Friday, July 24, 2020

Big Eddie and the Ice Cream Man

(F-bombs, crude language)

It was Saturday, early afternoon at the city park. Big Eddie, his girlfriend Lisa and five other friends were having a cookout in one of the picnic areas, grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, and drinking beer, while a portable radio on the picnic table blared an FM album rock station. There were other gatherings of families and such elsewhere in the park, with kids playing. A good time was being had by all.

Then, from the distance, the chimes of an ice cream truck were heard. The music, playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” over and over got louder as the ice cream truck slowly moved in to the picnic area. It stopped right next to where Big Eddie and his pals were partying. Kids from all over ran to the truck with quarters and dollar bills given to them by their parents, ready for frozen treats.

Big Eddie was annoyed with the intrusion. He was particularly annoyed with the amplified chime music playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” over and over.

After about ten minutes, Eddie started saying to his friends, loud enough to be heard, “God, when is that asshole gonna leave? That stupid music is starting to piss me off. I can’t even hear the fucking radio, and they’re playing ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ one of my favorite fucking tunes!”

The ice cream man, standing outside the truck and puffing on a stogie as he served his young customers, reached in and turned the music up in response to Eddie’s griping.

“I’ve had enough of this shit,” Big Eddie said, slamming his fist on the picnic table. He walked right up to the ice cream man and said, “Hey! Fuck you!”

“Fuck YOU!” the ice cream man said back.

“Fuck you!” said Big Eddie.

“Fuck you!” said the ice cream man.

The two men went back and forth until Big Eddie’s girlfriend Lisa finally approached.

“Guys, can you please just stop this,” she said. “There are children around!”

“Well he’s pissing me off with that fucking stupid music,” Big Eddie said. “De-de-de-de-de-de-de, over and over…”

“I’ve got just as much right to be here as you, asshole,” the ice cream man retorted.

“Fuck you,” Big Eddie shot back.

“Eddie, just calm down,” Lisa said to him. “Go back to the picnic table, have another beer, smoke another bowl, do whatever, but please stop yelling and swearing around all these kids. This is not cool. Not cool at all.”

Eddie let out a loud sign. “Ohh-kay!”

“Love you, sweetie,” Lisa told him as she reached up to peck him on the lips. “I’ll be with you in a sec.” Then she turned her indignation toward the ice cream man.

“And you’re just as bad as he is,” she told him. “You’re the ice cream man. You’ve got children around, children who look up to you, and all you can say is ‘fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,’ just like him.”

“Yeah. So?” the ice cream man responded as he puffed his cigar toward her, sending smoke into her face.

“And you shouldn’t be smoking around the children either! What kind of example are you setting?” she added, pointing her finger at him.

“I don’t give a flying fuck,” the ice cream man told her. “I only care about selling fucking ice cream bars! And if you’re not going to buy one, get the fuck out of my face!”

Lisa just sighed and shook her head. “I don’t believe this. This is, like, so pathetic.” She took Eddie’s arm and started walking back to the picnic area.

“Goodbye, lady,” the ice cream man said while waving her away. “Take your asshole boyfriend with you!”

“Fuck you!” Eddie yelled back at him.

“Fuck you!” the ice cream man responded.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Going New Wave

When the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, there was a noticeable change in the culture, the way people talked and the way they acted. There was a new phony optimism and shallowness that I didn't have much use for. I might have been living in the eighties but I didn't have to participate in it. Everyone else might have been going new wave, but I was sticking to my good ol’ rock 'n' roll. Or so I thought.

I had some friends who were in a local bar band, originally called the Druggists. They had formed in 1979 doing straightforward rock 'n' roll covers of songs by groups such as Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Grand Funk Railroad, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and the Knack. They were loud and somewhat good, and they mostly played in the small dives and private parties around the city. The drunker the audience, the better they sounded.

My good friend Dave Wiedemann was the lead vocalist and bassist for the Druggists, with Mike Rupert on lead guitar and vocals, Bob Martin on rhythm guitar and Ed Williston on drums and percussion.

Dave joined in 1980, replacing a couple other guys, and immediately took the band over with some bold new ideas. He wanted to get the band into better venues, get more publicity, and do some original material, so they wouldn't be strictly a "cover" band. I had some artistic ability, a few media connections and was a budding writer with a whole notebook of potential ideas for original rock songs, so Dave asked me to be the "official" publicist and lyricist for the band. If nothing else I was at least affordable, and Dave knew how to stroke my ego.

"We're gonna be big, and you're gonna help us get there, dude," he told me.

My role as "publicist" consisted mostly of hand-drawing posters and leaflets for the band's upcoming appearances (this was before the era of home computers), mass-photocopying them and riding around town on my bike, stapling them to telephone poles and community bulletin boards. I would get the band's appearances listed in the weekly "alternative" newspapers, and I would write up press releases and send them out with press packets that included the band's bio, upcoming appearances and a photo of the guys in the band, with their scraggly hair and beards, standing, arms folded, with pissed-off looks on their faces. The posters and publicity materials included the slogan, "WE ARE THE DRUGGISTS, AND WE ROCK!" Occasionally someone would cross out "rock" and write in "suck" on the posters, but I'd just tear that one down and put up a new one when it happened.

Having the opportunity to write songs for the band was especially thrilling. I didn't write music, but I'd jot down lyrics that I thought would make good, hard rock songs with a particular tune in mind. I'd submit the ideas to Dave, he'd work out something with the other guys and come up with something that was dynamite. Dave would belt out my lyrics with gusto, and I took pride in the fact that I did not write love lyrics or anything conventional, and that’s what Dave and the other guys wanted.

One of the band's favorite songs that I wrote was called "I Just Don't Care No More." They played this at just about every show they did, and Dave cranked it out with aggressive vocals.

Well I'm tired of listening to
Anything that comes from you
From this day there is no way
I'll listen to anything you say

So you say that your life's so bad
I just don't care no more
You tell me that you feel so sad
I just don't care no more
You want someone to tell your troubles to
I just don't care no more
You come to me when you feel blue

I won't be there for you when you cry
I just don't care no more
I'm sure you know the reason why
I just don't care no more
You always depress the shit out of me
I just don't care no more
And from your troubles I want to break free

Or there was this classic. Heavy metal lyrics from a parental perspective:

You're not a child, you're a demon from hell
There's not a doctor or cure that could make you well
We've put up with you, now we're drawing the line
You piece of shit, you're no son of mine!

You're a disgrace to our family name
To your mother and I, you've brought only shame
In our society you'll never advance
We should have aborted you when we had the chance!

And then there was Dave's personal favorite, and a popular one with the club audiences, the unforgettable, hard rockin' party song, "Beast Man":

There's a creature out there you can't escape
Sometimes he's a man, sometimes he's an ape

Not too many things give him a thrill
But he loves to hunt and he loves to kill

Killing everything is his desire
Looks like evolution has gone haywire

In the first couple of years of the 1980s, hanging out with that band was a blast. The Druggists were getting better gigs, performing as an opening act at the better nightclubs or as a fill-in when a main act couldn't show up, while continuing to perform in bars and at private parties. The audiences were generally receptive. Occasionally there would be some obnoxious drunk causing problems, but there were never any hostile audiences that I saw.

The band was still performing classic rock covers, with my songs thrown in, and it was especially gratifying for me to see people really jamming out to something I had written. Dave was good about crediting me and introducing me to people, but I was quite fine with staying in the background and watching it all from my own comfort zone.


In the spring of 1982, Dave informed me he and the guys were working in a studio and were putting the finishing touches on an album that would have twelve cuts, including six of my songs. He told me I’d be given writer’s credit and would receive a share of the royalties. Finally, my work for these guys would actually pay off.

He asked me for suggestions on what to call the new LP. I thought for a moment and suggested the title “Fuck ‘em.” It was a phrase Dave used a lot, as well as me, and it expressed the attitude of the band.

Dave’s immediate response was “Yeah! Cool!” But then after thinking about it he said, “I don’t know, man. Stores aren’t going to stock anything with ‘fuck’ in the title.” I guess he had a point.

So then I suggested, “Why don’t you call the LP “Nuke ‘em.” On the front cover, show a picture of the band, with a big ass fuckin’ nuclear explosion mushroom cloud in the background!” This was, after all, at the height of the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.

Dave loved that idea, had a professional graphic artist work with my sketches to create the album cover, and in June 1982, “THE DRUGGISTS—NUKE ‘EM” came out on vinyl and cassette tape, with “I Just Don’t Care No More” as the opening track. A couple of FM rock stations even played that track and another one I wrote. It was at least a year before I actually saw a royalty check, and it wasn’t much, but I was happy to get it.

The album also included a couple of new tracks I wrote. One was called “Adolescent Therapy Session.” It started out with a distorted guitar riff, followed by slamming drums. Then Dave’s searing vocals came in.

Well you are only seventeen
But you’re the WORST CASE we’ve ever seen!
You’re going out and stealing cars
You’re drinking in cross town bars, good god!
You pick up a police woman decoy
You’re parents say, “You are such a naughty boy!
“We tried to raise you right from the start
“Now you’re breaking our heart!”

The other one took a different turn, and to everyone’s surprise it became something of a local hit. It was a ballad called “Terrance,” sung by Dave from the perspective of a high school cad.

My name is Terrance
And I’m really chic
I’m so cute you could pinch my cheek
I’m on the honor roll and the football team
When the girls see me, they all scream (backing vocals: Oh, TERRANCE!)

My name is Terrance
And I’m the high school jock
My big, hunk body is solid rock
I’ve got a tall blond cheerleader by my side
I’m gonna take her home and take her for a ride
Oh, I’m the all-American boy
To all the girls I provide such joy
Cause I’m a gorgeous son of a bitch
I’ll never have to work ‘cause I’m good looking and rich…

I was stunned to find out "Terrance" became a favorite at the local clubs, and couples were actually dancing close together to it when it was played. And it did get some radio play as well, but with a couple of words bleeped out. Those came up in the last verse of the song.

And last night I got such a thrill
When I [bleep]-ed some [bleep] by the name of Jill…

You can't accuse me of being incapable of writing about romance!


As the decade progressed, things were changing. Bar audiences and bar owners were looking for something different than simple loud rock 'n' roll performed by four or five guys in long hair, beards, mustaches and shabby clothes. It was now the era of the music video, where looks mattered more. So-called new wave rock and urban contemporary dance music performed by guys and girls in wildly fashionable hairdos and slick, colorful outfits was becoming the big thing that people were looking for. New bands were popping up and snatching up gigs that could have been had by the Druggists. And what kind of a name was the Druggists anyway? It sounded too much like a throwback to hippie-era drug culture. We were now in the era of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign. People still did drugs, but it was now considered wrong to promote it openly.

In March 1983, Dave threw us all for a loop. He called a meeting at the old warehouse where the band practiced, and told me to be there too. He had some big news, and publicity is going to be more important than ever, he said.

With me, Mike, Bob, Ed and a few others there, Dave made his big announcement. "I hired a keyboardist. His name is Howie Horkelson (that actually wasn’t his real name) and he's great. We're going New Wave, man. We got to get with the Eighties. We got to think about making music videos and getting on MTV. We can't go on being some fucking sixties throwbacks."

The guys were all looking at each other, saying, "What the fuck?"

He turned to me and said, "Dude, I want you to make posters and put them up all over town saying we've gone new wave. I want you to write up press releases and send them everywhere. Newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, everywhere. Oh, and the band's not going to be called the Druggists anymore. From now on we're Illegal Smiles. Not the Illegal Smiles, just Illegal Smiles."

The other guys in the band were not so gung-ho on that idea, least of all me. I said, "What the fuck do you want to do that for? The eighties suck!" The other guys were saying, "Yeah, no shit."

Dave said, "Look, guys, I'm not saying we can't play rock anymore. But we're living in the eighties, and if we're going to get out of playing the dives and get booked at some of the hotter clubs, we've got to get with what's current, what's trendy. People don't want to hear covers of Led Zeppelin and BTO songs all the time anymore."

"So what about the stuff I'm writing for the band," I asked.

"Keep doing what you're doing," he said. "What you write can easily be adapted to new wave."

Dave had a talent for being persuasive as much as any good salesman and the guys all came around to his side of the issue, however reluctantly. And so the Druggists became Illegal Smiles and I drew up some new posters with the group's new name in an eighties pop art style and emphasis on "New Wave." Meanwhile, getting into the spirit, I wrote my first "new wave" song for the band. Dave loved it, and had new keyboardist Howie sing lead on it.

God bless this beautiful day!
God bless the American way!
Well there's a great big smile
On every face I see
Everyone's a-living in harmony
Walkin' down the street you'll havta agree
America is the place to be!

Yes you can tell that America is the place to be
The way the surgeon performs his surgery
The way the drunkard drinks his burgundy
The way the radical speaks subversively…

Howie was actually good at what he did, the band played well with the new sound, and Illegal Smiles did start to draw bigger and more enthusiastic crowds than they did when they were the Druggists. In addition to what I was writing for them, the band was covering tracks from groups such as DEVO, the Clash and the Sex Pistols.

Then in the fall of 1984, Dave decided to make another big change. He brought in an aspiring singer named Tracy Gerwitz. Tracy was an aerobics instructor who wanted to be the next Madonna, and she tried hard to look just like her idol, with big permed hair, big earrings, heavy makeup, and a crucifix around her neck, even though she was Jewish. "It's just a fashion accessory to me," she'd say.

She had the Eighties Attitude big time. She was there because Dave was dating her, and I'm sure the other guys in the band were banging her as well. Not me, though. We tolerated each other, but that was about it.

She was nice to me in a phony sort of way. She'd say, "I want you to write songs for me but it's got to be my style." Or, "If you're going to make posters for the band be sure to mention me. Please? You know how to spell my name, right?"

She wasn't too crazy about the songs I wrote for the band either. She went through my notebooks with the lyrics I had jotted down and said, "Uh, I can't believe some of this stuff you write! Your words are so cynical, so angry at everything. Can't you write a love song?"

"Fuck that," I said. "I don't write puss songs."

"Love songs are not puss songs," she insisted. "Have you never been in love before? Don't you know what it's like?"

I said, "Fuck no."

She rolled her eyes and sighed exaggeratingly. "What-EVER!" Then she complained to Dave about me. "Why do you hang around with negative people? Do you know how it affects your psyche?"

Dave was hot and cold with Tracy. One day he'd be gushing about what a great lady she was, the next day he'd be calling her a "psycho bitch." But she had her clutches in him and in the entire band, and that was that.

Before long a new group photo was taken with Tracy up front and center, with the guys in the background. Soon Ed left the group (ostensibly to get married), and then Bob left. A couple of new guys came in to replace them, and I actually stuck around out of loyalty to Dave. Finally, in the spring of 1985, when the band started being billed as "Illegal Smiles Featuring Tracy Gerwitz," I knew it was pretty much over, and I too split the scene, moving on to other things. And pretty soon there was no more Illegal Smiles, just "singing sensation Tracy Gerwitz" getting booked at all the hot clubs. Dave finally realized he was just a stepping stone for her.

All these years later, Dave is still a friend of mine. He stops by occasionally for a beer and a chat. We talk about the good old days and he still gripes about how Tracy screwed him over. Then he gets to the point of his visit.

"Dude, you got $100 you can borrow me? I'll pay you back tomorrow, I promise."

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue

(Caution: F-bombs, crude language)

It was the summer of 1973, a particularly hot, humid day. The Delaney family was having their annual family get-together. While music played from the living room stereo, all the doors and windows were wide open, people filled the house, the front and back yards. Adults were drinking and socializing and kids were playing and chasing one another.

Tom Delaney and his cousin Terry Stone, meanwhile, were up in the attic, sitting on the floor and listening to a David Bowie album on a record player they brought up there. The two teenagers were getting themselves high sniffing model airplane glue. The boys made models together when they were younger and had since enjoyed the pleasant effects of glue.

"Wow. This is good shit," said the long, blond-haired Tom.

Droopy-eyed Terry took another sniff from the tube. "Yeah, it's great. I'm floatin' now!"

With Bowie rockin' and glue fumes penetrating their brains, they found profound things to talk about.

"Man you shoulda seen this chick I saw at the drug store the other day," said Tom. "She had tits like you wouldn't believe. They were mega-tits, man!"

"Shit, I woulda love to see that," replied Terry. "But I did see this chick on TV the other day with tits that practically stuck right out of her fuckin' shirt! I bet she weren't even wearing no bra!"

"No foolin'? Oh wow."

They continued to listen to the David Bowie album, talk about "tits" and sniff more glue when a young visitor came up and caught the two in action.

"Hi guys!" said the chirpy 13-year-old Diane, a cousin of the two boys.

Terry had the tube of glue up to his nose and was just a little stunned by the invasion. "The hell you doin' here?"

"I just heard some music and talking up here and I wanted to see what was going on."

"Well this ain't no place for kids," said 15-year-old Tom. "Just us big guys can be up here."

Diane noticed the lead tube in Terry's hand. "You're sniffing glue?!" she blurted out loudly and began to laugh.

"SHHH! Not so loud!"

Diane continued to laugh. "I can't believe it. You guys are hiding all the way up here just to sniff glue!"

The guys did not appreciate being laughed at by a precocious 13-year-old girl.  "Well what do you expect us to be doin'? Smokin' pot?" replied Tom.

"That's a lot better than that shit," Diane retorted.

The boys were at first irritated by their younger cousin but then they began to notice something about her. Her body was beginning to take shape, for one thing, and her clothing did much to emphasize it. She wore a sleeveless shirt with a decal depicting hearts, flowers and clouds, along with very short shorts, revealing her tanned legs and white sandals, showing off her painted toenails. With her soft brown hair framing her maturing face, Diane suddenly didn't seem to be the pesky kid that Tom and Terry had known her to be.

Diane noticed there were several empty Shasta soda-pop cans of various flavors around the boys. "Is that all you guys are drinking is pop?" she asked with mild amusement.

"Well, they won't let us have a beer," Tom replied.

"I could get a whole six-pack up here without anybody noticing," she bragged.

"Yeah, I'd like to see you try!" said Terry.

"Okay, I will!" she said with a smirk as she headed downstairs where the party continued to roll on.

"Man, is that chick for real?" asked Terry. Tom simply shrugged his shoulders and took another whiff of glue.

"She is getting some nice looking tits," he said.

A few minutes later, Diane returned with the promised six-pack.

"How the hell did'ja do that?" asked Tom.

"It was easy. A cinch," she said with a giggle.

The three each grabbed a can and as they were lifting and tearing off the ring tabs, Diane said, "Okay, before we even take a sip, let's have a chug-a-lug contest!"

"Oh my god," blurted Tom. The boys could not believe how wild this girl really was.

"On your mark, get set, GO!" called out Diane as the three downed the contents of the cans. While the two boys had to continuously drink and swallow, with foam sometimes shooting from their mouths, Diane was able to suck down almost half the contents at once, although her brown eyes seemed to pop out of her face as she did this.

"Shit! Where'd you learn to guzzle like that?" asked Terry as they took a rest.

I have experience," replied the 13-year-old with a smile. "I can drink wine or beer without any problem at all. I've even smoked pot before, which is a hell of a lot better than sniffing glue, I can tell you that!"

The truth was she had only tried pot once at age 12, and then it made her hack and cough to the point of tears, although she figured at this point she could try it again since she was beginning to smoke cigarettes without too much problem.

"You wanna try it again?" asked Diane, as the three still had about half a can of beer left. The boys agreed and once again, Diane sucked down the remaining contents of her can before the boys could get in four swallows.

"I guess I win!" exclaimed Diane with a big smile as she set down her empty can. Tom and Terry could hardly stand up, loaded with so much beer and glue vapors.

The David Bowie album on the record player had ended. "Want me to flip it over?" asked Diane.

"Go for it," replied Tom as she walked up, turned the record over and set the needle on the first song. She walked back over and sat right between the two boys, making things rather cozy.

There were three cans of beer left and they each had one, this time drinking them slowly. As the album played, Diane chattered away like the pubescent girl she was, while Tom and Terry sat, almost speechless.

When they finished their beers, Diane said, "Let's go downstairs and join the party." She stood up and the boys followed, now more intoxicated than they had ever been before.

Throughout the house and outside as well, the boys followed Diane as she mingled with the relatives. She had hugs and kisses for all of them and they thought she was just the sweetest little girl. And they didn't even notice the beer on her breath.

The boys, meanwhile, had a terrible case of  "the munchies" and before long grabbed a big bag of Frito's corn chips off the large table outside and chomped on them as though their life depended on it. When Diane saw them, she reached into the bag and took a handful.

Among everyone, as usual, was old Uncle Mel and his infamous camera. Every year at the family get-together, Uncle Mel was there snapping pictures wherever he turned and he seemed to have an endless supply of film.

"Hi Uncle Mel!" chirped Diane as she waved.

"Hello, Diane. You sure are looking lovely. Let me take a picture of yuh." As usual, Mel was wearing a loud suit and was wasted.

"I have my favorite cousins, Tom and Terry with me. You can take a picture of all three of us."

"I'd be delighted," said Mel. He set up his camera while Diane stood directly in front of the two boys, who towered over her. She gave a big smile as the two just stood there, mesmerized by Mel's colorful polyester suit.

Mel held the camera to his face. "Ready. . .say cheese. . ."

Just as he snapped the picture, Diane grabbed the two boys in a certain place which gave them a rather shocked look as she continued to smile. The picture was shot above the waist so nobody really saw what happened.

"Thanks a million," said Mel as he staggered off to take a picture of the half-eaten potato salad.

Tom and Terry continued to follow their cousin around as she charmed everyone with her cuteness until her mother finally said "Diane, honey, it's time for us to go."

"Okay, Mom!" she said as she joined her parents and they all left the party.

A few minutes later, Tom and Terry looked at each other.

"What hit us just now?" asked Terry.

"I don't know, man, I don't know."

The next summer there was another family gathering at the Delaney's. Tom and Terry were anxious to see their cousin again, to see how hot she was now. And sure enough she did show up, with her parents and her boyfriend, a soon-to-be high school senior who played on the football team.

"Well fuck this shit," said Tom as the two boys went back upstairs to the attic, played a Led Zeppelin album and yes, sniffed some more glue.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Harold's Blue Ribbon Monument

When Harold Nelson died of a stroke in 1998 at the age of 75, his love of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer died with him.

"I'm just glad to be finally rid of that ugly thing," said his widow Dorothy, not of her late husband, but of the giant Pabst Blue Ribbon "No Opener Needed" replica beer can on her property along a county road in western Wisconsin, as a hired demolition crew smashed it into rubble. Harold built the giant beer can in 1967 and insisted it stay right where it is, a constant bone of contention with his wife for thirty years.

Harold himself built and painted the meticulously-detailed giant can, made of concrete with a steel casing and standing at 16 feet tall and seven feet wide, and it became something of a local landmark. The slogan "No Opener Needed" appeared directly above the Blue Ribbon logo, just as it did on the actual Pabst cans circa 1967 when tab-tops replaced the older style cans that required a can opener.

The structure stood up surprisingly well over three decades of Midwest weather extremes. There were some streaks of rust on its metal casing, especially around the rivets, and a little fading in its spectacular red, white and blue color scheme, but Harold liked to say that's what gave it character. It was sometimes mistaken for a silo, but it wasn't attached to a barn, it never contained silage, and Harold said he didn't have the patience to farm his land anyway.

The can became something of a tourist attraction as people would drive by and sometimes stop to take a look at the thing. Harold was often asked to take a picture of someone who wanted to pose with it, and he always obliged. Sometimes he'd even offer a full can of Pabst Blue Ribbon to a visitor who wanted to stay for a few minutes and chat. He got a small royalty on sales of a postcard of the giant beer can, and even Pabst took notice, publishing a feature about it in a company newsletter. But with all the fame and small fortune, Dorothy still hated the thing.

"The only reason why people are coming to look at it is because they think you're a fool, and that embarrasses me," she always told him. She could not conceive that people actually liked the structure and admired Harold for creating it. The idea of that did not make sense to her.

Harold and Dorothy were married for nearly fifty years but they didn't really like each other. Harold enjoyed the simple pleasures in life, such as hunting, fishing, beer drinking and watching football on TV. Dorothy didn't like any of those things and was basically unhappy. Nothing was ever right for her. Dorothy complained frequently and loudly, and Harold learned to ignore her, doing pretty much whatever he wanted. Still, he was home every night, and every day as well after he retired, and he never strayed on her.

Harold was a fan of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the very start. It was the first beer he tried as a teenager with some friends back in the late 1930s, not all that long after Prohibition was repealed. He saved one of the cans, and when Pabst came out with a new can over the years, he saved one of those.

Dorothy, on the other hand, did not like beer. But she did like white wine, so much so she sometimes drank it by the jug. Then, with Harold and Dorothy both loaded on their favorite drinks, they would get into petty arguments, until one or both of them finally passed out.


Harold Nelson and Dorothy Fishbeck met in 1946 after he returned home from the war and she was working as a waitress at Fleck's Roadside Diner. As a regular customer, Harold asked her out several times, and finally, she agreed to see a movie with him. She went out with him a couple more times and after the third date, she became pregnant. They decided to do the "right thing" and get married quietly in a judge's chambers before the baby was born.

Coming from a nice, churchgoing Lutheran family, Dorothy regretted ever going to bed with Harold, let alone out of wedlock. She also regretted not having the extravagant wedding she had dreamed of since she was a little girl. But she also believed that once you're married that's it, there's no getting out of it except under extreme circumstances. As long as he never abused her and remained faithful, she was committed to him, even if she ultimately resented it.

In 1947 Dorothy gave birth to a daughter, Cynthia, and in subsequent years the couple had three more children, two boys and another girl. Harold found work in the construction business, using skills he learned in the Second World War, to help build the new post-war America. He was a working stiff who wore a hard hat and a white T shirt on the job, but he wasn't necessarily the stereotypical gruff, distant father. He doted over his kids while it was Dorothy who was more of the stern disciplinarian, frequently accusing Harold of spoiling the children.

The Nelsons lived in a small town in Wisconsin near the Minnesota border until 1965 when Harold had the opportunity to buy several acres of cheap land along the county road, where the construction worker by trade could build a house, garage, workshop, storage shed and a giant Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can close enough to the road to be seen.

They would eventually have seven grandchildren, beginning with Cynthia's son Tommy, born in 1968. Dorothy wasn't nearly as stern a disciplinarian to the grandchildren as she was as a mother, but she had her quirks that her grandkids found a little odd. She wouldn't buy Kool-Aid, for instance, because she said, she couldn't stand "that hideous grin" on the packages. She also wouldn't go with when Harold brought the kids to the circus or the fair because she found the clowns too traumatizing.


Of all of the grandchildren, Harold was closest to Tommy. Tommy's father, Cynthia's husband, wasn't around much so Harold became the father figure and best pal to Tommy. Harold taught him about fishing and hunting and football and beer. They had many man-to-man talks about navigating through life and dealing with the problems that come up. Taped to the walls in his workshop, Harold had drawings Tommy made for him over the years, including depictions of him or the two of them together, and of the giant beer can.

As Tommy got older, they remained close. When he was in his late teens and driving, he'd occasionally bring a few of his friends to meet Harold and see the giant beer can, and have a rap session over a couple of beers with Harold in his workshop. Grandma Dorothy wasn't too happy about having "all those hooligans" hanging around, but Harold would tell her, "They're Tommy's friends and they're good, decent kids. Stop being such a killjoy, woman."

Tommy was 30 when Harold passed away. Dorothy had said for years regarding the Pabst Blue Ribbon monument, "When Harold dies, that ugly thing is getting torn down," and indeed, one of the first things she did was contact a business that could do the job. Tommy begged and pleaded with her not to do it, and fans of the giant beer can from around the country wrote letters asking her to preserve it. All of them went straight in the trash. Tommy was able to get Harold's Pabst memorabilia collection and the drawings he made for him as a kid before Dorothy trashed those.

Dorothy finally passed away in 2010 at age 86, twelve years after Harold's death. Beige, hulking condominiums now sit on the old Nelson property, for middle class people wanting to live "in the country," even though it really isn't "the country" anymore.

A recent visitor, who was trying to pinpoint where the giant Pabst can once stood, was told by a security guard to leave immediately or be arrested. The security guard had no clue what the visitor was talking about as he tried explaining why he was there. The security guard just chalked it up to his colleagues as "some loony tune."

Thursday, July 16, 2020

A Trip at Granny's

A child's memories of his eccentric grandmother in the late 1960s.

The booze sure did flow at Grandma's house. That's where the action was. Her name was Henrietta. We kids just called her Grandma Henry. She was a big woman, a matriarchal type. She wore pointed cat-eye glasses, chain-smoked, owned a couple of street-corner bars and was not afraid to express an opinion - and shout you down if she disagreed with you.

She lived with Grandpa Jake, her second husband but in separate rooms. They had been divorced for years. Jake was a skinny, balding brewery worker who smoked air-tipped cigars and grinned a lot. He knew his place in the household. He was on the company bowling team and had a nice display of his bowling trophies.

Back in the swinging sixties, going to Grandma Henry's and Jake's house was always fun. Lots of laughter and music came out of that house, either from the old piano or from the Dean Martin records. The TV was usually on too, with the sound off when the music was playing. They had a color TV! Big, pumpkin-shaped screen with an attached stereo record player and AM-FM radio.

I remember seeing shows like My Three Sons or Bonanza for the first time in color there, with color commercials for Hunt's Tomato Catsup and L&M cigarettes, often without sound as Dean or Sammy or Frank crooned away. Sometimes Mom would play the piano, Dad would join in with his banjo and they'd sing old songs together.

In the basement was a pool table and sometimes Dad and Jake or Uncle Mitchell or somebody would be down there shooting a few games for fun. I just wondered where those numbered, colored balls went when they disappeared in the hole.

Meanwhile Aunt Pam and her friends would be in one of the upstairs bedrooms, listening to 45s on the little record player. Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Nancy Sinatra, that kind of stuff. There were always strange smells coming out of that room. Lots of giggles too.

On other visits, the card table would be out and Grandma Henry, Grandpa Jake, Mom, Dad, aunts, uncles, all the relatives would sit around it, shuffling, dealing, talking louder the drunker they got. The house would be filled with smoke, making my little eyes water.

There'd be a big platter of cheeses, meats, chips, dip and Ritz crackers to eat from. Lots of Pepsi and 7-Up as well if you were too little for a beer or vodka martini. Then came dinner. Always something good and lots of it. You didn't go hungry at Grandma Henry's house.

Hanging high above the dinner table, a gold and yellow Shell No-Pest Strip to keep the flies away. It looked like a neat toy but Grandma wouldn't let me play with it.

While the family was playing cards, and I happened to be walking by, Grandma Henry would often stop me and say "Jeffrey, would you be so kind as to bring me another beer," handing me her glass. Inevitably somebody else would say, "Oh, as long as you're headed that way…" Soon I'd be bringing everybody's drinks on a metal serving tray. It was fun though.

That's the stuff of childhood memories. My Grandma knew how to have a good time and throw a party. Perhaps she was too good at it.

When my Uncle Mitchell graduated from college, that was cause for celebration. I remember riding to Grandma's in Dad's blue '65 Ford and you could hear the festivities from down the block. Dad, Mom and I walk into the place and everybody's there. All the relatives, Mitchell's college friends, probably half the city council and mayor too. Grandma Henry always had good connections.

My parents grabbed a drink and faded into the crowd. I joined my young cousins in running around the house, up and down the stairs, in and out of the basement and jumping on the beds on second floor. Mitchell had reign of the stereo and the rockin' sounds of Iron Butterfly and Jefferson Airplane filled the house.

Pretty soon I grabbed a cookie and a couple of brownies off the big table. I noticed what looked like little bits of dried leaves in those snacks but they tasted all right so I didn't think much of it.

Before long I began to realize that in my seven short years, this was the best time I've ever had in my life. People would come up and say "How's Jeff doin'?" and I'd say "I'm having more fun than I've ever had!" and they'd say "Good for you!"

Also on the table was a punch bowl. Figuring it was just good old Hawaiian Punch, I helped myself to a glass and nobody bothered stopping me. Yuck! Pooey! There was booze in it. There just might have been something else in it as well.

I remember starting to feel a bit chilly, yet I was sweating up a storm running around the house with my cousins. My fingers and toes started to tingle pleasantly. "C'mon, Jeff! Let's play hide 'n' seek," said my cousin Doug and it sounded as though he was talking through a chamber.

Around the house the laughter got louder and the music got weirder but I only vaguely thought about that. I was just having the greatest time of my life and that was all that mattered.

I looked up and saw hanging from a window these yellow and orange daisy-patterned curtains. They were probably always there but I had never noticed them until now. And what a beautiful and fascinating work of art that I had been neglecting all this time, I thought, at least in the way a seven-year-old would articulate that.

I looked in all directions of the room, observing my surroundings and realizing what a splendidly bright, colorful world I was in. People were coming up, stooping down to talk to me and their faces seemed somehow bigger than the rest of their bodies. Bigger than life, really. Maybe it was just the angle at which I was looking at them.

Again the color TV was on with the sound off. What was on? Some variety show, I think. There was some lavish dance number where everybody was wearing these gaudy, colorful costumes.

The whole idea of color TV was fascinating to me because all we had at home was a black and white portable set with a broken aerial and it tended to make a buzzing sound. Color TV was so neat. I wanted to become better acquainted with it.

I looked closely at the screen. The lavish dancers with the gaudy costumes faded into vast dimensions of red, blue and green dots. Then there were the knobs below the channel changer. What do they do? One made everyone's faces turn bright red or bright yellow. Another made the faces blue or green. I played with the knobs, manipulating the colors in so many different ways. Nobody was telling me no, and in fact some of Uncle Mitchell's college friends seemed as fascinated as me. I heard one of them say "You've invented psychedelivision, man."

When I finally decided to find something else to do, one of the college guys started playing with the knobs. I wandered into the kitchen. The kitchen seemed much more vast than I ever remembered it to be. Grandma Henry was in there fixing more snacks for the partiers. I asked her for a glass of water and when I spoke, I felt as though I was under water.

Furthermore, she didn't seem to understand what I was saying. She kept going "Huh? What?" I pointed to the faucet and she finally got the drift. When Grandma Henry handed me the glass of water she suddenly looked scarier than I had ever seen her before. Those cat-eye glasses and bulging eyes actually frightened me. The wrinkles on her face looked deep and I saw sprouts of hair in them. Her long fingernails looked like claws. I took my glass of water, turned my head and got away from there.

The night continued on as I explored this whole new world at Grandma's house until….the police came. They just walked right in and swept everyone away. At first I thought they wouldn't notice me or that I was too young to get arrested but they took me and the rest of the kids as well.

The next thing I remember is waking up in my bed at home. The sun was shining through my window as it did every morning. But looking around my bedroom, it seemed to be spinning ever so slightly.

I called for my mom. I asked her, what happened at Grandma Henry's last night.

"It was just a dream. Forget about it," she said.

"But I remember…."

"I said forget about it!"

Later on, if I said "Mom, remember when I had that dream about…." she'd always say "Forget about it, Jeff. Just forget about it."