Devils Elbow, Missouri, was magic in the summer of 1980. At least for me. I assumed it would stay magical forever. On that, I was mistaken.
In February 1980, I was still an Army journalist at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri,, doing a daily radio show that I’d physically deliver to two local radio stations, nearly indistinguishable rivals in that market. Both AM sides were “daytimers,” stations that went off the air at sundown; KFBD, however, had an FM station as well, that had broadcast until 11 pm. I talked the management into letting me do an overnight show, under a nom-de-radio. All they’d have to pay for would be electricity and my minimum wage—I offered to sell advertising for it.
As “Pete Leonard,” my voice went out from 11 pm to 2 am, playing Christian rock—a format unknown in 1980 even in the Bible Belt– and talking about the music I’d just played or had cued up. All the music I aired was from my own personal collection, kept in a crate in the studio’s corner. I’d usually get in 30 minutes early to hang out with Skip Goforth, the evening disc jockey, who may still be at KFBD for all I know. Skip did a straightforward rock show, heavy on REO Speedwagon, Van Halen, Ted Nugent and live Bob Seger. The transition from “Cat Scratch Fever” to “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was never seamless, but Skip was a kind man, and listened with patience as I nattered on about my life.
So, Army journalist by day, disc jockey by night, I still had time in the evening. One of the stories I’d plugged on my day job was auditions for The Fort Leonard Wood Players, the post theater company. Being blessed with an ability to memorize lines and not walk into furniture, I auditioned for a play called The Public Eye, a comedy written early in his career by Peter Shaffer, who would go on to write Equus and Amadeus. At 21, I was cast to play a stuffy middle-aged British accountant, Charles, married to a free-spirited woman, Belinda, half his age and beginning to chafe at Charles’ “dead insides.” My casting is no testament to any acting ability, but to the shallowness of the pool in which I was swimming. Still, I now had a way to fill my evenings.
And then the magic started.
Belinda was played by a 27-year-old officer’s wife, whose name, for here, is Madeline. Through the month or so of rehearsals, Madeline and I grew close, sharing a similar sense of humor and an eye for the absurd. Although I was smitten, Madeline was married—and six months pregnant with her first child—so I felt safe in flirting. After all, she had both matrimonial and maternal fences around her.
In any scripted stage play my acting would rate an A for effort, but a C- for talent, particularly since I was inhabiting the role of a man more than twice my age. (I didn’t so much live in it as pull it on myself like a child with a bearskin rug.) Additionally, my Eastern smartassery in line delivery stood in contrast to my character’s British reserve. Madeline, on the other hand, seemed born to the role of a 23-year-old Bohemian, a manic pixie dream girl.
(Except for her being seven years older than I. Except for her being married. Except, oh yes, for her pregnancy.)
As I was saying, Madeline was perfect for the part—both on-stage and in my life. Out of courtesy to Madeline and her husband, who are still married, let me yadda yadda yadda for a bit, and just say that on opening night, backstage and slightly silly from white wine, I looked into Madeline’s eyes and said three words:
“Gosh, you’re pretty.”
In love with Madeline, I gave up any fleeting and ill-considered thoughts of reenlisting in the Army to go to language school in Monterey, California. Instead, I rented a small cabin on the banks of the Big Piney River in Devils Elbow. There, I would write a novel about my love for Madeline, tentatively called The Strangest Goddamned Story in the World .
In July I was discharged and turned my part-time disk jockey job into a full-time news director and talk-show host gig at KFBD (“B-98—The Rhythm of the Midwest” read the bumper stickers), spending my early mornings at the radio station, my days with Madeline, and my evenings putatively working on my novel. (In the previous sentence, the word “putatively” can also be translated as “displaying zero evidence of.”) Madeline had her baby, we continued to be together, and I think her husband thought of me as “Madeline’s gay friend.” After all, we’d met on stage, and what more evidence could he need?
Devils Elbow shimmered with magic that summer. I covered the Carter-Reagan campaign, traveling Missouri to listen to third-rate surrogates. I starred in a production of Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, again remembering lines and avoiding furniture. Mostly, though, it was Madeline I cared about, Madeline I dreamed about and Madeline with whom I dreamed a future.
By the end of the summer, we were inseparable, and I assumed she would leave her husband for me. After all, he was just a successful Army officer, while I was a kid who blathered on a dying, even at that time, medium, had nothing but a high school diploma and had demonstrated an ability to perform in community theater. What wasn’t there to love?
A lot, as it turned out.
Madeline chose wisely and stayed with her husband. I packed up my possessions in an Army duffel bag, and hitchhiked to New Hampshire. Really. Ronald Reagan won the election in November and I used my GI Bill benefits to start college in January. Still, I thought of Devils Elbow as a place where dreams can come true, even if they didn’t. A town where beans can grow into apple trees, even if they didn’t. A spot on this planet where love can overcome any kind of common sense. Even. If. It. Didn’t.
- – –
The title above declares “Magic is a Time and Not a Place.” I’ve talked about the summer of Madeline in Devils Elbow. Even when she stayed with her husband, I assumed Devils Elbow contained some kind of magic. I assumed wrong. Less than two years after I’d left Missouri—and Madeline and her husband had resumed their lives elsewhere—thanks to the University of New Hampshire’s leniency in accepting transfer credits and CLEP test scores from veterans, I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, accepted into graduate school in the fall of 1982. Wanting to taste magic one more time, I hitchhiked back to Missouri, a hand-painted sign reading EAST on one side and WEST on the other. As soon as I arrived in Devils Elbow, though, and had unpacked my duffel bag in a friend’s living room, I was ready to leave. Like a vacationer discovering the seaside cottage she’s rented has had its ocean relocated, I knew there was nothing for me there. Gone, gone, gone was the magic that had scented the air two years before. Devils Elbow was just another town on the Big Piney River. The cabin I’d lived in, built in the 40’s when Route 66 ran through town, and where Madeline and I had spent the summer, was just another building. I turned my hitchhiking sign around and headed back to Durham.
If I wanted magic, I couldn’t use an atlas. I needed an hourglass.