Life’s laments, time passed never to be recaptured, aren’t setting so ‘Gentle on My Mind.’
I was thinking of that old John Hartford classic, perhaps the best song from a genius’ catalogue, as I talked to a wandering minstrel the other day.
We actually were talking about music and musicians, but when the minstrel mentioned his favorite artist’s farewell bow after a 21-year fight with cancer, that dreaded disease and its cost to me, in terms of memories and friends, began attacking the otherwise gentle afternoon.
I didn’t know Hartford well, although I’d met him and admired his music and his riverboat captain’s outfit. I know Glen Campbell, the guy who took that song to the top, a little bit better.
But when I spoke with the minstrel, my mind wandered, first to Hartford’s “comfortable” grave in Madison – he has a gazebo there for pickers to visit and play in his memory – that I visit when I’m in that part of town.
But really the conversation with the minstrel, who has become something of a friend, made me think of loss.
“Remember that last concert over at War Memorial. Everyone knew John was dying. He sang ‘Give Me the Flowers While I’m Living.’ I don’t know how he did it without crying. I sure did. Everyone was bawling,” said the minstrel, as storm clouds began settling in, for once, over the city.
I thought then about the flowers I wish I’d delivered to Nola, the ex-wife of my old running buddy, Jocko. And I hastily sent a mental bouquet to another old friend, Uncle Moose.
I don’t want to let cancer make me miss telling Uncle Moose how much I love him. Course, he may survive his long war. He’s always been ornery. Heck he stared down the draft board after drawing No. 4. They drafted him, prepared him for Nam. He’d have gone, too. Much more of a heartland patriot than I, despite his sometimes dabbling in Scandinavian mythology and having a beautiful sister who was a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Oh, that shouldn’t be held against him.
Anyway, he was able to convince Uncle Sam to send him home, as he was the primary breadwinner, his dad was dead and he had to go run the family farm. I think, if my often-funky and lately concussed memory serves me, Moose had aspirations beyond the farm. He wanted to study more. Oh, I’m sure he would have eventually settled on the Circle M Bar, Grill and Homestead with its motto: “You bring ‘em, we’ll cut ‘em and brand ‘em and fatten ‘em up to eat” flashing in neon into the cold Iowa nights.
Tasty eatings at that cutting time, by the way.
The need to make sure I tell Moose how much I love him – even though I thought his mutton-chops were way-too-Elvis back in the 1960s and early ‘70s – is fueled by the fact a woman I loved died and I’d let life get in the way so much that I didn’t even know she had cancer until she was gone.
Nola’s cancer is making me lament lost opportunities and make the most of the ones I have in front of me, the opportunities to be with friends, to embrace them, to forget about life’s pettiness and instead look to the now.
Problem is, too many people are running out of NOWS.
I wrote the other day about Nola and her marriage to James Edward “Jocko” Mraz, my partner in life-at-the-edges, high-speed, statues-be-damned, quarters-on-the-bar exploration. No boundaries, especially on laughter in the grocery aisle at 3 a.m. Or when making the most of the flooded Des Moines River by foolishly linking arms, I think with Nardholm and Captain Kirk, and letting the current carry us downstream. “Anybody going to Des Moines?”
Jocko is this weekend going to a memorial service in Florida for Nola, who had a horrid battle with cancer. Next weekend he’ll be at another memorial in Iowa.
I wish somehow I’d known. I’d have called her. Perhaps comforted their kids. At least I would have listened to Jocko talk about his own regrets and pain.
As it is, I can regret that for whatever reasons, and there were some, Jocko and I pretty much ceased regular contact for the past couple of decades.
But there wasn’t a day I didn’t think about him. Maybe laugh about the day Old Man Hanson took flight. Well, it was dawn really. It was one of those particularly-parched eyeballs mornings when we greeted the sun’s glow, marveled at its blur.
We also confided in each other things I would not tell anyone else.
Enough about that, though. I am fortunate that I have reconnected with that friend, that I find out he has thought of me often. That now we are together, running mates in spirit though old men in body, we need to take advantage of it before the obituary I read is his. Or, more likely the one he reads is mine.
We have missed consoling each other on the loss of my mom and his mom and dad, though I knew them and was welcomed in their home.
I missed out on the death of his grandmother, of course. But I do remember the fried chicken she made for us that second dawn we saw in Antioch, Ill., after, for the lack of other places to sleep that were peaceful, we crawled into a boat when the sun rose. I don’t know whose boat it was….
The chicken went down hard. And a nap was in order before that night -- I believe it was the Fourth of July 1974 or 75 -- began in earnest.
More about Jocko, I’m sure. And about Nola soon, I imagine. I was their best man on that less-than-sober occasion. At the reception, punch was served in the house, beer in the barn. I don’t think I ever went in the house until the next dawn.
Anyway, this brings me back to my Uncle Moose.
Steve “Uncle Moose” Mainquist is a good man. He was a big man. I haven’t seen him in almost four decades. The last time, I believe, was when I drove up to his farm in Red Oak, Iowa, during a couple of weeks of vacation I took in my first year or two in the workforce.
I spent a week in Ames, Iowa, with Jocko and Carpy, Nardholm, Captain Kirk and the boys. Then I drove on over to Red Oak. It was harvest time.
Uncle Moose, he was nicknamed that for his massive size, graduated two years before me. He didn’t engage in much of the weekend frivolity because he always went home to work on the farm. His dad was dead. He was the man of the family.
Other than the weekends when his own childhood chum, Conrad -- the skittish, bud-toting, gun-shy Vietnam grunt who jumped to his feet as if he was going to kill me one Saturday, visited -- Moose was in Red Oak.
He was tending his cattle and the corn. He was helping his mom. He was lamenting that his sister had become a follower of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
When Moose was in school, sleeping on sheets he washed at least once a year, I would sometimes hang out with him or he with me and Jocko and the rest of us who lived there seven days a week. He was a cigar-smoking guy, so we enjoyed a fine cigar together.
On the night of my first all-night finals studies, I ran out of cigars. I believe we were calling them “Ginsbergs” then for the poet we went to see and meet together. We also saw Groucho together in his last standup performance, although it seemed the old comic already was as dead as Lydia the Tattooed Lady.
Anyway, Moose had no cigars to help in my all-night study either.
So at about 3 a.m., he accompanied me downstairs to the lower floor of Storms Hall – long since demolished -- where I bought my 50-cent pack of Camel straights. I’d smoked a store-bought cigarette or two before, but had been a pipe, cigar and roll-your-own kind of guy.
That night I began a habit that lasted 30 years. I quit because of a tumor scare and because my children, fresh from Romania, both told me to stop using those “fire sticks” in the back yard.
Moose didn’t smoke the cigarettes … Jocko and I called them “snarfers” … and yet Moose is the one who is battling for his life with cancer eating away at his body if not his resolve.
After hearing about Nola’s death, one of the calls I made was to Moose. Oh, I’d been in contact, but it seemed important that I reach out that day. He said he was doing OK, that they were changing his medications. That the cancer apparently had spread.
He was weary yet cheery. He talked of his summer vacation with his kids to Washington. He talked about his promise to buy his son a decent car -- ”you remember how it is when you’re 18, don’t you, Timmy?” – I do barely -- and he bragged about his daughter at Nebraska Wesleyan.
He talked about his neighbors and how they were helping him with his chores. It’s a tough and tight-knit group out there on the Great Plains. They look after their own.
Anyway, as we talked, I traveled in my mind to the time I spent on the farm. I was helping, supposedly, with the corn harvest.
I actually was running the elevator, unloading the corn from the combine. Moose told me to be careful as he didn’t want one of my arms to be a part of the harvest.
We had pre-dawn breakfast, those marshmallow/chocolate cookies and lemonade for a snack, a huge lunch.
In the evenings we rode down into the back field to throw hay out for the cattle before hitting the pub in Red Oak and listening to Ernest Tubb and Eric Clapton on the jukebox.
The crisp clear nights allowed me to see the hills for miles and miles as we rode back to the farm.
On the day we spoke, Moose was going to go outside, after he put the phone down, and spend time with one of his cats, petting her and, I’m sure, describing his distress and his joys. Moose has a hard time talking, but he sure enjoys it.
I’m hoping to one day in the next year make it back to Iowa. I hope to visit with a feisty, battled-back Uncle Moose.
For sure he doesn’t have the shock of long, blond hair and those mutton-chop sideburns that are in my mind’s-eye. And the chemicals I’m sure have taken their toll on his body mass. But he’s still Moose to me.
Of course, when I’m there, I’ll also be making up for lost time with other friends with whom I’ve reconnected.
We’re all getting old. Captain Kirk has a stent in his heart and is taking nitroglycerin rather than the compounds he’d likely prefer.
Carpy, a distance runner by passion, also has suffered heart woes.
Nardholm, well, as far as I know he’s doing fine. Lots of acreage, a lake house. I can remember when he was just a curly-haired blond kid in gray gym shorts cuddling his now-wife in the top bunk in the room he shared with Titzy. Now, he owns two combines. That’s a big deal.
And, of course, I’ll see Jocko.
He and I grew up together. Bailed each other out. Cried with each other. And even when we were separated by the woes and misunderstandings of “growing up,” we still thought about each other.
As I wrote the other day, his wife Nola was among the most beautiful of brides. She entrusted me to get her husband to the church on time. And we did, barely.
It was our last real run as carefree boys, although we did get together a few more times before circumstances got in the way and the black dogs of depression and disappointment became a part of my life. And I’m sure a part of his.
What separated us doesn’t matter. It vanished with the first laugh Saturday night, with the inflection Jocko put on “professor” when I told him I was working part-time at a university. You see, we had a certain way of pronouncing that title way back then. Just the fact he remembered, and used that, two minutes into the call, made my stomach ache in laughter. “Champo, you mean you… you are a Pro-Cressor?” he said, incredulous and mocking happily.
It was as if there were no decades, no years, not a minute passed. Although there were too many. Perhaps a half-life has gone since we witnessed Old Man Hanson’s remarkable display of flight and gravity.
I’ve also made a point of telling my family how much I love them. And, of course, I continue detailing the story of The News Brothers, both in film and in written form.
If it hadn’t been for The News Brothers – Rob “Death” Dollar, Jerry “Chuckles” Manley and Jim “Flash” Lindgren and, later Scott “Badger” Shelton and assorted hangers-on and groupies – I don’t know if I would have survived the first real challenges of being a so-called grownup.
They were my comrades as we raged against newspaper deadlines and the night back in Clarksville.
“Death” and I are always plotting the next move, the next film, the next reunion. It was and remains a gang of misfits that perfectly fits the life I’ve led: A good and honest man who was perhaps born to run and to love.
Oh, I’m not old. Not really.
But I always got by with a little help from my friends. And I need them to know how much I continue to love them.
Now, as I write this, I reflect on how Moose’s little sister, Linda, irritated her big brother when she cast her family beliefs in Scandinavian mythology aside and became a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
I like Linda a lot, so when I see Uncle Moose, I’ll have to jump to her defense. You see, I also like an old Yogi, the one who said “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”