Life in our little river town – at least downtown – was just a bit different for a boy than all those kids up on the hill or out on the farms. While those kids woke up and did other-kid-things, we got up, grabbed our bikes, fishing rods and a stolen can of corn from the pantry and headed for the river. First, however, we had very important work to do among the the alleys and the dumpsters, which didn’t take long, as we only had two alleys. Since Sunday mornings were sacrificed to church, Saturday mornings were prime time picking for us. We few; we scavengers; we beer can collectors. The only shot we’d get at scoring some 12-ounce gold for another 7 days, when all those party people from the cities would return to fill the bars (and dumpsters) yet again.
It didn’t take long to make our Saturday morning rounds. A classic here; a limited or special edition there; maybe a lucky hit on a silo or a rare and exotic beer, but always we were hunting game: trying to fill out that seemingly endless Schmidt Wildlife collection. Not sure we ever bagged them all and God forbid we ever had: that’d spoil just about everything.
For us, though, that was just the Saturday morning routine. The remainder of the day was all about that river. The incomparable Saint Croix Scenic Riverway; so beautiful that the federal government moved to protect her in 1968. Still, she was all ours. Fishing, Swimming. Exploring. Not too narrow; not too wide; not too barren and not too busy. She was just about the most perfect body of water there ever was. I dare say she’s about the finest river in these whole United States. Crystal clear? Not by a long shot, but compared to the Mississippi next door, she was drop-dead gorgeous. Still is, to this day. A boy could hardly imagine a better body of water. The lower Saint Croix: 35 up; 17 down. 52 miles of heaven, spotted with islands aching to be explored… and explore we did. Every day. On foot; on bicycle; by canoe; even by train. Mostly chasing fish or swimming; later, chasing girls and good times, with but plenty of camping scattered throughout. We were Tom & Huck, only there were far more of us and as near as I could tell, Hudson beat the hell out of Hannibal, hands down. Bridges to jump; dams to slide; trains and islands to hop; even caves to explore. No boy worth his denim could possibly profess to boredom.
We even had our own “Nigger Jim”*, such as Twain coined him. Not in the literal sense, of course – ours was neither black, nor a slave – but those not inflicted with literary amnesia will recall that Jim was no bit character; Jim was everything. Jim was the embodiment of all that was actually good and true and right in the world, while everything appearing to be good and true and socially acceptable was full of vice and hypocrisy and sin. Jim painted for us a portrait of everything that had been wrong with the past and everything promising about the future. While Huck helped only to free one slave, Jim helped unshackle the minds of an entire nation; to slough off their mental chains and come to believe that the future for all did indeed hold great promise, but that it would elude us until that promise was available for all. With Jim and through Jim, Twain called “bullshit” in our constitutional card game, for until then we’d still been lying to ourselves. Jim was also a stern reminder that judging books by their covers is but a testament to one’s own ignorance.
However, this tale isn’t about Jim at all; this tale is all about Elmer. Elmer, the town simpleton. Now before you get all upset, let me explain that. Elmer was neither a drunk nor a fool; he was actually extremely bright and lived a life nothing like Huck Finn’s Boggs, with all his loudmouth drunken threats, or Pap with his drunken, abusive ways. Don’t get me wrong; this town – like any other – had no shortage of Boggses and Paps, but those men had jobs and attended church most Sundays and made life an absolute living hell for their wives and children in between. No, Elmer was nothing of the sort. That man never hurt a fly, as I recall. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who could remember ever seeing Elmer raise a hand, or more than respectably tipsy… and still, he was always smiling, with that twinkle in his eye, like an overgrown elf. He always had a wave and a grin and a laugh you couldn’t forget if you tried… and always had time for a chat.
So much time, or so much chat, that Elmer inadvertently fell into a bit of racketeering. It wasn’t by his design, of course – he came about it quite honestly – but Elmer chatted people up so dang much that tavern owners actually put him on a sort of retainer. He wasn’t shaking anyone down – he was certainly no Al Capone – but old Elmer got his juice, nevertheless. You see, Elmer was so gosh darn friendly and loved talking to everyone so much that he’d stop in every single bar he passed just to bid all the patrons good day… and I do mean all of them. Nobody was forgotten. The man was a natural-born politician; he just didn’t know it. And, being Elmer and everything, when that jovial jaw got to wagging, it had one devil of a time stopping, like a tail on a two-month old puppy dog. So, the barkeeps tended to bribe him to leave people alone – a bit, at least – and they paid him a beer to “come sit over here”; to keep him busy. Lord, what a sweet arrangement that turned out to be. How could a fella ask for more? No wonder he stuck to Hudson like spots on a bluegill.
While some individuals may have looked down upon him, the town itself adored him. If someone’s got to fill the role of The Simpleton, that’s about the best guy you could possibly recruit. The drunk; The Fool; The Simpleton; these are merely the figurative roles into which he was mentally cast by the unenlightened observer. Assumptions, if you will, by those far more foolish than he. I mean, we can’t just run around respecting people who don’t even own a car; who make a hobby of digging through dumpsters for aluminum, can we? That’s just not something classy people do. Socially unacceptable.
Elmer lived in the apartment up above Pudge’s Bar – forever, it seems – and it’s been told that Pudge helped him keep his finances in order and whatnot, so he didn’t run off and do anything foolish. A simple life and a slice of stability in an unstable world; that’s what Pudge gave him and that’s about all an adventurer like Elmer really needed. Elmer, you see, was a bit of a world traveler. Not satisfied with traditional means, though, Elmer traveled the world by bicycle. Not just a little bit, but a lot. Elmer-spottings aren’t at all uncommon. Ask around. Everybody has one or two and has heard of many more; the stuff of legend. He’s been seen in neighboring towns; he’s been seen in neighboring counties; he’s been seen in neighboring states and, while I’ve got no vetted proof of this one, it wouldn’t at all surprise me if those bicycle tires had churned their share of Canadian concrete at some point in time. Why, I myself have seen him over near Steven’s Point and that’s damn near 200 miles away as the crow flies… and sure enough, in true Elmer style, the man was hauling ass on that bicycle and not even breaking a sweat.
When I was a kid, at least, Elmer was still a purist; he was old school. He had no truck for that fancy 10-speed nonsense, with the goofy pronghorn handlebars. He rode upright on a proper 3-speed for many years and had no designs on changing to anything else. In town here, he had what might be best described as a beach-cruiser parade riding style: one hand steering and the other hand waving to every human being within 2 city blocks, weaving in and out or traffic as it wasn’t even there.
However, catch him on that highway and he rode it like he stole it. A man on a mission, no matter where he went… and he traveled fast and far. Legend has it, he even got a speeding ticket on Interstate 94. You can bet against it if you want to, but I’ve known Elmer since I hit the 3rd grade and I don’t doubt it for a moment. That man could ride the hell out of a bicycle… and he did so all his life. He was the Forrest Gump of bicyclists, at least around these parts. He was every bit as much at one with his machine as Lance Armstrong; he just preferred to dope with a couple beers, instead. The original Wisconsin energy drink: carbs and calories in a can.
Elmer was a lot more than all that to us, though. You see, while few recognized it at the time, Elmer filled a lot of holes. Holes people didn’t even know existed. Holes left by dead spouses, missing parents, faraway friends, sons and uncles who never made it home from wars. Elmer was a bit magical like that. A few moments with him and you’d forget all about what a foul mood you were in, how irritated you were or what cruel words you’d heard earlier in the day. You just could not feel lonely or bad around Elmer. Impossible. Whatever holes life poked in you, he’d pop on over and stuff them full of love and sunshine and humor faster than you even knew what happened. We didn’t know we needed it and he didn’t know we needed it – he was just being Elmer, don’t ya know – but every day he did it, wherever he went. That was his gift, his very nature, and simple as it was – much like the man – it is only upon reflection that one might even recognize it.
Elmer was a bit of an orphan himself; not by birth or rearing, but by circumstance. He actually had enough brothers and sisters to fill a baseball dugout, but after leaving the family farm and bouncing around the area a bit, he planted himself here in Hudson and lived his own brand of urban “Norwegian bachelor farmer” lifestyle for the rest of his life. Nobody can say he was lazy or shiftless; if the sun was up, Elmer was on the move. Working out at Blakeman’s fridge plant for many years, he was also a wizard with a wrench. One hell of a mechanic, it’s been said, for a guy who didn’t ever own a car. At least, not that anyone can seem to recall. He also had a strong fondness for recyclable aluminum. Yes, Elmer was technically our main competitor in the beer can business, but he was in it for the scrap and we were in it for the artistic glory, so we had ourselves a gentlemen’s agreement. Many’s the day we found the very best cans in the bin, sitting lined up on the dumpster’s edge like little soldiers at attention – labels out – as if to say, “Elmer was here. I got your back, kid.”
Funny thing about some people. You don’t really even begin to appreciate the impact they had until they’re gone. Elmer, I suppose, was mildly annoying to many, with all that comical chatting “and that there and everything” – a term which subconsciously spilled out at the end of nearly every sentence – but upon thoughtful reflection, he was so very, very much more than that. He was Jim. He sure didn’t look it on the outside to respectable folk, but he was about the noblest fella to be found in town. Looks are damned deceiving, no doubt. This town was chock full of much richer, classier, better-dressed, well-bred, refined and successful men, but nobler? Kinder? More genuine? Of that, I am no longer certain and the odds seem pretty slim. A saint, he was not. He was a man, like any other man – yielding occasionally to vice and temptation, no doubt – but he had a purity of spirit about him that was really quite remarkable when you really take the time to think about it. Thing was, people didn’t take a whole heck of a lot of time thinking about good old Elmer; they just assumed he’d always be there.
Whenever they passed out the 7 deadly sins, Elmer must have been off on a bike ride, as not a one of them seems to have brushed the man. Lust; Gluttony; Greed; Laziness; Wrath; Envy; Pride; these were vacant within. While uppity people were whispering and shaking their heads, when it came to genuine goodness and kindness, he had the whole town beat in spades. Every last one of those church ladies with their noses in the air, for certain. Elmer sure wasn’t running around judging a soul; he was too busy accepting everyone. I’m not one to speak on behalf of others, but I’m pretty sure Jesus would have thought Elmer was the shit.
Whenever I think of boyhood, I think of that river and endless summer days… and each and every time I do so I see Elmer smile, just as I did back then. Elmer, humble and human as he was, was the embodiment of everything good and humane about this little river town, in a wrapper one might find deceptive. Hudson and Elmer had their human flaws, but they were undeniably beautiful and special when viewed from in the proper perspective.
Our small town is all grown up now and while there’s not nearly as much quality, there’s a whole lot more quantity. You can’t stop time, though, so you shoot for progress. Unfortunate as it may be, there’s not much anyone can do about that. We put our stock in commerce and wealth and success and expansion and all the many things that turn quaint little towns into suburbs. Some people, don’t though. I know one man who probably would have said it was all pretty foolish, had anyone bothered to ask him. He was far too busy loving and appreciating the world (and our town) the way it was to spend all his time trying to change it for change’s sake, only to muck it all up. His name was Elmer Alling.
Elmer died a week ago and he took small town Hudson and Tom and Huck and Jim and everything that was pure and simple and innocent along with him. Elmer filled a a specific role in our little town play; the real life comedy-drama of rivertown, USA. It wasn’t a lead role, but it represented everything; it was the moral of our story. Much as Twain’s Jim and Shakespeare’s court jesters, they are not truly at the bottom of the ladder, but the top; all the real fools populating the town are merely viewing the ladder upside-down. He filled a lot of holes and hearts during his run. Not with grand gestures, but in true Elmer fashion. Simple, humble and so subtle, you didn’t even notice it.
“The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is ‘Nigger Jim,’ as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.” — Russell Baker (New York Times,1982)
Thank you, Elmer, for loving me; for loving all of us, unconditionally. We often didn’t deserve it and I’m sure many rudely neglected to return it, but every single day you woke up and loved us all, no matter what. A lesson which you never intended to teach – you were just being good old Elmer – but a lesson that didn’t go unlearned, eventually. It is indeed what’s inside that counts, after all. Some say angels walk among us, yet we’re too foolish to recognize them, because they don’t appear to us as a respectable, socially acceptable angel ought to. I don’t know about all that there being true… and so on and so forth and everything, but you sure helped me believe that it could be true. I only wish I’d seen it sooner and had the chance to thank you in person.
Take care of yourself, old friend. May the pavement be pristine under your eternal wheels, for surely you have earned it. And, although you took our innocent small town along with you, I know she couldn’t be in better hands. No one ever loved her better or deserved her more than you did.
Elmer Alling, age 80
June 23, 1934 – September 21, 2014
* much fuss has been made over Mark Twain’s usage of a single word – far from uncommon at the time – and many attempts to eradicate it have been made, even banning the book itself. I submit to the reader that Huck Finn is the very last place anyone should ever want to edit this word out, as Twain intentionally included it not in racism toward blacks, but to point the finger of hypocrisy and ignorance at American society of the day.
The entire novel is an accusation of self-delusion, highlighting the utter foolishness of “civilized” America; a demonstration that behind the cultural curtain, it had a hell of a lot of growing up to do. No, this is the very last place it should be edited out. Eradicate it from society – let it fall out of favor among all – but do keep it forever in Huck Finn, as an eternal reminder that any society is perfectly capable of convincing itself that it is most civilized – beyond reproach – when an honest soul can see that it still has much work to do. Twain was that honest soul, holding a mirror to America. No societal wrong or human flaw escaped his pen.
Twain’s lessons were subtle – wrapped in humor – and that’s exactly how he intended to disguise them in order to get people to absorb them; to sneak the seeds of progress into American minds. The man shouldn’t be criticized for using a word; he should be lauded for planting the seeds of change across a nation.