Going Wild on the Mississippi|
by Mr. Lava
July 1, 2003
It's been a rough year for me (Mr. Lava!). I became an unemployed Eurodance DJ (all my residencies were taken over by Paul Oakenfold). My dedicated 19 year-old French maid Veronique is still missing. I had to return my Moller Skycar. And after a humiliating and all too public effort, there is now no denying that I am a lousy writer of S Club Juniors fan fiction. So far, much suck in 2003.
I needed a vacation to revitalize my spirit. But where could I go? I'd been to Rome too many times, Paris was getting to be old hat, and I could not return to Munich until a certain statute of limitations ran out.
Then I remembered my Uncle Charley.
Charley is my estranged mother's brother. I had not seen him in over a decade. He owns a modest house on the Mississippi River near the town of Alma, Wisconsin (population 942). He is retired and doesn't travel much, so he is usually available to put up a Eurodance legend for a few nights.
When I called him up and told him I was thinking of dropping in, Charley was very enthusiastic. He said that a pair of bald eagles were nesting on the river and that he could take me by motorboat to go see them blah blah blah.
I arrived in Rochester on Saturday and attempted to hire a teenaged Negro to drive me to Alma. But "Louis" was belligerent.
"Here's how this works," Louis explained to me. "I am a Hertz car rental employee. I rent you a car. You drive it."
"I'm sorry. Because you are . . . well . . . a black Negro . . . and this is America, I naturally assumed that you came with the car."
"Perhaps you don't know this, Mr. Eurofuck, but we've come a long way since Driving Miss Daisy."
"What if I paid you ten grand to take me to Alma?"
Louis and I selected a BMW Z4 roadster. I slept shotgun with my feet on the dashboard; Louis blasted country and western over the stereo. "Listen to the anger of white America!" Louis exclaimed as he beat time on the steering wheel.
Two Dixie Chicks CDs later we were alongside the "mighty" Mississippi. In truth, the Mississippi is not as beautiful as the lakes of Geneva, or the fjords of Norway, or really any place in Europe, but it is closer in proximity to Atlanta than any of those places, and besides my Uncle Charley doesn't live in Norway, which is a shame, but . . . um . . . Where was I?
Outside of Alma we turned onto a dirt road and rolled past several riverside houses. We pulled up to a cottage with a lumberer's saw hanging over the garage door; the words "Glad we saw you!" were painted on the blade. Faded plastic flamingos stood in the yard. And over the mailbox I spotted a wooden cutout of a mallard duck with Charley's name painted on its breast.
"Just lay on the horn, Louis," I said.
Louis did as I asked, and after about half a minute of steady blaring a grumpy old guy came stumbling out the front door. "What the hell?" he mouthed. Louis continued to hold down the horn while the old man, who was indeed my Uncle Charley, plugged his ears and shook his head disapprovingly. Charley appeared on my side of the car and asked that we please please stop.
"Hey, Uncle Charley!" I exclaimed brightly.
"Hi, Mr. Lava," Uncle Charley sighed. "You're three days early. Who is this guy?"
"Aren't you going to ask me if I had nice flight?"
"Did you have a nice flight? And who is this guy?"
"I had a nice flight, and this is Louis," I said, presenting the Negro. With a spirited laugh Louis leaned on the horn again. "He's my chauffeur for the weekend."
"Well," Charley said wearily, "I really wasn't expecting an extra guest."
"So you're racist!"
"No! It's just that . . . Oh, come on in."
In truth, we didn't see much of Louis that weekend. Perhaps he sensed that a white Midwesterner like my uncle would not be able to understand The Black Way. But I have a hunch that Louis decided it would be more fun to take the Z4 out for a spin than to listen to an old fisherman talk about agricultural run-off.
That was my lot. After nightfall, Uncle Charley built a roaring bonfire. We sat on an old log and sipped watery alcoholic beverages. As we became increasingly soused the talk began to flow, and we caught up on ten years of glories (mine) and medical problems (his).
The river was in his voice, his rugged face, and the various smells he emitted. The man had become the flesh and blood embodiment of the river he lived by and loved. I felt so sorry for him.
"We mostly get walleye, sunfish, sheephead, bass, and pike," he said. "There aren't as many fish as there used to be; local concentrations of mercury are on the rise and are probably killing off the population, though levels are not high enough for advisories to be madeyet. But you have to wonder whether or not in ten years the government is going to say, 'Whoops! We're sorry! The fish really aren't safe to eat!'"
"What do you think of DJ Tomcraft's latest single?" I asked him. "I mean, wasn't this the first time you thought he was a little, shall we say, off?"
"His single what?"
"'Into the Light'. I mean, cool production, some good ideas, but it just didn't come together like on his earlier releases."
"The birdlife here has changed," Uncle Charley continued. "Bald eagles have moved in, but the heron numbers are going down. Eagles like to scavenge for dead fish, so it's possible that their presence reflects the dying off of the fish population. Herons like live catches, and tellingly they have moved on to other areas."
"Scooter aren't what they used to be, either. And now I'm worried about Gigi D'Agostino. Do you think his next single will suck as well?"
"The Army Corps of Engineers attempted to create an artificial sandbar around part of the Weaver Bottoms in an effort to better control sediment flow. But they only made the local ecology worse, and much of the wildlife has headed further west."
"What do you think of Gigi D'Agostino?"
"The Italian DJ and electronic music composer? Gigi D'Agostino?" I looked at him meaningfully.
Uncle Charley stared far off into the distance. Twin bonfires burned brightly in the lenses of his glasses.
"I don't know who he is," he muttered.
"He's incredible," I said with a sharp nod. "Just incredible."
"Mr. Lava. I am a 70-year-old man. I don't listen to the sort of music you do. And more to the point, I really don't care. You flew for two hours and drove another hour and a half to spend a weekend with me on the Mississippi. Your reason for doing so was to get away from your Eurotrash life for a few days. Now, let's drop the DJ talk and start planning our weekend!"
I had hoped to do some duck hunting with a gold-plated AK47 I had received as a gift from a former student who participated in the 1989 Romanian uprising. This gun had been looted from Ceasescu's Palace of the People and reportedly made mincemeat out of the dictator's bodyguards. Although I am not terribly handy with it, it has proven entertaining during late-night coke-fueled rampages in my penthouse. With the right proportions of hallucinogens and stimulants, the strobe effect is just beautiful. I was really looking forward to giving it a whirl in the woods.
But Uncle Charley said "No."
We tried fishing instead. Charley suited up in his Gore-Tex waterproof gear, put a Ducks Unlimited hat on his head, strolled across his dock in New Balance sneakers, and dropped two Affinity fishing rods equipped with open-faced reels into the boat. He jerked the starter on the 175 horsepower Mercury outboard motor and the $5500 engine coughed to life. Minutes later we glided over the water's smooth surface at 45 mph.
When we were out near the dam, Uncle Charley had me drop anchor.
"Thanks, Gilligan!" he said. "Next time tie the other end to the boat."
In Wisconsin they do things a little differently. For example, Charley baited his hook with a live earthworm. He pierced the hapless creature's wriggling body in multiple places and sometimes gelatinous brown goo squirted onto the hook.
Fortunately, I had brought a collection of hand-tied flies crafted by an 80 year-old Norwegian trout fisherman named Lars. Each fly is an exquisite marvel, the result of thousands of man hours spent arranging delicate threads with tiny tweezers by the light of a kerosene lamp during the long, dark Scandinavian winter. Or so Lars claims.
Unfortunately, the walleyes of the Mississippi don't care jack shit for quality flies, and after Uncle Charley hauled in his tenth sunfish I asked him to worm my hooks.
On Monday morning we visited Alma's gas station. Actually much more than a gas station, it also serves as a food mart and video rental. A thermometer hung outside the door for the visitor's convenience, a vending machine dispensed live bait, and a bench beckoned guests to sit down and enjoy a Slim Jim. It may be the only gas station in America where one can rent a copy of Halle Berry's The Rich Man's Wife.
It was here that I asked the husky cashier, "Ed," if Eurodance had made it to Alma.
"What is Eurodance?" he replied.
I was so glad Ed asked. I told him all about the cheeky hook-laden club sound that is so adored throughout Europe. I told him stories of German transvestites singing "Er gehoert zu mir," of Italian models pumping their Lycra'd pelvises to the beat of Gigi D'Agostino's "Souvenir," of Romanian Mafiosi going apeshit over Kpital's "Vibratii." I sang hooks from the classic tunes ("Be My Lover," "More and More," "Baby Baby") and drummed the jackhammer rhythms of half of Scooter's singles on the counter top. I talked until my voice became hoarse and my eyes blurred, and then I experienced a full-on acid flashback to 1992 Manchester. "Eeez are good! Eeez are good! EBENEEZER GOODE!" I sang. And I bounced and I wept and I pressed the cashier's head to my breast.
"No, Eurodance hasn't made it to Alma," Ed explained.
During a 1961 attempt to conquer the world's fifth highest peak (Makalu) without the aid of oxygen canisters, the expedition team was unable to summon the strength to scale the last 370 feet to the summit. When my third morning without espresso or hard liquor had passed, I began to doubt that I would last one more day. I slept fitfully. When I spoke, I sounded like a howler monkey with Tourettes.
"Mr. Lava!" Uncle Charley cried after I had eaten half an embroidered pillow.
"COFFEE IS NOT ESPRESSO YOU INBRED BACKWOODS HICK!" I bellowed in a voice two octaves lower than my normal speaking one.
"Well, Mr. Lava, I guess it's safe to assume that you haven't gotten much out of your vacation."
"ME WANT ESPRESSO!!!!!" I growled.
"OK. Perhaps we can fly you out of here a day early. But before you go, there's something I think you should see. It's our last, best hope for impressing you with an appreciation of the natural treasures of the Mississippi."
To scientists, it is known as Haliaeetus leucocephalus. To John James Audubon it was the White Headed Sea Eagle. But to most of us it is the bald eagleour national emblem. A pair nested a quarter of a mile from Charley's. Charley thought I would enjoy seeing them.
We took the motorboat out at 5 PM. As we approached the nest site, I spotted a huge, huddled form perched on a dead branch overlooking the river. A few seconds after that an enormous mass of branches stacked high in the fork of a tree came into view. The nest was at least eight feet in diameter and ten to fifteen feet high.
"Eagles come back to the same nest year after year," Uncle Charley explained. "Each year they add another layer of branches to the top. After a few years, these structures get to be huge. Have a closer look."
He handed me a pair of binoculars. I stood up in the boat and raised the glasses to my eyes.
"Oh!" I exclaimed.
Maybe you've seen them on the backs of quarters, in the pages of National Geographic, or sailing in slow motion in old Federal Express commercials (before they were replaced by the homoerotically charged "FedEx Guy"). But I assure you: Nothing is as amazing as staring at THE REAL THING while it fires a fierce, yellow-eyed stare right back at you.
"That changed you, didn't it?" Charley said knowingly. "I finally have your attention."
"It's . . . it's beautiful," I stammered. "Where's the other one?"
"Probably on the nest. We just can't see her from this angle. I'll move the boat around a little and maybe we'll get a better view."
I lowered the binoculars and turned to Charley.
"Uncle Charley," I said, "This has made it all worthwhile! Thank you!"
"You're welcome, Mr. Lava."
We exchanged smiles.
A blow to the back of my head sent me stumbling forward. The eagle that delivered it sailed right over, floated upward, and wheeled past its perched mate.
"Mr. Lava! Are you OK?" my uncle shouted.
"Heggawashu," I replied, rubbing my aching head.
"Oh no, Mr. Lava! She's coming back aroundand the male has joined her!"
The warning came too late. The eagles swooped in with spread talons. When they hit it felt as if two pairs of muscular hands tipped with stiletto fingernails had grasped my shoulders. I whirled around with flailing arms in an effort to drive the shrieking birds off of me. Charley grabbed an oar and started beating our national symbol. A hooked beak ripped the wraparound shades from my face. A sharp claw shredded my Ferrari hat. A huge wing knocked my Uncle Charley flat on his back.
I felt my stomach pitch wildly and an extra heaviness in my limbs. As I was lifted into the air, I felt Charley clutch helplessly at the cuffs of my boot-cut pants. It was to no avail. The eagles carried me up, up, up into the sky.
"Mr. Lava!" my uncle cried. Then, a more distant "Mr. Lava." And finally, a faint "Screw it."
All I heard afterward was the heavy beating of wings over my head.
You'd think an eagle's nest would be a pretty comfortable. But you'd be forgetting two basic eagle facts. The first is that eagles like to scavenge for dead fish. The second is that they feed their young via a process called "regurgitation."
Night has fallen. The eagles are sleeping. At some point I will either escape from this nest, be rescued, or die.
The stars are so beautiful. La! As I write these words, I can check a satellite's steady progress as it crawls slowly across the Milky Way. Planets shine brightly, and a myriad of constellations float overhead.
What relevance do constellations have to the modern sky gazer? It made sense that ancient Greek hearts were lifted by the sight of Cassiopeia floating high overhead, but why should we stick to those anachronistic interpretations? Perhaps it is time for me to create my own constellationsheavenly images of the women I have loved and the DJ's I've admired. After all, they too are mythic figures.
Isn't everyone we love larger than life?
"Goodnight, ABBA!" I say to my ABBA constellation. "Goodnight, Irene Jacob!" I say to my Irene Jacob constellation. "Goodnight ATC! Goodnight Alizee!"
Wait a minute? What's that? Do my ears deceive me?
It sounds like somebody is climbing the tree!
"Yo, Mr. Lava," a familiar voice exclaims. "You weren't getting out of paying me my ten G that easily!"
Thank you, Louis.
When Mr. Lava is not DJ'ing or writing, he can be found painting wren houses in gay colors.