Everything is "Hunky Dunk"
It was a state of mind as much as it was a song title. And it made a couple of simple Iowa boys very, very rich indeed.
“Hunky Dunk” is the story of Mud and Jake Klemper. They live in the little city of Slope Oak, Iowa, along the Mississippi River. They would have lived and died unnoticed had it not been for a sound Mud heard one day while rocking on his front porch rocking chair.
It was a summer day — hotter than a lot of them, not as hot as some, and definitely not very humid. It helps to remember that fact. Sometimes here in Slope Oak the summer afternoons are so hot and muggy you feel like you could grab yourself a handful of air and just wring the dirty water right out of it.
But this wasn’t that kind of day. It was a dry, hot day. And I was sitting on the rocking chair on the front porch. There must have been a loose board or something under one of the rockers, because every time I rocked back and forth, the chair and the board made kind of a “hunky dunk” sound. Sort of like this…
Now, if it had been a humid day, the board wouldn’t have been dry enough to make that sound. And if it had been rainy, I would have been in the house and not on the front porch rocking and hearing that “hunky dunk” sound over and over again. Funny, ain’t it, how a twist of fate can hang on something so simple as whether or not it was humid, dry or rainy outside? Life is full of stuff like that, I’ve come to learn.
It was such a nice day and since it was Sunday, I didn’t have to work since the gut factory was closed on the Lord’s Day. I had absolutely nothing on my mind and nothing to do but drink cheap beer and rock the hot, dry afternoon away on that front porch rocking chair. For hours I sat and drank and rocked and sat and drank and rocked with my mind a total blank and that “hunky dunk” sound just sort of working its way into my subconscious.
And I started sort of repeating that sound in my head as I was rocking. “Hunky dunk, hunky dunk,” you know how it’s like when you get an idea that just won’t go away? So anyway, I was just sitting and rocking and saying “hunky dunk” to myself when I just started to, I guess, make stuff up. I mean, only an idiot would just sit there hour after hour saying “hunky dunk” to himself in his head without trying to make some kind of sense out of it, right? So I figured I’d try to make up some words to go along with it.
I suppose it’s because I was feeling pretty good that day. None of the neighbors had been mad at us for a while. Jake was busy in the kitchen whipping up a nice apple pie to go with the chicken we were having for dinner, and it was such a bright, clear, hot sunny day that everything seemed pretty much OK. And then I decided that “hunky dunk” might be a pretty good word to describe such a feeling as I had.
So, as I rocked back and forth, I just started adding words to the “hunky dunk” sound the rocker and the loose board were making.
“Clear blue sky is hunky dunk.”
“Apple pie is hunky dunk.”
“Birds and bees are hunky dunk.”
“Cherry trees are hunky dunk.”
Yep! That’s where those Grammy Award-winning lyrics came from. And I started singing them out loud. I must have been getting pretty carried away with myself, too, because Jake came out and yelled at me to shut the hell up.
Eventually, Jake caught on to the song and together they recorded it. It became a hit single and led to a whole new world being opened up for the Klemper brothers, who maintained their state of simple grace despite it all.
There were other strange things about that hotel room, especially in the bathroom. Now we’ve had indoor plumbing since 1964, so I know a toilet when I see one. But there was this thing next to the toilet. It looked kind of like a toilet but without a flip-down seat. And when you press the lever, a jet of water comes out at you. So, I figured out what it must have been used for. But I guess I was wrong. That next morning I was washing my face in the thing when the housekeeping lady waltzed in. She saw me soaping up my face and rinsing it off in the jet of water and I thought she was fit to have a stroke. She said that’s not what a “bi-day” is used for. I asked her what it was for then, and she just got all flustered and left the room.
“Foreigners!” Jake giggled as he sipped his cup of hotel room coffee. I giggled too, but to this day I still have no idea what kind of contraption I was washing my face in.
Well, the memo from the TV guy said we would have the morning and afternoon to scout around the city some but we decided to just stay in the hotel as it pretty much had everything we wanted. Then at about 3 in the afternoon the phone rang and the guy at the desk told us there was a limo waiting for us. After he explained that it was just another word for a big car, I agreed to come downstairs.
Jake and I were dressed to the nines, each in our brand new pair of blue jeans and our favorite flannel shirts. The guy who met us at the limo must have been pretty impressed too because he looked at us and said, “Is that what you’re gonna wear?” Well, Jake and I hate to brag, so we just nodded and smiled.
The people at the TV show were pretty impressed, too. They also asked if that was what we were gonna wear, and frankly, I got just a little bit tired of answering the question after awhile. Finally I said, “We could go on naked, if you want us to!” Jake accentuated the point by unbuttoning his flannel until the wardrobe lady said we were just fine as we were. I think she got a little scared by the chicken/egg tattoos on Jake’s chest. Can’t say as I blame her as I been looking at those things for years and they still give me the willies.
They took us to what they called the “Green Room” although I didn’t see anything green in there except for Jake’s shirt. There was a couple other people in there that were gonna be on the show, including a lady singer and some people who brought their pets on the show to do tricks. And that’s a good thing, because at first Jake couldn’t take his eyes off the lady singer and I could see she was getting a little nervous about it. So I asked one of the pet owners about his dog and Jake started petting the dog and everything worked out just fine.
Well, we got to go on last, which is good because we got the donut cart to ourselves after everyone else was gone.
Finally we got called on. And this Dave fella was just as nice as nice could be. He just laughed and laughed and laughed the whole time we were out there. I told them how I wrote the words and how Jake came up with the music and how we had gotten an agent to help us get to the bottom of this “alternative rock” deal and Dave just sat there and laughed and laughed and laughed!
Jake kind of surprised me a little, like he was sort of warming up to the whole thing. First he pulled up his shirt sleeve and made the naked girl tattoo on his forearm dance while the little bald-headed music guy played a hootchie-kootchie number. Then he offered to wrestle this Dave fella to see who was gonna get to ask the lady singer out to dinner after the show. Dave looked a little scared at first when Jake started peeling off his shirt, but then I told him Jake was just kidding even though I knew he was dead serious. I got a little mad when Jake pointed over to the little bald-headed music guy and said something about how his head looked just like mine only without dandruff scabs, and it was only the fact that we were on TV that kept me from punching him in the mush.
We went back to the hotel, had another dinner, ordered up some whiskey, and took the return flight back to Iowa the next day without incident.
“Look,” I said, “there are rules and regulations and…”
“Sometimes you have to change the rules. Make them work in your favor.”
The voice came from behind me. It was a high-pitched, kind of whiny voice with an accent like I’ve never heard before. I turned around and saw a little guy standing behind me. He was wearing one of those three-piece suits like you see bankers wearing. He had flaming red hair, except for there wasn’t that much of it. His black glasses and pale face made him look kind of like that Woody Allen fella you see on TV sometimes. Behind him, parked on the street in front of our doublewide, was a Volkswagen bus, like the kind hippies used to drive in the 60s.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked. He extended his right hand, a girly, small right hand. I didn’t take it. He just held it out there.
“Sammy Lund,” he said, his hand hanging out on the end of his arm. “I’m here because I have to be.”
I just looked at him. Then I heard Jake from behind me.
“What’d he say he was?”
“Shut up a minute,” I growled over my shoulder. Then I returned my attention to the little fella. He finally got the idea I wasn’t gonna shake his hand and lowered it to his side.
“Now, what did you say your business with us might be?” I asked, making it clear by the tone of my voice that I was not feeling particularly friendly at the moment.
“I’m here because I have to be here,” he said. “I’ve been drawn to you. I’ve been called to you. You and your brother are the freaking Star of Bethlehem and I have followed you like one of the Three Kings of old. I am here because I’m on a mission, a quest, a crusade…”
“We don’t need no religion,” I started to say.
“You and your brother, you are it! You are what’s what! You are the be all to end all, but you’re not focused!” He sort of spat out that last word. “You’re here, you’re there, you’re everywhere and no one is driving the train!”
“Mud, what’s he talking about?” Jake asked from behind me.
The little guy looked past me at Jake and smiled. He walked past me and over to where Jake stood with his hand still stuffed into the box of cereal.
“Just look at you,” the little guy said, his voice almost sounding like he was singing. “You are a god! A big, wild, scruffy god with hair all over your head and, what, I don’t know, things in your beard!” He put his hands on Jake’s upper arms and gave him a shake. “You are wild, you are wonderful, you are genuine!”
As the little guy shook him, Jake looked at me. His features started to darken.
“Mud. I think I have to kill this little man now. He’s scaring me.”
This sentiment put a bit of a chill down my spine. Now, I can’t honestly tell you whether or not Jake has ever actually killed a man before. For one thing, there’s no statute of limitations on murder, whether or not the rat bastard had it coming and even if there’s no way anyone is ever gonna find the body. Still, laws are laws.
“Hold your temper, Jake,” I said as I walked over and pulled the little guy off of my brother.
“Mister, we ain’t got time for this,” I started to say. But he put his hands on my upper arms, too, and started shaking me like he was doing to Jake.
“And you,” he said, “just look at you! Beard cleaner than your brother’s, but still wild and free! And a big, shiny head all bald and grand and natural! My God! You two sing to me of America! You are both gods! Big, scruffy gods! You are kings!”
I was starting to reconsider my admonition to Jake, when the little guy finally let me go.
“I am here because you need me! I am here, because I need you! We are, as of this moment, a single unit! A triad! A cooperative!”
“Mister, you’d better start making sense…” I started to say.
“Good!” he barked. “Sense! You want sense! How’s this for sense?” He pointed a finger in my face, and for a moment I considered biting it off. But I don’t think that would have stopped him.
“You two are, what? Singers? Wrestlers? TV stars? A cartoon? Faces on food packages? None of the above? All of the above? What? What are you? I don’t know! You don’t know! You want to say something but you don’t know what. You don’t know how! Nobody knows because there is no FOCUS!” He shrieked out that last word.
“There’s an America out there that wants to love you! To follow you! But they don’t know how to love you or follow you because you don’t tell them how! They want to eat you up! They want to put you in a bowl, cover you with milk, and eat you by the spoonful…”
“We already got a cereal,” Jake said, holding up the box.
“That’s good! A cereal! But that’s not what I’m talking about. You are not faces on a cereal box! You, Jake and Mud Klemper, are forces of nature! You are a comet, an earthquake, a tidal wave. An asteroid crashing into the earth leaving not death and destruction but love and happiness in your wake.”
The little guy was walking between me and Jake, waving his arms, his voice getting higher and higher as he continued.
“But there is no direction to you! You are here and then you are there. You have no focus! That’s where I come in! I am the lens that will focus your sunbeam into a single, cutting pinpoint of white-hot light. I am the one to show you how to harness the thing that you are to where every small child in America will go to bed at night praying to Almighty God above that he or she will turn out to be like you.”
He was sweating now. He stopped for a moment and smiled, his even, white teeth glimmering in the afternoon sunlight. I started to get the idea that I knew what he was talking about.
“Look, Mr. Lund did you you say your name was? We already got us an agent and a bookkeeper and all that…”
“Yes!” he screamed. “And they’ve done well by you! You have money, you have property. You even have worldwide fame! But you haven’t evolved into GLORY yet! You have THINGS! But they haven’t given you focus!”
“But we’ve been doing all right,” Jake said. “We already got more money than you can shake a cat at…”
“Ah! But are you BIG?”
Jake looked at me with an expression that told me he had no clue whatsoever as to how to answer that question.
This Lund fella started preaching. I swear, that’s what it sounded like.
“Mud and Jake Klemper. Do those four words conjure an image? An idea? If I were to say those words in Botswana or Pago Pago would the unwashed savages’ eyes light up with recognition? When Egyptian families sit down to dinner tonight, will the name of the Klemper Brothers come up in casual conversation? Tonight, as Eskimo fathers cut blubber from the bodies of walruses they’ve killed, will they speak to each other of the Klempers? No. No, I say! And until they do, you’ll never be BIG! I’m here to change that! I’m here to make you BIG!”
I stared at the little guy. I have to admit, my mouth was wide open in surprise.
“Mud, the little man scares me,” Jake said. “Please, let’s kill him and go have dinner.”
I shot a glance at Jake that he knew from experience meant “shut your cake hole”. Then I looked at Lund.
“How you gonna go about doing that?” I asked. “How are you gonna make us that big?”
He threw both arms in the air, tossed back his head and screamed the word.
Then he put his hands on my shoulder and his face within inches of mine.
“Let me do what I have to do, what the universal force compels me to do. And by this time next year you and your brother will be BIG! Michael Jordan BIG! Bugs Bunny BIG!”
“Three Stooges big?” I asked.
“BINGO!” he screamed.
Well, all I could do after that was invite him to come in and have dinner with us.
But success didn’t sit well with the Klempers. They felt the need to get back to what they were — simple Iowa brothers with a special gift. A gift their father said they must never use.
Now it’s not I think that we were really anything special. I mean, we certainly weren’t the sharpest nails in the hardware store or anything like that, if you know what I mean. And I suppose that some of our success had to do with being at the right place at the right time and all. I suppose you could wonder if breeding had anything to do with it. One thing us Klempers are real proud of is the fact that we are Klempers. There’s always been something special about me and my brother. Pap said there was a special glow in the air the night Jake was born, and same thing for the night I came into the world. It was even wrote up about in the paper. Scientists said it was probably swamp gas or something. Pap said it was just a coincidence, not the fuckin’ Star of Bethlehem or anything like that, but still a guy can’t help but be proud when the sky lights up on the occasion of his birth. We’ve always sorta felt set apart from the folks that surround us. We try not to let it go to our heads or nothing, but that’s just the way it is. We’re Klempers and we’re proud.
I guess most of that attitude comes from our father, the late Luther Klemper. Our Pap was a proud man. And he had a lot to be proud of. His family came over from some country in Europe back in the 1800s and decided to settle in the rich farmlands of eastern Iowa. Now that might seem kinda peculiar since none of the pioneer Klempers had farms in Europe or even knew so much as a tinker’s damn about dirt, except for the fact that it tended to gather under their fingernails. They were mostly beggars and criminals, truth be told. And the further truth is that they left Europe because it was either that or go to jail. But they had it set in their minds that they were gonna be the most successful cotton farmers in the whole state of Iowa.
Along the way, they become the tag-team wrestling champions of the world (for a few minutes), visit a sex club in Japan, inspire a line of canned spaghetti and breakfast cereal, a cartoon series, and create a conglomerate that would put Donald Trump to shame. But could they ever get back to the simplicity they craved?
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