Most people born before the year 2000 can still remember when audio entertainment was supplied entirely by modulated radio waves tuned through antennae linked to cumbersome receivers. And those born before the year 1980 can even remember a program called A Prairie Home Companion, and its host, Kurt Waldheim. Waldheim also played the main character, a mythical figure named Garrison Keillor, tyrannical, bloodthirsty, ruling his legendary kingdom of Lake Wobegon with an iron fist and an oversized forehead. There was a poorly-received film based on the program, made by Robert Altman, in the waning year of his talent, about a revolution against that draconian leader, an uprising that ended in the utter destruction of the unhappy Minnesota town, supposedly erasing it from the Earth.
What Waldheim, Altman, and even Prince didn’t know is that there was a real Wobegon, Minnesota. It was a town on the southern shore of Wolf Bay on the outskirts of the Boundary Wilderness Area. The actual town was a far cry from the one in the myths and legends. In place of modest, provincial, lackluster Lutheran descendants of Norwegian farmers and German mail-order brides, the residents of the actual Wobegon ran the gamut from bitter and depressed to bitter, drunk, and depressed Lutheran descendants of Norwegian farmers who settled the area and mated with the sex workers who settled in the area not long afterward.
In the afterglow of the bumptious 1960s, the early 1970s threw its cloak of stylish rage over the cities of the United States, but in Wobegon, as in other small towns in flyover country, the dissolving of the Beatles, Saigon, and the Nixon Administration were barely noticeable, except to those at the Café Gras, the Perdition Roadhouse, or the Pandora’s Box café who sat from early morning to mid-afternoon drinking bottomless coffee while perusing the national and international news in place of, or supplemental to, the local paper, the Mist County Compass. They were Midwest Cosmopolitans, drinking in the national malaise with their ever-refilled cups of java, and they passed that mood to their neighbors in order to give the town a clear awareness of itself as a small, insignificant victim of the Arab oil cartel’s whims, the liberal project to ban sober body coverings, and the negative economic effects of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
In short, Wobegon was ready for Reagan before anyone had even heard of Jimmy Carter.
August 15 of 1974, exactly a week after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, had been a meshugenah day for Rabbi Ingqvist of the Wobegon Lutheran Synagogue Beth Anne. His chippy in Miami was blackmailing him, and he wasn’t entirely sure his wife was clueless about his infidelities behind her back during their vacations in Florida together, or his seasonal trips to so-called “ecumenical conventions.” If she was onto him, it could save him paying a good deal of cash to his mistress to keep her mouth shut. But then again, the Rebbetzin Mrs. Ingqvist had grown more and more demanding in recent months, as if she suspected him of something. In either event, he expected to pay dearly, in financial and several other ways he imagined only vaguely but with dread.
He'd had a distasteful conversation with his chippy, Juanita, over the phone, and several ambiguously hostile encounters during the course of the morning with the Rebbitzin. After an unremarkable lunch of leftover mayonnaise, he plodded in a dark mood with his rod, reel, and tackle box to Krebsbach’s Bait Shop and Liquor Store, where he purchased two fifths of Wild Old Dirty Grampa and the last Styrofoam cupful of the day’s nightcrawlers. From there, he went to where his aluminum boat with its ancient Evinrude motor waited for him at Olufsen’s Landing.
By three in the afternoon, the Rabbi was firmly soused, and the single pike he’d caught had begun to bake in the bottom of the hull. By 8 pm, as the sun threatened to set, he had spent two hours passed out. After the third unconscious hour he awoke to a tug on his rod. Blearily, he landed another pike, to join the first, which was covered with flies. Feeling queasy and triumphant in a limp way, he motored back in the direction of the landing by the light of the waning crescent moon. However, he was unable to find the boat launch. After what seemed to him an eternity, he opted to anchor in a cove and tie the boat off to a fallen pine protruding horizontally into the lake.
Rabbi Ingqvist struggled up half-submerged rocks and came ashore in the forest. He was afraid. He had no flashlight with him, as he hadn’t planned on returning in the dark. After walking a few yards into the woods, he decided he’d better spend the night in the boat. He didn’t really know what he thought he would do in the woods, anyway. He turned around to go back.
It was then he heard the dissonant chorus of three dozen shrieking birds of prey. The piercing choir froze his heart in his chest. It was coming closer, the sound cleaving the night in bursts of ten or so seconds, separated by about five. Now he heard a rapidly-approaching creature ripping through foliage, and then it was upon him.
A wide mouthful of jagged teeth dominated its eyeless face. Its limbs, skin stretched tight over bones, with scarcely the meat on them one might find on a starved and plucked flamingo, ended in long-fingered hands tipped with claws. A man-sized long-legged bat without wings, but with the vestige of a membrane in its inner elbow and under its arms, it tore into the Rabbi’s chest and shoulder with its teeth and claws. It shredded him as he took over the screaming now, feeling his flesh pulled from his bones. The Rabbi was being eaten alive by a Wendigo, the demonic predator of the forest whispered about in terror by Ojibwe and Cree.
Deputy Knute Tollerud and his partner, Junior Deputy Marge Gunderson, discovered what was left of the body thirty-two hours later. The remains of Rabbi Herbert Nathaniel Ingqvist consisted of segments of shattered bone and a skull that had been broken in half, the tender brain within having been devoured.
At first, law enforcement and animal authorities attributed the brutal attack to a misplaced grizzly bear. That attack heralded a series of them, though, culling those members of the Wobegon community who were slower and less apt to abstain from depressants. Several duck hunters swore to having seen the monstrous Wendigo, running shrieking through the woods near the shoreline, chasing pot smokers. A class of schoolchildren testified that their teacher, Miss Dunderwood, was mauled by the Wendigo right before their eyes, though it later came to light that the children had stoned her to death during a reenactment of a Shirley Jackson story, and then eaten her by way of hastily reenacting a story by Lord Dunsany. You can hear more about Jackson and nothing about Dunsany in the archives of The Writer’s Almanac.
Local amateur photographer and multimedia artist, Earl Dickmeyer, caught an astonishingly clear snap of the monster, not at all like the distant, blurry ones of Sasquatch or Nessie so beloved by the cryptozoological community. Unfortunately, within the week, that photo as well as the negative and contact test prints had been abducted by extra-terrestrials.
Wobegoners began to flee the area. Inside a year, the town’s economy, business district, and infrastructure were in ruins. To put the final pineapple on the pizza, a sinkhole opened up, pulling all that was left of the town down to Hell. The last remaining vestige of Wobegon was the sculpture by the regrettably Swedish artist Claes Oldenburg of a giant hamburger, made when he was stationed in the town, for his own safety, during World War II. It was made entirely of burlap bags cemented like papier-maché, and as such it was long considered the largest pile of burlap bags in the world. But it has since been eaten by goats and rats, both species who find burlap and dried wheat paste a delicacy.
And that’s the SuperTrue® story of Wobegon, where all the women were jezebels at heart, all the men were mopey suckers, and all the children were cannibals.
And this has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!