Submitted by Karl Breckenridge
I thank the This is Reno management team for my play days yesterday and this morning – I was plumb written-out and could not have formed a sentence. But I return now, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, refreshed and declaring all the snarky remarks about getting into the habit to be in poor taste, and proclaim that my ol’ childhood buddy Dawn Cassinelli Bunker is Topic A for today’s column.
Dawn is in this unenviable spotlight because she postulated on social media a day ago, seeking answers to questions that I’m not in the mood to write of, about grocery stores, but promise here that if this isolation continues – we will indeed answer.
I’ll spend a moment here recalling a morning I spent a score of years ago, when Dawn was still known as “Mrs. Bunker,” teacher-supremo at Jessie Beck School on West Plumb Lane. My phone rang – it was Mrs. Bunker:
“We’re having a reading day at school, and I’d like for you to come and read to my class, something you wrote, or a poem – can you do that? It’s on the morning of June Xth, just before school gets out for the summer.”
A cursory glance at my busy calendar revealed that I was free. “I can do that,” I responded to Mrs. Bunker. Thinking then to myself, what do I know that is suitable for 30 little rug-rats? Aha!
I knew an eight-minute poem that’s suitable for a classroom. “But I’m going to drop the temperature in the room by about 40 degrees, so you’re going to have to tell the kids to dress real warm – coats, hats, mittens.”
“For why?” she asked. “Just tell them. See ya then.”
The morning of the Xth came. I arrived at the Jessie Beck parking lot. In the June heat I was totally uncomfortable in my Arctic-like dress – a leather hat, ankle-length drover coat, boots and heavy gloves. And must have looked like a Kentucky Fried Idiot to the teachers and other grownups I encountered.
But when I walked into Mrs. Bunker’s classroom, I had to suppress a chuckle. Most of the class beat me there, and did not disappoint – all were clad in their warmest attire. As was Mrs. Bunker. Hurdle One was cleared.
The remainder of the class – suitably attired – arrived and took their seats. Mrs. Bunker introduced me, and we went to work. When I do a poem, usually in return for a Manhattan, which is my standard fee for a six- to eight-minute Robert Service, Jack London, John Steinbeck or Rudyard Kipling work, I usually commence with the poet’s name and the year he wrote it as a matter of courtesy. At Jessie Beck that morning and to this audience, I just barreled in:
I took a contract to bury the body, of Blasphemous Bill McKie, whenever, wherever and whatsoever, the manner of death he die…
I knew I had them at “body” – they as a group leaned in a notch, looked at each other and raised their eyebrows, as if to say “’Body’ – hey, this could be cool…” The temp in the room fell 20 degrees. I kept on, and in a dozen more lines I said slowly,
…You know what it’s like on a Yukon night when it’s fifty-nine below, and the snow-worms wiggle their purple heads in the crest of the pale-blue snow…
And then a heavily-dressed kid in his dad’s mad-bomber hat feigned a mock-shiver, and couple of his buddies followed suit. I knew then this was going to work. Mrs. Bunker looked at me and the shivering lads, and just shook her head. Two more stanzas, then,
… and who could stand unawed, as the summits blazed yet I stood unfazed, at the foot of the throne of God …
The whole class shivered at that in unison. But this was getting too serious, and one element of Robert Service’s Spell of the Yukon poetry collection is his subtle, under-running humor:
‘Til at last I said: “It ain’t no use — he’s froze too hard to thaw…
…He’s obstinate, and he won’t lie straight, so I guess I got to — saw.”
And with those words – not mine – their summer vacations soon began. I concluded my segment by reminding them, “Now remember, we killed a guy this morning then sawed him up so he’d fit in the casket, so it’s important that you never, ever, tell anyone outside this room about Blasphemous Bill…”
And I guess it worked, for a) Dawn never invited me back to speak, and b) later that summer, I encountered at Raley’s a parent I know of one of the kids in the class, who asked me, “What in the world did you read to our kids last June?”
“Ask your daughter,” I replied.
“She won’t tell us…”
And with that triumph in mind, I welcome Dawn as the guest for the day on the This is Reno social-distancing site; I compliment and thank her for many years of her devotion to our kids, and remind you all, be safe, huh?
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Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally.
Read more from Karl Breckenridge
Karl’s pal Jody shares the rich history of bootlegging, decorating, and engineering within the confines of the Truckee River’s banks and its picturesque islands.
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