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

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.”


Something concrete

My sons and I spent a good chunk of last weekend pouring concrete as part of our front yard beautification efforts. At ages 15 and 12 it was the first major outdoor project they have both been equal participants in. Part of that is due to the fact that after we moved from Minnesota to New Orleans in 2008, we were renters until last October when we bought our house.

We now have projects to be worked on.

High school sophomore-to-be Will and seventh-grader-to- be Sam were in charge of mixing and stirring the concrete, and for shoveling the concoction into the faux-cobblestone mold were we using while I did most of the placing of the mold and the finish work.

That worked pretty well, and in the 90-plus degree New Orleans heat, the performed admirably, mixing up ten separate batches of two 60 pound bags of concrete per batch. Not an easy gig, but they worked together and well. The boys were also in charge of cleaning up all the tools, and general use of the hose for adjusting said concrete mixture. And what kid doesn’t enjoy hose duty?

Midway through our Friday afternoon pour, I was kneeling on the ground waiting for Will and Sam to finish mixing a fresh batch of concrete, watching them strain at the thick mixture, Will using a full size shovel, Sam our loaner trowel.

I took a swig of water from my water jug, and suddenly it was 1974, and I was the kid mucking around awkwardly with the concrete.

It wasn’t a father-son moment that I flashed back to. My father, for all of his wonderful attributes, was not a construction or handyman whiz, which he would freely admit. Just not his thing, in part, and as we were renters until I was in junior high, we never really had much in the way of that sort of thing to mess with.

My summers at Horseshoe Lake were another matter entirely.

Ivar and Lila Andren were originally our landlords in south Minneapolis, owners of the Oakland Avenue duplex I called home the first ten years of my life; they lived downstairs, we lived upstairs. By the time they retired to their place on Horseshoe Lake, in the scenic lake country of northern Minnesota, they were essentially grandparents, and from the time I was six, I would spend the bulk of my summer vacations with them at ‘the lake.’

Ivar was a retired plumber, an old immigrant Swede with a hearty laugh and Santa-like countenance, Lila a diminutive German immigrant and retired accountant. The place they built on Horseshoe Lake was right next to the home of Ivar’s best friend Elving Holm, another old Swede with a perpetual twinkle in his eye and a hearty laugh available at any time. Elving was a retired house painter.

Over the dozen summers I spent at the lake, I spent nearly as much time hanging around with Ivar and Elving and some of the other retired guys, who spent their time in all sorts of hands-on, blue collar endeavors, as I did with the other kids who also summered on the west  side of Horseshoe.

I loved both phases of my summers on Horseshoe; swimming and hiking the woods with the Senness kids, fishing off of pontoon boats, just goofing around. There were always frogs and crawfish to hunt and play with, beaches to be dug up. There was always some lumberjacking to do; pines to be felled and hauled to Shogren’s sawmill. There was a communal garden on property owned by Old Man Reed that always needed weeding, or later in the season, had potatoes and corn to be harvested. Plus, Old Man Reed (Harold was his real name, but nobody called him that) was always willing to share a beer, a 7Up and fascinating conversation with Ivar and I should we happen to wander by.

There were also the volunteer projects; a plumbing fix here, helping somebody set up a new pump from the lake there, any number of things for Marie Wheeler, the charmingly eccentric and hard-of-hearing widow four houses down. There were ample opportunities for me to pick up and actually utilize the blue-collar basics, and I became proficient in chain saw, monkey wrench, paintbrush,hammer, vice, screwdriver, shovel, logging chain, wheelbarrow, pitchfork – to name a few.

One mid-1970’s summer saw it all coming together in a big project that had been in the works for a long time; the building of the Mission Township Firehall.

As a rural, unincorporated township in the piney woods of Minnesota lake country, there were not a whole lot of public services or amenities not provided by the county or state. There was a township dump, the Mission Township Cemetery and the volunteer fire department.

The fire department needed a permanent home, and for a number of years, the local residents had conducted a wide array of fund raising efforts to get one built. One of my personal favorites were the dances and bingo games at Anglers Edge Resort, and the north end of Horseshoe.

Ivar and I were frequent visitors to Anglers Edge, and friends of Joe & Gloria, the husband and wife proprietors. Our stops were usually made coming back from some plumbing job somewhere, and Ivar would indulge himself with a beer while I would get a bottle of Coke or an Orange Crush, and also a few dimes to play a Dean Martin song on the jukebox, or a couple of games on the old electric bowling machine. Many an afternoon contained a quick stop at Anglers Edge

As I got into my teen years, Ivar would occasionally bring me to Anglers Edge in the early part of an evening for bingo, which was sometimes followed by a dance. The bingo games were a regular fundraiser for the fire hall, the dancing was less regular, but more lucrative. If Ivar and I stopped later in the afternoon on a day when there would be dancing, benefit or just a dance, Joe would let me prep the dance floor by sending me out to sprinkle dance wax over the worn pine floorboards.

l should remember to add that to my ‘acquired skill’ set.

It was either the summer of 1973 or 74, when I was fourteen, fifteen, that we finally got the fire hall built, starting with pouring the concrete slab. The building was pretty good size, and along with the space for two fire trucks and other firefighting gear, there was a small kitchen and meeting hall area, so the place would be a de facto town hall of sorts and available for hosting small gatherings.

What I remember most is the communal nature of the project, a coming together of a bunch of folks I knew from my travels with Ivar, a lot of whom really didn’t seem to know one another. There were even some people helping out and working together that I know didn’t really like each other much. There was a good cross-section of full timers (those who lived on the lake year around) and a bunch of summer residents, who either had summer only cabins and stayed the summer, or just came up from the Twin Cities on weekends. The camaraderie and laughter was infectious.

There were retirees (most old Norwegians and Swedes, but a few Germans and Slavs – the stew of dialects helped me develop the good ear I have for such sounds) and some young folks, a few second generation Mission Township residents, a couple of grandkids who were there only grudgingly…and me; joyfully taking it all in, conversant with most of the adults on hand and greeted warmly and lovingly teased by many of them.

Once we got the slab poured, it had to cure, and then later they started in on the actual cinder block shell, and once that was finished, it was time to get the insides done. Ivar and I popped in a few times to work on some of the plumbing, although the main pipe work had been done by some of the younger guys. Eventually, the building was about done and it was time to pour some the last concrete for the sloped driveway in front of the fire hall.

It was the day I learned the fine art of using a trowel and working concrete.

The tutelage was always blunt, often humorous, and came from a variety of sources. As I was seemingly the only kid there of my own volition, I got out of most of the grunt work of lugging around buckets of water and actually learned some masonry arts. I was having a grand old time, and toward the end of the day, there was some leftover concrete in the truck, which the guys in charge had the driver dump in a pile off to the side. I was assigned the task of taking the leftover aggregate mixture and forming some spillways around where the downspouts would be dumping rainwater.

They ended up not looking too bad, though I’m not sure how useful they really were. I think I got the gig just for the spectacle of letting the old guys watch me careen haphazardly through my assignment. In the end, I got a lot of pats on the back a lot and was thanked repeatedly for my service to the fire department and township.

I was one of the guys.

Fast-forward nearly forty years, and that fire hall (at last check) was still standing on the east side of Crow Wing County Highway 3, about halfway between Merrifield and Crosslake. The concrete spillways I made were long ago replaced with more professional work, and that’s okay – because I helped build the Mission Township Fire hall. My dimes (okay, Ivar and Lila’s dimes) bought a lot of those bingo cards, I spread the dance wax before those benefit dances.

As I was kneeling there in the Louisiana heat watching my sons laboriously mix a wheelbarrow full of concrete for our little, decorative sidewalk project, I thought about those experiences of my youth, and how they carry on to my kids in their own way. I took a swig from my water bottle, put it down, grabbed my trowel. “All set to pour, guys?”

Now I just need to find them opportunities to learn the fine art of chain sawing, and we might need to find something to paint. Maybe a pipe will start leaking…