To Buy a Calculator

Depending on your age, you might find this hard to fathom; hell, I still do. So much has changed in this era of electronic technology.

I saw my very first pocket calculator in 1971. In those days, I lived with Bill out on Lake Tetonka. I'd finish my classes at college in the afternoon, hanging around with him at his workplace until quitting time. We'd then shoot to the gym for a workout on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, or just head straight home to our cabin on the other nights.


Bill worked at the old City Hall down on Jackson Street. That year the City purchased two pocket calculators for the employees to share around. Mind you, you'd have to sport pockets like Captain Kangaroo to hold the things. They were big and clunky, with a greenish-blue fluorescent digit display that ate batteries like nobody's business. And their capabilities were quite minimal: add, subtract, multiply and divide--that's it! Incidentally, I'm almost sure these were made by Texas Instruments.


We marveled at the device, all the City employees crowding around to "ooh" and "ah" at what modern technology had wrought. And get this: they
only cost $300 apiece!

I was so envious, dreaming of all the explorations one could make with a calculator. It seemed perfect for recreational mathematics, which I was inclining toward even in those Spanish days for me. But what a price! Recall that I was subsisting on an allowance of $40 a month then. So, I put it out of my mind.


Zip ahead to summer of 1974. I was now playing with Spiff Cool and the Keen-o-Jets, living at 249 Norton Street. Spiff was our front man, with Howie and I on guitars. Guts had bailed out recently in terror of moral turpitude, which led to us recruiting Riff on bass. As usual, Spiff had managed to outrage yet another drummer, so we had to scramble around to lure a replacement. We did so in the guise of a 16-year old kid from Nicollet, a most momentous occasion. For joining the Jets now was one Sticks O'Toole who would later achieve fame in the East Side Pharaohs. He was a great drummer, strong and totally accurate.


Our very first gigs under this incarnation of the Keen-o-Jets were part of the infamous North Dakota tour. Here's the deal. We were originally scheduled to play Friday night only at the Red Willow Resort, northwest of Fargo, about 400 miles away. Kind of a haul, but do-able, especially with the excitement of it being an inaugural performance with Sticks. 


And then the sleazy booking agent from Minneapolis who was handling the negotiations called and asked if we could play Saturday night, too, at another venue "right along the way." None of us bothered to look at a map, nor had we ever heard of Dickinson, North Dakota, but Spiff replied, "Sure, Billy, we'd be glad to help out."


Almost immediately, the phone rang with yet another request: the local drive-in theater asked if we would open up on Sunday afternoon immediately before a showing of
American Graffiti. Again, we acquiesced, not really thinking it through.

If your geography is up to scratch (unlike ours at the time), then you know where this is leading. I already mentioned that it was 400 miles to the Red Willow Resort for Friday night. Leaving there to Dickinson for Saturday night was a trifling 300 miles further. For in fact, Dickinson was virtually in Montana, hardly "right along the way." And then returning to Mankato on Sunday for the afternoon performance entailed a whopping 600 mile drive, all in one shot.


I've always said that playing in a band is strictly a young person's sport.


We pulled into the Red Willow resort Friday afternoon and had enough time before the show to strap on some roller skates and horse around. I always dreamed of competing in the Roller Derby, so this was a real hoot. Incidentally, just the previous week, the Monkees had played here, so we were clearly moving in exalted circles now. I hope they had better luck with the chicks than we did.


The performance that night was raucous, to say the least. Imbeciles from the crowd kept jumping up on stage, bumping into the P.A. columns. Several times the speakers tipped over, toppling back on our young drummer, Sticks. Without missing a beat, literally, he kept drumming with one hand, pushing the columns upright again with the other. A real trooper, he. Finally, I had had enough of this, and when some dork jumped up again, I placed the heel of my foot in the small of his back and launched him off the stage at about fifty miles per hour. Over the years, I developed quite the knack for ejecting people physically, which almost had alarming consequences at a People's Fair performance one year--but it did garner us quite a reputation. Manslaughter charges were not what I had in mind when taking up guitar, but by pure luck it never came to that.


Saturday night found us in Dickinson. This was to be an outdoor performance on a monstrous stage, elevated some five feet, out in the middle of a disused wheat field. And then we got the bad news: we had to alternate sets with another band, meaning we would end up being there for more than eight hours. Remember, we had to be back to our hometown the following day for that afternoon performance, a fiendish piece of driving to tolerate in one shot.


The night dragged on and on, it getting colder and colder under the black North Dakota sky. By three in the morning we were finally wrapping up our last set, anxious to warm up and get the hell out of there. By this time, the enormous crowd was totally out of control, tons and tons of drunken teenagers practically tearing the place apart. Just ten minutes to go, and Spiff announced we'd be performing
His Latest Flame, by Elvis Presley. That was my cue to light a torch and thrust it in my mouth, for indeed I had been trained earlier in life as a fire-eater, and was even invited to join a carnival at one time back in 1971.

Just as I swallowed the lit torch, I blacked out, not knowing what hit, literally. I awoke several moments later, crumpled on the stage floor, the torch mercifully extinguished. It turned out, some jackass from the audience had whipped a quart whiskey bottle at me, which caught me right on the pate. Besides cutting my noggin open, the bottle actually broke, the pieces flying back into Sticks' face. I've always thought this was such a great way to work in a new drummer, especially an underage one. He got to witness show-biz up close and personal...


After coming to, I was completely pissed. I indicated to Spiff to start up the last song, but I didn't return to my guitar (or torch), instead peeling off all my clothing, despite the cold temps. While the band played the remaining twenty seconds of some trashy twelve-bar piece of crap, I ran around stage in the buff, ending up stage front, and...well...jiggling. The height of the elevated platform was just perfect, if you know what I mean.


Last chord, and I ran back to the U-Haul, waiting for some band member to return my clothing. While waiting, I heard Spiff approach, and then some young woman wanting to know where the guitar player was. He shushed her on, saying, "Studs don't see nobody after a show." I was pissed again, but my head hurt too much to put up a fuss. Still shivering in the trailer, eventually my clothes came back. We packed with alacrity and got the hell out of this cowboy terrain.


While gassing up somewhere out there, a tremendous fist fight broke out at the filling station. It went on and on, all over the lot, nasty and violent. The pickup trucks of the two pugilists both sported gun racks in the rear window. Eventually the cause of the fracas came out when one of the combatants screamed, "What'd you say about my truck?" Thank God they weren't fighting about something trivial like a wife.

I swore that night I would never return to North Dakota, a prejudice it took me over twenty years to overcome.

The drive home was miserable. Three of the guys slept in the back seat of Riff's old beater pulling the U-Haul, while I sat up front with Riff to help keep him awake. He and I were dead tired, and by the time the sun came up, it was agony trying to keep the eyes peeled. They burned from the bright light, as though we were eating raw onions. We talked about anything and everything, just trying to stay alert, probably not making much sense after the first 400 miles. By the way, somehow I found time to read Milton's
Paradise Lost on this trip.

Somewhere along that dismal stretch of I-94, Howie became a bit indisposed in the back seat, so Riff pulled the car over, illegally I might add, Spiff and Sticks rolling him out onto the grass median. I'm certain drivers in the oncoming traffic were convinced they were observing a murder in progress. Howie was still, well, let's just say not feeling any pain. I guess I forgot to mention that ten hours earlier, during the performance at Dickinson, he fell off the elevated stage, guitar still strapped on, and miraculously lived to tell about it. Quite a night...the stumble would be repeated in Mason City a month or two later.

After what seemed an eternity, we finally arrived at 249 Norton, actually with an hour or two to spare. So we all crashed for a quick nap. Thus far this weekend, Riff and I had a grand total of six hours sleep each.

And then it was off to the drive-in theater to do a one hour show before the movie started. By this point, our voices were completely shot; we all sounded like Mad Dog Vachon on a bad day. And our backs were weary from setting up and tearing down, arms and legs exhausted from dancing around on stage, and fingers throbbing from the nonstop hours of fretting our instruments in fifty degree temperatures. Riff and I were basket cases, especially.

Somehow we got through the performance, and headed back to Norton to unload the gear. We did so, chomping at the bit to just turn off the lights and sleep. Riff was too knackered to even head home, so he flopped out on a mattress, a perpetual piece of furnishing in our town's most wicked house.

We crashed for eighteen hours.

And here's the conclusion you've been waiting for. The price of a simple four function calculator had finally dropped to the measly pittance of $90 this summer, and was available at Woolworths. After all the travail of this North Dakota tour, that's exactly the paycheck I ended up with in my pocket.

I had my first calculator.

P.S.: The Minneapolis agent who got us into this death march called Spiff up on Monday, indicating that he had received some complaints; "There better not be any more nudity on stage in the future." Well, he got his wish, at least until we played the Bodega several months later...

Next installment: Riff, Sticks and Studs

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