Homecoming 09

I met Paul Kaiser my freshman year at DeLaSalle High School, and we’ve remained good friends ever since. Neither one of us can remember how or when, exactly, we met, but suffice to say that “We liked the same music, we liked the same girls,” and so we were off and running in that autumn of our 14th year and now here we are three decades later, our freshman freedoms and freak-outs having been replaced by fatherly responsibilities and something akin to middle-aged wisdom.

Being dudes, we try to keep sentimentality to a minimum, so when Kais called me the other day to tell me that his dad had died that morning, we kept it short and sweet. But before we hung up he asked me to call the boys — Shribes, Oars, Marty, Brownson — and give them the news that Harry James Kaiser, the patriarch of the storied Kaiser cartel of South Minneapolis, has gone on to the great family reunion in the sky.

So I did, or at least Shribes and I did, and when I got to the wake Sunday evening, Oars told me that Brownson (aka “Ghetto Man,” whose main residence since high school has been  a friends’ crash pad across from the Burger King on 33rd and Nicollet) now lives across the street from the very Nicollet Avenue funeral home in which we were now standing, viewing a slide show of Mr. Kaiser’s greatest hits, which included stints as an Aqua Jester clown, Santa Claus, Knight of Columbus, and kid-whipped father of nine, grandfather of 25 and great-grandfather of one.

Then along came Marty, or “Mr. Marrin” as my and Shribes’ kids call him now at De, and it occurs to me here that those good Islander river rat students would do well to know their history and spread the word that Mr. Marrin was the best athlete of us all — a running back with Adrian Petersonesque moves and a bazooka-armed centerfielder — not to mention a cool-headed voice of reason who once single-handedly stopped his drunk-on-Southern-Comfort-and-Lake-Street-McDonald’s-orange-soda-pop running buddies from jumping a train behind Nicollet Island before a dance.

At the funeral home, the boys and I hung off to the side. We talked about our ongoing Texas Hold ’Em game, the Vikings and the homecoming tilt coming up on the Island Saturday. All the while, Paul greeted friends and fellow mourners and talked about his father’s last day, which was spent, as usual, being the life of the party, despite the fact that he was born almost completely blind.

Paul kept repeating the fact that his father died at a still-vital 89 and went down singing. He said it over and over, like an Irish-German Baptist minister: If I can live a life half as rich as he did, then “Sign me up, sign me up, sign me up.”

The next morning at the funeral, as the priest talked about responsibility and “good fathers finish what they start,” I watched Paul’s big brother Pat hang his head, puff out his cheeks, and stare into the stained glass window, his face etched with the whirlwind of the past week and the enormity of the ongoing task of honoring thy father. Then there was Paul’s little brother Harry, who sat in one of the front pews and, as the priest testified about his dad’s unquenchable spirit, bussed his infant son Joey on the cheek.

At the same time, I thought about all my friends’ parents who died this year, and about how all their stories about sons and daughters getting the chance to say goodbye to their folks has been both a balm to these current chaotic times and a looming reminder that time with my own beautiful aging parents is finite.    

But enough about death; the lads and I have a homecoming game to go to Saturday afternoon. Phone calls have been made, schedules have been juggled,and, thanks in no small part to the jolt of life given to us by one Harry James Kaiser, our gang’s requisite reunion-reluctance has morphed into something like genuine interest.

There will be balloons in the air and autumn leaves on the ground. There will be homecoming royalty, teenage kicks, and the promise of drinks at Cuzzy’s after the game.

There will be me, grabbing the microphone Kanye-style, and telling the current crop of high school students out there — public, private, whatever — that, if you get the chance to make a few lifelong friends the way me and my boys did, then by all means sign yourself up, sign yourself up, sign yourself up.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.