Clown testifies: “Clowns didn’t get scary in America all of a sudden.”

Then & Now
Funny (?) Business Division — including: Know thyself!

Veteran clown Tim Torkildson writes: “Subject: WHY CLOWNS GOT SCARY IN AMERICA.

“Clowns didn’t get scary in America all of a sudden because of Stephen King’s ‘IT.’

“No, they began to terrify children long before that.

“Case in point:

“When I was growing up in Southeast Minneapolis in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Fourth of July was celebrated at Van Cleve Park a few blocks from our home with an all-day carnival featuring food booths, game booths, and evening fireworks. I always got a dollar to spend there. I prudently bought my hot dogs at a dime apiece first, before blowing the rest of my wad on the rigged games of chance.

“There were amateur clown clubs that infested this carnival, among many other social gatherings back in those days. Men who held normal jobs in banks and factories, delivered the mail or drove garbage trucks — they mysteriously felt the need to dress up in outrageous costumes, smear on clumsy red and white greasepaint, and run around like chickens with their heads cut off. The lure of the open road and no responsibilities, which is what these men imagined a professional clown’s life must be like, had lodged in their minds as some kind of beau ideal.

“They may have been Shriners or some other supposedly benign enterprise like the St. Paul Powder Puffs, but their influence quickly degenerated into inept malignity.

“You’re going to contradict me by saying these amateur clubs did much good by visiting children’s wards in hospitals to cheer the sick little tykes up. But believe me, as a professional clown who visited many hospitals over the years, when I say that sick kids don’t want some weirdly dressed gargoyle capering around their bed making animal balloons. Read ’em a story or sing ’em folk songs or nonsense songs in a soft voice. That’s helpful. But grotesque zanies lumbering around bedpans and wheelchairs do not cause sweet smiles to spring from young lips.

“What I remember of the amateur clown clubs at Van Cleve Park is that they thought it was great good fun to chase little kids like me all around the place, wielding huge hypodermic needles, great wooden straight razors, long red plastic pitchforks, and other accoutrements of medieval torture and cruelty. Yes, we ran away from them giggling. But it was the gibbering of pure terror. Children cannot distinguish clearly between danger and entertainment, and so they’ll start a bonfire in a vacant lot and let it turn into a destructive conflagration without ever realizing it. So we ran. And we laughed. And I imagine the amateur clowns, who reeked of whiskey most of the time, thought they were truly entertaining us. Since we were young and they were old (and three sheets to the wind), they could never really catch us — unless we wanted to be caught. Which we didn’t. Except after eating four cheap hot dogs with bags of potato chips, a child tends to slow down a bit. My best friend Wayne Matsuura and I were fleeing from the terrible amateur clowns one Fourth of July when Wayne suddenly got a stitch in his side. He had to slow down — and was caught by the amateur clowns, who were gleefully surprised at actually capturing a victim for once. They dragged Wayne over to an unused picnic table and began to work him over. First they spritzed him with water from their gigantic hypodermic needles. Then they lathered him all over with aerosol shaving cream. And the final indignity: They tickled him until he lost control of his bladder. He could barely pull himself off the picnic table when the amateur clowns finally decided to let him go.

“Did he tell his parents? Did they file a child-abuse lawsuit. Have the police arrest the molesters? Nope. He thought and I thought it was just something that always happened at Fourth of July celebrations, like falling down and skinning your knee. Nothing worth telling the folks about.

“But obviously it left a traumatic scar somewhere on our psyches.

“For me, though, those awful moments were subsumed by exposure to the great clowns on our black-and-white Zenith television set. Laurel & Hardy were shown on WCCO at midnight on Saturday nights. The Three Stooges’ two-reelers were part of Clancy the Cop’s afternoon TV show. There was even something called ‘The Charlie Chaplin Comedy Theatre’ that ran on Sunday afternoons; spliced and heavily edited, with inane narration, these films from Chaplin’s Essanay period were not under copyright and so could be pirated by anyone.

“That’s where I got my taste for real slapstick artistry — a taste that quickly became a venial sin and then a veritable obsession by the time puberty attacked me.

“Now, today, as I turn 70 this year, my joints and cartilage are as the dew in the morning sun — going, going, gone . . . and physical humor is no longer an option for me. So Amy films me on her camera for goofy 30-second youtube videos, and I write execrable rhymed verse — my last obsessive attempts to create a modicum of silliness in an all-too-bleak world.”

Mixed messages

From The Doryman of Prescott, Wisconsin: “Subject: Legally contradictory.

“No matter how you feel about the death penalty, this statement pertaining to a scheduled execution in Texas today has to qualify as a lethal oxymoron: ‘Prison officials deny the lawsuit’s claims and say the state’s supply of execution drugs is safe.'”

Then & Now
Leading to: Please release me!

Zoo Lou of St. Paul writes: “Subject: What’s the good word?

“What’s the word that all the young people and cool cats flipped over in the early ’60s?

“It was the wildest, zaniest song we had ever heard when it came out in 1963, with its pulsing, pounding drums and bass, and the singer’s raspy, guttural voice.

” ‘Well everybody’s heard about the bird — bird, bird, bird well the bird is the word — bird, bird, bubbaba bird . . .’

“Yes, it’s none other than ‘Surfin Bird,’ by the Minneapolis band The Trashmen, which drove us kids into a frenzy and the adults up the wall, especially when we played it over and over. This irrepressible little juggernaut actually made it to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in ’63, and No. 3 in the United Kingdom. I can just hear Queen Elizabeth II, in true British fashion, call ‘Surfin’ Bird’ cacophonous claptrap.

“I was a sophomore at Hill High School at the time, and I remember science teacher Brother Vincent giving us a lecture about the suitability of ‘Surfin’ Bird,’ claiming he had heard a rumor that the singer was choking himself to get that guttural sound. Naturally, we all started pushing on our Adam’s apples and rasping ‘Everybody’s heard about the bird . . . ‘ — much to Brother’s chagrin.

“I recently reconnected with ‘Surfin’ Bird’ after not hearing it for many years, and it still packed a powerful, nostalgic kick. What really floored me was finding a music video of ‘Surfin’ Bird’ superimposed over a scene from the old TV show ‘The Addams Family,’ in which they are all dancing to a rock song. ‘Surfin’ Bird’ meshes perfectly with the dancing and is absolutely hilarious, especially when Frankenstein-esque Lurch begins gyrating and flapping his arms. You can find this video by searching for ‘The Addams Family Surfin’ Bird.’

“There are also other videos in which ‘Surfin’ Bird’ is featured in several movies and TV shows, like ‘Family Guy.’ BULLETIN BOARD INTERJECTS: There are also other videos of “Addams Family Dancing” to various other bands. Here’s the original:

“After my exhilarating trip back to those glorious days of yesteryear, I now have the same problem I had in ’63: how to get ‘Surfin’ Bird’ out of my head.”

It’s a small world, after all . . .

Aqua Aficionado reports: “On my first trip to Hawaii, I visited a friend in grad school at the university in Honolulu. She lived in a friendly dorm housing students from Pacific Rim countries. I rented a room there for three weeks and got to know other students from countries like India and Thailand, besides doing such fun things as snorkeling for the first time.

“After I returned to the Twin Cities, I took a non-credit dance class at the University of Minnesota student union. One man I danced with told me he was a linguistics professor originally from India. That’s interesting, I said, because I recently became friends with a linguistics expert from South India while I was visiting Hawaii. It turned out that not only did the professor know my new friend Raji, but she had even attended his wedding.

“When Raji stopped in Minnesota on her way home to India, we all got together and have remained friends since then, for almost 40 years.”

Our theater of seasons
And: It takes all kinds!

Mad Dog of Sand Lake: “Subject: Shorts in Winter.

The post by Rusty of St. Paul mentioned seeing Duluth residents wearing shorts when Rusty would have worn long johns. That brought back pleasant and humorous memories of my eldest grandson, who would wear shorts to nearly everything in all seasons of the year.

“One of the funniest things I saw was during deer hunting here in Wisconsin. The grandson left the shack and was walking into the woods wearing bright red long johns — under a pair of shorts! To each his own! I was cold just watching him!”

Where we live

Kathy S. of St. Paul: “In January I sometimes say the following prayer at church:

“May Minnesotans find fun and joy even though Christmas is now over, the Vikings are ‘done,’ and it is Still Winter. It seems especially appropriate in the cold, cold weather right now.

“But I am hoping to be at church soon on the Sunday when we dance and sing to the wonderful song ‘The Bells of Norwich.’ It includes the lyric ‘Let the winter come and go’ — a reminder that this (cold), too, will pass.

“As dancers we might not be ready for prime time, but we sure have fun. One year I dragged a visitor from California into the circle. I think she loved it, once she realized that we were supposed to dance as if no one was watching.”

Our theater of seasons

Mounds View Swede: “Subject: Four more icicle photos.

“The icicles sent in earlier this year all melted away with the warm spell we had in the first part of January. They all got replaced with new versions as the sun-cold cycle resumed.

“Some had some unusual shapes, I thought. What causes them to form this way is something to ponder about.

“The new icicles were getting just as long as the previous ones.

“One view had icicles framing the barn up the block a ways. Since all my great-grandparents came from farms in Sweden, it feels comforting to have one near me as a tie to my heritage.

“A blue sky, which has been rare this month, provided these blue lines in this group of icicles. I really enjoyed seeing them with the blue added in.

“Nature’s beauty can be amazing at times.”

See world
Or: Their theater of seasons

Another close encounter of the natural kind, reported by Elvis: “Elvis ran away from winter and headed to the Florida Panhandle. He is fortunate to have a 5th-floor condo, directly overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. This week a drama played out in front of the condo building.

“When Elvis first looked out, with his first cup of coffee in his hands, he observed something going on. A couple walking the beach just before dawn had stopped where what we thought was a dolphin had beached and was in distress. With his handy binoculars, which usually help him observe wildlife like dolphins, loons, ospreys and pelicans, he could see this large animal flopping and rolling in the surf.

Elvis went down to the beach and talked to the couple. He took a few photos as the sun rose, and walked along the beach a little.

“City employees in a truck and others were now on the scene, but leaving the animal alone when Elvis walked back. The animal was moving weakly, and every wave pushed it around or rolled it over. It was obvious it was not doing well.

Elvis went back inside and watched people come and go. Then two women waded into the water, dragged the animal up out of the heavier surf, and wrapped it in wet towels. One knelt in the waters next to it and did not stop stroking and touching it. As time went on, the crowd started growing.

“Since starting this post, Elvis followed up with the wildlife rescue center that soon showed up. He found out that coming from the Midwest, he doesn’t know his marine wildlife. This was not a dolphin, which is what he and the other onlookers all assumed. He was told on the phone that this was a female pygmy sperm whale calf.

“Soon a Fish and Wildlife truck drove up. The big guy in the uniform basically stood around for the next two hours. The women wouldn’t stop touching the whale, and someone brought more towels. Then the local government-approved nonprofit that deals with marine wildlife strandings arrived: a pickup truck with four more young women.

“The wildlife guy went to his truck and put up stakes and yellow crime tape, making a perimeter on the sand. Ten minutes later, he took it down. Everyone put on blue latex gloves. They now shooed away anyone walking on the beach or standing around to watch. About 10 official people were now standing around the baby whale. The sheriff drove up, and soon left. Forty or more seagulls were lined up and watching what was going on.

“The truck was parked and blocking Elvis’s view. He didn’t want to go back down there. After almost an hour, they drove it closer to the water. Elvis could see then that they had put the whale on a blue tarp/stretcher. It was not moving anymore. All of the people picked up the tarp with the heavy-duty handles sewn in it, and brought it over by the truck. A fancy winch and lift was deployed off the back of the truck bed, and the whale was moved into the bed.

“No one was doing anything to it anymore, and Elvis assumed it had died. (He was told later he was right.) The sheriff showed up in his truck again. Everyone took off their gloves, and one of the women collected them in a plastic grocery bag. They closed the tailgate. The city truck left, with the Fish and Wildlife guy and a couple of the women standing in the bed.

“The rescue pickup turned sharply toward land and immediately got its rear wheels buried in some soft sand and stuck. Elvis thought about getting stuck in snow. Their wheels weren’t straight; no one got out to try and push; they didn’t try and rock it. They just spun the wheels into the sand. Florida people! Ten minutes later, a front-end loader came down the beach. The city truck and sheriff returned. They hooked up a tow strap to the loader and hauled the truck out by jerking it sharply forward a few times, still with everyone and the whale in it. Everyone drove off. About three hours had elapsed.

Elvis has been thinking about this incident a lot. He Googled up the local rescue/rehabilitation organization that showed up for the rescue. This led him to the NOAA marine animal stranding site ( Reading through the information, it seems that these folks do help marine animals that have been injured, or entangled, and maybe if they are sick. Elvis wondered if one of the people who showed up was a vet, and how exactly you check vital signs and assess what might be wrong with a young whale that doesn’t show any injury. In any event, Elvis feels kind of sad for this creature that had probably never encountered humans before, had never been touched, and had never visited a vet, much less ridden in a pickup truck. Elvis’s feeling is that it might have been best if it had just been left alone. The high tide coming in a few hours would have taken a dead animal back out to sea, food for the crabs and other scavengers. But tourists don’t want to see a dead creature — thinking it was a dolphin, like Elvis did — lying on the sunny beach. The chamber of commerce and the city would want it off the beach.

“It was an interesting morning.”

Out of the mouths of babes

Pollyanna of Clifton, Wisconsin: “I often go to gymnastics with our granddaughters, ages 3 and 5. We were chatting in the car on the way home when our son asked the older one what she did at school that day. She was silent for a minute, then said: ‘Daddy? Sometimes, after I do something, it just slips right out of my brain.’ I thought it was a fantastic observation!

“My husband uses baby wipes to clean the mask for his CPAP every morning. They sit on our bathroom vanity. The day before our little one’s observation, he asked me: ‘What did you do with the wipes?’

“’I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

“’The wipes for my mask. They are gone.’

“We looked in all the cabinets and closets, in the laundry, in the trash. No one has been in the house but us. Neither of us has a clue what happened to the wipes. It just slipped right out of (one of) our brain(s)!”

Band Name of the Day: The Grotesque Zanies

Website of the Day: “Everybody’s Heard about the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock ’n’ Roll in Minnesota”

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