Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Postcard from Saskatoon

A Remembrance of Don "Dondero" McQueen

"In that province there’s a small town where nothing much ever happens called Saskatoon.” - The Guess Who, "Runnin' Back to Saskatoon"

"Iz cold man, real cold, wearing a beaver on my head and a moose on my bod"

Going through the bottomless pit of detritus in my domicile, I ran across this dog-eared postcard from back in the day from my high school and college bud Don McQueen, who after college moved to Saskatoon, Canada (Don had dual citizenship thanks to his family's Canadian ancestry and always loved the Great White North). The postcard - filled with inside jokes (the "splendiferous sequoias" is a Thurl Ravenscroft reference that I love!) - got me thinking back on those college days in the late '70s when I hung out with Don, before graduation and life circumstances led to us losing contact for a number of years, with only periodic visits over the decades. (Part of the problem was his health - Don suffered from depression throughout his life and was on disability, which precluded him from working and limited his ability to travel.) Everyone's lost contact with Don now; his sister Lynne informed me that Don passed away several years ago under somewhat mysterious circumstances; he disappeared the day before Thanksgiving 2003 and his body wasn't discovered until the snow thawed in May 2004 (it's really cold in Saskatoon!). Lynn thinks he went out for a walk and either fell or passed out near the railroad tracks.

Rafterball Boys, L to R: John Leist, Tom Warner, Harry, Bob Baer, Dave Derry and Don McQueen

Don was a year behind me at St. Paul's high school, but we reunited as classmates at Towson State University in my sophomore year. At Towson we mostly hung out in The Glen, where we played "rafterball" and partied in the big enclosed pavilion that became our defacto homeroom.

A Rafterball Reunion at the Glen Pavilion

The Glen had a subculture unto itself, with lots of non-students hanging out in the woods: they ranged from runaways and Towson High teens playing hooky to underage Sheppard Pratt outpatients who would trade us their meds (mostly Thorazine and assorted benzodiazepines) for alcohol - back then in the late '70s, the drinking age was 18 and the Parkside Pharmacy with its well-stocked liquor fridge was a mere 5 minutes away (they also had fountain drinks which they would top off with ammonia - it sounds weird but it was a cool pick-me-up similar to what today would be called an "energy drink"). Every homeless alkie in Towson (Crazy Dave the Army Vet, John Wayne, etc.) eventually ended up passing through the Glen - or hanging out at our hippie friend Jazz's place up the street, The Mars Hotel (which today is a drive-by Starbucks in Towson!) - as well as "businessmen" like Steve the Ice Cream Man, who sold pot out of his ice cream trucks (his motto: "I get you high AND I get you munchies!").

I always called Don "Dondero" because he had this cool sombrero that he would occasionally wear, among many cool hats. Anyway, Don was an incredibly popular guy - everyone loved him because he was funny as hell, very sociable and liked to "party" (maybe too much, in retropect). And to this day, I've never met anyone who knew Baby Boomer Pop Culture better - Don could sing you the theme song to cartoons like Ruff 'n' Ready or The Mighty Hercules ("Hercules, hero of song and story/Hercules, winner of ancient glories/Fighting for the right, fighting with his might/With the strength of ten ordinary men...") at the drop of a sombrero. And boy could he tell a story - he was the king of the amusing anecdote. He was both a jock (football, tennis, skiing) and a stoner - equal parts Gary Bussey and Dennis Hopper - and got along with both subcultures. Don had all the fun vices...he smoked ciggies (we both favored Winstons back then and would say "'Ston me, man" when bumming off each other), weed (usually while watching Leave It To Beaver, The Three Stooges, Capt. Chesapeake or other Nick-at-Nite-ish vintage shows on TV, always with the sound off and one of our beloved "Two Neils" - Nils Lofgren or Neil Young - blasting away on the stereo ...or The Firesign Theatre, if we weren't too wrecked to comprehend their wit) - and drank beer (he favored Canadian brews like Molsen and Moosehead and Labatts) and even Boones Farm and Ripple wine, when desperate and short on cash. Like me, Don lived at home while attending college - we both lived roughly 5 minutes away (Don walked to school while I drove most days) - and we would often go to his house after scoring muchies (either subs or pie at the nearby Pizza Palace, or Fish and Chips drenched in tartar sauce from Arthur Treachers) to do bong hits while watching The Mickey Mouse Club. Don and I loved the Mouseketeers, but always were intriqued by the oldest one, "Roy," who was a William Frawley-looking 60-something man hanging around with all those kids; we posited that he must be a closet pederast, though he always acted like a dim-witted stooge on the show. Don did a great Roy impression and the expression "Dumber Roy" was our code word for retards.

These stoner shindigs occurred primarily during high school, as I recall I pulled a Rimbaud my sophomore year. That is, just as the young French Symbolist gave up writing poetry when he turned 17, I gave up drugs entirely by the end of my sophomore year (19 or 20, I forget?). By that time I had survived a serious car accident that changed my life and attitude towards a lot of frisky behavior. (Not to mention the experience of a number of friends ending up at Sheppard Pratt - or worse, like Crazy Larry Scott who took so much acid that he thought he was a dog and was last seen chasing cars, on all fours, on York Road) That, combined with new friends (Arthur Campbell, the Ward Hall Boys) and joining a band called Thee Katatonix with Adolf Kowalski and my girlfriend Katie Katatonic, led me to drift away and hang out less with Don.

After school, Don eventually relocated in Saskatoon where he seemed to have trouble adjusting to a "normal" post-collegiate life. He never seemed to have a regular job, though he took up photography and was pretty good with it. He also had a knack for winning radio quiz contests and one time won a year's free passes to theb movies, which led him to becoming a movie buff on top of being a Pop Culture, Sports, and Vintage TV expert.

He would come back to Baltimore periodically to visit, usually over the holidays, and later he'd write me always-amusing letters and postcards. I'd get the occassional long-distance phone call, too. It was clear during these calls that Don was suffering from severe depression and I felt at a loss at how to help him. We would end up talking about old times, which tended to cheer him up - especially anything to do with the Orioles. By this time he was living with his painfully shy Candian girlfriend (she never said more than two or three sentences to me over the phone) whose name I forget, and who I was told was schizophrenic. She seemed really nice, with a "little voice" like Ted Baxter's girlfriend Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But according to Don's sister, she became increasingly troubled and their relationship deteriorated to the "I gotta get out of here" state it was the night Don went out for that fatal walk.

Besides family issues (depression apparently ran in the family, and Don never got over his Dad's passing), I think part of Don's post-collegiate problems had to do with him seeing himself as the "black sheep" of the family, something I could certainly relate to. His father was a surgeon, his mom a college professor, his brother John a smarty-pants something or other, and Lynn was another brainiac scholar who went in the health field. I think this all led to Don escaping his doldroms with pot and weed and ciggies - the old college standbys.

But to this day I laugh when I recall all the catchphrases and expressions Don coined: "Splendiferous," "Dumber Roy," "Knock it out of the Areeba," "Huzzah!," "We disappeared the high school, man!"

Don loved Neil Young (after all, he was a Canadian - from Winnipeg!) and in particular loved the song "Sugar Mountain." It was a song both of us took to heart, as its subject matter was about the difficult transition from idyllic youth to troubling adulthood. The song concludes that "you can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain." Don, a Peter Pan-style happy-go-lucky Lost Boy, wanted to stay 20 forever on Sugar Mountain. But he secretly knew it was an uphill battle and that after college, adulthood was nothing but a downhill slide. God rest your merry soul, Dondero. We love you and we miss you!

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