I was recently asked, “Where do you get all your story ideas from?” Knowing that the standard “I don’t know” wasn’t going to cut it, I fell back on the old, “Oh, I read about things or see something in passing and an idea will pop into my head.” A perfect example of this very thing happened the other day when I heard a voice from the past in an e-mail. I do not know if anyone else hears “voices” in e-mails, but when I read them, I tend to hear the voice of the person sending the e-mail in my head. If it is someone I haven’t spoken to before, then they get assigned the generic e-mail voice I use for people from different walks of life. I had no idea what the Rev. Shawn Amos sounded like, but the image on his CD reminded me a little of Leon Redbone so that his what he sounded like in my head (Leon has a deep, gravelly voice reminiscent of a bucket of stones in a cement mixer and, incidentally, Amos is reportedly the son of chocolate cookie magnet Famous Amos). When he sent me the station bumper he recorded for WOAS-FM, he sounded like a normal blues guy with no resemblance to Leon what-so-ever. It seems my generic default voices aren’t always accurate. How about a voice for someone I haven’t talked to in over thirty years? Surprisingly, I can still hear their voice, or at least the voice they had back then.
I was reminded of this little mind trick when I got an e-mail from Willie Peterson. He said simply enough, “Ken, I like reading your stories in the Ontonagon Herald.” I noted that the e-mail address was from The Munising News. I wrote back something along the lines of, “Thank you. Are you the original Willie Peterson from the Whitman School Days?” I asked because the last time I talked to “the original Willie Peterson”, he was working at the Marquette Mining Journal. That was sometime in 1979 when my wife and I were first married and living in Marquette while I was finishing my Master’s Degree at NMU. We had some question about our MJ subscription and it was Willie who took care of things for us. The response to my e-mail came back loud and clear in the “original Willie Peterson” voice: “Great to hear back from you. Yes, I am the original Willie from the Whitman days, the old ski-doo rides and all. After working at The Mining Journal for just over 27 years, my wife Nancy and I bought The Munising News and have been doing this for the last 18 years.”
It always amazes me what a flood of memories a contact like this can unleash even after several decades have passed. For me, this is one useful element the internet provides that far outweighs the annoyance generated by all the spammers out there. Willie and I go back to our days at Whitman Elementary School (now Whitman Hall at NMU) which was (and still is) located on Norway Avenue, a short block east of Marquette Senior High School. As a neighborhood school, it was populated for the most part by kids from northwest Marquette and the closest outlying township, Trowbridge Park. I only lived a block north of the school and Willie was a little further west, across the tracks on Gray Street. “Across the tracks” isn’t used here as a social geography term like, “they came from the wrong side of tracks.” The Marquette Bike Path now occupies this old railroad bed, but back in the day, it was a working rail line that transported iron ore pellets to the Presque Isle pocket ore dock. To get to Willie’s house, it was a three or four block trek up Center Street, then a two rut dirt road that ended at the railroad tracks. From there, it was a twisting foot path that crossed a small creek before you ended up in Willie’s back yard. The three best parts of making this trip were A) unlimited slingshot ammunition for the taking along the track bed, B) the opportunity to ride our bikes through a creek, and C) if we timed it right, pennies could be deposited on the tracks for later retrieval once the passing train had squashed and stretched them into long, oval shapes. For all the coins we deformed over the years, I don’t have any of them tucked away in my various boxes of old stuff. It is probably just as well. The railroad frowned on such activity and the standard parental advice was, “Stay away from the trains so you don’t get killed.” I will assume that the statute of limitations lapsed when they tore up the tracks but I still wish I had saved a couple of those souvenirs.
Willie and I also shared the experience of band lessons in elementary school. He was a trumpet player and I was a drummer. When we were in fifth or sixth grade, (sorry, I’m a little fuzzy on the details here) students had to demonstrate some talent for the class. Willie and I did a trumpet and drum duet of America the Beautiful. Willie had it in his practice book but my drummer’s workbook only had drum lines and no songs. My mother suggested that I just follow Willie’s score and play anything longer than a quarter or eighth note as a roll. I had a plastic, red sparkle snare drum so I was able to use that instead of accompanying Willie on a tabletop like we used for our drum lessons. I was too nervous to remember if Willie was nervous, but we hacked our way through it. In Junior High band, the director, Mr. Smeberg, eventually talked Willie into switching over to tuba and that is the last clear memory I have of us playing in band together.
We also have a shared history playing flag football. Every fall, there was an after school flag football program held on the side lawn south of the school with two sidewalks serving as the end zones. They built a new wing on Whitman that opened in 1964-65 and it altered the direction of play for my sixth grade year. I think the cement end zones turned into the sidelines that year (or vice versa). I always liked kicking a ball off a tee so when I got to kick off, kicking it to the sidewalk end zone was always considered a great kick. With the field running the other direction, it was slightly uphill one way and downhill the other direction so it was always preferable to kick off downhill. When I wasn’t pretending to be Packer great Don Chandler, I was a center on offense or lineman on defense with Willie usually playing on the opposite side of the line as we weren’t on the same team. We played “football with flags on” which pretty much meant “football with no protective equipment” and just about as much body contact as regular football save the tackling part. If someone fumbled the ball, we all piled on top of it and each other. Many flag leagues deal with this problem now by making any fumble a dead ball at that spot, but not in those days.
One of the plays I remember from back then used to pop in my head during the 27 years I ran the Ontonagon JH Flag Football program. It was something I always called “a Willie Peterson”. It seems Willie and I were running side by side chasing one of my teammates who had made an interception. Now that we had the ball, it made sense for me to knock Willie off the play so I gave him a little nudge (okay, maybe it was a big nudge) which caught him by surprise and sent him tumbling. This is not what I called a “Willie Peterson”, however. We scored so when I lined up to snap the ball for the extra point, I looked up to see a red faced, very angry Willie digging in inches from my face. Needless to say, I snapped the ball and Willie proceeded to drive me backward and into the ground like a bulldozer running over a Volkswagon bug. Cliff Guilbault and I would officiate the flag football games in Ontonagon and anytime I would see one of my players drive an opponent back and pancake them, I would think “well, he just got a Willie Peterson”. I am sure we were both mad each other for a little while after this, but pay back was part of growing up and we never took it personally. If you dished it out, you got it back and the next day were buddies again.
There are more stories to tell about those days. There were the two years we rode the same bus to the Graveraet School for junior high. There is the tale Willie trying to teach me how to ride his mo-ped without killing myself. We spent a lot of time snowmobiling all over the fields and woods that were abundant on our side of town. These fields and woods are now occupied by a good chunk of Northern’s western campus and the housing subdivisions that have filled in the areas between our old family homes. I think maybe I will pick Willie’s brain and see if we remember the same things. If we do, then I can conclude that I haven’t stumbled into some memory implanting program ala Total Recall. If we don’t, I guess I will have to let him tell me his version and see if I get another flood of memories to work with. Either way, it was great to hear Willie’s “voice” again.
Top Piece video – having invoked the name of the Rev. Shawn Amos, I figured I owed him a video spot!