Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kids of Les


Front (from left) Kollen Long, Duane Frazier, Adam Knapp, Sandy (West) Graham, Jeff Guy. Back: Amy (Pray) Schoon, Stephen King.


We were standing there, waiting to proceed out the aisle at the end of the service. As always, when I attend these things, Maria was beside me for moral support. The minister talked about how one life had brought all these people together. My friend Adam Knapp looked back at me from the row of seats in front of us.

“You all right, Jeff?”

I looked at the floor. Lips tightened. Eyes shut, holding back. No words.

There was a pat on my shoulder.

Outside the auditorium, a flock of friends and former students of Les Anderson covered the lobby of the Wichita State University annex – the Hughes Metroplex at 29th and Woodlawn streets. I was a reporter at the student newspaper, the Sunflower, when Gene Hughes was named the new WSU president.

Making it through college and writing for the campus newspaper. That was a trip through fear and loathing. It paid off, though, as I was reminded.

“Oh Jeff,” the woman said as she threw her arms around me.

It was my old friend Shannon Littlejohn. I’ve had a warm place in my heart for her these past 17 years because she was part of the committee that awarded me a scholarship.

Surrounding us, there were reminders of Les: the legendary Anderson family Christmas cards, the mosaic filling up with remembrances, copies of his book Never Take a Snake For a Ride…The book is a collection of nearly 40 years of columns the man wrote for the Ark Valley News.

I met back up with Adam and some other guys who had Les as a teacher. We were trying to think of a place to go eat and Adam is something of a leader in these kinds of decisions.

“How ‘bout,” he said without a lot of confidence in his voice or facial expressions, “Apple Bees at 21st and Rock?”

O-kay?

I was hesitant to break the reverence of the occasion. So I held back from saying what was on my mind.

Knapp, you bastard, is that the best you got??

My cell phone rang. I saw the name of my former classmate pop up – Amy (Pray) Shcoon. (Nearly 20 years ago, I was the only journalism student in the Elliott School of Communication more neurotic than Amy.) I clicked the ok button of my beat up Verizon phone.

“Amy Pray?” I said. She asked where I was, and I peered out the glass windows of the Hughes building. “Hey, I see you,” I said while walking outside, Maria close behind me.

She gave me a light hug and I wonder if she noted I no longer smelled like cigarettes. Gave em’ up 11 years ago.

Maria and I took out for Applebees with Amy following in her Honda. The hostess grabbed a couple of menus, and was about to seat us when Adam called and said with characteristic politeness, “We changed our mind. Could you meet us at Larry Bud’s?”

That’s more like it, Knapp.

Backglass, beer, panties

We walked into the sports bar and grill – Amy, Maria and me. Years ago, it was Tanner’s. Last time I was there it was November of 1993. It was a Thursday night, the final meeting of our 301 Business and Professional Speaking class. Everyone in the class had become pretty tight with each other and at the suggestion of Tony Duesing (now a respected media personality in Wichita) we all met for drinks at Tanner’s.

The beleaguered waitress seated us at a round table underneath a pair of thong panties stapled to the ceiling. Boy, I would see to it that the girl -- probably a struggling college student – got a 20 percent tip or more from Maria and me. To the left of the NCAA basketball pinball machine, I saw a backglass marquee dedicated in memory to The Sopranos.

born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eye

Stephen King sat by me at the table. No, not that one. Poor bastard gets that crap everyday of his life. Early in his career as a college journalist, Stephen asked Les if he should change his name.

“No, people will notice it. They’ll remember it,” he recalled Les telling him.

His words didn’t indicate any partiality, but the look in his eye did reveal a healthy dose of criticism when he asked me what I thought of the preacher’s eulogy.

“At first, I thought, ‘Who is that scrawny little guy?’” I said. “He looked like Sammy Davis, Jr. But I liked how he quoted Shakespeare. Always good when a preacher brings Will Shakespeare in. And I liked how he actually found a soothing passage from Revelation to read from and didn’t fall back on some lovey stuff from Corinthians. But when he started talking about the one leaf ---“

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Stephen said. “The guy walks around the Les Anderson farm and only one leaf is remaining on a tree.”

“I wasn’t buying it,” I said.

“So one leaf is remaining for him to conveniently tie into Les’s life.”

“Yeah, I was skeptical.”

Amy ordered a Rum and Coke. Overhead TV screens were fixed on ESPN and Amy cheered when Iowa State scored a touchdown over the Sooners. One of the first things I asked her about, upon resuming contact, was about that private college she’d been working at in Iowa. I thought it was so cool that one of our own was working in a university environment.

She informed me that she left that job and now does copy editing for Pearson Education, a publishing and technology company that specializes in textbooks and other multimedia learning tools. Penguin Books is a subsidiary of Pearson, she told me.

That made me bolt upright. Penguin! That company that publishes Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Sun Tzu, Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Steinbeck…Don’t get me wrong, I still hate the Corporate Media Industrial Complex and I loathe how Pearson bought the company in 1970, but, hey, it’s still Penguin.

I asked Stephen what he’s doing these days and he said he’s a strategic analyst for –can’t remember.

“What the hell is a strategic analyst?” I asked.

Not actually knowing himself, he gave a BS answer. Like me, Stephen was recently helping out Adam at the Andover American newspaper. We only do it for kicks because Adam doesn’t pay jack.

He recently hung it up with the American after moving to Atchison, Kan. where his wife, Monika, took a job as principal of Maur Hill-Mount Academy – a parochial school steeped in Benedictine Catholicism.

Amy’s first job after college was at the Atchison bureau of the St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press. Adam worked the sports desk from the St. Jo newsroom, and Adam, myself and Sandy (West) Graham, another Les Anderson student, all worked at the Arkansas City Traveler.

Ark City. Atchison. St. Joseph.

Backwater, blue collar, bullshit towns.

We started talking about the semester project, required of all Les’s Advanced Reporting students – the small town profiles.

“Now, you covered Piqua, Kan., right? “ I said to Stephen. Piqua (pronounced Pick-way), pop. 80, is an unincorporated town off U.S. Highway 54 and 10 miles east of the Woodson County Seat, Iola. A museum in Piqua promotes the most famous person ever born there. Vaudevillians Joe and Myra Keaton were touring with Harry Houdini as part of a traveling medicine show, when on Oct. 4, 1895, Myra went into labor. Silent screen legend Buster Keaton was born.

That historically documented gem aided great vibrancy and authority to Stephen’s piece. The remainder of his profile? Not so factual.

“It was all made up,” Stephen confessed. “I had a wife and family, classes, a job. I was staying up till 4 in the morning every night. There was no time for research. I only went to that town twice.”

“Oh man,” I said. “I practically had an office in the café of the town I was doing (Leon, Kan. pop. 700). They saw me smellin’ around all the time.”

Turning to Amy, Stephen said:“They probably called the cop shop when Jeff came around. ‘He’s baaack.’”

Anyhow, Stephen received an A on the project and Les was so impressed he called the editor of the Iola Register about running the story. Fortunately for Stephen, the editor said they had just run something like that a month prior.

Backs of his fingers brushing with relief over Stephen’s forehead.

That was Stephen’s true confession. Almost to the second I opened my mouth, he said, “I don’t even want to hear what Jeff’s dark secret is. I can only imagine.”

Next excellent adventure

Maria leaned over to me and said, “I think I’d like to do some shopping in the plaza. I’d like to go to shop for some wall art for my office.”

After telling my friends how nice it was to meet everybody (except Adam, whom she already knows), she excused herself and went shopping at nearby Tuesday Morning.

Somehow, the conversation around the table turned to the subjects of raising kids and helping aging parents.

Upon arriving at the bar, I had told Stephen, “It’s like how Sherwood Anderson was the father of Faulkner and that whole generation of writers. We’re all here because of Les. We’re all his kids.”

Later as the beer poured and the conversation tone took on a deeper key, Stephen motioned to the bodies in that backroom, drinks in their hands, laughter emanating from their nostrils.

“They’re all here from the funeral, all here for Les,” he said. “Everyone in this room, you have a connection to.”

Funny. At the funeral, the minister was talking about how a high school teacher was impressed by Les Anderson’s writing. That teacher encouraged young Les to attend his alma matter, Fort Hays State University, and pulled strings to make it happen. Even Les had a Les Anderson in his life.

Feeling the urge to let the beer flow from without me, I sauntered to the gent’s room, past the signs, reading “pointers” and “setters,” leading the way to the respective men’s and ladies restrooms. I stood at the pisser, gazing at sports stories clipped from newspapers and pasted to the walls as I thanked God Almighty that this hallowed ground had not been desecrated by ads for Genesis Health Club and other such obscenities.

Walking back to grab my jacket and fedora hat, I saw a fellow raise his glass: “To Les Anderson,” he said. “The reason we’re all here.”

We shook hands -- phone numbers, emails and blog sites programmed into each other’s phones. Those still not “friends” with each other, yet connected, committed to making contact via that shitting facebook. I gave Amy a quick hug.

“You grew up pretty damn good,” I said.

“So did you."

I walked into the light outside the door of the bar. Made contact with Maria at Tuesday Morning, even helped her shop a little.

“Did anyone think I was rude, cutting out like that?” she asked.

“No, they understood,” I told her. “They were all quite impressed, thought you were pretty cool.”

(Pause)

“That was really boring,” she said.

(Another pause.)

As an afterthought, she said: “Only journalists would critique a preacher’s sermon at a funeral.”

I’d never thought of that, but she could be right.

“I know,” I said. “I can’t expect you to like all our shop talk. I’m sure if I were around you and other non-profit administrators, I’d be bored.”

“Oh, you couldn’t sit still. You’d be texting and writing on napkins.”

“It may be so, Little Girl,” I said. “But I belong to you and the kids for the rest of the day.”

“Will you go to that home decorating consignment store in Andover with me?”

"Sure. Let’s go on to the next adventure.”