Mind you, I had no intention of becoming a Boy Scout, especially after Dad had subjected me to Cub Scouts while we still lived out east. All I recall about that experience was super-sexy den mothers and some sort of weird soapbox car race. Which I’m pretty sure we lost.
But that’s not the reason I happily snapped up Denny’s handbook.
I wanted to be an adventurer. I wanted to learn how to live by my own wits, to strike off on my own.
Back then I probably didn’t read it in much detail, only pored over the illustrations and topics. It was oddly inspiring: you could camp out by yourself; learn how to stalk wildlife; how to cook your own meals over an open fire. And being “mentally awake”? Surely that had to lead toward new ideas, places, things!
At that age, about 10 years old, I became fascinated by world explorers. They set off in wooden ships from “the Old World” in search of trade routes to the East. What would it be like to have that sort of bravery and faith? That solely on the basis of an idea, you’d get a crew together, pack up your belongings, and sail off in search of discovering that idea?
It blew my mind that people once had that kind of courage.
My “old world” was deep in the fold of the Family Project. The motto there was always: “Be careful!”
My late father, however, was a risk-taker. I see that now in hindsight.
As his oldest son, I had no idea at the time exactly what was behind his thought processes. It felt like a conspiracy, with Mom his co-agent. Moving house twice in a decade didn’t seem like any kind of adventurous risk—it’s just what Dad did. If he didn’t like something, he’d damn well change it. But not without a lot of consideration and planning. After all, the man was a consummate project manager.
His explorations weren’t dangerous risks, just “that seems like what I want to do, so we as a family should go do it.” We were all then sucked into the undertow of Dad’s latest plan.
It’s funny because that’s probably the most solid link between me and Dad: The desire to take risks. Mom was forever cautious (again, that drumbeat of “Be careful!”) and my only brother a lot like Mom in that respect (a comparison I’m sure he’d never recognize in himself).
You had to venture forth, say “No to the status quo,” add a resounding “Yes!” in order to change things, Dad would’ve said. But being closer to Mom, I was often torn between her pleas for caution and Dad’s huge sense of derring-do.
It’s often hard to live in the shadow of a giant.
In the summer of 1987, two years into my first corporate job, I was bored.
I needed an adventure.
I’d always been writing stories, drafts of stories, a completed novella out of high school, a draft of a novel, and unfinished creative projects when, in ’87, I learned about “The Screenplay Project,” a contest funded by our local PBS station (then KTCA, now TPT), meant to encourage local writers.
I had a story I wanted to tell, and set about researching and drafting it.
It now sits in a binder called “Buddy’s Scrapbook,” with lots of notes and ideas, but no finished first draft.
I clearly remember what I’d hoped it would become.
“Buddy’s Scrapbook” was set in the late 1970s, amid Star Wars, disco, and the emerging punk scene. It was about a folk singer who hit it big in the late 1960s only to see his star quickly fade, and who was visiting his dying mother in St. Paul, Minn. Extending his stay in the Midwest, he borrows his stepfather’s 1962 Chevy Bel Air to drive down to Clear Lake, Iowa, to visit the Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly played his last show in February 1959.
Like any good adventurer, I took the journal—my captain’s logbook—with me on the road trip. Its entries are instructive to anyone thinking of leaving “the old world” and “heading out on the high seas”:
“When I left my apartment it was rainy and miserable out. I really wasn’t in much of a mood for traveling. But a few miles outside of Albert Lea, the clouds began to break up, and though not a clear sky, it was still nicer than when I’d left home.”
I’d planned to stay in Iowa a night or two, then drive back up to the Twin Cities. I visited the Mason City library to do my research, then drove into Clear Lake around 1 p.m., stopping to eat a sandwich in the city park while the high school Homecoming parade was in progress. It was exactly what an adventurer does: scour every corner of town, because you never knew where you were going to pick up a clue aiding your search.
Later that afternoon I watched the Clear Lake Lions lose their homecoming 0-18 to the Humboldt Wildcats. “There was gorgeous lightning in the sky to the north,” the journal reports, “[and] the sunset bled the clouds red with blue lightning in the bellies of the clouds.” After the game I drove out to the Albert Juhl farm, where Holly’s plane had crashed, and observed “shafts of light fanned down out of the clouds.”
At the Surf Ballroom, I listened to a country trio play Hank Williams, Sr. in the small bar off the main ballroom. Scott, the bartender there, introduced me to the manager, Darrel Hein, who talked with me in his office for half an hour about the ballroom’s history and its ongoing Holly legend.
That night in the state park I froze in the back pickup bed, awakened at 6:30 a.m. “by light rain and sounds of gunfire from hunters on the lake.” I showered at the park facilities and drove to a local Country Kitchen for breakfast.
Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20, 1987, I returned to the Twin Cities.
By Monday I was back in the clutches of the corporate office … but fresh with the memory of yet another adventure.