Russ Ringsak

Transportation Engineers and Back Country Rumpus

February 17, 2001

Great to hear the old friends with us again this last week -- Greg Brown, and Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Greg is folk music's Bruce Springsteen. The Boss, although he probably wouldn't say that himself. Hard to find the rock and roll analogy for Jay and Molly -- maybe Aerosmith, because they've been together so long.

And we've seen some people new to the show. Jeff Lang, Rhonda Vincent; John Hiatt. There's an unspoken backstage etiquette, one of those protocols simply understood and seldom violated: you don't pretend you don't know who they are but you don't gush either. At the meal an hour before the show, you sit down on a metal folding chair at a long table and a minute later John Hiatt, author of four CDs in your library, sits down across from you. You nod. He nods. You feel better. He probably doesn't feel better or worse, but at least he can have dinner without distraction.

On the subject of food, we'd be remiss not to mention the great catering we get here at the Fitz; home cooking taken to amazing heights. Nothing like it anywhere on the road trips. Coming back to St. Paul is like coming home to Mom's cooking, and Mom is Kim Christensen, owner of Film Food Catering. They don't do weddings but if you're shooting a movie or doing a show she's the person to call to feed your crew. We know they'll thank you for it.

Last road trip out I heard this conversation on the CB radio:

".... and my brother finally gave up on the farm and took a job as a garbage man, but they don't call it that no more. They call him a waste management engineer." "Yeah, I know, they do that nowadays. He don't sit at a drafting board or a computer, does he?" "Nossir. Jist goes out in a big ol' truck with a bucket on it and he throws garbage bags in there. Hydraulic ram packs it down and he hauls it off to the landfill. Pays a lot more'n farming and he says the hours are better too." "Copy on the better hours.... Yeah, a cousin on my wife's side, he works at the schoolhouse, big ol' place, and he's a night janitor there but on the payroll he's a sanitary engineer. He claims he never even learned the multiplyin' tables-- says if he's an engineer then his dang ol' billy goat is a brain surgeon." "I swear, they's people who figger you should never use one short word if you can use three long ones instead. They think that shows how smart you are. Like at my kid's school, they call the Library the Instructional Materials Center. It does wear a man out, listenin' to that malarkey." "Four on the malarkey." ('Four' being short for 10-4, meaning 'I understand.') "But anyways, I'm jist glad a truck driver's still a truck driver." "Copy that. What'll they call us when they find out we still got a simple name like 'at? Transportation engineers?" "Well, see, now-- that'd hafta include bus drivers and taxi drivers-- pilots, too. So you'd need to come up with somethin' about freight, right? Somethin' like a freight movement specialist or somethin'." "Lord, don't even mention it. Makes my brain hurt, thinkin' about it." "Yessir, four on the brain hurtin'.... Looks like I'm comin' here to my get-off, driver. We'll catch you on the rewind." "Copy. You have a safe one." "Yessir. Same back atcha."

I thought about that exchange and then wrote the following news item, a dressed-up version of a paragraph in the sheriff's report in a small-town newspaper:

"Thursday, 12:35 A.M.: Mr. John O. Gunderson, 68, a subsurface nutritional resource systems analyst from the exurban region of Hay Creek, recently instituted a program of sound waste management policy vis-a-vis a personal land-based transportation device. After a fair and reasonable determination of insufficient anticipated productivity versus the required input of resources to facilitate the restoration of further operational performance, he delivered the device to a regional intermodal disassembly facility where it was decommissioned, and from whose agent Mr. Gunderson received renumeration in an amount commensurate with the current market conditions relative to exchanges of a similar nature. Mr. Gunderson then repaired to a nearby nondenominational community-based privately-owned entertainment center where, in the company of two nutritional calcimate fluid plant managers, he was said to have converted the bulk of the decommissioning proceeds into consumable alcohol-based antidepressant stimulus units to the extent that he became self-marginalized in excess of his natural ability to maintain a state of nominal consciousness, subsequent to which he was relocated by behavioral modification field engineers to a secure demarginalizing holding facility." Or: beet farmer goes to town, junks car, gets hammered with a couple of dairy farmers; the cops throw him in jail.

But to hear the real details you need to go to Stan's Place in Hay Creek: Old John junked his 1970 two-door Pontiac, a car of which he had been mightily fond since new but hadn't driven in three years because of a ravaged transmission. Hauled it to the Halfway Salvage Yard on the other side of town with his old Allis Chalmers tractor and was given 35 dollars for it. He stopped at Stan's on the way back, about five-thirty, had a few brandies and a couple of beers, bought some pull tabs; seemed to be just fine and then, without much ado, passed out in the booth around nine. His companions had already left. Ted the Bartender figured he might have stayed up late the night before, or maybe had a pint in his pocket. He finally called the police to take him home, which they generally do around there without much hassle. But when they woke Old John he came up swinging and he knew one of the officers and told him he knew his father and that his father was a son of a blank and he, the son, was one too, and he fought them; once glass started breaking they didn't have much choice but to cuff him and take him down to the station.

In the morning he felt bad in more ways than one, and he apologized. Told the cop his father was a good man and that he'd always been a good man. They let him go without charging him, told him not to make a habit of it, and gave him a ride to his Chalmers, still sitting in front of Stan's. It started right off and he drove straight home. Stan watched him from the newly-cracked front window. He knows he'll be back.

So what's that got to do with the show? Well, it's Minnesota, right? And out there in the back country, some things haven't changed all that much.

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