One of my fondest memories of 1997 was the afternoon I went for a cruise along the North Shore of Lake Superior with Ray Szmanda in a rented convertible. People of the Midwest know Ray for his role as “Menards Guy,” a husky, white-haired spokesman with a booming voice who appears in television commercials encouraging everyone to “save big money” at the popular home-repair chain store.
I thought it would be funny to nickname him “Big Money,” and he didn’t seem to mind me calling him that all day long as the wind ripped through our hair along Highway 61. Taking deep swigs of Strawberry Crush from a 2-liter bottle, Big Money jubilantly offered suggestion after suggestion for things we should do along the way.
“Let’s pick up George Kessler and dress him like Gilligan! He can be my little buddy!”
“Let’s get tattoos! Big tattoos! Cover our whole backs!”
Everything he said ended with an exclamation point!
We had barely left Duluth when we saw Kate Pierson of the B-52s hitchhiking with a “Betty’s Pies or bust” sign. I hit the brakes hard and Big Money chocked on his soda. Kate confidently strode up to the car.
“You are a chocolate lover if I ever saw one,” she said while pointing an accusatory finger in my direction. “And you,” she continued, turning her attention to my puffy companion, “are nothin’ but pumpkin.”
I figured I could play this game, too, so I quickly and matter-of-factly said “apple” without so much as looking her in the eye. “Definitely apple for you.”
Big Money buried his face in his shirt, wiping soda pop from his chin, then shook his head. “No no no no no!” he shouted at me, then turned to Kate. “Sorry ma’am! The boy wouldn’t know a blueberry girl if she had indigo flesh and bell-shaped flowers popping out of her blouse!”
Kate shrugged her shoulders and dove into the back seat. Her eyes met mine in the rear-view mirror, and she coldly and sarcastically said, “I expect that much from chocolate.”
Back on the road, Big Money and Kate talked about show business, gardening and their favorite book, A Long Fatal Love Chase.Unable to relate to the conversation, I focused on the scenery. Sunlight was glistening on the lake, the fall colors were brilliant and the Volkswagen van that turned into the Betty’s Pies parking lot in front of us had bumper stickers that were perfectly predictable.
That’s when we met Connie, who worked at the Two Harbors Pizza Hut. She offered to take us canoeing and told us long stories of strange nights at the Earthwood Inn Motel & Bar, which she kept referring to as the “Earthworm.” We talked about going there, but decided instead to drive to Thunder Bay, where I managed to wrestle the top down on the car so we could get some sleep in the parking lot of a 24-hour doughnut shop.
I can’t remember large parts of the trip, but in retrospect I would rank this day as the 24th-best of my life.
Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His book “The Spowl Ribbon” is available on paullundgren.com.