Lessons and Love from Gary J. Knutson
The first phone conversation I ever had with my wife happened during the opening ceremonies of the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney.
We’d both been working as newspaper reporters at the Sandusky Register since late summer. It was a first job for both of us, and a young office on the whole — we’d pass the time after work, and after the odd late weekend shift, especially, tipping back beers on someone’s porch, or stumbling from one dive to another. Katie and I had barely known each other a month, and we’d be friends for several months before we’d start officially, ahem, dating. But in that first call, we discovered a lot of common points. We talked a lot about our families.
Her dad, like mine, was a salesman. Both moms? Elementary school teachers.
Katie had always figured she’d meet her eventual husband in college, where her parents met Freshman year and married in the summer before their junior years at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. Mine started dating around the exact same time, but as juniors in their smalltown Ohio high school, where I also figured I’d find Miss Right.
By the following summer, Miss Of-the-Moment — but feeling pretty right — was Katie, and by then we’d mapped out a lot of our families’ histories and main characters. We’d been dating a few months when her parents, Gary and Twyla, flew into Cleveland to visit.
My on-the-hot-seat intro at least took place in my own car, though we got off to a bit of an inauspicious beginning as we cruised The Flats for a late-night dinner and I tried — and tried, and tried again — to angle my ’99 Mazda Protege into a parallel spot. But no pressure, no pressure.
We struck out that night — not with the parking, but the nourishment, as chain-brained Fado closed their bar and kitchen early and sent us across the state to Sandusky with… crackers.
But I soon fell into a comfortable enough rhythm with my eventual in-laws. The next morning, we made our way south to an Irish Festival in Dublin, near Columbus. And later in the weekend, we headed across Lake Erie to Kellys Island. The first joke Gary ever shared with me was as we escaped the girls’ candle and antique browsing and edged up to an island bar.
“How is lite beer like sex on the beach?” he asked. “They’re both (f-ing) near water.”
From the first I got to know Gary, conversation flowed naturally with a beverage. He was confident, at ease. The Dad. But generous with his stories and his humor and his time. He loved nothing better, it seemed, than to dispense with (or squirm quickly through) formalities, get his hands on a “real Budweiser” — as he never tired of specifying to any well-meaning waiter — lean back and settle in for a long session with family. And if you were a friend of Gary’s, you were (f-ing) near family.
The Gary I got to know, and in short order grew privileged to call father-in-law, appealed to me most whenever the innate never-grow-old smartass shone through. Which was often. I identified with that, I guess.
He was the son (and grandson, and great-grandson…) of Iowa farmers, jacks-of-all trades and household economic arithmetic with fix-it caves in the basement and alternatively stern and indulgent hands with their feral farm boys. He reeled off stories of he and brother Tim racing cars on Shell Rock Creek to and from the Minnesota border. Of his dad’s maxim for delegating housework to sons: “one boy is worth one boy; two boys are worth half a boy; three boys are worth none at all.” Of being forced to run Fall cross-country to stay in shape for winter basketball, and then having to run in the Army, and so now he was done with running (not to mention camping) for good.
While running was a running habit of mine, and camping are two of the most blissful syllables to my ears, we were in no way identical in our interests or skillsets as father-in-law and “outlaw” son. But we were comfortable in our ways of talking about our backgrounds, each finding the humor in them, the shared benefit.
When I wrote a book about a rambunctious “street gang” of Chicago boys turned world championship drum corps, Gary found a lot in common with the legends and unrepentant pranks of the Cavaliers. They reminded him of his Zeta fraternity days at Augie.
We had both played trumpet in high school — and I would wager he played better, as I found my forte, instead, with the piano and composing. But our shared love for music meant he could ask me to pick out a Herb Alpert tune for him. Or arrange Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” for his men’s quartet at church — then “dumb it down” for them appropriately.
Love, with Gary, like my own family, was never necessarily pointed or verbal. It was shown every day, in the usual interactions. Early on, I struggled with making things official. Putting a rite-of-passage stamp on it. When I’d proposed to Katie, we invited her parents and mine to celebrate with us in the Chicago suburbs. While my brother and parents checked out the slopes in the ski lodge apartment complex where I lived, I got Gary to myself in the lodge bar and grill. As we munched burgers and sipped beer, I asked him, “well, is there anything you want to talk to me about, anything you want to know about me, or say?” you know, since I was about to marry his only (and favorite) daughter.
Pregnant pause. “Colt,” he said, “this is a good burger.”
There was no shame, no disapproval, no “now-do-this-because-I-know-better” lecture. He was on-call for advice menial and momentous. From which oil to put in the snowblower (SAE 5W20), to how to clear out frozen sump pump lines, to reassurance when we made our middle-of-the-recession move from Chicago to Sioux Falls: he and Twyla had done the same thing at about the same ages, going from Sioux Falls to Kansas City, in an age of double-digit interest rates.
That he was proud of our move, and our house, and our kids, and our proximity to alma mater Augie, helped push us through a bit of life gymnastics. Which is what the best parenting is.
If you were struggling with something, or had done something stupid, more likely he’d make a joke out of it, or dryly observe, say, that “your lawn is going to seed.” And then accompany you to the hardware store to help make it right.
As I left the newspaper world and had kids and became more manager and business development guy in advertising than mere “creative,” we swapped stories of clients and hirings and firings and pitches and deals. And though he never overtly said it, I think he was proud and surprised at the turns my journey from poor parallel parking journalist to paternal head took. We grew into our opposing seats at the table on his beloved screened porch in Olathe, Kansas, and the gray in our hair and beards, puffing on cigars, sipping whatever scotch graced the cupboard (“it’s single malt — how bad could it be?”) and “solving world problems” over the course of the hours I most savored whenever we got together. By the next day forgetting the solutions, of course, so we could set out to sip and solve them all over again.
This essay is as wandering as my thoughts have been the last several months. Since early this year, when we learned of Gary’s diagnosis with end-stage pancreatic cancer.
It’s been too sudden, and too cruel: too much like life to send tremors through the truly blessed times we’ve enjoyed as an extended family. A squall freezing shut the way to the porch. A formal silence to sour the ever-flowing pleasure of each other’s company.
He’s too young, at 66. A painful reinforcement, for me, of what was lost when my own grandpa Foutz died of lung cancer at the same age. I was 4, a little older than my youngest son, Caleb. And my dad was 28 — a striking difference from my 40 years. What would a dozen more years have meant to my dad, to me, with grandpa’s knowledge, his memories, more times around the table? Whatever time we’re given, it’s never enough.
So what’s left is to be grateful for the time we’ve had. Maybe it’s the bipolar musician/writer brain I have, but there is an infectious and unforgettable music in Gary’s character — the sayings, the stories. That smartass grin always shining beneath. The almost-cartoon-character “hee-hee-hee-hee” of his laugh when he got over a particularly good one. As snippets to savor they are sparklingly bright, a brief Glossary of Gary:
- “Oh, sugar. ” His sanitized way of cursing, usually over a household project.
- “O’-dark-thirty.” A frequent time of rising, especially for farm chores or hunting expeditions to exterminate prairie dogs.
- “Hey! What’sa mattah with yas?” Quoting an uncle. Oft-used with popular porch stories.
- “Burping-I-was-burping.” A more amusing use of your vocal cords the next time you burp.
- “Hello… Feret.” Repurposed from Seinfeld, a way for Gary — and instructed grandsons — to greet choir best bud and porch foil, Jim.
- “It’s single malt… how bad could it be?” Last words before trying a suspect vintage of scotch.
- “Smooooooth as Lulu’s thighs.” Borrowed from Feret. Used on the occasion of finding a particularly good scotch to sip.
- “Not half bad.” Norwegian-to-English translation: pretty damn all right. Bestowed upon (mostly) deserving in-laws.
- “Outlaws.” See: in-laws.
- “Pow.” Borrowed from his father, Cornell. Accompanying brief fist tap on dinner table. Indicates a “not half bad” meal.
- “A real Budweiser.” Instructions for wait staff. When f-ing near water will not do.
- “The Fun Knutsons.” Gary’s family. In contrast to “the Good Knutsons” — his wife’s, which features no fewer than four pastors. In experience, both can be fun and good (at times). But Gary embodied both.
- “Six or five times.” Often. As in, the familiar stories you’ve heard over scotch.
- “Exactamuuuuuuuundo.” Quoted by Katie early on, probably a Dad relic from youth. A lighter touch than, say, “no shit, Sherlock.”
- “Plumber butt.” Something young grandsons suffer often, remedied with a swift yank on the pants.
- “nose job.” As in, “need a nose job?” for grandsons with runny noses that need catching.
- “Swipe dipe.” The perfect remedy for when a nose job is needed. The ever-present burp cloth thrown over the shoulders of new parents.
- “Punt dog.” Your dog. Exclusive of size, really, but meant for yippity yappity varietals of pooches. Gary and Twyla are cat people who have accepted my family’s golden retriever, Macallan, as a not-half-bad, non-punt dog.
- “Checking my eyelids for holes.” An artful exit line for escaping to the basement lounger in front of the TV, usually with a Natty Ice — the household substitute for Real Budweiser.
A man of dry wit, Gary loved the one-liners of Steven Wright. Though he also couldn’t get enough of Blazing Saddles. Mongo would often make an appearance whenever he had to go on a household garbage run. With a close sibling being Vacusarous, whenever Gary got to unleash his whole-house central vac. Usually accompanied by Tim-Allen-esque grunting at the manliness of said chores.
William Shatner’s Boston Legal character, Denny Crane, had Gary saying that signature name in the signature way for several years, in time with the talking bobblehead that would sit near the scotch cupboard. And he quoted, for awhile, the flag-waving radio host Earl Pitts and his exclamation to “Wake up, America!” Also handy in many other situations, political and non-.
We fell into the usual, casual sports banter of father- and son-in-law. I had my Ohio teams to root and rave over, and save for a couple memorable (for Kansas) Ohio State-KU basketball matchups, our rivalries were fairly segregated. Gary loved when his Lincoln home office colleagues suffered through a Nebraska loss. And he described the Big 12 conference as “the Big 8 plus those Texas schools.” When Missouri left to join the SEC, he advised any Tigers fans “don’t let the door hit ya” on the way out. And he was quick to call up a phrase he’d once heard a mechanical cowboy utter on his travels across the country: “How about them… Hawkeyes” in invoking anything to do with his home state.
He was tremendously proud of the screen porch he measured and cut and constructed off of his home for nearly 30 years in Olathe. It became the model for at least a half dozen copies around the neighborhood and country. And staging ground, of course, for our bouts of solving world problems.
In his days as a hard-pranking Zeta in college, Gary would open up memorable Saturday mornings in a local bar, sipping tomato beer and enjoying local delicacy Chislic, served on toothpicks with accompanying saltine crackers. After those joints lost out to Sioux Falls progress, he found new favorite watering holes educated in the Chislic way at Al’s Oasis, halfway across the state to his beloved Black Hills, and in Dakotah Steak House “west river.”
Another boyish habit: his enduring last-ritual-of-the-night making a sandwich on ordinary bread with “cheap yellow mustard,” which he’d eat over the kitchen sink and wash down with chocolate milk.
We had to grow into our airs as cigar aficionados. As recently as ’03, standing outside the farmhouse with an Aass imported (Norwegian) beer and biting the ends off whatever cigar was handy was good enough. It took time to add scotch and cocktail ice cubes and weekend kits with official guillotines and reamers and favored H. Upmann Vintage Churchill Cameroons.
I don’t know. I don’t know how to bring this to a close. If you were a friend or family to Gary, you have dozens, hundreds of stories, in all the wonderful points of the compass his wonderful life took him to. This was my little window, and I will never forget the profound example he set as husband and father and grandfather and businessman and church member and friend. There’s anger at the cold shoulder of life. And deep and grasping grief at the time that is lost.
But like a long day that ends in the glow of the lights of home — the warm, familiar smells; the grateful hugs — and moves, as the children head to bed, to the introductory scrape of a chair on the porch, the clink of glass to glass and a welcoming “Skol,” I believe there is a next chapter, with a promise as full of possibility as a night without wind, and a solid 70 on an over-optimistic porch thermometer, with a “commitment”-size cigar and a fresh bottle, and all the time in heaven to ease into the comfort of the old stories, to tell them six or five or fifty times, over and over and without an end.