My father was a drummer.
This was, of course, on top of the many other things he did to earn a buck or two. Like my mother, the man was full of ideas on how to amass personal wealth.
In northern Minnesota, these ideas included crop dusting, becoming a flight instructor, creating and selling pine cone wreaths, and drumming.
There were other ventures in there as well, but you get the picture.
“I ever tell you kids the time I was the drummer in an all-lesbian band?”
Yes. Yes, he did. Several times.
Mine was the ear that most often took in my father’s stories. Kevin and Karen were known, individually and separately, for their ability to disappear shortly before a tale was to unfold; and so it was I, by way of slower legs and a trusting and simple nature found myself sitting at the kitchen table while Dad smoked a cigarette and waxed nostalgic.
“I ever tell you about the Withrow Ballroom?”
The Withrow Ballroom – a ballroom I myself would play at as a teenager – was set far outside a small town on the Wisconsin border. Down a gravel road lined with Jack pines and surrounded by a large dirt parking lot, there it sat, awaiting the cars of the young adults that would descend upon it. Saw dust would be sprinkled on the immense dance floor, flasks would appear from inside jacket pockets, and skirts would fly up for my father’s three-piece band.
It was the only game in town.
“We could play any song you wanted,” chuckles my father, ashing his cigarette, “as long as we knew it. “
Dad rises to get himself a beer.
“So one night, we’re playing the Withrow, right? Mid-January, colder than hell, if you’ll pardon the expression” and here he raises his beer can “and it’s snowing. Snowing! I know, I know, I can see you forming the question on your lips: Isn’t it always snowing in January in Minnesota? That’s a good question, and the answer is No. No it is not always snowing, especially when it’s that dang cold. But it was. It was cold and it was snowing to beat the band.”
Dad grinds out his cigarette into an ashtray shaped like a donkey’s rear end, lights another one.
“So we get there, me, Burton, and David, and we’re setting up, right? And what a crappy looking night this is turning out to be. There’s nobody in the joint, there’s a blizzard going on, and we’ll be lucky to get our cars out of the lot and on to a main road at the end of it all.”
Dad blows a hit toward the ceiling and pauses.
“So we play. First set, 20-some songs. Not a soul in the place. We’re playin’ to ourselves.”
I can see it, the boys up on stage in their black pants and white shirts, the enormous – and empty – dance floor.
“We take our break. Twenty minutes of sitting at the bar, drinking 7-Up, when the ballroom owner, guy by the name of Ken, I believe it was, comes around, says, hey, you boys want to make a deal?”
He pauses, takes another hit.
“Then what happened?”
He smiles. “The guy says, look, the place is empty, right? It’s 10:00 and there’s no one here. How ‘bout I let you go at midnight, pay you $40 for the whole night? Either that, or you play the whole night and I give you a cut of the door. Heck, he says, I’ll give you 20% of the door if you want to play until 2:00.”
He pauses, takes a drink of his beer.
“So what’d you do?”
“Well what’s 20% of nothing? We walk off to the side and talk it over, decide we’ll cut our losses, take the $40, and be out of there by midnight.”
Dad takes a deep drag off his cigarette, smiles ruefully.
“You know what happened, don’t you?
I shake my head, and Dad shakes his head in return. “Ten twenty or so the double doors open – and 300 people come in. Three hundred! No lie!”
He grinds his cigarette out. “Three hundred people,” he marvels. “Where did they come from? There were eight, nine school buses in the parking lot when I looked out the doors at the end of the second set.”
He stands up, heads across the kitchen, still shaking his head. “I don’t remember if we ever found out where they came from,” he say from the interior of the fridge. He stands up, pops the bottle top on the edge of the counter with the heel of his hand. “You’d think I’d remember that, wouldn’t you?”
I tap the side of my nose with my index finger, as I’ve seen him do so many times before. He bursts out laughing. “The place was packed and it was one of the best gigs we ever played!”
He takes a long pull from his beer.
“Forty bucks,” he muses, shaking his head.
I shake my head in commiseration and he smiles.
“Don’t that beat all, Pearl? Don’t that beat all?”
Five in Five: Tuesday, January 23
5 hours ago