Fun facts to know and tell
Big Boats Division
The Hillridge Court Jester reports: “Subject: Sleeping Giants.
“Between mid-March and mid-January, cargo vessels. domestic and foreign, load and discharge commodities throughout the Great Lakes and ports around the world.
“At this time of the year, foreign vessels have gone to warmer climes, and domestic ships (or ‘boats,’ as they are called on the Great Lakes) are in a state of semi-dormancy. They are laid up in various ports, including Duluth and Superior, where they are undergoing repairs in anticipation of the upcoming shipping season. For the most part, they can be observed close up, although it is always a good idea to alert security personnel to your presence.
“Of the nine boats currently being readied for service, my favorite is the Roger Blough. At 858 feet, she is not the largest boat in port (Duluth), but is unique in several respects. When she was built, the fore and aft sections of the hull were constructed separately and later joined together in a drydock. Launching had been scheduled for July 1971, but a fire started in the engine room in June of that year, resulting in extensive damage and the loss of four lives. Over the ensuing 45 years, she has had a checkered career. Her unique self-unloading system restricts her movement from Lake Superior to three ports on southern Lake Michigan. She has been involved in collisions with other vessels, lost her rudder once, and most recently ran aground in Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior. She has definitely earned a two-month rest in Duluth.
“Check out the Roger Blough and the other eight boats in person, or by going to LSMMA [Lake Superior Marine Museum Association] on the Web.”
The Permanent Family Record
Sleepless from St. Paul (in Minneapolis): “OK, so my brother and I were not the best-behaved kids, but did we really have this coming?
“This photo — of what appears to be my brother (left) and me about to be rolled up in a Murphy bed — was taken in a Chicago hotel around 1970. It looks like something out of a Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn movie.”
The Permanent Family Record
First New Car Division
Eos: “My dad’s first NEW car was a 1959 Ford Country Squire station wagon.
“I remember the day we went to the dealership to pick it up. It was beautiful: blue and white, and big. It had to be big, because we had a big family — eight kids.
“My dad was so proud of that car. It was HIS car. My mom only drove when we were on vacation . . . long enough for my dad to take a movie of us driving past him. Then he was back in the driver’s seat.
“You haven’t really lived until you’ve ridden in a station wagon with nine other people for several hours. Dad drove, Mom was the front passenger, the three youngest kids were between them, or on Mom’s lap. The five oldest kids shared the ‘bench’ seat behind the front seat. I’m sure we looked like sardines in a can. You either sat with your back supported by the seat (and your knees squeezed tightly together) or forward, with your butt barely on the seat (and your knees flared out).
“I’m still claustrophobic because of that arrangement, and I have restless leg syndrome. I’m not surprised.”
Another circus memoir from Tim Torkildson: “I was only 17 when I served my first hitch as a clown with Ringling. It was so much fun, and so physically demanding, that the normal romantic pursuits of an American adolescent were for the most part laid aside. Besides, I was socially awkward and usually broke. My idea of a good time was to hole up in my roomette on the train with a book and a bag of Bugles. Sensual experiences were pretty much limited to soaking my throbbing feet in cold water and epsom salts after a long day of pounding around on cement floors in the Capezio slippers Ringling provided for all their production numbers. My feet were going flat, but my heart was intact and unmolested.
“I was an anomaly in clown alley, not having a steady girlfriend or a spouse. The veteran clowns, for the most part, were married or between marriages, and the younger ones had steady girlfriends or were on the make for one. I preferred to sit back and observe the battle of the sexes from a safe distance.
“Among the married clowns, Swede Johnson and his wife, Mabel, seemed the most comfortable with the venerable institution. Swede was a retired lion tamer who started clowning after the big cats turned on him one day, ripping his legs to bloody ribbons. Mabel was the head of Women’s Wardrobe. He was a thin galoot, and she was a fleshy barrel of a woman. Swede preferred to stay calm and quiet, while Mabel was an excitable matron who brooked no nonsense from showgirl or circus star in her spangled realm. They reminded me of the old nursery rhyme:
“‘Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
“‘His wife could eat no lean.
“‘And so between the two of them
“‘They licked the platter clean.’
“When she wanted Swede for anything, she ambled over to clown alley and gave vent to a piercing shriek that resembled a factory whistle at noontime: ‘Sweeeeeeede!’
“Swede would drop whatever he was doing and nimbly thread his way between trunks to hold a confab with his spouse. Since she made good money as Wardrobe Mistress, their discussions outside the walls of clown alley rarely involved financial wrangles. More often, Mabel simply wanted to unload some of her vast indignation about snippy showgirls upon Swede’s uncomplaining shoulders. Swede rarely got a word in edgewise, but that didn’t seem to bother him. As Mabel complained about the way the showgirls left their tiaras all over the place or tore holes in their nylon sleeve-length gloves or kept plucking the ostrich plumes out of their turbans to decorate their roomettes, he would nod like a bobblehead doll, with a patient grin on his painted face.
“Swede and Mabel traveled in style. They lived on the circus train but drove between towns in a salmon-colored Coupe DeVille Cadillac. Swede did all the driving; when it came to piloting that big boat across the highways and byways, he was completely and unashamedly misogynistic.
“‘I don’t mind if women want to vote,’ he said, puffing on his ever-present Chesterfield, ‘but I’ll be damned if I let one drive my car. They dent up cars running over pedestrians like they was bowling pins!’
“Swede also insisted on driving the clown car. This required some tricky maneuvering around guy wires and ring curbs in a Ford Pinto that was crammed to the gunwales with squirming clown bodies. Since I was one of the taller, lankier clowns, I got in first and had the other clowns pile on top of me. I still have a lingering claustrophobia from that uncomfortable position.The interior of the vehicle was gutted to accommodate 10 clowns, so Swede had to sit on a small wooden block, hunched over the wheel like a cathedral gargoyle. The one time he relinquished the wheel to producing clown Mark Anthony, the car ran aground on a shoal of elephant tubs until a crew of roustabouts could push us back onto the track.
“Mabel packed a lunch for Swede each day: a liverwurst sandwich on dark rye bread, and a banana. Swede loved liverwurst but hated bananas; Mabel made him take it in his lunch for the potassium it contained — or, as she pronounced it, ‘protassimum.’
“‘Make sure he eats that banana!’ she’d yell at us over the walls of clown alley as Swede came in each day and threw the banana to Prince Paul or Dougie Ashton. ‘He needs the vitamins and protassimum!’
“Mabel refused to ever enter clown alley. The place was traditionally an exclusive male preserve, verboten to all women. That began to change the first season I was on the Ringling show; some of the more bold girlfriends and female reporters came barging in without so much as a by-your-leave, sending clowns scrambling for their bathrobes or jumping frantically behind their trunks. It was finally decided to attach an English handbell on a length of rope to the side of the entrance and insist that all visitors give it a good loud shake before entering. Any female who failed to observe this courtesy was roundly condemned with a chorus of ‘Ring the bell — Ring the bell!’ until she retreated.
“When the weather turned cold in the fall, prior to the end of the season, Mabel would set up an electric heater in a secluded corner of the arena where Swede could rest between shows, lounging in a folding canvas beach chair and covered with a large sheepskin.
“Swede told me that he met Mabel when he was a young lion tamer. In constant need of raw horse meat to feed his animals, Swede haunted many a butcher shop. One dewy morning in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, he walked into a prosperous German butcher shop and deli, redolent of sour salami, Bismarck herring, and limburger cheese, to inquire about equestrian protein. The proprietor agreed to provide enough meat for the hungry cats and sent his daughter Mabel out to the lot later that day with several large bulky packages wrapped in brown paper rapidly deteriorating from the dripping blood. She stuck around, fascinated by Swede and his career, becoming part of the curious crowds in each town that circus folk refer to as ‘lot lice.’ When the show left town a week later, Mabel came along, now married to Swede by a local Justice of the Peace. Her parents were not the usual small-town bigots when it came to consorting with circus people, and they welcomed the hasty nuptials. Swede says that even as a young bride Mabel had an enormous appetite, so perhaps Mom and Dad were relieved to be shut of a daughter who probably threatened to eat so deeply into their inventory. They gifted the honeymooners with a barrel of pigs’ knuckles in brine and a large wheel of Emmentaler cheese. The well-fed couple remained together for 45 years before the Grim Reaper came for Mabel, and then, a few months later, escorted Swede back to her in those Grassy Lots beyond.
“Prince Paul, an emphatic bachelor, once looked at the two of them quietly sitting together on the ring curb between shows, then turned to me with a thought: ‘Y’know, Schmutz Finger, marriage is a sucker’s game — but those two make it work somehow.’
“Then Prince turned and stumped heavily back to clown alley, singing to himself an odd tune that began ‘I’ve got a customer for your face . . .'”
Everyone’s a (book) critic
Kathy S. of St Paul is today’s reviewer: “Trevor Noah’s book ‘Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood’ is partly a love letter to his mother and partly explanations of apartheid, race and poverty that will stick with me indefinitely. His story about the concept of teaching a person to fish (so they can eat forever), for example, points out that a person also needs a fishing pole in order to fish.
“Noah, host of ‘The Daily Show’ on Comedy Central, was born in South Africa under apartheid. His birth was a crime because his father is white and his mother is black — which was illegal when he was young. His mother and father could not appear to be his parents, in public, lest they be imprisoned and have Trevor thrown in an orphanage.
“This book is easy reading because Noah is a born storyteller, and he uses humor to draw his readers through tales about poverty and very hard times. And, for spice, he tells about his first total fails in relating to girls.
“I heard the audio version of this book, read by Noah, and I recommend it. He speaks at least six languages, including English and German, and I appreciated hearing him pronounce the South African expressions he quotes — especially ‘Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo’: ‘You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock.’
“He starts out the book with that wonderful saying, which describes the strength of the women who brought apartheid down — and his fantastic mother.
“In the end, Noah has to decide how much of his life he will gamble in order to save his mother. But I’ll leave the end of that story for those who read his book.”
Band Name of the Day: Murphy Bed