Into the Tunnel

Into the tunnel, thinking in the dark

[Even as he was in the final moments before undergoing open heart surgery, Garrison Keillor was turning the moment into fodder for his column. SB SM]

The Column: 09.01.22

Garrison Keillor Aug 29, 2022

Spending some time at Mayo Clinic, much of it ordinary, waiting, listening, doing as told, but some of it primal, such as the CAT scan in which I lay on a narrow platform, hands over my head, and was conveyed into a narrow tunnel in the dark and lay there, which made me imagine the vaginal tunnel that I descended from. Two siblings preceded me, three followed, and this descent bound us to our mother — we came out of her body — whereas our father, though contributing his fluid, was an onlooker. One could grow closer to him over time (I did not) but Mother was Mother. I hear about fabulous fathers in the two generations following mine and I believe what I hear, but Mother retains that physical sensation of us. In that tunnel, we experienced the trauma of leaving the uterus and thereafter found the delight of independence. I watched my mother closely and when I saw her delight reading Cedric Adams’s column in the evening Star, I set out on a course I’m still following seventy-some years later.

I had a phone consultation with a Mayo pharmacist and after I’d gone over my long list of medications and dosages, I heard a child’s voice and realized he was working from his home. It was his tiny daughter Airi. We talked and his joy in this child was clear as could be. For me, growing up in the Fifties, my father’s approval meant nothing, it simply wasn’t available, whereas my mother’s was. I did comedy on the radio because she loved comedy. When she was very old, I did sketches about her on the radio, in which she was a circus star, a sharpshooter like Annie Oakley, riding a galloping horse and shooting a cigarette out of my mouth as she passed. (Mother was horrified by my smoking habit.) She enjoyed that.

I lay in my tunnel, eyes closed, and heard the beeping of sonar, and remembered the Lincoln Tunnel, the summer of 1953, in a car with my dad, just the two of us. He hadn’t wanted to take me but Mother insisted. She wanted me to see New York. Now I live there and think of him often.

The technician said through a speaker, “How are you doing? Not much longer.” Actually, I wished it could be longer. I heard ocean waves and remembered reading about men who escaped from a life in the mines of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, perhaps ancestors of mine, in favor of going to sea on whaling ships, which had its own dangers but ones preferable to being blown up in a mine explosion and spending weeks in the dark underground, dying. Whaling offered long tours to Asia and north to Greenland, a comradeship not available in the mines, fresh salt air, and freedom from the strictures of small mining towns, but it was perilous too. Dressed in oilskins, the men stood aboard the ship in heavy seas and hacked the blubber off the monsters as they were hauled up and threw it in an oven to cook down into whale oil, the deck slippery with oil, blades honed razor sharp, men sliding around as the ship pitched and rolled. It was not for the faint of heart. The men who stood on a platform on the hull to secure the hook to the hoist were in a precarious place and some lost their balance and fell into the sea and couldn’t be saved, sharks were on them in moments and feasted on them below.

I lay in my warm dark cocoon and though I might imagine I’d had an adventurous life, like whaling, it was clear as could be that my life was narrow and enclosed, growing up Brethren, secure in a cultish sect, living aloof from classmates, a reader reclining on a porch swing, absorbed in books, then aced my way into an early morning radio slot that nobody else wanted and developed it into a Saturday night show that in the mid-Eighties got only admiring press, thanks to the advantage of novelty, and being the sole writer of the show I had no need to dicker or fight with management, I was left strictly alone, and so I lived in my imagination long past the time most people came to adulthood. And then the conveyor hummed and I came back into bright lights. She took out the IV and said, “So how was that?”

It was revelatory, my dear. She ran the CAT scan and I did my own analysis. You never know when you may be presented with new information.


2 thoughts on “Into the Tunnel

  1. Steppy, I should know that you would lead me back to Garrison Keillor! I have really been missing him, after being a long time Prairie Home Companion fan. Sal gave me tickets once to a live performance and we saw all the talented ensemble putting on their wonderful show! Thanks for sharing his genius! So happy to see this one!
    My best,

    1. I’m glad to reconnect you and Garrison. Have you seen the Prairie Home Companion movie. It’s a little odd, but interesting at the same time. Sandy and I went on a cruise once with Garrison and his crew, but that’s another story.

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