Last night at the Brady Theater, Garrison Keillor sang and told stories accompanied only by a piano and his red sneakers. He talked about a conversation with a girl from an age he didn’t quite understand. She had lots of steel in various orifices, the lips, ears, nose. Keillor said it looked as if she had fallen headlong into a tackle box. And then we were all singing like it was Sunday morning, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” and “Amazing Grace.”
He told a story about his Mom, Grace Keillor, who sent him to swimming lessons in Minneapolis. (Because his cousin Roger drowned) And why he started his show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” (Because he lost the transcript for a story he wrote about growing up in Minnesota, in the days before all documents were saved on hard drives, he left paper copy in a briefcase on a train in Portland.) And so “A Prairie Home Companion” was a stream of consciousness attempt to recover the story he wrote and lost 41 years ago.
Keillor once said, “One reads books in order to gain the privilege of living more than one life. People who don’t read are trapped in a mine shaft, even if they think the sun is shining,”
“A young writer is easily tempted by the allusive and ethereal and ironic and reflective, but the declarative is at the bottom of most good writing.”
Keillor is a writer who has inspired me. When I read his stories, I’m no longer trapped in a mine shaft with the sun shining only on the top of my head. And when he talks about headless chickens running amok down main street or growing tomatoes in backyard gardens or catching a glimpse of Julie at the tent revival one hot August as she turned to look backward at something exposing the edge of her cotton bra and a sliver of pale flesh and realizes he can’t stand for the invitation song after the preacher has delivered a fire and brimstone sermon about just about every sin, but especially lust…well, it just seems real to me.
And when Keillor answers questions about childhood, I feel it could have been me, under different circumstances. Here is Garrison Keillor’s response to a question about his best and worst childhood memory.
The happiest was when I went out for football in the eighth grade and I took a physical, and the doctor told me I couldn’t play because I had a click in the valve of my heart. I was shocked, but I took this experience as a cue that I have to do something else that was brave, and I went to the local paper and asked if they needed someone to write up sports, knowing they didn’t have anybody. So they let me do it. So instead of sitting on the bench, I sat at the top of stands in the press box with men from the local radio station who were broadcasting the game. I sat with a tablet and a pencil and felt like royalty up there. I was a writer.
My worst memory is a summer when my cousin Roger, who I admired and who was 5 years older than me, drowned in a lake. I think trying to impress his girlfriend that he could swim, which he could not. As a result, my mother sent me to the YMCA to take swim lessons, which terrified me. I was afraid of water. I just simply could not do it. This was 1953, and I was 11. The boys were required at the time to take swimming lessons in the nude, and once you learned to swim, you got to wear a swimsuit. I had never been naked with strangers before, and it was traumatic. I had to lie to my mother and tell her the swimming lessons were going well, when I was skipping and going to the library instead.
What a great evening with the red sneakered poet and storyteller. It made me feel like it would be ok if I fell headlong into a tackle box. Which after all isn’t far from the truth. Haven’t we all?