Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Talent

Marching in the 4th of July Kiddie Parade, Gaylord, MN ~1973

By the time she was 11 years old, my big sister Susan had established a reputation for running the best Muscular Dystrophy carnival in town. Each Labor Day we sent away for an MDA Carnival Package and when it arrived the next summer we held our event in the big lot across the street. We raised money for Jerry's Kids, although I cannot say how much was sent back to the MDA and how much Susan recouped for "expenses." I always ran the clothespin drop, the baby game (1. Have kid kneel on chair with hands over backrest. 2. Blindfold kid. 3. Hand kid clothespins one at a time and direct kid to drop clothespin into jar on ground. 4. Kids who successfully drop 3 clothespins into jar win a prize.). Susan's older friends got exciting tasks like running the ring toss or selling refreshments. Susan was in charge of admissions and ticket sales.
While I was a kid who craved instant gratification, Susan was the calculating sort. She spent months patiently collecting Kool-Aid and bubble gum points to mail in for really big prizes. She organized the neighborhood and ruled as its queen (or mafioso lord). Susan was always the banker when we played Monopoly. She was legendary for the themes she created each year as our neighborhood marched together in the 4th of July Kiddie Parade. She could pull costumes and enthusiasm out of the air. She knew kids two blocks over who owned props we could use, and she'd invited them to join our group. She spent all her time organizing us but never actually marched in the parade. Instead, she'd run to the finish line and wait to see if we won a prize. We never did.

You see, the 4th of July is Susan's Birthday. She believed, as we all did, that the festivities in our little town were in her honor. From the parade to the party in the park to the fireworks: it was all for her. Why wouldn't it be? She was a phenomenon.

Susan was always trying to find someone in the neighborhood who had a talent so she could manage their career and send them to the annual 4th of July talent show. The promise of cash prizes made her eyes shine with hope. One year, for whatever reason, Susan believed I had talent. After the kiddie parade she gathered her associates and asked for financing. She needed $5 for an entrance fee. Funding secured, she marched me to the signup table. We missed the deadline for the kids talent show, and so Susan sent me up on stage to battle the adults.

The details come back to me in a collage of memories peppered with the recall of friends and family who witnessed the spectacle. The stage was the flatbed of a truck. The microphone was too tall for a six-year-old, even one who was tall for her age, so a clown stepped in to hold the microphone toward me. I was and still am terrified of clowns.

Somewhere in the crowd my parents were drinking beer and eating burgers with friends when the loudspeakers screeched. An announcer barked, "Next up, Patti Johnson will sing."

 My parents' friends asked, "Isn't that your youngest daughter?"

"Oh no," my mother told them. "Our children don't have any talent."

With both eyes on the scary clown and my chubby hands grasping the bulb of the microphone, I began.

"Blue bird blue bird in and out the window blue bird blue bird in and out the window." YOU ARE RUSHING DON'T RUSH SLOW DOWN. "Blue bird blue bird in and out the window." DEEP BREATH SCARY CLOWN HE MIGHT KILL ME THINK ABOUT HITTING THAT NOTE YOU'VE GOT TO HIT THAT HIGH NOTE. "Oh Johnny," AUDIBLE GULP, "are you sleeping?"

Whether I sang all the verses or just the chorus I don't know. Probably no one does. When it was over, a tepid applause greeted me and I forgot the clown. A man in overalls lifted me off the flatbed and Susan stood there. Likely she realized her mistake at spending her friends' money on my entrance fee. I had no talent. I winced and waited for her temper.

"That was pretty good," she told me. "You hit the high note. I think that accordion player knew you were afraid of clowns and sent that guy in just to shake you up. You did OK, kid." She put her arm around me for just a moment, patting me on the shoulder, and looked up toward the stage to hear the results.

When your big sister believes in you, it changes everything.

I did not win that talent contest. Susan and her friends were out their five bucks. But it was Susan's Birthday and the celebration continued. As it will again today. Happy Birthday, Susan!

For more 4th of July revelry, head over to Called to the Table for a surprisingly delicious flavor combination: potato chips, chocolate, and walnuts in a cookie.

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