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Post 5 / Third Chapter / A Country Divided

This picture was taken the night Minneapolis was on fire after the murder of George Floyd. The building was kitty-corner from the 5th Precinct where convicted murderer, Derek Chauvin was stationed. This was Rosie and my old neighborhood where we started our family. Read the next chapter of my book that takes place during this time, and then explores the lessons I learned from how differently my mother and father viewed the 1960s. My father was stuck in the same mindset that has led to today’s nightmare, and my mother’s point-of-view perhaps leads to a pathway out.

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CHAPTER THREE

A Country Divided 

 

QUARANTINE WATCH / JULY 21, 2020

It’s unseasonably cool for July. I’m holding hot coffee as I manage the round rungs of the ladder leading up to the treehouse in my South Minneapolis backyard. The ladder feels strong and secure. I built it out of a couple of long 2x4s that I drilled 1-½-inch holes 10-inches apart, then strung 2-foot-long wooden dowels through, and secured with 3-inch deck screws. The round rungs are similar to the way I made the ladder I perform on at Renaissance Festivals. Most acts wouldn’t bother to hand-make an authentic looking wooden ladder for their show at the festival. Like my buddy, Tuey, who performs down the lane, he makes his out of aluminum because it’s stronger and lighter. Of course, I can’t do what Tuey does. He walks up a ridged ladder in the center of the stage with only two points of contact on the ground. It’s the circus act Picasso saw the symbol of, Jacob’s Ladder, inspiring him to paint a ladder in his, Stage Curtain for the Ballet; inspiring Henry Miller’s book, Smile at the Foot of the Ladder; which inspired me to put a ladder in my act. Miller’s clown simply smiled like Buddha at the bottom of his ladder. I perform on the street, so I climb to the top with blazing-fire-torches. I designed mine to look like a rickety A-frame ladder that could wobble back-and-forth, making my climb to the top a hero’s journey. My final pay-off is holding a long Miller-inspired smile of ecstatic joy at the top of the ladder.

I developed my first ladder routine when I had to perform solo, while Rosie was pregnant with Liza, our first daughter. During the Holidays, Rosie and I traditionally performed at, A Victorian Christmas, an indoor Holiday themed show put on by the producers of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. It was a sweet winter gig, but the Fire Marshal didn’t allow me to juggle fire indoors, which was my best way of getting a crowd on-the-street as a solo act. This challenge was what first inspired me to build an opening routine based on Henry Miller’s Smile.

Later, I learned the ladder I chose to buy was called a widow-maker because it collapsed accordion-style if the round steel hinges positioned every 3-feet failed. I started my show by unfolding the aluminum ladder to its full 12-foot length. I stood it upright in the center of Exposition Hall, the main street theater spot at Riverplace, a neo-Victorian shopping mall hosting the show. Above me were three balconies of polished brass linked by a set of glass elevators behind me, and in front of me a spiral-staircase. The audience would gather around all three balconies, along the brass railings of the spiral staircase, and sitting at the chairs and tables surrounding me on the main floor. I grabbed the attention of the passing holiday shoppers on all three floors at once, by first balancing the ladder on my chin, then dropping it down to a 6-foot A-frame, and climbing up with a brass bugle. The top set of rungs made a perfect perch for my over-sized clown shoes. I’d blow my horn then give my prolonged Miller-inspired smile. The first day, the people watched me hold my smile in an awkward silence, until a few people started nervously laughing. Their laughter became infectious and soon the small audience I’d gathered began to applaud, drawing a huge crowd that filled all three balconies, with standing room only on the main floor.

Hearing crowds of people laughing together seems like a distant memory after being locked down for months because of this COVID-19 pandemic. I reach the top of the ladder and step onto the platform made of cedar boards built around a hackberry tree planted by my neighbor Ralph nearly 40-years ago. I designed it more like a roofless watchtower than a little house. Rustling leaves is the only sound I hear. A few weeks ago, The Minnesota Guard were flying helicopters overhead after the murder of George Floyd by our local police last Memorial Day. We live just a few minutes from where Floyd was murdered at 38th and Chicago. The intersection has become a shrine.  An artist friend in our neighborhood, Rachel Breen, helped paint the iconic mural at the scene of the murder, witnessed around the world.

I watch the sun slowly rise above the rooftops. The tallest roof is Kevin and Mary’s house to the north next door. They have a spruce tree growing between our houses that towers above me in the treehouse. As light breaks across my yard I look down to see fresh hawk poop splattered on the roof of the chicken coop below me. Inside, our two hens are sleeping. Maybelle is the star and Dolly is her understudy.

Yes, Rosie and I perform with a chicken. We start by bringing a man from the audience up on stage. First we show him how to cluck like a chicken. Then we teach him how to lay an egg. Together we then transform his magic egg into a live chicken.

All our shows this summer have been canceled due to the pandemic. I’ve been alone here at home, while Rosie is in Colorado with our daughter Liza. We’re expecting our second grandchild next month. Rosie is there for emotional support. It’s hard for Liza to be bringing a baby into the world in the middle of a pandemic.

In the spring, before Rosie left for the summer, a family of hawks built a nest at the top of the ash tree on the boulevard in front of our house. The tree was infected with emerald ash bore, and scheduled to be removed. Rosie’s mother hen instinct kicked in, so she called the city to delay the tree’s removal until after the baby hawks left the nest. Now Rosie is in Colorado, and I’m home with three fledgling hawks who’ve decided to move into our backyard. Rosie said they’re Cooper’s hawks, so I Googled it yesterday and learned their common name was, Chicken Hawk, and quickly understood why they chose our backyard to live.

I hear the haunting sound in the distance of hundreds of birds singing to greet the dawn. Our backyard used to be filled with song birds. This hackberry is one of over 20-trees Ralph has planted on this block. I wonder if the birds have all been eaten or just scared away? Only this haunting silence is remains.

An airplane breaks the spell. The red eye flights are starting-up.  My house is under a major flight path of low flying commercial jets on their final approach to landing at the Minneapolis / St Paul Airport. The eerie quite since the arrival of the hawks reminds me of when they grounded all commercial flights the week of 9/11.

I built the treehouse for my son Gabriel’s 6th birthday, in September of 2001. He’s always loved to climb and has been fearless from an early age. I designed multiple ways he could get up-and-down including the ladder, a fireman’s pole, and mountain climber hand-and-foot holds. It was still under construction when the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers collapsed in New York City.

After the death of George Floyd, but before Minneapolis was burning, a neighbor’s son was at the Auto Zone when the infamous “Umbrella Man” appeared. My neighbor described the atmosphere of the protest on the street as calm and peaceful, up to that point. The reason they were there was because it was across the street from the 5th Precinct where Derek Chauvin and the other police officers involved in Floyd’s murder were stationed.  Out of nowhere came this tall white man, wearing all black, with his face covered from top-to-bottom with a respirator mask. In his left hand was an open umbrella, and his right hand he held a large claw-hammer. He started systematically breaking all the windows of the Auto Zone Store. My neighbor and the other peaceful protesters were all trying to stop him. Of course, the auto supply store was filled with highly combustible petroleum products that was later set on fire, sparking the riot. The truth is white-supremacist hate-groups like the Boogaloo Boys descended on our city after George Floyd’s death, like a clarion call, to start a new civil-war.

I take a sip of coffee as I hear another hawk poop hitting the metal roof of the chicken coop, and feel the silent gaze of predator eyes above me. Yesterday, I was having coffee with my next-door-neighbor Kevin in the screenhouse below. It’s a tiny house made of redwood in the southwest corner of our backyard opposite from the treehouse. One-half is a storage shed and the other-half has bamboo furniture with a wicker coffee table. My friends who don’t know Kevin, but have only seen him on stage or television, often confused him for the late physicist, Stephen Hawking. They both wear classic Poindexter-style glasses, but Kevin arrived here in my screenhouse without the aid of a wheelchair. He was born with a smaller left arm and hand that has no thumb. Tragically, his normal size right arm was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. I don’t think Kevin Kling knows much about physics, but I would consider both men, great cosmologists. Kevin makes his living as a storyteller, and he was a key collaborator on my play, Land of Clowns. We premiered it April Fools Day in 2016. My play predicted the rise of Trump, using PT Barnum as my inspiration.

I was telling Kevin, “I predicted Trump, but now that he’s elected I can’t predict what he’ll do the next day.”

“I know, every day is somethin new with that guy,” he said shaking his head.

Finally, I said, “During Trump’s entire time in office, whenever I’d sit out here watching the animals frolicking and listening to the birds singing, I’d imagine military helicopters flying over my head as the only logical conclusion to his presidency.”

“Wow,” Kevin replied, then fell quiet.

I’m not sure what anybody could say in that deathly silence, void of any life besides a couple of chickens in a coop and three hawks lurking above somewhere. It was true, back when the hawks were babies, our backyards were filled with song birds oblivious to the military helicopters flying overhead. Squirls and chipmunks were frolicking peacefully, as an outside gang of white supremacists on motorcycles constantly drove up and down our neighborhood streets menacingly revving their engines. It’s as if the fear permeating the smoke-filled air last spring, now had seeped down to the roots of the trees and up into the hearts of song birds this summer, here in South Minneapolis.

I’m so glad my mother didn’t live to see these days. Both my parents remember the hardships of the 1930s, but each were shaped differently by that time in history. Mom became a lifelong liberal Democrat, and Dad a staunch Republican. The last time my mother voted was for Hilary Clinton in 2016. If my father had been alive he would’ve proudly voted for Trump.

 

MID-1960s

It was the first day of summer after finishing 3rd grade. I was standing on the roof of Nokomis Elementary trying to see the new school I was going to next year. Ames Elementary went all the way up to 6th grade. As a 3rd grader I was the oldest here at Nokomis, and I was nervous about not being one of the biggest kids anymore.

It was easy to climb-up here because there’s a huge dumpster next to a bunch of electric boxes that made perfect hand-holds to get-up to the flat roof of the one-story building. Ames is an old three-story brick building, but I still can’t see it. Maybe I’d have a better view if it were winter and all the leaves were off the trees? It’s ten blocks away down Case Street, so it could be impossible to see either way. In the country, my grandfather measured distance by how the crow flies. I wished I could fly, then I could see my new school past all these trees.

When I climbed down to the top of the dumpster, a gang of older kids rode-up on stingray bikes with banana-shaped-seats and high-handle-bars, blocking me from coming further down. They had Beatle-style haircuts with bangs almost covering their eyes. All of them were wearing hip-hugger bell-bottoms with wide leather belts, and bright colorful button-down shirts with wide collars.

“What’s your name?” The biggest kid asked.

I attempted to pronounce my first name, but it came out, “Lod.”

Puzzled he asked, “What’s your last name?”

“B-B-B-Bwant,” I stammered out.

“Are you retarded?” He asked, as the other kids burst out laughing.

“No,” I said, as I felt warm blood rushing to my face.

“Look, he’s turning red-as-a-beet,” one kid shouted, causing everybody to burst out laughing again.

“Joey’s a retard too,” the big kid said, pointing to a skinny kid with a haircut that looked like his mother used a mixing bowl on his head to guide her clippers. “Joey, don’t you go to Special Ed down the street at Ames?” The big kid asked.

I don’t recall what Joey said in response. I know it was funny and everybody laughed. Somehow, he made me feel more comfortable in the way he shrugged off the other kid’s barbs during that brief encounter.

Not being able to say your own name was a problem for a little kid trying to navigate the world. I learned from the speech therapist that stuttering was caused when a person’s mind thinks faster than they can talk, which was made more difficult when you’re born like me, tongue-tied. I had surgery to reduce the extra piece of skin that everybody has under their tongue. Mine grew all the way to the tip. What I had left after surgery was a stubby tongue that couldn’t easily curl to make the sound of the letter “r” or the sound made by the slight-curl of the tongue when pronouncing, “oy.” On a good day I would introduce myself as, “Lod Bwant.” If I was busy thinking of the next thing to say, my name would come out like it did the day I was standing on that dumpster talking to that bully. When I watched the 2021 Presidential inauguration this year, I noticed every subtle hesitancy in Joe Biden’s speech, who also stuttered as a child, and every struggle by, U.S. Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, pronouncing the letter “r,” as she read her poem, The Hill We Climb.

 

OUR FAMILY GARAGE

One day my big brother came home covered from head-to-toe in house paint the color of forest green. Jerry was playing with his friends in a neighbor’s garage on another block. As a solution my mom had my father park the car in the driveway and then he helped her turn our garage into a safe play space. Our house became the center of social life on our block as a kid. We never locked our doors and all the neighbor kids felt free to come inside to use the bathroom anytime. All day, kids were either playing in our garage, tossing around a ball in our backyard, or climbing to the top of our roof or maple tree. God only knows what Mrs. Kravitz thought next-door.

I was too young to remember much about the older kids playing in the garage. Mom needed to keep a closer eye on me, as she worked inside as a writer, for half-a-penny a word. My very first memory of my mother, was climbing up on her lap as she pounded away at her black Remington typewriter.  She wrote scripts to go along with educational filmstrips for the Lutheran Church.  During the day, she would type up the pages that she had written in longhand the night before, while my brother and sister and I were sleeping.

That first memory of sitting on Mom’s lap felt like ascending to a higher-altitude when your ears pop, and suddenly the world sounded clearer and felt more vibrant.  I loved having my mother all to myself, while my older brother and sister played with all their friends in our garage.

She stopped typing and cuddled me for a moment. Then she turned me to face forward on her lap. I reached for the mysterious typewriter with the round black keys.  Quickly she moved her precious machine beyond the reach of my curious fingers, before I could turn her clean manuscript into an alphabet salad of random letters.

I began to cry.

To solve my frustration, my mother took out a scrap of paper, and began marking a series of dots that spelled out my name, L-L-O-Y-D.  She handed me a short yellow pencil with a worn rubber tip, then put me on the floor next to the paper she had filled with dots.  She patiently taught me how to connect the dots that spelled out my name. That morning I felt like a writer too as I painstakingly connected the dots, while my mother returned to her desk, attempting to type a few more words for a half-a-cent each.

My best memories of our family’s garage were after everybody else’s interest faded as they grew older. My imagination saw an empty barn, like in the classic Andy Hardy movies from the 1930s, where they’d always put on their big show. I still had this inner drive to dress-up and perform in front of people even though I could barely say my own name. I produced seasonal shows, starting with, The Haunted Garage, for the Halloween season. My brother was the neighborhood paperboy, so Mom got the idea of printing promotional flyers as inserts for our neighborhoods’ morning newspapers.  People lined-up the length of our driveway and down the sidewalk for a chance to see the horrors inside our garage. I enlisted my sister and a few neighbor kids to help.  I played a mummy, wrapped in a ripped-up bedsheet. I took the same strips of cloth that made-up my costume and silently blindfolded people one at a time, leading each one through a maze made of blankets and quilts hung from the rafters. Phill, a neighbor kid from down the block, sat in the dark, up on a ladder in the rafters, throwing down paper bags filled with wadded up newspapers, while Greg and Richard would jump out to scare people along their journey.  Mom helped me peel grapes for eyeballs and cook macaroni for brains. I guided each blindfolded person’s fingers into the mixing bowl, as Linda described the gore of the imaginary contents they were feeling.

I remember when school let out I produced, Aladdin’s Cave, as my summer show. I’m not sure what the feisty Mother Hen from Waldorf would say about this story? I was inspired by Mom reading me passages from, The Arabian Nights. I again enlisted my sister and a couple of neighbor kids to do all the talking. Linda played a gypsy. She used Mom’s special rose-bud-vase shaped like a glass globe for her crystal ball, to tell people’s fortunes. I played Aladdin with a brass flower vase that looked kind of like an oil lamp. Without speaking, I would have each person rub my magic lamp. A neighbor kid dressed as a genii jumped out from behind a canvas drop cloth hung from the rafters. When it was Mrs. Kravitz’s son playing the genii, he looked good wearing a vest without a shirt and my mother’s wide copper bracelet on his upper arm. However, he was just a little stiff in his delivery, but when Phill was playing the genii, he turned him into a pitchman. Phill would rummage around behind the canvas drop-cloth like the Wizard of Oz and re-appear offering people an empty gas-can or watering-can to rub, if they thought they could get better deal from a different genii. In the end each person would make a wish, kind of like a summer Santa Claus, and then be rewarded with an ice-cold popsicle. Looking back, it felt like my first Renaissance Festival.

 

A HOUSE DIVIDED

Every Sunday, Mom struggled to get her family out of bed in time for church. It always seemed Dad was the last one up. We were raised Lutheran, just like she was back in Nebraska. Dad was raised Methodist, I think, but I’m not sure. I don’t ever remember going to his childhood church when we visited Detroit. We attended Beaver Lake Lutheran Church, just down the road from our house on the other side of the lake. It was a tiny chapel with simple clean oak pews and alter made by a local Swedish carpenter. Church was important for Mom. All of my childhood I witnessed her elven face transform to rapturous joy every Sunday.  She was the first women in our church to read the scripture lesson from the alter. I watched her climb up to the oak lectern and recite the scripture passage with such passion, she made the words leap off the page, and come to life in my imagination.

In church Dad doodled on his program with a far-off look as if he were a thousand-miles away. He loved to travel. Throughout my childhood he wrote a series of travel guides that he self-published. Church gave him a full hour of uninterrupted time to draw the many maps he needed for his books.

Dad is the guy I got my sense of humor from. He loved to mangle the English language like a Double Dutch Act in Vaudeville. He must have picked-up his sense of humor from listening to the radio in the 1930s where a lot of out-of-work acts from Vaudeville went. Driving with him through our neighborhood, he’d mangle all the street names. When we’d turn on Stillwater Avenue it became Still-Creek Boulevard, and Minnehaha Avenue was Mini-Laugh-Laugh. The fact is Dad just loved to laugh, even if it needed to be at his own jokes. But he could take it as well as give it, which made playing practical jokes on him a delight. Because he was going blind it was easy to fool him. He never noticed the sandpaper I taped inside his underwear when he opened my gift on Father’s Day. I remember him refusing to throw his oatmeal out after he discovered I’d put salt in the sugar bowl on April Fool’s Day. Instead, he stoically suffered through his salty breakfast. The imprint of hunger ran deep for children of the 1930s.

Once while having family a BBQ, I slipped him a rubber hamburger. Because of his tunnel vision, he didn’t notice the whole family had stopped eating, and were quietly sitting around the picnic table watching him build his California-style hamburger. With rapturous joy he first poured ketchup on his naked rubber burger. Then added lettuce, tomato, and onion. On the first bite he only got bun, which seemed unsatisfying, like a fish nibbling at a worm on a hook.  We could barely hold back our laughter as he went in for his second bite. He got a piece, but it fought back like an overcooked steak. I’m not sure which came first when he bit down hook-line-and-sinker, my back hitting the ground laughing or my father realizing his burger was fake, and then laughing just as hard as the rest of us.

I don’t recall my father ever laughing when he watched the evening news back in the 1960s. I remember grainy black-and-white images of black men filling the screen of our Zenith portable television.  German Shepard dogs viciously attacked the non-violent protesters before opening fire hoses full blast, washing the helpless men off the TV screen.  My red-faced father was sitting next to me on the couch biting his knuckles and shaking with rage.  Dad insisted every evening, the family must finish dinner in time for him to watch the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

My brother was upstairs working on his model railroad set.  My sister had escaped to the privacy of her room at the end of the hall. My mother was watching in the living-room doorway leading to the kitchen, near the far end of the couch.  She softly said under her breath, but loud enough for me to hear, “Human beings should not be treated like this.”

My father exploded, “They’re animals!  They have no right to be treated like human beings.”

Dad’s outburst led to my parents’ nightly argument over their differing views of the daily news.  As always, my father won by shouting the loudest.  I slid away from him, towards where my mother was standing, and nestled against the worn overstuffed armrest of our family couch with white cotton batting popping out of the faded green upholstery.  My mother silently stroked my hair then returned to the kitchen. The soothing melodic tone of Walter Cronkite’s voice relaxed the knot in my stomach, until the face of Martin Luther King Jr. filled the television screen.  My father’s fist jerked up into his mouth again.  His face returned to crimson, as he chewed his knuckles and began shaking from his bottled-up rage. My father’s hometown of Detroit had a long history of racial tension.  The riots of the 1940s and 1960s left him scarred with hatred. The genetic eye disease he inherited from his father magnified his narrow worldview.

My mother learned that she could never out shout my father when he spewed his hatred.  She feared her children would grow up in a household of anger.  As a solution Mom started searching out teaching jobs in minority communities. She renewed her Minnesota teacher’s license and started teaching Native American children first. Later, she began teaching in the center of the black community, where she first met, Dr. Ben Bryant, who was starting a federally funded program teaching high school dropouts. Mom became a foot soldier in LBJ’s battle for a Great Society, helping people get a second chance, thanks to funding from President Johnson’s War on Poverty.

I recall walking with Mom into the school where she taught. I had a Beatle-style haircut and Beatle boots with pointed toes. I was trying to look cool by not walking too close to my mother, but making sure I didn’t drift too far away either.  We were the only white people in the hallway, and I was also the only child in the building.

My mother led me into the Administrator’s office to meet her boss, Ben Bryant.  After introducing me, she excused herself for a moment, and left me alone in the room.  The stories I’d heard around the dinner table about my mother’s boss had made him mythic. He was a distinguished black man with a prominent baldhead. I sat down in the chair he offered me. In the awkward quiet, I became fascinated by how the overhead light reflected off his ebony skull.

To break the ice, Mr. Bryant asked, “Do you like school?”

“Yes!” I was afraid to say more because of my stammer.

Sensing my nervousness, he filled in the silence with a short speech about how important it was to love school, until he finally asked, “What’s your favorite subject?”

“S-s-s-cience,” I stammered.

Mr. Bryant reached behind him and plucked a science book off his tall bookshelf and passed it into my ten-year old hands. The book was exactly my reading level with lots of pictures and illustrations.

When my mother returned I was immersed in the book. Mr. Bryant said I could borrow it for the day. I followed Mom down the hall leading to her classroom. I sat in the back, paging through the science book, but soon got caught up watching my mother teach. It was a room filled with broken dreams. Each student had a different sad story.

Today she was having them write down their stories as letters to their Minnesota State Representatives. Because they knew it was going to their congressmen they each wanted to get their letter perfect. I remember a tall black man coming up to the front and hunching over my 5-foot 2-inch mother, while she corrected his letter.

Mom asked, “Do you see how you wrote the word ‘i’ here?”

“Yes,” he responded.

She asked, “Who are you talking about?”

“Me,” he answered.

Mom looked directly into his eyes, “You’re an important person, so when you are talking about yourself, you need to capitalize the word, “I.”

My mother’s secret as a teacher was working one-on-one with each pupil. This approach allowed students to work at their own pace. Witnessing my mother tirelessly effect real change in the world one person at a time, helped shape my broader worldview, rather than allowing the narrow views of my father to mold me into a vessel to pour his hate.

When I recently talked to Ben Bryant he recognized my mother as a pioneer in Adult Basic Education. She was the first fulltime teacher he hired in the new A.B.E. program. Mr. Bryant relied on my mother to write the curriculum for the new program, which became the model for the nation.

The original mandate from President Johnson was to provide an 8th grade education to all high school dropouts. Mom didn’t think that was good enough for Minnesota.  She and her fellow teachers invited members of the Minnesota State Legislature to a spaghetti dinner. They seated students of the program in between each congressman, while the teachers served the meal. The lawmakers broke bread while listening to the students’ stories. Afterwards the congressmen were all clamoring to author legislation. Minnesota became the first state in the nation to fund LBJ’s program through 12th grade. This allowed students to take the federal G.E.D. test to earn their high school equivalence certificate, providing generations of high school drop-outs a path out of poverty.

I recall Mom reading me George Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm, as a child. She started reading it to all three of us, but I was the only one who remained captivated by the story until the end. I remember being nestled-up with my mother on our old green couch listening to her clear expressive voice, as she finished the last chapter.

Mom asked, “What do you think the story meant?”

I don’t remember my exact words, but I recall telling her that it didn’t seem anything turned out like they had planned, and the big problem was the pigs were too greedy. She silently listened to me, with her wise eyes taking in my every word.

When I finished, I asked, “Did I get it right, Mom?”

“I think you did, Lloyd,” she answered.

My father was a writer just like my mother, except she could spell. Through the years he made his living in various ways, but his passion was traveling, photographing his travels, and writing about his travels afterwards. His first self-published book was, Travel Log of the Upper Mississippi River. His next book on the lower Mississippi river he printed twice, the second time Mom proofread it first. I loved traveling with him down the Mississippi, from its source in Minnesota to New Orleans. In Hannibal, Missouri, Dad took pictures of me dressed as Tom Sawyer for his book. I loved running around Mark Twain’s hometown, imagining myself as Huck Finn with a corncob pipe, or Tom Sawyer with a bamboo fishing pole, while Dad took my picture. My father hired a boatman to take us out to the famous Jackson’s Island, where Huck and Tom played pirates. I insisted on being left alone on the island for a full hour, so I could run free without adult supervision, just like in the book. As soon as the boat left I instantly realized two things. First, the island was infested with a multitude of bloodthirsty mosquitoes in biblical proportions. Second, there was no way off. If eternal heaven can be experienced in a transcendent moment, I experienced eternal hell in that hour on Jackson’s Island.

 

MAGIC ON THE FARM

Not everything about the farm was magic. The day would begin at 6:00am. My brother and I would sometimes bunk with Uncle Willis in his room. He was my mother’s youngest brother. Willis had an alarm clock called, Big Ben, that Grandpa gave him, so he’d get up on time.

The year I was old enough to be a real help to Grandpa, my morning chores began before breakfast. Grandpa taught me how to milk the cows in the barn. After bringing the milk to the house, my next job was to help give fresh water and feed to the chickens before collecting their eggs. Most hens would jump down from their nests and rush to breakfast, but a few would remain guarding their freshly laid egg. I had to pull those hens away from their warm nests under severe protest. They’d fly out pecking and cackling at me, before regaining their dignity and joining the others for a late breakfast.

The life of a chicken on the farm wasn’t too bad for the hens. During the day they had free range of the yard, and were happy and well fed. As long as they kept laying eggs they stayed off the dinner table. However, for a rooster it was a roll of the dice. If you’re the lucky one, you got to rule the hen house alone. The other young roosters were isolated in a separate pen as soon as they started crowing. Those were kept as fresh chicken for the family’s dinner table.

My job before supper was to get the beef cattle from the back-forty all by myself. I became friends with one that liked to walk beside me. I remember him looking at me with his big blue eye, as I herded them to the feedlot for their supper. I named him Slow Poke. Next, I helped fill a cart my grandfather made out of wood on steel-wheels that distributed the feed corn evenly down the forty-foot trough. When I pushed Grandpa’s gizmo on wheels the corn came out at my feet, causing the cattle to nip at my boots to get their first bites.

After supper, I remember Grandma giving me the slop bucket full of that day’s table scraps to bring out to the hog house. I might have been a stranger, but when they saw that bucket, my arrival was clearly the biggest event of a pig’s day. For the rest of my summer, every time I walked by those pigs, they’d run-up to the fence, poking their round wet noses out, asking me when the slop bucket was coming?

One morning walking with my grandfather through the hog-house, I noticed a little baby pig struggling with the bigger piglets for its lunch from a limited number of its mother’s tits. I said, “Grandpa, look a runt.” I learned the term from Mom reading Charlotte’s Web to me. My grandfather grabbed the runt by its rear legs and started walking to the back of the hog-house. I tried catching up to him, calling, “I could feed it with a baby bottle if its hungry.”

Before I could say another word, Grandpa swung the little piglet in the open air behind the hog-house, crushing its tiny skull against the door-jam, then dropping its little body in a pile of other rotting runts.

Later that same year, I remember sitting around the table eating dinner on the farm. My grandmother had made mashed-potatoes and gravy with all the fixings. The main course was T-bone steak, my favorite. Cutting into the meat I saw it was cooked rare, just the way I like it. When I took my first bite, the savory juices exploded inside my mouth with a burst of rich flavor.

“Lloyd,” Grandpa asked “Do you know who you’re eating?”

I looked up at my grandfather’s smiling face, and said, “No.”

“That’s Slow Poke on your plate,” Grandpa replied, laughing.

We drove home with the back of our Pontiac station-wagon filled with Slow Poke, cut-up, frozen, and neatly wrapped in white butcher paper, destined for our basement freezer.

In 1966, I got a magic kit for Christmas. Every magician of my generation has the same origin-story of opening a cardboard box with a wizard, or more likely, a celebrity magician on the cover. I don’t recall who was on the box, but I remember a few of the tricks inside. There was an egg cup with a lid that could appear and vanish a ping-pong size ball. There was a little plastic coin changer that transformed a penny into a Nickel. The truth was they were all lame tricks. I wanted to perform big magic tricks, so that Easter I talked my parents into buying me a live bunny rabbit.

Speaking in public was still my greatest fear, so I figured out a silent act with my sister introducing each magic routine. Mom always told us Grandma was the best audience when she attended her high school plays, because her mother’s face couldn’t hide her emotions when she got swept away watching a show.

Grandma and Grandpa had moved into town when Uncle Willis got married, and my new Aunt Sandi moved into the farmhouse. We were going to spend that summer sleeping in town at Grandma and Grandpa’s new house. When we arrived, I had to figure out how to hide my bunny. I learned the secret to magic was surprise, so my grandmother couldn’t know there was a rabbit living in her house until I had a chance to perform my new magic show. Luckily, my second-floor bedroom had a deep walk-in closet to hide my rabbit at night and an attached-porch for her to get sunlight during the day.  It was like a magician’s pea-and-shell game to hide my bunny, but the look on Grandma’s face when I appeared the rabbit out of my hat, was worth all the secret machinations it took to make the magic happen.

 

LATE 1960s

One fateful Sunday, I was sitting in church next to my father.  He’d brought the entire loose-leaf manuscript of his current book.  Dad was sitting at the end of the pew nearest the center aisle. He was deep in thought, drawing a detailed map of the lower Mississippi River.  As he concentrated, he would lift one butt cheek off the pew and scratch deeply, then bring his fingers up to his nose.

I was 12-years-old, and embarrassed by the slightest awkward social infraction of either parent in public. For my father to scratch his ass then smell his fingers in church was an unforgivable offense. As he raised his butt cheek to scratch himself for the third time, I elbowed him with the full force of my pre-teen angst. Off balanced on one cheek, my sharp elbow unexpectedly caused my father to fly out of the pew and sprawl into the center aisle, with hundreds of loose-leaf pages scattered around him. The minister froze and everyone turned to look. Dad wanted to kill me, but with the entire congregation as a witness he silently collected his manuscript and slunk red-faced back to his seat.

When the service was over my sister stood up and stoically walked out of the chapel. Linda didn’t break stride until she was back home locked in her bedroom. Her teenage hormones in full bloom. The rest of the family walked to the parking lot without speaking to anyone. Once safely inside our family’s station wagon, my father’s notorious temper was free to explode. My brother Jerry bravely blocked his fists from hitting my face. Before he could land a blow on me, my mother came to my rescue. I was allowed to explain in detail how my elbow was the last of an unforeseen series of events that led to that day’s family embarrassment.

“Why on earth did you bring your whole manuscript?” Mom scolded. “Church is not the place.”  That was the end of the argument as Dad drove home without speaking another word.

Towards the end of the 1960s we took a family vacation to California.  Dad drove around the Haight / Ashbury district of San Francisco in our station wagon. I remember sitting in the rear seeing real hippies for the first time out the back window. They would often smile and give me the peace sign, and I’d smile back holding my two fingers up in solidarity.  I decided, I wanted long-hair when I became a teenager, so on my 13th birthday, I began growing my hair out. My only obstacle was Mom the night before picture day at school. The first year, picture day came only a few months after my birthday, so there wasn’t much physical evidence I was a hippie yet, when Mom came at me with her electric clippers.

I told her, “I want to grow my hair out.”

Mom frowned, and said, “Why don’t you just let me give you a trim? it’s too shaggy.”

“Okay, but I want it all one length,” I said.

Mom had perfected the standard Beatle’s cut, so my new instructions of trimming it until it was all one length, didn’t seem to compute in her mind. The result was a photograph of me in weird V-shaped bangs hanging on the living room wall for a year.

The next year I had managed to grow my hair to the shoulders, the length of Paul McCartney’s hair, but my goal was half-way-down my back like John Lennon.  Mom’s effort to “trim” my hair the night before picture day left me looking like a half-plucked rooster that didn’t win the dice-throw on the farm. My portrait was again prominently displayed on our living room wall, all the following year.

My father loudly mourned the loss of me as his ideal model for his book. I guess Huck Finn didn’t have long-hair in his imagination. The first book I ever bought with my own money was, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I kept it with my favorite books, at the foot of my bed.

In 1970, Dad saw an audition notice that read, “Wanted Long Haired Boys” for a play at Minneapolis Children’s Theater Co.. He asked me if I was interested in trying out.   I said yes, and passed the audition. Luckily, I wasn’t given any speaking lines, but a lot of singing, which never triggered my stutter. It was an original play, entitled, Jerusalem, about the Children’s Crusade to the Holy Land during the Middle Ages.

My father began driving me across town for countless rehearsals all winter, and performances all spring. Although legally blind, Dad never had trouble passing the eye test when renewing his driver’s license. Looking straight ahead and reading a series of numbers and letters in diminishing sizes, had nothing to do with his inability to see after sunset, or his limited peripheral vision that dramatically decreased as the speed of his moving vehicle increased. We took the freeway. All the rehearsals began before sunset, but regularly ended late into the night. It was an adventure and I was having a ball, with my father patiently waiting in the theater to bring me home each night.

The director John Clark Donahue was an artistic genius and was quickly gaining a national reputation. One time during rehearsal, a shirtless actor, wearing a black-executioner’s hood, was cutting-off the head of a fellow actor, when my father took a flash photograph.

“Stop,” Donahue shouted, as everybody in the theater froze. “Who took that picture?”

My father sheepishly raised his hand, “I did.”

“Do it again,” he commanded.

While the crew reset the stage to run the scene again, my father took out his white pocket-handkerchief to remove the household-size blue bulb that had bubbled-up into a lava-scape from the heat of the flash. With a fresh bulb, I watched the camera’s flash beautifully highlight the muscles of the bare-chested actor swinging his axe. The flash of a small instamatic camera was designed into the lighting plot of the show. Then Donahue had the crew open the backstage door and blow car horns from the parking lot, making the scene of a Medieval execution sound and feel like it was a 20th century event. It might have been a commentary on the public spectacle of a Jim Crow era lynching from the recent past, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure my father didn’t have a clue what it meant either. Dad took pride that he inspired the creation of a scene in my play, but often complained the size flashbulb they used was too small.

Before the final Sunday matinee, I was alone backstage waiting for my stage partners to arrive for the opening scene. It was a singing and dancing piece with a black boy and another white boy. In this scene we were playing lepers dressed from head-to-toe in rags. My stage partners looked shaken-up when they arrived.

I asked, “Are you guys okay?”

They began telling me they slept overnight at the director, John Donahue’s house, because they didn’t have a ride home after the closing night party. The black boy began telling me when Donahue was finally alone with them, he took off his pants and started chasing them both around his house. Then the white boy turned bright red, and the black boy stopped talking. We fell silent until it was time for our entrance. After the show my father was there waiting to drive me home. It was the middle of the day so his night-blindness wasn’t a problem like after the evening shows had been. His eyesight wasn’t as bad as my grandfather yet, but at night I needed to be a second set of eyes, kind of like a seeing-eye-dog who could talk and read street signs. On the way home, I didn’t tell my father what happened to my friends the night before. The worship of Donahue’s genius seemed to create a wall of silence, allowing his dark behavior.

 

THE DREAM

I bolted upright from the same nightmare again.  I opened my eyes and the sea of glowing orbs were still visible.  My body was an egg-shaped sphere of pure light, floating in an infinite ocean of eggs, each burning inside with their own individual light. The glowing orbs were beautiful, but time felt like eternity, so being trapped inside an egg was terrifying.  With shear will, I forced my hand to obey me and reached up to turn on my bedside lamp.  I then took a book from the shelf at the foot of my bed. I turned to a random page and began reading until the words began making sense, slowly pulling myself back into reality. I fell backwards onto my pillow, waiting for the world to stop spinning.

My brother Jerry, who shared my attic bedroom was away at college. Richard Nixon was president, and the war in Vietnam was raging.  My brother had applied for Conscientious Objection status with the Draft Board, but lucked out and got his student deferment.

At Hazel Park Jr. High, most boys still had short hair.  Each day, I looked forward to intoxicating conversations in art class with two girls who dressed like hippies too.  We shared a long table with a couple other boys who interrupted our conversations to tease me about my hair. They would threaten to follow me home and shave my head, except for a peace symbol they promised to carve on top.

The recurring nightmare of being imprisoned inside a glowing egg haunted my dreams that school year. I’ve spent a lifetime struggling to untangle it’s meaning. I knew I was human, but because I was an egg I didn’t have arms or legs.  My greatest desire was to reach out and embrace the other humans imprisoned in their eggs around me. We were beyond each other’s grasp, and trapped together for eternity.

The summer I began growing my hair long America landed on the moon.  One month later a rock festival near Woodstock, New York transformed my generation.  I believe we incarnate on this earth to share the experience of life with one another.

COVID-19 has forced us to crawl inside our digital egg-shaped cocoons, but we were meant to live in community. If I could take one book from the foot of my bed to pull myself out of today’s nightmare it would be, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s been banned somewhere in the world ever since the day it was first published, which Twain loved because controversy always sold books. Both sides of the political spectrum have found a reason to ban it. On the left, the politically correct ban it for having the “N” word peppered throughout.  I propose, the far right of the political divide ban it because at its core, Twain was telling a love story between a homeless white boy and a black man escaping the nightmare of slavery.

When Mark Twain was growing up as a boy named, Samuel Clemens, he loved to go see the circus when it came to town. A famous clown named Dan Rice came to Hannibal, Missouri during his childhood. Rice, is best remembered today for having the iconic image of Uncle Sam patterned after his clown character. He started out calling his show, “A One Horse Circus.” The year he came to town when Twain was a boy, it was a huge production. The story Rice wove under the big-top that night began with his clown falling asleep in the middle of the ring and magically traveling back in time to King Arthur’s Court. Later, Twain wrote, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court, as a clear inspiration from seeing Rice’s circus as a child.

The Arthurian legend that transformed the western world’s idea of what love is, was the love story between Tristan and Isolde. Tristan’s quest was to go to Ireland to slay a dragon, then to ask for the hand of the princess, Isolde, on behalf of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. On the ship back to Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drank the love potion prepared by the queen for her daughter and King Mark.  The two became bound by, “an imperishable love that dares all dangers.” In those days that meant the risk of burning-in-hell for eternity. When Huck Finn was deciding whether or not to send the letter he wrote turning-in his friend Jim, he thought he was risking the same fate for his love, when he said, “‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’–and tore it up.” After the nightmare of America’s Civil War, Twain’s love story about a white boy and a black man, changed the world.

Post 4 / Second Chapter / A View from Two Americas

 

I was too young to remember posing for this picture. It was taken around 1960 by my grandma who liked to pose her grandkids in a stairstep. The last time I posted this TBT photo it blew-up my Facebook page. The dialog it sparked, inspired me to dust-off my old Blog to workshop the book I’ve been writing.

For those who are just here to read the next chapter of my book you could choose to scroll directly to my long awaited second chapter and not miss anything vital from the main story of my book. My years of teaching the circus arts at a Waldorf school, plays a small, but important role in my book. What follows directly below is just a newsletter to the Waldorf community.

I love Waldorf education. Both our living children enjoyed a full Waldorf education. When our second daughter Katya died, the Waldorf community came to our support to help us get through our most difficult days. My hope is that my grandchildren can receive the same benefits of the Waldorf education provided to my children.

Unfortunately, I detect the rumblings of a seismic divide in the Waldorf community into polarizing camps, which doesn’t give me a lot of hope. The community seems to be resonating at the same base-bandwidth as the politics of the day, rather than the higher frequency required to inspire children to reach their higher selves.

I used George Orwell’s literary-choice of “farm animals” to portray some of the politically divisive characters in my book. After publishing the first chapter on my blog, I understand some read my Animal Farm-style references and felt like they were looking in the mirror and took offence by the reflection they saw. To you, and to all my readers, in my book I promise to speak my truth, anything else would be, propaganda. I haven’t been affiliated with a Waldorf school or institution for many years and speak with an outside and independent voice. I’ve been fully transparent about writing my book and clear in my point-of-view to the Waldorf institutions and the families involved, so it should not be a surprise when I start publishing it.

I come from a family of pioneering teachers, and I’ve dedicated nearly twenty-years of my life to not only teaching the circus arts, but also using humor to reform Waldorf education to better serve the children in the times they were growing up. I believe that Waldorf education needs to be further reformed to meet the new challenges of our current times. In my book I plan to explore a third path not currently being taken by the community. My next chapter leads off talking about a beloved former student that I portray as a baby chick I taught, who grew-up to become a feisty Mother Hen.

I hope you enjoy the second chapter of, Birthing a Sacred Fool.

*<[:o)

  

CHAPTER TWO

A View from Two Americas

QUARANTINE WATCH / February 13, 2021

Standing in the kitchen, I see crystal ice patterns have formed on the window, blocking my view of the backyard. Up in Northern Minnesota it’s fifty-below-zero. Here in Minneapolis, it’s only nine-below.

I sip my fifth cup of coffee this morning. Since the pandemic my sleep schedule has been thrown way-off, from the normal insomnia I used to enjoy. I haven’t had a good night sleep since the split with my beloved Waldorf community. The good news is I’m getting a lot of writing done during the twilight hours, when artists weave their best magic.

At 9:00am I turn on NPR News because at 10:00am Eastern Time the US Senate is scheduled to begin voting on whether Donald Trump is guilty of inciting an insurrection against the United States Government. I hear the gavel hit the same podium where a few weeks ago stood a half-naked heavily-tattooed man wearing Buffalo horns on his head. It was mob rule that day. The body count was five-dead.

Senators begin giving final speeches before their vote. The majority of Republicans are voting Trump innocent on the grounds of his First Amendment privilege of free speech. From childhood I’ve been told you can’t, “shout fire in a crowded theater.”  If this was a true court-of-law, the double-speak argument of these senators would be absurd. I wonder, if George Orwell were alive today, would he be laughing or crying?

I sit down and open my computer. Facebook pops up first. Without thinking, I click on my personal page. Last Thursday, I had posted a picture I was thinking of including in this book. I scanned an old photo my grandma took around 1960, when I was about three-years-old. It was my earliest documented proof my future profession was my destiny from an early age. It was clear from the smile on my face and the sparkle in my eyes, I loved dressing up before I could remember. My older brother and sister and I were all wearing American Indian costumes. Grandma probably bought them at a tacky souvenir shop on her way to visit, when we were each around three-years-old. Jerry’s fake buckskin outfit with beads and fringe looked like it had gone through the wash dozens of times. It had both shrunk and my brother had grown six-inches. My sister’s fake buckskin shirt and skirt outfit was the perfect size for her. It was a little wrinkled but the fringe and beads were still in good shape. Mine looked like I had just unwrapped it and put it on for the first time. Both my sleeves and pant legs appeared to be discretely pinned up so I wouldn’t trip. Grandma arranged us in a stairstep to dramatically show off our different sizes. I thought, Throw Back Thursday, was a perfect theme for this classic picture from my childhood. I typed, “TBT,” and posted the photo.

I start combing through this morning’s responses. For the past three-days, all of them have been positive. My heart sinks into my gut. At 10:01am Central Time, it appears the gavel came down in the court of woke politics, for the audacity of posting my childhood photograph. My prosecutor is a former Waldorf student, with a reputation for being a fierce cultural warrior. She is the youngest baby chick of the Mother Hen who was the teacher I witnessed telling a fairytale by candle-light, the day I first visited a Waldorf Kindergarten.

I remember her last year in our circus program. I directed her and another eighth-grade girl in a juggling routine where they needed to learn how to steal the balls from each other while keeping the pattern going. It’s a great skill to build a comedy routine around, because of the conflict you can create by stealing the balls back-and-forth. They learned the skill quickly, but when it came time to start building the comic tension around the conflict, the stealing back-and-forth didn’t come off funny. From my director’s point-of-view, all I could see was the beauty of two friends keeping three-juggling-balls in the air, in perfect cooperation. I renamed the piece, Friendship, to capture the purity of their sweet spirits. I recall opening night, watching the show from my backstage perch above the stage. Daddy Rooster and Momma Hen were watching in the audience with smiles from ear-to-ear. Every show afterwards, just before the Friendship Routine, the proud Rooster and Hen would slip backstage to my director’s perch long enough to watch their youngest baby chick perform in her last circus.

The baby chick has grown-up to become a feisty Mother Hen who now teaches in the same Waldorf early childhood program where her mother once worked. I read her public lashing several times through. The basic thrust of her argument is I should remove my photo because it’s offensive. I agree with 100% of the goals of my feisty Mother Hen foe. I just don’t agree with her battle tactics. As a professional comedian I take my First Amendment right of free speech very seriously. All of us in the profession stand on the shoulders of great American comedians like, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, who secured the freedom of speech we enjoy today, by exercising their rights of free speech in not-too-distant American history.

Back in the early 1990s I had my first battles with, “Political Correctness.” I loved playing the role of sacred fool, punching holes in the humorless New Age school with my comedy to let the light in, so the children could laugh.  I remember many years ago, tangling with the mother of the feisty Mother Hen. I was walking past the Kindergarten room with thirteen rubber chickens stuffed in a cardboard box for the fifth-grade class leaving for the Pentathlon Games in Wisconsin. It was just after our spring circus and the entire school was still talking about the show.  I smiled at the lead Kindergarten teacher as she came out of her classroom.

Scowling she asked, “Lloyd, what is that?” Pointing to rubber chicken legs sticking out of my box.

I answered, “A parent requested I bring enough rubber chickens for each fifth-grader to play mock Greek games at their campsite tonight.”  I could see that she was becoming agitated, so I asked, “Is there a problem?”

She pointed to the door at the end of the hall, “Please remove those before the children see.”

I asked, “Why?”

She looked at me with steely eyes, “Because they represent dead animals.”

Needless to say, the challenges for a comedian today are much greater, the stakes far higher, and the costs more crippling. My problem with the battle tactics of today’s P.C. Police is they seem to create more victims than they protect. I tried to explain to my feisty Mother Hen the real solution is quality education. I told her about my family roots in education and how I witnessed my mother helping people climb out of poverty one student at a time.

America is guilty of creating generations of victims from our original sin of slavery, our long history of genocide against the indigenous people living on this land first, and our a checkered history with immigration despite what’s engraved below the Statue of Liberty. The clarity of this fact is made murky by today’s politicians muddying the waters. We are all divided-up like pawns on their red-and-blue gameboard. Both sides manipulate us, by separating us into groups based on the politics they want to sell us for their wedge issues. Today’s politics have splintered our society into tribes that only interact with other tribes if the Venn diagrams of their political beliefs overlap. It seems we point the finger of shame and blame at tribes outside our beliefs until we end up in a circular firing squad. The real problem with this political battle tactic is when the circle arrives at the MAGA side of our country’s divide, they are picking up real guns. Now we’re on the verge of a civil war with 75-million people who think they are victims of a stolen election.

Two weeks ago, I shared on Facebook an article from The Atlantic, published the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration. It was about hope for a return to seriousness after four-years of Trump. I wrote, “Read this article to learn why it was a bad idea for America to elect a clown for President.” I was soon attacked from a friend on the far-right-side of the Waldorf community. She was the mother duck of a couple of former circus students of mine. Their father is infamous for his online attacks against the shifting of Waldorf education from a Eurocentric curriculum to a more culturally inclusive approach.

I find myself standing in-mid-air above a vast cavernous divide like, Wile E. Coyote, in a Road Runner cartoon. I don’t seem to have the moral authority with the far-right to call Trump a clown. From the far-left-side my free-speech-rights are being challenged for posting a picture of me as a three-year-old, the day Trump is being found innocent of causing murder, mayhem, and insurrection against America on the grounds of free speech. I realize the divide within the Waldorf community, echoes the same cavernous divide America is trying to heal from, too.

My parents came from different worlds. One from the country and the other the city. Back then nobody identified themselves as red or blue, but the cracks of our country’s great divide were clear to see in the 1960s. My perspective of growing up and visiting my grandparents from two different Americas helped shape my world view.

 

THE FARM

I’ve never been afraid of ladders. When I was seven-years-old, I climbed to the top of the windmill on my grandma and grandpa’s farm. I remember standing at the bottom, examining the ladder leading up to the platform below the turning blades. It was made of two endless serpentine-shaped steel-rods welded on opposite sides of one-leg, like a pair of snakes climbing up to the top. The looped steps were staggered far enough apart that it appeared only a full-grown adult could climb up. But, I could see how a little guy like me could use both the bottom step and the top of each snakes’ back all the way to the spinning blades. The next logical thing in my imagination was climbing to the top and seeing what it looked like from up there. In my fragmented memory, I recall my sister following up behind me, but as we got higher up she made her excuses, and returned safely down to the ground. When I reached the top I only had the courage to remain standing on that little worn-out wooden platform a brief moment. The strength of the wind off the eastern Nebraskan plains had the force-of-god. The view I stole was beautiful. It looked like a giant one of my grandma’s patchwork quilts. Checkerboard fields of corn and soy for as far as the eye could see. The windmill was near the house, nestled in a grove of cottonwood trees, with the whirling blades above the treetops. Standing in the erratic wind gusts was exhilarating, but soon my instinct for survival kicked in, and I descended back to earth. When I went into the farmhouse and proudly announced my accomplishment, my mother didn’t believe me.

“It was windy up there,” I declared.

Mom’s face went pale, “I guess you did climb to the top of the windmill.”

My grandparent’s farm was a magical place to spend my summers. From our house in the city to the farm was a day’s drive, so I was often asleep when we arrived. Waking up in a different place from where you fell asleep was always disorienting, but when you’re a city kid it takes a bit longer to adjust to the rhythms of country life. Time was upside down on the farm. In the city, the first thing you do is eat breakfast. In the country, humans were the last living things to eat. In the city, you have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the country, your biggest meal of the day was dinner, but it’s served at lunchtime. Lunch, was a mid-afternoon snack grandma brought out to you in the field, but only during planting and harvest seasons. Finally, at dinnertime you ate supper, which was always smaller than dinner at lunchtime.

When I walked out of the farmhouse the first thing you saw was a red barn with the date, 1926, painted in black, on a white-weathered-board, nailed under the peak of its classic six-sided-roof. To the right was a larger building with the same shaped roof, but Grandpa called that one the corn-crib. The outside walls were made of red boards going longways with wide gaps between, letting the air dry the corn stored inside. The building farthest away was the hog-house, but I could smell it as soon as I opened the front-door of the farmhouse. What I looked forward to most was helping Grandpa do his work. I remember once helping him string a new barbed-wire-fence. He needed a second pair-of-eyes to help him lineup the fenceposts, so he could dig the post-holes in a straight line.

I was jealous of my older brother once he got tall, because Grandpa let him drive the tractor, and stay the entire summer to help him on the farm. One day my brother tried to teach me how to drive the tractor by himself. You’d think it would be possible to avoid hitting the broad-side of a 100-foot steel-shed, however, when you’re two city kids on a tractor with a dead-man’s-throttle, and the younger one’s steering but he’s too short to reach the brakes, that’s exactly what happens.

Grandpa often told me, “One boy is a half-a-man, but two boys is no man at all.”

Some days I spent a lot of time inside the farmhouse with Grandma. I remember loving her cinnamon rolls she made-from-scratch. I would sit at the kitchen table with the spiraling warm mana-from-heaven as its creator toiled in the kitchen. The divisions of labor were clearly defined on the farm, and I remember my grandma and grandpa always seemed to be equally busy. Grandma was a first-generation Swedish-American and a devout Lutheran, so from outside appearances she was often stoic.

Once she caught me saying, “gosh darn it,”

Scolding me, she said, “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”

“That’s not swearing.” I blurted out, defending myself.

My grandmother patiently explained, “Gosh equals God, and darn equals Damn, so you are asking God to Damn whatever you’re talking about.” She then began warning me against imitating the speech habits of my father.

I innocently asked, “My daddy says, ‘constipation class’ when it’s time for my brother to go to church for his ‘Confirmation Class.’ Is that swearing too?”

I don’t recall the exact words my grandma said, but I remember her back stiffening and her lips pursing like she just sucked on a lemon. I do know I got the clear message that following my father’s bad habits was not the shortest path to heaven.

 

DETROIT

My first memory of my Grandma Brant was crying in bitter disappointment that she was the wrong grandma. I had woken-up in Highland Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit where the Ford Motor Company’s main factory was based. It was normal for me to feel strange waking-up at my grandma and grandpa’s house after falling asleep in the car on the way there. I was looking for my favorite toy, a miniature cast-iron stove like grandma cooked on when my mommy was a little girl. I remember sitting in this strange gray-haired lady’s lap who stunk like perfume, while she tried to convince me that she was my grandma too.

I looked around the strange house and saw the furniture was much more-fancy than on the farm. Looking into the dining-room through a large wooden archway I saw a china cabinet filled with bright dishes of all colors. In a distant dark corner of the living-room, a single light focused on an old man with thick glasses, sitting in an overstuffed chair, silently reading the newspaper. I was guessing he was my grandfather. Later, I learned he suffered from a rare eye disease he inherited from his mother, and my father had inherited from him. It was a combination of tunnel-vision and night-blindness. This disease caused my grandfather’s world of broad horizons and beautiful sunrises of his youth, to slowly shrink until his dawns and dusks all became midnight, and his peripheral vision slowly vanished, leaving him reading his newspaper like he was looking through a tube the diameter of a nickel.

Sitting on grandma’s lap, somehow, she opened a secret door into my heart. Maybe, I shared my dream of becoming a movie star? I remember giving my mother, what I called, “Hollywood kisses,” which were the kind, Errol Flynn, gave to the women he rescued after his big battle scene at the end of his movies. It was a chaste touching of the lips, designed I’m sure to not alert the censors, but it might have done the trick for the conquest of my second grandma’s heart.

Afterwards, she showered me with gifts of different costumes she would buy or make upon my request. In her later years, she had earned a teaching degree in early education, and got a job at a neighborhood Kindergarten. Her college degree provided the perfect grandma skills for a kid like me with an active imagination. I have fragmented memories of visiting her class. I was probably too young to be enrolled in Kindergarten. I remember she performed a puppet show with puppets she had made-from-scratch. At some point before the day was over, I realized I was one of the only white kids in her class. I clearly wasn’t in Nebraska anymore.

 

HOME

We were a family of five, living in St Paul, the Capital of Minnesota. As a child growing up in the 1960s, I recall hearing people boast, “Here in Minnesota, we live in a theater of seasons.” On the coldest days, I remember Minnesotans boasted the loudest.

My brother Jerry was the oldest, my sister Linda was the middle child, and I remember being called the pip-squeak. We were crammed into a one-story two-bedroom matchbox house. Mom and Dad slept in one room and we three kids slept in the other one. Jerry and Linda were stacked-up in a bunkbed, while I was still in a crib. One of my earliest memories was crawling out of the crib and waddling to my mom, interrupting her writing in the other bedroom. This event caused a domino effect.

Saturday morning my father took a hammer up into the attic and started removing main support beams to make room for his growing family.

I heard my mommy franticly cry, “Daddy, help!” into the telephone.

Before sunset Grandma and Grandpa showed up at our door. Without saying hello, Grandpa rushed upstairs to examine my daddy’s handywork.

He returned muttering, “It’s not as bad as I thought,” under his breath as he collapsed onto the couch, laughing. I’m guessing he had driven the eight-hour trip from the farm in under six.

Grandpa made us a beautiful attic bedroom. The challenge was the pitched roof only left the center peak with enough headroom. Grandpa built knotty-pine sidewalls running the length of the house, along the lower pitch of the roof. The wooden walls had invisible doors hiding the typical attic stuff like old steamer trunks, Christmas decorations, and wool sweaters in the summertime. In the winter, we stored our electric fans and window air-conditioners behind the secret doors. At bedtime, I’d often open the hidden back-panel inside the storage closet where all the winter coats were hung, and crawl the length of our house, past antique trunks and other clutter to a secret panel behind my bed.

Our neighborhood was like the one Pete Seeger sang about in his 1963 hit song, “Little Boxes.”  As a boy, I liked to sit on the roof of my family home looking around at the endless landscape of little houses with perfect green lawns. From an early age, I loved climbing up on top of our house. We had an attached garage with a low-hung-roof in the back where our patio was. When I was a toddler my father attached old kitchen counters below the low-hung-roof as a service area for outdoor dining on the patio. I remember pushing a lawn-chair to get-up on the counter, realizing it was an easy climb to the roof. I then navigated my way to the highest peak of our house. When the next-door-neighbor saw me, she alerted my mother.

Mom asked me, “Lloyd, how did you get up there?”

“Ove thew,” I pointed towards the lower garage roof.

“Can you show me?”

“Ok, watch me,” as I navigated my way back to safety.

Our next-door neighbor was kind of like, Mrs. Kravitz, from the 60s TV show, Bewitched. Between our houses, grew a young maple tree on our side of the property-line. The main fork of the maple was low enough for a kid my size to get a footing, allowing an easy gateway to the higher branches above. I’m sure watching me climb our growing young tree gave Mrs. Kravitz sleepless nights for years.

Like all kids growing up in the 50s and 60s, I enjoyed a free-range childhood. The only hard-and-fast rule you heard from your parents when leaving the house was, “Be back before dark.”

Mom raised us as Spock babies. Dr. Benjamin Spock was the renowned child psychologist who published the bestselling book, Baby and Child Care, in 1946. Most post-war mothers used his book as a guide to raising the baby-boom generation. Later, Spock was blamed for writing the roadmap leading to the youth rebellion of the 1960s. Mom read his book cover-to-cover. She was proud she had raised her children as three unique individuals. I know she consistently honored and fed my creative impulses throughout my childhood.

Grandma Brant read an article in her local Detroit newspaper about a little theater company in Minneapolis, performing groundbreaking work for children. I was captured by the magic-of-theater, when my parents brought me to a makeshift storefront housing, The Moppet Players. Later, this ragtag theater went on to both fame and infamy, after it was re-named, The Children’s Theater Company.

Mom would help me make costumes. Crowded in my parents’ tiny bedroom was her desk. She would clear the typewriter and fountain pens from the top to make room for my costume dream factory. Magically, the top of her desk opened and she lifted up a heavy black Singer® sewing machine, which swung-up and was designed to lock into position on top. The vintage cabinet had two draws to the right-and-left of the center cavity that hid the sewing machine. The bottom of the drawer on the right-side had deep stains from different colors of the various ink bottles and leaky fountain pens stored there, along with a stapler, scotch tape, and paperclips of various sizes. The left drawer you needed to first get past a tangle of thread from loose spools and bobbins of all colors, to find the hidden tools-of-the-trade below. Mom owned two types of scissors. One was a pair of pinking shears that made a zigzag cut. But her heavy-duty polished steel fabric scissors were the workhorse of the operation. I used it to cut cardboard, canvas, and rope of almost any thickness. Besides these vital cutting tools, inside this mysterious long narrow drawer was a yellow cloth-measuring-tape, a pin-cushion, and most important of all; safety pins of all sizes scattered on the bottom of the drawer. With these clever fasteners my mother could make miracles happen. Whatever my imagination could think up, Mom would struggle to make it into reality.

Later, historians would call the time of my early childhood, America’s Camelot.  In the summer of 1962, I dressed up as a knight in shining armor to deliver an invitation for my sixth Birthday Party, to my Kindergarten girlfriend, Renee McCoy. She was the prettiest girl in class, so everything needed to be perfect.  I recall my mother fitting me with long cardboard packing tubes for arms.

I complained, “I’m supposed to be, A Knight in Shining Armor, not the Tin Woodman after a rainstorm.”

Using a portrait of Sir Galahad that hung in our living-room as her model, Mom painstakingly crafted moving elbows out of cardboard sheets carefully cut into the correct shapes that she stapled together, and covered with tinfoil for an authentic look.

This outfit was one of a long line of costumes Mom helped me make.  One day I might imagine being, Mighty Mouse, a popular cartoon-superhero on TV. I’d dress-up wearing swimming trunks over long johns with a bath towel Mom carefully safety pinned to my shoulders as a cape. On other days, I’d wear just the swimming trunks, with large cardboard tubes strapped to my back, like scuba tanks from the TV show, Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges. Because we shared the same first name, I imagined swimming just like the show’s star before I ever learned how. When Mom tried to teach me to swim, I insisted she first buy me a scuba mask. I explained to her that if I was going to learn how to swim, I needed to do it underwater, just like Lloyd Bridges. So, Mom bought me a scuba mask. I learned to swim by launching off the side of the pool towards my mother standing in the shallow end a few feet away, like all the other kids. But, when I put on my scuba mask, time slowed down underwater. I could see my mother clearly as I launched myself like a slow-motion guided-missile into her waiting arms.

Whenever there was a costuming need beyond Mom’s abilities she called up Grandma Brant. One of those times was the day I insisted I needed to look “exactly” like Gabby Hayes, the comic sidekick of the famous singing cowboy, Roy Rogers.  The problem was Gabby had a full bushy beard. Everyday I’d wait for the package postmarked from Detroit to arrive. When it finally did come, I opened the box and held perfection in my hands. Grandma Brant used real human hair from her puppet making supplies and wove it around wire that wrapped around my face. She braided the hair into the wire, which split above and below my lips, separating the mustache form the beard. Each end was hooked like a coathanger to fit securely behind my ears.

I couldn’t wait to get into the full outfit. I had it all planned out. I first got on my oldest pair of worn blue-jeans with triple-stitched side-seams and patched knees. I then put on hand-me-down cowboy boots with scuffed toes. Next, I strapped on real metal spurs with spinning-sprockets that jingled-and-jangled when I walked.  I had out grown the boots and spurs I’d gotten on our family vacation to Texas. My big brother’s boots were loose, but fit fine. For the top half I wore a fake buckskin shirt with beads and fringe that was part of an American Indian costume my Grandma Brant had given me. I knew Gabby Hayes never wore a fringed buckskin shirt, but I was becoming my own unique character.

I looked in the mirror and liked how my bottom half was 100% cowboy and my top half was 100% American Indian. When buying my cowboy hat, the store only had two color choices, black or white. I chose white because I wanted to be a “good guy.” The salesman told me I could shape the brim to my own taste. I had patiently worked the front of the wide-brimmed straw-hat into a perfect V. Gabby Hayes wore his cowboy hat with the front of the brim turned up like a clown, but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my carefully shaped brim to match him. Finally, I put on Grandma’s beard and picked up my toy rifle, pointing it at the mirror. A stranger was looking back at me.

Our mother didn’t want us to play with guns. My older brother was on the frontline of that battle. Before our trip down to Texas, she read an article in Reader’s Digest of a scientific study about Germany between the world wars. Mom told to me that after WWI, German mothers didn’t allow their children to play with guns. However, the article argued it didn’t stop the rise of Hitler or WWII. Driving back up to Minnesota from Texas, our family station wagon and small travel-trailer were filled with an arsenal of toy guns. I had my own pair of chrome-plated steel six-shooter pistols with a set of genuine leather holsters, plus a replica Winchester rifle with a steel gun-barrel and a real wooden butt.

The stranger in the mirror was clearly not Gabby Hayes, but who was he? I looked like a character right out of an old western movie, but who? Maybe, I was a scout with my feet in two worlds? One wild and one civilized. Those guys often wore a cowboy hat and a buckskin jacket with beads. English would be my first language, but I could probably speak several Native American languages if you asked me.

Mom let me dress-up anytime I wanted and allowed me to pretend to be my imaginary characters anywhere. I remember jingle-jangling along wearing my spurs, fake buckskin shirt, and Grandma’s beard in downtown St Paul with my mom. I had a red plastic soap-bubble-pipe clenched between my teeth when a hobo, or as they say today, “homeless person,” came up to me with a can of tobacco, and placed a single grain in my pipe, while my mother held my hand without fear.  That night, I kept that red plastic pipe with that single grain of tobacco by my bedside while I slept, as if it was sacred tobacco in a ceremonial peace pipe.

Between Kindergarten and first-grade, Mom finally agreed to shave my head like a Mohawk Indian. It had been a battle to convince her. I didn’t understand why she was so reluctant? I was drawn to the idea of getting a Mohawk haircut when I was at the downtown St Paul Public Library. It was a huge stone building. I recall walking past giant pillars when I entered. The children’s section was in the basement. I remember how the summer air got cooler as I walked down stone steps with a solid-brass-railing, where my hands left fingerprints each Saturday morning after it was freshly polished the night before. The book that caught my imagination was called, Fleet Foot, about an Indian boy my age from the Iroquois Nation with a Mohawk haircut, who could run fast just like me.

Mom sheared my blonde hair to the skull, except for a two-inch-wide strip running down the center. I looked in the mirror and was immediately disappointed.

“My hair needs to be darker.”

“You mean dye it a different color?” Mom asked.

“Can that wash out?” I enquired.

“No, it’s permanent.” Mom answered flatly.

“Oh,” I said, as my nose wrinkled, still fascinated by the reflection of me and my new haircut.

“I think you should leave it alone,” Mom said as she began putting away her electric clippers.

“It’s Wrong!” I shouted, as I began to cry into the mirror.

After I began gasping-for-air between sobs, she suggested, “You could use burnt cork.”

I don’t think Dr. Spock’s book had a chapter on how to navigate this moment in my childhood. Growing up on the farm, Mom didn’t see a person with a different skin color from her own until she went to, Omaha, the biggest city in Nebraska. She was about the same age as me when I was drawn to a picture-book. My mother found the book that opened her imagination in her country schoolhouse library, which was a plain wooden bookshelf in the corner of the little kid’s room, built so a six-year-old could reach the top shelf.  Her special book had photographs of children of all races from around the world. Mom thought it was a fairytale until she was riding in the backseat of her family car driving into Omaha for her first time. When she saw a black person, she exclaimed, “God made people just like flowers. We come in all colors.”

I couldn’t recite the lesson she taught me word-for-word as I stared at myself in the mirror. I learned about the distasteful practice of white performers using burnt cork to put on blackface, and perform old minstrel music that was insulting and demeaning to black people. I also remember her teaching me how a book called, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had the power to change people’s minds in America. In the end Mom told me we didn’t have any corks in the house because our family didn’t drink, but she suggested using Dad’s black shoe-polish. The tin can was more than half empty, but its inky black grease cast the magic spell on my hair, and I became Fleet Foot. When I emptied the tin of black polish, it wasn’t replaced until after my hair grew-out. Much the same way as when the TV broke in the middle of the summer, and Mom made Dad wait weeks to call the repairman, while we played outside in the fresh air. He must have worn his brown shoes that summer.

The shoe-polish didn’t last for too many outings, but well before Punk Rock icon Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols first made Mohawks cool, I was causing chaos running across the rich green yards of my east St Paul neighborhood. I wore a loincloth my mother made by sewing two small squares of bright red cloth the size of lunch napkins, then strung them together with a narrow cord to tie around my waist.

The problem was Mom insisted I put on my tighty-whitie underwear first, before my loincloth. I argued that Tarzan didn’t wear tighty-whities. I had studied the construction of Johnny Weissmuller’s leather loincloth by closely watching his adventures on our Zenith black-and-white TV.  Once when Tarzan was climbing a sheer mountain cliff a gust of wind revealed the key piece of material absent from my costume. When I tried to explain this essential detail to my mother, I saw her eyes glaze over, as if it was one detail too many during that long hot summer.

I remember the sweet pungent smell of freshly cut lawns, and how the grass clippings stuck to the bottom of my bare feet. The flat top of my Mohawk matched the neatly trimmed rows of hedges, planted along the driveways between the matchbox houses. It didn’t feel natural playing in my neighborhood with its manicured lawns.  Plus, being the only kid dressed like an Indian, I lost every battle.  Just one block east of my house was my secret sanctuary, Beaver Lake.  I’m told the local Native Americans named it for its shape.  Back then pussy-willows and cat-tails were growing wild along the shore, with flowering lily-pads floating on the water.

I’d ditch my tighty-whities in the tall grass and imagine I was a real Indian boy roaming in the wilderness.  I spent endless hours catching tadpoles in the marshy water, and searching in the thick woods for long sticks to make spears and sharp rocks for arrowheads.

Eventually my hair grew back and I became an ordinary boy again.  The City of St Paul later drained off the beaver’s tail to develop an urban park. Now it looks more like a turtle.  The lake’s natural muddy shore was dredged – sand trucked in to make an artificial beach – and the wild brush along the water was transformed into neatly manicured grounds.  The fleeting time I had a Mohawk haircut, running free along the untouched shoreline with a summer breeze caressing every inch of my body, was the closest I’ve ever felt to nature.

 

FIRST-GRADE

One block in the opposite direction from Beaver Lake was, Nokomis Elementary School.  It was a squat one-story brick building designed like a prison.  Unlike Kindergarten the previous year, the first-grade was a sterile cube-shaped room with linoleum floors, cold cement-block walls, and straight rows of small wooden desks.  The only escape for my imagination was a bank-of-windows looking out on the grassy field, where we were allowed to go outside once a day for recess.

That autumn, I remember listening to Mom reading Shakespeare.  It was her Halloween tradition to recite the famous scene from, Macbeth, where the three witches cast an incantation over a large black caldron, “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble.”

The real witch in my life was my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Netts.  The school year seemed to start out fine. Mrs. Netts was a young, pretty newlywed, but unfortunately we were the lab rats for her first year out of college as a teacher.  To be fair, as first-graders, it was our first year too.  I’m sure it was difficult to corral twenty-five wiggly children at their desks for six-hours, five-days a week.  She was like a drill-sergeant marching up-and-down the neat rows of desks, holding her three-foot-long wooden pointer with its black rubber tip,

Whack!

“Why is it wrong to look out the window?”

Whack!

“Why do I get hit on the head even when I’m thinking about what I’m            supposed be thinking about?”

Whack!

“Why do I now st-t-tut-t-ter when I have to read out loud in c-c-class?”

I became withdrawn because of my debilitating stammer, and escaped into the private world of my imagination.  Renee McCoy went on to become the teacher’s pet.  After all she was the smartest girl in first-grade.

One day Mrs. Netts disappeared and a long-term substitute teacher finished out our school year.  My mother explained to me that Mrs. Netts was hospitalized for what they called in those days, “a nervous breakdown.”

The fall of Camelot happened on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy died of an assassin’s bullet to the head in Dallas, Texas.  The day of Kennedy’s funeral, I watched the news coverage, while eating oatmeal from a bowl my mother had placed for me on the floor in front of the TV.  She used the morning newspaper as a placemat to protect the carpet.  A young unblemished picture of John F. Kennedy was staring up at me, when a small dollop of my oatmeal landed on his face.  I recall feeling immediately guilty for spoiling his perfect image with my breakfast cereal.  I futilely attempted to wipe his oatmeal-soaked image clean, but the wet paper dissolved leaving a hole. Tears leaked from my eyes, reflecting the national grief flooding out of our television.

Post 3 / The First Chapter

In 2020, I spent a lot of time writing. This post is a rough-draft of the first-chapter of my new book. It’s a memoir telling my story leading up to producing my dream play, Land of Clowns, that premiered on April Fools Day, 2016 at Open Eye Theatre in Minneapolis.

I hope you enjoy reading it.

Lloyd Brant

 

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE

I sat down with hot coffee in a large white porcelain cup, planning to spend the day writing in my favorite café. My table was indoors, in an open courtyard, below a spiral staircase with a circular guardrail designed to look like pages of a book ascending to the Loft Literary Center above me. I’d spend hours writing between my classes here. Sitting below this magical stairway served as my muse. When I was a young artist I read, Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, by Henry Miller. It’s a short story about a clown named Auguste, who transfixed his audience with his radiant smile, by sitting in the center of the circus ring at the foot of a ladder, like Buddha under the fig tree. Since then, I’d been drawn to using the ladder as a symbol in my shows. This stairway was the same symbol in my imagination, but on steroids.

I felt the heft of the large mug, as I touched my lips to the warm rim, enjoying the rich flavor of strong coffee.  I opened my new laptop, it’s a silver MacBook Pro. My old turn-of-the-century lime-green MacBook Pro was outdated. I purchased this one with plans to finally finish adapting my story, Land of Clown, to the stage. I began writing it back in my twenties. Plunking it out on an old portable typewriter during a national tour of my first solo clown show. At that time, I quickly learned I only had three-minutes to turn my audience’s perception around 180-degrees – from what they thought a clown was – to understanding what kind of clown I was.

Most Americans in those days thought a clown was either a bad children’s entertainer – a pitchman for hamburgers – or a monster.  I realized that unlike other cultures around the world, America didn’t have its own mythic origin of the clown, or an understanding of the vital role clowns play in society.  My idea to fill this void was to write a story that told where clowns came from, why they’re here, and why they live in circus tents.  I submitted it to dozens of publishers back then, but I didn’t have any luck.

Thirty-years later, I’m finally transferring this old story to my new computer. I need to finish the job before the Winter Solstice party tonight. I’m planning to email it to the hosts, who were interested in helping me adapt it to the stage. Both the husband and wife are trained clowns. Their sons have red hair like my son, Gabriel. My vision for the lead-child-character was a red-headed boy, the same age as my son the day he told me he wanted to be a clown. Their oldest son was the perfect age, and their youngest son could grow to fill the role in a couple-of-years, giving the show longevity.

In the first attempt to mount my story to the stage, the cast consisted of my original juggling partner David, Rosie and me. We’d all met at mime school together. The show didn’t work out, but in the end Rosie and I did.

Having our children attend a Waldorf School was Rosie’s dream. Ours was a typical Waldorf story of a New Age mom dragging her skeptical husband to visit a quirky little startup school, that she boasted had a three-fold education where the child’s mind, body, and spirit were all of equal value.

However, when I first entered the school I was struck by the haunting absence of children’s laughter.  The teachers led their students through the hallways with an earnest humorless reverence, like a stoic mother duck followed by her well-ordered line of silent little ducklings.  I felt as if I was in a monastery for kids.

What finally sold me on Waldorf was visiting the Kindergarten.  When I opened the door, we were greeted with the smell of freshly baked bread. A treehouse was built in the middle of the room with billowy clouds of pastel-colored gauze draped everywhere.  The children quietly gathered at the foot of the teacher when she sat in a rocking-chair and silently lit a candle. She began telling a fairytale about garden gnomes, as if they were as real as Santa Claus. Magic crackled in the air.

Rosie and I began teaching an after-school circus arts program to offset the cost of tuition, ending in a final performance. That first year we had a dozen students. The audience sat in a half-circle of metal folding chairs set-up in the back corner of the school’s Social Hall.

My secret mission was to bring laughter to what I thought was a stuffy New Age private school. Circus became an official part of the school’s curriculum.  Our annual springtime show grew into a huge Waldorf community event. The hallways would fill with the sound of children’s laughter in anticipation of the upcoming public performances.

In Waldorf there’s many public performances that are part of the required curriculum, which now included our circus. Liza our daughter was never seduced by the siren call of the stage, but our son Gabriel from an early age said he wanted to be a clown. I taught Gabe how to ride a unicycle soon after he learned how to ride a bike. I then began directing him in a three-person-show with a couple of other talented classmates. I called it, The Mini-Apple Circus, and they were enjoying a childhood of performing shows around town.

I realized instead of publishing, Land of Clowns, my story had become my life. Our Waldorf program was like ‘Hogwarts’ for the circus arts. Today, circus is part of the curriculum in Waldorf schools around the globe.  Clowning is even a course offered at some certified Waldorf teacher training programs.

After nearly two-decades of teaching a generation of circus students, Rosie and I realized we had created something greater than ourselves.  I began quietly looking for a successor we could groom to take over our circus program.  A delightful man I’ll call Jack, was the boyfriend of a former student of mine. I remember her as charming and talented. I cast her as one of the leads in her senior-class play at the Waldorf high school. Originally, she had come from the more orthodox Waldorf grade school across the river. She introduced us to Jack when we were performing at the Colorado Renaissance Festival, and they were enrolled at Naropa University in Boulder. She made a point of inviting us over to their house for dinner, so Rosie and I could get to know Jack.

Jack was tall with a sparkle in his eyes and dreams of becoming a professional clown. After he graduated from college, I trained him in my approach and directed him in a show I called, Cirque de la Loon, for a summer gig at a local amusement park. That same summer his girlfriend became pregnant. I convinced Rosie to support Jack getting a job at our school in the fall. She was a long serving member of the College of Teachers which decides all new teacher hires. Jack secured a position as Games teacher and eventually his wife was hired as a lead Kindergarten teacher.

We’re all going to the Winter Solstice party tonight. Jack had also studied clowning with the hosts of the party when they were enrolled at Naropa University together. They all have master’s degrees in the Lecoq method of physical acting. Jacques Lecoq is no longer alive, but was one of the three greats of 20th century modern French mime.

Rosie and I saw Lecoq give his famous lecture and mask demonstration at the Festival of American Mime in Milwaukee. The last mask piece he performed started by him reaching into his suit pocket and taking out a clown nose dangling on a white elastic string. He introduced it as, “The world’s smallest mask.” His demonstration had started with a variety of masks covering his entire face to the half-masks from the Commedia del art’ which allowed the characters he created to speak. This time he put on the small red rubber nose, leaving most of his face naked, and stood in still silence. Before my eyes, Lecoq transformed every cell of his body into a clown. A woman giggled and the clown’s head snapped to look at his accuser, as if to say, “How dare you laugh at me,” which brought a roar of laughter from the crowd. That’s the day I decided, I wanted to become a clown.

Tonight, Rosie and I were looking forward to going to a party of clowns all trained in the same method we were trained in back in the 1970s. Jack had already received my training of the key three-archetypal-characters responsible for making theater inside the ring of the traditional European circus. I define each character by their status to the other, with the lowest status characters being the clowns, which are the heart of the circus.

In my story I’m adapting into a play, each character archetype comes from a different family or clan. The clan-of-clowns with the lowest status were the Auguste family, who traditionally wore red noses. I envisioned our hosts playing the mother and father of that clan in my play. I looked forward to playing a high-status character from the family of White Clowns, in the classic French tradition. I already had the elegant costuming from a recent two-person play I wrote for Rosie and I, called, A Life of Serious Nonsense. I always play the higher status straight-man against Rosie’s brilliant lower status comic characters. Developing this whiteface clown character opposite my wife’s well established red nose clown has been a perfect training ground. Jack was always a little stiff playing the Auguste or White Clown for me, so I thought he’d be best playing the highest status character of the circus world, Ringmaster, the king of the ring.

We had all worked together last summer when their organization hired me to direct them for a street show at the Minnesota State Fair. They had received a grant from the Knight Foundation as part of a new program called, Arts A’Fair. It was a dream cast to direct. I remember working Saturday and Sunday nights, leading up to their Labor Day weekend appearance at the Fair.

At the same time, I was directing an unruly cast of college kids sharing the stage that Rosie and I perform on at our local Renaissance Festival. I was trying to workshop my play, Ship of Fools, but they were trying to direct me more than listen to my direction, which made for a very long day of performing together on the same stage.

I would quickly change out of my sweaty Renaissance costume into summer street clothes – then drove to a suburban industrial park – where there was an artist’s studio in a garage large enough to rehearse with the antique fire truck they acquired for their show. A clown show needs the high-stakes drama of life-and-death to achieve greatness. Their choice of fire as their life-and-death dilemma was genius.

They’d open the garage doors at both ends of the rehearsal space, creating a cool cross-breeze. After a brutally hot day performing my show and wrestling the egos of college kids, I’d sit in my favorite Hawaiian shirt and straw porkpie hat, feeling my creative energy return for a night of wonderful clown adventures leading up to a delightful show at the Fair.

On the night of dress-rehearsal, we invited Jack’s family to be the audience. Jack’s wife walked in like Mother Duck followed by Baby Duckling with her gracefully aging Grandma Duck trailing behind. Alongside was Grandma Duck’s husband, a small man wearing glasses.

I should have taken it more seriously as an omen, when Grandma Duck was recently hired as a new grades-teacher at our Waldorf school. Her husband was the reason she was leaving her old job at the Waldorf school across the river. It appears the police issued a restraining-order against him, after he served as a chaperone on last year’s eighth-grade trip. It’s alleged he told dirty jokes to the adolescent girls, who then went home and reported him to their parents. Orthodoxy, in any religion can lead to dark behavior in the shadows, like the reason the Catholic church was in the news lately.

The only other past history of the little man I knew was being a fox chasing the rooster out of the hen house, causing Grandma Duck to have a sleepover in the Kindergarten room with Mother Duck when she was just a baby duckling – if I can mix my fowl metaphors. All I remember was Jack’s family didn’t laugh a-lot during dress-rehearsal, but the shows on Labor Day weekend at the Fair went fantastic.

The grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC), I currently had to produce my play was small. MRAC funds come from the State of Minnesota, so their grant panels by law must be open to the public. Being the artist writing the grant application makes listening to the panel discussion a two-edged sword. The times you’re awarded a grant it’s like breathing the rarified air on Mount Olympus, but when your application is rejected the hurt cuts deep. The problem with my art-form is people think they already know what clowning is, and they know they don’t like it. But lately, I’d been getting pretty lucky.

I originally came to The Loft after being awarded my first grant as a playwright. Walking up the spiral staircase breathing the rarified air was so inspiring, I invited my mother to take a memoir class with me here. Our first day of class was the first day of spring.  Mom and I were eating lunch below the spiral staircase before class. Outside, the Minneapolis urban landscape was blanketed with three-inches of freshly fallen snow. Winter had conquered spring. We’re looking over the stories of her life that I had captured in twenty Sunday afternoon recording-sessions now transcribed to paper.

My plan was to inspire her to finally write the book she’s been threatening me she’d write, but had never started. My hope was our class here would jumpstart Mom before it was too late.

Her idea for the book started after I finished mime school. My solo clown career was just taking off. Nine-months out of the year I lived in motels while touring my show to schools up-and-down the United States. During the summer and holidays, I lived with my parents to save money. Our family’s matchbox house had a tiny kitchen with original, 1950s blond cabinets offset by 1970s earth-tone wallpaper, a yellow refrigerator, and a brown enamel stove. During the rare moments my busy mother was home in the kitchen, I’d juggle apples, plates, and raw eggs to amuse her. One day, I pulled out three carving knives. When I threw them in the air, the spinning stainless-steel blades glittered in the light, blinding my eyes from seeing the wooden handles. Mom ran out of the kitchen screaming as I danced around the thirteen-inch blades landing around my bare feet. From the safety of the dining room, Mom declared, “Someday I’m going to write a book called, ‘The Mother of a Clown.’”

Recent events had caused our family to worry about her.  It started the day she hit her head when slipping on the ice walking to her car.  After a stay in the hospital, she seemed to recover, but soon she was told to give up her driver’s license. I felt my time with her slipping away.

Mom still seemed spunky, but she was eighty-eight-years old.  After lunch, I didn’t think my mother could handle the spiral staircase, so we took the elevator up to class.  The trouble began during the starting exercise when the teacher asked all of us to write down our first memory.  For the first time in my life, I witnessed my mother the scholar struggling with a pen and paper. Later, I would learn she was suffering from early Alzheimer’s disease.  That day, the class teacher gently pulled me aside and told me that it was up to me to write her book. The task of being her Spiritual Advocate became suddenly real that day. This will be the greatest lesson my mother ever taught me.

I come from a long line of teachers. My grandmother was a Kindergarten teacher.   Mom was a leading Minnesota pioneer of Adult Basic Education, empowering generations of high school dropouts to achieve their GED. She’s my role model for what a great teacher does – change the world one student at a time.

The founder of Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner believed in hiring professionals-in-the-field to teach their unique expertise – enabling me to teach circus for twenty-years alongside Rosie. I was always humbled by my wife’s natural gift as a teacher. Eventually she pursued her full teacher certification in Waldorf education.  I’ve never witnessed anyone better with children than Rosie, especially the young ones. On the day of 9/11, she was asked to substitute in the Kindergarten. All afternoon she was playing with kids inside a magic bubble, while our country outside was in chaos. I realized that day, caring for children was the perfect place for my wife to serve when the world was going to hell.

In 2012, Rosie and I were honored to receive, The Minnesota Private and Independent Education STORY AWARD, for our Waldorf Circus Program. It was a nice ending to our teaching career together. Jack was taking over the program next year.

Unfortunately, as the time approached Rosie and I hadn’t been able to work with Jack as closely as I’d hoped. Every spring when we were deep in rehearsal for the annual performance, he was out-of-town getting his Waldorf teacher training. Our final year, he finished his training just-in-time to help us direct our last circus.  For the finale of the show, Jack and I performed an under-rehearsed ceremonial passing of the golden juggling clubs.

The next year, Rosie and I helped Jack with his first circus.  I observed him earnestly enter each rehearsal like an Evangelical minister, passionately preaching to the children.

I pulled him aside, attempting to reveal my secret mission of bringing humor to Waldorf schools. Jack turned to me with a perplexed look, “Waldorf Schools are humorless?” I looked in his eyes and saw the sparkle had vanished – replaced by a familiar glassy-eyed-stare.

I needed to move on to the next chapter of my life. My vision was to write a series of circus themed plays that take place in my, ‘Land of Clowns,’ universe. I wanted to cast it out of the pool of talented students we’d trained over the years. I already set-up a fiscal-agent relationship with our Waldorf school to receive grants for, Fool’s Productions, a fledgling nonprofit organization Rosie and I were starting up. My plan was to hold rehearsals in the building after school.

Being married to a writer wasn’t easy. Rosie’s father was a writer for The New York Times, so she understood. She missed teaching children, but every time she applied to teach in the Waldorf early childhood program she was passed over for the job. It was a mystery who could possibly be blocking her from employment at a school she had played such a crucial role in building. Out of the shadows appeared Jack’s wife, pulling up the ladder we had loyally held for her and Jack, out of Rosie’s reach.

My grants began drying up. Going back on-the-road wasn’t a short-term solution because all the festivals book several years out. We were on the verge of losing our family’s health insurance and were behind on our house mortgage. Jack and his family had bought a house on the next block. I felt like we were living in a bad horror movie.

When Jack’s wife was a student at the Waldorf grade school across the river, her teacher held the orthodox belief that children must work out their karma by themselves in the schoolyard. In Waldorf, a single teacher leads the same class of students through their entire journey from first-grade through eighth-grade. Jack’s wife was known to be the teacher’s pet and the class bully. When my wife confronted her about the betrayal, she told Rosie she was responsible for her own karma. I guess the adult version of a Waldorf schoolyard bully is when they stab their neighbor in the back and their neighbor turns to face them, they feel they have the license to say, “It’s your karma.”

My computer notified me the battery was almost dead and I quickly plugged it in. One reason this was my favorite table was because here under the spiral staircase was the only electric outlet in the entire café. I sat back down and picked up a cold cup, tasted bitter coffee, and placed it back on the table a safe distance from my computer. My finger hovered above the send-button of my email to tonight’s hosts with my freshly transcribed story attached. I wondered, if we truly live in a freewill universe, then we are each responsible for the consequences of our personal actions. But, if we live in a predetermined universe, who has the power to be judge-and-jury over the karma of someone else’s destiny?

Was it karmic destiny or pure chance, why I was sitting at that table the moment a young electrician came bouncing down the steps above me? A nine-inch pair-of-pliers with baby-blue-handles bounced out of his tool belt, slipping between the white panels that made the guardrail look like a spiraling book.

The crown of my head exploded in pain, as I hear the rattling of a coffee cup.  I looked up trying to find the idiot from the second-floor who dropped a coffee cup on my head, just as someone tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned to see a young electrician wearing a tool belt.

He asked, “Are you okay sir?”

I answered, “I’m fine, except some idiot dropped a coffee cup on my head.”

The man pointed to my table and said, “It’s my fault sir.”

I looked down and saw a huge pair-of-pliers with blue handles between my coffee cup and open laptop.  I’m oddly relieved my new computer is undamaged. Another man approached me, identifying himself as a doctor. I removed my porkpie hat and blood poured down my face.

For the next few-minutes the café around me spiraled into chaos.  I ended up with an ice pack wrapped in a wet towel on my head, and a fresh cup of hot coffee beside me.  My face was freshly washed and most of the blood in the café had been scrubbed clean. After a careful examination, the doctor found a gash the same size as the tip of the pliers, but he didn’t see any need for stitches, and he didn’t seem to be worried about any other damage to my head. Proving I have the skull of a cartoon character. Before the doctor left, he recommended I see my own doctor the next day to follow-up.

The young electrician confessed it was his first day on the job. Ironically, he was there to install electric outlets for all the other tables in the café.  He politely told me to wait here until his foreman arrives to give me his company’s insurance information.  I had nothing to do, so I opened my freshly recharged computer. Holding the icepack to my head with one-hand, I double clicked on the file named, Land of Clowns, and began editing.  With a surprisingly nimble imagination – I started to re-mold the digitalized words like soft clay – transforming my old hand-typed story into something fresh and new.

I now claim, “Ever since a pair-of-pliers fell on my head…  I’ve had my best ideas.”

*<[:o)

Post 2 / OUT OF AFRICA

Mom’s greatest adventure began when she was called to serve for the fifth time in Africa. Her mission this time was to establish a bricks-and-mortar school for counseling at Iringa University in Tanzania. As a strong-willed-woman, Mom was always a powerful influence on her female students. In Africa she was a revolutionary force. She would form what is called a “Fish Bowl” where the class would circle around her and a student volunteer who was willing to share a personal problem they needed help solving. Often, a female student would come forward with a problem concerning her husband or another authority figure in her male dominated culture. Mom would council the woman to go to her husband, father, or tribal elder and lay claim to her own personal power, which was usually the real-world solution to resolve the woman’s problem. As a licensed Adlerian psychologist, Mom discovered she had the right toolkit to grapple with the deep universal truths of thorny inner-personal and family dynamics, regardless of the cultural influences of the host countries where she had served. This time her goal was to train the future teachers of the master’s degree program in psychology she was establishing at Iringa University.

Her time in Africa was a year of professional triumph, but also personal pain. Early in her stay she slipped in the shower in her isolated mountaintop home, crushing two vertebras in her lower back. While still recovering from her broken back, she caught malaria and was rushed to the hospital in the bouncing backseat of a student’s Toyota Corolla with bad springs. As she sped down the poorly maintained mountain road, Mom recalled a childhood memory growing-up on the farm, “I could churn butter on this road,” she complained while laughing between the bumps and back spasms.

Back home we were all worried sick. My hair was on fire and I wanted to get on the next plane and bring her home. I finally got ahold of my Uncle Arnold, who was visiting her in Tanzania. He calmed me down and assured me she was fine.

Arnold said, “What your mother is doing here is the most important work of her life. She is leaving a legacy. Let her complete it.”

After her students’ graduation, Mom finally returned home. When my brother Jerry picked her up at the airport, she was in such pain that he drove her directly to the closest hospital. This time, the culprit was her strangulated intestines. The doctor scheduled Mom for surgery in two days, restricted her to a liquid diet, and sent her home until the operation. That night, she received a call from the Red Cross. The I-35W bridge across the Mississippi river in Minneapolis had collapsed during rush hour. Mom had first volunteered back in the 1990s, when the Red Cross was looking for licensed psychologists to care for the mental health of their aid workers. At the time, she’d thought, “That’s a perfect job for a woman like me,” and signed up. Now in her eighties, recovering from jetlag, malaria, and a broken back, she said, “I’ll be happy to help.”

The next day, my five-foot-tall, hunchbacked mom looked every inch a Lutheran Mother Theresa as she arrived at the Minneapolis Red Cross headquarters. She put on a white vest with a giant red cross on the back and a name tag on the front. Painkillers took the edge off the discomfort of her strangulated intestines. A government official came in and asked for volunteers to greet President Bush, who was arriving via Air Force One within the hour.

Mom heard one man mutter, “Bush thinks he can come to this disaster to make-up for his botched response to Hurricane Katrina. I’m staying inside.”

A woman said, “I didn’t vote for him on election day, and I’m not going out there today.”

My mother responded, “I didn’t vote for him either, but I’ll go out and meet the president.” Within the hour, White House handlers came back to fetch her with a scattering of other volunteers to await the arrival of the presidential limo.

Mom stood in the doorway, staying dry from the rain, and thought back to her time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Other aid workers called her “the funky old lady,” because of her lavender outfits and purple bulbous toed shoes, revealing the clown inside her.

One female aid worker had refused to listen to Mom’s advice of taking short breaks to relieve her stress. The next day, the lady sought Mom out after a restless sleep filled with nightmares. My mother taught her to release stress by taking a moment to breathe after each call before taking the next.

The woman complained, “But someone could be in serious trouble.”

“It’s okay,” Mom said. “They’re not going away. You don’t have to answer the phone on the first ring.”

 

The rain stopped just before the presidential limo arrived with a flurry of Secret Service agents. President Bush climbed out of the backseat wearing a blue windbreaker with the presidential seal sewn on the left breast. His eyes were drawn to the little old lady in purple shoes, and read her nametag. In a thick Texas drawl, he said, “Elaine, how ya doin?”

Mom stepped past the Secret Service and offered the president her eighty-two-year-old hand. When Bush took it, she held on tight and didn’t let go. Mom looked up at him and said, “Mr. President, can I say a sentence to you?”

President Bush laughed at her spunk and said, “Why, Elaine, you can say a whole paragraph to me.”

My mother released his hand and said, “Mr. President, I read in the paper that you are starting peace negotiations for a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Startled, Bush said, “Well, as a matter of fact, Elaine, I’m meeting with top officials on this issue in Washington on Monday.”

“When the going gets tough, keep at it. Please don’t give up. This is important, Mr. President.”

Later that day, a government official noticed my mother’s nametag. “So, you’re Elaine.”

My mother said, “Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”

“Bush couldn’t stop talking about you,” he laughed. “When you brought up the peace negotiations in Israel, you blindsided him.”

The next day, I visited Mom at her house. Her surgery was in the morning, and I was nervous because I felt I needed to fulfill some intangible role. Awkwardly, I suggested praying together.

Her eyes brightened as she scooted closer to me on the couch and reached out her hands. I felt a current flow from her frail fingers to my heart. A radiant glow transformed her face as she waited for me to start.

I mumbled an improvised prayer, and she slipped into meditation with such practiced grace, it would’ve put a yogi master to shame.

After the prayer, she looked at me and said, “If I die tomorrow, I’ll be satisfied with the life I’ve lived.”

“What do you mean?”

She proudly straightened and said, “I may never do anything greater than what I accomplished this past year in Africa.” With a twinkle in her eyes she added, “And I think I peeked yesterday.”

I laughed. “You sure did tell Bush.”

She shrugged. “I kept a promise.”

“What promise?”

Mom told me on her last trip to Israel a group of Palestinian Christians asking her to tell the US President of their plight. They explained to be both a Palestinian and a Christian was to be the minority of the minority in Israel. No one was on their side. Mom promised, but she never thought she’d keep it.

I laughed proudly. “My mother, the peacemaker.”

Post 1 / Remembering Mom

Today is the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. My friend Jeff Kraker from KARE 11 TV filmed and edited my eulogy that you can view here. Mom inspired me to begin writing my current book, so I feel it’s fitting that I begin a series of new blog posts today.

Below is the Prologue for, SUNDAYS with the Mother of a Clown, a book about her life that I finished writing just before she died. Every Sunday after bringing her to church I’d read her chapters from the book. The fog of Alzheimer’s disease would lift while reading stories about her childhood. The Sunday morning before she went into hospice care I finished the Epilogue and looked up to see her radiant smile.

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

            It’s a cool, spring Sunday afternoon, the smell of lilac drifting in from the backyard. I’m sitting at the dining room table with my lime green MacBook Pro®, hammering out the ringmaster’s script for our upcoming Waldorf school circus. All around me are stacks of old scripts, cold coffee cups, and rubber noses. The phone rings. I pick up and hear my mom’s voice.

            “Do you have a minute, Lloyd?”

            “I’m on a deadline, Mom. Are you coming to our circus next weekend?”

            My mom assures me she has it marked on her calendar before saying, “That’s not why I called.”

            “What do you want?”

She clears her throat. “I’ve decided what I want to ask each of my children to do for my end-of-life needs.”

            I have no idea what she has in mind for me, the clown of the family. “What do you mean?”

            “Well, I’m about to spend a year in Africa.”

            She’s planning her fifth trip to Tanzania, and she is eighty-three, so considering her mortality makes sense, but she doesn’t show signs of slowing down. This trip, she is working to establish a brick-and-mortar counseling school at Iringa University.

            She tells me she has already spoken to my brother Jerry and my sister Linda. Jerry agreed to be responsible for her financial estate. I feel like I just dodged a bullet. Jerry is the perfect choice. He’s the eldest, the responsible one. Plus, he has a degree in computer science and has always been good at numbers.

            Linda agreed to act as her healthcare advocate. Another bullet whizzes past my ear. Linda, the middle child, is again the perfect choice. Her second son Nicholas is a cancer survivor. She has become expert at navigating the labyrinths of the hospital system and health insurance industry.

            What’s left to do?

            “I want you to be my spiritual advocate.”

            Direct hit. What the hell is a spiritual advocate? Why ask a clown to be responsible for her soul? My mom was practically a Lutheran Mother Theresa, and I don’t even belong to a church. I swallow my nerves and say, “Sure.”

            Mom graciously replies, “Thank you,” and hangs up the phone without further instruction.