Spilling The Two Secrets I Know About Garrison Keillor
About now, I figure, Garrison Keillor has about wrapped up his last PHC show, at the Hollywood Bowl, the one the rest of us get to hear and blubber over tomorrow evening.
A friend of mine was at last week’s Tanglewood show, and texted that half an hour after it was off the air, the place was still going nuts and he was doing curtain calls & encores. Of course the rest of us didn’t get to hear that. I bet the same thing is going on now at the H-Bowl; wonder if it will make it to the website later.
The thought of all those encores just rubs in the separation anxiety. Makes me wonder if he’s letting it all hang out on this very last time. Maybe if he’s even telling those two secrets I know about him.
Well, to heck with wondering: I’ll tell them here, to all three of you who might pause to read them . . . .
The one, which if it isn’t an actual secret is I think untold, I learned the day I actually met him, shook his hand.
That was in Washington DC, after a book party in The big Florida Avenue Friends Meetinghouse there. The book was a collection of stories by Russian and American writers, put together by a joint committee, and supposed to be a contribution to ending the Cold War.
This was just before Gorbachev came in and turned all that upside down. Garrison had contributed a story, and showed up at the party.
After I shook GK’s hand, we both leaned over the refreshment table, and I saw that it was just the two of us there for the moment; everyone else was in scattered clusters, many of them murmuring in Russian.
I Figured I only had a couple minutes, so I pounced, and asked the question that had nagged at me all the years I had been listening to the show and reading his stuff.
It was the question that he & all U.S. Males of his generation had an answer to. Including me. (If you’re of that generation, or believe you’re familiar with it (us), think for a minute and see if you can guess what it was . . . .
“Garrison,” I asked “what did you do about the draft?”
He smiled, picked up a cracker with some cheese on it, and told me. This is from memory, but I’m pretty sure I got it straight.
He said that when he was at the University of Minnesota, he was all against the war (i.e., Vietnam), and had been in a few protests, and after some pretty dramatic stuff he reached a point of particularly high dudgeon, and before it passed he wrote a letter to his draft board & told them he would NOT submit to the draft, forget about it, come what may. And what “come what may” in those days could mean was up to three years in the slammer for draft refusal.
And then . . .
He smiled again, chuckled slyly.
–And then, he never heard from them. Nothing. And pretty soon the draft ended, and he got a job in radio, and all that.
(I think what happened was that the draft board adjourned to the Sidetrack Tap, and one of the guys had GK’s file in his overalls pocket, and when he staggered off to use the facilities, he made it back to his barstool and the file didn’t.)
But that last part is unconfirmed.
Sure enough, GK got no further than this when we were interrupted and he was steered away to meet someone important. So I didn’t get to even start telling him my own (pretty boring) draft story. But I didn’t mind; I came away with a souvenir of our encounter that was of lasting value.
The other one really is, I think, kind of a secret. Except that he told it on his show one night, so there must have been others who heard it. But I only ever heard him mention it that one time, and never since. So maybe it was more of a hidden confession.
It came at the end of 1990 or an early week of 1991, just days before George H. W. Bush and General Schwartzkopf unleashed forty kinds of hell on Iraq in Desert Storm.
I was then working nights at a big post office in suburban DC, slinging big sacks of mail, feeling completely awful about the impending war, and completely powerless to doing anything to stop it, listening on a walkman to hourly reports about the enormous military buildup, when his show came on. I was glad for the spell of relief, the music, the banter, the silly ads, and the chance to hear of someplace where there had been a quiet week.
Except when Garrison started his riff, he soon veered off into a monologue about vocation, about getting a call from God. (This is from memory 25 years ago, but I think I still have the gist).
The call, he said, was to be a prophet, one of those who was to tell people the bad news about the wrath that was to come, and was coming damn soon.
Garrison knew the prophets well, and the coming wrath as well, having been raised among “sanctified people.”
But maybe he knew the prophets too well, about how Jeremiah was hunted, jailed, and almost killed; Amos was banished; Hosea was made a public fool and cuckold; and Ezekiel went stark raving nuts. Because he flat out refused this call. Told God he was not up to it, and to find someone else.
God accepted his refusal, but did not let Keillor off the hook. Rather, Keillor was told that instead of becoming a prophet, he would now become a “liar.” (That word I remember specifically.)
He would become the kind of liar who told people comforting, amusing stories that diverted their attention from the bad news they really needed to hear and grapple with, those messages they would habitually reject, along with the messenger. And that he would be good as such a liar, successful in the eyes of the world. But the world wouldn’t know about the refusal that underlay this outward show of fame and fortune.
Once he started this confession, I tossed away the last mail sack, and retreated to a semi-dark corner of the room and listened, transfixed, until it was done. He didn’t close with any call to action or repentance. Probably he diffused the stark bitterness of these moments, deftly camouflaging them as part of the weekly story, sliding obliquely back into anecdote or music.
But the declaration did not sound like fiction to me, not one bit. It sank into my memory and has lodged there ever since.
Note: Found the audio on Youtube!
A few days later, the war started, and was indeed horrible. But his life, and mine, went on.
In 2015 I visited St. Paul, and friends drove me past the big new house Keillor has built there (much smaller than Trump Tower, yet vastly classier). We also visited the nearby storefront bookstore he started as a kind of vanity project. I’ve paid good money from my small budget to see him a few times. And I don’t begrudge him any of this. Or his career as a “liar.”
After all, I needed those “lies” as much as anyone else in his audience; as much as he did. And that one “secret” moment of truth somehow made it all more bearable.
Update: I found the audio of this “Prophet” monologue on Youtube: