Goodbye to Lake Wobegon

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It has been a quiet week in St. Paul. Garrison Keillor and his wife, Ulla, had just returned from Copenhagen, where they had spent the summer. On Friday movers swarmed through their house on Portland Street, and the empty rooms rang with the rrrip of masking tape being unrolled and briskly applied to the lids of cardboard boxes. The next day Keillor gave his white Formica writing desk to three brothers who live next door. "I wrote a lot of good stuff on this," he said, wiping some dust off the surface. Then he helped them carry the desk out the door.

In two days Keillor and Ulla will depart for their new home, New York City. This is a day for reflection. Leaving the empty house behind, Keillor sets out for a walk along the Mississippi River. The green summer days are giving way to an autumnal blaze of golds, browns and crimsons. To borrow a line from Leaving Home (Viking, $18.95), Keillor's new book of stories about fictional Lake Wobegon, Minn., the leaves are twirling down in colors "so brilliant that Crayola never put them in crayons for fear the children would color outside the lines." The colors are almost as brilliant as Keillor's trademark red socks. Keillor sticks his hands in the pockets of his white Levis and inhales the fresh fall air. "God," he says, watching the mist dissolve on the bluffs across the river, "how can a person leave this paradise?"

Paradise may be the place where your memories are, good and bad. "When God loves you, then everywhere is paradise enough," Keillor writes in "Hawaii," a story from Leaving Home. When he was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, Garrison brought his dates to this riverbank. A little farther on he comes to a rusted bridge that the Northern Pacific used to cross on its run from St. Paul to Jamestown, N.Dak. Garrison's father, John, worked as a mail clerk on that train. Before he left the house in the morning, he would tuck a snub-nosed pistol under his belt. That made quite an impression on his son. "I used to want to ride that train," Keillor says. The mail train itself could have driven through the ensuing pause. "But I never did," he adds. "And now I never will."

Everyone knows, of course, that Keillor has done things his daddy never dreamed of. Maybe people had an inkling of deeds to come when the boy was 13 and changed his name from Gary to Garrison. Perhaps they thought that, like a Keillor character, he had eaten too many breaded fish sticks and awoke the next day feeling a little strange. Who could envision three best-selling books and a song-and-story radio show with four million weekly listeners, whose eyes had trembled like poaching eggs when Keillor signed off last June after 13 years on the air? That was A Prairie Home Companion.

At the end of each show, after the fiddle players fiddled and the commercials for nonexistent products came on, Keillor—6'4", with the posture and mien of an undertaker—would stand at the microphone at the World Theater in St. Paul and deliver a monologue about life that past week in Lake Wobegon. (Keillor's 1985 history of the place, Lake Wobegon Days, has sold 3.25 million copies so far.) Leaving Home is a collection of 36 of his radio monologues. Expecting another bookstore stampede, Viking readied 800,000 copies—fewer than the number of mosquitoes on the lake of a summer night, but nothing to sneeze at.

When Keillor was 18, he made a list of things a person should do in order to be a real writer. One of them was to hop a freight train. Well, he never did that. Another was learning to play the guitar. Some years ago Chet Atkins convinced him that he was not going to realize that goal either. And a third was to live in New York City.

Garrison had visited New York as a boy. He and his father craned their necks to gaze up at the tall buildings. They went to a Dodgers game at Ebbets Field. But painfully shy and rigorously private, Keillor preferred living in relative anonymity in St. Paul. Yet, as his celebrity grew, his precious privacy diminished. "Each person knows how much privacy you need, and you can't accept less, not even in a small town," Keillor writes in "Post Office," one of his Leaving Home stories. It was difficult for Keillor when the Twin City newspapers wrote about his romance with Ulla Skaerved. Ulla, who was from Copenhagen, had been an exchange student at Anoka High in 1960, when Garrison was a senior. For four years afterward they wrote letters to each other, then lost touch until Keillor's 25th high school reunion. By that time they were both divorced, with grown children.

The papers wrote about their romance, and marriage, and also about the abrupt departure from A Prairie Home Companion of Margaret Moos, who produced the show and had been living with Keillor. The papers printed the address and price—$300,000—of the house Keillor and his new bride moved into. They revealed his radio salary for the year 1984 as well: $171,186.

The papers were just doing their job, but Keillor didn't like it. "It takes something like that to crack the ice, to unsettle you," he says. "We live in an ocean of continual politeness here. We don't shoot each other on the freeway here. So if there is malice where you don't expect it, it hurts more. It is suddenly like a different tone your mother takes with you, and you know it's time to get going."

The Twin Cities had changed too. Met Stadium was gone, replaced by "a polyester ball field with a roof over it...and all those lovely summer nights were lost," as he writes in the introduction to Leaving Home. Gone, too, were the trusty night train to Chicago and the roadside stands groaning with fresh tomatoes, squash and sweet corn. Creatively Lake Wobegon itself was getting overplowed. Says Keillor: "Every speaker, every performer, every bank robber knows when to give it up. If you wait until an alarm goes off, it's too late."

Last June he and Ulla moved to Copenhagen—for good, he said at the time. He worked on a piece for The New Yorker about his new home and a screenplay about the fictive one he had left behind. But there's more to Danish than mere pastry. "Denmark is not a nation of immigrants," he says. "Everyone there speaks the language with a perfect accent." Keillor did not. He smiled gamely through dinner parties as the conversation accelerated past his speed limit. Afterward he would leave with Ulla and sometimes burst into tears.

Keillor, 45, seemed to feel about as comfortable in Copenhagen as Ulla had in St. Paul. New York is a different story entirely, but for Garrison and Ulla, who is a social worker and career counselor, the Big Apple holds out the promise of compromise. (They are holding on to their flat in Copenhagen.)

For Keillor, leaving St. Paul was like peeling off a Band-Aid, best done quickly. Two days before departing, Keillor sat down at the New Uptowner café and ordered poached eggs and hash browns. Soon his knife and fork were flashing. Suddenly he put them down. "I can't leave," he lamented. "I can't give this up. You can get hash browns like these in New York, but in a place that has white walls, track lights and charges you $6.00."

That afternoon Russell Ringsak came by to carry off a bookcase, some mattresses and the living room sofa. Keillor and Ringsak, a friend from Monday night softball, shot a last rack of pool on Garrison's oak table with the scrolled feet. "The most difficult part of leaving is the people you leave behind," said Keillor. "It gets harder to make friends as you get older. There are several people I will miss who I used to sing duets with. Singing is what I missed in Denmark. You hear American music blaring from all the stores, but it isn't my music."

On Monday Garrison and Ulla climbed into their Chevy Blazer and started the long drive east, away from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average. How long they would stay and how they would adjust to life in a second-floor walk-up, they didn't know. But Keillor was sure about one thing. In New York, he figures, "all the women are astounding, all the men are in a hurry and all the children are on their way to something."

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