Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Garrison Keillor

My father tuned to 90.1 fm, the public radio station, as we drove from Hutchinson to Newton to visit our grandma. We made the trip every Sunday after 11:00 mass. Sleepy Sunday in the interval between mass and grandma’s fresh and hot lunch taxed the stomachs of the Kelley kids. We had grown used to the drive and had our games to occupy us for stretches at a time. We spotted out-of-state license plates. We held our collective breath as we passed tidy prairie cemeteries. Our eyes glued to the horizon so that we could be the first to spot several landmarks. “One more corner, I said it first!”

Later we would bring books, gadgets or tiny treasures too. The radio became a hot zone for tense negotiation. Soon enough we longed to turn the dial higher up the fm frequency to hear the Top Forty countdown get closer to number one. Dad had no ear or patience for our music. Instead he favored classical music and gently extolled the benefits it had on human intelligence. It took work to create and listening to it edified the mind and soul. We groaned, but he held sway. Often we would be on the road at the right time to catch Garrison Keillor’s weekly radio show, The Prairie Home Companion. Garrison’s voice soothed our nerves. We stopped our fidgets and listened. He was funny without a laugh track. You had to really listen to get his quirky take on American life in the Midwest. I liked being in on the story.

I lost track of Garrison somewhere around sixteen years old, and then found his show again after college. Now I had dishes to do and laundry to fold during the broadcast. I took to carrying a small radio between the kitchen and basement as I went about my tasks. I even crocheted heavy, uneven stitches to the news from Lake Woebegone. The same vignettes made new every week, thousands of times. It was like getting a postcard from a real place each week. The characters had lives in parallel with mine. My own life seemed ripe for humor too if only I had a story teller to help me see the folly of my foibles and the pretense of my triumphs.

I longed to see the show. Before long it was one of my few articulated life dreams. “The man is as jewel, an American treasure,” I was known to profess at dinner parties. He tells stories and we sit by the radio immersed in the sound of his voice. Who else can claim us like him? His other program, The Writer’s Almanac, gives America one good poem a day. Is that not the measure of a good deed? I bought his anthology of good poems and it seemed that his voice was there giving cadence and texture to poems that might otherwise have fallen flat.

So when I heard that he was bringing his show to the Kansas State Fair in my hometown, it had already been decided. I would go. I would try to bring my betrothed, who was able to attend in the end. I would pay any price. Garrison and Pronto Pups were almost too much to bear.

The show started precisely at 5 pm and indeed it was live. The Kansas wind was relentless. It cooled us and kept the porcine odors headed due North instead of choking us. It must have been a tyrant to Garrison though. Yet, the wind whipping across the plains is Kansas and this is his gig. Local flavor is his thing. The musicians were talented. Guy Noir spiced up with a guest appearance of the Kansas governor, Kathleen Sebelius, playing herself. They performed the English Major skit, a personal favorite. And then Garrison settled himself on the faux front porch and brought us the the News from Lake Woebegone. He wove a strange tale that episode, but kept the eight thousand spectators as rapt as little ones at bedtime.

I looked around and watched my fellow Kansans as they listened. It was odd to be in public with my hands still while Garrison weaved his tale. I felt vulnerable in a new way. My private pleasure in his story was now radically public. That voice, deep and slow and tinged with delight, calmed my unease. That voice telling tall tales over the years has shaped me into a Midwest girl who knows that stories come from ordinary folk and nourish us along with our daily bread.

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