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Zenith City

Zenith City: Stories from Duluth

Michael Fedo
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Zenith City
    Book Description:

    Duluth may be the city of "untold delights" as lampooned in a Kentucky congressman's speech in 1871. Or it may be portrayed by a joke in Woody Allen's filmManhattan. Or then again, it may be the "Zenith City of the unsalted seas" celebrated by Dr. Thomas Preston Foster, founder of the city's first newspaper. But whatever else it may be, this city of granite hills, foghorns, and gritty history, the last stop on the shipping lanes of the Great Lakes, is undeniably a city with character-and characters. Duluth native Michael Fedo captures these characters through the happy-go-melancholy lens nurtured by the people and landscape of his youth. InZenith CityFedo brings it back home. Framed by his reflections on Duluth's colorful-and occasionally very dark-history and its famous visitors, such as Sinclair Lewis, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Dylan, his memories make the city as real as the boy next door but with a better story.

    Here, among the graceful, poignant, and often hilarious remembered moments-pranks played on a severe teacher, the family's unlikely mob connections, a rare childhood affliction-are the coordinates of Duluth's larger landscape: the diners and supper clubs, the baseball teams, radio days, and the smelt-fishing rites of spring. Woven through these tales of Duluth are Fedo's curious, instructive, and ultimately deeply moving stories about becoming a writer, from the guidance of an English teacher to the fourteen-year-old reporter's interview with Louis Armstrong to his absorption in the events that would culminate in his provocative and influential bookThe Lynchings in Duluth.These are the sorts of essays-personal, cultural, and historical, at once regional and far-reaching-that together create a picture of people in a place as rich in history and anecdote as Duluth and of the forces that forever bind them together.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4135-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    A WRITER’S MEMORY IS HIS BANK, his repository of narratives that he honestly endeavors to resurrect when writing. Regardless of others’ perceptions and recollections, these remain his truth.

    While not blessed with total recall, I remember many instances from toddlerhood, like my second birthday, when Dad gave me a baseball glove and delighted in rolling a ball over the living room carpet, urging me to catch it and cheering when the ball bumped the glove. I used to amaze adults in the family by accurately recounting my second Christmas, when I was awakened by bright lights from a neighbor who...

    (pp. 1-8)

    FOR ALL THE CHUCKLES that line received in the theater where I watched the film, as a native Duluthian it rang true for me. I haven’t lived in the city since the mid-1960s, but the effects of national media’s frequent lampooning of Duluth reside in my guts and have influenced how I view myself and the world at large.

    As a kid growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, our city’s sole claim to fame of a sort was the fact that Albert Woolson, the last surviving soldier of the Union Army, resided there. Duluth’s only icon, he lived to...

    (pp. 9-11)

    THOUGH OUR FAMILY LIVED UPSTAIRS in a Regent Street duplex only until I was five, the image of Miss Weddel, who lived next door, remains fixed in my memory seven decades later. A spinster school-teacher, Miss Weddel’s appearance reflected what one might assume a Miss Weddel to look like: pale complexion, severe unsmiling countenance, black hair pulled back into a bun. She wore dresses of black or navy blue, and her hats (always with the veil down) were also black or navy blue.

    Her large two-story house was white, surrounded by a three-foot wrought iron fence with a latched front...

    (pp. 12-17)

    FROM OCTOBER 1944 until I departed Duluth, my family lived in a two-story white house on Tenth Avenue East and Tenth Street. Occupying the house next door on our north side was my maternal grandmother, Augusta Norquist, her unmarried daughter Ada, and Hilma Norquist, Grandma’s sixty-something spinster sister-in-law.

    The homes, which had been built by Mother’s father, Eric, were virtually identical. Each featured an enclosed front porch—an extended drawing room at Grandma’s house, but a repository for bicycles, camping gear, and athletic paraphernalia at our house.

    The houses shared a common driveway, which separated them, and a single-car wooden...

    (pp. 18-27)

    TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO Robert Fulghum’s bookAll I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergartenhit the best-seller lists and stayed there for two years. You may recall his lessons: honesty, sharing, showing kindness, cleaning up after yourself, balancing work, play, and learning, among others. I wonder if that book could have been written, or if its conceit would have taken a vastly different direction, had Fulghum attended kindergarten with my lifelong chum Ralph Golberg.

    About three weeks into the 1944 school year, our family moved from Regent Street in Duluth’s east end to a house next door to...

    (pp. 28-30)

    WHO KNEW THAT IN A WORLD where a boy at Duluth Central High School would persistently beg acquaintances to put him on stage in their skits, and whose first roles were nonspeaking, that boy would a couple of decades later become the most prominent voice-over actor of his generation?

    During the school year 1956–57, Ray Karkkainen and I used to script and stage a number of skits for school programs. Many of them were for pep assemblies on days of football or basketball games. Kark and I thought our material witty and smart. So did Don, an underclassman who...

    (pp. 31-33)

    THE IDES OF MARCH just aren’t what they used to be. You can’t find many folks who beware them anymore. I may be one of the exceptions. My own bewaring began during my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota–Duluth when an adviser suggested I would do well to brush up on my Shakespeare. He enrolled me in the course The Tragedies of William Shakespeare, taught by William Rosenthal, head of the English department.

    As chance would have it, an old friend, Ron Raver, was also enrolled, and since he was the only other student I knew in the...

    (pp. 34-36)

    IN THE 1950S, when Ed Krzenski began teaching English, many of his contemporaries had already abandoned the Sisyphean struggle to equip their pupils with writing skills. The notion that writers are born—not made—was gaining credence in faculty lounges across the United States. In place of learning how to write, some teachers were asking students to respond orally to stories, essays, or poems rather than having students analyze the literature in writing, let alone fashion their own poetry or prose.

    This didn’t sit well with Ed, who believed that writing could be taught and that nearly anyone could be...

    (pp. 37-42)

    IN 1970, A TRAVEL EDITOR at theLos Angeles Timesasked me to go to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis’s boyhood home, and write an article about the town believed to be the model for Gopher Prairie in the novelMain Street. Main Streetwas first published in 1920, and my piece would tie in with the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s release.

    Ben Dubois was the last person alive in Sauk Centre who was born the same year as Lewis—1885—and who grew up with him. He affirmed that life in Sauk Centre was often painful for Harry...

    (pp. 43-48)

    DURING MY HIGH SCHOOL and college years in Duluth, the landmark Joe Huie’s Café on Lake Avenue below Superior Street figured prominently in the social lives of my penurious peers. There was a sign in front that read: LOST KEY WE NEVER CLOSE. Joe Huie’s was open 24/7. The restaurant featured Cantonese fare, and servings were both bounteous and cheap. A bowl of chop suey cost 90 cents and so did a platter of egg foo young. On a student budget, one could achieve gustatory satiation at Joe’s.

    Joe Huie’s late-night gathering was motley: drifters, down-at-the-heels men with stubble beards...

    (pp. 49-54)

    AT A RECENT REUNION for 1950s and 1960s graduates of the old Duluth Central High School, a woman asked me to sign a book I’d published several years earlier. “It’s wonderful that you’ve written books,” she said. “I mean, when we were in school, no one considered that any of us might be authors or physicists or do anything important. I always got the impression we were expected to be average.”

    The comment of this woman, now a retired professor living in Texas, buttressed my conviction that our hometown was a city with an inferiority complex. Subservience infused our culture....

    (pp. 55-59)

    BY ALL ACCOUNTS our father was an admirable man—decent, honest, trustworthy. I omit patience here, because he wasn’t patient, and it exacerbated friction between Dad and us boys. The problem, I think, stemmed from the fact that in most human pursuits, he was more adept than his sons.

    While David and I excelled in athletics, we didn’t equal his achievements. He starred in football and track, where he placed third in the 110-meter low hurdles at the 1929 Minnesota high school track meet, losing to Biggie Munn, later a legendary football coach at Michigan State University. Dad received scholarship...

    (pp. 60-66)

    SEVERAL WEEKS AGO I eavesdropped on a conversation coming from the next booth in a restaurant where I was eating lunch. A gravel-voiced man was saying that his grandfather had served soft drinks to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in Lakefield, Minnesota, just before they robbed the bank at nearby Okabena in 1933. The fellow seemed pleased to relate this story, and his companion sounded duly impressed as well. “Geez, Bonnie and Clyde,” he said. “I never knew they got up here to Minnesota.”

    I didn’t either, and I waited for amplification, but someone else joined the pair behind me,...

    (pp. 67-72)

    ONE KINDERGARTEN MORNING Miss Geddes excused me to the boys’ room, where I removed every stitch of raiment, including socks and shoes, folded the clothes, and placed them on a nearby bench before alighting on the commode. A few moments later classmate Jack Sharkey sauntered into the room heading for a bank of urinals. He noticed me and did a quick double take. “Where are your clothes?”

    I pointed to the bench. He looked at the garments, then back at me. After a moment he spoke again. “Gee, aren’t you cold?”

    Until Jack’s reaction at finding a birthday-suited buddy on...

    (pp. 73-76)

    ONE MID-NOVEMBER SATURDAY when I was twelve, I was sent next door by Mother to borrow a cup of sugar from Grandma. I’d barely entered the kitchen with the empty measuring cup when Aunt Hilma came in waving an envelope at me and smiling. “Got a letter yesterday from Reuben,” she announced.

    I was not much interested in the missive from Reuben, a missionary our church sponsored in Siam. Hilma took all of life seriously but nothing more so than her religion. She belonged to a Swedish Baptist church, making her an outsider among others of her predominantly Lutheran nationality....

  18. THE HILL
    (pp. 77-79)

    DULUTHIANS DO NOT HAVE adversarial relationships with their hills. Hills are simply there, like the lake, and provide no undue cause for concern—even in winter. The exception is one western end peak that bedeviled several generations of Italian Americans.

    During the years of my father’s growing up and well beyond, my grandparents, Sam and Amelia Fedo, lived at 317 Seventeen-and-one-half Avenue West. This street is scarcely more than one block long, but it is situated on a heart-breakingly steep slope. In those pre-salt-on-roads winters, it was insurmountable by auto and in icy conditions required herculean efforts to ascend on...

    (pp. 80-84)

    ONE WINTER EVENING back in 1959 or 1960, I was sitting in the announcer’s booth at KDAL-AM, a radio station in Duluth, visiting with Loren Sandquist, who had recently landed a night shift as a disc jockey. Loren had been the program director at KUMD, the student-run station at the University of Minnesota–Duluth, when I joined the staff as a freshman announcer a couple of years earlier. Loren possessed what used to be called a radio voice—deep, mellifluent, resonant. He was one of the first alumni of the campus station to land a professional broadcast gig. He appreciated...

    (pp. 85-88)

    THERE USED TO BE a rite of spring in Duluth that has diminished somewhat over recent decades. When the winter ice left the shorelines along Lake Superior and the St. Louis Bay, thousands of area residents used to break out chest waders, dip nets, and seines to catch buckets of silvery smelt for an annual fish fry.

    I was nine when my father first let me accompany him across the Aerial Lift Bridge to Minnesota Point where I would participate in the smelt run. Crowds would gather evenings in late March or early April at Minnesota Point or where North...

    (pp. 89-96)

    I WAS TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OLD before I first met my mother’s cousin Jean in April 1965, but I had long been aware of her mythic status among Duluth relatives. She had left home years before and had made her mark in New York, counting that city’s movers and shakers among her friends and acquaintances.

    I had journeyed to New York specifically to see Jean. Several months before I would graduate with an MA degree in broadcast journalism from Kent State University, my mother reminded me that her cousin had many important connections in New York and might be willing to...

    (pp. 97-105)

    THE FIFTY-YEAR MARRIAGE of my great-uncle See-See was our family’s elephant in the living room. References to the marriage were infrequent, veiled, and never discussed. While See-See resided in my grandparents’ tiny house for more than four decades, neither my father nor his eight siblings ever laid eyes on his wife, Maria, or saw a photo of her.

    Everyone, including my grandfather, called him See-See, though his name was Pasquale. I’d been told as a boy that “see-see” was something of an Italian diminutive, an affectionate term referring to one’s uncle. I learned years later that this wasn’t authentic Italian...

    (pp. 106-108)

    I RECALL LISTENING with my mother to morning breakfast programs before I was old enough for school. There wasBreakfast in Hollywood,with Tom Breneman, whose shtick was prowling the audience and trying on ladies’ hats, to the great amusement of his studio audience and astoundingly to the radio listeners who could only imagine the portly gentleman donning women’s hats. Mother always laughed when Breneman would say something like, “Well, ladies, how about this one?” Mother once told me that Breneman was fat, and four-year-old I rejoined, “He doesn’t sound fat.”

    The other morning program we listened to was Don...

  24. THE TREE
    (pp. 109-112)

    “THE TREE” WAS A COLUMN I cowrote with Mike Zempel for the Duluth Air National Guard’s 179th Fighter Squadron monthly newsletter. It didn’t begin as a column, nor was it our intention to turn a small notice of a car for sale into a journalistic feature. The squadron was undergoing its annual summer training at Volk Field near Wisconsin Dells during the last two weeks of July 1959. Mike and I had unhappily been assigned by the guard as personnel specialists. That might sound impressive, but our duties mostly consisted of filing and dispensing forms and, in our case, sometimes...

    (pp. 113-117)

    ON JULY 25, 1948, I was nine years old and mad for baseball. I played on age-appropriate baseball and softball teams, both based at the Central Field playground on Tenth Avenue East and Eleventh Street, about a block from our house. That morning I learned that the day before, the bus carrying the Duluth Dukes, a professional team in the class C Northern League, had collided with a truck that had crossed the center line on Highway 36 in Roseville, Minnesota. The team was on its way to a game in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Five members of the Dukes, including...

    (pp. 118-122)

    I WAS A GOOD ENOUGH baseball player in my youth to get a tryout with the Duluth Dukes in 1957. At that time the Dukes played in the Class C Northern League as a farm team of the Chicago White Sox. I don’t think the Dukes management thought I might actually make the team, but they probably figured it was a good public relations gesture to occasionally extend a one-day look-see to a local kid.

    I batted left-handed, and I was not without credentials: co-captain of the Central High School team during my senior year and a batting average of...

    (pp. 123-129)

    A WHILE BACK I joined an old Duluth Central High School baseball teammate for lunch. Now a retired entrepreneur, he said that he spends a month each summer traveling around the country watching minor league baseball games in places like Schaumburg, Illinois; New Britain, Connecticut; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Even Brooklyn has a minor league team now,” he told me. “It’s not Ebbetts Field, but it’s great to see baseball in Brooklyn again.”

    Then he mentioned how much he had enjoyed playing our high school tournaments at Wade Municipal Stadium, home of the Northern League Duluth Dukes, adding, “You know,...

    (pp. 130-133)

    THE NOVELS OF JAMES JOYCE had always loomed monstrously impenetrable to me during my undergraduate years as a literature student at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. I had never considered this a handicap, but it does heighten the rather absurd circumstance in which I found myself one damp Dublin morning.

    It was our first afternoon in the city, and my wife and I had stopped at Neary’s Pub, a favored haunt among the Dublin literati. “Yeats used to come here,” I told Judy. “And the whole Abbey Theatre crowd.”

    We entered as a burly bald man was arguing the merits...

    (pp. 134-137)

    THE DULUTH RESTAURANT of legend and lore in my boyhood was the Flame. During its more than four-decade existence, it had three locations in town, most famously the last one, on the bayside waterfront at the bottom of Fifth Avenue West. It was the city’s premier supper club with live music in addition to a pricey menu. For a number of years, a turbaned waiter known as “The Sultan of the Second Cup” poured customers’ coffee.

    Diners sometimes boarded the S.S.Flame,a cruise boat anchored alongside the restaurant, which would take passengers on tours of the Duluth–Superior harbor....

    (pp. 138-139)

    WITH MY PARTNER, Dan Kossoff, I enjoyed a brief but heady run as a folksinger during the early 1960s. We played throughout the Midwest, appeared on numerous college campuses, and marqueed at the old Padded Cell in Minneapolis and the Crooked Ear, a coffeehouse in Omaha.

    But while I was earning up to $75 per night in those early days, another native of Duluth, Bob Dylan, was picking up mere pocket change. Using his family name, Zimmerman, he played in coffeehouses in a neighborhood called Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota. At the time, we didn’t pay much attention. We...

    (pp. 140-143)

    I SPENT MY twenty-second Christmas in a quiet hotel dining room in overcast downtown Omaha, Nebraska, while my parents and brothers celebrated at home in frigid Duluth, Minnesota.

    This was my first Christmas away from my family and its holiday traditions. There was the selection on December 24 of a tree at Stan Darling’s Pure Oil station, where Dad annually enjoyed choosing some bony old spruce nobody else wanted. Stan would sell it for a quarter because it was Christmas Eve. That evening we could anticipate the inevitable lutefisk and potato sausage supper at Grandma Norquist’s house next door, accompanied...

    (pp. 144-146)

    DURING THE CENTENNIAL YEAR (2001) of the great jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, there were numerous homages to the legendary artist by musicians who knew him and younger performers who felt his influence, as well as paeans from critics. Fans bought reissued CDs of his greatest hits. New Satchmo biographies were in the works.

    Armstrong, who died in 1971, was a larger-than-life musician and performer. But he was also a warm human being.

    I met the illustrious jazz musician back in 1953, when I was fourteen and Louie Armstrong and his All-Stars were headlining the annual Home Show at the Duluth...

  33. BROXIE
    (pp. 147-152)

    WHEN BROXIE FRANCIS MAIZ decided to become a psychology major at the University of Minnesota–Duluth in the fall of 1957, he was already thirty-seven years old and had never even set foot inside a high school classroom. Though I was only eighteen, and our backgrounds were vastly dissimilar, we became friends. A Southern black man, he endured a hardscrabble childhood, quite unlike my own. I had never known want and had enjoyed academic as well as athletic success in school.

    I was a broadcasting student and thought it would be my destiny to become the next incarnation of Edward...

    (pp. 153-160)

    THOUGH ONLY THREE YEARS OLD IN 1943, I was aware of World War II because my father’s youngest brother Joe was a marine PFC in the South Pacific. In my mother’s old scrapbook there’s a snapshot of me engulfed beneath his overseas cap and looking at a saber he’d removed from the body of a Japanese fighter on some tiny atoll.

    Because of Uncle Joe, family discussions of the war centered on Japan as the enemy, with more oaths directed toward Hirohito and Tojo than Hitler. My father’s Italian family was ashamed of Mussolini—Il Duce—and sometimes felt embarrassed...

    (pp. 161-172)

    THE ZEN PHILOSOPHER poses the question, If a tree falls in the forest and no one is present, does it make a sound? For students of history the question may be, If no one knows about an incident, did it happen? Can aspects of history be obliterated from collective memory?

    Victors and chauvinists record official histories, sometimes leading to the omission of events that might blemish reputations of leaders and heroes. Those who challenge the historical status quo—the so-called deconstructionists—are often pilloried. Truth in certain quarters seems a bitter pill.

    In the summer of 1973 I was attempting...

    (pp. 173-174)
    (pp. 175-176)
  38. Back Matter
    (pp. 177-177)