Tales of the Midwest: Intro and Foreword
What you have not absorbed by the time you reach the age of eighteen you will never absorb. It is finished. You will be able to develop what you have absorbed. You will be able to make something or nothing at all of it, but your time for absorption is over and for the rest of your life you will be branded by your childhood. ~ Georges Simenon
Welcome to the new online home of Tales of the Midwest, a memoir written in 2007, originally self-published on Lulu under my “Patrick Hillman” pseudonym. Below is the introductory material, and a foreword, followed by a table of contents linking to the text of each chapter. I’ve put nearly the entire book online here on Medium.com now. :-)
I’ve long thought that the worst part about acknowledgments is that you generally add them near the conclusion of a book project, when everything else has already been spell checked — and acknowledgment itself is a real bugger. (Do you add that extra “e” after the “g” or not? Damn if I don’t have to look it up every MF-ing time.)
Anyway, a few people deserve extra special thanks here. To begin, there’s a guy named Simon Knight from Australia (Canberra, if I’m remembering correctly). He used to run a blog called Homefront Radio. Excellent, topnotch writing — a true diamond in the blogosphere rough. His work was highly inspirational; for many months in 2006, we seemed to continually remind each other, via our blog posts, of events and stories from our childhoods. Simon could easily take his posts from that period and put together essentially the Australian version of this very book, (the similarities of which would astound anyone who read both books). I lost touch with Simon, unfortunately; he stopped blogging abruptly a while back. But, if you’re out there, bro, you’ve still got a friend in the States.
Also quite helpful was Mrs. Lynn Johnson, a writer from Massachusetts. She’s read damn near each and every chapter of this book, offered numerous helpful comments, and even inspired the entire section covering “Secret Keys.” (Her beau Monstro’s a fine feller as well, always good for an observant comment or smart-ass remark, sometimes both simultaneously.) Lynn bloggs at motormouth.blogharbor.com.
I also appreciated the many comments from former blogger Wormstooth , a mailman who lives in the Boston area.
Finally, I’m painfully out of touch with most of the characters in this book — and damn glad of it in 9 cases out of 10. But, I hope that certain ones get hold of a copy of Tales of the Midwest at some point and have a laugh or two, especially the guy referred to herein as Elijah Wood (still a kick-ass songwriter/drummer/musician in the St. Louis area) and the dude known in these pages as Alec Baldwin, a class-A guy all around and great friend. This book’s for you guys as well.
People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn’t mean much now, except for the climate. The question ‘where are you from’ doesn’t lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know?
~ Garrison Keillor
About 90% of the anecdotes, experiences, and events noted within this book took place between 1981 and 1987. As of this writing, that time span represents roughly one sixth of my life. I wouldn’t say this particular sixth was necessarily the most enjoyable, most memorable, or even the most important to me. But, having lived away from the Midwest for so long now, I’ve come to appreciate this period as probably the most unusual. If I’m able to properly articulate my memories, you’ll surely come to understand what I mean by this. While it’s certain that the American Midwest cannot claim sole ownership of markedly peculiar people, customs, and events, it does at least have its own overall brand of these things. As a former Midwesterner, my realization is that you don’t recognize the eccentricities until you’ve moved on — at which point you immediately recognize them.
Let me indulge in a quick tangent to demonstrate this. (Get used to my tangents, by the way; I’m a big fan of tangential excursions.) I first left the Midwest in the mid-1980s to attend a northeastern university. Upon arrival at my new home (a dormitory), I began to recognize subtle differences the very first day — in fact within minutes of my arrival. You see, I’d arrived to my freshman year with only the bare essentials: clothes, money, an old guitar, and three or four gross of TNT-brand bottle rockets. (And, not to get ahead of myself, but, yes, there will likely be numerous mentions of bottle rockets within these pages.) Personally, I had no expectation at all that my footlocker contained anything out of the ordinary. To me, the bottle rockets represented just a standard possession that one might want to have on hand if one were leaving home for an extended period — a staple, in other words. Why wouldn’t anyone want to have a few gross lying about?
Anyway, as Vincent says to Jules in my favorite film, “It’s the little differences.” Honestly, I’d no idea at the time that laws concerning fireworks varied from state to state. Want to know the best part? I gave almost all of the rockets away. They meant so little to me, but so much to everyone else. Bottle rockets are cool, for sure; but, I guess they alone are probably not worth traveling several hundred miles to obtain. In fact, few of my new friends had ever bothered. So, it gave me great pleasure to be able to so effortlessly make so many people happy by supplying them with contraband that would fetch a small fortune in this small college town hundreds of miles from any state line across which those babies were legal.
Stories like that always seemed to amuse my non-Midwestern friends, and one in particular (the superlatively vivacious Jamie Philpotts) has begged me on numerous occasions to explore this subject in greater depth. I’m not sure if this is the book she envisioned, but what follows is the result. Of course, it’s one thing to recount stories to friends over pints of Guinness, and it’s another to consider assembling them into a publishable collection. For one, we’re talking about reality here. In fact, for this account of my formative years spent in the Midwest, I’ve decided to invent a new term: Claimer. Let me explain:
Most works of narrative prose these days, or at least since the dawn of the hyper-litigious society in which we now live (or, as Sir Paul McCartney once famously and redundantly put it, “in which we live in”) begin with a disclaimer. In general, disclaimers are beneficial. As legal statements, they’re meant to protect the author and/or publisher from lawsuits stemming from any perceived similarity between what is written and anything that actually exists. You have to wonder whether a prominently positioned disclaimer, in theory, might very well indicate an unusually strong presence of real-life scandal, treachery, and villainy within the binding — all of which, lets face it, make for good reading. But, what about the complete opposite approach? Flipped on its head, the standard disclaimer — which I’m now calling a “claimer” — would read as follows:
“The characters in this book are all real. Any semblance to fictional characters or events is purely coincidental.”
In short, I’m not going to pull a James Frey on you, but I’m going to purposely obfuscate a few things to protect myself.
So, if you consult an atlas, GoogleEarth, a high school yearbook, or any other directory or resource with the intent to verify anything herein and find yourself unable to continue, it’s because I’ve labored to change just about all of the names, dates, and places mentioned herein. It’s unfortunate that that’s the way things have to be sometimes, but I’m sure you understand. It occurs to me as I write this that I may even have to assume a pseudonym. In the end, this may seem fitting, for nothing is as it first seems in the Midwest. But, pseudonym or not, I will promise you a thing or two in return for reading these tales.
Fifteen years ago, I attended a few semesters of graduate writing classes in northern Virginia. During one class, the instructor — a renowned poetess — remarked to a student, “If you’re going to mine your life [for material], you have to be prepared to throw dynamite down the shaft.” As memory serves, she was quoting another writer’s advice there, but I can’t recall the original source. Besides the interesting connection between the mentions of bottle rockets and dynamite, I think I understand the gist of this advice. This will be a relatively lighthearted account (purposefully written in a conversational tone), but some darker ore may surface from time to time (such as my lead-off Tale called Justice). I’m going to tell you some stories now, and they’re all true (modified only to the extent necessary to prevent anyone from identifying the geniuses and morons described herein). And, not to get ahead of myself, but there will in fact be stories about dynamite in the pages ahead. In my case, unfortunately, the metaphor is also the reality.
Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog called “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He’s also contributes to various Medium.com publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop and throughout this piece is adapted from “The Bonfire — Alderny Week” by Neil Howard (Flickr, used with permission).