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A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors

Peter Smith

Publication Year: 2011

We exist. We try to lead good, thoughtful lives. And while we all try our best, we can’t avoid the startling moments, or we make mistakes and experience little shocks and embarrassments—our lesser horrors—that make us wince and come back to haunt us again and again.

For Peter Smith—whose weekly essays for Minnesota Public Radio have endeared him to thousands of listeners and readers—these awkward times are not without their humor, and a healthy dose at that. We all know the circumstances and places the lesser horrors are likely to await—sibling rivalries, high school gym class, job successes and failures, raising children. In this series of funny, honest, and moving pieces, Smith explores a few messy episodes from his own life: growing up Catholic on the south side of Chicago, seeing his tricycle stolen before his eyes, and onward to American life in the ’50s and ’60s, Vietnam, and a career in advertising, where bosses feed employees anxieties to increase creativity. Along the way, Smith discovers how these moments not only help define what it is to be human but are also a major source of our inspiration and imagination.

So cover your eyes, peek through your fingers. Life is a cavalcade of lesser horrors. They may not be the easiest memories to relive, but they are often among the funniest. And by facing them squarely and perhaps even with a smile, Smith finds himself uncovering a simple reassurance, an uneasy truth we should take to heart: we’re all on this wild ride together.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Other Works by the Author, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

I was between projects when I started to write these essays. They were going to be exercises to keep my skills sharp while I waited for my muse to drop something important in my lap. They were supposed to be simple sketches, just doodles in the margins— personal reminders about who I am, where I come from, ...

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South State Street

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pp. 1-5

Thick green oil-based paint covered everything: streetlamps, park railings, drinking fountains, the steel girders of the Illinois Central overpass, and the wood of the Illinois Central station on 144th Street. Everything. Someone had been maintaining Chicago long before my brother and I arrived on the scene, ...

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A Teaspoon of Water

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pp. 6-9

In some other life, when I am some other writer, I am going to have to come to terms with water: to cope with it as a metaphor, to make it flow where and how I want it to flow, sometimes seeming to pour down stairs the way the Gallatin River does in the mountains above Bozeman, Montana, ...

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Pop’s Wound

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pp. 10-12

It was late on a summer evening on the way home from Aunt Maggie and Uncle Jack’s. I was standing in the back of the car, leaning over the front seat, my older brother riding shotgun. My father was telling us again about the day he was wounded in the war. ...

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A Crisis of Faith

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pp. 13-18

Roman Catholicism as we grew up in it was a peasant’s faith; an urban, industrialized extension of the agrarian religion practiced by generations and centuries of blunt, brooding serfs scattered over the landscape from Ireland to Poland, from Portugal to the Balkans, where it came up against Greek Orthodoxy and Islam, where it—well, balkanized. ...

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The Denunciation

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pp. 19-22

I ratted Steve Geary out to Sister Clotilde after First Holy Communion. I denounced him, as vilely, as weakly, and as abjectly as any human ever exposed another. I have felt terrible about it ever since. ...

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pp. 23-30

If the nuns in parochial school were right all those years ago, then one of these days my soul will depart this cellulite-riddled temple and return to heaven where its maker, Almighty God, will sit in judgment. As I envision it, He will get up and walk around, sizing my soul up and looking it over as if He were the man behind the counter at an equipment rental place ...

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pp. 31-34

I was eleven years old and watching a Saturday matinee at the Liberty Theater when I realized I would die someday. Every kid in town was there. Every kid in town went to the movies every week back then. Every Saturday you played outside in the morning, came home, ate lunch, got a quarter from your mother, and raced to the movies as fast as you could. ...

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The Man on the Raft

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pp. 35-41

We were sitting on the swimming raft at the lake—ten or twelve of us, a cross-section of the town’s adolescent male population. Twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-olds too young for part-time summer work with a long afternoon to kill. ...

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Lawnmower Repair

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pp. 42-47

I hail from a long line of mechanical Neanderthals, from people fundamentally cross-threaded for mechanics. Other men reach for just the right box wrench and loosen bolts deftly. I can never find the right wrench, so I crimp on an oversized pair of vice grips and inevitably round the top of the bolt to the point where it will be stuck there for eternity. ...

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The Biscayne

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pp. 48-58

Somewhere in a junkyard in Lake County, Illinois, my father’s once-tan, nine-passenger, 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne station wagon sits rusting and moldering. Any usable parts are long gone, including the wheels, carburetor, generator, pumps, radiator, headlights, radio, and anything else forty years of backyard mechanics might have needed to fix their own Chevrolets. ...

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A Visit to the Doctor

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pp. 59-63

There was an ashtray on the desk in Dr. Day’s examining room, a shallow brass dish with birds’ heads, ibises or storks or something, their necks arched, the birds facing in opposite directions with beaks open so Dr. Day could wedge his Lucky Strike cigarette laterally across the bird’s beak and let the bird hold it while he held a five-by-seven note card ...

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pp. 64-68

It was a beautiful autumn afternoon—a Saturday in the year John F. Kennedy was killed. The marching band had just finished playing the national anthem, and now Coach was hobbling up the sideline, on those football-damaged knees of his, toward me. He was hot about something, and he grabbed the face mask on my helmet ...

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pp. 69-75

I’m guessing Leroy (Luh-ROY, not LEE-roy) graduated from Libertyville High School in 1924, and he had worked in stores up and down Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville ever since— the hardware store, grocery stores, the drugstore off and on for a while. When the IGA closed in the early fifties, he came back to the drugstore and worked full-time there— ...

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Wrestling Eddie Dutzler

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pp. 76-81

I was clicking through channels the other night, and I happened across one devoted to Big Ten sports. They were showing a wrestling match between the University of Iowa and the University of Illinois. A pair of corn-fed, land-grant heavyweights overflowed their singlets and circled and pawed at one another, looking for an opening, ...

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Awkward Moment

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pp. 82-88

My father wrote for the Chicago Daily News for more than thirty years, and he had a newspaperman’s sense of writing style. It was who, what, where, when, and why, machine-gunned in short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Clarity, clarity, clarity was milled through a manual typewriter, marked up, and sent downstairs to the composition department ...

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Good-bye to Libertyville

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pp. 89-92

It was a Saturday evening in early September, and my mother, my father, my buddy, and I were in the tan 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne nine-passenger station wagon driving to Glenview where I was to catch the overnight Milwaukee Road train to Minneapolis and college. A cousin of mine had tried college a year earlier, then opted to go into the air force instead. ...

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Mademoiselle P.

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pp. 93-95

She was a single woman in her sixties, a professor who had done graduate work at the Sorbonne back in her twenties. She had wandered through academia sans tenure since then, and now she was teaching remedial French to the churlish sons of second- and third-generation Irish and German Americans at a Benedictine men’s college seventy-five miles north of Minneapolis. ...

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Make the World Go Away

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pp. 96-101

Vern, the warehouse foreman at the cardboard box factory, had artistic talent. He was forever drawing naked women in erotic poses on the massive rolls of paper that stood in the warehouse, waiting to be cut into sheets, printed, die-cut, folded, glued, and shipped. ...

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pp. 102-107

It was a warm summer afternoon in 1966. I was standing at the counter in the Selective Service office in Waukegan with six or seven other young men. The local draft board was having its monthly meeting that afternoon, and we were all there to appeal our draft status. ...

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pp. 108-112

For a while, back in college, I tended bar in the small farm town near campus. There was a town bar, and there was a bar where the college crowd drank. I worked at the town bar, next door to the butcher and across the street from the Catholic church. It was the only church in town. ...

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An Old Roommate Checks In

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pp. 113-117

It’s early morning in February. Sunrise is an hour and a half off. There’s a full moon, and I’m shoveling four inches of new snow off the driveway. The thirteen-year-old, he of the strong, young back, is up there behind that dormer, sleeping the deep, rich sleep of adolescence. Somewhere out there in the dark, an owl is asking its perpetual question. ...

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A Preinduction Reverie

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pp. 118-121

Something about sitting in your underwear on a cold metal folding chair in the basement of the main post office in downtown Minneapolis before dawn in January, holding your preinduction physical paperwork, waiting for the clerks and doctors to start work, kind of deflates a guy. You’re cold and virtually naked. ...

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Dear John

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pp. 122-126

There was a certain smell to army canvas, a heavy, tarpy, waterproofed funk. The S-4 supply section warehouse smelled of it. So did all the tents and cots when the battalion went into the field and jeeps with their tops up and the covered beds of the bigger trucks. Anywhere you went in the army, you could almost taste the canvas. ...

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The Major

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pp. 127-135

The battalion motor pool was a sheet-metal lean-to with an office attached to the north side of the structure. It sat on a sand beach on the bay side of the Cam Ranh peninsula, fenced in with triple-stacked concertina barbed wire, a two-man foxhole bunker facing the water, the gate on the north side. ...

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The Amnesty Barrel

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pp. 136-139

We were going home. The high-mileage, retrofitted Boeing 707 sat out there on the tarmac, shimmering in the heat, the girl of our dreams, too good to be true—those low-slung swept wings, that classic silhouette. No airplane in history ever looked anywhere near as beautiful. ...

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pp. 140-145

It was a commune of psychologists—young PhD types—in South Minneapolis, and for a while after the war it was home. I’d found it through my job as a benefits counselor on the drug and alcohol ward at the Veterans Administration hospital. One of the psychologists worked there, and the rest—three or four others, ...

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A Typewriter Reverie

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pp. 146-152

I am writing this in Microsoft Word—the Coupe de Ville of word processing programs. I’m cruising on automatic. If this sentence takes a wide turn or heads up a dead end, I’ll highlight it, hit “delete,” and I’ll be back at the beginning, just to the right of the period from the last sentence, the cursor patiently blinking at me, asking, “Where to?” ...

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Advertising Memories

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pp. 153-158

“I really like where your head is at,” the first advertising creative director to hire me said as he offered me a job. He was a hoary old advertising copywriter, and he had no qualms about using clichés or hanging prepositions off the end of his sentences as long as it sold. ...

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pp. 159-163

I don’t do well in groups—never have, never will. Set me down in the middle of a room full of people, and I will immediately begin to edge toward the door. I will edge as inconspicuously as possible, but take my word for it, I will edge. I have no need to offend anyone. ...

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Pimping My Muse

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pp. 164-168

From time to time back before I became one of the new has-beens of advertising, I used to go talk to advertising school classes about creativity. There they would be, all those fresh-faced, eager young minds out to master the alchemy of advertising, pens poised, ready to take down every word and thought. ...

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Karma Turd A-Coming

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pp. 169-174

For a while there, I was a vice president associate creative director at a highly creative advertising agency—VP, ACD. I’d worked hard, and it seemed like a weighty title at first. I’ll confess to a spate of even larger than normal narcissism. And for a while I had to push hard to get my ego through the door into any room. ...

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A Bedside Visit

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pp. 175-179

The last time I saw my father, he was lying in the bed nearest the door of a double-occupancy nursing-home room. Beside him, on one of those tables that wheel across the bed at mealtime, he had a glass of water with a flexible straw. A covered plastic pitcher of ice water gone tepid stood beside the glass. ...

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Vigil Candles

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pp. 180-184

I had a dream before dawn this morning. One of those camera-subjective things where the dream wandered, boomed, pushed, and panned around and through the vigil lights on Saint Joseph’s side of the altar in an old Catholic church. Some of the candles were newly lit; ...

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About the Author

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p. 198-198

Peter Smith is a thirty-year veteran of Twin Cities advertising and a regular contributor to Morning Edition on Minnesota Public Radio. He writes magazine features, fiction, and occasional op-ed pieces. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816678884
E-ISBN-10: 081667888X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816675579

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2011