The Over the Coffee Guy

Although nearly half a century has passed since this happened, I clearly remember looking out a top-floor classroom window of Perkins Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa early one afternoon. Usually the make-shift lunchtime football field emptied as soon as the bell rang, but on this day there was an ambulance on the field. “What happened?” “Someone broke his leg.” “Who was it?” No one knew, but obviously this was a younger kid, as the epic football battles my classmates and I experienced had by then become a thing of the past.

At that point I had no idea who the boy was who broke his leg, but eventually I met him. That happened later that school year, after a teacher introduced the newest member of our class, who, it turns out, had just skipped a grade. The rumor going around school was that, while recuperating from his broken leg, Chris Kaul engaged in a sort of warp-speed tutorial project that force-fed him a year’s worth of knowledge. Soon I discovered, though, that the leap ahead was already in the works and people were waiting for the right time to give it the okay. Hearing the true narrative taught me this valuable lesson: when life throws roadblocks at you, sometimes a broken bone or two helps expedite the process.

Perkins Elementary was an excellent school that instilled a love for learning at the same time that it allowed for fun and frivolity. I won’t say I never got in trouble, but usually my classmates and I were able to balance learning with our desire to get a laugh. Where the new guy with straight red hair and bangs fit into the scheme of things was hard to say. We always had the same classmates and our roster rarely changed, and this was the first time someone leaped ahead a year, and we were the smart class. If a genius was going to outshine the rest of us, well, that could be a problem.

My reservations were soon resolved, however. The shift in perspective occurred after I saw our new classmate sitting in a corner and throwing spitballs into a trash can. What he’d done to irk the teacher I didn’t know, but I now knew this guy could be trusted. We quickly became friends, and he quickly became part of a larger group of friends I had since early grade school. Chris Kaul and I played violin in the Perkins Elementary School Orchestra conducted by Glenna Greutzmacher, who also became our sixth-grade homeroom teacher. During that year, we often began our school days by toying around with percussion instruments and autoharps before homeroom, and we ended our days in an English class taught by Mrs. Gallagher. Every Friday closed with story time, which started with a blank page and dead silence. Many of us applied ourselves passionately to this assignment, which involved not only writing but, after time was called, reading our words to the class.

By this time I was no stranger to competition, the life-or-death battles on the lunchtime football fields leading to fist fights whenever my team lost, as I was convinced, once the bell rang and the final score set in, that the other side had cheated—but that was nothing compared to the intensity experienced during story time. Probably that was more of a guy thing, as there were maybe a half dozen sixth-grade boys vying for chief laugh-getter, and on Friday afternoon you never knew who was going to bomb or hit it out of the park. Sometimes Chris Kaul prevailed; sometimes Dana Reddick, another transplant who turned out, after a quiet first month, to be as crazy as the rest of us won all the imaginary awards; and sometimes top honors went to Chuck Franklin, whose surrealistic scrambled narratives made William Burroughs seem like a mundane and all-too-linear realist.

In this competition we were all hit and miss, which meant you never knew who would win the comedy war. Sometimes, when I stood in front of Mrs. Gallagher’s desk and faced the class, I struggled to get a single laugh. I didn’t know what I did wrong when I did wrong or what I did right when I did right. And the next Friday, no explaining it, the class would roar, and I’d think, heck, this is easy, but it wasn’t, not the next week anyway, or maybe that week was, but there was always the next week, when, after I composed what I considered the Great Comic Masterpiece of the 20th Century…nobody laughed.

There came a point late in the year, though, when I hit my stride. What changed I couldn’t say; it’s not like I had a formula. I do recall, however, altering the lyrics to some songs we sang in music class, including “Have You Seen the Ghost of John?” Somehow, I remember, I rewrote these lyrics—“Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?”—to comic effect. Not sure how I changed it.

In second grade I became sports-obsessed after seeing Johnny Unitas lead the Baltimore Colts to a come-from-behind victory where, until the last few minutes, his team seemed destined to lose. (I was to see many such Colts games in upcoming years.) I had never watched a football game before that, but it plunged me not only into football but sports of all sorts. In the morning I would snag the Des Moines Register off the porch and plunge into the sports section, a ritual that included lots of stats and name memorization, to the point where, when I attended the Drake Relays one year, the two-mile relay team for Oregon wondered how all that info got crammed into my head. (I assumed that in my age group such knowledge was universal.) With time I began wandering around to other sections of the newspaper, so I knew about the column entitled Over the Coffee before I met Chris Kaul, which I point out because it was written by his father, Donald Kaul. Like most grade-schoolers, I associated coffee (and alcohol and cigarettes, and EZ-listening music) with the taste-bud deterioration that seeped into people as they grew into adulthood. Over the Coffee seemed like a conversation between adults, and I assumed that grown-ups welcomed those moments when, mentally at least, the kids left the room. But I didn’t read it much; it might have helped if Donald Kaul had written about sports, but he didn’t care much about that, other than Iowa’s rich tradition of 6-on-6 girls’ basketball, which he wrote about with such a keen appreciation that you wondered why he didn’t become a full-time sport writer.

Des Moines wasn’t a place where famous people lived or grew up or moved, so I thought it was cool that a bit of a celebrity lived a few blocks away from me and that, on a regular basis, I visited his house. Anything but an anonymous, behind-the-scenes journalist, Donald Kaul was, in the public eye, a comedian whose eccentricities inspired cartoon figures by Pulitzer Prize winner Frank Miller. One of Miller’s Kaul drawings depicts the writer wearing the same aviator helmet Snoopy wore, ankle-length plaid slacks, and pointed shoes. Even though no eyeballs appear behind his glasses he delivered a deadpan stare. “I don’t want to be standing here for this portrait,” his stance and his face seem to say. “Please get it over with.” Another Miller caricature depicts a domestically-challenged Kaul sitting in a room where water drips from the ceiling and cracks line the wall. His hands clasped together as he bends forward anxiously in a chair with a goofy flower pattern, Kaul imagines a proud, confident version of himself in full Safari garb, decidedly more comfortable deep in the jungle than in the discomfort of his own home.

Photographs of Donald Kaul from that period include a picture where he’s wearing a less-than-snug Detroit Tigers baseball cap on his head and horn-rimmed glasses and has a cigar hanging out of the side of his mouth. In this photo he’s holding a baseball mitt so close to the camera that the mitt looks like it was made for a giant. Among other things, his deadpan stare make you question if, in spite of the appropriate memorabilia, the man in the picture was really much of a baseball fan.

That imagery underscored the fact that Donald Kaul was a public figure, a full-fledged persona, and a grown-up class clown—so it’s interesting that, in the presence of Donald Kaul, I never experienced a stream of one-liners. At home he seemed more like an aloof intellectual who could easily have been mistaken for a literary novelist or a museum curator. He spoke so softly that his voice was almost muffled, and while I witnessed brief flashes of wit, they were so subtle that it would have taken several minutes to process his subtle asides deeply enough to work up a laugh.

Every time I walked inside the Kaul house it registered how different it was from the other houses I entered in Des Moines. While shag carpet was all the rage at that time, the Kaul household was filled with oriental rugs. In the living room there was a life-sized white plaster sculpture of a man sitting on a chair with his legs crossed. The paintings on the wall including several female nudes, all of whom looked, to my eyes, too wide and round to register as prurient, but the fact that they seemed centuries old led me to wonder if…well, I didn’t know what to think. The den contained built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of hardbacks and a black leather daybed that even this dumb little Des Moines schoolkid associated with neurotic patients spilling the beans to cartoon psychiatrists.

For Des Moines the inside of the house looked different, and the conversations were also different. One of the first times I walked in the door Mr. Kaul and one of his daughters were practicing and discussing British accents, and that was the first time this grade schooler witnessed such a conversation. That same night Mr. Kaul shared his belief that missing the beginning of a movie ruined the film. I had never heard that opinion before, and to me it sounded quite suspect, as I already knew that the first hour of most films was something you endured in order to get the part where the shooting, explosions, or fast-paced zaniness took place. I failed to share my wisdom, though, as Mr. Kaul was an adult, which meant he was already set in his ways.

More evidence the Kauls were different: the family vehicle was an old Checker Cab. They were the only family I knew who owned one, and while I wondered what that was all about, I enjoyed the fact that, on a rare occasion, on that rare occasion when their car drove down a street where I was walking I knew exactly who it was.

You might think that, while visiting a house where the father was known for his sense of humor, children might get some wiggle room when it came to discipline, but on more than one occasion Mr. Kaul lashed out at his son and his son’s friend with the type of anger that came so naturally to Midwestern fathers. On one such occasion I was staying overnight, and the reprimand occurred early enough in the evening that I expected to be on pins and needles until I fell asleep, but the tone quickly shifted. Shortly after the reprimand Donald Kaul received a visit from a posse of young men and women who were out on the town that evening and were clearly in high spirits. These friends who spontaneously decided to drop were full of energy and frivolity, and there was something touching about a group of friends who dropped by because…well, just because. Mr. Kaul enjoyed the spontaneous funnery, but even then he remained soft spoken, slowly rubbing his mustache while delivering sly witticisms to his friends. The visit was brief—twenty minutes, maybe—but long after the group left I wondered about the kind of lives those people led who seemed so different from the other adults I knew in Des Moines.

I didn’t talk a lot to Donald Kaul, which meant that in that respect he was like most of my other friends’ fathers. With Chris and I both competing for class clown honors, though, I am happy to report that one thing I said actually made Donald Kaul laugh. (Not that I was there to witness it, but still.) One day I shared this joke with Chris: “If Raquel Welch married Eddie Flatt, she’d be Raquel Flatt. Impossible!” The next day Chris told me his dad cracked up when he heard that. I explained that the joke came out of a comic strip for Laugh-In and I had no idea who Eddie Flatt was, but Chris was nice enough to keep that to himself.

When I visited the Kaul household, Chris and I played Nerf basketball and listened to records, and our playlist included Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. I, Who’s Next, and Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story. Once, in the bedroom of his older sister, we stumbled upon a copy of Woodstock, which for us had achieved mythical status due to the reports that had filtered down to us from people we knew who had actually heard it. Finally, after all that waiting, we got to hear Hendrix play “The Star Spangled Banner.” We cranked that as loud as we could while bombs bursted in air. When Country Joe screamed “Give me an F!”—a religious experience, or so we’d been told—we responded by dropping to our knees on the oriental rugs and flailing our arms, as we were convinced that something that outrageous deserved the utmost reverence.

We also did some wandering. When the 1970 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Tournament came to Des Moines, we snagged the first two tickets and, until less-committed fans arrived, had Drake Stadium to ourselves. On Saturday afternoons we caught some double features at the Varsity Theater, where the hippies who always showed up in big numbers whenever the Marx Brothers played and had big, shit-eating grins on their faces as they waited in line at the concession stand. On some Saturdays we’d walk down to a head shop called Elysian Fields with a sign in the front window that said “Yes, We’re Closed” on one side and “Sorry, We’re Open” on the other. Inside the dark store Afghan dogs lounged behind the counter and incense filled the air. While reverb-drenched blues records with deep bass played at loud volume, we’d kill an hour or two flipping through records and staring at huge posters that covered every inch of wall space.

We also took a trip or two downtown. There may have been a movie that sent us there, but if so, I forget what it was. I do remember seeing a billboard announcing that only one newspaper had earned more Pulitzer Prizes than The Des Moines Register; for this the sign congratulated The New York Times. On that same block we entered a building where journalists were clacking away on their typewriters and Donald Kaul was talking to a colleague. The image of that room was still fresh in my head when, at the beginning of college, I decided to major in journalism. I ended up becoming more of a literary type, but as sometimes happens in the serendipitous world of liberal arts majors, life bounced me around so many times that I ended up doing what I set out to do (I’m now a magazine editor). I too bang on a keyboard, although I do it at home and the keys don’t have the same rich timbre as a steel type hammer banging against a carriage.

Memory is fickle. What it wants to retain it does, and everything else is lost. Sometimes monumental occasions get zapped while something that left no impression on you at the time locks in permanently. One of my casual memories has to do with bicycles, which to me, the proud owner of a Huffy stingray, were prime targets for abuse (it’s a good thing I didn’t own a horse). The Kaul family had a different philosophy about bikes. They rode multi-geared bicycles that were several strata above the finest Schwinn and actually took care of them. Donald Kaul had the most expensive model, and it was purchased, I’m sure, after careful research. So he was flummoxed when he discovered, during a bike ride, that his wife, who owned a cheaper bike and rode behind him most of the time, went zipping past him whenever they coasted. When I heard that story I pictured the couple enjoying a leisurely bike ride on a quiet road out in the country. Donald Kaul died on July 22, 2018. Although his spirit left this planet, I still picture him on that country road, where, as so often happens in his columns, he finds humor in his frustration.

I said some stupid things when I was young, and unfortunately I remember them. For example, I told Chris Kaul his father had an easy job. For this I got rebuked, and I deserved it. Along with being a strong prose stylist and possessing a sharp wit, Donald Kaul was wise enough not to pander to his audience. He wasn’t trying to shake up Des Moines, but at the same time he assumed that the person drinking coffee while reading the paper in the morning could handle subject matter that was, at times, pretty highbrow. Imagine a current columnist writing about Allen Ginsberg, Alexander Calder, or Mies van der Rohe today—you can just see the editor telling the writer to dumb it down. Politically Donald Kaul held nothing back even though he knew some readers would be offended by his liberal views. Nor did he engage in nonstop flattery of his fellow Iowans. Yes, some natives were offended by his columns on girls’ basketball, but they overlooked the fact that those articles were highly educational. Consider, for example, this question on a multiple choice test Donald Kaul devoted to the subject:

When a coach is see with his team gathered around him during a timeout:

1—He is telling his players how to break a zone-press.

         2—He is telling his players how to install a zone-press.

         3—He is telling his players, “The round thing here is what we call a basketball.

With seventh grade came a new school. On my first day at Franklin Junior High an English teacher called out Chris Kaul’s name, but Chris Kaul wasn’t there, as he’d chosen to attend a more racially integrated school in Des Moines. The Kaul family moved to Washington, DC in 1972, which was the same year my family moved to Storm Lake, Iowa, where we lived across the street from a park that was on a lake. While sitting on our front lawn that day, the Wilson family saw bicyclists from the first RAGBRAI wrap things up for the day, and that was the first time I’d seen anyone in the Kaul family since they moved to DC.

After a year in Storm Lake our family moved to Ohio, but we still returned to Iowa a couple times a year. Once, while driving back to Ohio, I saw an old Checker Cab traveling in the same direction as our station wagon. That’s odd, I thought, I haven’t seen an old Checker Cab since the Kauls lived in Des Moines—and guess who was inside it? At first the Kauls stared at me like I was crazy (why’s that dimwit waving at us?), but someone finally figured out who I was. That was the last time I saw anyone in the Kaul family. The fact that our paths crossed was a neat coincidence at the same time that it was frustrating. There was no place to pull over, and all we could do was wave.