Friday, April 27, 2012

The Lone Ranger rides again--on stranger plains

By Jim Heffernan
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when, from out of the past, come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again.

I didn’t put quotation marks around those words to fool readers into thinking I might have written such a powerful opening paragraph, which rivals such other strong opening paragraphs as, “In the beginning God”, “Elmer Gantry was drunk”, “It was a dark and stormy night in the best of times and the worst of times…” and so on and so forth.

Of course we are talking here about a part of the opening narration for the radio version of “The Lone Ranger,” which had a profound influence on my life in my eternal quest for “truth, justice and the American way,” or was that “Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy”? It gets kind of fuzzy as time passes.

“Faster than a speeding bullet…” Oh, excuse me; I’m getting carried away.

Why all this talk of the Lone Ranger now? Well, for a very good reason. The Walt Disney Studio in – brace yourself – Hollywood, California (where all the Democrats are), is making a movie of the Lone Ranger story starring none other than Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp as the Lone Ranger? No, no, no. The quirky actor (see “Pirates of the Caribbean on Stranger Tides” than its two predecessors in a movie franchise that has struck an iceberg) will be playing Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s faithful Native American companion. Armie Hammer plays the Lone Ranger in this updating of the old story, to be released next year. Armie Hammer is not yet a household name outside of people who bake a lot.

I had thought Tonto had fallen victim to political correctness but here he is again, and portrayed by Johnny Depp, a Caucasian actor if there ever was one. At least Tonto on radio and TV was played by an Indian actor named Jay Silverheels (real name Harold J. Smith), who is dead and has lost popularity himself among Native Americans. We often lose popularity after we die, with the exceptions of Abraham Lincoln, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Jeremy Bentham. (You won’t find those four names in the same sentence very often.)

But enough Tonto talk. He’s on his way back, and that’s that. Take it or leave it.

I actually wanted to say a word about the Lone Ranger’s mask. Even more famous than the Phantom of the Opera’s mask, or The Scarlet Pimpernell’s for that matter, does anyone really believe that putting on a Lone Ranger mask, covering just the eyes and bridge of the nose, would disguise a person’s identity? Come on!

The scanty mask was not a problem on radio, but on TV the minute you saw the Lone Ranger you knew it was Clayton Moore, the actor who played him on the tube. That powder blue official Lone Ranger uniform helped.

Did they really expect us to believe that the outlaws who killed his Texas Ranger brother wouldn’t recognize him in THAT mask? I don’t think so. You’d think they’d have learned from raccoons. They have a similar band across their eyes and nobody mistakes them for, say, cats, except that woman in the TV commercial you probably didn’t see.

Not to take anything away from the Lone Ranger, who had a profound influence on my life. I listened to him on radio every day in my childhood. The program was often on the kitchen radio when we ate supper (now known as “dinner”) in my childhood home, stifling family conversations about the meaning of life and stuff like that.

The half-hour program always ended when the Lone Ranger has fought for law and order in some Old West town and rides off on his fiery horse at the speed of light crying “Hi-yo Silver, away” as some character like the local sheriff asks, “Who WAS that masked man?”

As if they didn’t know with that teensy weensy mask. Get real, sheriff.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Smelt memories...

Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio reporter, interviewed me for a Duluth smelt run piece that aired yesterday. I'm on air very briefly but we had a fun time at the Duluth Grill discussing the glory of the smelt runs long ago. He did a nice job of covering that era while bringing in how smelt still infiltrate our region. You can check that out HERE.

Of course, I still remember those wonderful and crazy days when camp fires dotted the beaches and river mouths and beer drinking partiers from near and far collided every spring to cast seines or dip nets to easily scoop up as many smelt as desired. It formed a party atmosphere with great and free eating. And it was good for the tourist economy.

I tried to capture that atmosphere in a column I wrote in the Duluth News Tribune and used it in my book, Cooler Near the Lake. I thought I'd reprint it below in honor of spring in Duluth and the smelt runs of the past and present.

 My wife and I still get in our smelt dinners every spring by traveling to the Tappa Keg in West Duluth where fresh smelt are lightly battered and very delicious.

Smelt Memories: Are They Fact or Fancy?
by Jim Heffernan

Where’s the smelt?
Somebody asked me the other night when I was going to write my annual smelt column, and I had to admit that I hadn’t even thought of doing one this year. Maybe I forgot because the smelt forgot to come.
 I’m getting the impression in recent years that the smelt themselves are tired of the annual ritual. They seem to be looking elsewhere for their spring kicks.
 As many of us who remember the halcyon days of smelting know, it wasn’t always that way. Newcomers to Duluth would have difficulty understanding what mania the arrival of the smelt used to cause back in the early days of smelt running.
 I was attempting to describe it to someone who recently moved to Duluth and I found myself doubting what I was saying. I had that eerie feeling one sometimes gets that I had dreamed it all, and then confused the dream with reality.
 So I thought I’d check myself with readers who might have the same memories as mine.
 Is it a fact, or is it fantasy, when I seem to recall that Park Point, and not the North Shore, was the focus of the smelt run in the early days? Didn’t thousands of people used to converge on the point during the run and fish with huge net seines? And wasn’t there a bonfire, often fueled with old tires, about every 20 feet for the length of the point?
 I was pretty young, but I remember looking across the lake from a location near Leif Erikson Park and seeing so many bonfires on the beach that it looked like all of Park Point was on fire. What happened to that? I’m only asking.
 And when the weather was rough on the lake side of the point, didn’t the multitudes shift over to the bay side with their seines, some substituting dip nets, and wade far out into harbor waters–almost to the ship channels–in search of smelt? I remember doing that once on a smelt excursion with my father. I think I remember it, or was it a dream?
 Do I recall that you didn’t need a Minnesota fishing license, no matter what your age, to smelt fish? Didn’t that bring just about every man, woman and child in Minnesota and the four states surrounding it to Duluth? Didn’t they cause traffic jams on London Road extending from the Lester River to the Jay Cooke statue? Did that happen, or was it just that I was younger and everything seemed bigger then?
 Didn’t roving bands of young people get drunked up on 3.2 beer and pillage, if not rape, everything in sight? Weren’t enough empty beer cans strewn along the shore and Park Point to provide sufficient metal to build three destroyers and a battlewagon?
 Weren’t the police put on double duty to make a stab at keeping order, and the traffic moving, and didn’t they always lose the battle? Did the Chamber of Commerce hook up a statewide smelt information alert line for outstate people to call for up-to-the-minute reports on the smelt run, or did I dream that?
 Didn’t the Duluth Herald and the News Tribune (there were two papers then) composing room overnight smelting party at Lester River each year turn every printer into a devil, and cause four-score worried wives to sit up all night in rocking chairs at home clutching rosaries and praying? Did I imagine all that?
 Speaking of the newspaper, didn’t each edition come out with four-column pictures of the hordes at Lester River, and didn’t occasional 84-point (War Declared-size) headlines announce that some men had given up their lives in pursuit of smelt. That happened, didn’t it?
 Didn’t I see a neighbor lady come home from smelting and dump huge buckets of smelt directly into her garden for fertilizer? Wasn’t the peak of the run the biggest night of the year for the liquor stores–eclipsing New Year’s?
 I’m not complaining that all this appears to have come to an end, mind you. I’m only asking if it really happened the way I recall it, or was it all a dream?

Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Wednesday, May 9, 1984
­and re-printed in my book, Cooler Near the Lake, published in 2008 by X-Communication.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lost Duluth and Zenith City Online Launch...

Below are the details of the event launching the new book exploring Duluth's past, "Lost Duluth," by Maryanne C. Norton and Tony Dierckins. I had the pleasure of reading several chapters as the book was being prepared and, trust me, it's fascinating. Pictures and narrative on scores of Duluth buildings that have been razed over the years. Lost forever.

Concurrently with the book launch, Dierckins, whose previous publishing imprint (X-Comm) put out my book, "Cooler Near the Lake," is launching a new on-line magazine he's calling "Zenith City Online," described as "An online resource celebrating historic Duluth, Western Lake Superior and Minnesota's Arrowhead." I will be writing a column for Zenith City Online, focusing mainly on the history of Duluth's western precincts, where I grew up. Find out more about this new free online magazine HERE. Dierckins' publishing company (X-Comm) will change gears on May 1 as well and become Zenith City Press.

I'll be at the launch event; all are invited; hope to see some of you there. Details are below.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mayors stage dive for Trampled by Turtles Day in Minneapolis and Duluth

It's official. It's Trampled by Turtles Day in Minneapolis and Duluth and the two Minnesota cities' mayors, RT Rybak and Don Ness, not only proclaimed it, they took stage dives at the proclamation concert as well. Check out the stage dive scene in the video below. By the way, Trampled by Turtles is the popular Indie folk band whose members have roots in Duluth. Wikipedia lends a nice summary of their story for you to learn more HERE

Friday, April 6, 2012

A penny for your thoughts and $50 for a tank of gas...

By Jim Heffernan

If you are a certain age (and I am most certainly of that certain age) you can remember when things seemed a lot cheaper than they do today, even making mental adjustments for inflation over the past five or six decades.

I was reminded of this again the other day when I filled the gas tank on my car for just under $50. At my age (I was counted in the 1940 census), I can remember when a gallon of regular gasoline went for about 28 cents a gallon, a few cents more for premium.

It wasn’t unusual (unusual? I did it all the time) to pull into a service station and order a buck’s worth and get your oil checked by a guy in a uniform provided by the brand of gas he sold – Mobil, Standard, Pure – who also washed your windshield. You could drive for several days on that dollar’s worth of gas.

This is not intended to be another one of those nostalgia pieces that seem to be so popular on the Internet. “Remember when this…”  “remember when that…” all implying that things were better then -- then usually being the 1950s, which, if you are of a certain age, you can recall quite vividly.

These thoughts (at a penny a piece) plied my mind as I filled my tank, watching the numbers spinning up through $35, $40, $45, and finally stopping at $49 and change. Almost 50 bucks for a tank of gas.

Fifty dollars is a benchmark amount for me. When I was about 10 years old, my parents gave me a brand new bicycle – my first and only. It was a beautiful red and white J.C. Higgins brand bicycle from Sears Roebuck. It was their most elaborate, and expensive, bike at the time – fenders of course, carrier, case, light, horn – and it cost about $50. It seemed like a lot of money to me, and it wasn’t small change for my parents either. But they got me the bike.

The only trouble was I secretly wanted a Schwinn. Schwinns were the gold standard of bikes in the minds of neighborhood kids, and some models cost about the same as my J.C. Higgins. But, I’m glad to say, I didn’t say anything to the folks; I gratefully accepted the bike they chose and rode it for the rest of my childhood. Read on to find out what happened to it.

But first, we were talking about that $50 benchmark. Ever since receiving my bike – it was 1949 – I’ve compared the cost of that bicycle to other purchases that come to about that amount, even to the present day. Like when I’m out to dinner and the evening’s check comes to $50 or more. “Cost more than my J.C. Higgins bicycle,” I mutter to myself, or maybe just process that thought. And you don’t get too many groceries in the cart for $50 either.

And now the $50 benchmark is breached filling the car with gas. The other day when that happened, of course I was reminded of what it cost my parents to buy me a shiny new bicycle with a light and horn.

We all adjust to the differences in the economy over the years (I paid $150 for my first used car, for example, only half a dozen years after I got the bike), but as the years go by I simply can’t keep myself from comparing the cost of certain things today with what my folks paid for my J.C. Higgins. I guess I always will.

Finally, I promised to reveal what happened to it. I stripped it down to bare bones when I was in my early teens, and it got left in the basement of my family’s homestead for years. Finally, when my own kids were young, and the homestead was still in the family, I dug out it and all of the parts I’d removed and brought it back to its original condition.

It’s hanging in a garage today, upside down on bicycle hooks, ready to be ridden. And it only cost $50.