Not-So-Little House on the Prairie
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Where do I begin chapter 1? I suppose we’ll do a chronological thing and start you off with some of the early years, a taste of the vintage stuff.
I showed up on Earth, in the tri-county area of Illinois, to be more precise, in 1970. This was, reportedly, the year Tom Waits showed up in LA to start pushing his demos around town. I haven’t had the chance to ask Tom if he was trying to send me a personal message of serendipity with his beautiful and haunting songs of the day like “Grapefruit Moon” and “Midnight Lullaby,” but it seems too crazy-on-the-nose to just be coincidence. Right?
Somewhere in the Arizona desert, Tom Laughlin was shooting the movie Billy Jack, and warlock-style wax albums were dropping all about the realm with names like Look-Ka Py Py; Black Sabbath; Sex Machine; Moondance; Bitches Brew; The Man Who Sold the World; After the Gold Rush; Free Your Mind . . . and Your Ass Will Follow; Kristofferson, for cryin’ out loud; Let It Be; and the most weirdly kabbalistic—Randy Newman’s 12 Songs. Potent magicks coalesced and fluctuated across the void, whilst strange nether-clouds swelled with great portent above the green crop fields, awaiting . . . what? Some child? A chosen man-cub?
Despite some loose popular misconceptions, I did NOT in fact drop from my mother’s womb wielding a full moustache and a two-headed battle-axe. Nor was there sighted evidence of even the first follicle of the first hair of my chest bracken. Those laurels would come later.
The luckiest part of my very lucky life (pre-Megan) has been being raised by my family in the environment they created for the rearing of my siblings and me. My mom, Catherine Ann Offerman (née Roberts), and my dad, Frederic Dames Offerman, grew up about three miles from each other in the middle of the countryside, outside of Minooka, Illinois. Where is that? Right next to Channahon, as I like to joke. (I told you this shit was gwine to be humorous.) Southwest of Joliet. My mom grew up in a family of four kids, born to Mike and Eloise Roberts, and they raised pigs, soybeans, and corn. My dad, born to Raymond Offerman and Marilyn Dames Offerman, grew up on a dairy farm with two siblings before moving into town as a teenager. They attended all the same Minooka schools that I eventually did, and married young. Dad was twenty-four and Mom was nineteen. Which seems batshit crazy to me these days.
Minooka is, surprisingly, only about an hour from Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, if there’s no traffic. But it seems like it’s fifty years distant, or at least it did in my youth. It was very bucolic and idyllic, like American Graffiti or Happy Days. Saturday night you would get together and “buzz the gut” in your jalopy, which meant drive past the five businesses on Main Street. At the time I was growing up the population was 768. It’s grown ridiculously—it’s up near twelve thousand now. It used to be primarily a farming community, but by now, the commuting suburban population has reached it and subsumed it. There are now many inhabitants of Minooka whom I would consider “soft,” and yes, that is a judgment.
My dad went to Illinois State University. I had always heard various legends of his prowess as an athlete as a young man, primarily in baseball and basketball. I wrote to him, asking for some facts on this subject for my book, because he has always been pretty humble about it to the point of being mum. Here is an excerpt of his reply:
Well, I don’t know what you heard but remember it was a very small high school. In baseball I started every varsity game for four years except one as a freshman and in that one I pinch-hit and hit a triple, then later in that game I hit another triple (that never happened again). As a sophomore I batted second, third as a junior, and fourth as a senior and was the shortstop the last three years. . . . I hit .333 (22 for 66) and led the team in RBIs. That was second to your uncle Mark, who hit 1.000 (1 for 1). I never considered myself as a terrific player but I had one damn burning desire to play and was surprised many times when I did well.
This might begin to give you an idea of from whence I sprung.
They have yet to make a man I like better or respect more than my dad. And he’ll be the first to tell you that my mom is even better. They married young, and my mother had my older sister, Laurie, when she was twenty. Twenty! The balls on these people! They rented an old farm for one hundred dollars a month plus utilities. It was right in between the two farms they grew up on, and that’s where I lived for my first five years.
Looking back on it now, I am just astonished at how little income we got by on. The older I get, the more my parents just seem like absolute heroes to me. My dad was teaching junior high geography, history, and social studies in Channahon, as well as tacking on every bit of extra income that he could squeeze in. He drove a school bus, he coached basketball, and in the summer break he would work on a local blacktop crew or earn wages on the Roberts’s farm, where my mother grew up. Meanwhile, my mom was running a household with four children, making a lot of our clothes, and cooking up a storm. Not too far off from Ma and Pa Ingalls. They raised us four kids, Laurie, me, Carrie, and Matt (the baby, aka “Matt Mailman”), as solid as Illinois livestock. My sisters and brother are the cut of folk who I’d be damn glad to stand beside in a bar brawl, a square dance, or a pie-eating competition, and preferably the latter.
It was an old farmhouse, and drafty, so we nailed blankets over the doors to combat the drafts. We had our first big garden there, and I have the most wonderful memories of my parents’ gardens. To this day my dad has two huge gardens, one at home and one out at the Roberts’s farm. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the garden, in the strawberry patch, in my diaper, probably fertilizing the strawberries more than I’d care to admit, ironically happy as a pig in shit, just sitting in the mud and eating strawberries.
We were right across the road from the Aux Sable Creek, which is the creek that ran through my life. No matter where my mom’s family was farming or where we lived, we were always within a few miles of the creek. That’s where I learned to fish and eventually canoe.
* * *
My first job on the farm was shoveling pig shit in the barn basement for my grandpa Mike Roberts. He probably paid me a nickel for lending him a hand in procedures of animal husbandry. One of my most distinct memories as a small boy was handing my grandfather the one-year-old pigs, which he would then sequester upside down in this clamped bracket so that he could handily cut their nuts out with a razor knife and then spray the wound with a medicinal purple spray. You may begin to understand why this memory is particularly poignant, for I promise you’ve never heard anyone scream like a one-year-old pig screaming for its balls.
It was never so Little House on the Prairie that we’d have our own pig-killing day. It was something I always loved reading about, though. The whole neighborhood would come out together, as I’ve read in Little House on the Prairie and also in the fiction of Wendell Berry (our nation’s most venerated living agrarian author and far and away my personal favorite writer; he has a great short story, “Don’t Send a Boy to Do a Man’s Work,” where somebody uninvited shows up with some whisky and it turns into a very messy hog-slaughter day).
We were eventually aware that a couple of Grandpa’s pigs would come home from market and go straight into the freezer. As kids, we’d have our favorite pigs and we’d name them. There were a few gray years before we realized, “This bacon used to be old Fat Albert.”
As the oldest male grandchild, I suppose the guys were trying me out at different tasks to see if I would take to farming. I remember a time when there was a pig who died of an intestinal sickness, and a vet came out and removed its intestines to determine what it had. My uncle Don Roberts and I took the pig on the end loader—which is a tractor with a bucket in the front—out into a field and buried the pig and the intestines separately. This may be revisionist history, but I recall that pile of guts being the same purple as the neuter spray. That color purple was ruined for me—I was later a big fan of Prince, but his greatest album unfortunately gave me visions less redolent of Apollonia’s beauty and more suited to the abattoir. On that day in the field, I remember Uncle Don explaining that you had to bury both deep enough and cover them with rocks so the coyotes wouldn’t dig them up.
Out in the hog lot there were big, round feeder bins into a top central hatch of which one would dump hog feed. The pigs would then access the feed off the chutes at the bottom, which was handy for them, but unfortunately it was also handy for the rats, which are always a big problem on a farm. So, when the rats got bad enough, Grandpa and the uncles would hoist this feeder up in the air with the same bucket loader. We would assemble a whole neighborhood of friends, who would surround the feeder. There would be twenty neighborhood men and boys armed with pitchforks, spades, and hoes. They’d have half as many dogs, standing at the ready. When the feeder took to the air, maybe a hundred rats would scatter in every direction. Many would elude the weapons, but I don’t believe a rat ever escaped the dogs. Those pooches had a field day. It was really quite something.
There were lessons of life and death pretty much from the get-go on Grandpa’s farm. Hilarious book, right, people?
When I was five my dad had an opportunity that seemed very Little House on the Prairie to me. There was a farmer named Bob Heartt who was going to tear down his old two-story farmhouse and build a newfangled, single-story ranch house. He offered my family his old house if we could simply ROLL THE HOUSE ON WHEELS to a new three-acre plot of land in one of his cornfields. In exchange, Bob Heartt would receive a new heater in his expert-machinist tractor shop, new cabinets for his wife’s kitchen, the filling-in of the old basement hole, and compensation for the three acres. Still, it was a great deal. My folks borrowed $27,000 and spent most of the $10,000 they had in savings. My dad still says it’s one of the best financial moves he ever made.
Until this writing, I had never put together my own penchant for moving audacious loads of scenery (or tree slabs) with my dad’s Paul Bunyan–esque relocation of a gargantuan two-story farmhouse. I could write a whole book on the lessons I received from Dad, and Uncles Dan and Don, and Grandpa Mike, as well as Grandpa Ray, my dad’s dad. I learned early to respect my tools and my machinery, knowing that with the proper lashing-down and utilization of simple machines—the wheel, the lever, the screw, the inclined plane—there was no job of work that could defeat us.
Over and over, for years, I would accompany them in tasks of carpentry and mechanics, and they would set me to work with a hammer and nails and patiently repeat, “Hit it! Don’t make love to it, hit the gol-dang thing!” After years of attempts, I was finally able to feel the strength come into my arms and shoulders and operate a tool in a manner that they would pronounce satisfactory. For one of those impossibly proficient men to deem my work a “nice job” filled me with more satisfaction than any A-plus grade I ever received in school. In my burgeoning competence with a ratchet—and more importantly, their approbation thereof—there was a complicit understanding that I was on the right path to one day have the ability to use tools to my creative benefit, just as they did every day.
My mother has two brothers and one sister. My uncle Don is the baby of the family. Later I was astonished to realize that he is young enough to have been my older brother. He was so great with us—all my aunts and uncles were like the Super Friends to me, but Uncle Don was Aquaman (the coolest). My mom’s younger sister, Michele, whom we called Aunt Micki, she was more mature and studious, as well as being fun—like when she used to name our freckles for us. She’s a librarian/historian in Minooka now, and my older sister, Laurie, works with her. Aunt Micki turned me on to the Chronicles of Narnia books, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Madeleine L’Engle books. I can’t give her enough “props,” as the kids are saying, for turning me on to such great fiction. (My brother and sisters didn’t like reading in the same way. They eventually caught on.) And Little House on the Prairie. I got so turned on by a series of books set in an alternative world. I wanted to know everything about the world—what has Pa got in his pockets?
Uncle Don was the tangible version of that notion. I don’t know how it came to happen, but he bought this little motorcycle and left it at our house. I think it was just generosity, knowing we couldn’t afford to get something like that for ourselves. My mom’s oldest brother, Uncle Dan, and his wife, Dee, became the overseers of the farm as my grandparents grew older. They had a boy and a girl, Ryan and Angie. Ryan is six months younger than me, so we grew up like brothers. They had the resources of the farm at their disposal, so Ryan had a go-kart and a snowmobile. But I couldn’t afford that stuff, which could have been why Uncle Don left the motorcycle at my house.
Uncle Don was just fun. He was and is really funny. He went to college and studied mechanical engineering. Motors, basically. He worked for a while in town as the bus mechanic for the school. But I think he and Uncle Dan were both destined to stick on the farm. Their knowledge is just amazing. To be a successful farmer you have to be a high-end mechanic, a botanist, and a soil engineer. You have to be a carpenter. Uncle Don was an incredible student of life but also loved to have fun. He was so freehanded—he would take us with him on snowmobiling trips and motorcycle rides, or we’d just go ride bicycles. Our family loves to fish, so we’d go boating. We’ve always had some version of our own boats, and now everybody’s got his/her own getaway cabin in Indiana or Wisconsin or Minnesota.
Uncle Don had the most throbbing boner of a vehicle you could have in 1978—the Pontiac Firebird with the phoenix on the hood and the T-top. It was so badass. He would take us for a treat to Shorewood, the near suburb of Joliet, to the Tastee Freez to get ice cream. I’d get a vanilla cone dipped in cherry—whatever that cherry candy shit is; it’s the greatest. And he’d play Frank Zappa, which was forbidden.
We had a very decent household. We weren’t allowed to watch The Three Stooges. Our TV was governed pretty closely. There was a ban for a while on Tom and Jerry, but eventually that was lifted. My parents didn’t want their kids to see things with violence in them, which is so hilarious and sad now. (Looking at you, video games where one can chop the heads off prostitutes. [Which is my own surmise—I don’t know if that actually exists, but I’m pretty sure you can find it.]) So something like Frank Zappa singing, “Don’t eat the yellow snow,” and having to puzzle out the meaning of that was an early awakening of the notion “I like that use of language.” My neighbor Steve Rapcan lived next door on another three-acre parcel. His parents were slightly more licentious and he was allowed to have things like KISS and Eddie Murphy records. My folks did not know that we would hole up in his bedroom and listen to Eddie Murphy over and over. We’d lie back on the floor, and as I’ve now damn near gotten into a stand-up career of my own, I think how astonishing it was to me that someone like Eddie Murphy could talk hilariously about eating pussy in public and get paid for it. The amazing thing is it sparked something in me that remained an ember for a couple of decades. It never occurred to me that “humor” was remotely something I could aspire to.
By the age of eight or nine it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t exactly like the other kids in Minooka. I remember my fourth-grade classroom well. I had Miss Christensen, one of many top-drawer teachers in our school. She was just an admirable woman, with whom everybody was in love, of course. Fourth grade was a big reading year, and there was a contest called “Battle of the Books,” for which we would read titles like Caddie Woodlawn, My Side of the Mountain, and Island of the Blue Dolphins, and then compete by answering questions about the subject matter. We were learning the rudiments of plot, theme, and vocabulary, and one of our vocabulary words was nonconformist. I just dug that word. I heard the explanation, the definition, and I felt like I had just learned about a new hero in a kick-ass Marvel comic book. I raised my hand and I said, “Nonconformist. That is what I would like to be.” This was met by a bemused smile by Miss Christensen, who was probably already aware of my status as a creative thinker but couldn’t have imagined how far I’d take the execution.
It didn’t take me long to discern that I had essentially announced to the world, “Excuse me, everyone? I am a weirdo.” But no matter. The die had been cast.
I also recall a moment in second-grade art class. We were given a piece of wood and a little paper cutout of a clown head. (The assignment was to finish the wood with stain, then glue the clown head to the wood after coloring it in with crayons, then varnish the whole shebang.) I adorned my clown head with color and glued it on with the clown’s head cocked to the right. My teacher gave me a C.
I said, “What the fuck are you talking about? This is so much better than what the rest of these squares made.”
And she said, “You glued it on quite crookedly.”
I replied, “He’s got his head tilted at a rakish angle, asshole!”
I remember thinking, “You don’t fucking get me. This is my art! This is my shit!” I recall being outraged, thinking, “I don’t understand. Don’t you realize mine is uniquely creative and therefore way better than these other dipshits’?”
I simply knew that I was peculiar and that I was a puzzle to those around me. I was also learning that this weirdness was a part of me that was not to be extinguished.
But for the time being, Minooka and the family farm were all that I needed. In the summers, when we would get together for family picnics, we would have enough people to field two teams of ten and play softball out in the meadow. I was charmed that half of the participants would have their beers out in the field. You’d have old people saying, “I’ll go out and play right field. I can’t do much.” It’s something that’s unfathomable today. To even suggest to the teenagers, or anybody now, “Let’s go play a sport.” They’d say, “Are you crazy? We’re watching the football game.” Or, “We’re playing our Wii.” All we needed back then was a bat and a ball.
We would amuse ourselves with what we had on hand. After dinner, we would get on the hayrack, and everybody would ride around and look at the crops. It was a recreational ride, sitting on hay bales, singing songs. It was so heartwarming, and all it cost was the price of the fuel. We didn’t have to do anything to have a good time. It’s an incredible gift to be able to make your own fun.
Eat Red Meat
Unless you’re an ignorant fool (creationist), you’ll have noticed that a great deal of attention is being paid to humankind’s evolution over the millennia, especially with regard to our diet.
According to science and smart anthropology types, our particular mammalian species evolved into sentient bipeds who learned to develop and then employ tools to further the domestic comforts of their caves. We then learned to advertise and sell these implements to one another. The progression is easy to track: the hammer—the spearhead—the flyswatter—the Clapper—the Xbox—the perfusion catheter.
As we human-folk learned to kill and eat other animals, we came into a period of social development that I would liken to the “Quickening” of Highlander fame. The added proteins in our diet turned us into physical specimens the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Schwarzenegger, and, at the very least, Ringo Starr.
In short order, with knives of obsidian (a brief fad) and then sharpened steel, we learned to butcher animals in such a way as to garner the tastiest portions of their musculature, or “meat,” for eating. Then we learned to cook those muscle scraps over an open flame. Then we learned to apply sprigs of rosemary and thyme to the offerings. We learned to “rub” our seasonings into the flesh. Then we added garlic and butter to mashed potatoes, and then we invented barbecue sauce, and that creation, gentle reader, finally seems worthy of a restful seventh day. If there is a God, no part of the Bible or Christian doctrine will convince me of his existence half as much as the flavor of a barbecued pork rib. It is in that juicy snack that I can perhaps begin to glean a divine design, because that shit is delicious in a manner that can be accurately described as “heavenly.” I have never had need of a firearm in my life, not remotely, but I’ll happily sport a bumper sticker that reads, “You can have my rib eye when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers,” or even write a bit of poetry.
The Bratwurst: A Haiku
Tight skin flute of pork.
Juices fly, explode in mouth.
A little mustard.
Ready for some controversy? I can actually understand the factions of people like those in the PETA organization when they raise hell about any time an animal is treated cruelly. I think mistreating animals is a shameful practice, and bad for one’s karma, to boot. When I talk about the mistreatment of animals, I’m thinking of some brute kicking a dog, or beating a horse, or, say, the countless horrors enacted upon the chickens, hogs, and cattle in the meat factories that supply the bustling shit dispensaries we call fast-food chains.
And therein lies the problem. Fast food. For God’s sake, and also the sake of Pete, if you don’t respect your own body enough to keep it free of that garbage, at least PLEASE STOP FEEDING IT TO YOUR KIDS. Read Fast Food Nation. See the excellent documentary Food, Inc. If your excuse is a lack of time, then you need to get your priorities straight. There is no part of this country where one cannot find a source of fresh, organic meat and produce. I’m not talking about Whole Foods, I’m referring to farmers’ markets and local butchers and fishermen and -women. If you can’t find a source for fresh produce and eggs and/or chicken, bacon, and/or dairy products, by Christ, become the source! What more noble pursuit than supplying your community with breakfast foods?! If you want to read more about this notion, by actual smart and informed writers, pick up some Michael Pollan and some Wendell Berry.
I have no intention of ever ceasing to enjoy red meat. However, I firmly believe that we can choose how and where our meat is raised, and I’m all for a grass-fed, happy steer finding its way to my grill long before a factory-farmed, filthy, corn-fed lab creation. It’s up to us to choose farm-to-table fare as much as possible until it becomes our society’s norm once again.
One of the most tried-and-true methods by which we humans can collect our own protein from the land is that of fishing. My family doesn’t hunt (except for Uncle Terry—Aunt Micki’s hubby—who takes one or two bucks a year, usually with a bow and arrow, and keeps us all happily in venison, jerky, and sausage), but we fish like crazy. Between the family households, we have cabins in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana. Fishing is the default vacation for the entire family; if there’s a break, you can find us out on the lake. I have had the opportunity over the years to take some assorted friends on these Offerman/Roberts family fishing trips, and nothing gives me more pleasure than teaching them to clean their own fish. Of course it’s unpleasant in comparison to being served a delicious white fillet of sole in a butter sauce with capers, but every one of my students has expressed a primitive satisfaction in the knowledge that they can harvest their own meat from a lake or river, should “the shit” ever really go down. I admire my uncle for his hunting discipline, because he doesn’t do it for the fun of killing an animal, and he doesn’t do it wastefully. It’s simply a choice to fulfill some of his family’s grocery needs in the larder of the forest rather than the Albertsons. Among the other advantages of harvesting this meat himself, Uncle Terry is keeping himself from getting soft. We may hear more on that topic a bit further into these woods.
Everybody knows, but many deny, that eating red meat gives one character. Strength, stamina, stick-to-it-iveness, constitution, not to mention a healthful, glowing pelt. But take a seat for a second. Listen. I eat salad. How’s that for a punch in the nuts, ladies? What’s more, as I sit typing this on a Santa Fe patio, I just now ate a bowl of oatmeal. That’s right. Because I’m a real human animal, not a television character. You see, despite the beautifully Ron Swanson–like notion that one should exist solely on beef, pork, and wild game, the reality remains that our bodies need more varied foodstuffs that facilitate health and digestive functions, but you don’t have to like it.
I eat a bunch of spinach, but only to clean out my pipes to make room for more ribs, fool! I will submit to fruit and zucchini, yes, with gusto, so that my steak-eating machine will continue to masticate delicious charred flesh at an optimal running speed. By consuming kale, I am buying myself bonus years of life, during which I can eat a shit-ton more delicious meat. You don’t put oil in your truck because it tastes good. You do it so your truck can continue burning sweet gasoline and hauling a manly payload.