As a teenager l slept in the basement on a mildewed, brown-speckled mattress in the same room as a sump pump that rattled to life every time it rained.
No, this isn’t the start of a long lost Dickens novel set on the Iron Range. I slept here by choice, giving my sister my warm, dry room upstairs so I could dwell in this subterranean lair. I told my parents it was because the basement was nice and cool in the summer, but I stayed through the winter and for years after until I left for college which, for me, meant leaving for good.
The real reason I slept in the basement was the television down there connected to the coaxial spine of the special antennae my dad installed on the roof. Great reception to by Iron Range standards: I could get *all four channels* (even pesky Channel 3) and FM stations out of Duluth, too. The family’s original VCR, the one grandma and grandpa gave us for Christmas in the ‘80s, stood dusty but undaunted on the hulking color TV, which meant that I could tape shows and watch “The Blues Brothers” any time I wanted.
In successive years I watched Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Tom Snyder, even Jack Horkheimer’s Star Gazer show over on PBS, until all hours. I grew to enjoy so many of the late night shows that I would tape them and watch them back to back until the stations would play the National Anthem and go off the air. I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to do that, but I did.
During these years, David Letterman was my favorite. Through the 1990s I watched nearly every episode of the Late Show. Looking back, what I liked most about the late night format was the consistent structure of each show, which Letterman plumbed for laughs by defying that same structure. Letterman was a scientist of words — using his comedy to tear apart clunky language and root out the hubris, folly, and bull found in the way people talk to one another. George Carlin was like this. Mark Twain, too.
David Letterman retired from television last Wednesday. After college I watched him far less than before as my life changed over and over again, but I made a point of watching his last week on the air. Tuesday night’s show featured Hibbing’s famous son Bob Dylan in a rare television appearance. Watching them together reminded me of how much Letterman’s show and Dylan’s music meant to me when I was down on that underground single mattress.
I said I moved down to the basement because of the TV. That was only partly true. The tension between my parents, the weight of losing the family business and the economic strife that followed, hung so thick I felt I needed some kind of blade to cut my way through the halls. I was so hungry to leave, to find love, to accomplish something that I couldn’t stand myself. The basement was cooler in more ways than one.
Dave Letterman is known to be a grumpy cuss off the air, and pretty much the same on the air. He has his reasons. Yet for an hour a day over more than three decades Letterman made people laugh. For six of those years a kid on a cot in the basement of a house on the Iron Range really needed those laughs. And while I’m not on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater the way I had hoped to be, I do what I can to pay it forward.
The only true happiness is that which you can find in the present moment. You can’t scrub the past, nor can you guarantee the future. Blessed are those who help others find those moments of happiness, even for just an hour.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, May 24, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.