Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Beauty and the Beast

Winters of 1978 to 1983, Nevada, Iowa

The first two llamas we bought were called Ozzie and Harriet, named after the famous 1950’s TV series. Harriet was pregnant, but Ozzie was not the father. Within a few months of bringing them home from the Chamberlain South Dakota Exotic Animal Auction, tragedy would strike and Ozzie would kill Harriet while she was giving birth to Andy.

My Dad was away on business at the time and I felt pretty guilty knowing Harriet was suffering on the hilltop while I was lying down with my headphones on a pillow listening to X Los Angeles or London Calling. The neighbor Bud, a sheep farmer, made the call to the Veterinarian but it was too late. Andy became our pet after that, and he often sat in the family room with us watching TV and humming, as all young llamas do.

After Harriet died, my dad wanted to recoup his $2,000 loss by finding another female and breeding her with Ozzie. If the baby were female, a one in four chance, then he would be on the right track. Meanwhile it was just Ozzie and Andy, two orphans ruling the pasture where horses had once run free.
One of my weekly chores was to feed Ozzie. During the winter, with the dirt road iced over or the long driveway blocked, it was easier to just cross over the pasture, take the bridge over the creek and climb the hill to the barn. Only problem was that Ozzie would be there waiting at the top.

I had to take a large stick with me and wave it in front of him or whack him in the face with it so he wouldn’t trample me down. He was a good 300 pound spitting machine with hooked teeth like a serpent, wielding his dragon neck at me with bulging eyes, hissing stinky fire. I usually could hit him squarely in the balls a couple times and he got the idea until I went in and closed the door to the barn.
We find out later that Ozzie had been raised by humans too, bottle fed just like we were doing with Andy. He imprinted humans as natural enemies, and his aggression came from being coddled by some unwitting children in a petting zoo. Andy got too big to come inside anymore, so we put him back in the barn with Ozzie. The Veterinarian told us he died of heartbreak.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Weather of Oz

Spring 1979, Nevada, Iowa

There was a video camera in our Geology class, and the teacher told us we could make a video for our final project. Whatever we wanted to do, as long as it had a theme, like Rock Formations, or Volcanoes or something, and actually explained things about this topic.

I, along with Randy McHose and Mark Stefani, jumped at the opportunity. We had already made a couple videos in Ms Haas' class, doing skits from Saturday Night Live, Cheech and Chong and Steve Martin. In one, I was John Belushi, in like a lion and out like an African Tapir on Weekend Update. We reran it and watched endlessly as the white line ran down the black and white screen, Jay in glasses and a suit, flying over the makeshift table clutching his heart in a mock Belushi cocaine heart attack.

Me and Mark just figured we’d make Randy the star of The Weather of Oz, as we were now calling it, having chosen our theme. We knew Randy wouldn’t sit and do any actual writing or planning of the characters or scenes, but he would be the best actor for the lead part, and ham it up. He would still be called Randy in the video so no one would have to remember a new name. Instead of Toto we had a bean bag frog named Clyde. Mark and I would write and direct, but I did not want to appear.

So Mark and I went to his house to brainstorm and write down some ideas. Mark’s Dad worked for the CIA and Mark said he didn’t know for sure what his Dad did. I only saw him once. I remember we listened to Ummagumma a lot and a couple times we even made pipe bombs to blow up tree stumps.

I did most of the actual writing, I felt Mark was going off on tangents, not sticking to the point or being realistic with the time limit, the people's acting abilities, and the equipment we had. In the end, we decided that Randy and Clyde were to be undercover environmental agents trying to find out who was responsible for the recent, sometimes deadly, weather disturbances in the area.

An unusually long drought had caused corn and soybean crops to fail for the first time in thirty years, dust devil tornadoes were wreaking havoc on once peaceful small town life, and the coldest winter on record had made people think the end of the world was near. After a sudden air inversion over Des Moines during the six o’clock news, which caused the fatal crash of a small passenger plane, this one carrying the African Agricultural Ambassador, a few insiders thought something more sinister was happening, something the public was not fully aware of.

Randy and Clyde, the undercover environmental secret agents, had to go on foot to the weathermens’ castles and find out if which of the two men was the evil weather changer. Then when they found out who it was, they could infiltrate the TV station and pull the plug during the six o’ clock news, announcing to the viewers that all was well, right there on Prime Time.

Our good friend Kendra was the wicked witch, explaining tornadoes to the camera as a mini Lincoln Logs cabin spun on a string in front of Camera Two, eventually crushing her. Of course we edited this part. We filmed a close up of the polka dotted Barbie legs sticking out from under the mini log cabin as Kendra moaned in the background.

The Munchkins became The Doldrums, and we filmed three friends from above as they knelt and sang We are the Do Oldrum Winds, the Do Oldrum Winds, or some such thing I had written in a flurry.

Other than that, the script and story board weren’t very worked out until we got to the point of filming, and then we improvised scenes over a three day rigorous shooting schedule after school. Through the forest, by the river and along the sea went Randy and Clyde, meeting people and strange creatures along the way.
Randy and Clyde see Hal Jacobs, played by Mark, creating some strange weather pattern in his castle and realize he is the evil weatherman. They bust in and catch him redhanded as he is brewing up a crop damaging hail storm over Central Iowa.

After much debate, we decided that the evil wizard Hal Jacobs would not be caught by Randy and Clyde, but in the end the Wizard makes himself disappear, vanishing in the breeze left by Randy’s clutching arms, a trick of the video. We wanted to leave it open to a sequel, Mark's performance practically outshining the unfocused Randy.

Also, in the wake of the evil wizard's sudden disappearance, Clyde the frog is sucked up into a High Pressure stream, blowing up on camera with little Black Cat Firecrackers. We had to film this when the teacher was gone, and open the window afterwards. Randy didn’t like the way Clyde didn’t blow up so good, so he put some Ronson lighter fluid on him and lit him on fire for the grand finale, saline tears running down his cheeks as he announced to the TV audience that the evil weatherman was gone for good. By the time it was all done, there were eleven weather phenomenon explained in detail and 90 minutes of video and we got an A. I wish I still had that tape.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Hustler

Fall 1976, Nevada, Iowa

I was partly raised in bars and pool halls. On Bald Eagle Lake we stopped into a little bar almost every day and I’d get a Tom Collins with extra cherry juice, shooting pool on tiptoe while my Dad gave me little tips. We had a pool table in the basement in Ames, before Nevada, as well as a ping pong table and horseshoe pit and batting net out back. We always went to gambling night at the Elks Club where I found the pool table alone on the second floor for many a practice session while the folks played roulette or blackjack.

Going from Ames to Nevada meant I had to make new friends. At first I tried to integrate the two groups, the Ames crowd only 15 miles away, and had a bunch of guys over one day to play bumper pool, regular pool and ping pong in the new acreage my folks bought in Nevada. I felt like I was going from a big University town to a little backwater, but from the Suburbs to the country, so you could see the paradox. My city friends didn’t like Hicksville, and my country friends didn’t like the city slickers. They never really mixed and I kind of forgot about my Ames friends.

Besides the new junior high dynamic, I had to get used to a little crowd downtown and driving around the Loop. I could drive legally when I was 14 with a permit, and was the tallest kid in school until the girls passed me up in 8th grade, so no problem with the police going around the Loop in the Galaxie 500, Econoline Van with tinted windows, the yellow Fiat deathmobile, or the Lincoln with tilting seats.

The streets in Nevada are A to Z and 1 to 100. I think there’s a 121st and MM street now. The grid system, just like the furrowed soybean and corn fields being encroached upon with every unwelcome settler. Downtown was small, one main street with all the bars, shops and restaurants. When I first moved there, the main center for the youth was The Head Shop, selling bongs and other paraphernalia out in the open. And there was a pool table so I started to spend more and more time there.
Mind you, I didn’t do drugs yet. I was a drinker, sloe gin in the theater making out in the back row, whisky in the Econoline, yard surfing in the Fiat, first and last at the kegger party at the cool parents’ house. The Heads had their own thing going on, I thought they were more like hillbillies with no future. But there was a pool table at The Head Shop, so I had to mingle.

Being tall and husky, I was used to older guys picking fights, but I usually managed to stave off any violence, at least after turning 13, through my wit and eloquence. And in my pool game. In The Head Shop, regular clients hung out, pinball machines clanging and pool balls clacking, bleary eyed patrons scattered in wooden chairs, looking at no posters on the walls. There was no overhead fan like a Bogart movie, but the jukebox had the classic rock songs that served as soundtrack to our meager lives.

The daughter of the owners ran the place. Jean Ackerman. Even though I may not have known it at the time, she was a lesbian, but like one of those corn fed tough lesbians, trapped in a virgin sixteen year old body. Every time I went in there she gave me some grief. One thing sticks out in my mind for some reason. I was playing pool with one of the regulars and using the pool cue as an air guitar, jamming to Since I’ve Been Loving You. She leaned her elbows on the top of the glass case with the paraphernalia, watching me for a while.

Then she said You think you’re pretty cool doncha? My air guitar became less animated but I didn’t stop moving around the table. After less than a year in this little backwater I was at a crossroads, all The Heads looking on. So I pushed up my chin and nodded affirmatively, saying Yeah I DO think I’m pretty cool, but I’m just whistling through town honey!! I scratched on the eight ball and Jean was vindicated.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Marie Laveau´s Grave

Time of the big Mississippi flood, the whole Midwest was under water. I was riding AMTRAK All Aboard America, and made a three week stop in New Orleans.
I didn’t have any money, but I had my banjo. I already made up four songs in Berkeley, playing in front of Cody’s bookshop and eating out of a can. This time I had a room in exchange for odd jobs in a hostel on St. Charles.

I found out later one of the rooms was site of a grisly arson murder, a woman setting her husband and children on fire in the early 1980’s. I mowed the lawn, changed beds, folded sheets, whatever needed to be done in the morning with horrible humid heat. In the afternoon I went exploring and playing my four banjo songs in and out of the French Quarter for spare change.

I visited the Voodoo Museum and was invited to a Voodoo Party by the Voodoo hippy chick who worked at the front desk. Inside the museum, the wishing stump was all dusty, and the altar to Exu looked kind of kitsch, but all in all it was a good diorama of the Yoruba syncretism with Catholicism. I learned a lot, but I didn’t go to the party. One of the things I learned was where Marie Laveau was buried. You could even make a wish on her grave.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, closed after 9 p.m. due to drug trafficking. All the graves above ground in crypts, some empty from looters or conjurers. Marie’s grave is full of offerings, bottles of rum, flowers, food, white candles, pictures of loved ones, you can’t miss it, even though there is no name. The headstone is filled with red X’s. The tourist book said find a piece of red brick, turn around three times, make a wish and then scrawl three red X’s on the headstone. I did it and wished for a job on my next stop, Austin, Texas. In three days I was working for a house painter and had a nice wad of cash for going back up the Mississippi to the Twin Cities.