Russ Ringsak


February 4, 2009

The first time I went to Louisville I set a house on fire, broke both my arms and was put into solitary confinement in a dark room for a week. It was a place I had wanted to return to for many years but never quite did.

On the Friday before our recent gig there I met my show business associates, cast and crew, as they arrived in the lobby of the handsome downtown Brown Hotel. They asked about my heavily bandaged left hand, which looked like a paw with a giant middle toe.

"What happened to your hand?"
"Oh. . . Yeh. A guy cut me with a knife. Two places."
I nodded affirmative. "Another guy knocked me out."
"Holy cow! What was that all about? Why'd they do something like that?"
"Guvment paid 'em." I kept a straight face.
But by now they were feeling some doubt. "Where did this happen?"
"High Pointe Medical, in Woodbury."
There was a pause. "Oh shoo. You kinda had me there for a minute."
Someone else said, "So you had surgery. Just couldn't come out with the straight story, couldja?"
"Well, I got tired of saying I had some cancer in the knuckle there, because it wasn't all that bad. . . sounded like I was making a big deal out of it. So I figured this was a better story. And it's all true, y'know."

It's been a long time coming but I'm realizing in my gray years that in casual conversation people generally prefer drama to unadorned truth. Except of course when the truth is already too amazing to even imagine, as in the recent setting down of the airliner in the Hudson River; a story unlike any heard before.

But as a lifelong just the facts sort of guy, mostly reciting nothing but straightforward and complete truth — because it's easier to recall — I am finding that a bending of things can serve both the teller of the tale and the listener too. I should have learned this earlier.

The media of course do it all the time but they seem to practice it without decency or humor. Their inherent calculation is not only transparent but tiresome, which is why old guys quit magazines and even the Sunday papers. You get weary of a diet of hype and tripe. If a guy wants fiction you read thrillers and if you want the straight story you buy a book like Cod, by Mark Kurlansky.

This little book, about the size and thickness of an average serving of its subject — minus the usual British chips — is a candidate for the Gooder'n a College Series. It's the real world without the hassle and misdirection of going to college, which could have saved people like myself a lot of beer money. And those parking fees, lab fees, textbooks, fines, latest threads, frat dues, grade angst, sometime professorial indifference and the rest of it. Not to mention the multi-year chunk out of the youth part of your life.

Presumably that chunk of youth spent in college will get you a career and perhaps a mate, and these few books may not be enough to do that. But they are a good grounding and they cut out a lot of waste. Here's the list so far:

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson.
The Birth of Plenty, by William Bernstein.
Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond.
Ghengis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford.

A guy could put Cod there. It's not that the cod is the hands-down most compelling of all commodities — he wrote a previous book called Salt, which is probably just as good — but the single humble subject tied into the great world of risk and trade can change the way a person thinks about a fish sandwich, and other things. So I'd put it on a list of top candidates. Maybe someone out there could give me a shove in either direction.

* * * *

Getting back to the surgery, I saw a magazine in the hospital lobby there called Arthritis Today. It's a modern-looking publication, not all that different from Cosmopolitan or Sports Illustrated. But I wondered about the subscribers who wait every month for the latest issue. Does it get so bad that folks want to read about it every month? Is today's arthritis all that different from yesterday's? Is it their hobby magazine, like Model Railroading? I wasn't there long enough to go through the magazine and when I left I forgot about it until just now.

But a lot of people have arthritis and not everyone's is the same, so it must be fertile ground for writing. Maybe I'll end up being a contributor, laying down one painful word after another, spending days forming a single paragraph. A person shouldn't make light of such things. Nobody who has it ever says it's fun.

But that name just begs for copycats. One imagines Gingivitis Now; or Today's Gout, Rashes & Shingles. Perhaps Contemporary Angst & Affliction or Your Gastric Ulcer and You. Or Modern Misery & Wretchedness. Maybe Latest Fevers & Festers, or New Shortcuts to Personal Calamity. But again, a person shouldn't make light of it. Circumstance has a way of getting back at smart alecks. What's really needed is Dodge & Duck: The Little Manual of Avoiding What You Really Deserve.

* * * *
Louisville was going to be our mid-January break from the punishment of a northern winter but I couldn't tell the difference between 4 above zero down there or 4 above up north, especially in that cutting wind. Sheez. We never shut the truck off the whole weekend, not that we couldn't have plugged it in at the theater overnight but diesel fuel would gel at that temperature. After being frozen tight twice already this winter I'm not taking chances. Even back home in the yard I still start it every day and run it until the fuel filter pressure drops below 7 psi.

You get some warm temperature, like 10 above, and if it's blowing they'll say the wind chill is equivalent to 12 below. But we know that's wrong. We know that 10 above with a wind is far more punishing than even 35 below without wind.

All of this is nothing in the context of how deadly that cold spell became, so far taking 55 lives, 24 of them in Kentucky. The fierceness of it brings on thoughts of the univeral cold; how bitter is the blackness between the thermonuclear bombs we see as stars. And how incredible of the mighty universe to have life at all.

The cold didn't dampen my enthusiasm for Kentucky. With three freeways, I-64, I-65 and I-71, all crossing the big Ohio River right downtown the bridges give Louisville a high-energy feel similar to Pittsburgh or Duluth. A lot of that energy can be felt in the downtown architecture, especially in the blocks around the Palace Theater. And it's a place where pedigree still counts, whether it's in the bourbon or the horse or the city itself. It has all that and in addition there is a considerable stash of gold buried near there. Unknown tons of gold add gravitas to any city.

My earlier troubles there came when my dad was stationed with the 1st Armored Division at Fort Knox, on the edge of town. He went through training there before they shipped out to deal with Rommel in North Africa, about which I understood very little at the time. I was five. I set the house on fire by playing with matches under the curtains. They got the fire out. I broke my arms when I wandered out to the training grounds and fell into a tank trap. The confinement in the dark came when I got yellow jaundice and was kept away from light; that was the right thing to do then. Now they do the opposite and put the kid in the light.

I don't remember much about that time, but when I smell kerosene it brings back memories of the house. We were in officers' quarters and heated and cooked with the stuff; the pungency lingers yet, although it doesn't create exact visual images. Hard to describe the recollection; it's more a feeling than a picture. An odd kind of melancholy, with faded yellow walls.

It was a time of great national tension and unity, most of it utterly lost on a pre-schooler. My dad ended WWII with five Purple Hearts and his driver with four; twice they sneaked out of a field hospital with fresh bullet wounds and hitched rides back to the front. An amazing era and I never knew a thing about it until it was over and we were living in North Dakota.

So I wanted to get out and see Fort Knox, although the 1st Armored is no longer stationed there and the old quarters are no doubt long demolished. Maybe sometime when things aren't so hurried I'll do that, just as a pilgrimage.

* * * *

It was men's crisis night last night over at Mark's place. Two carpenters, an architect, a plumber and a truck driver. The talk runs less about the Vikings or the Twins and more about cars or dogs, jobs we've had, our parents. The truth serum used to be Scotch but most of us have moved to bourbon.

The crisis is of course fictional. It simply replaces the old Friday after work drinks with the guys; the rowdiness, the motorcycles outside, the live band and all the rest of that happy hedonism we used to dive into. Now we're okay with sitting around telling stories. I offer bits from Sam Ignarski's Bow Wave, a marine insurance internet magazine which drily provides insight into the wet world of ship collisions and sinkings. A terrific world view mixed with a poem and some humor. An example: "Never criticize a person unless you have walked a mile in their shoes. That way, when you do criticize them you'll be a mile away and you'll have their shoes."

© R.Ringsak 2009

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