by Doug Ward
MARCH 2009-In the fall of 1979 a full-page ad in The Tartan, the student newspaper at Carnegie-Mellon University, announced that a new program was being added to the schedule of public radio station WQED. I read the ad with interest. I was a graduate student in mathematics at the time, and the radio was my main form of entertainment as I struggled with the challenging problem sets assigned in my classes. It was the first I had heard of this program, which had the unusual title A Prairie Home Companion. Curious, I tuned in one Saturday night and checked it out.
I quickly became a fan of this two-hour radio program, which aired on WQED at 10 PM. There was an eclectic mix of music, including Celtic, bluegrass, and jazz. Interspersed with the music was humor in the form of pretend commercials for various "sponsors" of the show. The first half hour was always sponsored by Powdermilk Biscuits, a product that host Garrison Keillor claimed would "give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done." Being a shy person myself, this struck me as an impressive selling point. (One of the major ongoing struggles of my life involves forcing myself to do what needs to be done.) I thought of Powdermilk Biscuits as a sort of metaphor for the Holy Spirit, our real Source of strength to make right choices, and have often wondered if Keillor had something similar in mind.
Garrison Keillor's monologues, about life in the fictitious Midwestern town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, were the highlight of the show. They reminded me just a little bit of the humorous stories I had heard Jean Shepherd tell on radio station WOR years before. I was glad to have found a new radio storyteller. The stories and songs on A Prairie Home Companion provided a pleasant way to relax on a Saturday night and prepare to begin a new week.
In June 1982 I moved to Canada, where I wrote my doctoral dissertation at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. During two years in Halifax, I enjoyed learning about Canadian culture via the radio. But as much as I loved the music, news, and comedy on Canadian radio, I was glad to finish my stint as an "international student" and return to my native country. In August 1984 I moved to Oxford, Ohio, for a teaching job at Miami University.
In Oxford I was reunited with A Prairie Home Companion. Like many American college towns, Oxford had a public radio station whose schedule featured Garrison Keillor's program. After airing the show live on Saturday evening, radio station WMUB reran it on Sunday morning. On Saturday night I often set the radio to come on at 10 AM the next morning, when the rebroadcast began. I liked waking up to the soothing sound of Keillor's voice.
I admired Keillor's keen insight into life in the American Midwest, and my admiration grew further when his novel Lake Wobegon Days was published in 1985. There it was revealed that Keillor had been raised in a conservative Protestant group called the Sanctified Brethren. His descriptions of life among the Brethren were in many ways reminiscent of things my wife Sherry and I had experienced in the Worldwide Church of God. Keillor's stories, both perceptive and sympathetic, often resonated with me.
I felt an additional connection to Garrison Keillor several years later when a country singer named Iris DeMent began to appear occasionally on the radio show. DeMent is the half-sister of Fred DeMent, who was an elder in a congregation that Sherry and I attended for thirteen years. So when she sang about her family on the radio, she was singing about the relatives of people we knew.
In its travels over the years, A Prairie Home Companion has visited Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, but I have never had the opportunity to attend a live performance. So in May 2008, it was exciting to hear that Garrison Keillor would be coming to Miami University for a one-man show on March 18, 2009. As that date approached, several questions occurred to me:
· What would Keillor say about Oxford? Whenever his radio show visits a city, Keillor always seems to do his homework and is able to demonstrate impressive understanding of that city's history and culture.
· What familiar song(s) would Keillor ask his audience to sing together?
· Would I actually pay the $40 price of admission to attend the performance?
In order to find out the answers to the first two questions, I would have to give an affirmative response to the third. I hesitated for awhile. I could think of a number of ways to make good use of $40. But with Keillor approaching age 67, I knew it would probably be my last chance to see him perform in person. Everyone who knows me well assumed that I would attend. Finally, about six hours before the performance, I broke down and purchased a ticket.
The performance was held at Millett Hall, the university basketball arena. On a stage equipped simply with a tall stool and a microphone, Keillor appeared at 7:30 PM wearing a tan suit with a bright red tie and matching sneakers. Getting right down to business, he immediately answered my second question by leading the audience in singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." (This seemed like an appropriate beginning for an event staged at a basketball arena.) He then proceeded quickly to my first question with remarks that were brief but insightful. He observed that Miami University had given up trying to explain its name and location to the outside world, but that students who came looking for "fun on the beach" were probably not ready for college anyway.
Keillor mentioned that he had had the opportunity to be a university writing instructor, but he had not been cut out for the job. He was too easy on his students. He mentioned that one of his best writing teachers, an ex-Marine, had assigned a failing grade to any paper containing even one misspelled word. From this teacher, Keillor said, he had learned the valuable skill of being able to correct his own writing.
Keillor commented that he had long since forgotten the content of many of his university courses, but he still remembered a sonnet that he had been asked to memorize for a Shakespeare course. He then delighted the audience by singing from memory several humorous sonnets of his own composition.
He characterized today's young people as unfailingly polite, with lives carefully managed by hovering parents. He said that in contrast, children in his generation had largely raised themselves, and asserted that there was value in giving young people the opportunity to learn through their own mistakes. He then related some of his own alleged teenage misadventures, tales he has told-with a number of variations-many times over the years. It is understood that these stories, set in Lake Wobegon, are some indeterminate mixture of fact and fiction.
He included a story about his pelting his older sister with a rotten tomato. With his sister in hot pursuit he flees across town, ducking into a local bar to escape. There he observes a side of life in Lake Wobegon previously unknown to him.
Another story, taken from his novel Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, involves his rebellious cousin Kate. After giving a risqué performance at a high school talent show, Kate is sought by the principal. She eludes school authorities by grabbing her cousin Garrison and slipping into the boys' restroom. When the school authorities check the restroom in their search for Kate, they see only Garrison's feet in one of the stalls. Little do they know that Kate is sitting in Garrison's lap.
He also gave an account of his driving a motor home built by his father onto the ice of Lake Wobegon one night for a party with some friends. It is March, and when the ice starts to give way, he steps hard on the accelerator to bring the motor home to shore, wrecking the vehicle in the process.
Keillor then went on to his university experience, observing that although the Brethren took a dim view of fiction, he had still been well prepared to major in English. Through extensive exposure to the King James Bible and traditional hymns, he had developed an ear for the cadences of the English language and the beauty of poetry. He compared traditional hymns favorably to today's megachurch praise choruses, which he characterized as "seven eleven songs"-seven words repeated eleven times. At this point the audience gave a round of applause. Keillor is an astute observer of the contemporary religious scene, and these remarks apparently struck a chord with many people there.
Keillor also contrasted the attitudes of the Brethren with those exhibited in the Elizabethan poetry he read in his classes. While the Brethren saw this world as an illusion not to be counted on and staked their identity on the world to come, he saw in Elizabethan poetry the attitude that life is short and should be lived to the fullest. He commented that people in Lake Wobegon were distrustful of romance, and he recounted some comic examples of the risks of romance and the price the townspeople paid when they allowed themselves to be overpowered by it.
Later in the monologue Keillor paid tribute to his Uncle Jack, who he said "was not a good man but had been good to him." After telling about a time when Jack had saved his life, he noted that being saved by a sinner had given him much to think about.
From stories about his Uncle Jack he went on to tell about the death of his Aunt Evelyn, the starting point of his 2007 novel Pontoon. He gave a delightful presentation of the plot of that novel, leading up to the hilarious final scene where an offbeat funeral, the vestiges of a cancelled wedding, and an afternoon luncheon for a group of skeptical Lutheran clergymen collide on Lake Wobegon with disastrous results. I loved reading Pontoon, and it was a real treat to hear the author's personal summary of its highlights.
One marvelous and beautifully-delivered story led into the next, and soon almost two hours had flown by. Keillor closed by leading the audience in a chorus of "Amens". For me and many others in attendance, it had been a night to remember.
translated from TEX by TTH,
On 25 Mar 2009, 15:41.