When I was a young man people told me that I had a pleasant voice. So I took a vocational course in radio broadcasting and found myself in Williston, North Dakota, with the job of news director at radio station KGCX.
Oscar Halvorson, who grew Turkey Red winter wheat on 600 acres outside of town and ran the radio station more as a hobby than as a business, told me to have 5 minutes of local news to broadcast 3 times per day, Monday through Saturday. On Sundays the station did live broadcasts from several Lutheran churches and then played gospel music for the rest of the day.
On days when the city council, school board or county commissioners met there was plenty of local news to broadcast. But that only accounted for a few days out of the month. There were occasional bad traffic accidents and fires. That helped. But on many days I sweated bullets to come up with enough local scoops to fill my mandatory 5 minutes.
When Oscar could spare time away from his fields he would coach me on manufacturing news when there was none spontaneously occurring.
“Call da mayor” he said in his heavy Scandinavian brogue; “Tell him yew herd tell dat he vas goink to propose an entertainment tax dere; den see vhat de old rascal says.”
That gambit worked until all the officials in Williams County wised up and refused to take my bait.
Having grown up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I was handicapped by my big city upbringing. I thought news had to be a disaster or a miracle; nothing mundane or trivial.
But when the moose ate the laundry I learned my lesson.
It started out as a typical winter day on the ‘beat’, as I called it. I went to the Sheriff’s office; he wasn’t in and the deputy stated that since it had been 20 below the night before all the troublemaking elements in town had remained snugly indoors. I checked in at the Fire Department, where Big Red, the Fire Chief, said some of the hydrants were probably frozen solid and wouldn’t work again until April – but I had already run that startling revelation the week before. At the police station the Chief was excited over a moose that had wandered into town that morning to nibble on laundry drying out on the line. I did not share the Chief’s enthusiasm for this story, so didn’t mention it on my newscast at noon.
That was a big mistake.
Oscar came into the station that afternoon, spitting bitumen.
“Vhat about dat dere moose dey is talkin’ about down at da VFW?” he demanded upon entering the studio. “It tuke down Becky Thingvold’s lace apron and a pair of vool socks over at da Holmberg’s!”
I needed no further prompting, but shot back to the Police Chief for a breathless interview on the moose’s depredations.
I ran that story, with variations, until they caught the dyspeptic beast a few days later and transported it back to the sand hills north of town where it had wandered in from.
It was much less difficult to fill my newscasts after that, because I had learned that small town America does not care as much about the National Debt or cancer research as it does about a missing manhole cover on Main Street.
I used to make faces at babies in church. Because I liked to see them smile. And was a little bored at times.
One Sunday, though, I tried out a gookie on a promising young infant, only to have the creature burst into hysterical tears. Boring a hole through me with her eyes, the furious mother had to take the child out of the chapel for the rest of the service. I did not feel at all responsible for this kid’s tantrum; after all, was it my fault the child did not appreciate Harpo Marx?
Over the years, I have been ostracized merely for the charitable act of trying to cheer up my fellow man. I don’t see why the urge to spread joy and mirth should make me a criminal, but there you have it – the world is full of sourpusses who would rather nibble a pickle than feast on a cake.
Take, for example, my notable intermission gag when I clowned for Ringling Brothers back in the late 70’s. The circus has a 20 minute halftime to enable patrons to use the facilities and, more importantly, to buy lots of overpriced junk from the concessionaires. Most of the performers used this time to get their second wind. But I, wanting to go the extra mile as a clown, roped another member of clown alley into working the bleachers with me in a surefire gag formulated to cheer the dourest temperament. Or so I thought. Holding an empty leash, my confederate would ask members of the audience in a mournful voice if they had seen his pet skunk. Meanwhile I would be lurking beneath the bleachers, following his trail with a squirt bottle full of cheap cologne. Whenever I would see an exposed ankle I would give it a hearty spritz from the spray bottle. My victim would invariably bolt out of their seat, screaming they had just been sprayed by a skunk. Quite a psychological masterpiece, don’t you think? But strangely enough there were always a few hotheads, usually men of a surly and muscular nature, who were not amused and would chase my partner down the aisles until he could escape backstage. He finally quit the gag, cravenly saying that he had no wish to be pummeled by plug-uglies reeking of Mennen’s. I attempted to recruit another volunteer to help me bring a bit of extra sunshine into the drab lives of audience members, but was turned down cold, usually with some comment to the effect that I had a sick, sick mind.
A few years later, wanting to improve myself (and having been blacklisted from the circus for reasons we need not go into here); I decided to go back to school. At the University of Minnesota I took an art class in the old Art Building on the West Bank of campus. The Art Building was an old factory, built of thick cement, with a bland central staircase that just cried out for colorful renovation. Early one morning I brought a bag of balloons into the building and stood on the second floor balcony, inflating balloons and dropping them softly onto the staircase steps below. Soon the staircase was festooned with dozens of red, green, yellow, blue and white balloons, waving gently to and fro with every draft like an undersea kelp bed. I barely had time to admire my work before students began pouring into the building – and came to a dead stop at the foot of the staircase. I thought their uncertainty would turn into joy and laughter as they plowed their way through my colorful display. But no, these maladjusted scholars all appeared to have globophobia! As they huddled sullenly by the staircase some of the balloons started to pop. The sound, magnified by those thick cement walls, sounded like bazooka fire from an old Warner Brothers World War Two movie. Students scattered like rabbits, and the campus police were soon barging up the stairs, immune to the whimsical beauty of my work, to chew me out and threaten me with jail time if I ever pulled a stunt like that again.
We great artists have always been misunderstood.
A few MORE years later I found myself in a quaint Iowa town, broadcasting the news at a radio station. The job called for steady nerves and no sleep, since I was on call, like a country doctor, at all hours of the day and night to cover the results of traffic accidents, fires, and violent weather. I also felt the job called for a puckish sense of humor, so one day, when news was slow, I purchased a large bunch of bananas and strewed the sidewalks on Main Street with the peels, to prove once and for all that it is virtually impossible to slip on a banana peel, despite sixty years of such slides in slapstick movies. My experiment was a complete triumph; not a single, solitary soul so much as tottered. But it was an extremely warm day in July, and soon the peels began to exude a nauseatingly overripe odor and to attract swarms of irritable yellow jackets. The chief of police himself, while congratulating me on my scoop, handed me a spade and plastic trash bag so I could perform a different kind of scoop – he bade me to be snappy about it. The secretary of the Chamber of Commerce also confronted me while I was scrapping fried banana peel off the sidewalk and waving away dive bombing yellow jackets. She was a dashing redhead that I had hopes of dating, but those hopes were now crushed as she cursed me out with language that would embarrass a stevedore for turning Main Street into a landfill just when some out-of-town investors had arrived to consider leasing land to build an ethanol plant.
Today I make no attempt to bring laughter into the world; let it stew in its own bile. Even the New York Times has run an article about the undesirability of laughter. But just in case the world ever comes knocking, begging for some of my lighthearted tomfoolery again, I have secreted several whoopee cushions and a pancake of fake vomit in my top dresser drawer. “Be Prepared” has always been my motto.