Jeff Manes: Looking in the mirror on 55th birthday
April 6, 2012 10:08AM
Patty Wisniewski of Valparaiso and Jeff Manes, along with Chicagoans Tom Desch and Brian Kallies (a native of Cedar Lake), are part of a team that has produced a documentary called “Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh.” | Phot
Updated: May 9, 2012 8:05AM
“When I’m through, I ask of you
Please grant this final wish
Give my parts to those in need,
Once were blind now can lead.
Lend more space to the human race,
Incinerate me, please.
Then take that urn out east of town
And just a little south.
Toss me off that grand old bridge
Unto the river’s mouth.
Again I’ll float ’neath 41
A boy once more havin’ fun.
Meandrin’ west toward Kankakee
Where mother she gave birth to me.
‘There go Jeff, not much left,’
Some of you may sigh.
At my behest this last request —
No flesh, no bone, just driftin’ home
Kiss my ash goodbye.”
Through the years, Jeff Manes has been asked by several readers to interview himself.
Manes turned 55 today; he lives alone in an apartment in Lowell. He is a socialist who enjoys writing fact-based fiction, poetry and is the author of a self-syndicated human-interest column.
Manes also enjoys community theater and has acted in several plays. His favorite roles were George in “Of Mice and Men,” Mr. Brink (Death) in “On Borrowed Time,” and Lucifer in “Heaven is My Goal.” He is part of the production team of “Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh,” a documentary that will be coming soon to a PBS station near you.
Where were you born?
“St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee, Ill.,” he said. “It was a blizzard on April 8, 1957. I remember the doctor circumcising me; it hurt like the dickens.
“In high school, I was tested and told I have the memory of 1 in 1,000. In the mill, my co-workers called me ‘Rain Man.’ ”
Your family lived in Sumava Resorts.
“Correct, above a Bohemian bakery that also served as the post office. The Old Man paid a whopping $30 a month rent, but admitted the heating bills weren’t bad in the winter, living above a bakery.
“As an infant, Ma dropped me down the steps; I’m pretty sure it was an accident. The only thing that saved me was the fact I landed in a fresh batch of apricot kolachkies. To this day, they’re my favorite.”
When did your parents move to Lake Village?
“When I was 3, but I found them. They were living on Indiana 10 near the state line. As a kid, I hunted, trapped and fished, but I haven’t hunted or trapped since high school.
“Growing up, I’d say more than half of what we ate was wild game and freshwater fish.”
“Rabbit, squirrel, pheasant, quail, ducks, geese, bluegills, bass, bullheads, venison ... . If we ate spaghetti, meat loaf or chili, it was made with venison.
“The Old Man was one of the original bow hunters back around 1960. I’ve never killed a deer.”
Did you do well in school?
“Yeah, until the fourth or fifth grade; then I got bored with it. When I took my SAT test, I filled in the dots without reading any of the questions.”
“I wanted to get back to reading Mario Puzo’s ‘The Godfather.’ ”
Your all-time favorite movie?
“Where do you come up these lame questions? How can someone name one movie? ‘The Godfather Part II,’ ‘Matewan,’ ‘The Verdict,’ ‘Braveheart,’ ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ ‘Hoosiers,’ ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ with Daniel Day Lewis ... .
“I watched one a few months ago called ‘Septien’ that’s only 70 minutes long; it was on the Sundance Channel. It’s only about a year old. Talk about dark humor. It made ‘Fargo’ look like something you’d see on ‘Family Classics.’ It takes place in modern-day Tennessee. Think 21st-century Flannery O’Connor and-or Tennessee Williams.”
Were you popular in high school?
“I was so unpopular ... I had to take my cousin to the prom. He’d been hit by the ugly stick twice, but that boy sure could dance.”
You played baseball for North Newton High School.
“That’s correct, center fielder and batted lead-off. I didn’t play my senior year; to this day, I regret that. There’s only one thing that kept me from playing for the Chicago White Sox.”
Hobbies or pastimes?
“Fishing, watching the Sox, reading, doing the Sunday crossword and playing ‘Scrabble.’ I used to collect baseball cards, but sold all of them but one back in the 1980s to buy a couple of acres in Lowell.”
What card did you keep?
“Lou Brock wearing a Cubs cap; it was just before he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964 for the ‘immortal’ Ernie Broglio, a starting pitcher. Broglio posted a 7-19 record in 21/2 seasons with the Cubs; Brock, an outfielder, played nearly 16 seasons for the Cardinals and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.
“Bwaaa! What an organization.”
Inland Steel Co.?
“I hired into the labor gang at No. 3 Bloomer in 1977. After two years, I bid for and got a welding apprenticeship at the coke plant. You had to have at least 20 years to get a welding apprenticeship for most departments, but nobody wanted to work in the coke plant. The coke battery was a pistol, but I could take heat better than most.”
You were directly involved in two accidents where four of your co-workers lost their lives.
“The mill can be a dangerous place; let’s just leave it at that.”
“I was laid off from the mill for 10 months once and took a couple of semesters at Davenport College in Merrillville.”
How did that go?
“I got eight A’s and one F; I flunked an elective called keyboarding. Go figure. As soon as ‘Mother Inland’ called me back, I quit college. Hey, I was a fish out of water; a union rep taking business management classes. But I will say this ... .”
“i’m uP 2 TypiNg 13 werd$ per min ute t0D@y.”
You mentioned buying two acres.
“Yeah, after living in an apartment in Schererville for five years, my second wife and I moved to Lowell. That began my farm phase. I raised organic vegetables, everlasting flowers and herbs — legal herbs. I’d also collect hornets’ nests, abandoned bird nests, moss, acorns, weeds, hickory nuts and things like that. It’s called wild crafting; along with the everlasting flowers, people would use that stuff in dried arrangements.”
Where did you sell your wares?
“Uncle John’s Flea Market in Cedar Lake and the Gary Farmers’ Market at Tri-City Plaza. In 1988, I sold jack-be-little pumpkins to all the Strack & Van Til stores. Another year, I planted 5,000 pepper plants by hand. I have that kind of personality. That was my nickname — Pepper Manes. Ironic that I write a column called Salt. Just proves I’m a split.”
“I ran cross country a few years in high school, but didn’t train like I should have. My younger brother was one of the best distance runners in the state. Later in life, I again took up running. In my mid-40s, I could run a 5K in the very low 17 minutes and a 4:57 mile. I qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon in 2000.”
Do you still run?
“Yeah, to Burger King and Dairy Queen.”
You have several skeletons in your closet.
“Next question, paparazzi.”
When did you begin writing?
“For the most part, January 2000; I think the millennium had something to do with it.”
What is most precious to you?
Who do you consider some of the most courageous people to have graced this planet?
“In no particular order, Eugene V. Debs, Mother Teresa, Cesar Chavez, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, Geronimo and Luis Aparicio. I just threw that last one in because I’m a Sox fan. I’ve always had a penchant for the underdog.”
You don’t have a typical Italian surname.
“In ancient Rome, the Manes cult or sect worshipped the dark and the dead. It’s weird; I can’t count the number of times I’ve been a pallbearer. I’m also one-eighth Cherokee on my mother’s side.”
This Manes cult; you’re kidding, right?
“Google it. And where did you get that caterpillar above your lip? It looks ridiculous.”
Manes has led a roller-coaster life, but admits most of his wounds have been self-inflicted.
He also told me he loves writing his column and often has been urged to make a book of them.
Everyone has a story to tell.