Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tony Blodgett: My Benchmark for a Good Friend

Hey Bungalow Bill
What did you kill, Bungalow Bill?
—The Beatles

A few weeks ago I got a nice email from Caesar Sweitzer, an old Carleton College friend who has gotten inspired to do something in remembrance of Tony Blodgett, a mutual friend and fellow Carl who died in 2004. Caesar has raised the money needed to have a bench installed on the college campus, and he's proposing to have it dedicated this June, in the context of reunion.

I thought this a fine idea, but had to tell Casear that I couldn't attend the ceremony because of a prior commitment to be in Oakland for the National Cohousing Conference. Still, it occurred to me that I could share memories, and that's the subject of today's blog...

When I was a sophomore at Carleton College (1968-69), I lived on First Goodhue, a dorm floor that was wholly devoted to freshman (who had no choice in the matter) and sophomores with poor room draw numbers. It turned out to be one of the more powerful bonding experiences of my life.

This was back in the days when dorm floors were gender segregated, and the only two upper classmen on First Goodhue were the proctor, Bill Jokela, and his roommate, Bill Blodgett—who wound up becoming one of my best friends.

A Man By Any Other Name
The first thing to know about Bill, was that he was a man of many handles. Born William, he let us know early on that his family called him Tony (for reasons that escape me). Not content with that option (are college underclassmen ever content with the obvious?), we started working it. We kind of liked Buffalo Bill, which got shortened to Buff, and that more or less became his dominant appellation that year. As a variant, we tinkered with Bungalow Bill—a la the Beatles—which got reduced to Bung.

In the spring of that year, as he coasted toward graduation with a light course load, he spent a lot of time working on his tan, self promoting himself as Bronze Man. Later, when he took on a desk job for Social Security and found it hard to get outdoors, Annie—who nearly always got the last word—would lampoon him with the moniker, Alabaster Man.

After graduation, we resolved into a close cadre of friends who liked to go wilderness canoeing (the core included Tony, Kip Lilly, Annie Shrader, Sue Anderson, and myself, with a number of other college buddies joining us in different configurations over the years). After seeing Tony emerge from the tent each morning with hair akimbo, we started calling him Beaver Lodge Blodge, or Blodge for short.

For all of the shenanigans we indulged ourselves with at the expense of his name—all of which he put up with good-naturedly—over the years we eventually circled back to calling him Tony, right where he was before we met him.

The Carleton Years
Tony was a creative goofball, and was never one to let a little homework get in the way of a good time. I recall the afternoon he spent carefully reworking the cover of a Superman comic, strategically pasting some beard hair atop Lex Luthor's otherwise bald pate, and then employing an Exacto knife to excise the letter "L" from the screaming headline, that originally declared:
Public Enemy #1!

There is a reason they call this kind of humor "sophomoric," and Tony knew his audience.

For entertainment (Minnesota winters are long, and this was before global warming) we played endless rounds of Hearts, hallway bottle frisbee, and Strat-o-matic Baseball. It became common to play a "quickie"—five hands of Hearts—right before dinner, with the loser having to get drinks for everyone when we sat down to eat.

Hearts is a game of tricks, with each person contributing one card per trick. The winner of a trick is the person who plays the highest card in the suit led. In its pure form there are four players, and a hand of hearts consists of 13 tricks. The object is to avoid taking points. There is one point for each heart and a whopping 13 points if you take the trick containing the Queen of Spades—known as the Bird. The person with the Two of Clubs leads to the first trick, and the winner of a trick leads to the next. You are not allowed to lead hearts or the Bird unless someone has already taken points in a previous trick unless those are the only cards remaining in your hand. If you do not have any cards in the suit led, you may play any card in your hand, excepting that you are not allowed to play a point card on the first trick.

As a significant alternate strategy to attempting to avoid tricks with points, you may try to take all the points. If you succeed, this is the best of all outcomes, as you score zero while everyone else racks up 26 points. It's called Shooting the Moon—an achievement that will almost certainly mean you will not have to get your own drink at dinner. Of course, there is no fame—only infamy—if you only get close to taking all the points. Thus, if you attempt to shoot and fail to get one of the hearts, you will have garnered 25 points, another player will get the one remaining point, and the other two will get zeros. This accomplishment is a referred to as a Junior Moon, and strongly suggests the need for picking up an extra tray when you get into the cafeteria line.

I explained all this so that you could fully appreciate a legendary tale from our first month together on First Goodhue. We had a freshman on the floor named Mike Jewczyn (JEFFson) who was about three bricks shy of a load. In an effort to eel his way into the social scene he sat down for a quickie one afternoon. Early in the game we played a hand where Mike took the opening club trick and switched to a diamond on the next trick. He was eager to play his high diamonds before someone was out and could start dropping points on him. This was not bad thinking as far as it went, but it turned out that Mike was just masquerading as a card player.

He played one round of diamonds and everyone followed suit. He then pushed it a little by playing a second round, yet his luck held and everyone followed again. Thinking for sure we'd see a switch on the next trick (a low spade was a popular ploy, referred to as "driving her out"; an attempt to put pressure on the person holding the Bird), imagine our surprise then when Mike led a third round of diamonds. Incredibly, everyone followed suit again.

At this point it was hard to tell whether Mike: a) was amazingly lucky; b) knew something that we didn't (perhaps he was setting us up to shoot); or c) was an idiot. Then he played the Ten of Diamonds to start the next trick, and removed all doubt. As this was perforce the final diamond (since 12 had been played on the previous three tricks), Mike picked up two hearts and the Queen of Spades, for a fat 15 points. He was well on his way to a Junior Moon.

The reason this hand is so well remembered is not because Mike made a bonehead play—that happens all the time and is hardly worth commenting on—it's because of the incredulity on his face as he gathered the trick and blurted out: "The Ten of Diamonds? Are you blowing me?"

As it turned out, Mike blew himself (as well as his cover about having any card savvy) and as far as I know he never played another hand of Hearts on our dorm floor again. His words however lived on, and to this day there is no quicker way to express naive surprise among my Carleton friends than to say, "The Ten of Diamonds?"

Tony was an English major and his senior composition was on the subject of John Milton, whom Tony referred to as "Uncle Miltie," which also happened to be one of the jocular stage names employed by comedian Milton Berle. (Can you tell why I fell in love with Tony so much? Here I was an impressionable 19-year-old and he was schooling me on obscure cross-cultural word play). As spring rolled around and the deadline for his senior paper drew nigh, Tony would reluctantly head for the study carrels in Goodhue basement to commune with Uncle Miltie and remove himself from the temptation of game playing on the dorm floor. (In deference to Tony's sensibilities, I refer to that time as Pair of Dice Lost).

Carleton attracted many students from the Chicago area, and the summer after Tony graduated, a number of us got together for a party at my parents house in suburban La Grange. While I'm sure there were more than three of us at the outset, the only ones I am certain were in attendance were Tony, Caesar Sweitzer and me—all survivors of that magical year together on First Goodhue. As the party wound down, the three of us nutballs hit upon the inspiration to watch the sunrise on Lake Michigan, which was close to where Caesar grew up on the north side. We drove up there in time to dig out and inflate a rubber raft that had been stowed in the Sweitzer garage, and get it launched before dawn. I still have this glorious telephoto picture I took from shore with Tony and Caesar a couple hundred feet into the lake, paddling ineffectively with all the frenetic energy of the sleep-deprived, laughing wildly as I caught them silhouetted against the breaking sun. Those were the salad days.

The Canoeing Years
As a kid I spent a number of summers at a boys camp in northern Minnesota, where I learned to love wilderness canoeing. At the end of that First Goodhue experience,
a number of us celebrated with a trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (Caesar, Peg Salagovic, Annie Shrader, Fred Rogers, Carla Lukermann, Bonnie Wolstencroft, Steve Real, and me). Though Tony wasn't on that first trip, that soon changed.

In my early 20s, I'd look for chances to get out on the water with my college friends as much as possible, and a number of times it would just be Tony and me. Though my first trip in the Boundary Waters was as a nine-year-old in 1959, my last was with Tony in the fall of 1970. Noticing that that premiere protected area was increasingly drawing traffic to the point where it was hard to consider it "wilderness" any longer, I decided after one last post-Labor Day cruise with Tony that it was time to head further north. I still have a photo of that final BWCA trip 42 years ago, with Tony sitting on a rock overlooking Curtain Falls, as the waters thundered out of Crooked Lake into Iron, straddling the international boundary with Canada.

Two years later, after all of us graduated, we did our first epic trip, covering the upper reaches of the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan, paddling from Ile a la Crosse to Otter Rapids on Lac la Ronge. This trip featured all of the stalwarts—Tony, Kip, Sue, Annie, and me—traveling in two canoes. We did this in September, when the water was still warm but the air temperatures were starting to get iffy 350 miles north of the Canadian border. We began the trip in sunshine and t-shirts and ended it 18 days later in the sleet. This was the first trip where I started to grok how Tony's creativity (and sense of misguided thrift) could lead to frustration.

Knowing we needed two canoes, Tony promised me he'd secure a 17-foot aluminum Grumman to match the one I had. That particular boat was the standard workhorse of wilderness canoeing before lightweight composites came along, and I didn't want to dick around with an inferior boat that far north. Unfortunately, despite Tony's assurances to the contrary, when it came time to pull out of Minneapolis (all of our post-college trips in the '70s started and ended at Sue's apartment on Columbus Ave)
we didn't have a second 17-foot Grumman; instead, we had a 15-foot Alumacraft—a clunker that featured the hydraulic stability of a bathtub with a keel.

As this canoe had been around the block and had accumulated more than its share of dings, we quickly dubbed it "Dentocraft." Tony's last-minute substitution was an albatross the entire trip, and we were not sorry on the final portage at Otter Rapids when Dentocraft—all on its own—got loose from the shore and shot the rapids empty (of passengers, gear, and regret). We watched in horrified fascination as the swamped boat slowly drifted into the deeper waters of Lac la Ronge. Rather than paddling after the little mischief maker, we simply waved good-bye and drove home without looking back.

One of the more magical moments in the annals of our canoeing history occurred in the middle of that '72 trip. Excited by the thrill of shooting white water, sometimes we disagreed about whether to run a rapids or to portage around it. One such moment occurred when we encountered Snake Rapids, guarding the entrance to Pinehouse Lake. Tony & I wanted to shoot, while Kip, Sue, and Annie favored portaging. It was raining lightly, but Tony and I were pumped with adrenaline. After successfully running the rapids without mishap, we then had an unexpected problem figuring out how to rendezvous with our more prudent travel mates. While portages around rapids almost always run parallel to water courses, ending near the mouth, that was not the case at Snake Rapids and we had no idea where the other three members of our party had ended up.

Baffled, we finally figured that we couldn't go wrong if we paddled back to the bottom of the fast water, beached the canoe, walked up the rapids, and then hiked down the portage trail. We knew we were in for a singular experience when our slow slog up the rapids by foot (which is not nearly as much fun as running downstream in a canoe) took us inland to avoid a dense stand of mangroves along the water's edge, and we stumbled upon what I can only describe as a fairy circle—a clutch of large, moss-covered stones that covered an area about 100 feet in diameter and contained no trees at all (which is highly unusual in the North Woods). Splayed out atop one rock was a dead white pelican. Whoa!

While this stark visage presented as a macabre tableau on a drizzly day (it was like a portend out of Macbeth—would we ever find our misplaced comrades?), imagine how much those eerie feelings were amplified when we noticed that there was a single upside down playing card laying next to the pelican. When we turned it over… it was the Bird! All right, enough was enough. It was time to leave.

We eventually made it back to the head of the rapids and found the portage trail where we'd left Kip, Sue, and Annie hours before. After walking the portage, we were overjoyed (in the failing light) to find all three of our compatriots waiting impatiently by the shore of Pinehouse Lake wondering where in the hell we were. They had the tent set up and a cooking fire going, but we still needed to retrieve the other canoe. Tired though we were, Kip, Tony and I dutifully groped along the shore until
we got back to the base of the rapids, and it wasn't until 10 pm and pitch blackness that we were finally able to get all the equipment and people together again in the same location. What a day! That marked the last time we thought it was a good idea for some to portage while others shot a rapids. From then on, we stuck together.

In 1975 we upped the ante by selecting a route in the Northwest Territories (today that part of Canada is called Nunavut) Sue stayed home this time, and it was just Tony, Kip, Annie, and me. The best Tony moment came right at the beginning, when we were unloading our gear from the float plane that deposited us on the upper reaches of Dismal Lakes. I was just about to return to the plane for one more look when Tony put his hand on my arm and assured me that he'd checked and everything had been off-loaded. Taking his word for it, we waved goodbye as the plane taxied into open water and took off for the return flight to Yellowknife, leaving us on our own in the Barrens for the next fortnight.

As the plane's drone diminished in the sky to the southeast, we started organizing our stuff to set up camp and I couldn't find the army surplus ammunition box that I always canoe with. It's a waterproof container that I use for maps, first aid supplies, a clock, extra matches, fishing lures, and all manner of useful small items. Not illogically, we cleverly referred to this as "the metal box."

After repeated searches for this elusive item came up empty, Tony sheepishly confessed that it was probably still on the plane. He had thought it odd that the pilot had a metal box just like mine, but didn't see any need to bother others with that observation. Oh boy. Thus began the one and only canoe trip I've ever assayed without the metal box.

Two years later, we chose a circle route in northern Manitoba (north of Lake Winnipeg) that started and ended at the First Nation settlement of Cross Lake. To access the route we parked our cars at a wide spot in the road called Jenpeg, the site of a hyrdo generating station, and as near to Cross Lake as we could get by car. From there it was a 20-mile paddle to the Indian village, located on the Nelson River.

It turned out that our canoe route was more ambitious than our personnel could handle and we aborted the full plan part way through and arranged to return to Cross Lake via float plane. Inconveniently, this deposited us in the village around dusk, and we were still separated from our vehicles by a full day's paddle. After some thought, we figured we were well rested and decided to paddle into the night—which was one of the crazier things I've ever done.

While it was true that we were simply tracing in reverse a path we'd handled easily less than two weeks previously, things don't look the same in the dark (now there's a profound insight). Further complicating things (and unbeknownst to us when we committed to proceeding without benefit of sunlight) it turned out that it was the first of the month and there were a large number of natives returning to Cross Lake from Jenpeg in motorboats, also in the dark, after having having cashed government checks which had been liberally used to increase everyone's blood alcohol level. In consequence, we were not only trying to avoid running into rocks we couldn't see, we were simultaneously trying not be run into by fast cruising liquored-up Indians who couldn't see us. It was a lot of fun.

Somehow, we made it back to our cars around midnight without any accidents. Tired and tense from our foolish adventure, Tony decided we needed a celebration to pick up our spirits (in ways that didn't rely on the flow of spirits around us). In a blink he hit upon the uniquely Blodgettesque idea of opening a leftover can of Spam, toasting bits of the contents with a lighter, and then popping the tasty morsels in our mouth
flambé, thereby defining the outer limits of Laird's Second Law: everything tastes better in the wilderness. With Tony in the mix, you could never be certain when an adventure was at an end.

Tony was creative in a variety of ways when it came to camping on a shoestring:
—There was the time when he decided to waterproof his sneakers by smearing them with bacon grease
leftover from breakfast.
—Once he figured he could save on rain gear by using a Hefty bag with holes cut out for his arms. Though it was admirably lightweight, there was zero vapor transfer and it was like paddling in a steam vest.
—As someone who struggled chronically with constipation, Tony figured out that he could leave the Metamucil at home as long as we had selected a canoe route that featured white water every couple of days. There was something about the prospect of shooting rapids that worked wonderfully on loosening his bowels.

His Family Life
Tony's mother died suddenly of a stroke when Tony was only in his 20s. I was lucky enough to get to meet her once at their home in Gleview, a northwest Chicago suburb, and can still recall enjoying a family specialty that she had prepared: broiled oysters that had been wrapped in bacon. Yum.

Though his father was much older and had emphysema, he lived longer. After Tony graduated and started working for Social Security, his Dad moved into an assisted-care facility. Tony visited his father after work one Thursday afternoon in 1979 (May 17th to be precise—you could look it up). No sooner had Tony arrived than his Dad excitedly told him about a game the Cubs lost to the Phillies that day, 23-22. Uh oh, Tony felt sure this was a sign of advanced dementia, with his Dad transposing a Bears-Eagles score onto the baseball diamond. But it turned out it was all true—with the game ultimately being decided by a Mike Schmidt two-out solo blast in the top of the 10th! Undoubtedly the wind was blowing out that day at Wrigley Field, and I can only imagine how much Old Style was consumed.

His Dad died later that October and it was somehow fitting that Tony had that story to remember from the last season he and his father could enjoy together as die-hard Cub fans. It takes a special kind of dedication to persevere through the misery of coming back from a 12-run deficit and scoring 22 runs only to still lose. Years later, I can recall a visit to Duluth when I got a chance to sit in the dugout with Tony as he coached his son, Jamie's, Little League team that had a decidedly Bad News Bears feel about it. (I remember wondering at the time if Cub energy was an inheritable trait.)

To everyone's joy, Tony & Sue got married in 1979, and they moved to Duluth—home of the Patty Cake Bakery (it wouldn't be an official canoe trip unless we started with a Sacher torte from the Patty Cake) and gateway to Canada. From that point onward, every canoe trip I took went through Duluth, where I'd either be picking up Tony & Sue as part of the crew's complement, or I'd be stopping by for a visit and to borrow equipment.

While the frequency of canoe trips slowed down when we started families (Tony & Sue had Britta and Jamie; Annie & I had Ceilee; then Elke Lerman & I had Jo), it eventually got resurrected as the kids got old enough to be curious about their parents' wilderness legacy. The last time I saw Tony was when Ceilee and I passed through Duluth in the summer of 2004. He was losing the battle with the colon cancer that would ultimately claim his life, and I knew I was seeing him for the last time. It was a tough goodbye.

The last canoe trip I took was in 2006, almost two years after Tony died. Sue, Britta, Jamie, Annie, Ceilee, Tosca (his girlfriend then and now my daughter-in-law), Jo, and I all did a circuit trip in western Ontario, covering water that I first traversed with Tony 30 years before. Full circle indeed.

Tony the Romantic
Tony loved games (not just Hearts) and it was common for us to play together whenever we were in the same room. One of our esoteric favorites was Mah Jongg (it's not just for Jewish dowagers and/or Amy Tan any more), which we stumbled onto in our 20s and continued to play right up to that last visit in 2004.

As a romantic, Tony liked to go for the heroic hands that were hard to achieve but which scored fabulously when the stars were aligned. The epitome of this in Mah Jongg is a hand called the 13 Orphans, where you must collect one each of every wind, every dragon, and the end tiles of each suit—characters, bamboo, and dots. In my lifetime I've never seen anyone achieve it, but there came a time when Tony did, and I hold it as a measure of our friendship that he called up on the spot to share with me this singular accomplishment.

Mah Jongg is an ancient Chinese game that is rich in tradition and exotic phrases. One of our favorites was Catching the Moon from the Bottom of the Sea, which refers to a very specific occurrence: going out with the One of Dots, drawn as the last tile in the live wall (I should live so long as to see that happen). Figuring that such a flowery phrase was too good to be constricted to such a narrow use, Tony & I broadened its application to refer to any improbable event.

As a romantic, there is probably no sports team loyalty that is more iconic than affinity with the Chicago Cubs, where there is never any question of being a fair weather friend. (As the last time they won in the World Series was in 1908—a record of professional futility that is unparalleled in North American sports—I doubt there is even a single person alive today who can remember the Cubs bearing the mantle of World Champions.)

Naturally, Tony was a Cub fan, and one of my most cherished momentos of our friendship is that his Cub hat now hangs on a peg outside my bedroom door.

Tony also loved the quirky. One of my favorite Duluth stories is that Tony & Sue's most-frequented movie rental store was 8th Street Video—which wouldn't have been that noteworthy, excepting that the store was located on 9th St. With Tony, somehow that was perfect.

Finally, Tony was a gentle soul, who manged to sustain the wonder and curiosity of childhood
throughout his life. With Tony, it wasn't arrested development; it was retarded cynicism. He believed in the goodness of people, and in not taking oneself too seriously.
(He once confided in me that the most powerful aphorism he ever encountered was the Buddhist admonition: all is vanity.) He delighted in finding joy in simple things, thereby making life a little richer for all those whose life he touched.

As a process consultant I get a chance to practice curiosity all the time: Tony was my first mentor in learning how you could do that as an adult, and I think of him as a benchmark for modeling artless joy and generosity of spirit. It's only fitting that this June, Caesar will render unto Tony's memory an actual bench.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Four years an no comments. Just goes to show that you are still a dick after all these years.