Saturday, October 1, 2022

When early autumn walks the land...

Heffernan family traditional
Halloween Pumpkin face
  Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday 10-1-22 

Ah, October.  Halloween season — a great time of the year.

Yeah, I know most people would choose Christmas holiday season as their favorite. Go ahead, if that’s your choice. But for me, the crackling leaves of early autumn, the cooler weather, the resumption of school and many activities that lie dormant in summer, are as welcome as the flowers in May were a mere six months ago.

 

And then there’s Halloween, just 30 days away. Wonderful Halloween. Trick or treat, soap or eats — hey, what happened to that? Trick or treat’s still around but what happened to soaping the windows of homes where residents refused to give out candy?

 

Seems like everything’s going down hill. You never hear about it anymore. Back in my trick-or-treat days, quite some time ago, that was what we said when we rang the doorbells and people answered: “Trick or treat, soap or eats,” we’d threaten. Of course most people gave out eats, but those who didn’t even answer their doors were in danger of having their windows soaped.

 

We — my friends and I — tried it only once on a grumpy neighbor whose house was dark on Halloween night, the doorbell never answered. So we tried to soap a few windows — regular bar soap purloined from kitchens and bathrooms of our homes.

 

We discovered that soaping windows isn’t that easy. Just a few white marks on the windows but to really do mischief it would take you all night, and we had promises to keep, and candy to eat before we could sleep. So forget soaping.

 

Halloween has so many wonderful traditions and symbols. Scary ghosts, ghouls, goblins, carved pumpkins, fearsome monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, Giuliani.

 

You can say what you want about Frankenstein, but he was a man of parts. I must admit, though, I don’t know much about ghouls and goblins. You hear a lot about them this time of the year, but I’ve never really understood what a goblin is. I always knew I was supposed to fear them, but who are they really?

 

Google, a goblin who knows everything, says goblins are grotesque, monstrous creatures first showing up in Europe in the Middle Ages. You remember the middle ages, don’t you? They showed up right after the Dark Ages and before the Renaissance, after which I did my trick or treating. Goblins range from mischievous household spirits to malicious vestal thieves, it is said. “Vestal”? I always thought virgins were vestal. Live and learn.

 

But enough about ghouls and goblins and ghosts, oh my.

 

All this folderol is over what is actually “All Saints Eve,” the night before “All Saints Day” when Christians commemorate all the saints of the church, both known and unknown, who have attained heaven.

 

I did not know all this without conducting deep research like respected academicians undertake. These “facts” are according to a website attributed to Encyclopedia Britannica. The roster of heaven-dwelling saints does not include the New Orleans Saints, but might consider the St. Scholastica Saints if they behave.

 

So as you send he kiddies out the door on October 31, bags, plastic pumpkins in hand (don’t bring soap), take solace in knowing you are starting the ball rolling on commemorating all those saints who have preserved us for the past millennium or two, give or take an age, era or epoch.

 

Time marches on.

 

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

A quick dip into English history...

Coronation of Elizabeth II, 6-2-53 (Wikipedia)
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/Saturday, 9-17-2 

We didn’t have a TV set in 1952 when Elizabeth ascended to the throne of Great Britain. Almost no one in Duluth did. There were no network affiliated TV stations here yet.

Television reception depended on the weather for those who erected tall antennas on their houses to bring the signal in from Minneapolis. Two of our neighbors did that, and it was exciting for neighborhood kids to get a first look at the magic of television.


At one of those homes we peeked through a window Peeping Tom-style just to see the wonder of television in its earliest days. Another neighbor invited us in once in a while to take a look.


Queen Elizabeth II was the last world leader from my early years — the years when a person first becomes somewhat aware of who’s who and what’s going on in the world. You might have heard she died Sept. 8 at age 96 and her funeral is on Monday.


I first came to know of her as Princess Elizabeth, in the years immediately after World War II when she was barely out her teens. She had a big wedding to Philip in 1947, which I remember from movie newsreels.


I went to a lot of movies as a child, escorted by my mother, who sat through numerous Tarzan adventures and insipid westerns for my sake. In those pre-TV days, all movies were accompanied by newsreels showing important news events of the day, and some unimportant ones. I recall being impressed by Princess Elizabeth’s wedding cake when it was shown. It must have been seven or eight feet tall, tiered on silver stilts.


Not long after, the newsreels were filled with film of their son Prince Charles as a toddler, and not long after that came the death of her father, King George VI, in 1952 and her ascent to the throne. That was all over the newsreels too, and by then television had begun to arrive. Sort of.


But Duluth had no TV to speak of. The coronation of Elizabeth as queen in 1953 roughly coincided with the arrival of television in Duluth around that time, but few people here were connected. My family didn’t have a television set yet, but our neighbors across the street did, bringing in the signal in from Minneapolis with a tall — maybe 15-foot — antenna on the roof of their house. The hazy black-and-white signal came in OK in good weather. It often featured “snow” on the screen in the middle of summer.


Those neighbors invited us to watch Elizabeth’s coronation, which I thought at the time was “live.” Hardly. I since learned that CBS and NBC filmed the coronation in London and hastily put the film on trans-Atlantic flights to New York, where they were beamed to affiliates across the country.


Twin Cities stations then telecast it — who knows how many hours after it had taken place? — and it was picked up by our neighbors and seen by others in Duluth by those who could bring in the signal.


Primitive times in communication. There were no satellites to beam events in Europe to America live. No cable.  And Duluth was only on the cusp of having local network-affiliated TV.


So Elizabeth has been around all my life, and queen for much of it. I read at the time of her death that most of her subjects have never known any other monarch.


In recent years, as she grew older and I didn’t grow any younger, at times I would ruminate about who would last longest on the world stage from those early years — Elizabeth or Fidel Castro of Cuba, as unlikely a pair as could ever be imagined. But their “reigns” were in roughly the same period of our history.


Everybody else from those early years was gone — Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and most of their successors, Joe Stalin checked out around the time Elizabeth assumed the throne, Winston Churchill was her first prime minister and actually lasted until 1965. History.


I remember them all, of course. Castro came on the scene in the late 1950s and everybody in America was overjoyed until they found out he was a communist. That ended that.


So a decade or so ago, I realized that Castro and Queen Elizabeth were the only ones left from that era, and I wondered which of them would outlast the other. Castro died in 2016 at age 90. Elizabeth won. (Google reports that they were only about four months apart in age, both born in 1926.)


So now little Prince Charles from those newsreels is 73-year-old King Charles III. We can only hope he fares better with that name than King Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649.


Our recently departed Elizabeth II’s namesake Elizabeth I was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded by her husband, infamous oft-married King Henry VIII in 1536. Lots of heads rolled in English history.


I’m pretty old but I don’t remember those events when they occurred.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Don’t take me out to the ball game...

Well, the Baseball Hall of Fame passed me over again this year. Thanks a million, Cooperstown. Then the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame did the same thing a couple of weeks ago. Cripes, that’s the team I ignore the most.

 

There is no justice. Surely they have a category of “Worst Baseball Fan.” That’s me, year in, year out, although the label “Fan” hardly applies. I have been trying to ignore “America’s Pastime” all my life, although it ain’t easy.

 

It started when I was a kid, when every other kid in my neighborhood loved baseball. Loved it so much we played baseball just about every day in the summer. We? Sure, I joined in. I didn’t want to be friendless.

 

So over to the Lincoln playground in the former West End (it’s right by Lincoln Park) we trudged, bats, balls, bags, mitts in tow, chose sides and away we went. I didn’t own a mitt, though, so I used my older brother’s. Unfortunately I am left handed and he wasn’t, so I wore his mitt backwards on my right hand, thumb in pinkie, so my left would be free for throwing. 

 

Got that? Care?

 

Mickey Mantle (Wikipedia)
Of course not. I didn’t care either. One of my main problems playing kid baseball — I never advanced out of kid baseball to, say, teen baseball or super-patriotic Legion baseball — was that I couldn’t hit. Another was that I couldn’t catch. Another was that I didn’t care. I used to buy baseball cards for the gum they came with, throwing the card away. You know, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, “Campy” Campanella, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle. (I heard the other day that a Mantle card sold for a record $12 million. Oops, maybe I should have kept the cards and tossed the gum.)

 

I got one great home run hit in my entire kid career, a doozie pulled to the right that sent the ball over the fence, and I rounded the bases for the first and last time. I was maybe 12.

 

In those same years, my father, a dutiful sports fan, would take me to Duluth Dukes games at Wade Stadium. I loved going — the crowd, the peanuts, the Cracker Jacks, the smell of cigar smoke in the air — but didn’t give a hoot about watching the game itself. Other kids worshiped certain Dukes players; I didn’t even know who was who. My dad would remind me to watch the game when he sensed I was bored. I’d fake watching for awhile and then my gaze would drift off again. Maybe I’d hit the men’s room just for a break, eagerly anticipating the seventh inning stretch.

 

So you can see I have all the makings for Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Worst Fan” award. Plus, I think I’d look good as a statue.

 

But there’s more. I grew up, as many children tend to do, steadfast in my baseball boredom. In my teens I was at a youth convention in Chicago and in the hotel lobby a crowd of fellow conventioneers was gathered around this big guy all decked out in a suit and tie. He was signing autographs.

 

I strolled nearby and had no idea who it was. Turns out it was one of baseball’s major heroes at the time, a pitcher named Don Newcombe of the then Brooklyn Dodgers. I’d never heard of him. Around that time I knew boys in high school who skipped school to watch the World Series on TV. I dutifully attended classes, continuing my quest for bad grades.

 

I was able to ignore baseball entirely for many years, but eventually got married and had children. A daughter and son. And our son developed into a sports fan, including baseball.

 

So I had to take him to Twins games when we could get to Minneapolis. What an ordeal for me. One time the game was tied at the end of the ninth and went into what they call “extra” innings. I think they made it to 11 before the Twins lost (of course). I was more fascinated by a nearby fan who kissed his girlfriend on the strikes.

 

Twins games in that era were a thrill for my son, though. One time we had front row seats right above the Twins dugout, and out and about would run Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and others of that era that I never heard of but my son knew.

 

I was hoping to avoid baseball forever after that, but I did get stuck a couple of times at Duluth Huskies games with my grandsons (my son’s boys). I guess an interest in baseball can run in the family, but not through me, I’m afraid.

 

Well, that’s my pitch for “Worst Baseball Fan” in some Hall of Fame. Oops, did I say “pitch?’ Wonder how that word cropped up?

 

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Politics changed over the decades...

Hubert Humphrey
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/Saturday, 8-20-22

Well, here we go again, headlong into another election season. There’s no holding it back, I’m afraid, although I’d just as soon.

I spent the final 25 years or so of my active career in journalism at this newspaper participating in interviews with politicians/candidates for the paper’s editorial endorsements. It was interesting work most of the time. Of course we met with both Republicans and Democrats and the occasional Independent, like Gov. Jesse Ventura, whose demeanor could only be described as gruff. Always.

 

I liked most of them on both sides of the aisle, and won’t be taking sides here, just recounting some memories of those days and adding thoughts on the system.

 

I had some favorites who showed up for these interviews. Among Republicans, I particularly liked former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger. Very cheerful guy. Of course among Democrats there was Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich, always affable and open. He was sometimes called “governor goofy” and he didn’t seem to mind. It was, as they say, the secret of his charm. His successor, Republican Arne Carlson, was always good humored, sometimes borderline giddy.

 

I filled out a small lunch table one time with Hubert Humphrey when he was a senator. He was perpetually “on” and had a reputation for always remembering people’s names. I was never sure, though, that he remembered mine, even after several contacts. Always got a Christmas card though.

 

Of course former vice president and ex-U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale was an occasional, affable, guest at the newspaper. He came once as vice president and they shut down First Street in front of our building and spread the Secret Service around the office glaring at everybody.

 

Can’t forget U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar who served our area in Congress for so long, following his predecessor John A. Blatnik. We saw a lot of Oberstar, who was an erudite policy wonk if there ever was one — always friendly, always “on” too. One time meeting with him in a restaurant with two of my female colleagues, he arrived late and kissed the women on the cheek. I told him if he kissed me, “I’m moving to Canada.” He loved it.

 

There are so many others, great and not-so. One of the greats was Sen. Paul Wellstone who visited many times. He knocked off Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, much to Boschwitz’s surprise, and distinguished himself as an outspoken liberal voice before he was killed in an Iron Range plane crash. He had an appointment to meet with us later that same day that was left unfulfilled. Instead he had an appointment in Samarra.

 

Oh, but I go on. The list includes local politicians too — Duluth mayors, city councilors, county commissioners and legislators from this area. Lately I’ve been thinking about the time young Dave Tomassoni of Chisholm came in and said he was going to run for the Minnesota Legislature. He did. He won a House seat and later won a Senate seat. He died a little over week ago, leaving an outstanding legacy of public service. 

 

One local official years ago opened our interview with the confession that he had gone back to his wife after an affair, wrongly assuming that we knew about it and that we paid heed to politicians’ personal lives. We don’t unless they drive drunk or shoot somebody and a couple of other offenses.

 

With all that contact, you notice certain traits that many of the successful politicians — local and national — have in common. For example, a few seldom use the first person pronoun, always referring to themselves as “we.” I suppose they’re referring to their staffs or supporters or maybe their pets. “We” covers a lot of ground, we believe.

 

Invariably they “roll up their sleeves” to tackle any project, before putting their “shoulder to the wheel” and working 24-7 at all times to serve the “hard-working” people in their districts. Constituents are invariably “hard working” Minnesotans or Americans or whatever. Nobody’s lazy, I guess.

 

The higher-ups exude patriotism at all times, the men unfailingly sporting American flag pins on suit lapels. They are seldom photographed without an actual American flag nearby and describe all military veterans and active armed services personnel as “heroes” and “brave.” Some are, of course, but everyone in uniform? I served years ago but never felt I qualified as either.

 

But those who get elected, especially to Congress, love it. Oh, House members have to run for re-election every two years. What a bummer that is — the possibility of losing a six-figure salary, sizable office staff in Washington kowtowing to their every whim, free parking at the Washington airports while regularly flying back home at no personal cost. Oh, then there’s a big travel budget and that lavish House gym, To keep all that all they have to do is vote the way their party leaders tell them and risk losing it all in elections.

 

And here we are, another election looming. Things in politics have changed since those olden days I describe here. A lot. While competition in politics has always been fierce, back then at least it was usually polite, even respectful. There was the “loyal opposition” and challengers would be called “worthy” opponents.

 

Seems like there’s a lot of outright hatred in politics these days. More’s the pity. You can figure out for yourself who’s to blame.

 

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

A roll down to old Park Point...

Merry-go-round horse similar 
to the old park point carousel
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/August 8, 2022

 I’m on quite a roll this summer recalling a Duluth that doesn’t exist anymore — call it history. Recent columns about the old Lyceum Theater and the former foghorn have elicited interesting responses from readers; so today we’ll take another trip down memory lane before summer wanes.

 

We’ll drive over the Aerial Lift Bridge all the way to the Park Point recreation area, where today’s recreation is quite different from what it was in the past.

 

Today’s volleyball courts, at the base of the hillside leading to the beach house, are the site of what was once a small summertime amusement park

with many of the typical rides — merry-go-round, flying chairs and others including my favorite — bumper cars.

 

There also was a miniature steam-powered train on tracks wending their way around the park, younger kids riding atop the cars pulled by the steam-spewing diminutive locomotive. And of course treat concessions — ice cream and hot dogs along with a penny arcade.

 

Plenty of what you’d want at such a place, and it was popular. So popular that years later when it was closed by the city some backers threatened to recall the then-mayor. More on that later.

 

The Park Point carnival area was the site of the annual “police boy” picnic. School crossing guards in those days were called police boys (and they were all boys). They carried yellow metal hand-held stop signs to halt oncoming traffic and chip away at nearby wooden power poles.

 

Anyway, the Duluth Police Department annually hosted police boys from throughout the city at the end of each school year, engaging buses to cart them down to Park Point. I got to go once, very excited to be going to the Park Point “midway” as a recent fifth-grade graduate.

 

We had free reign on the rides and a nice hot-dog lunch at noontime, secured with a ticket handed out beforehand at the schools. I forgot to bring my meal ticket, though, and felt, well, desperate.

 

I sought out an official-looking cop resplendent in his blue uniform, badge shining in the sun, and told him my plight— forgot my meal ticket. He looked me over, obviously saw an interloper, and declared, “You don’t want to eat, kid.” That was news to me.

 

Even though I was a police boy, I was not too old to well up inside at such a snub by the cops. All’s well that ends well, though, when my Lincoln Elementary police boy captain vouched for me and they let me have my hot dog. That was when I got stung by a bee.

 

But it turned out OK despite all of this adversity, and the fun of being at the Park Point carnival area was a great reward.

 

By that age, having outgrown the merry-go-round and steam train, my favorite ride was the bumper cars. Do they exist anywhere anymore? Just for the record, they were little red vehicles powered by electricity on a hard floor in a large open shed, the electrical current running down a pole at the back of each car from the ceiling.

 

Riders would scurry around and try to bump each other or just circle the place, happy to be operating a vehicle with a steering wheel. I loved it.

 

One time, the guy in charge of operating the bumper car concession turned out to be an older neighbor from the West End known as Junior. I was impressed and proud to be recognized by Junior as I mounted the bumper car ramp. “Hi, Junior,” I greeted. “Hello there,” he responded. I’ve been known as “There” a lot in life.

 

Wow, I thought, Junior has really done well in this world, finding a profession operating bumper cars. I figured he was set for life. (Remember, I was 10 years old.)

 

I don’t know what became of Junior but the entire midway was closed down in 1964, some 15 years after Junior and the police boys and the hot dog and the bee, and when I was working as a reporter for this newspaper.

 

Duluth’s mayor at the time was George D. Johnson (not to be confused with George W. Johnson, whom George D. had defeated) and he and other city officials decided the Park Point recreation area should be more “natural” and not have a tawdry carnival. It was attracting a crowd of youth wearing black jackets, they feared. Oh, the horror.

 

The closure didn’t sit well with some Duluthians, though, and there was even talk of recalling Johnson that never went anywhere.

 

But the rides and concessions did go somewhere, never to return.

 

Volleyball anyone?

 

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org. 

Saturday, July 23, 2022

To TOOT or not to TOOT was the question...

Source Flickr: Photographer is Apollo Antonin (8-6-21)
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/July 23, 2022

An item in this newspaper’s Bygones column the other day brought back a couple of memories: Once upon a time Duluth harbor had a loud foghorn that could be heard far and wide before it died, and its attempted return 40 years ago got me on national television.

 

Fond memories indeed.

 

Modern technology sometime after mid-20th Century obviated the need for a foghorn at all. Today’s maritime communications are such that ships enveloped by fog off our shores can find their way into port without having an ancient mariner in a Southwester rain hat standing at the bow, his hand capping his ear, an albatross overhead, listening for our foghorn.

 

It’s been a long time but I will try to convey as best I can in print what the foghorn sounded like. It had two levels that went together, booming thusly: OOOOOM-pah…OOOOOM-pah. The OOOOOM rendered a higher tone, the pah a little lower. Got that? It resounded throughout the inner city and beyond whenever the fog rolled in “on little cat feet,” as the poet put it

 

The number of Duluthians who recall hearing the old foghorn is getting smaller and smaller with each passing year. Of course. Read the obits.

 

But Eric Ringsred remembers it, and did, back in 1982 when he tried valiantly to bring the foghorn back for, oh, I don’t know, for auld lang syne, I suppose. Ringsred, a physician and civic activist who usually advocates saving historic buildings, must have liked the sound of the foghorn, as did tens of thousands of Duluthians within earshot. Unfortunately a good number of folks within earshot did not care for it at all. It disturbed their sleep, many claimed.

 

Growing up in what was once known as Duluth’s West End neighborhood, I could hear it when the wind was right. I never questioned it; it was simply part of Duluth. When it disappeared I didn’t really notice.

 

Ringsred did, and decided to bring it back. He initiated a campaign to refurbish the old “diaphone” foghorn (its technical description) and formed an organization he called “reTurn Our Old Tone” going by the acronym TOOT. Not bad. And a summer Fog Festival was organized to help raise funds for restoring the old foghorn and celebrate its return.

 

As with some other of Ringsred’s projects, it created some amount of controversy pitting those for bringing it back against those who never wanted to hear the old TOOT again. Like every other controversy, it played itself out, and eventually died. The result was no diaphone foghorn returning to the waterfront. End of story? Not quite.

 

Of course during the height of the TOOT campaign, it made the TV and print news around here ballyhooing the Fog Festival, and somehow WGN  television in Chicago got word of it. One of the most prominent broadcasters in the country, WGN could send reporters and photographers considerable distances in the Midwest for stories. As a result, they sent a team to Duluth to find out about the Fog Festival.

 

The first place the WGN reporter and photographer stopped to seek help in getting started was this newspaper. They first encountered a summer intern in the newsroom who didn’t feel qualified to discuss the foghorn issue and he brought the television news team to me.

 

Would I, they asked, be willing to let them film an interview with me about the Fog Festival?

 

Well, I’m not too hot at TV reporting, but I agreed. Besides, I figured, it would only be shown in Chicagoland.

 

So I sat down behind an empty newsroom desk as they placed their equipment opposite me and I told them all about our Fog Festival. It took maybe 15 minutes total from setup to “thanks” and “goodbye.”

 

I gave it no more thought, but the next weekend, when we were out and about on Saturday evening, people I knew came up to me and said they’d seen me earlier on the CBS Evening News. That’s the national CBS Evening News helmed in those days by legendary Walter Cronkite, although my appearance was on a Saturday when somebody else was anchoring.

 

CBS Evening News! My casual remarks on the Fog Festival had gone national. In the ensuing days I began hearing from people in other parts of the country with whom I was acquainted. Unfortunately, I missed it.

 

And Hollywood never called.

 

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org. 

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Duluth: Out in the middle of somewhere...

Written for the Duluth News Tribune by Jim Heffernan/July 9, 2022

So, the people in charge of promoting Duluth have come up with a new slogan: “Love it Like We Do” (even when it’s foggy, rainy and chilly on the Fourth of July?). Those of us who live here must love it or we wouldn’t have stayed, right? I have lived in Duluth for a long, long time.

 

Long enough to remember when we had other catchy slogans like “One Great Lake and a Whole Lot More” and even “Hay Fever Capital of…” of something. I forget. The Midwest? Maybe America. The world?

 

Duluth got a lot of mileage way back in its colorful history by declaring itself the Hay Fever Capital. Those were the days before widespread air conditioning, when people from the dust bowl and pollen-rife breadbasket of the nation sneezed a lot in the summer, eyes watering.

 

Duluth welcomed them with open arms and frequent cool breezes off Lake Superior, just as we welcome their successors today by sharing with them our love of, to recall another old slogan: “The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.”

 

Several years ago the old Duluth Convention and Tourist Trap Bureau people were retiring whatever slogan was then extant and asked the public for ideas for a new slogan. I had an idea and let them know what it was. Now I share it in print for the first time: “Duluth: Out In the Middle of Somewhere.”

 

That has a ring to it, don’t you think? Kind of exciting, combining thoughts of our vast outdoors opportunities (out in the middle of nowhere) with our multifarious urban amenities (somewhere). Never heard a word from them, making me feel like chopped liver. It doesn’t take much to make me feel like chopped liver.

 

Onward. I read in this newspaper that another group has been organized to promote community learning and civic engagement here. They plan to meet monthly at a forum called The Lyceum. Sounds like fun but is that a good name? Lyceum?

 

Of course it’s drawn from the ancient Greek venue where the philosopher Aristotle said all kinds of wise things. But to Duluthians of a certain maturity it brings back thoughts of an old theater downtown on the site where the big Maurices building now stands. After an auspicious past, the Lyceum eventually became known as “The Rats’ Palladium.”

 

When it was completed in 1893 (I don’t actually remember the grand opening — I’m not THAT old) it was considered one of the finest theaters north of Chicago. Huge stage, hosting some of the top touring theater companies of the day featuring well-known stars.

 

The Lyceum Theater had an orchestra (that’s what they call the main street-level auditorium) and three — yes, three — balconies. Total capacity was upwards of 1,500 souls.

 

By the time I came along 50-some odd (I’ll say) years later it had gone down hill quite a bit. Its imposing entrance on Superior Street was covered over and a tacky marquee placed on the front of the building advertising movies — two at a time for 50 cents.

 

As a kid I loved going to the Lyceum on Saturdays, gobbling 10-cent popcorn and sitting through four hours of second-run movies.

 

But by then the grand old theater’s reputation had slipped to the point where it was sniggered around my junior high school that the top balcony — the third balcony — was actually (cover your eyes if you are sensitive) a balcony of ill repute. This unfounded rumor was believed because there was a blinking red light atop the marquee outside. Blinking red lights used to connote…well, you know.

 

Years later, after I’d reluctantly grown up and become a fledgling journalist, the Lyceum showed its final double feature in 1966, was shut down, and razed when urban renewal wiped out Duluth’s bowery, including a tavern down the street with the oxymoronic name “Classy Lumberjack.”

 

But before it was demolished, an open house was held for people to wander at will through the theater. It allowed me to stand on a stage where many stars of the long past had performed, their names still well known then but not now. Does anyone still know who Sarah Bernhardt was?

 

Before I exited that day, recalling those old rumors of nefarious goings on on the third balcony, I wandered up there to see what it was like. It was filled with old rolled up carpets and other discarded stuff from the building.  No evidence whatsoever of a sordid past.

 

Good thing. If all those rumors had been true, it certainly could have negated the slogan “Love it Like We Do.”

 

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org. 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Thought while pumping gas today...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth New Tribune/6-25-22

Here are some random thoughts while filling the gas tank on my vehicle the other day:

 

Hmmm, almost five dollars a gallon. This fill-up ought to come to close to 50 bucks. Wow, that’s what my first brand new bicycle cost when I was a kid.

 

Boy, getting gas in your car sure has changed since I began driving oh-those-many years ago, I ruminated. For one thing, you didn’t have to fill it up yourself. You got gas at places called “service stations,” and they meant it — the “service” part.

 

You’d pull up to the pumps and out of the building would dash a guy wearing the appropriate uniform — bow tie and military-style cap often included — of the company the station was associated with: Standard, Pure, Mobil, Shell, Phillips 66. You didn’t have to get out of the vehicle.

 

“Fill ‘er up,” they hoped you’d say. I’d often say “gimme a buck’s worth of regular.” A dollar’s worth! That’d get you four-plus gallons at 25 or 27 cents a gallon, and four gallons could keep you going for several days if the car got maybe 15 miles per gallon.

 

Because you were a customer, the service station guy would activate the gas pump, put the hose in your car’s gas port and when it was filled he’d routinely wash your windshield for you. You didn’t need to ask.

 

Upon completing the gas filling and the windshield washing he’d come to the driver’s window and ask if you’d like the oil checked. If you did, he’d open the hood, pull the dipstick, wipe it off and re-insert it into the engine to get a reading on the amount of oil in your crankcase. Dipstick in hand, he’d walk over to your window again and show you. If you were a quart down, he’d go inside the station, grab a can of 30 viscosity (in summer) oil, return and pour it into the port on the engine and close the hood.

 

And if you thought one of your tires might be low on air, he’d check that too, upon request, and replenish air if needed.

 

Service completed you’d hand him payment through the window; he’d sometimes salute as he thanked you and off you’d go on your merry way. You probably didn’t thank him. Such service was taken for granted.

 

Back in the present, still waiting for my tank to fill and continuing random thoughts, it occurred to me that you’d have to be a certain age to know this ancient service station history. My middle-age kids never experienced it, so I suppose a couple of generations have passed since those halcyon days of service at filling stations.

 

But I figured it might be interesting, if not important, to share this aspect of our history that isn’t likely to get mentioned in the history books.

 

Of course we took it for granted at the time, probably figuring that’s the way it would be forever, just like everything else from one’s youth would last forever, while, of course, nothing does.

 

Here’s more: The service aspect of filling stations would sometimes be abused by drivers. An older friend during my youth who operated a gas station was driven to distraction by drivers who would pull up to the pump and wait for him to come out. When he did, the driver wouldn’t ask for gas, but rather ask for directions to a nearby highway that seemed to befuddle visitors to Duluth. It drove him nuts, but he’d tell them and off they’d go.

 

I do think taking unwarranted advantage of service station attendants hit its nadir one time by another close friend who should have known better.

 

We were riding in his car on a windy, rainy night during our college years and he discovered he was out of cigarettes. (The ability to coolly smoke cigarettes was practically a college entrance requirement in those days.) He could have bummed from me but he didn’t like my brand. Spotting a gas station as we drove along, he pulled in and up to the pumps.

 

Out into the driving rain, fog, wind and everything else bad on such a night came the service station attendant. My friend rolled down his window and said, “I’ll have a package of Marlboros.”

 

The astonished attendant just glared at him in surprise and disgust before uttering a whole bunch of words unprintable in a family newspaper.  Something like “You X#@%&#%” as he turned on his heel and quickly sloshed back into the station.

 

My friend had to bum a butt from me after all, in spite of the fact that mine didn’t have filters like Marlboros. Oh, those pesky loose ends.

 

Meanwhile, back in the present, my tank was finally full. Only $47.95. I think that’s about what my first dressy dark-blue three-button suit cost.

 

POSTSCRIPT — I still have the $50 bicycle. The suit no longer fits.

 

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.