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Joseph Van Nurden

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The Jukebox
By Joseph Van Nurden
Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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Recent stories by Joseph Van Nurden
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An essay about growing up at a small family run resort in Northern Minnesota

The Jukebox.  Growing up there were many that figured prominently in my life.  Coincidently, all of the jukeboxes in my life were housed in buildings on the verge of collapse- the going joke about all of these buildings all held a common punchline…the fact that the roofs in all five of these establishments seemed to be held up almost solely by the antlers from mounted deer, elk and moose heads along the walls.   It seems to me that the clouds of smoke from a combination of woodstoves, cigarattes, pipes and cigars helped to keep the air a little heavier inside the buildings as well; the heavier smoke may haveexerted just the right amount of lift as it was rising toward the rafters to keep the roof up .    The nearest and dearest jukebox to me was the one in the lodge at our family resort- which was located roughly 150 feet from the building that doubled as the office of the resort and our house.  There was not much around for radio stations when I was growing up so most of the music I was exposed to came out of the lodge. The four of us, my parents, brother and I, all slept- my brother and I on air mattresses- in an open loft above the desk, and we knew when the resort guests were waking up for the day because the jukebox would start to play.   

There was a metal plate on the back of the jukebox that covered the volume control and a lock could be put in place so no one could turn it up too loud, my dad tried to keep the volume down so the folks at the resort and campground next to our property could get a little sleep and also so it was not heard quite as loudly throughout every hour of every day, but the plate always ended up being removed- it seemed that a lot of our guests knew how to pick locks…or had bolt cutters. The exteme volume the jukebox put out was not the only reason that music could always be heard; the lodge was unfinished- the roof boards were exposed and there was no insulation save for the wood of the building, so the jukebox could be heard whenever it was being played…there was also the fact, probably much more significant than the lack of insulation, that the front door of the lodge was only a screen door, to let the smoke and heat out in the summer.  During the early spring when the fisherfolks started showing up and late fall when the deer hunters showed up, replacing the red and orange of the changing leaves with the red and orange of their clothing, large piles of wood were burned through to keep a little heat in the lodge- dead trees covered and surrounded our property in abundance being that we were surrounded by National Forest.   The forests were not supposed to become the private woodlots of local populations, but at the time the families using wood were essentially afforded their own lots because of the small number of tourists and year-round population- the logging era had left stands of huge aspen that were beginning to fall so the new generations of trees would take over.  The resort always had plenty of firewood to keep the communal bonfires and fireplaces lit.   It seemed to me like the jukebox was always playing, drifting through the air like the smoke from the campfire and giving the resort a soundtrack of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, 80’s hair metal, and the occasional super hit that got loaded on like MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice.  That jukebox brings back the memories: my first pre-teen makeout session, first beer, countless parties, first time having sex on a pool table, and a lot of people that have come and gone in my life.

                Our lodge was a huge log-sided cabin with cracked dusty windows and a giant two-story fireplace, which, in all honesty was what mostly held up the roof in our case- although the mounted antlers bore their brunt of the heavy lifting along the edges of the building.  The foundation and bottom two feet of the structure was put together with the same stones that made up the fireplace- old glacial till left behind underneath the centuries worth of pine duff on the forest floor.  The outside of our lodge was patched in various places with the old logging camp trick of nailing the tops of tin cans in places to cover holes.  The floor of the lodge was all worn hardwood, but there was one surprise there- underneath the pool table, under the dim hanging Hamms Beer lamp was a trap door.  The trap door led to what was essentially a crawlspace after being slowly filled in with rocks by my dad to keep the floor from caving in, but in the middle it was still tall enough to stand up and walk around in, and for kids to hide in with their funny looking glass smoking contraptions.  We always guessed that the trap door to the secret basement had first been used during prohibition by the gangsters that once owned the property and  made the long trip from Chicago to excape prying eyes.  Speakeasies were set up where the gangsters would mingle with all the rough-hewn woodsmen who were out logging the remains of virgin stands of timber- the woodsmen were reputed to be quite content to blow all of their money for the high quality hooch that these big city folks brought with them and it is assumed that the trap door held a gargantuan stash at one time.  Years later, when the resort was taken over by hippies and turned into a commune it may have been used as a place to store crops.  There was a bearskin rug nailed to the ceiling which had been left by an early bear hunter guest when it turned out he did not actually have any money to pay for the two weeks he had been staying with us.   Many city guests complimented us about the bearskin rug for the rustic feel it gave the place, but the purpose it really served was to cover the boards on the roof that were suffering from a severe case of dry rot; to help keep the rain out above the bearskin rug was a large piece of sheet metal which was later joined by a section of a shower stall.         

The cabins did not have showers, televisions, or telephones.  There was one shower room, which was the newest addition inside the walls of the lodge.  Also on the back side of the lodge was the sauna.  The jukebox could be loaded up before running around the back of the lodge to the shower room and sauna so the music would not have to stop.  Though the majority of our early neighbors were Finlanders- many of whom considered a sauna to be more of a necessity than running water- we had the only sauna and shower with a jukebox around

We had a lot of business from families during the 1980’s versus the more male-bonding fishing trips that started to become more dominant in the mid-90’s.  They headed North for a week of vacation with no televisions and no distractions, just the time to be together and to make new friends at the resort.  There were several guests that began booking their reservations with other families so they would always be together- some guests discovered that their neighbor in the next cabin over only lived a few miles away from them in their city home back in the real world.  The only telephone at the resort was in our office and it went without saying that none  of our guests owned a cell phone.  The majority of the guests did not use the phone the entire week.  If any of their friends or relatives needed to get a hold of them they would call the resort and my brother or I would run the note down to their cabins.

The area was still very wild.  There were not many summer homes, and those that stood were mostly the remains from homesteaders who came to plant crops and raise their families.  The former homesteads were now owned or leased from the Forest Service by people that would come from the lower Midwest to see where their parents and grandparents had failed to make a living and would spend their time fishing.  Resort vacations were the only way many families in the 1980’s felt they could get out to the woods-at least the families our neck of the woods attracted, anyway.  The yuppie revolution had not really hit middle class families yet.  There were campfires every night during the summer and there were always a lot of new kids around to play with. 

I think these were the glory days of resorts in the area and tied to it all was the music; when I hear one of the songs from those days playing somewhere I am always reminded first of the lodge despite where else I may have heard the song.  The resort at night after the fishing was done was  a community, no matter how temporary.  The lodge and the fire pit next to it would be a hive of activity.  The stories were sounding, there were pool and ping pong tournaments going on in the lodge, and the volleyball tournaments going outside were all joined by the steady hum of the songs coming out of the jukebox.  The bonfire would be lit and families would show up with hotdogs and marshmallows.  There would be guitars and harmonicas sometimes, other nights there would be scary stories, fish stories, or just plain conversation.

My mom organized “Kids Time” in the lodge, which had bingo, scavenger hunts, hikes and nature programs.  The Forest Service had naturalists that would go around to the local resorts and give programs.  There were programs on wolves, deer, tracks, birds, and trees.  We also had a man that came around from the White Oak Society in full voyageur garb to talk about the life of the fur traders.  We learned about starting fires with flint and steel, navigation, paddling, voyageur songs, and more.  Through it all there was the jukebox- it seemed that the second that Kids Time or a naturalist program ended the jukebox would start right back up again.

We built a large playground one year next to the lodge.  It was the biggest I had ever seen, and I got to use it every day.  The kids would fill the jukebox up with quarters and run around the playground.  There was a group of teenagers that came up with their families that were into glam rock- they had long poofy hair and ripped jeans, they hung out in the lodge all week playing Billy Idol, Motley Crue, Cinderella, and Twisted Sister on the jukebox; my first attempt to be cool came because of them, I had a pair of black gloves that I snipped all of the fingertips off of…the kids thought that was pretty cool and introduced me to swinging as high as I could on the swings and jumping off- 80’s hair metal provided a good soundtrack for that- my parents were not happy about the pair of gloves however.  There was a grassy hill that rose at a 45 degree angle from the swings and a huge crabapple tree on top.  The goal was to jump off the swings and make it to the top of the hill; nearly impossible- but with “Rebel Yell” playing twenty times in a row it made for a fun day anyhow.

                In later years I was to enjoy several other jukeboxes:  in a barn converted to a pizza joint called the Pizza Palace, at a bar and restaurant called Cannibal Junction located on a wicked corner on an incredibly dangerous road- the owners had several bodies end up in their parking lot if they were indeed cannibals, Hayslips Corner tavern where several strategically placed mounts have the ceiling sagging onto the dust covered antlers, and Richie’s bar in my hometown- serving 107 people on what is often called the most dangerous road in the lower 48.


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