This Hard Land

Note to all you folks thinking of moving to North Dakota to start cashing in on the oil boom:  North Dakota is cold.  

There aren’t a lot of trees.  And outside of the eight or nine significant-sized cities (Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown, Devil’s Lake, Bismark/Mandan, Minot, Williston, Dickinson, and maybe Valley City), there just aren’t a whole lot of people. 

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The Conductor

It was a chilly, rainy night in March of 1983.

I had a horrible cold – but no matter.  I was standing on a riser in a tumbledown little church in Pendelton, Oregon, with 69 or so other college kids.   And by this time in the tour, cooped up on buses for day after day, most of us were sharing colds.

I had just finished a brisk walk up to the stage for the second of three sets of the evening’s performance.  It was our seventh or eighth concert in as many days and nights.

The house lights dimmed, and the stage lights came up, blotting the audience from view.  We focused on the conductor’s podium, where presently a guy in a formal tuxedo climbed onstage.  His cheeks were puffy and red, but his eyes were clear and sharp- “fierce”, I’d say, if the fashion industry hadn’t so devalued the word.  He smiled -partly greeting, partly saying “can you keep up with me?”

He lifted his hands, and brought them down.  And we sang – launching a capella and without fanfare directly into “Have Ye Not Known/Ye Shall Have A Song”, two movements from Randall Thompson’s oratorio “The Peaceable Kingdom”, a piece lifted from Isaiah 40:21:

Have ye not known?

Have ye  not heard?

Hath it not been told you from the beginning?

Hath it not been told from the foundations of the earth?

(Here’s a high school choir doing it).

I sang my part, nestled into the midst of seventy college kids who, for a couple of hours, felt like a single organism that was much better than the sum of our parts, as the conductor – listed on the program as Dr. Richard Harrison Smith, and never anything else – wrung the last little bit of execution, passion and yes, joy out of the evening.

And while I didn’t dare make any facial expression, or even take my eyes off the podium, I smiled inside.

———-

I remember “Dick” Smith, as my dad always called him, probably about the same time he moved to Jamestown, ND.  He and his family – his daughters, Kristin and twins Karen and Kathryn, all about my age – came by our old house in Jamestown, along with his wife, June, who’d just been hired as Dad’s colleague in the Jamestown High School English department.   Smith had just taken over the music department at Jamestown College, after earning a PhD in music and an MA in Biochemistry.  I wonder sometimes if academia today would know what to make of a guy like him.

But  I was years away from knowing any of this.  I was six years old.

Now, if there’s one thing people in small college towns appreciate – or appreciated, in those days before the internet and ubiquitous TV and travel – it’s whatever scraps of culture they can get.  And Dr. Smith quickly started producing some amazing culture.

In town, we noticed this mostly from the college’s annual Christmas concerts – which morphed from sleepy little affairs into six-night runs with choir, concert band and elaborate production, lighting and sets, that drew packed houses and TV coverage.  Packing into the college’s Voorhees Chapel, to the smell of pine boughs and scorched gels, is one of the most potent memories of Christmas as a child.

Unbeknownst to me – because I was years away from caring about such things – Dr. Smith, starting in 1969, built the JC Concert Choir into one of the premiere college choirs in the United States.  One review from the seventies – and no, I couldn’t find it if I tried – placed JC’s choir among the top three small-college choirs in the US – in the same league as the legendary St. Olaf Choir, in the (choir geeks will know this) Christenson era.    In 1972, the Jamestown College choir became the first American choir to sing at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  In 1978, he engineered a visit to Jamestown by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to accompany the choir in a concert – the highlight being Bach’s Magnificat, if I recall correctly.

You might be thinking “this is a small college choir that fought above its weight”.  It was – but that wasn’t even the amazing part.

The amazing thing about Smith’s choirs throughout their history?  While the other top-flight choirs, like St. Olaf’s, were made up of music majors and especially voice students, Jamestown just wasn’t that big.  In the seventies, the place had 600-700 students, maybe a couple of dozen of them music majors.   Over ten percent of the entire campus sang in the choir – less than a quarter of them music majors.  Imagine a tournament-grade basketball team that was 3/4 walk-ons from the Theatre and English and Nursing departments; it was the same basic idea.

And so year after year, for almost thirty years, Dr. Smith created top-flight college choirs from virtually nothing.

———-

When I graduated from high school.  I didn’t know what I wanted to be – but I knew I wasn’t going to major in music.  Still, I’d had some musical training – none of it involving singing.  I played guitar, cello and harmonica, and sang in a garage band, in a voice that was best suited for shouting out Rolling Stones and Clash covers.  That was all the singing I ever wanted to do.  I was an instrumental guy, and proud of it.

I’d known Dr. Smith and his family for about 12 years by that point – his wife June was my high school creative writing teacher; Karen and Kathryn were classmates at Jamestown High School (Kristin graduated a year before me).

My mom worked as a secretary in the nursing department at Jamestown College, which would net me a nice tuition break, so in the spring of 1981 I enrolled at “JC”.  Of course, every penny counted, so I seized on every scholarship I could find.  I got a grant to work as a stagehand in the theatre department and, late in the game, was recuited to play cello in a chamber group, and percussion and guitar for the concert and stage bands.

One day, my senior year of high school, I went up to the campus to close the deal on the music grants.  I walked into Voorhees Chapel for a chat with Linda Banister – and my spidey-sense started buzzing away; something seemed just a little bit off.

There were always plenty of women auditioning. then and always, for 35 or so soprano and alto slots – but in a school like JC, finding guys who could fill the choir’s 35-odd tenor, baritone and bass seats was a constant battle.   Smith, and his assistant, Linda Banister (a voice teacher who did double duty as the choir’s manager) prowled the campus, looking for guys who sounded like they that could be jury-rigged into instruments in a choral ensemble; they filtered through high school transcripts looking for hidden semesters in “choir”; they staked out football practice, listened in the cafeteria, and even (rumor had it) prowled the dorms, listening for guys singing in the shower.  The men’s sections – the tenors, baritones and basses – were a grab bag of football players, computer-department night owls, and just-plain guys who could, to their amazement, carry a tune, most of them with absolutely no musical training whatsoever, most of them enticed by having $1,000 a year  lopped off their $4,000+ tuition; such was the choir’s clout.

Anyway – after a too-short discussion that ended up with grant in hand way too quickly, Mrs. Bannister said “Now you need to go down to Dr. Smith’s office”.

“Er – to  talk about the instrumental stuff?” I asked, warily.

“Yeah, sure!” she said, fast enough to make me even more suspicious.

I walked downstairs into Dr Smith’s office, in the basement of the chapel.  He was already sitting behind the piano.

“Hi, Mitch”, he said – first names were fine, he’d known me forever.  Then, before I could respond, “OK, say “Mi Mi Mi” and sing along with this pattern”.  He pounded out a “C” arpeggio.

Nonplussed, I sang.  “Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi Miiii”, up and down the “C” chord..

He walked me through several more patterns, up and down the keyboard, figuring out my range.  “You have a good ear; we can work on the technique.  You’re a baritone!”

And that was pretty much it. I’d been shanghaied. Linda Banister was waiting outside the office.  “We really need you in the choir…” she said.  Being a small-town Scandinavian, my need to please others would have kicked in even had she not told me that singing in the choir was worth a $500/semester off tuition.

And so I joined the choir.  I’d be in the baritone section come the fall.

———-

Or would eventually, anyway.  Because before we could start choir that fall, Dr. Smith – and all of us, really – had a wrenching, existential diversion.

On top of being a great musician, arranger and director, Dr. Smith was also a footnote in medical history.  A very important one, actually.

In the summer of 1981 – the hot, arid three months before I started college – word made the rounds in Jametown that Dr. Smith had gotten very, very sick at the family’s lake cabin in northern Minnesota.  A very rare congenital enzyme deficiency had caused his body to start to destroy its own liver. He was in a coma and near death at a hospital in Fargo.

And at the metaphorical and literal last moment, the decision was made to fly him to the University of Pittsburgh for a medical procedure that teetered on the brink of science fiction at the time; a liver transplant.

At the time, liver transplants were almost as rare and difficult as heart transplants; the liver may be, after the brain, the body’s most complex organ.  The biochemical system that the liver manages is as convoluted as anything in nature.  And it showed, medically speaking; at the time, nobody had lived even a year with a transplanted liver.   The body inevitably rejected the tranplant, as if it was a bacterium or a splinter.  The way it was designed to do.

Liver transplants were so experimental, insurance companies were still years away from covering them.  The key to success – and it was an immutably elusive key, up until the spring of 1981 – was to quell the body’s immune system’s natural response of sequestering it off and killing it.

Shortly before Dr. Smith flew to Pittsburgh that summer, a new drug – Ciclosporin – was introduced.  Refined from a fungus found in the soil somewhere in Norway, it’d been used in treating a variety of other diseases – but it was going to be tried for the first time to prevent organ transplant rejection.

And Dr. Smith was Patient 1.

It wasn’t just the drugs.  Some of the very equipment and techniques that make the miracle of liver transplantation seem so commonplace today were invented as a result of Dr. Smith’s surgery.  From a Pitt Medical School publication on the transplant:

Fortunately, a donor liver became available. As Dr. Starzl  (the surgeon who pioneered the technique of the live transplant at Pittsburgh) pointed out in his book, the surgical team fought throughout the night to control the bleeding during Richard’s surgery.

Anesthesiologist Dr. John Sassano administered two hundred units of blood, pumping each unit by hand. When Richard survived the operation and Dr. Sassano’s job was done, Dr. Starzl reported that Dr. Sassano broke down and cried out of relief and exhaustion. Dr. Sassano went on to invent the Sassano pump, a rapid blood infusion system still in use today.

The surgery lasted 14 hours.

That I’m writing this article today should tell you it worked – all the pieces; the surgical skill, the brand-new, untried techniques and drugs, and of course the liver, from a 19 year old auto-crash victim.

———-

It was a solid semester before he came back to the choir.  The cocktail of drugs he’d been given, including the Ciclosporin, had played hob with his system.  He’d gained a lot of weight; his formerly hawk-like face was swollen.  And he could only direct for short periods, sitting on a stool, before he’d get tired and hand the choir over to his backup director.

But once he started, you could tell he lived for it.

And during the second semester of my freshman year, Dr. Smith gradually worked his way back onto the podium; by the time of our spring tour, he managed to direct (as I recall) every concert at every stop on the way.

I’ll let that sink in; in eight months, he went from comatose to doing his job (albeit not at 100% just yet), with a stop along the way for a gruelling, body-crushing, experimental, never-before-seen bit of beyond-major surgery.

We knew it was remarkable back then; having nobody to compare it with – every previous liver transplantee had died in that kind of time – none of us knew how remarkable it was.

———-

If my experience with high school music groups – orchestra, stage band and the like – was like Pop Warner football, choir with Dr. Smith was like suddenly walking into Vince Lombardi’s training camp.

Smith was a renowned arranger and conductor; his specialty, oddly, was traditional Afro-American spirituals; a Canadian paper once praised the Choir for being the most authentic-sounding choir of rural white kids they’d ever heard.

Beyond that?  The programming every year was very non-trivial.  It spun between spirituals, modern/avant garde choral work, and the classics of the repertoire – and by classics, I mean the hard stuff.

The highlights?  Every couple years, Smith would break out a new Bach double-choir motet.  My freshman and senior years, it was Motet Number 7, Singet Dem Herrn.  15 minutes and 90-odd pages long, it required the choir to split into two separate choirs, singing Bach’s, well, baroque composition in eight part counterpoint and harmony.

All from memory.  Smith allowed no sheet music on stage, and the choir was rarely accompanied (as in, one song that I recall in four years).

Go ahead and try it in the shower when you get a moment.

That took discipline.  All practices were mandatory; you got two excused absences a semester, and even those were discouraged (I don’t remember taking more than one in four years).  The rules on stage were simple and uncompromising; once Smith stepped on the podium, in concert or late “concert rules” rehearsals, you didn’t look away, at the risk of a ferocious tongue-lashing during the break.   If you got sick on stage, you did not walk offstage; you sat down on the riser and your neighors closed ranks around you.  If your nose itched?  You let it itch; scratching your nose, or anywhere on your face, inevitably looked like picking your nose.  You didn’t question Dr. Smith on any of this.

The choir practiced four days a week, over the noon hour, to accomodate everything from after-school football practices to afternoon chem labs.   You earned that $500 tuition break every semester.

To turn that throng of misplaced football players, dorm-potatoes, waylaid cross-country runners, computer science majors and the odd musician into a solid choir, Dr. Smith smacked us with something that most of us had never encountered before, and only rarely since; an uncompromising demand for excellence.

Excellence is a word that’s gotten abused horribly in the past thirty years.  A wave of business books perverted the terms into meaning  “a businessperson given him/herself license to be a prick”.

The word itself never came up, that I recall, in four years with the choir.  But it’s what Dr. Smith demanded of all of us.  Whoever we were – wrestlers, pre-meds and vocal majors alike, we had it in us to do great music – Bach, or spirituals, or avant-garde adaptations of Shaker liturgical chants alike – the way God himself intended them to be done.   Perfectly.

And he didn’t tolerate half-assed choral music, and he never cared who knew about it.  Botching an entrance or scooping a high note could earn a section, or a singer, a chewing out in front of the whole choir – and the privilege of singing the part yourself, solo, over and over, as the whole choir sat and listened, until you hit it perfectly.

So we – wrestlers, pre-meds, dorm-potatoes, phy-ed majors and voice majors alike – developed a keen ear and a sense of precision that was new to many of us, even if we had some experience with formal classical music.

He had no time for contemporary music.  At least once a year, he’d get frustrated by some bit of pop-music frippery, and bellow “Do you think people will be listening to the Beatles in 300 years?”  I was often tempted to respond “if there’s an entire academic discipline dedicated to seeing that it does, then sure!”, but he didn’t sound like he wanted a discussion…

Even other choirs felt his wrath.  A choir from another college performed an assembly before practice one day.  A “contemporary” choir with microphones and a PA and accompanists and a repertoire of mediocre modern choral music, they were also – by Smiths’ standards – unforgivably sloppy in their intonation and timing; they were also slow in tearing down their elaborate stage rig as we filed onto the stage for our noon practice, and milled about in the chapel, chattering away, getting ready to go back on the road themselves.   We saw Smith, fuming at both the late start and the sloppy music, and took our places quickly and silently as the other choir milled about the place.  We just knew this could not end well.

When Smith finally got the podium, his face was red with rage.  He uncorked one of his vein-bulging jeremiads about the worthlessness of sloppy, inferior music – he referred to “this…crap!”, as I recall, which shut the other choir’s kids up but fast.  He ran down their intonation, their entrances, their reliance on a mixer to balance their – shudder – microphones, their sloppiness – and compared some of our own traits with what he’d just endured.  Then he had us ready up one of our own songs, in a tone that strongly hinted we’d best blow the doors off that tune.

And we did, as I remember.  We didn’t dare not stick the landing.  We sang the hell out of that tune, as the other choir silently shrank from the sanctuary.

We were the JC Choir, dammit.

Of course, Smith’s temper was tempered with a sense of humor and an approachable affability.  Sitting in his office, or on the choir tour bus, or during a good rehearsal, he was quick with a joke – usually awful – and a smile and a word of encouragement.

And it’s worth noting that his relentless pursuit of precision and perfection didn’t cover every aspect of his life.  Navigation was a good example.  While on tour, generations of choir members learned the meaning of the”Smith block”, as in Smith ordering the bus to a stop in some strange city in a place where the bus had a hard time finding our destination, and telling everyone to grab their luggage and walk the rest of the way.  “It’s just a block”, he’d assure us.  I remember walking a solid mile through the streets of Basel, Switzerland, enjoying a warm, humid evening on a “Smith Block”-long stroll, lugging my backpack and my concert clothes down the Totengässlein, feeling like a tourist.

Smith could laugh about that along with everyone. There’s a reason generations of students loved the guy.

———-

Jamestown College was a small, private, Presbyterian-affiliated school – a sister-school to Macalester, although without the political implications, in those days.  And like a lot of small colleges, Jamestown went through some lean years.  Part of it was the farm crisis; lots of small colleges failed back then.  Part of it was bad management; the college had a really, really bad president for a few years there.

But the school excelled at three things; athletics (the football, basketball and track programs were at the top of the NAIA Division III standings), nursing (one of the best nursing programs in the US at the time) and the Choir.

And so part of the job was to go out and raise money for the college.  For four years, our “spring break”, every year, was to go out on the road on a national concert tour.  Tours involved long days on the bus, taking off often before the sun rose, arriving in a new town late in the afternoon, setting up our risers and lights (that was my gig – I was a stagehand, after all), suiting up for the gig, taking a deep breath, singing a couple of hours, and then going home with a host family from the church that was sponsoring the gig.  We got a free day at the apex of the tour.

As of spring break my Freshman year, the biggest city I’d ever seen was Fargo.  Tour changed all that; each stop in turn, St. Cloud and Madison and Toledo and Philadelphia and Washington DC, was the biggest city I’d ever been in.

That’s us. We’re in the rotunda of the Cannon Congressional Office building, March 17, 1982. I’m in the third row, eighth from the left. Dr. Smith is conducting, natch. On the right is former longtime ND Congressman Mark Andrews.  Photo courtesy Katie Hall, who is “Doctor Hall” to you now, and lives in Fargo and is, I think, the far right girl in the front row.  

And in the three following spring breaks – Seattle, Denver and Phoenix, and every mid-sized city and tiny town with a Presbyterian church with a music-loving minister in between, we toured, ten or twelve days at a shot.

And the biggest tour of all – our trip to Europe, in 1983.  We sang in little villages – Uitgeest, Holland, and Altenburg, in Schwabia – and major cities, Basel and Mainz and Köln and, biggest and best of all, Notre Dame de Paris.

Where we stood, in a church nearly a thousand years old, built long before sound amplification systems were built, in a building designed to magnify the unamplified human voice, and sang at a mass stuffed with Bishops and Archbishops and other popery, and sang to packed houses, and thought for a brief moment that God had taught Man to build buildings like this just for choirs like ours.

And a few days later, in Köln, where we sang a duo concert with the Köln Polezeichor, the city’s police choir, themselves an excellent group.  After the show, the cops hauled us all and sundry to a bar frequented by Köln’s finest; our money was no good there.  And it was noted that Dr. Smith’s liver was now of legal age.  And as we partied into the wee hours, Dr. Smith had a beer (with his doctor’s blessing; Dr. Smith was as diligent with the gift that had saved his life as any human could be).  And as we walked – I was probably staggering more than walking – back to our hotel through the streets of Köln in the weeest hours of the morning, I looked at Dr. Smith.

And he was as happy as happy gets.  This – making music, and getting flocks of kids to make it, and make it very very well, was his happy place.

———-

The last time I sang with Dr. Smith was October, 1994.  The college threw a 25 year “All Choir Reunion”.  About 400 people – around half of the people who’d ever sung in the choir in those 25 years – came back to Jamestown to sing a concert with Dr. Smith.  It was such a huge event, we used the Jamestown Civic Center.   And people from my class in the choir sat with and sang among several generations of choir “kids”; some who’d been there at the beginning in 1968, and who’d been at that first “gig” at Notre Dame in 1972; some who’d just graduated, and hadn’t yet assimilated all that Dr. Smith had taught them.

And it was a joyous night – one of a short list of highlights of my own life.  I was able to tell Dr. Smith pretty much exactly that; how glad I was to make the reunion, and the impact he’d had on my life.  Of course, I had to stand in a long line; I think everyone was there to say the same thing, one way or the other.

Smith retired in 1998.  The travelling was harming his health.

———-

The average liver transplant holds out for ten years.  Partly it’s due to the whole “new liver” thing – all the risks attendant to transplants.

Partly it’s the drugs that bombard the body to make the transplant happen at all.  They take a terrible toll on the rest of the body – especially the kidneys.   Dr. Smith got a kidney transplant in 1997 – from his wife June, incredibly.   It bought time – and bought it for a guy who’d already run the account a lot further than anyone could reasonably expect.

Dr. Smith was the longest-lived person in the world with a liver transplant.  His transplant surgeon, Thomas Starzl, “the father of the transplant”, featured Smith prominently in his book Puzzle People – his own look into medical miracles and the people who live them.   Starzl chalked Smith’s survival up to many things – an iron-clad constitution, rock-solid faith, and a mission in life among other things- but at the end of the day, even that most gifted of medical scientists had little empirical idea how Smith had so clobbered the odds.

But the run ran out.  Dr. Smith died late last night; the kidneys, and the liver which had served two owners so well, finally gave out.  He was 73.  He leaves behind June – one of my favorite high school teachers – and his daughters, Kristin (a reproductive endocrinologist on Long Island), and the twins, Kathryn and Karen, my high school classmates, a teacher and nurse respectively, both in the Fargo area.  They’ll miss him of course – and so will the thousand or so of us whose lives he touched as director, and the hundreds of thousands who watched and listened to his work over the decades.

Yeah, me too.

Rest in peace, Dr. Smith.  And from the bottom of my heart, my condolences to June, Kristin, Kathryn and Karen.

———-

Back on that rainy night in Pendelton in 1983, the song turned into its homestretch; from the bombastic “Have Ye Not Known!” of the fanfare, through a turbulent middle section that seemed to represent the nagging doubts of the faithful, into the ending, the best part; a three-minute canon, simply repeating one line, over and over again:

And gladness of heart…

The line never changed – starting with the sopranos, quietly hinting it; the altos came in, more broadly, then the tenors, and then the basses, in a broad, three-minute crescendo.  But the song modulated through a circle of…fourths?  Fifths?  Mostly?  Big, broad, beefy resolutions  that just as suddenly modified into another set of fourths, like doubts resolving into answers and then into more doubts with even bigger, more satisfying answers.

I looked at Dr. Smith, on the podium, growing more animated as the volume swelled- because looking at the director, and nothing else in the world, what you did in the choir.  But as the song swelled, the diffusion from the stage lights seemed to me to form a corona of refracted light around the Conductor; maybe it was a trick of the light, or maybe it was my eyes getting every-so-watery from the sheer sonic glory of it all.  And as his arms thrashed at the air, wrenching more sound, more passion, more joy from the moment, Dr. Smith looked ecstatic; the song and the choir were like a natural phenomenon, like he was playing a pipe organ whose pump was driven by a hurricane, like he’d wrapped his arms around a tornado with a “speed” button that only he could control.

Like God Himself could hear his choir, so he’d better keep us on our A game.

And I stood in the middle of that swirl of spine-tingling modulating fourths and fifths and ricocheting parts and,  for one shiver-up-the-spine moment, felt as close to transcending the here and now as I ever had, or have, in my life.

And I think Dr. Smith did, too.

It may have been a first for me.

Dr. Smith?  With all the choirs of farm kids and wrestlers and business majors that he wrangled into musicians?  He was a regular there.

Hope 73. Tyranny 0.

It’s hard for us, today, to picture what the world was like seventy years ago.

The Nazis march into Paris.

For the better part of a decade, much of the world’s intelligentsia actively wondered if democracy’s day had come and gone.  Various flavors of totalitarianism – whose ghastly crimes against humanity had been hidden from the world by a compliant media – had their adherents and even admirers in the West; Hitler and Stalin had both won Time’s “Man of the Year” award – making trains run on time impressed journalists then no less than now.

Here in Minnesota, as in much of the US heartland, the demoralization of the thirties led to a splintered worldview; the Minnesota Democratic Farmer/Labor party was cozied up to Stalin (and would stay that way until Hubert H. Humphrey, in one of his great contributions to the integrity of American politics, tossed the reds from the party six years later), to the point where it opposed war with Germany, with whom Stalin was then allied via the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact.  In the meantime, the upper Midwest was a haven for the Deutsche-Amerikanische Bund, which favored rapprochement with the Nazis.

Stalin, from a Gus Hall fan site. Gus Hall was from Minnesota. The poster says “Happy To Pay For A Better Smolensk”.

Worse?  The totalitarians had just spent four years showing that their supporters in the West might have a point.  They conquered Spain.  Naziism dragged Germany out of the Great Depression (which had started ten years earlier in Germany than the rest of the west) well ahead of the rest of Europe or the US.  By all appearances, the Soviets were doing quite well too.

Poster for Nazi “Kraft Durch Freude” (Strength Through Joy) movement. Remind you of any recent City Pages ads? Me too

And World War II seemed to be the final nail.  Germany had swallowed up Austria and Czechoslovakia without a struggle; Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and, finally, France – theretofore Europe’s greatest military power – all fell in dazzlingly short order, sending the Brits reeling across the Channel.  Britain had beaten back the Luftwaffe the previous summer, but everyone expected Hitler to get ready for another invasion attempt in the spring; his U-boat campaign to starve Britain into submission looked, to insiders, to have a great chance of doing just that.

London burns after Scottish soccer fans, angered by three straight 0-0 tie games, run riot.

The Japanese also were going great guns, as well as rolling up vast swathes of China before their military juggernaut.  State Shinto – a pseudoreligion not a whole lot different than Naziism in its own way – seemed a viable option to many as well.

And everyone expected war between the US and Japan, and probably Germany and Italy as well.  It was a year away – but the buildup to war had already begun; Roosevelt had instituted the draft and called up great swathes of the National Guard already.

And so even though the world hadn’t fallen off the cliff into complete cataclysm – Germany wouldn’t invade the USSR for another eight months – everyone knew that the world was a horribly bleak place on December 8, 1940.  And nowhere was it bleaker than for the world’s democracies.  There were those that thought the classical American notion of liberty was on its last legs.

To say nothing of America itself.  As the fascist wave crested, the Nazi and Fascist and State Shinto leaders arrogantly looked at America, demoralized by a decade of depression and softened by the decadence of its “refrigerators” and “telephones” and “movies” and “vaudville”, and thought that America would love its prosperity too much to fight for others’ liberty – or even defend its own.

The “experts” around the world counted America out.

It was the day of the eighth playing of the 1940 NFL Championship.    And the Washington Redskins were the prohibitive, odds-on favorite of the same media and punditry that had applauded Mussolini, who lauded and feted Hitler and Lenin, who’d uncritically published and eaten up Walter Duranty’s mash notes to Joseph Stalin.

Against them stood the Chicago Bears.  The Bears had been a dynasty in the thirties, but it was a new, harrowing decade, and, like Darth Vader swallowing up the Republic, things in the NFL had changed as badly for the worse as they had in every other part of the world.  The Redskins, led by Sammy Baugh, seemed to tower invincibly over the plucky Bears, like Dolph Lundgren over Sylvester Stallone.

Sammy Baugh

The Skins had beaten the Bears 7-3 three weeks earlier, toward the end of the regular season.  As the teams headed toward the championship, at Griffith Stadium in DC, the Skins’ owner, George Preston Marshall, told the media (who else?) that the Bears were quitters and crybabies – exactly as Hitler was telling his minions about America, halfway around the world.

The Bears, like the Brits, like the Chinese, like capitalism, like democracy itself, had no chance.  Everyone knew it.

The “experts” said so.

———-

The Bears brought some of the same things to the table that America itself did, though.  Indeed, the juxtaposition should escape nobody; the Skins, led by the German-descended Baugh [*], faced the Bears, as polyglot a bunch of Yanks as the squad in any World War II war movie – with names like Musso, Osmanski, Clark, Stydahar, Macafee, Maniaci, Kavanaugh –  led by Brooklyn-born Sid Luckman, the son of pogrom refugees, and perhaps the greatest Jewish quarterback in the history of pro football.

Sid Luckman

And the Bears were at the forefront of a change in tactics; they ran from the “T Formation”, allowing greater flexibility compared with the ‘Skins’ single-wing formation – especially for Luckman, who’d become known by the end of his 12 year career as the NFL’s first great long-ball passer, even as under the bleachers at the nearly University of Chicago, other Jewish refugees were revolutionizing warfare forever as they carried off the first nuclear fission reaction.

The Bears, like America itself, brought a love of the underdog, and not a little bit of good ol’-fashioned America ingenuity and improvization skill.

———-

And so that morning, inflamed by Marshall’s arrogance just as their forebears had been enraged by Santa Anna’s brutality at the Alamo, the Bears took the field, and took the game directly to the Redskins, like the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes tearing into the Luftwaffe’s bombers.

And like the RAF – and like the US Navy would do a Midway a year and a half later, and the US Army would do at Omaha Beach in three and a half years, and in the Bulge in a little over four years – the Bears, against all odds, not only prevailed…

…but kicked the favorites’ asses.

73-0.

The “weak”, “crybaby” underdogs prevailed against the favorites.

Just as America itself did, five years later.

Would it have happened without The Bears’ epic victory, 70 years ago today?

Thankfully, we’ll never need to know.

But it’s worth observing that, as America’s fortunes waxed during the war years, so did those of The Bears, who won championships in 1941, the pivotal year 1943 and then again in 1946, setting up the successful reconstruction of Europe.

The 1940 Bears. Not just champions; titans of liberty.

The point being that the fortunes of America the nation, the shining city and the great experiment are inextricably intertwined with those other palimpsests of all that is great about America, the Bears and conservative exceptionalism.

It was in 1963 when our nation – a month past the murder of its beloved, patriotic president – needed strength.  And the Bears, led by Bill Wade and the first of many great Bears linebacking threesomes (Joe Fortunato, Bill George, and Larry Morris), gave it to them with another come-from-underdog win against the New York Giants, featuring airtight defense and an appearance by a young Polish-American tight end, Mike Ditka, upsetting the Giants and putting a comforting coda on the end of a horrible chapter in American history.  Americans could to go bed that night knowing that all was well.

Of course, the Bears’ fortunes ebbed for the next twenty-two years – as did those of conservatism, and of America itself.  And the nation’s fortunes, as always, reflected that waning.  The drought years of the sixties and seventies coincided with the epic droughts in the rest of American society; the Bears, America and the GOP reached their nadirs, with  the fall of Saigon, Abe Gibron’s years as head coach, the WIN button, Stagflation, Watergate, Desert 1 – simultaneously.

And yet three great Americans rose from the ashes during this time, laying the groundwork for a resurgence; Walter Payton, and Republicans Ronald Reagan and Mike Ditka.  Payton led the Bears out of the Wilderness just as surely as Reagan led America.

Payton…

Reagan and…

...Ditka.  When America needed all three, they were there.

…Ditka. When America needed all three, they were there.

And in 1986, at the depths of the Cold War, when once again “the experts” united to claim that America had seen its best days and the “nuclear clock” was supposedly ticking down as remorselessly as the timer in “24”, and that the USSR and the Patriots might well be viable and unstoppable in the modern world, Ditka (mirroring the rise of that other great Pole, Walesa) and Reagan and Payton rose up, leading other great Americans, Singletery and Weinberger, Dent and Schultz, Kirkpatrick and McMahon, and against all odds scored epic victories for freedom at the 1986 Super Bowl and the Rejkjavik talks, both leading in their way to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism and, finally, the re-ascendancy of Western Civilization.

But history didn’t end in 1990.  The Bears, like freedom itself, choked in 2006, against the Democrats and the Clots, leading directly to the defeats of 2008.

And after those dismal seasons, there were those that said the Bears and Real America would need years of rebuilding to be contenders again – if, indeed, either could do it at all.  That The Bears, like conservatism itself, were relics of a past unlamented by the likes of pundits Keith Olberman and Ed Schultz, or sportscasters Ed Schultz and Keith Olberman.

But when America, and Western Civilization, need to be saved, then the true heroes who walk among us will step up;   The Bears unpredictably have been rising out of nowhere to shock the league; the Mama Grizzlies, likewise, rose from nowhere to shock the political world.

Will it stick?  On the one hand, it’s too early to tell if justice, the Bears or conservatism will win out in 2011 or 2012.

On the other hand – we owe it to posterity to see that all of them do win.

But on the field as in and about the land, there is hope.  For conservatism is rising, and the Bears are contending, and for now there is hope.

Today, as seventy years ago today, you can thank God, Guns, Guts, and the Bears.

[*] Yeah, I stretched that metaphor too far.  Baugh was a great American, and was named “The most versatile player in NFL History” by the NFL network.  Luckman, for his part, served in the wartime Merchant Marine, playing in odd spare Sundays with the Bears.

My Tax Day At The Capitol Mall

So I not only got to attend the Tea Party at the State Capitol yesterday, but it was my immense privilege to be the lead-off speaker; mine was the first in a long stream of excellent speeches, including that of my NARN cohost  Ed Morrissey, whose speech I videotaped and is currently up at Hot Air, and Twila Brase, and Katie Kieffer, who will no doubt post video, also gave an excellent speech.  There were more.  Many more.

Lil ol me.  Courtesy Peter Anderson.

Lil’ ol’ me. Courtesy Peter Anderson.

I estimated about 1,500 people at the event at its peak around 6:30 or so.  It was good-sized, jovial crowd – but not quite as big as last year.  Some people were worried about this.  I’m not; last year, people were upset, and wondering what the hell to do, and the Tea Party was like a psychological life ring to a whole lot of people whose political activism had never gone beyond going to the polls, maybe, every couple of years.  Over the past year, though, conservatives have changed; we turn out for rallies; we call Congresspeople in vast numbers; better yet, of the 11,000 who attended last week’s Bachmann/Palin rally, over 1,000 volunteered to be election judges.   We saw similar results last night.  Conservatives are doing what they need to do to turn the spirit of the Tea Parties into the action this nation needs.

One group that was not in evidence were the “crashers”; this wasn’t the case everywhere, and the Saint Paul Tea Party was ready with a sizeable group of volunteers armed with orange vests and cameras to handle security – but other than half a dozen “Tax Me More!” activists who stood across the street for about half an hour, and a “Thanks To Taxes” billboard-truck that desultorily circled the capitol grounds (the billboard seemed to imply that we have children, sunshine and sex because of taxes), there was really no “opposition” at all.

And while last year I saw a few signs that made me cringe, I didn’t even see much of the far-out fringe in the crowd this year, either.  I mean, if you’re one of those lefties who gets the victorian vapours over references to John Galt, then yeah, I suppose the crowd was big and scary.  But the far-out, Alex Jones fringe was mostly absent from the rally itself.  I saw not a single “Birther” sign, much less anything I”d call racist.  Indeed, almost all the far-out fringe contingent…

…was up on stage.   For some reason, one of Toni Backdahl’s co-MCs was a guy from AM1710, a little 15 watt AM station in Maple Grove that could be charitably said to be out there on the Alex Jones fringe of the movement.   And one of the opening “musical” acts was a kid in an “InfoWars.com” t-shirt (these are the folks that make the radical Randers shake their heads and go “good lord, how wierd”) who did a pseudo-rap rant that might have fit in at an anarchist rally and whose message would have made me cringe even had the kid not considered “intonation” part of a socialist conspiracy.  There were also a few speakers that sputtered about the unconstitutionality of the income tax, which is pretty much the norm at these things.

Now, I don’t fault the Tea Party’s organizers for including a lot of people that I, personally, disagree with strenuously – because that’s the whole point of the Tea Party.  It’s a group of people, some of whom would not normally agree about anyting, gathering together for a common cause; making government smaller, more responsible, and less frivolous with our rights and liberties.

And so I say “Yay” to all; the mainstream-of-the-mainstream Republican, the disaffected Democrat, the Ronulan, and everyone in between, and all of us who are united behind the idea that we are all created equal, and that people aren’t free until government is limited; let’s all kick ass in November.

Indeed, the only problem I heard about involved a reporter from “The Uptake”.  He’s a local leftyblogger who usually blogs anonymously; he went by “Steve” on the Uptake’s video.  Now, he interviewed me briefly last year; I never saw his final product, although I was told either his voiceover or his editing really mangled the context of my interview; I wouldn’t know – I don’t watch the Uptake much.  I did another standup with him after I got offstage – I figure if he and the Uptake want to Maye what I said, it says more about him and them than it does about me.   He referred to the people around him as “tea-baggers”; I gently corrected him, but I got a sneaking hunch it was a tell as to “the Uptake’s” overall tone of “coverage”.

But shortly after that, a few of the orange-clad security guys came up to me and said they’d been getting complaints about the Uptake’s crew.  I asked them for specifics; they took me to a couple that that said the Uptake’s crew hadn’t identified themselves as a “news” crew that was going to publish an interview online, and that they seemed to be trying to get them to say something stupid, to make them – Tea Partiers in general, it seemed – look stupid.    The woman said that the “reporter” seemed to be trying to pick a fight with her, trying to one-up her on her knowledge of issues; “I”m not an encyclopedia, I can’t answer all the questions he has right away”, she said, still visibly exasperated.   Her husband, a Vietnam veteran, echoed his wife’s thoughts; “he was trying to pick a fight; he was harassing us”.

I walked away, wondering – is “the Uptake” still trying to be an actual news organization, or are they down to trying to do bogus Jon Stewart-style “attack” man-on-the-street interviews?   It’s entertainment, I suppose, watching a self-professed “smarter-than-thou” taking pot shots at those he and his viewers consider inferiors for cheap yuks.  But is it “news?”

Now, I haven’t contacted The Uptake about this, and I doubt that I will; when it comes to “reporting” on the Tea Parties, even the mainstream media seem to find waterboarding context acceptable.  But I think it’s curious that an organization that is fighting for its standing on the Capitol Press Corps would seemingly take such gratuitous liberties with the whole idea of “journalistic ethics”, whatever they are, with this kind of behavior, if true.

Bill Salisbury at the Pioneer Press, and Jessica Mador of MPR both did good, balanced jobs of reporting on the event; or at least I got no complaints from security about either of them (except from the guard that Salisbury bowled over in his rush to interview Katie Kieffer).

I’ll be looking forward to next year.  Goodness knows there’ll be work to do.

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Titanic Stabilizes At -12,000 Feet

Just as people who move to New York from elsewhere become the most preening, arrogant New Yorkers, some of us who come to conservatism from liberalism are the most vituperative about our rejection of vast swathes of our former beliefs.

So I don’t give liberals a whole lot of credence on economics.

Still, it can be useful to see what they’re telling themselves.

Jeff Rosenberg shut down “Twin Cities Daily Liberal” to join “MNPublius” last week.  Congrats to both Jeff and the MNPublii; one hopes the hire was accompanied by  Aaron Landry being perp-walked from the MNPublius office as jeering onlookers pelt him with rocks and garbage.

But I digress.

Jeff’s a good guy, and he’s made the odd good point in his oeuvre – but Emperor’s Clothes-watchers should perk up at this bit from MNPub yesterday, titled “Under Obama, the stock market is stabilizing“.

Of course it’s “stabilizing”.  As long as companies still produce things that people need to buy, some companies will retain some value, and that value will be reflected in the equity market for their stocks.  Until this nation resorts to being a subsistence-farming economy with a barter currency system, companies will be worth something.

Yes, I know conservatives say the stock market is experiencing a catastrophic collapse under Obama, but they also said the fundamentals of the economy were strong under Bush.

And both are true.  If the former were not true, the market would, tautologically, not be off 43% in the past year; if the latter weren’t fact, there’d be no talk of recovery, no matter who to thank.  “Strong fundamentals” – a capable workforce, a currency capable of supporting commerce, management that can find and exploit opportunity – are the reason that 70-90% of us are not subsistence farmers, as our anscestors were 100-300 years ago, and why we’re unlikely to revert to that, even now.

You have to take conservative arguments with a grain of salt.

(Although not due to anything you’ll read here – but I digress.  Ed.)

The truth is that, in Obama’s first six weeks, the market’s volatility has decreased, and though the declines of the Bush economy haven’t stopped, they haven’t become worse, either.

That’s because, short of complete monetary collapse and reversion to barter and subsistence farming – in short, as long as there’s a market out there – then there is a bottom.  Where is that bottom?  As a theoretical matter, when the market capitalization of publicly-traded companies is equal to their physical and financial assets; when the combined value of alll the hundreds of millions of shares of 3M stock, for example, is the same as the value of 3M’s buildings, computers, inventory and bank accounts – presuming that any of those things have worth at all (again with the “forestalling monetary collapse and not heading to the woods with your rifle and your bag of oat seeds”).  The real bottom, presuming the fundamentals of the economy are strong enough to see us into a recovery, is somewhere north of that, depending on the  potential investors see or, paradoxically, less than that for companies that have no future.

The trouble is that conservatives and the media like to use charts like this, which ignore even the recent past [courtesy of Media Matters]:

The trouble is that liberals use charts from Media Matters.  Let’s break it down:

But the truth looks more like the chart below. Under Bush, the Dow Jones lost 6,000 points, or about 43 percent of its value, from its peak in 2007. That includes about 3,000 points lost since September 2008. Under Obama, the Dow has continued to slide, but it is only down about 1,000 points since its low during the Bush administration.

Which makes sense, until you get into the “why” of it all.

The first 3,000 was the impact of the collapse of the housing bubble.  No question about it: it was a financial catastrophe.  And while the Bush Administration and Congressional Republicans did try to beat back some of the governmental idiocy that subsidized the inflation of the bubble in the first place (the systematic socialization of risk and privatization of reward – read “distortion of the free market” – that allowed the bubble to grow and put Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac on the hook to clean up when it popped), there’s plenty of blame to go around; the failure of the Bush Administration to expend the political capitol needed to turn the idiocy back; the Dems complete ignorance of the issue going back to 1998, when the Clinton Administration started instituting the policies that led us to disaster, and so on.

That’s 3,000 points over a little over a year; figure about 250 points a month.

Which, by many accounts (and let’s be honest; if you put 100 economists into a room, you’ll get 175 theories) pretty much covered the correction from the housing bubble.

Then, from September – in the waning months of the Bush Administration, when it became pretty clear that Obama and his socialist, interventionist policies were going to hold sway, and when the (frankly) spendthrift Bush Administration did its level best under Henry Paulson to speed the transition to government funding of the whole mess, the market justifiably reacted – through January, the market shed another couple thousand points. That’s around 400 points a month, depending on where you demarcate your starting and finish lines.

And in the past 45 days, the market has reacted to Obama’s his full-throttle power-dive into a socialist command economy, his tax-hiking, and (I think it’s fair to say) indications of his administration’s incompetence, and burned through over 1,000 points, speeding to what may or may not (the coming weeks will tell us) be close to the Dow’s hard bottom.

You do the math; that’s a 401K-shredding 600-point-per-month pace.

So yes, Jeff – while “sloughing off all value to the point where the market is down to not much above asset value” is a form of “stabilization” (in the same sense that a crashing airplane doesn’t get much below ground level, provided the ground below the plane doesn’t open beneath it and swallow the plane up whole), Obama has “stabilized” the market.

By your leave, we’ve had enough of this kind of “stability”; we’d like him to stop before he “stabilizes” healthcare, home values, Americans’ net worth, and our foreign policy.

By your leave.

CORRECTION: TC Daily Liberal, not MN Liberal Report.  To be fair, Twin Cities leftyblogs sorta run together after a while. MNBlue, MNSpeak, MN Liberal Report, Daily Liberal, Powerliberal, PowerMonkey, Daily Monkey, MNObserver, MNObsessive, MNCompulsive…who’da thunk “branding” was the one thing Mark Gisleson (“Norwegianity”) would excel at?

The Small War, Part I

I’m splitting this into two parts; once I started writing, I just couldn’t stop. I have a few things to establish before I get into my post proper.

———-

Statement: Administration 2, Demcrats/media 1.

We’ll come back to that.

———-

For those of you who think I never pay the Demcrats a complement, stand by to have your preconceptions gutted like fish: they got one (and only one) thing right about the Iraq war. I think we are getting to the point where we can fight the war with a much smaller commitment of troops in Iraq. Indeed, we might even be to the point where it might be beneficial to the conduct of the war itself.

Oh, of course the Democrats are wrong about the reasons, meaning and execution of this idea.

But again, we’ll come back to that.

———-

There’s an old saw among those who follow military history…

…and even moreso among those who casually watch people who follow military history: that nations and their militaries always prepare for the last war.

So, it seems, do social movements.

Reading Imperial Grunts by Robert Kaplan a few months back – about the time some Democrats were pushing for a reinstatement of the draft – I saw an interesting parallel.

Kaplan chronicled the complaints of US Special Forces and Marines in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Columbia and the Philippines that the “Big Army” (and Big Navy and Big Air Force to boot) had taken over control of operations in these countries. The problem, they told Kaplan, was that the generals who run the “Big Army” cut their leadership teeth “fighting” America’s last, least-ambiguously successful war – the Cold War (and more ambiguous successes like Grenada and Desert Storm) – who were led in their militarily formative years by men whose main mission was to avoid costly debacles like Vietnam or Mogadishu. The Cold War, of course, was a throwback to the great mass industrial wars of the 20th Century, WWI and WWII; high-tech, involving mass armies maneuvering in mass formations on a global scale, with the survival of entire nations, societies, systems, even the world itself at stake. The US military built at huge expense during that period became unstoppable in its major mission; to decimate phalanxes of tanks bulldozing across the East German border with high-tech tanks, helicopters, jets and artillery that could fight 24/7 in all weather; to interdict fleets of Soviet submarines intent on gutting sea communications with Europe reminiscent of the U-boat wolfpacks with a fleet of over a hundred impossibly-complex hunter-killer submarines; to secure the air over Europe against skies dark with MiGs with technological marvels like the F-15, the Stealth fighter and the AMRAAM missile. It might be fairly argued that just as the US military fought Vietnam wrongly – trying to treat a counterinsurgency war as a mass national crusade – that the Pentagon spent a few years fighting Afghanistan and Iraq the wrong way; trying to bring a Cold-War-era mass army to places more suited to…something else.

On the other hand, the left is also fighting its last wars. Plural.

Vietnam, of course, was the last war of the part of the left led by the likes of Kos and Air America – the reflexive “America Last” crowd. But as powerful and influential as they are in the Democrat party (and moreso in Minnesota’s DFL), they’re not really the most interesting current to examine.

The last unambiguously successful war of the Left was World War II. Led by FDR and Truman, it was the last truly national war; the last one that involved our entire society. More importantly, it was the last (and, in a sense, the first) war in our history to be morally unambiguous. For the first, and probably last, time in history, the good guys (if you leave out that whole “Stalin” thing) wore white (or olive-drab) hats, while the bad guys wore black coal-scuttle helmets. It was a war that paralleled the New Deal and much of how statist liberalism operates; registering and inducting entire swathes of society; imposing an all-encompassing order on the nation’s life; a war in which the individual was subsumed to the national will, in war as in the economy. And of course, like the lefty ideal for so many things (which is realized in so few things), it was…well, not exactly “clean”, but certainly well-defined. It had a definite end; troops marching thirty-abreast down the Champs D’Elysees, Hitler dead in a bunker, a surrender ceremony on the USS Missouri, done deal, no sticky entanglements.

Which, of course, is one of the reasons they are chanting “this war has lasted longer than World War II”. It’s the only model of success they have, when it comes to defending this nation.

And there’s a clarity – to the left – in looking back at Vietnam (from their perspective, at least); to the left, Vietnam was unambiguously wrong, inarguably unwinnable, never anything but wrong for any reason, from any perspective (easier to believe when one filters out that whole “Killing Fields” bit). In a sense, it was the anti-World War II.

The left’s dalliances with running the nation since Vietnam have been much less clear, both positively and negatively, than WWII and Vietnam. Carter’s impotent flailings at the Iranians, Clinton interventions to support humanitarian goals in Haiti, Kosovo and the Balkans, Rwanda and Somalia (although he inherited that involvement from George HW Bush) which tried to paint humanitarian happy thoughts on top of centuries-old ethnic animosities; they wound up treating unsavory people pretty much like other unsavory people without bothering to judge their differences, to very little real long-term effect (to say nothing of at least one famous, if historically minor, disaster in Mogadishu).

So there are, really, four different world views (certainly more than that, really, but I’m going to limit things to the big four) duking it out over the War on Terror right now:

  1. The fringe (and ascendant) far left, which sees all war as unambiguously wrong.
  2. The “mainstream” left, which waxes nostalgic for its own finest hour, the unambiguous moral correctness of wars like WWII, down to the level of even replicating their methods.
  3. The Administration, which after 9/11 embraced a Wilsonian, almost utopian view of the vitality of exporting democracy, seeing this as an unambiguously good thing.
  4. The Pentagon, caught between its pre-1991 status quo as a force designed to fight a huge, high-tech conventional war, its 1992-to-9/10/2001 imperative to “transform” into…something (after 2000, into a force to back up the “neocon” Wilsonian doctrine; before that, to get small fast so Clinton could cash the “Peace Dividend”), and finally after 9/11 the leader in the War on Terror

And of course, the fifth force, the one whose present Kaplan chronicles and whose history Max Boot explored; our “Unconventional Warfare” community, visible in the news today in the guise of General Petraeus and his return to nuts ‘n bolts counterinsurgency warfare, but which has been tinkering with the means to fight exactly this kind of war for half a century, frequently against bitter opposition from the “Cold War” “Big” military.

We’ll come back to that tomorrow.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XL

Tonight was the big night. Sunday, December 28, 1986. It was going to be a huge night on two fronts.

The evening would kick off with my band’s first gig at Williams’ Uptown Bar on Hennepin in Minneapolis.

Then, after load-out, I’d race out to KSTP to do my show. I was going to interview a childhood idol of mine.

———-

When you play in a dinky garage band, it’s easy to dream big. Sitting in your home studio writing music, or standing around in the basement listening to your band’s progress, and especially standing on stage in front of an appreciative crowd (or “crowd”), it was easy to think “next stop, the big time”. The optimism that accompanies the sort of muted arrogance that makes one think that anyone actually cares to hear what you write makes it easy to think, on reading one’s lyrics, hearing one’s practices, and seeing people watching you play, that you’ve got it going on.

But loading-in usually levels that out nicely.

Turns out I was the only driver in my band. The other three guys bused everywhere. And while we didn’t have a lot of equipment by the standards of the bands I’d played in high school (where we had to haul a PA system along with our instruments), there was enough – two guitars and a bass, their amps, a drum kit, and a Crumar T1 organ – and it didn’t haul itself, and it wasn’t going to fit into the back of my Jeep. I’d managed to borrow a van from one of my roommate’s parents, though. I got to the band’s house, and we started hauling our gear out of the stinky basement into the frigid late afternoon.

The good part – it was only about five blocks to the bar. The bad part – we were early.

The headliner that night was a group called “Bathyscope”. The name meant nothing to us – yet. What we did know was that they had a ton of gear – guitars, bass, two keyboard players (whose equipment is always heavy and bulky) and a drummer with a huge kit, and a box packed solid with other percussion instruments and stage props – and bigger pretensions, it seemed, in getting it set up and soundchecked. It took them a solid ninety minutes to get their gear up on stage, soundchecked, and ready to go.

Then it was our turn. As the opener, we were supposed to put our gear in front of the headliners, plug in, and grab a sound-check – if we had the time. By the time Bathyscope got off stage, it was 8:25. We were supposed to go on at nine.

We pulled, hauled and plugged, and got our stuff set up and more or less ready by about ten ’til, and started our soundcheck – a few bars of one of our songs. People were filing into the joint. The Bathyscope people – who looked, except for the drummer, to be distinctly “uptown” by the standards of Minneapolis in the day – were not visibly impressed with our Iron City Houserockers-Via-Lou Reed vibe.

But it didn’t last long. Will, our drummer, stopped in mid-song. I turned – he was frantically fiddling with something under his snare drum. I walked over.

“My hi-hat’s broken”.

Five minutes until we’re supposed to start. Crap.

Our options were two: Borrow a couple of pan lids from the kitchen, or hope someone would come through for us.

Bathyscope’s drummer – a big guy who looked to be in his late teens or early twenties, the only black guy in the room – came up on stage. He and Will conferred back behind the drum kit – and then he reached back to his own rig and grabbed his hi-hat. They turned to moving Will’s broken ‘hat out of the way, and putting his in place.

And we were on. Larry Sahagian, sitting at the sound board, went on the crackly, on-its-last-legs PA system and announced “Ladies and Gentlemen – Tenant’s Union”.

————

The gig itself – well, it was rough.

Turns out that excitement does make people go a lot faster than they think they are. The tapes we heard after the gig were shocking; it sounded like we were playing 50% faster than we were supposed to. The sound was garbled, my voice sounded like a fractured, out of breath yelp, and we sounded more like four guys playing at the same time than a band of four guys playing together.

The crowd was worse. There was a decent house, about 3/4 full…

…that seemed pretty uninterested in us. The clapping between songs was muted and wan. We weren’t dying – just gravely injured.

Still, I had fun; to me, there’s never been a feeling quite like working a room, even if it’s not perfect. We played ten songs, eight of them mine. And, rough as we were, by about the sixth or seventh song we started finding whatever groove we had; we were loud, (too) fast, and even though things were rough, we had a certain power to our delivery that felt like climbing on a big motorcycle, one that may need a tuneup but still makes the air crackle with power just a little bit.

During the third to the last song – “Five Short Words” – one guy back at the bar stood up with a look of recognition and a broad smile on his face, and started clapping along. I played the whole song directly to him – might as well reinforce success – and filed the guy’s face away for later.

After the tenth song, we were done. There was scatted clapping as we unplugged and started hauling our gear out of the way and Bathyscope started moving theirsinto place.

We hauled our gear out to the van, and sat down to watch.

And figured out quickly why the crowd hadn’t really dug us. “Bathyscope” was a jazz-pop band with very arty aspirations. The lead singer, a (how do we say this in our politically-correct age) aggressively gay guy dressed in an untucked tunic with laurel wreath (!) on his head, danced about the stage like an oversized dwarf from Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” scene. They set their amps and keyboards (and their stage props) on – I’m not kidding – doric half-columns. The band was modestly tight – the drummer was amazing, and the rest of the band was not great, not bad – and extremely ornate in that music-major-y kind of way. It was very unlike our thrashy din.

Um.

As they finished their set, the singer announced “Come see our art next Saturday at the Riflesport Gallery!”

Double Um.

Before we left, I walked back to the bar. The guy who’d been clapping walked up to me.

“That song you did – that was a reference to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, wasn’t it?”

It was.

Six weeks work, and our fan base is a fellow English major and Russian Lit geek.

I also saw Larry Sahagian, who paid us our twenty bucks. “You guys did all right, but you were totally the wrong band to open for these guys”.

Anyway. At least none of our friends had seen us.

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We went back to the basement and loaded our gear downstairs. By the time we were done, it was 12:30AM. I had to race out to the station to get on the air. I got there at 1AM – a little late, given the obsessiveness I put into show prep at that point in my “career” – but I got down to it.

Among my various geekinesses as a child and teenager was a fascination with fighter planes and aerial combat. I knew a little bit about many of the world’s classic dogfights. The protagonist of one of my favorite dogfights – a Navy F-4 ace from the Vietnam War that I’d been reading about for years – had just written a book. I had booked him for a phone interview from his home in LA.

After five months of doing the show, I was starting to settle into a bit of a groove. The awkard halting of my first couple attempts at guest interviews had been replaced by a little confidence and a tad of polish – which is damning by faint praise, but whatever – and at least I knew the subject matter for this interview pretty intimately.

The interview went…very well. It clicked as well as the gig had not. I knew the material in the book, and the guest appreciated it. I knew things about his story that, clearly, he wasn’t used to radio interviewers knowing. And the callers surprised me; one of the callers had even served on the carrier, the Constellation, with the guest during the Vietnam war, and added a lot to the commentary.

I wasn’t the only one who thought it went well – I heard the following week from the PR agent that the guest had had more fun on my little show than with any other interview he’d given.

I could have told her that.

I drove home that night – exhausted, cold, and giddy. The music career needed some work, but was off and running. And for the first time since July, I was starting to feel genuinely confident as a talk show host. I felt, for the first time, like I could fill in for any of the daytime hosts, and not embarass anyone in the process.

I could see the top of the world from where I sat in my Jeep.

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Postlude: It’s interesting to me, twenty years later, to note that I had one degree of separation with both fame and infamy that night (three, if you count Larry Sahagian, whose band the Urban Guerillas was about to release their proto-grunge classic Attack of the Pink, Heat-Seeking Moisture Missiles.  But for the benefit of those who weren’t marinating in Twin Cities underground music twenty years ago, I won’t count that).

The personable, friendly, good-samaritan drummer for Bathyscope went on to much bigger and much better things. He turned out to be Mike Bland – at the time an Augsburg student, who was gigging for a few bucks on his way to a career as one of the most sought-after session drummers in the business, as well as stints with Prince and the New Power Generation and Soul Asylum.

The author and fighter pilot? Well, he was Duke Cunningham – still a hero, in those days, known for shooting down five North Vietnamese jets, including three on one climactic day, long before his political career and eventual status as poster-boy for Congressional corruption.

I knew ’em both when.