An Excerpt from Don't Kill Me- I'm Only the Entertainer!
Memoirs of a Young Lounge Lizard
(Theme by our man David Crosby)
dell (del) n. a small, deep valley; a hollow [M.E. delle, a dell].
Those that dance are often considered insane
by those who cannot hear the music.
“They told me the streets were all paved with gold- but these dirty
sidewalks are gray concrete floors….”
The Vogues were crooning a classic as Schneider walked through the glass doors and tripped down the steps to the rest of his life. It was 10:48 on a Friday morning in June. He dusted himself off and was immediately struck by the view.
Beyond the empty bar stools a row of picture windows revealed a mid-morning sun depositing a million diamonds in the middle of the river. They spread out until halted by vertical red cliffs on both banks, and before them, Schneider could see the sandstone walls flatten out to form a sandy beach.
“ Where’s the magic in this magic town…”
Where was the magic? He was looking at it. Barely out of high school, he wondered how he would ever compete with the river itself. Surely everyone would simply pick up their cocktails and stroll out to the deck and the tiki torches, never to be seen again.
Schneider turned to the tiny stage situated between the staircase and lower level where the bar was.
On the wall behind it hung two oil paintings: they both showed the river’s signature rock formation. On the left, a modern tour boat threaded through it.
On the right, a paddle-wheel steamboat from the turn of the century.
Just like the postcards.
Alone in the lounge, Schneider lifted a stool off the empty bar and carried it past the blaring 45-filled jukebox to the stage. He sat down and pondered the view, which would be his for a summer’s worth of evenings.
That view. Most of his friends would be spending the summer in Madison flipping burgers on the main drag or hosing sausage makings off the floor during the graveyard shift at the Oscar Meyer plant. He smiled again.
Fresh river air wafted in through the open door leading from the deck and mingled with the interior scent of barmix, stale beer and disinfectant. Dominating all this was the pleasing aroma of beef slow roasting in the kitchen.He was about to start unloading his sound gear when the door to the kitchen bumped open and in walked Seering, whining a Neil Young tune to compete with the Vogues;
“ ‘…with a cinnamon girl’- Schneids you made it! We just got the Prime in the oven for tonight.”
“Jesus, Seering, I almost forgot about those steps,” offered Schneider, looking up towards the door.
“What do you mean?” asked Seering.
Schneider shook his head, dismissing it and nodded towards the windows.
“This is even nicer in the summer,” Schneider said.
His thoughts returned to December, when he had recruited two friends from the University of Wisconsin swing choir- the keyboard player and the lead singing bombshell- to help him provide entertainment for a holiday party Seering had booked there. Schneider would sing and play drums.
Until Seering had taken over the resort’s management that autumn, The River Inn had spent the winter months boarded up, as had most of the area’s hotels and restaurants. Seering was one of the first to see winter recreation and corporate entertainment as a way to boost cash flow for the struggling business during the off-season.
He had opened ten rooms on the third floor of the historic Inn for the holiday party, one of which he then offered to Schneider.
All Schneider could remember of that night was the entire swing choir, complete with orchestra, showing up midway through the second set. Everything after that was a blur, until waking up the next morning- in a closet. Four people of various sexes and stages of undress slept in his bed. More had been scattered around the floor.
He had noticed his hands had cuts on them and his clothes from the night before were a mess.“What the hell happened last night?” he had croaked after stumbling downstairs to Seering’s hotel apartment. He held out his hands.
“I don’t know,” replied Seering, “but I think you cut your hands on the symbols during that second encore- Jeez Schneids, I thought the whole stage was gonna vibrate into the river- and all those suits drooling over that blond singer- I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Seering had handed him a mug of hot coffee and turned to finish a pitcher of Bloody Marys. Schneider cupped his hands around the coffee and walked into the living room.
The french doors leading from the porch were thick with frost. Bright morning sunlight and frigid cold air blowing off the river had seemed to compete for entry into the cozy room. A fire had blazed in the old wood burner.
“Never seen anything like it,” Seering had repeated from the apartment’s tiny kitchen.
“Yeah,” Schneider had muttered. “I wish I’d been there.”
“I gotta find it girl, before I bring you to… this magic town”
That had been quite a weekend, and now, jerked back to the present, Schneider was wondering what three months in this place during the peak summer tourist season would do to him.
He couldn’t wait.
The year was 1945. The war was winding down in the western Pacific. In the Eastern Pacific- San Francisco Bay to be exact, the U.S.S. Yakatuk and U.S.S. Half Moon sit in dry dock at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Their crews sit shoreside with little to do.
Seaman Robert Schneider and Seaman James Seering, by virtue of the fact their last names both start with the same letter, found themselves on the same details, and muster lists. The war was five thousand miles away, and boredom was the main enemy here. Seaman Schneider decided he was a warrior. Stamping out this enemy was his sacred duty and nothing would stand in his way. Not even the base commander.
During World War II, short sheeting had become a worn out naval tradition and Schneider wanted to try a new twist on an old theme. At the same time, Schneider was growing tired of the way his CO was running things. So stodgy- so…military. After all, the world was celebrating VE day.
So instead of merely redoing the sheets on the Old Man’s bunk, Seaman Schneider decided to hang the entire bed out his base apartment’s third floor window.
The CO was not amused and the next morning’s muster found him screaming ultimatums at the entire crew.
“ The guilty party will step forward or there will be no liberty as scheduled!! ”
It was right out of Mister Roberts.
Standing at attention down the line, Seaman Seering knew, as everyone else did, who the guilty party was. He also knew that one more transgression and Schneider was out. Schneider couldn’t very well take that step forward, so Seering took it for him. The CO never really believed Seering had done it, but the liberty was extended and Seering and Schneider became fast friends.
It turned out that they were both from Wisconsin and had similar interests, namely hunting, fishing, and getting the hell out of the Navy. They and their ancient mine sweepers were already out of the war.
They went home to Wisconsin and built a thirty-year friendship. Schneider earned a Business degree on the GI bill from the University of Wisconsin, and married a pretty, petite church choir director. Seering went on to law school.
All went well until the spring of 1964 when Schneider’s 6 year-old son David woke up on a morning they were to visit his grandparents and walked out to their kitchen. He giggled when he saw his mother lying on the kitchen floor, thinking it was time to play a game.
The cerebral aneurysm left the Schneider family without a wife and mother. For a short while after, they spent almost every weekend at the Seerings. Jim and his wife Jean had three children, Jill, Jeff and Dan- Dan being the oldest.
There was seven years difference between young David and Dan, but throughout the 1960’s David Schneider would store away many mental snapshots of Dan Seering.
“So ferry- ‘cross the Mersey, ‘cause this land’s the place I love…”
-Jerry & the Pacemakers
Among those images was the Rec room in Seering’s home where Dan and David’s older sister Debi would spend hours listening to a Sears record player blaring stacks of 45s. Dan had rigged the entire room with multi-colored lights that pulsated to the beat of the music. There was a small refrigerator that was always stocked with glass bottles of Coke, Orange Crush, and Dr. Pepper.
Next to the fridge, Dan had rigged a dartboard to rotate on an electric motor, making the game a little more interesting- then had hung his girlfriend’s bikini on it. Boredom was still the enemy- but a brand new generation was picking up the gauntlet.
That same summer, at the north woods lake where the Schneiders and Seerings both owned vacation cottages, David would remember the day that Dan’s old wooden runabout- Dan loved boats- caught fire in the middle of Lake Eleanor.
The boat had been anchored after some water-skiing; the music of Jerry and the Pacemakers drifted from the AM radio across the lake. In the boat were Dan, Dan’s best friend Dave Knight, Debi Schneider, and her friend Katy.
Schneider remembered hearing the gas explosion and turning to see the boat engulfed in flames. The boys immediately sprang into action, heroically dousing the fire with wet towels and buckets of water- then casually laid back on the bow of boat and let the girls row them back to shore.
There was a certain style exhibited here, young David realized then. Boats and music. David would grow up fascinated by both.
Meanwhile, Dan Seering turned his interest in things nautical into a summer job, getting a Captain’s license between semesters at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and piloting a tourboat for Dells Boat Company (DBC) on the scenic “Lower Dells” of the Wisconsin River.
The “Dells” of the river was separated into two sections: the Upper Dells above the small hydroelectric dam and the Lower Dells below the dam.
One sunny afternoon while approaching the shallows near the outflow of the dam, a pretty girl in a pink halter-top came forward to ask Seering a question. The question evidently had little to do with the river or the tour.
When Seering finally looked back to where he was going, he heard a sickening crunch, and the hundred-passenger excursion boat ground to a halt, high and dry on the rocks below the dam. It was the only time in the town’s recorded history that the power company had to open the dam to re-float a tour boat.
Despite the incident, Seering would develop a deep love for that river and, after earning an MBA, he would return to manage an historic but ailing river resort on the Upper Dells, just above the dam. Seering felt he would need two things to attract patrons back to the once popular resort:
One was great food. He would have to hire a superb chef to run the dining room and kitchen.
The other was live entertainment.
Seering remembered hearing the Schneider kid singing and playing his guitar around the campfires at the cottage. The kid could certainly sing, and he was in his last year of high school so he’d be cheap too. Seering would ask if Schneider wanted to play a small party at the resort during the off-season, and if that went all right, maybe a job playing in the lounge for the summer. He’d offer him room, board, and a small salary.
And Seering, never missing a trick, would later mention the alternating weekend duties of AM dishwasher and PM janitor as an aside, as if it had always been part of the deal.
“They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway…”
- C. Weil
After some small talk in the River Inn’s lounge, Dan Seering took David Schneider up to the second floor to show him his room for the summer, and then Schneider went out to the car to unpack his first load of sound gear. He was supposed to play that evening, so it was best he got started. He figured he’d set up, get some lunch and look around town. Then he’d come back and do a sound check before the dinner crowd started wandering in.
As he walked up River Road and across the bridge, he glanced down and saw the Apollo steamboat, a second-generation cousin of the old paddlewheeler depicted in the painting in the River Inn’s lounge, resting at her dock.
The current steamer still paddled tourists up and down the river, always demanding the attention of everyone on the river but seldom full herself. Watching her rest at her moorings seemed to turn the clock back 50 years.
As he neared town and the main drag, however, Schneider could sense quiet history fading and loud tackiness looming.
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin was a town that all of a sudden was just there. It grew up at the turn of the century as a rest stop for loggers guiding massive rafts of raw timber from the dense northern forests to the mill towns in the south.
They needed the rest after negotiating the narrows that were formed by the spectacular rock formations of the area. These narrows created fast water with unforgiving currents, and many a man lost his life here. The town was then known as Newport.
The Winnebago Indian nation also resided here. Years ago they had used the sandy soil and natural river transportation to their considerable benefit. Today, their main income was derived from the nightly ceremonial dancing at Stand Rock, which they had shrewdly turned into one of the town’s main tourist attractions.
The Dells now existed principally as a playground for Chicago and northern Illinois vacationers and was responsible for what the locals termed the Friday Chi-town shuffle- a mass of north-bound vehicles entering Interstate 90 around 5PM and clogging it up until turning off at exit 92 or 88. Then they would proceed to clog up the one road that those exits led to- The Strip, a three mile- long ribbon of billboards, hotels, T-shirt shops and water slides.
Then it was over the River Bridge, where the Strip narrowed to two lanes and spilled a hundred station wagons and two hundred Cadillacs per hour onto the main drag itself.
Broadway or ‘The Drag’ as it was known to locals, was much like The Strip, except on every corner stood the ubiquitous River Tour ticket stand, where every pitch imaginable was employed to turn strolling tourists into floating tourists.
Most of the ticket booths were manned by college kids just “trying to pay their way through school” and have some fun.
They all learned their trade from the River Rats- veteran river pilots that returned year after year for a lifetime, unable or unwilling to outgrow the party.
Schneider walked up Broadway, past bars and wax museums, old-time photo galleries and moccasin shops. He stopped to read a sign that simply read “ Ride the Ducks. ”
He pondered what the hell a “Duck” might be until nearly being run over by one. Stumbling back from the curb, he studied the ass-end of this duck, which was obviously in a hurry to get somewhere.
So that was a Duck.
He remembered reading about the amphibious vehicles used in World War II and how some of them were converted to other uses after the war. Evidently these Ducks couldn’t resist the party either, judging from their multicolored stripes and cute canopies.
There seemed to be an infinite amount of ways to redistribute Chicago’s wealth into the local Dells’ economy.
After passing the offices of Dells Boat Company, he turned off the main drag and headed back towards the River Inn. Walking along, Schneider wasn’t so sure that the “Ducks” and the “Rats” didn’t have the right idea. He remembered Seering saying that Wisconsin Dells wasn’t a town- it was a lifestyle, a mood. There was a freedom here. A sense of anything goes. And the dollars were definitely flowing north- not the other way around.
“ The first time… ever I saw your face ”
When he returned to the River Inn for his sound check, Schneider saw a young woman sitting on the same bar stool that he had deposited on the little stage earlier. She was tuning a guitar.
As Schneider carefully descended the last step of the lounge and turned toward her she opened her mouth to sing and Schneider froze in his tracks. He gaped. Her voice was as beautiful as she was. He felt as if he had just drank two martinis. Who was this girl?! And what was she doing here?
He sat down at the nearby service bar and waited for her to finish. She gave him a smile that would melt titanium, then suddenly stopped and introduced herself.
“You must be the manager. I’m Liz, your entertainment for the summer.”
Schneider couldn’t contemplate the obvious smart-ass replies that would have gone through most American males’ minds at that point. Instead, all he saw was burgers and broomsticks and having to drive back to Madison without a summer job. Where was Seering? If that idiot had promised his summer gig to this-- vision sitting before him, and then forgot to tell him he’d kill him. What the hell had happened?!
“Are you sure you’re in the right place?” stammered Schneider.
“This is the River Inn, right?” replied Liz. “ I was here last week when the owner signed my contract.”
The owner? “Which owner?” managed Schneider. He remembered meeting both partners at last winter’s party. One was a great guy. One was not.
“Bob King,” said Liz. She handed Schneider the contract, then raised her eyebrows.
Raven hair against flawless dark skin offset by a well-filled white cotton blouse. Her eyes were blue, and they looked right through him.
“You are the manager, right?” she said.
“Well, not exactly- SEERING!!”
The kitchen doors swung open and Dan appeared carrying a vat of homemade margarita pre-mix and a cocktail tray full of ashtrays, still steaming from the Hobart. He placed the premix in the bar cooler.
“Yeah Schneids,” he said while placing the ashtrays on each table in the lounge. He walked over to the jukebox and slid in a quarter. “Finished your sound check yet?”
The quarter clicked through the machine and sent The Beatles’ Help careening through the speakers. Schneider nearly doubled over. Liz looked first at Seering then swung around to face Schneider.
“Why would you do my soundcheck?” Her smile now appeared capable of piercing armor- not merely melting it. Seering walked over and introduced himself to Liz.
“Schneids, I’m sorry I forgot to tell you earlier. King hired Liz here to play the cocktail crowd and then you come on at nine and play ‘til bar time. Fair enough?” He looked at both of them.
“Sure,” said Schneider, his immediate future suddenly brighter than ever.
“Maybe Liz and I can work up a half hour to do together for a transition- that OK with you Liz?” At that moment Schneider could think of no better way of spending the summer than singing love songs with this woman.
“Why not,” she replied.
“Great,” said Seering. “We open in an hour. Schneids, go clean up. You look like shit.”
"Scotch and Soda, mud in your eye,,,"
The Kingston Trio
When Schneider came carefully back down the steep stairs later that night, the River Inn’s lounge was half full and filling up. Cigarette smoke hung in the air. Every now and then the doors to the deck would swing open, and someone would head out to the river and those tiki torches, allowing a wee bit of haze to filter out.
Schneider was hungry and the deal was salary plus room and board. Since the former was a joke he would at least take advantage of the latter. Schneider headed for the kitchen.
The Kingston Trio may have been playing in the lounge, but the kitchen was strictly rock and roll.
“You’re as cold as ice!!…”
Someone was screaming along to Foreigner as Schneider approached the ovens.
“I’ll have the Prime Rib and a glass of Burgundy,” he announced.
“Schneider, get the hell out of here!” thundered Seering from the walk-in freezer. Schneider turned to comply and nearly flattened a waitress carrying a tray with service for six over her head. He would have to be a bit more careful in the future.
“Wait a minute Schneids- I want you to meet someone,” said Seering. “Schneids, this is Dale Reineke, our executive Chef.
Reineke dropped his meat thermometer, finished his anthem to rock n’roll heartbreak, and extended his hand.
“Daylock Von-Scrotum the Third- how the hell are ya?” Reineke was wearing a tall chef’s hat over closely cropped blond hair. His blue eyes beamed through coke bottle- thick glasses.
“Fine, I’m doing… fine” responded Schneider. He resisted the reflex to wipe his hands on his slacks after Reineke released his vice-like grip.
“Interesting nickname,” gulped Schneider, not quite knowing what to say next.
“What nickname?” deadpanned Reineke. “ Sorry, I got some meat needs tending… Ain’t that a shame…”
Cheap Trick’s updated version of The Big Bopper’s golden oldie replaced Foreigner on the kitchen’s radio as Seering guided Schneider out of the kitchen and into the dining room. He deposited him at a table as far from the kitchen doors as possible.
“Look Dave, I know the entire menu is open to you, but try and be a little more diplomatic when ordering, ok? And do it from a table- remember, that’s the kitchen staffs’ domain,” he said, pointing to the doors they had just come out of. As far as they’re concerned, you’ve got a dream job- don’t push it.”
Seering was smiling, but he was looking him right in the eye. Schneider couldn’t remember the last time Seering had called him by his first name. It seemed awfully formal coming from him.
At that point Schneider realized for the first time he was speaking to the boss. His friend seemed comfortable in the role- even a natural, and he was all business now. It would still take some getting used to however.
“Ok,” said Schneider. “I just have one question. Where the hell did you dig up your executive chef?” Seering grinned and stood up.
“Ask me again after your dinner. Stay out of trouble, OK Schneids?”
Schneider could hear Liz starting her second set in the lounge so he headed over. Might as well wait for dinner in there, he thought.
As he entered the lounge his eye caught a familiar face at the bar next to the waitress station. The bartender, a local river rat of legendary status named Mike was pouring him a Windsor on the rocks, which confirmed his identity. Schneider walked over to him.
“Dave, how are you?” Dave Knight turned and beamed a grin that you could patent.
“Schneidy, good to see you!” They shook hands warmly. Schneider hadn’t seen much of Dave Knight in years past, but Knight was the kind of guy you could meet once or a thousand times and every time you talked, it was like putting on an old favorite pair of jeans.
Knight was one of Seering’s oldest friends. In addition to the Lake Eleanor boat fire, they shared many memories. They had roomed together in college during the early seventies, when classes might or might not be held depending on the intensity of the Vietnam War protests, and the Campus Police’s reaction to them that particular day.
Seering remembered Knight coming back to their frat house early one cold November morning and announcing that Physics had been postponed- due to lack of a building. Someone had blown it to bits the night before, taking a 32 year- old math researcher with it. Evidently the Army had maintained a research lab in the building. Knight and Seering endured, finishing school while sharing piloting duties on the river during the summer months.
Knight had earned a degree in journalism. Schneider always figured him to be a writer. A cerebral, soft-spoken gentleman of spirit that could never resist a little hell raising, Knight enjoyed recounting the riverboat stories of years past. He had been on board as a guide during the now infamous “Seering-and -the babe-by- the- dam” fiasco.
Later, he would become a river pilot and Duck driver.
It had not all been strictly fun and games. One summer Knight had been piloting his tour boat when an overloaded fishing boat capsized and sent an overweight family of six into the river. None of them were wearing life jackets.
The old loggers used to say that the Dells of the Wisconsin River was like a woman. The prettier she got, the more dangerous she became. The sheer cliffs that gave this area of the river it’s appeal also created bottomless pools with deadly currents hidden beneath its breathtaking beauty. You could make love to this woman if you chose the right time and place. Stumble around her, demand your own terms, however, and she could bite you, giving no second chances.
Knight had made sure his guide had control of the boat and the passengers, then dove in and saved all but one. That body was never found. The wire services picked up the story and Knight became an instant hero. But you’d never know it to ask him.
Someday, Schneider figured, Knight would be published in National Geographic or Atlantic Monthly. For now though, he was content to work at a local youth summer camp while sending out resumes and tending his journal.
“I thought I’d come over and see your big debut,” said Knight. “Dan and Bemo and I are supposed to have dinner- have you seen them?” he asked while sipping his Canadian whiskey.
“Yeah, Seering just balled me out for poking my nose in his kitchen. Haven’t seen Bemo yet though.”
“ Knight, party of three, Knight party of three ” the voice over the PA system was sexy enough to make Knight do a double take at the overhead speaker. He gave Schneider a did you hear that? look and stood up.
“Send Bemo in if he shows up- you know Bemo. Stay out of trouble Schneidy- and break a leg.”
Why was everyone always telling him to stay out of trouble? Knight’s vacated bar stool was the only one open, so Schneider hoisted himself up and ordered a tonic and lime. As he did so, an ornery looking guy three stools down looked at him as if Schneider had just stole his bar change. Well-dressed and tanned, around forty, the guy was talking with some buddies.
He reminded Schneider of a Mafia enforcer without the oil. A short teamster in an Izod sport shirt. The guy next to him looked just as mean but was much, much bigger. Now they were both staring at him. Pesci and Deniro.
If looks could kill, Schneider would have never known what hit him.
“…Rusty, I’m worth waiting for…”
- Liz Kinstler
Schneider tried to manage a smile, then turned to listen to Liz. There was something magnetic about her. She had mentioned that she wrote her own material when they had talked earlier. Schneider listened. Her lyrics were full of optimism and self confidence- but she didn’t seem to flaunt anything. It was just there. She and Schneider were supposed to meet in the morning to go over some possible duets. Schneider was looking forward to it.
His drink came and when he turned to accept it he noticed that the Izod Enforcer was still giving him the eye. Jesus- what was this guy’s problem? Schneider’s first night working in a bar and it might be his last.
“ Olson, party of four- Olson, party of four…” the sexy deep voice oozed again from the speakers. Schneider hadn’t met the hostess yet but wondered if she looked as good as she sounded.
In response to the page, Izod Enforcer and his entourage stood up and headed for the dining room. Who was this guy? And why does he want to kill me? thought Schneider. He motioned to Mike the bartender, who was filling three margarita glasses at the far end of the bar. Mike placed them on a tray, added a tumbler half-filled with Dewers and ice and brought the tray over to the waitress standing at the service bar.
“I think I’m making enemies here and I haven’t sung a note.” Lamented Schneider
“Oh yeah? Not a good sign. Liz is doing great though- too bad you don’t look like her.” Mike turned to enter the bill for the drinks on a running dinner tab.
“I can’t do much about that,” responded Schneider. At least the audience will change from week to week, he reasoned to himself. In this place, if you get a bad crowd one night, or someone makes things difficult, you can figure that come Monday, they’re probably back in Chicago or Peoria making life miserable for someone else.
“ Well, I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” Mike said through his blond handlebar mustache. “It’s the locals you gotta impress around here. The opinion leaders, the ones that’ll bring in the others week in and week out. Get them on your side and you can tell the weekend warriors to jump in the river. Who is the asshole, anyway?”
Schneider motioned to the party of four heading out to the dining room and pointed to Izod Enforcer, who was flicking a fly off the alligator over his breast pocket.
“Great job, Schneider,” grinned Mike as he wipe-dried the frozen drink pitcher.
“You just pissed off the Mayor.”