Friday, February 06, 2009

The Chest Pains, the Big Lake, and the Scoutmaster on Highway 61: My Strange First Week of July 2002

1. The Chest Pains

I checked my voicemail. They called and told me to call back. I was pretty sure I got the job. I went to the porch to return the call. I sat on the cushioned wicker love seat. I pressed the 1 and the 818 and then the other seven digits.

In 2002 I was married and living in a cute little house in south Minneapolis. The bungalow had been featured in a series of historic bungalow photographs. There was a tire swing. The porch was big and let in the light from three sides. It was summer, a Tuesday, the second of July.

Laurel and I had made the decision to move to California back in January. We would be leaving in a month. I did not yet have a job in California. It was all very tenuous - with no income, the move would be difficult, impractical, perhaps impossible. So yes - I needed a job.

I had flown to Los Angeles several weeks earlier. I stayed with my mother in the far suburbs and drove to the interview at the hillside community college in Glendale. It wasn't even a full-time job but it paid just barely enough and they even threw in benefits that far exceeded what a 25-hour per week employee would get. I knew I'd find something better and more full-time eventually but, to a career grad student who hadn't really "worked" for more than 20 hours since 1996, the job sounded ideal.

Did I mention that every fiber of my body resisted the move to California? Did I mention that I dreaded a return to the greater Los Angeles area because of my "difficult" early 90s and perhaps the presence of a good portion of my immediate and extended families? Did I mention that I really didn't think our young marriage could handle the change? Sometimes I am very prescient.

(Not that the divorce wouldn't have happened if we stayed in the Midwest but I take my I-told-you-so's when I can get them. )

But still - Laurel had made up her mind to go to school in Santa Monica. Living by the beach sounded nice. And sure we'd be giving up a 3.5-bedroom house with a tire swing in the backyard for a likely to be too-small apartment. But you have to make sacrifices in a partnership. Besides, I couldn't be a T.A. for life (even if it's all I've ever wanted). This move would push me to actually starting the dissertation I should have begun in 1999.

Michelle the human resources person in Glendale answered my call. I got the job. I could start whenever I wanted. Full benefits. Congratulations, you're an institutional researcher for a top-flight community college! Your 12 years of college have finally paid off.

I took a deep breath and let the wave of relief wash over me. I was alone at home. I can't remember where Laurel was but this was before she had a cell phone so I kept the news to myself. I may have called a friend or two but for the most part, I celebrated alone.

And I felt the chest pains alone. I felt the shortness of breath alone. Clearly, I didn't want to go to California. I didn't want to end my career as a graduate student. I feared that I might be having a heart attack. Sure, I was 21 years younger (and 60 pounds lighter) than my father was when he died of a heart attack but I knew something was happening. I needed to go to the emergency room.

Longfellow Avenue in south Minneapolis is equidistant from two hospitals that accepted my health insurance - the busy ugly one downtown and the clean cheery one in the suburbs. I chose the suburban emergency room. I took a bottle of water with me and drove carefully to Edina on an impossibly beautiful Midwestern summer day.

Having chest pains and likely looking distraught and ashen, I was moved to the top of the list. I saw a doctor almost immediately. A nurse took some tests and asked me questions. I remember very few details. I do know that I waited for a doctor for quite a while, in a claustrophobic room. Nurses checked on me periodically. No one told me the results of my test. No one told me if I had suffered cardiac arrest.

Eventually a doctor came. He looked carefully at the test results and my medical history. He listened to my heart beat. He took my blood pressure. He told me to tell him where it hurt. His conclusion: There was absolutely nothing wrong with me. I may have had a panic attack. I may have imagined it all. He didn't know. But I surely did not have a heart attack or anything close to it. I was sent home.

Later that night I concluded that the chest pain was related to a new pectoral exercise I had done at the gym the night before. They had gotten some new machines in. I chose too high of a weight. That's the story I told myself at least. I had to go back to L.A. I had no choice.

2. The Big Lake

To this day I can't remember if I kept my hospital trip a secret from everyone. If I told anyone, it would have been Laurel but I think I really didn't want anyone to know about my imagined panic. Anyway, there were other things to keep me busy. That week, Laurel's family - her parents and sister - had arranged a family vacation to northern Minnesota.

We would be spending four nights in Grand Marais, along the shore of Lake Superior, the big lake, the greatest of the great lakes. We'd be staying suite-style in an inexpensive but charming motel in the heart of Grand Marais, a town that dies in the winter but becomes the most perfect place in the world in the summer. The trip would be coinciding with a local Shakespeare festival. Laurel's cousin Alex would be acting in all of the festival's plays. In fact, on the final night we'd be in town, Alex would be Romeo. The trip would also be coinciding with the Fourth of July and fireworks over the lake. We would drive the morning after the chest pains, the third of July. Two hours to Duluth, one more hour along Highway 61 to the motel.

Maybe it was because our honeymoon 10 months prior had been stressful and eerily quiet, maybe it was because my life would change drastically in a few weeks (I would be leaving for California on July 15, a full month before Laurel) but that 2002 trip may have been my favorite vacation ever. At the very least it was the favorite of my adulthood.

I remember walking on rocks. I remember enjoying satisfying meals at 50s-style diners. I remember continental breakfast and sunshine. I remember fireworks and a thunderstorm. I remember a coastline dotted with abandoned coves and glorious summer homes. I remember one tiny beachfront house, clearly lived-in and unabandoned. Oddly, this house had windows on all sides but had no windows facing the lake. I thought this might be the strangest thing I had ever seen.

I remember my former father-in-law whittling and my former mother-in-law cheating at cards. It's who they are.

I remember my former wife making eye contact. I remember my former sister-in-law.... actually, I don't really remember her.

I remember seeing Alex in a play the first night we were there. But I can't remember the play. Twelfth Night maybe?

On our final night there - the 6th of July, Saturday night - we saw Romeo and Juliet. The Shakespeare Festival plays were staged at a local high school. This was the final night of the festival. I recall Alex kicking ass as Romeo. I recall that Juliet was hot.

3. The Scoutmaster on Highway 61

In the surprisingly well-designed printed program for the Shakespeare Festival, there was a list of names of people - donors - who made the festival possible. One of them was a man who I remember being very visible in the "after-party" that took place after Romeo and Juliet on the festival's final night. He was shaking hands. He was saying "let's do this again next year." I don't remember if he was identified as a donor by Alex or by a nametag or some other way. But when he invited all of us - the cast, the friends and family, everyone - to a bonfire on the private shoreline of his lakefront house, we knew who he was.

We decided to go to the bonfire. I remember we had to drop Laurel's sister off at the motel. Laurel and I had a hard time finding the place. We only had our car's headlights to help us find the address. There were no city lights and starlight was pretty much absent due to the cloud cover. But we knew we were looking for an authentic log cabin. And there weren't many of those on that dark stretch of Highway 61 (even if it hadn't been immortalized by Dylan, this was and will always be one of the coolest roads in America.)

We found the place. The bonfire had already started. Alex and his girlfriend Jei were already there. The cast and crew - most of them local high school kids and a few adults - and some other people were relaxing on the impossibly dark but beautiful-at-night bonfired coastline.

(At this point in the week, I had completely forgotten about the chest pains, the trip to the hospital. I was having too good of a time. Four days had changed everything, even if I knew that everything would be changed right back again.)

The thing about Lake Superior bonfires is that, although fire is indeed hot, the lake is big and cannot be defeated. Despite it being the heart of summer, the cold post-midnight wind was hitting us hard and it looked like the party would be ending. But then the man who organized the bonfire, the man who funded the festival, the man who owned the cabin, had an idea:

"Who wants a tour of the log cabin?"

Being that the log cabin tour would occur indoors and - more important to me - that I was closer to going back to the little bed in the warm motel, I was all for the tour.

The fire couldn't beat the cold. And the wind, though it didn't kill the bonfire, made it difficult and a little scary to continue. I'm sure some of the people gathered went home but about 15 of us went along with the donor's suggestion and took him up on his tour. Besides Laurel and me and Alex and Jei, there were a few other cast members (but not Juliet) and crew. I remember about half of the people being younger than 20, likely high school age. I remember only one or two people being older than me.

We entered the cabin. It was amazing. The man may have considered it an "authentic" log cabin but, to be honest, it was all too clean and perfect to be authentic and rustic. Even Abe Lincoln wouldn't keep his cabin this clean.

The log cabin consisted of two stories: the main floor - living room (with big screen TV), kitchen (with state-of-the-art refrigerator) and an upper floor consisting of a catwalk and three bedrooms and one bathroom built into the sides. I have to admit - it was kind of cool.

But the party wasn't being moved to the cabin. There would be no lounging around. This was, quite literally, a tour and nothing else. The eccentric art patron pointed out the authentic 50s department store signs in his kitchen. He spent several minutes discussing the provenance of his grandfather clock. It involved his very own (estranged) grandfather. Discussing some photographs in the living room, he spoke of his mother. I got the sense that his mother was deceased. It would not have surprised me if he was somehow involved in her death.

Then we went upstairs - 15 of us now, in a line, going up rickety stairs in a sturdy old-looking brand-new log cabin.

As I mentioned, there were three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, all located on a catwalk that circled the structure. From any place on the upper level, one could look down at the lower level and get a sense of the time and care and wood that went into it all.

The first bedroom received a cursory once-over by the tour guide. We were allowed to peek inside and look at a rather benign bedroom. This is where he slept, he told us.

The second bedroom required a little more time. He invited all of us into the room. It was clearly smaller than the first bedroom. But we all fit in there. This is the room he wanted to show us. This is why he invited us inside. This is why he started the bonfire. This is why he funded the Grand Marais Shakespeare Festival.

The second bedroom housed what could accurately be called a Boy Scout Museum. The walls were lined with photographs of boys in scout uniform, full troops posed on faded summer hills, stern and smiling scoutmasters, more boys... no women, none at all. There was one medium-sized bookcase completely filled with scout literature - annual directories (chronologically ordered), rule books, photo albums, scout fiction, etc. But back to the chronologically ordered annual directories. As I said, we were there in 2002. The directories started in 1974 and ended in 1993. After '93 - nothing. These are the things I notice.

And then there was the bed. One bed, centered in the room. Blue sheets. Blood red blanket. Blue bedspread. Blue pillows. All of the blue being unadulterated scout blue.

And at the foot of the bed?

A statue.

Of a boy scout.

Blowing a bugle.

Life-size. A life-size boy scout blowing a bugle.

A look back to the wall photos. Someone, I don't remember who, asked the man if he was in the photos, if he was the scoutmaster in several of the photos.

"Yes, I was."

"Are you still involved in scouting?"

"No." Abruptly. After a silence, he added. "I don't want to talk about it."

We had been standing and walking around the house for at least 20 minutes, in the true middle of the night. Alex, likely exhausted from the slow-moving tour and the bonfire and his winning portrayal of Romeo, didn't want to stand anymore. He sat on the bed.

The scoutmaster immediately and sternly said "DON'T sit on the bed."

Alex apologized and stood. The sternness of the scoutmaster/donor's words and the lingering short-term memory of his not wanting to talk about his scouting banishment left the room silent. And uncomfortable. The scoutmaster got the message and led us out of the room and toward the stairs. Finally, we would be going back to the motel.

But someone had one more question. About that other room. There was a teenager who wasn't following the rest of us downstairs. He wanted to see the third bedroom.

"What's in this room?" the teenager asked?

"DON'T GO IN THERE!" the scoutmaster screamed.

No one went in there. It was left to our imagination to populate that third bedroom. Perhaps more scout beds. Bunks? Dead bodies? Sleeping visitors? We'll never know.

Did I mention the boy scout statue was playing a bugle? That he was four feet tall with tousled dirty blond hair under his scout hat? That he looked eerily like me during my very abbreviated career as a cub - not boy - scout?

Laurel and I returned to our car in the pitch black night. We knew we had been through something amazing. There would be one more night and day in Grand Marais. By Sunday night, we were on our way back to the Twin Cities, my home for just one more week. I still miss the place.

I remembered the scoutmaster's full name from the theater program (I've since forgotten the name.). Back home, I Googled him. I found a series of poems he had posted to an otherwise innocent-seeming scouting website. One of them celebrated the joy of scouting, the "lure of the foot locker" (actual line). He talked about how the time spent with his boys, with his troop, was the "real world," that the rest of his time was just "time in between scouting." I thought of the scouting directories, 1974 to 1993, and wondered what happened in '93 and how the last nine years have been for him.

I moved to California and I'm still here. I worked in Glendale for a full three weeks before finding a full-time job in Encino, a job I never should have taken. I miss Lake Superior. I want to go there again. I haven't had chest pains since 2002 but it wouldn't surprise me. Maybe this summer, on my annual Midwest road trip, I'll take a northern detour. I'll take photographs of those amazing bridges and industrial buildings in Duluth. I'll continue up 61 to Grand Marais and look for that house - not the log cabin - the house with no window facing the lake.

(thanks to the anonymous Flickr photographers whose photos I have borrowed.)


laurel said...


Jason B. said...

I've heard part of that story before, but never told that well. That's gold.