I went to High School in Waunakee, Wisconsin, a village which bills itself “the Only Waunakee in the World.” I have family there, and still visit the Old Folks at Home on various holidays, or sometimes drop my kids off at Grandma’s for the day. Earlier this year, I visited the courthouse – a result of driving too fast during a previous visit. Mostly I don’t even recognize the place, and every time I drive though town, I feel a certain grandparentish compulsion to tell my kids (again) about how this was all cornfields when I was their age – and there were no stoplights. What I do not mention to the kids is how the marijuana fields that used to grow out on Bong Road (real name) have been replaced by McMansions. The road has since been renamed “Arboretum Drive.” Curiously, most of my fellow defendants at the courthouse were there for marijuana-related charges. It was comforting to discover that not everything in Waunakee had changed since my residency.
When my friend Greg Thornburg offered me a gig in my old home town, though, my instinct was to flee. As relatively well-adjusted as I may seem, the pain of my awkward adolescence is a lot closer to the surface when I enter those city limits. Simply put, being in Waunakee makes me feel like my old, loser self – and there was no way I was going to place that self up on a stage for all to see. I couldn’t help but recall my first bar gig in Waunakee, when my post-high-school punk band was heckled, kicked off the stage, and paid with a bad check.
The kicker was that the venue for this gig would be a sports bar. I have no interest in sports, and don’t play the kind of good-time, party music that I imagine sports folk enjoy. And, yes, as a kid I was usually the last one picked for whatever team was forming – in Waunakee. It didn’t help that my dad had been a local sports hero. It seemed like he was always on the winning softball team, scoring the most runs – and the games were held at the park right across the street from our house, so I could hear them from my bedroom even when I didn’t attend. Later, when I was in high school, most of the kids were divided into 2 groups: “jocks” and “freaks.” Any guesses as to which group I belonged to?
As I recovered from my near-panic reaction to Greg’s proposition, I realized I was overreacting. I could just politely decline the gig, yes? And live with the shame. Actually, it pissed me off that I was so scared. I told myself that this was just another gig, and would give my mom (who doesn’t drive) a chance to see me play. Finally, I decided to stop acting like my pitiful adolescent self and face my fear. I agreed to do the gig, then called my mom, brother, and sister and asked them to bring as many people as possible. I even asked my brother if he could find a Waunakee football shirt for me to wear on stage.
Greg and I had worked out a strategy: we would each play a solo set, and then come together for a third set of duets. We decided to throw in four cover songs calculated to appease a sports bar crowd. Three of them – the Eurythmics’ Here Comes the Rain Again, Dio’s Rainbow in the Dark, and the Pink Floyd classic Comfortably Numb – were radio staples from my Waunakee childhood. My set was first, and I took the stage in my glorious purple-and-white Waunakee Warriors jersey, looking out at the family and friends in the audience. As far as the other Lucky’s patrons were concerned, we we just some guys playing guitars. What was I expecting – a bunch of my old high school classmates and teachers, throwing jock straps at me?
After the first song, I was at home. It no longer mattered what town I was in – I was on the stage.
When Greg and I returned to Lucky’s a few months later for an outdoor show, all traces of fear were gone. This time, one of my old High School classmates did happen to be there. He was still living in Waunakee, running the bar that he had taken over from his dad. We chatted between sets, and he admitted that I could actually sing and play pretty well – though I suspect that the huge tip he left on the stage was meant to show what a big man he was, rather than how talented I was. After the show, my brother pointed out something he had noticed earlier: there was a photo of our dad on the wall, smiling down at us while posing with one of his many championship-winning teams.
He was the pitcher, of course.