Russ Ringsak

And ... Frankie Gordon Has a Brand New Car

April 21, 2004

As high school kids way back when in eastern North Dakota, we viewed northern Minnesota as alien terrain. They had curved roads over there, for one thing, and they had a lower drinking age and a later closing time for bars. It was obvious the curves were there to get around all those lakes and hills and evergreen trees, but the reasons for the softer laws weren’t as clear. But it did seem exotic. Like maybe Italy. Their farmland wasn’t as good as what we had in the Red River Valley but to a lot of us good farmland was only something a person would brag about being raised in the close proximity of, not something you would expect to someday own. Unless it was already in the family, and of course we town kids had no chance of that.

I was in northern Minnesota here a while back, in Bemidji, often referred to up there as Bermidji and no one seems to know quite why, except that it’s vaguely amusing and somehow mildly derogatory. A combination that comes close enough to pass for dry humor in Paul Bunyan territory. It doesn’t seem much like Italy to me any more, but it’s still interesting.

I stopped for breakfast at a local downtown restaurant, not a big main street tourist place but more a sidestreet low-dollar geezer coffee and doughnut hangout. The back side of the menu, the breakfast-anytime side, had a PAUL BUNYAN SPECIAL on the list: 2 eggs, 2 sausage and 2 pancakes; “For the Man-Sized Appetite,” it said. $4.25. Well it looked like a heck of a deal and I ordered it, eggs over medium, and she hollered back to the cook: “Paul Bunyan! Medium!

She filled my coffee cup and in due course brought Paul Bunyan’s legacy and set it before me. But it wasn’t on a plate. It was flopped directly onto a circular Coca-Cola tray, which was a good nineteen inches across and big enough to hold two full meals with all the side dishes. Each thick cake covered the entire tray, one on top of the other, and I marveled that anyone could make pancakes that size. How could they turn’em over? It’d take a whole pitcher of syrup to cover’em. The round sausage patties sat side by side on the pancakes like two crusty moons crossing the face of, say, Neptune. They were each as big as dinner plates themselves and probably weighed a pound apiece. Even the eggs were big, Super Jumbo size, sitting there in the crescents between the giant patties. I tried not to say “Holy Sh**,” or anything like it. I tried to act as if it was what I had expected. As I began wading fork-first into the pile I realized that most everyone in the place was watching and some were openly grinning. It was breakfast for a whole week. I didn’t make it halfway through Tuesday.

I later learned I’d been had. A resident told me that no one but a stranger would order that breakfast, and when one does the whole room is put on alert because she hollers it to the cook. It’s cheap entertainment, watching someone react to a sudden overload like that. Locals sometimes linger over coffee to wait for it, especially during the tourist season. (It later occurred to me that locals probably avoid ordering anything connected to big old Paul Bunyan.)

But it is disappearing art, springing a trap on the unsuspecting stranger in the interest of rough humor. Nowadays the entire focus of the marketing industry is to soothe the hesitant and make comfortable the meek, separating them from their money as gently as possible. Things used to be different. These days you have to get lucky to find a place where they still take pleasure in making you look silly.

Speaking of the north country, an old high school friend named Frankie Gordon told me that after I had left Dakota for parts unknown he enjoyed a stretch of fame on a radio station up there. He was three years out of high school and had taken a job as a truck driver for Holsum Bread and moved to Thief River Falls, which is in Minnesota northwest of Bemidji and not far from Grand Forks, in North Dakota.

To make sure it started in the winter they kept the bread truck in the Chevy dealer’s garage at night. Frankie would come in at four-thirty in the morning and be out of there before they opened. A brand-new ‘57 Chevy two-door hard-top arrived from the factory one day, a silver one with a bright red panel on the side, and he was instantly smitten. They wouldn’t sell it because they needed it as a demonstrator, and every morning he’d see it sitting there in its gleaming splendor. Get in and feel the steering wheel, push the pedals. He wanted it bad. Thought about it all the time. After eight months in the throes of a full-blown obsession he got the word that they were putting it up for sale and he was able to make a deal. He felt like a lottery winner when he finally drove that car out of there. He was estatic. The car of his dreams. He could hardly sleep that first week.

He had a friend who had changed his name to Mack McNeely and held forth as a morning DJ on one of the Grand Forks radio stations. Frankie told him about that car and about how unbelievable it was to finally own it and Mack picked up on that and would say, about once an hour, something like: “It’s twenty minutes after the hour, the temperature is 15 degrees above zero, the wind is out of the northwest at eight miles an hour; and. . . Frankie Gordon has a brand-new car.”

Other announcers at the station picked up on it, and when an interesting piece of news came along they would end the story with something like “. . the boat burned to the water line but, fortunately, all parties made it to shore safely. And. . . Frankie Gordon has a brand new car.” This went on for a while.

His friends thought it pretty funny to hear his name on the radio every day. One friend was a guy named Harlan who had been pursuing a woman named Linda for some time and had finally been able to take her out a few times and one night, after a fine dinner and a few drinks, had found himself in his own personal fantasy paradise on earth, which was to say in the sublime and exciting luxury of Linda’s soft bed with the peach-colored percale sheets. He was ready and determined to do his very manly best to make it a night she would not forget. And just after the very peak of his performance, when he thought he had obtained her absolute complete and rapturous and undivided attention and gratitude, she lay back into the pillow and said, in a low and breathy voice, words that knifed through Harlan cleaner and colder than a samurai sword: “And. . . Frankie Gordon has a brand new car.”

This all somehow got back to Mack McKneely, and from him to his many morning listeners; not the names and not all the specifics but enough to make Frankie an even more legendary figure to the public. Kind of a villain to Harlan of course, but Harlan got over it. Frankie left this fame when he moved off to the coast, but some around Grand Forks might still remember.

Frankie told me he drove that car for a long time, all the way into the seventies, but he doesn’t know where it is now or what happened to it after he sold it to a young guy back then. It’s likely been crushed and recycled but we’d like to think it’s been restored and is now making the rounds of the classic car shows. Or sitting rusting in an old shed on an overgrown and abandoned farm somewhere up north. Waiting there in the dark, perhaps hoping to be someone’s dream car again.

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