Saturday Essay Posts

Project SULTAN: A 13-Year-Old’s Plan to Take Over the World

At age thirteen in 1981, I made plans to take over the world. I would form a military organization with a network of secret bases, to destabilize the nations of the globe so I could seize power. The Reagan administration had me scared of nuclear annihilation — a civilization gone mad. The only moral response was to end war by taking over the world. So I wrote a manifesto, detailed my plans, and designed superweapons. I kept these in folders in a three-ring binder in my top dresser drawer. Today, four decades later, one of those folders survives. It is titled “SULTAN: Bases, Robots, Missiles.” It contains my megalomaniacal manifesto, my plan’s diabolical steps, and some blueprints. The other folders are missing. I have a good idea what happened to them, or should I say, who happened to them.

The opening page reads: “This is a highly-classified, top secret notebook, full of my plans for world conquest, and absolute domination of the planet. Anyone (without whom I have first given specific directions) reading this book shall be dealt with accordingly. – Jim Richardson, Future Earth Emperor.”

The Thing About Essentia Health

Imagine, if you will, being trans and you don’t go by your birth name anymore — and the clinic knows that — and you arrive at an Essentia Health clinic in Duluth for, let’s say an eye appointment.

“Hmmmm. Can you spell your last name again?”

“Hmmmmm. What is your date of birth, again, ma’am?”

“I’m just not finding you. How about your street address?

Also, for the sake of this scenario, there are four other people behind you impatiently waiting to register for their own appointments. You start to feel a bead of sweat pop up on your forehead.

“Can you spell your last name again?” Nothing. The registration lady calls for help. A supervisor slides her chair over. You’re feeling a little hot. Isn’t it humid in this damn clinic, today?

“Oh! Are you DEAD NAME DEAD NAME BOODOOTY DEAD DAMN NAME?”

Ripped at Mama’s Bar in 2001

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. Twenty years ago he filed a report from Mama’s Bar, 1019 Ogden Ave. in Superior. Mama’s went out of business circa 2017. This article appeared in the Nov. 14, 2001 issue of the Ripsaw newspaper.]

There are two kinds of mamas in the world, and Mama’s Bar in Superior is named after both of them. One of the first things you notice when you walk into the place is all the hot mamas. Black-and-white photos of Veronica Lake, Marlene Dietrich, etc. line the wall across from the bar. At the bar, the real-life mamas sit. The 45-year-old white-trash mamas are always out in full force at Mama’s Bar. The place is everything I ever wanted in a filthy dive.

Mama’s is one book you shouldn’t judge by its dirty pink cover. Yes, the exterior of the place is painted pink — but it’s not a gay bar. This, of course, begs the question: What stereotypes can our society possibly rely on anymore? A pink bar called Mama’s, full of straight patrons, does nothing to simplify our already complicated lives.

North Country Trail in Wisconsin: Green Undies in Gordon

There generally isn’t a lot to say about a good hike, nice weather and beautiful scenery. They are enjoyable, but they don’t help create a classic story one tells his friends about and sits down to record in an essay. Good stories involve things not happening as planned. Something must go very wrong, very right or very strange to have a good story. If someone shows up in green underwear, for example, it at least provides the foundation.

So before I write about the numbers and geography of my hiking, let me assure you that green undies are coming up.

If you’ve been following along on my North Country Trail in Wisconsin series, you know I’m slowly hiking 214 miles across the Badger State. I started in 2017 and as of this writing have completed 65 miles, taking my sweet time.

In the summer of 2020 I hiked from Pattison Park to the edge of the town of Gordon and ended part four of my essay series there. I thought I was done for the year, but just a few days after publishing the essay I headed back to Gordon for one more trek.

N is for Nostalgia: Peak Bradbury

When my father died, I had a surrogate dad waiting in the wings: the work of Ray Bradbury. I was obsessed. I felt I would devote my life to him, a feeling common to loves which last no more than a couple years, as this one did. But they were timeless years. Between my 13th and 15th birthday, with my adult future on the horizon, I was still young enough for summers to last forever.

Now in my 50s, I retain the suite of Bradbury paperbacks I collected back then. I have no use for them, although no library contains merely useful books. I quit re-reading them decades ago. But there are many reasons for books to be collected. I moved on to obsessions with writers less old-fashioned and less overly lyrical, although not before his lyricism infected my own style. Yet even for me, Bradbury is too breathless and too wordy (although not chatty like Harlan Ellison). He wrote terrible poetry. He became a cranky old man. Film and TV adaptations of his work are, by and large, bad. I now consider him (along with his contemporaries Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein) to be a branch of Young Adult (i.e., children’s) literature. But I still give his books a treasured pride of place on my shelves, which overflow with his successors. Strangely, most of my adult favorites also begin with the letter “B”: Burroughs, Ballard, Borges, Bowles … but Bradbury got to me first.

Refracted

Split Rock Lighthouse stands along the western shore of Lake Superior, atop a soaring cliff. Dressed in cream-colored brick and elegant trim more fitting for a grand house in a genteel neighborhood, it once worked as a watchman holding a luminous light, warning ships about rocky shores at its feet.

It’s a crisp late-October morning. The last day of the season before the lighthouse shutters for the year. From an expansive autumn-blue sky, sunshine washes the landscape in gold. The temperature wanders just north of forty-five degrees. The air breathes softly.

My granddaughter, six, and grandson, four, are with me. It’s their first visit to the lighthouse. Because it’s a weekday and almost the last day the lighthouse will entertain visitors for the year, we are nearly alone on the grounds.

We climb the twisting steps of the lighthouse, just the three of us. We are quiet, and with nothing to arrest my attention, other than the shuffle of feet on the stairs, I travel decades back in time.

Bob Dylan’s Last Hit

“Bob Dylan got away with murder.” —John Lennon

October 1960. Nineteen-year-old Bob Dylan takes the bus from Minneapolis to Duluth under a cloudless sun. With a head full of songs, he steps off the Greyhound carrying a backpack and two guitar cases. One case has a sticker saying “Ten O’clock Scholar Coffeehouse.” The other has blue words painted on it, “the Tombstone Blues.” A cab drops him at the Kozy, a desolate shithole even then. He rents a room. Placing the backpack and Ten O’clock Scholar on the bed, he leaves with the Tombstone Blues.

Bob walks a few blocks to his childhood home in the faded warmth of dim memories. Then he heads toward the Owls Club. He tries not to look at St. Mary’s Hospital, where he was born, as if he holds a grudge. Entering the club he walks past the bar to the pool room. Cigar smoke fills the air. He is greeted by the Scaletta family: Louie the King, Frankie Mineshaft, Mack the Finger, and Sammy Gaspipe. Several other made men and tough guys haunt the shadows. The King shakes his hand. “Good to see you, Bobby. After this, your debt is paid. But it’s too bad we gotta lose you. Sure we can’t convince you…?” Bob feels the menace of the question but he knows the King respects him — and maybe even fears him a little bit. “No thanks Louie, I got something else in mind for myself.” “Well I tell ya kid, it’s been a pleasure to watch you work.”

Crime

When I was small, I realized a very important facet of my station as a fully-dependent human child: I was not the master of my own fate. My eating, sleeping, bathing times and locations were entirely regulated, along with the clothes I wore, the foods I ate, and the people with whom I was allowed to visit. I was basically a tiny prisoner in some posh minimum-security facility, like a diminutive swanky corporate tax evader or miniature ponzi schemer.

Nobody told me this: I just figured it out. After all, the evidence was overwhelming. For instance, I had no desire to clad my lower half in rust-brown Toughskins pants with knees so reinforced they made me look like an elementary-school robot made of corduroy.

And turtlenecks. Fucking turtlenecks. Every kid wearing a turtleneck looks like they’re being Raleigh St. Clair for Halloween, and no kid is ever being Raleigh St. Clair for Halloween, and do you know why? Because no kid has ever heard of Raleigh St. Clair. Additionally, for the whole day, it feels like maybe you are coming down with a sore throat — a sort of gentle squeezing all day long (or, as the brilliant and departed comedian Mitch Hedberg said, “like you’re being choked by a really weak guy”). I did not choose and would not have chosen that ensemble. I wanted to wear flouncy dresses and sparkly cowboy boots. Sadly, my father had determined that dressing like a Barbie would make my brain stop growing, so really, the Toughskins were for my own protection.

Hey, Are You Married?

I had just crossed lazily through the intersection toward Wells Fargo Center, gently swinging my bag in the late afternoon heat. I had also decided that day to make friends with the hips I had developed over the past six months and lean into them … literally.

I saw him, 30-ish, scruffy, with a dirty T-shirt and a backward hat, leaning against the building. Our city has its contingent of panhandlers. They add a little paprika to our lives and I didn’t pay him any mind — until he called out to me as I passed by him.

“What?!” I asked, incredulously while laughing, stopped in my tracks.

‘I asked if you were married,” he answered with a crooked smile.

“Yes,” I replied and started to walk away. He wasn’t done, though. “Can I get your number and text you?” he yelled at me.

I turned around. “HAPPILY married!” I shot back and spun around on my heel and walked off, laughing.

Attack on America

It’s Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, 10:30 a.m. I’m standing in my kitchen munching on an apple. Suddenly, a huge man who looks like the professional wrestler Razor Ramon comes thundering through the front door announcing that he is an employee of the Water and Gas Department and needs to read the meter.

Without asking for identification or taking any security precautions whatsoever, I show him to the basement stairway and resume chomping on my apple. Soon, my basement housemates greet Razor Ramon and he starts talking to them about how the country is at war.

“We’re at war, dude,” I hear him say. “Haven’t you turned on the TV or the radio yet?”

I turn on the television in the living room and see a huge cloud of smoke and debris where the World Trade Center once stood. The news anchor explains that two hijacked passenger jets smashed into the towers, causing them to collapse.

Glensheen Denies Occult Rituals of Disgraced Congdon Nephew

Last year the Minnesota historian Peter S. Svenson wrote an unpublished monograph, “The Forgotten Duluth Painter, Edward Alexander Congdon.” Svenson gave me the following information in an interview conducted on Halloween as luck would have it.

Edward Alexander (a nephew of Chester Congdon) lived at Glensheen, the historic Congdon estate. He hid slightly pointy ears with clever hair styling. But, enlisting in the armed forces to fight World War I, he suffered a military haircut. At Belleau Wood a German flame-thrower splashed liquid fire into his trench, and he escaped with his life unlike some of his fellows. But much of the skin had been burned off the top of his head, including his right ear and his eyebrows. Once healed, hair grew toward the back of his head, and the scar tissue of the high forehead became less noticeable with time. However, his eyebrows remained white scars, and the right ear had burned off down to the hole. Aleister Crowley said, “The effect of that, with his one remaining devil’s-ear, was striking.”

Edward Alexander remained overseas for a time after the war. He wandered the world using his unsettling appearance as currency in mediumistic parlors and spiritualist circles. He joined the Ordo Templi Orientis in England, and enjoyed esotericists he met in France. Then he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, mingling with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and W.B. Yeats. He painted, climbed the Eiger, and had lucid dreams of the dead. Returning stateside in 1923, he lived in the Glensheen attic, “like a bat,” Mrs. Congdon used to say.

Lake Superior Sea Monster: Three Fatal Encounters

Mouth of the Presque Isle River, Sept. 9, 1987

The cute falls and river here empty into Lake Superior like so many sites along the South Shore: sandy beach, smooth stones, jumbles of fallen half-drowned trees. Depth off shore reaches thirty feet with a sand lake floor that quickly turns to a rock shelf plunging 200 feet straight down.

Statement of first responder on presumed drowning death of Matthew Bruin, 19: “This is not the first drowning victim of the Presque Isle River. It’s important to remember while splashing around in this shallow area by the mouth, that the seabed quickly descends to a couple hundred feet. The warm river water flows over top of the colder lake water, making a conveyor belt to the deep. As the river water cools and sinks, it pulls people down. Sadly I think the victim’s body will never be recovered. People say, ‘It’s the Presque Isle monster’ or ‘it’s a sea serpent,’ but it is the lake itself, an impersonal force of nature that does not care if we live or die.”

Victim’s friend and witness, J.R. Sandvik: “I’m telling you he was pulled under by a large animal … I miss him … I miss you buddy.”

Time of Waiting

I remember her waiting up for my father
To come home from God knows where
In a yellow cab at 2:00 A.M.
And waiting for me in the school parking lot
In our old blue station wagon
When whatever it was I was practicing for
Ran late …

And I remember her waiting for me
At the airport when I got back from Japan,
Waiting for everything to be all right,
Waiting for her biopsy results.
Waiting.

— George Bilgere, “Waiting”
 

Waiting for Cancer

In 1956, in On the Origin of Cancer Cells, Otto Warburg tried to pin down the causes for the “mysterious latency period of the production of cancer.” Fifty years later, in Genetic Progression and the Waiting Time to Cancer, Niko Beerenwinkel, Tibor Antal, David Dingli, Arne Traulsen, Kenneth W Kinzler, Victor E Velculescu, Bert Vogelstein, and Martin A Nowak replace the “mysterious latency period” with talk about a waiting period: they set out to “derive an analytical formula for the expected waiting time for the progression from benign to malignant tumor.” They started with a “normal” cell and predicted the number of mutations the cell will undergo. Based on the number of mutations, they could calculate how long it will take for a normal cell to produce a benign tumor and how long before those mutations produce a tumor that becomes malignant.

Ripped at the Rendezvous in 2001

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. Twenty years ago he filed a report from the Rendezvous Bar in Scanlon, roughly 10 miles west of Duluth. This article appeared in the July 25, 2001 issue of the Ripsaw newspaper.]

So, it starts with Sean the Locksmith and me barreling down the southbound lane of I-35, sober as a couple of appellate court judges. Sean is worried, and with good cause: The brakes on his newly purchased Delta 88 are suddenly … how shall I put this? … nonexistent.

The plan, and I’m not saying it’s a good one, is to sort of just not go any faster. Sean plans to take the momentum we have and ride it out, giving little nudges on the gas pedal to keep us going in an attempt to run out of speed precisely as we reach an off-ramp. Eventually, with a little practice, he actually does it, landing us in the heart of beautiful Scanlon. We immediately head to the Rendezvous Bar with its promise of wonderful, sweet booze to wet down our sizzling nerve ends.

Red Flag Warning

It’s almost suspicious how often I happen to be nearby when bodies are pulled out of the water. Am I a jinx or a murderer? No, I just like being by water. And it’s pretty well documented that water is a serial killer.

I’ve already written the essay “Lake Superior Wants to Kill You,” outlining just about everything I want to share on the subject of drowning. There’s one more warning worth putting forward, however, regarding the various ways you can lose your life in the water. So please keep this in mind:

I won’t try to stop you from putting yourself in danger, and it’s unlikely anyone else will, other than maybe your mommy.

Of course, you’ll probably get some general, impersonal warnings. This essay and my other essay, for starters. There are warnings in the media constantly. And then on Minnesota Point in Duluth we have those red flags and warning signs on the beach. But that’s all you get. And it’s not enough, obviously.

Telling someone about the dangers of rip currents is like warning about the potential for pregnancy. The risk vs. reward balance is quickly weighed and then it’s time to get wet.

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