Open the window, boy. Roll it on down. Glide it, slide it, slam it down. Bury it deep inside the car door and let May charge in with all her glory.
It’s 71 degrees, the green’s back in the trees, the road is dry, and the Dodge is purring. Open the window and introduce this musty chug to the perfumed air of spring. Give the inside the outside and blur the boundaries.
Now hand me that Sawzall. I’m taking the roof off this rig. I longed for a convertible as a young man, and today I’ll own one.
Take my jacket and burn it. Don’t hang it up, burn it. Build a bonfire and throw in the mittens and scarves. Throw in the shovel and ice pick. Throw in all the memories of windows closing.
Remember when we shut and locked them, the sound of each one sliding into place? The kitchen casement was the last to linger. We swung it closed last November, formally giving winter the cold shoulder. December was but a framed image spied from over-stuffed chairs. January and February were greeted on the sidewalk but never invited in. March was a pesky, loitering presence in the back yard, grating on us with that stoic mug.
Then, April. Suddenly, the bay window began to whine, the double-hung to moan. There were knocks at the shutters mid-morning, creaking in the late afternoon, a restless buzz in every dusty pane. Word was out. May was on the move.
Seasons are there for reasons, son, half of which we don’t fully comprehend. I think somewhere something is perpetually trying to teach us the lesson of waking.
Well, wake me, boy. Open all four portals and let the air style this mop of hair any way it pleases. Let the sounds of the boulevards fill this car with an energy it hasn’t known since autumn.
When we get home, run across the lawn and tell your mother we have a guest for dinner. May is back, and she’s coming through the front door, coming through the back door, coming around through the second-story screen, coming into our bedroom, wafting across the sheets, and drifting on down the hallways. The outside is the inside and the inside is the outside, and the walls are but a formality.
Do you know how to dance, boy? May will teach you. She taught our ancestors eons ago, and they drew their movements on cave walls. It must have been important to dance in the spring, and to record it. It must have been a wondrous site to see May from a cave opening. Now there was a window!
Look, it’s starting to rain. No, don’t close the window. It’s only water. Why be annoyed by it when we can be baptized in it? Sense the shift in the scent of the air. Inhale the aroma of the soil yawning back to life.
When I was your age there was a grand ritual this time of year. All over town ladders would appear. The heavy storm windows would be yanked from houses and relegated to garage rafters. Out would come the blessed screens. Water hoses would wash away the cobwebs, and these sacred creations would be lovingly set in place, proudly calling in the natural world from all four directions.
We knew what a season was because we marked it. We spent a whole day marking it, closing a window on one season, opening one on another. For most, that particular dance is history. So be it. Mark this season your own way. Find a new ritual. Paint it on the cave walls of your memory. But try to keep windows a part of it.
In no time, another Minnesota summer will be upon us. The mercury will rise and many will quickly return the windows to their February positions. Air conditioning, too often, creates an alternate version of winter housing. Hold off as long as you can. Don’t let the walls have a purpose so soon. Don’t hand the outdoors back to the outdoors without a fight.
I was 17, and it was the final summer before adulthood would crest and flood my carefree world.
Just writing this sentence now brings a sigh and a long stare out the window. It’s a sigh filled with more layered emotion than can be sorted out here. It’s a sigh Huck Finn might have managed with his old man’s paunch and gray thinning hair; Huck as a married man, with grown children, looking back on his years along that river.
In fact, Huck might have been my role model at 17. I can’t recall. I know I wanted to live in a similar manner, especially in the summertime. By that, I mean free, without employment or debt, without duty or the poisoned draw of the dollar. I wanted adventure, with the absence of supervision. And like Huck, I too was stationed on the Mississippi.
St. Paul, Minn., was home but, as with so many boys over the many years, the West had been quietly and seductively seeping into my late teen-age daydreams. The East had no home in my imagination. It was never a draw. If I’d known how to sneak aboard a river barge, the Deep South might have beckoned, but what I understood was how to get aboard a freight train, and that made things simpler.
My older brothers had gone before me, and I’d listened to all their stories of the rails. It was always that northern high-line, and always the race toward a setting sun. Now, at 17, it was my turn to have this low-cost excursion west, piggy backing on some snaking steel beast, heading to where the rugged land was wide open and railroad security wondrously lax.
I learned from my mother of some cousins living in Circle, Mont. There was a young couple, with a large ranch, as well as a pair of brothers, just a few years older than I, living right in town. I looked at a map and saw that a freight train could get me as close as Wolf Point, and I soon set out to visit these people, hoping every tingle atop my peach-fuzz skin heralded the holy thrills waiting out there.
I had never before been on my own like this. I was at the beginning of a kind of boy-manhood. I didn’t long to be a man in full, not any more than Huck must have. I wanted to be a boy-man. That was the sweet spot; the sacred tether between past and future that allowed one to swing blissfully, in the great in-between, where a last blast of childhood freedom met the first breath of adult independence. I felt this even then. My older brothers had taught me well.
I still recall the late June afternoon when the clanging train slowed briefly in Wolf Point, allowing me just a few moments to toss my backpack out of the boxcar and leap to the hot gravel below. I hadn’t been on board 24 hours; barely enough time to grow weary of the endless rocking or swirling dust, but I already had the sense of arriving in a foreign land. I looked quite different from the mysterious brown faces staring at me. Back then, I wondered if people who didn’t look like me could ever be OK with me. I saw myself in the gas station mirror and thought, not only was I one skinny, pale white boy, but sweaty and filthy to boot; no candidate for the chamber of commerce welcome wagon, that’s for sure. I figured I’d best walk away from town and get my thumb out in the direction of Circle. Family was waiting there, along with a hot shower. I thought I’d feel at home once I cleaned up and sat with my own kin.
What I didn’t know was that my kin would seem as foreign to me as the Native Americans who watched me traipse down the shoulder of the road out of Wolf Point.
When I arrived in Circle, my cousins didn’t seem like anyone I knew back home. They had Montana chiseled into their very mugs, their accents and their bony limbs. They looked lean as the land. I felt alien and exposed; green like the lush land I had just left, not the brown land I now stood upon. Who could have predicted how quickly I’d be seduced by their contagious free spirit, or how I would need to be almost dragged home by my mother that September, when school burst this last bubble of liberation.
I remember that first horseback ride at the ranch, riding the way I thought all horses should be ridden, free from all trail guides, suffocating regulations and that slow single-file nonsense. It was just me and a muscled mare that morning, tearing across the dry, undulating, sun-drenched land, going faster than I had any business going. I was scolded for bringing her home soaking wet, but I knew I could never again ride behind some paid hand.
In every way, I was tasting a new kind of freedom. Even the cousins in town seemed set loose. They took little heed of law enforcement. They did as they pleased, stopped for red lights when they felt like it, fixed headlights or taillights only when they were in the mood. They had a feral edge to them, with their scarred, tan skin, angular faces and unkempt curly dark hair. They believed every gathering after a workday called for cheap, marred, acoustic guitars, old kitchen chairs on the dirt in the yard, and something called a rack of beer. They kept their shirts unbuttoned and they didn’t care that their front door wouldn’t close all the way.
I remember a fight they got into at a dance, and how half the town talked about it the next day. And I remember them talking about a wealthy man who they said had the mayor under his thumb. He lived up on the hill and they called him “Old Doc.” One night, in an inebriated state, I lost track of my cousins outside a bar and ended up with Doc’s 22-year-old son and two college girls who were clearly competing for his affections. He drove us up to his dad’s house, which had a swimming pool glimmering in soft patio lights. The son, who seemed like he’d been given most everything he’d wanted in life, asked the girls to join him in the water, which they promptly did, frolicking in their skimpy underwear. Holding a can of Rainier, I stared from the poolside, wondering if this were a life I could ever own. My guess was Doc’s kid got the prettiest girls in town, and not just one, but the pair. They all kept calling me “Minnesota” and telling me to jump in, but I was out of my league, in every way. These three people were the most foreign of all. They were good looking and well-off and said funny and clever things. I was inexperienced and unsure of myself and content to just observe. I had never before seen grown girls in their underwear and certainly not wet underwear, and between this and my baptismal horse ride, I wondered if Montana could possibly be the best kept secret for young American males.
Doc’s kid didn’t seem to care if his dad or mom were asleep or not, nor if the drunken laughter of the undressed co-eds might upset them. He was as carefree as everyone else I’d come to know. There just didn’t seem to be the same rules here as back home. Maybe everyone was making up their own. Or, perhaps, rules formed only when more, and taller, buildings formed first.
Today, now in my 50s, it’s still that wondrous unfettered feeling that burns brightest in my memory when I daydream about 17, and Montana, and that renegade summer: We were all on our own. We were all free. In a way I never would be, or could be, again.
My Car is My Pony; Your Plane is My Prison
The Roadshow is about moving, but moving while grounded; always connected to the blacktop. I could head out and see the world by air, but it would loose all the soul.
Having recently returned from a flight out East, the contrast was striking. “Back to my wheels” I mumbled, as I shot past the pilot and raced out the plane door.
You can have your martini and that fine novel, the blanket over your lap and your accommodating flight attendant. Where is the trip in all of that? Back in your living room, that’s where.
To feel a trip, I need a car. The automobile invites your eyes to feast on the countryside, to take it all in. The widows are ample, and they’re proportioned in such a way to make passing scenery a veritable motion picture. A plane window shrinks the view, constricting the clouds and sky until they can be easily ignored, even forgotten.
When I roll down a window in a car I connect to the world outside. I invite it in. I mix with the fresh air, and the cars interior fills with the scent of the countryside, an intermingling that’s absent from flight. With the automobile, I feel the road. I’m grounded, tethered to my earthly home by gravity. In an airplane I don’t feel the air rushing outside. I don’t feel the sun. I’m left slightly off balance, disconnected from my home. I’m in a foreign in-between, a no man’s land. There’s no place to stop, or to stretch. I’m a prisoner.
That feeling can only resolve itself upon landing. We all know the sensation of reconnecting to the earth when plane wheels meet tarmac, that sense of a homecoming, a relaxing into our natural state.
I’m but a passive participant in flight. In a car, it’s my whims and desires that are catered to. The steering wheel and the pedals are under my control. The stops and starts are at my beck and call. That’s its own freedom, an independence no commercial flight can compete with. And the vehicle is also mine, my baby, my ride – an extension of me.
Today, I got back on the highway and took it up to 60, the parading cornfields pouring their aroma through my open windows. I turned up the radio, looked at a plane flying above, and whispered, “You’re no free bird.
Outside my front door in Saint Paul there’s a street, that stretches up a small hill, and disappears somewhere between the linden trees. I know that each day if I follow that road out of simple curiosity, something brand new is going to happen. I‘m always hoping it’s something that wakes me up a little, helps me see life a bit clearer, or from some brand new angle—And I’m always hoping for the unexpected.
As a grown man I’ve come to see that life today need not be all that different from the way I saw it as a boy. On Saturday afternoons, back then, I’d head out, hoping to round some neighborhood corner and discover that strange and wondrous thing that would put a tingle through my skin and leave me with the sense that the world was alive and breathing. Back then, I just wanted to be a part of it. I asked nothing more.
That young kid still talks to me these days, and he seems wiser than the older man he’s become. I think he had it figured out from the get-go. He knew what he didn’t know, and he was okay with that. He came alive with the dawn, lived for the day, and felt a pulsating energy in existence that was both seductively foreign and mysteriously familiar.
Years later, it has all come round again to this idea of just heading out the door and seeing what’s happening in the world, seeing who’s out there, and what all they’re up to. After all these years, I’m still asking, what is this thing called life? When I walk out my door, will it invite me in? I’m still praying that, with each new morning, it will blare its trumpets, and turn the very spotlight of the sun on my path. I’m hoping some strange and unique adventures await. And, as importantly, I’m hoping you’ll come along for the ride, and embrace the adventure. Because life isn’t as fun when we’re experiencing it by ourselves.
An American Life
It’s autumn 1960. Cactus Jack and Larry Lee are on their way to Jump-River Rosy’s, fixing to meet up for a rockabilly gig. On the way Larry stops at several taverns, trying to sell his records so bar patrons will hear them on the jukebox.
Fifty years in the future Larry is sitting in his kitchen, an hour outside of the Twin Cities. He’s 87, living alone with his Gibson, his fiddle, and his dog. He remembers a fiery young man with a gift for songwriting and a dream of signing with RCA.
On his way to Rosy’s, in ‘60, Larry thinks about a show with Ernest Tubb six years earlier, down in Nashville. Larry was on his way up back then, hoping to land a date with the Grand Ole Opry. Tubb said he loved Larry’s sound.
Backstage at the Tubb gig, Larry’s bass player mentioned that he was rooming with a quiet kid in Nashville named Elvis Presley. The bass player was trying to talk Presley out of playing “colored people’s music” because “that stuff was going nowhere.” In 1966 Larry would be just as polite listening to his wife tell him his music was going nowhere.
Elvis, as it turned out, would cobble together a respectable living. But Larry ran out of gigs and ended up drifting down to Panama City, Florida, where he opened a bar and hosted a nightly radio show called The Singing Cowboy Radio Hour Live from Club Western.
Last week Larry was telling stories in his home in the woods just across the Wisconsin border. He’s proud of having made the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, but he says his songwriting was good enough to get him a career like Johnny Cash had.
“In Nashville they practice saying no,” Larry says. “They work all day on different ways to say no, so that when the young guys come by with their guitars and their songs, the suits are ready to shoo ‘em out the door.”
During the Depression Larry picked cucumbers for a few pennies a pail near White Hall, Wisconsin, and saved his coins in a tobacco tin. When he had $2.98 he ordered a guitar from Sears.
“A few days later I saw it hanging off the mailbox in a cardboard box. My dad told me musicians are useless bums, so I had to practice when he was at prayer meetings.”
It’s the early 1950s. Larry is playing the circuit. He’s got Slewfoot Herbie, Tennessee Jimmy, and a hot brunette backup singer named Ginny Mae. Their band is the Coral City Ramblers, and they ride together in a cream-colored Dodge convertible, playing the towns from eastern Michigan to the Dakotas. Larry’s on the rise and having the time of his life.
At the Cackle Shack in Milwaukee a large crowd has shown up because Larry has been featured routinely on Wisconsin’s first commercial television station, WTMJ. A barroom brawl erupts, led by a 300-pounder with a snootful. Larry tells the band to keep playing as he unstraps his Martin and leaps onto the shoulders of the enraged giant.
“I took him to the ground like a rodeo rider locking a steer,” Larry says. “A couple of bartenders came over to take it from there, and I jumped back up onstage wiping blood off my hands with a tablecloth just as the cops busted through the door. They looked at me, but I was singing the strains of Lefty Frizzell as calmly as if I were at a church service.”
Soon Larry has himself a Cadillac that he purchases in memory of Hank Williams, who dies in the very same model on a cold New Year’s Day.
RCA is talking about signing Larry to a recording contract, but he gets word through the mail that they’re putting that on hold for now so as to spend their time and money on a new kid named Presley.
It’s as close as he gets to the big time.
Back in his Wisconsin kitchen Larry’s plucking his Gibson. He says his pedal steel player, his various lead guitar players, and his fiddler are all dead now.
He recalls befriending Patsy Cline and having to console her as she cried and threatened to quit because she’d only made $1,200 for “Walking After Midnight.”
“Even big stars can long for more,” he says.
On the floor sleeps Larry’s dog, Grizz. His wife died a few years ago. “She was 20 years younger than me,” he says. “She was supposed to stick around to care for me in my old age.
“That didn’t work out either.”
(Hear Larry Lee on Episode 22 of The Roadshow)