Notes for Stories I Could Tell, Some about Parks
I grew up in St. Paul near Mounds Park, one of the great parks anywhere. What a place to dream: the mighty river, sprawling railroad, airport, highways, skyline all stretched out below. Mysterious mounds. We ran up and down them then, intending no disrespect. We played at Dayton’s Bluff and Margaret Street playgrounds. Skated at one or the other most winter days. Won my first trophy playing in a citywide basketball tournament representing Margaret playground. No coach or uniforms, just plain t-shirts with a number inked by hand. The playground director was astonished when we brought him a trophy. Visited downtown library every few weeks. Never was really aware of Rice Park outside. On Sunday evenings our family went to the Como Park pavilion on the lake for hymn sings. We swam in the summers at Lake Phalen; watched tough, muscular guys work out on gymnastic apparatus on the beach. Hoped the girls we liked would show up, and not think us hopelessly wimpy compared to the muscular guys.
College at Hamline University. Near Como Park. Newell Park too, a little gem of oak savannah. Inducted into an honor society in that park. Played basketball for the Pipers. We were terrible, but formed lasting friendships. Coached by the first white man to lose his job as a professional baseball player to a black man: Howie Schultz was the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers when Jackie Robinson was called up and took over at first. Howie was a funny man and a great athlete. I wrote a few poems that were published in school literary magazine. Someday I’ll find them. Officially studied political science.
Spent a semester of my senior year in London. Lived near Kensington Garden and Hyde Park. Favorite place was Peter Pan statue. Sundays I listened to poetry and politics at Speaker’s Corner. “Who put the bop in the bop shoo bop shoo bop?” Recited as serious poetry. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
Drove a truck in the mountains of Arizona, near Sedona, delivering feed to ranches. Before it was a trendy place. Walked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Nice park. Big park.
Went to Colombia in the Peace Corps. After learning beginners Spanish, worked as a recreation director in a national prison. Don’t remember parks in Colombia. Too poor for parks. An influential prisoner took me under his wing. Ismael Castilla’s nickname: Al Capone. Usually wore a black turtleneck and a deerstalker hat. The best athlete in the prison, also a playwright. Said he was a political prisoner. Today would be called a terrorist. He cried the day his parole was denied. Six months later, after I was gone, he got his parole. He died weeks later, killed by police who were attempting to rescue a kidnapped government minister.
Transferred by Peace Corps to Nigeria where I became the national basketball coach. Won a silver medal at first All-Africa University Games in Accra, Ghana. Spent most of a year living out of a white and green VW bug, staying in hotels as I drove from town to town conducting basketball clinics. Learned the oppressing visibility of looking different. Was once the only white man I could see in a stadium of 50,000 people. Was nearly always treated well, but got tired of standing out. How much did I stand out? When I attended a local basketball game in a small town, the big attraction court side was a tame monkey — until I showed up. The young children abandoned the monkey as they fought to sit next to me, so they could touch the blond hair on my arms. Monkeys they could see anytime. Not every day could they touch an oyebo. Not many parks in Nigeria either. Hope they’ve preserved some open space since in that crowded part of the world. Lagos, Enugu and Port Harcourt needed open spaces then. Probably need them more now. Someday I’ll tell the story of the man who almost drowned swimming in the surf near Lagos.
Attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Journalism. Lived in Prospect Park. Rode my bike past Tower Hill every day. Missed the opening week of school the third quarter to attend my grandma’s funeral in southern Ohio. Didn’t run in that cemetery. Saw my grandfather a last time. The one who was a safecracker, convict and later an undercover operative for FBI. I never returned to grad school. Took the entrance exam for the Foreign Service instead. Passed. Became a diplomat.
Went to Washington, D.C. for training and orientation at the State Department. Great parks. Lived a couple blocks from Lincoln Memorial. Assigned to U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Spain as Vice Consul. Spent many hours in Retiro, the great central park of Madrid. Went there mostly with Angeles, eyes and hair the color of coal, with as much latent heat. Sometimes to the country park instead, Casa De Campo. Loved the fountains in streets. Favorite was the one with dolphins playing near my home. Driving past it once I made my first pun in Spanish. To Angeles. Had to do with complejo and espejo. I thought I was very clever. She laughed at me, eyes smoldering a little.
Second assignment was Lusaka, Zambia. Game parks were spectacular. Best in the world said some who knew about those things. Endless open spaces outside cities. Lightly populated place then. Fewer people now, I’m told. Aids. Travelled often in the bush. Visited American missionaries. Investigated starvation near border with Angola. A war zone. Helped organize delivery of relief food.
Resigned from Foreign Service. Restless. Travelled across Africa, Middle East and Europe for four months on my way home.
Took up writing to make a living. Helped clients sell everything from soup to soap, silicon to silicone. Ghost writer, speech writer, copy writer. About the only thing I’ve not written for hire is limericks. Might try it sometime. If you know anyone who needs a limerick writer…
Became a husband, became a father, stayed a son. Stayed in Minneapolis longer than I expected, too. Keep losing, then rediscovering, the little things. Miracles. The small, secret happinesses on which we thrive. Some to be shared, some to be savored, hoarded. That’s why Minneapolis parks have their hold on me. Places for any mood. And the founders amaze me. Loring, Cleveland, Brackett, King, Morrison, Folwell. I might tell their stories, too. Anybody know Levi Stewart? Didn’t think so. Now there’s a story.