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.
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 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 quiet 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.
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.
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.
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.