to their respective schools.

Mug of coffee in hand, I watched Will sitting on the porch swing, organizing his contemporary teenager-self: loaded, full-size backpack, small, nylon pull-string backpack, insulated cooler lunch bag, personal electronic device (with ear buds dangling from his neck) and cellphone. His school I.D. badge and flash drives dangled on lanyards beneath his beatnik-hearkening goatee. He was texting his girlfriend and I could see him smiling beneath the brim of his ever-present grey baseball cap.

Leaning against the porch post and looking down the block I motioned to the big pile of dirt two lots down; another new home for the neighborhood as the post-Katrina revitalization continues. I jokingly mentioned that the big pile of dirt made me want to “Get some old Tonka trucks and go play in the dirt for a few hours.”

Will finished his text and glanced at the dirt pile. “Do you remember that crane we had in our yard back in Marshall? That thing was so cool.”

I nodded, remembering the homemade wood-and-steel contraption: a small, square, carpet-remnant covered seat attached to a couple of wooden runners hat made it look like a really small sled – except for the two-foot long arm with a two-levered metal crane bucket attached to it. One lever made the crane arm extend, the other made it curve inward like a hand and wrist, which allowed the actual digging to occur. A kid could sit on the thing, dig a hole, swivel around (360 degrees, even!) dig another hole, then another. Homemade and won by Will’s uncle Ted at a church raffle after his own sons were past sandbox stage, we placed it in the sandbox beneath the ‘crow’s nest’ of the big, wooden playset we had built in our backyard when we moved to Marshall, Minnesota – when Will was seven.

Will gleefully dug a few holes in his day with that thing, as did three-years-younger brother Sam. We more than got Ted’s dollar raffle ticket worth out of it.

“You remember that thing, huh? Uncle Ted won that in a church raffle, if I remember correctly.”

“That’s where we got that? From Uncle Ted?”

“I think so.” I nodded, taking a sip of my coffee. Just then, Will got a text from his girlfriend Lien. Without looking up from his cellphone, fingers flying on the tiny keyboard, he added, “That thing was so cool.”

I nodded, and got to thinking…

A few years before the crane, some friends of ours found a swing set being dismantled and put on the curb by neighbors. With their help and a borrowed pickup truck we got it, took it apart and brought it to our yard in south Minneapolis.

Nothing fancy, just two plastic swings on chains, a short sheet-metal slide, a plastic glider and a swinging trapeze. Four-and-a-half year old Will was fascinated by the prospect of the pile of spot-rusted metal actually morphing into a swing set. He would pick up the yellow seats and then stare at the pile of tubing with a quizzical look on his face. But a few dollars’ worth of new nuts, bolts, bushings and three hours of re-assembly later, there it was.

The shiny new hardware stood out more than the rusty old ones, highlighting its age and hand-me-down nature. No matter. It became Will’s pride and joy, the thing that he most looked forward to coming home to. Even after full summer daycare days in the park, with the big swing sets, Will wanted to come home to “his playground.” On Saturdays, Will would take his lunch outside and eat it while sitting on his favorite swing (the one next to the trapeze.) It became a focal point for Will’s friends on the block, and became a trusty companion when they weren’t around. It was also a refuge on those days when the world got a little gloomy, and many were the nights it barely got to rest while dinner was consumed.

Came our first snow, and I hadn’t removed the swings yet. It didn’t much matter. Our parka-clad boy brushed off the seats and got in a few minutes of action before dinner, and another ten or so after, till it just got too dark. The cool air accentuated every creak of the metal, chains and “S” hooks that made it all work. Spring eventually returned and become summer again and Will continued swinging away until we moved, leaving the swing set out on the curb for someone else to claim as their own – which they did within a day.

Once we moved, Will had his big, wooden playset and his gift-crane…

“Here come the Worthylakes.”

Will’s carpool had swung into view from around the corner, and in a few quick seconds he, seemingly in one, fluid motion and without getting tangled in multiple lanyards, effortlessly threw on both backpacks (lunch bag clipped to the big one with a carabiner) adjusted his cap, stuffed his PSP into his pocket, threw his arm (with hand still clutching cellphone) around my neck, gave me a hug and said “Love you dad” before bounding down to the steps and out to the S.U.V. at the curb.

“Love you, bud. See you this afternoon.”

“Bye.” He threw the farewell over his shoulder, hopped into the backseat, gave me a quick wave as they drove off.

I took another sip of coffee and went inside, lacking any old Tonka Trucks ® and figuring I had had my dirt pile enjoyment for the day anyway.

Characters who helped shape mine (#2 in a series) The Professor

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.

A Formica topped Algonquin Round Table, littered with cake crumbs and sprinkles.

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.

I’d also like to show him my blogs; this one, and of course, my poetry blog, Ponderable polemics, poetic https://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/

And I’d like to tell him, after thirty-five years, I’m still taking his nightly parting words to heart: “Be well. And keep writing.”

Thanks for everything, Ray.  As we said in our donut days, “It’s in the bag.”