Scene4 Magazine: Nathan Thomas |

Nathan Thomas


It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.

The real action, if you can call it that, was a professor and his wife leaving town.  A big-time, retired professor from the St. Olaf’s had been staying with his brother-in-law out in the country, just down the road from Roger Hedlund’s place. It has happened that in-laws have had disagreements – and this one centered on whether or not it’s better to live out in the country or in town.

John Battles is a Norwegian Bachelor Farmer. 

His father was Senator Battles, a state senator who went down to St. Paul every session and listened carefully to every debate and took careful notes of every speech.  Senator Battles sponsored only one piece of legislation in his entire career – dealing with summer snow removal.  Those were the times when we’d get snow in late May and sometimes in June.

John wound up going to the University of Minnesota as an Art History major.  He was studious and kind.  His younger sister went to St. Olaf’s when it was her turn.  As soon as she graduated, she married one of her teachers – Professor Alexander Silver.  And they had a daughter, Sophia.  In quick succession, John’s sister died, and Sophia came to live with John and his mother on the old family farm.

John farms artisanal, organic vegetables. Actually, the farm operation hasn’t changed much since John’s dad farmed the place.  What used to be just farming has become an upscale, boutique experience. The farm supplies the family’s larder as well as a Whole Foods in St. Cloud.

John never married.  He’d gone up to St. Olaf’s once to visit his sister.  When he was there, they threw a welcoming party on the floor in his sister’s dorm.  There he met a friend of his sister named Helen.  Helen was beautiful and smart and full of life.  They talked and quickly became friends – the sort of friends for whom there are no benefits.  Friends who can talk and talk – but that’s all they do.  They talk.  Their souls mingle in quiet talk in dim light while drinking garbage pail punch.  And when they talked, something loosened up inside John that only made Helen tighten up.

In the morning, John went back to Lake Wobegon, and Helen went to class to learn about poetry from Professor Silver. 

It was hard for John, then, when his sister died to learn that a few  months later, Professor Silver got married to Helen.

Over the years, an odd relationship developed between John Battles and this brother-in-law who had been married to his sister and was the father of his only niece, Sophia.  The professor relied on John to help translate into Norwegian some of his scholarly articles for journals of aesthetics in the European market. And the professor also relied on John as a supplement to his salary, which (the professor regularly complained) was too low – particularly when contrasted with what the professors make in the Econ department.

So, now John is in his 40’s.  A bit of a recluse, holed-up in the family place with his mother and his niece, Sophia, who is about 20 now herself.

At the end of last semester, Professor Silver took advantage of an early retirement plan, and he got a nice buy-out from the college.  He and Helen planned to move in with John, John’s mother, and Sophia on the family farm. Silver also hoped he could pick up some adjunct work at the college in St. Cloud to get a little extra cash.

The problem is that no one much likes Professor Silver.  He’s not a man who aged well.

Silver started out as the son of a church janitor who watched his dad work hard for industrious Methodists who believed that near-poverty helped people other than themselves appreciate the Lord more.  So the young Alexander promised himself that he’d never wind up with a broom in his hand. 

He studied hard.  He had no talent for literature at all.  Stringing more than a few words together in a meaningful order was impossible for him.  And he really didn’t care for poetry.  That was his dark secret.  The alchemy of language, feeling, and ideas in the heady brew of verse did nothing to him. Inside he was cold – as cold as the little room where his dad kept his mop bucket and rags in the church basement.

But he had a good memory.  So when he read some other authority’s commentary on a poem, he could remember all of the finer points.  Remember enough different authorities on any poem, and he sounded like he had a deeper understanding of the poet’s intent and use of form than common mortals.

Alexander also just had good luck.  Particularly when Ms. Battles came into his class. “Introduction to Modern Poetry.” Silver started the first day with the evening like an etherized patient, and she was rapt.  She sat in the front row.  For a slightly older man with chalk dust on his pants, it was thrilling.  And then they got married.  He was the son-in-law of a (dead) state senator. He’d finally left the life of a janitor behind him.  His recurring nightmares of brooms and an old, giant boiler that was always almost ready to blow started to go away at last.

Then when his first wife died, leaving him with a young daughter, no one could quite figure out how Silver was able to so quickly be married to her friend, Helen.  Silver couldn’t quite remember himself, it happened so quickly.

That’s when the rheumatism set in.  And a host of other aches and pains.  And Silver isn’t a happy person at the best of times. Ask him how he feels, he’ll tell you. And it isn’t pleasant.  Sometimes he’ll lift a pant leg and show you the ravaged skin.  It’s something no one wants to see.  His colleagues couldn’t bear to have him in department meetings anymore.  They begged the Dean to get rid of this old windbag, whinging his way down the corridors.

And so he and his young wife came to live with his daughter, Sophia, and John, living in the country outside Lake Wobegon.

One of John’s few friends these days is Dr. DeHaven’s replacement, Dr. Starr.  Old Dr. DeHaven smoked so much.  It wasn’t a surprise that cancer finally got him.  And so the town got Dr. Starr to come to Lake Wobegon.  Dr. Starr believes in a good shot of vodka to start the day. And then believes that a few more during the day can only help.  He’s actually a very talented and good doctor.  But being near sick people breaks his heart.  So he self-medicates with vodka.  He’s slightly younger than John, and also a bachelor.  So the men have become friends.  It’s tough to find friends when you’re in your 40’s.  Take it for that.

Sophia lives Dr. Starr.  A real beauty, like her mother, Sophia believes she’s ugly, which makes her even more beautiful.  And she also got her mother’s interest in older men.  But Dr. Starr hasn’t noticed it.

With Professor Silver encamped at the house, they’re forever calling Dr. Starr to come to the farmhouse.  Silver couldn’t possibly make it to town on his own.  Dr. Starr must make a house call.  Stupidly, Dr. Starr always comes.

Probably things started to come to a head two weeks ago when Professor Silver was up late with Helen, his wife.  Naturally he complained about his aches and pains. And then he wailed, “I spent all of my life working for knowledge, accustomed to its study, to the lecture hall, to my esteemed colleagues, and all of a sudden, for no evident reason, I find myself in a crypt, seeing stupid people every day, listening to futile conversation . . . I want to live, I love success, I love fame and noise, and here – it’s like being in exile.  To grieve every minute for the past, to see the success of others, to fear death. . . .I can’t!  I haven’t the strength!  And they don’t even want to forgive me my old age!”

Helen finally packed him off to another room only to be joined by John Battles, who’d gotten a little drunk himself that night.

Helen said, “I’m exhausted by him – can hardly keep standing.”  To which John replied, “You’re exhausted by him, and I’m exhausted by myself.  It’s the third night with no sleep.”

Helen looked at John with something that bordered on disgust,  “Something is wrong in this house.  The Professor is vexed, won’t trust me, and hates you; Sophia is angry with her father, angry with me, and hasn’t spoken to me for two weeks now; you hate my husband and openly despise your mother; I’m vexed, and about twenty times today have burst into tears. . . .  Something is wrong in this house.”

John tried to kiss Helen’s hand and said, “First, help me make peace with myself!  My darling . . .”

Helen tore her hand away, but John continued, “Now the rain will be over, and all nature will be refreshed and breathe lightly. But I’m not refreshed.  Day and night the thought strangles me, my life is lost forever.  I’ve got no past, my past was wasted on trifles, and the present is terrible.  I give you my life and my love: where am I to put them, what am I to do with them?  My feelings are dying for nothing, like a ray of sunlight falling into a pit, and myself, I’m dying.”

“Mr. Battles, you are drunk!”

“Maybe, maybe . . . .”

“You never used to talk like this . . .Go to bed! You are being tedious.”

John tried to kiss her hand again, and said, “My darling . . . Beautiful!”

Helen stalked out saying, “Leave me alone. This is disgusting.”

Sophia tried to speak of her love to Dr. Starr with no success.  John tried to win Helen’s love with no success.  It seemed like
Dr. Starr was flirting with Helen. 

Finally Professor Silver couldn’t take it anymore. He decided that he would -- through Sophia’s share of the farm – sell it.  He’d then give everyone a share of the profit, and he and Helen would move into town and get away from this wretched farm.

This announcement enraged John, and he got the old double-barrel off the wall in his room to shoot the Professor. 

John took aim at point blank range and missed. Twice.

A miracle happened with those gun-shots. It sort of calmed everyone down a little.  They didn’t call the police.  In the end they decided it was just a family squabble, and why involve the police in that?

The professor heard of some work in a small Presbyterian school in Wisconsin.  He and Helen would move there, he thought. 

In the end, everything was again as it had been before.  Nothing really changed.  A lot of upset, and then nothing.  The Professor and Helen were gone.  Dr. Starr decided not to visit as much. 

Sophia and John were back in his little room working on the book-keeping and paying the bills.

No matter how much upset there is in your life, somehow you have to keep paying the bills, changing the lightbulbs, cleaning the toilets.  Everyday things.

The professor thought he could somehow escape everyday life.  But none of us can escape the earthly part of our lives.  Not until we slip away and break the bonds and find our path to Eternal Rest Cemetery.  And there, it’s very quiet indeed.  Particularly outside Lake Wobegon where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average.


Sharp-eyed readers will, of course, recognize that this story is actually Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov.  Less sharp-eyed readers will realize that I’m neither Anton Chekhov nor Garrison Keillor.

For more than four decades, Garrison Keillor has led a live radio show, A Prairie Home Companionkeilor-crInspired by the shows at the Grand Old Opry, Keillor found a way to combine live music and story-telling to keep old-school radio alive.  While he’s been responsible for thousands of sketches, poems, introductions, and other pieces – as a writer the central contribution each week has been a story about the fictional Lake Wobegon.

Often when  Keillor is compared to another writer, it tends to be Twain.  Keillor’s Wobegon tales capture a sense of America that hearkens back to Twain.  Keillor clearly belongs to the pantheon of American humor writing, and so he shares in Twain’s legacy.

Type ‘Keillor’ and ‘nostalgia’ into Google and get prepared for a looooong afternoon of commentators making much the same comments – “Keillor propounds a treacly nostalgia for small-town America.”

People who hear Keillor’s stories or read the Wobegon books
mis-read him, if that’s their verdict.  Such superficial reading misses out on a great deal of cruelty, lonliness, and heart-ache.  In “The Royal Family,” for example, a drunk, absent, ne’er-do-well father cruelly manipulates his poor wife and kids into thinking they’re related to the Scottish royal line.  To add insult to injury, the man then bums money (that they don’t have) to escape the country to flee from charges of fraud.  Beyond the man’s cruelty toward his family, we also see the cruelty of small town pity as well as the simple cruelty visited on people simply for being poor.

The facts of the story can sound bleak.  And yet the story is told with humor and a clear eye for comedy through the unmistakable description of human nature in the attitude of a child – one of the ne’er-do-well’s sons – toward the events of the story.

Despite how awful the characters in a Lake Wobegon story may be, Keillor gives evidence that he has a love of their human nature and their human quirks.

To my mind, this capacity for detailing the real cruelty of families and friends toward each other, allowing the characters their human failings, and then loving the characters for being human – this capacity sounds like Chekhov. 

I regularly use the opening scene from Chekhov’s The Seagull as a teaching tool. It’s a very straight-forward scene. A young man – a teacher – walks with a young woman of about his age and slightly lower social status and wants to woo her with his talk.  But he’s so terribly bad at it.  Even in this small scene the young woman is cruel to the young man, even though we know they will eventually get married.  And the teacher even is ever so slightly cruel to the woman he loves in refusing her offer of snuff, even though he’s a smoker and has no trouble taking snuff.

One of the facts of the scene is that the teacher walks several miles to the farm where the young lady lives.  I grew up in rural areas in the middle part of the country. I started my life in Iowa – a land where nature tries to kill you for several months of each year.  And so even though I haven’t a drop of Russian blood in me, when I work on that scene from The Seagull, in my mind’s eye I see the endless open fields and lands of the northern prairies.

I have been taken to task for suggesting that Chekhov’s characters could exist quite easily in the same universe as Lake Wobegon.  I remember quite clearly an exchange with coastal folks who pooh-poohed such a notion. “No,” they said, “The quaint and simple, merry folks of Keillor’s nostalgic pieces are different than the complexities of Chekhov’s characters.”

Luckily you can’t throw a punch across the internet. And I was brought up to be a nice person.  So I didn’t get in a flame war about this.  But I remembered.

I bring it up now because after more than four decades of hosting the weekly show that is A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor is leaving the show. From news accounts, he’s not retiring. Luckily we’ll get more stories from him.

I first heard about A Prairie Home Companion when I lived in Iowa City in the mid-1980s.  I was in my 20s back then.  I was sophisticated about the music I listened to.  I had a hard time with bluegrass and country that seemed to be a staple of the show.  So I didn’t listen much.

In the hinge of the 1980’s going into the 1990’s I toured as an actor and worked most Saturday nights and was vaguely aware that the show went on a kind of hiatus.  Then, in the early 1990’s, when the show moved to New York and worked briefly under a different title, something happened.

I had a break-up with a woman who I thought I was going to marry.  In the recession I couldn’t find work, and so my life was at a pretty low ebb.  I remember driving through a particularly lonely stretch of road in western Oklahoma.  I had nothing but a couple of hours of asphalt and boredom to look forward to.  And so I switched on the radio, hoping for anything.  I happened to catch the second hour of Keillor’s show that included a Lake Wobegon story.  It was a story about early autumn.  Farmers delivering grain to the elevator and swapping stories and jokes.  A couple working to sew their marriage back together. The kids circling their Homecoming floats around the stadium during half-time. 

Somehow Keillor told the story of my life.  For several years he ministered to me.  He didn’t know he was doing that.  He was just doing his show.  But I was a mid-Western kid who needed to hear that we’re all human.  We can have failings.  We can withstand life’s little cruelties as well as major disappointment.  We can continue to look for rivers of comedy in unlikely places.

I took hope from that.

I’ve had the good fortune to see the show live several times – in Michigan, in New Jersey, and in New York.  And I’ve been lucky enough to meet Keillor a couple of times and get books signed.  I have no idea what he’s like as a person away from his public persona.  But he was always very polite and respectful of his
fans, even when he wanted to get away and have a post-show supper with his family.

In the past few years, I’ve had my own daughter to raise.  Saturday night has become Family Movie Night.  I don’t get to listen to the live broadcast much anymore.  I’ve read that the numbers of listeners is down somewhat for the show.

With Garrison Keillor leaving the show, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank him for his work and wanted to convey a little of what that work meant to me personally. 

I love stories, but most stories are about people and places strange to me.  Very few authors have written to me about my life and what I’ve experienced.  And Keillor is one of them.

Bon voyage, Garrison.  We’ll miss you on Saturday nights.  Use the Sabbath to get some rest.  You deserve it.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2016 Nathan Thomas
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine




July 2016

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