One summer, I spent two weeks in a small town called Lebanon where my cousins were active in community theater. They were working as stage-hands and extras for a production of The Little Shop of Horrors. It was a hot summer and I thought the little town was quaint but boring, so I agreed to lend a hand constructing the sets and maybe painting some scenery. I’d never been part of anything theatrical before; the idea of even being on an actual stage made me feel strange and excited.
Just before we left for the first set building party, my oldest cousin took me aside and told me to expect a bit of weirdness from the theater’s in-house carpenter and master set-builder Jay Kalicak. I’d already seen Jay — a fifty-ish looking man with a pointed, gray beard — in the tavern on my first night in town. My cousin let me know that Jay Kalicak was a Viet Nam veteran and that he’d seen quite a bit of combat; he drank heavily all day from sun-up until sun-down, and he had a bad reputation for sometimes using foul language around the theater. Once, my cousin said, he’d even been caught drinking straight out of a bottle of vodka while sitting in his van with the engine running, waiting to run one of the actresses home from rehearsal. By the time we left for the set building party, my mind spawned at least a thousand different scenarios where I’d end up regretting going with my cousins to work on the set for Little Shop of Horrors.
My strange feeling turned out to be a premonition of sorts. At first everything was going very well. We just moved a set of “flats” onto the stage and began the tedious process of wall-papering them to make them look like real walls. Jay Kalicak acted as supervisor, weaving around and smelling like a bar. He just pointed at me for no apparent reason and made a strange face — stroked his pointed, gray beard and said, “You should be in the play.”
Everyone jumped on board with this idea, and before I knew it, I had a script in my hand and Jay Kalicak had one in his hand and he got right up three inches from my face and said a line from the play. I was supposed to say my line back, but I couldn’t — I looked into his face and it was — to use the word that popped into my head right at that instant — haunted. It was like I was staring into the face of death. I blurted out “I can’t!” and then ran off the stage.
Before I knew it, I was standing outside of the theatre in the parking lot, shaking. And behind me came Jay Kalicak. My heart pounded and my hands shook. He looked almost as freaked-out as I felt but he smiled and said, “What gave you the horrors there, stage-fright?”
I said I guessed so. He walked over and put his arm around my shoulders! I felt like my legs were going to buckle. Then he said in a very calm and friendly voice. “The name of this play is Little Shop of Horrors.”
And for some reason I burst out laughing. So did Jay. And after that we started talking and a few minutes later, I was back on the set. It turned out I was no-good for acting, but I wound up being a “go-fer” for Jay Kalicak and watched with amazement as he built a living monster-plant out of gel and foam and constructed the entire set without consulting a single diagram or guidebook. When I told him how amazing I thought this was he said “Shoot, I once hiked one-hundred miles through the jungle for a beer and a barbecue sandwich.”
Later, he told me stories about how he’d scraped dead corpses from tank-=treads and seen his friends shot or killed in the war. He was one of the nicest and most intelligent people I’d known, but even to me it was obvious that some great light inside of him had gone out. The drinking and bouts of temper only signaled some sort of deep wound that he really didn’t care to discuss with anyone directly. That was fine by me. I never told him that I found him both an inspiration for resourcefulness and a reminder of how important it is to meet the dangers and challenges of life with resourcefulness and humor, not to mention generosity since Jay Kalicak volunteered his services to the community theater free of charge year after year.