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Steam Festival - Part Three

Eventually, the band disbanded, finishing with a rousing Goodnight, Irene. One of Kevin's men came into Marske's to report that the coal was getting low and that the Steam Roller should be leaving for the park. Everyone fortified themselves with a beverage to go and we all exited to the trolleys, arrayed behind the steam machine. Whistles and chugging brought the antique into motion and we rumbled through deserted streets, stopping where some who was not present lived to hoot the steam whistle and loudly chide the resident to come out and have some fun. We, on the trolleys, became fast friends, more than one engaging in "That Kevin" quality conversations. He was clearly revered, loved, and sometimes feared for his legendary temper. Still, many agreed, he is a great man to work for.

Kevin or his whiskey decided to take the scenic route, since a direct path would leave a trip of only about five blocks. Kevin took a right turn at the abandoned school house and a left at the next street. Five more minutes of steaming, coal cinders sparking the dark sky, brought us into a field. A damp field. The short story was that Kevin drove the slick-wheeled steam roller into a soft spot, unseen in the dark. The machine stuck. More steam brought the mighty ten-foot tall cast wheels spinning and throwing mud. We got off the trolleys and tried to push while another of Kevin's men found a huge eight wheeled John Deere tractor, backed it up to the front of our caravan, and chained it up. It took a few pulls to free us. Some of us thought the steam roller might break, front roller sideways in a slick track- the roller was turned so far that it left some of its red paint on the boiler - but it didn't break. We pulled into the park much later and colder.

Amy had met Kevin's assistant, a woman who used to cut her mom's hair, on the trolley. Amy had spoken with Kathy some months ago, after a conversation with Kevin about his business. The conversation had resulted in a considerable bonus for Kathy and she showed her gratitude by hugging Amy and by offering us a ride back to Marske's on another golf cart. We wended our way back out of the park, Amy, Kathy, and I- with three other guys hanging off the cart at odd angles.

Conversation had taken over the evening at Marske's, even though a little old guy with a lap held Hawaiian steel guitar, harmonica, base drum, and high-hat cymbal was holding forth with polkas and such at the front and several couples were imitating dancing in the middle of the place. This time was for talking. I met many folks. The guy who I later learned had accidentally driven a corn combine over his father, killing him. Another who had lost his thumb in a horrible fly-wheel accident. (Good thing he was home. He would have had a heck of a time hitching a ride... they said.) Another guy, the town drunk, which is saying something, I learned later was also a talented and bitter wood carver. I learned a half-dozen solid life stories. Each moving and illuminating.

Marske had a marvelous popcorn machine. A predictable dollar fifty bought a small, Jiffy-Pop-like sealed plate of corn which, when placed on the hot plate-like machine, caused the plate to gyrate wildly. The plate rotated and jiggled until its popped corn reached a certain height, then the machine turned itself off. I watched a couple of batches and then asked Marske where he got the machine. He pulled out a stack of cards and showed me one from a company in Bloomington, Ill. "You have to get the corn from a place in Iowa," Bob reported, "And we've run out a couple of times for weeks, so I always order plenty." We both agreed that a place like Marske's Lounge shouldn't run out of popcorn.

We, however, by this time, were running out of steam. Bob called last call at 1 am, confiding to me that he had a 2 o'clock license but that he didn't like to stay up that late. His wife and grand daughter and the shelf-butted waitress filled everyone's last order, collected each last buck fifty, and the grateful, modest tips, and we shuffled out into an altogether too quiet night. On my way out the door, I called Marske over to the bar to shake his hand and thank him for talking such good care of us that evening. I meant it most sincerely.

This was a smoky, boozy place without redeeming social value, except it was also a confessional, a dialogue space, and a dance floor extraordinary. The place where folks polkaed was a round "hot part," the heat source for the place. The tables and chairs didn't match any more than the couples did. What matched was the humanity.

The Hawaiian steel guitar player eventually stopped playing and, for some reason, cornered Amy and I with his life story. Over several brandy presses, which I have no idea what they are, each of which he ordered by asking for one last one, this seventy-plus year old farmer unrolled his life story. He bought the Hawaiian guitar forty years ago when he was in the army in Colorado. ("It looked a lot better then...") He lost the farm. His wife divorced after five years. "Of course, I'm single..." he started and ended each story the same way. He travels from threshing bees to founders days, finding the local Marske's, and playing his one-rhythm, three chord melodies from behind his harmonica, high-hat, and base drum. Deeply introverted, needing the recognition but barely acknowledging it, performing as if for himself in his own head, he floats from celebration to celebration, searching, he finally disclosed, deep into his "last" brandy presse, for someone to share his life with. "Of course, I'm a single man," he continued, "so I can live a life like this, but I wouldn't complain about having someone to grow old with." Who could? His someone will have to bust space and time to catch the growing part. His hands were the hands of everyone else in that funky place. Nails battered, fingers callused and crazy colored. These hands had done some work and were able to do some more. "No sir, I sure wouldn't mind finding someone to grow old with," he commented before signing off to head back to his camper in the park.

I left buzzing with admiration. I left filled with more than my minimum daily requirement of humanity. I left with a clearer bead on community. Amy belonged- absent these last twenty five years, she still had a role. Folks recognized her and remembered her and asked what she was doing now, genuinely interested. She was clearly no stranger and I, by association, was as welcome as if I had grown up there, too.

... to be continued ...

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