This poem draws back the curtain on what has always been an earmark of the Minnesota Men’s Conference, joviality among dear friends of long standing. –mg
A prose poem from the now-many-years-ago Louisiana Men’s Conference trip. –trs
ON THE ROAD TO NEW ORLEANS by Thomas R. Smith
Fifteen hours out from Minneapolis, Jim Miller and I stand at the counter in a neon service plaza near Senatobia, Mississippi. It’s a rainy Sunday morning. I’ve newly crossed the divide of fifty. Jim is four years out in front of me. Both of us feel every minute of our age after an all-night drive in a van with six other men. Now, having splashed our faces to a semblance of waking in the restroom, we display our rumpled unshavenness to the politely-dressed after-church crowd, and more directly to the teenage girl with pale blond hair and beaded choker at the cash register. Before either Jim or I can complete a sentence, she chirps, “So what brings you-all this far south?” “Mardi Gras,” we lie in unison, that requiring so much less explanation than a “mythopoetic” men’s conference. “I should have known! Why, you-all look like a couple of party animals!” Jim grins through his grizzled beard and I through salt-and-pepper stubble, well knowing that the only kind of animal we could reasonably claim to resemble after our night in the van is road-kill possum. Still, the compliment sticks. All the rest of that day I think of the girl, young enough to be a southern granddaughter to either of us, and of how, with a gallant joke, she unzipped the husk of middle years from two rarin’-to-go boys on a rocky Sunday morning on the road to rocking New Orleans.
This is another literary souvenir of the trek made by a passel of Minnesota men — Geoff Denison, Wick Fisher, Dominic Howes, Jim Miller, Richard Scott, Conor Ungerman, Craig Ungerman, Tim Young and myself — in February, 1998 to assist our brothers in the New Orleans area with the first — and only — Louisiana Men’s Conference. I had just turned 50 and that daunted me a little. Jim Miller, at 54, was even older! His friendship on the trip encouraged me forward into the new decade of my life. As did Doug von Koss’s powerful blessing that week, something to the effect of, “You’re going to be a juicy older man.” Well, how young 50 and 54 now appear to me at the riper age of 68. The Louisiana adventure seems both strangely recent and an episode from my youth. But then Robert Bly was in classic form, and, with Martín Prechtel and Doug von Koss contributing their potent magic, the weekend proved unforgettably textured. The generous-hearted, much-missed Bob Roberts was at the center of it all. All of us together, northern and southern men, black, white and Native American, for a few days in the bayou country across vast Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans. It was better than Mardi Gras. One of those once-only times in our lives so easily taken for granted and so astonishing in hindsight. You should have been there.