Russ Ringsak

Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota

March 8, 2006


Traveling northbound through Kentucky on that Miami return trip I saw a pair of larger-than-necessary billboards flanking Interstate 65. The one on the right touted the excitements available at the big new Adult SuperStore there at Exit Now, and from a board directly across the freeway blazed a defiant sermon in three giant words, red on black : “HELL IS REAL.”

One could almost hear the little voice from the back seat: “Daddy, why do they put up bad words by the highway?”
The pause while Daddy thinks. “. . . Um -- bad words? What bad words?”
“Well, you know. The h-e double-toothpicks word.”
“Oh, that one. I, uh, almost missed it, there. . . I, um, suppose they want people to not go to a bad place, maybe.”

The pause while the little one forms the obvious next question: “But don’t you go there if you use the bad words?”
“Go where?”
“To the h-e double-toothpicks place.”
“Right. That place.”
“So why do they put the words on a sign if they don’t want to go there?”
Daddy nodding. “Well, that’s a very good question. Yes, it is. Daddy might have to think about that one for a minute. A very good question, kiddo.”

And one could picture another pause as Daddy digs for a way to change the subject, or simply waits for the offspring’s mind to wander into safer territory. And then comes, naturally: “Daddy, what’s an adult super store?”
“Um. . . I think it’s a place where they don’t let kids in.”
“Is it like a Super Target?”
“Maybe. . . sort of. . . I don’t know. I’ve never been in one.” He glances at Mommy.
”Is it a Super Target only with no kids?”
“Yeh. Maybe kind of like that. But I guess I don’t know, for sure. . .”

The sign reminded me of the old joke: “Heck is where people go who don’t believe in Gosh.” Anyway, the show following Miami was in Morris, Minnesota, a town of some 5000 persons and home to the University of Minnesota Morris. Nothing in downtown Morris jumps out and tells you that it’s home to a four-year liberal arts campus, unlike most college neighborhoods. Ag trucks rumble down the main street and elevators stand along the tracks as a backdrop. Students there have not had to choose between living in a small town and going to college.

In Morris there are three meals a day and they’re called breakfast, dinner and supper. Restaurants and bar grills shut down between 2 and 5 in the afternoon, as if to get people to go home and take naps. There are no more bars or pizza joints than in any other town of that size out there; there’s a coffee house with Wi-Fi but that’s not an oddity any more.

There was a privately owned U.S. Mail delivery vehicle on the street, a battered and faded high-mileage US-made four-door sedan, distinguished by an old spare tire mounted directly in front of the grille; an unusual but sensible place for it, especially if the owner had a trunk full of junk, or if their route crossed heavily traveled deer paths. Or both.

I enjoyed a senior moment there when we loaded in. The truck ahead of ours – a rental semi exactly like ours and carrying a stage assembly, an overhead lighting system and a complete sound system – took forty-five minutes to back down the slippery half-block hill and jack the trailer at a right angle to the loading door to the gymnasium floor at the bottom. You could read the young driver’s misery in all the tracks in the new snow, miscalculated moves and a lot of sweaty do-overs, slipping over curbs and by trees and signs. When they got it unloaded and he finally left I backed our rig down the hill and up to the door in about five minutes. (I’ve been listening to old guys brag most of my life, so I’m just taking my turn here; and if I didn’t tell you about it, who would? Besides that, I’ve had my own share of the 45-minute sweats.)

The next week we went to Milwaukee, and I set aside my smart-aleck attitude about weather forecasters and drove there on Wednesday, a day early. They were predicting an incoming winter storm and they got it exactly right – a heavy rain became an ice storm Thursday morning as I left the trailer and headed for the Harley factory in our 8x10 reconnaissance vehicle. I had to turn tail and slither back to the hotel.

Safely out of the truck I walked downtown Milwaukee on ice and freezing slush and remembered what a great place it is, as much of one piece as the French Quarter in New Orleans. It’s not the same feel of course but it has that same consistency, as if you are back into a certain logic, a commonly held conviction about how a place like this should present itself. In the Big Easy it’s wood and paint and wrought iron; open windows and balconies and tight streets, a carnival where anything goes so long as nobody gets an eye poked out. In Milwaukee the buildings say it makes sense to build solid, to face centuries of winter ice storms, and if it’s going to be tough for that long it ought to be beautiful while it’s at it. There are a few glass boxes there, but they look like hell and you get the feeling the people won’t stand for many more of them, not in there among all that elegance. The real beauty of the two cities is that you couldn’t imagine them changing places, any more than a Holstein could switch with a crawdad.

They cleared the streets that night and I toured the Harley factory the next day, and was struck by the impact this one company has made. It’s now a high-tech modern corporation but still run by bikers, still building the world’s most-copied treat since Muddy Waters invented the blues band.

The week after that we went to Glenwood, on the same road we took to Morris. It looked funny on the schedule but turned out to be a much different gig; a great dance hall on a big lake, with fish houses close to the shore. The stage was wide enough for a dance band and no more, the crowd numbering in three digits rather than four, sitting beneath gabled wood trusses with a wall of windows on the frozen lake. More like a tent than a gym, it was, a reconstruction of a social hall with a 94-year history of dances and weddings; a hall played by the big names, Louis Armstrong and Stan Kenton and a hundred others. A lynchpin, one could say, of countless Minnesota marriages. A place where people smiled a lot. A place from where babies eventually sprang.

The following week we went up to Grand Forks, North Dakota, my home territory. I got there Thursday and immediately went to the snowy sugar beet fields with my brother-in-law and his son, where we broke clay pigeons with shotguns; they rarely missed and I nailed only enough to whet the appetite. They have a remote control electric pigeon slinger which launches them briskly aloft, and it’s a lot more fun than a person would expect. And I now feel that if I were ever out walking and I had my shotgun along and if an eagle with a nine-foot wingspan cruised in expecting to pick me up by the head, I’d be able to fend him, or her, off. Maybe. At least maybe if I looked up and saw him, or her, in time.

We did our show in the Chester Fritz Auditorium, on the UND campus. It’s not exactly an exciting building on the outside, but inside is a scaled-down and unadorned version of the fabulous Auditorium Theater in Chicago, done by Louis Sullivan and my unqualified personal favorite building ever built.

From the stage you look out into a great curved wall of people; three balconies at the Auditorium, two there in the Fritz, high, steeply sloped and forward set, with extensions coming down along the sides. A patron in the farthest seat in the top balcony could toss a beach ball onto the stage.

They were an open and generous crowd, as my people tend to be, and we had a good time there. Having just accomplished a major birthday, I was allowed to sing a tune with our dynamite little band; the hardest part of that was trying to not overly enjoy the experience and mess it up. Sort of like being set up on a date with Lauren Bacall, for example, or Claudia Cardinale, way back when. (My birthday was so major the current favorite hot babes out there don’t hold that much appeal.)

It was raining Sunday when I left, after a breakfast at the Big Sioux Truck Stop with the family, but it quit before Fargo and I enjoyed an uneventful five-hour cruise down the Red River Valley and across Minnesota to St. Paul, looking forward to a three week break. I may find time to practice the guitar again. I’m up for it.

“I’m telling you - anything is possible.” -- Kirby Puckett.

©R.Ringsak 2006

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