The Sheet holds its Christmas party in late January every year at Restaurant Skadi.
And every year I give the same little speech which I’ve mostly lifted from the late Eugene R. Clark Jr.
Clark was Camp Director of YMCA Camp Belknap on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire from 1960-1988.
At the end of every camp session, Gene would urge campers and leaders to take a hard look around the campfire, as the same group of people would never be gathered again.
Which is what I tell my staff every January, though when I look around the table, there are certain folks I just assume will always be there.
Assumptions, however, are dangerous. A journalist should know better.
Last week, I learned that Mike McKenna is moving on, or at least, moving back around. He has accepted a job as Managing Editor of Sun Valley Magazine.
Mike’s wife’s family is from Hailey, Idaho. That’s where they met. They have friends there. They have a second child on the way. It makes sense. But wait. If she’s from Idaho, how the hell did he ever get there? How’d they meet? The detail is a thorn. My flow is interrupted. I put the editorial tribute on hold and call him.
“Hello, this is Mike.” I love that about him, He doesn’t have caller ID. He has no idea who’s calling.
“How’d you meet your wife?” I ask, without introduction.
“I was a male stripper. She loved the banana hammock I wore. She became a regular.”
“If you were a male stripper, there wouldn’t be regulars.”
“Good point.” Mike, as is his nature, soon digresses. He tells me that, while he was back in his Massachusetts hometown of Hingham last Thanksgiving, he was asked the same question and gave the same answer. His high school friends had all believed the tale.
“I’ve always been the different one. It was believable.”
Believable? Spoken like a true Red Sox fan among Red Sox fans.
“C’mon, how’d you wind up in Sun Valley?”
The story Mike tells is a familiar one. Sun Valley entered his consciousness as a kid while he was watching some sports special on television. Years later, on a roadtrip to Oregon (Mike’s personal theme song, by the way, is the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man”), Mike made a detour and spent a night in Hailey, down-valley from Ketchum. He went to a bar. People were friendly. He decided to live there.
Flash forward. 2003. Mike and his new wife Brooke have tired of New Hampshire, where they had been living, and find themselves visiting family in Idaho.
Mike is sitting on a barstool when Brooke’s phone rings. Not wife Brooke’s phone, but Brooke’s good friend Brooke’s phone.
I had also lived in Sun Valley at one time. Mike and I had, ironically, both bartended at the Sun Valley Brewery, though our time there never overlapped. Brooke Bonner, it turns out, was a mutual friend.
I tell Bonner I’ve started a newpaper in Mammoth Lakes and I’m dying of exhaustion and I need a writer.
Brooke hands Mike the phone. We talk. The guy is not incoherent. Of course, it’s still early. Mike and wife Brooke drive down for the weekend. Bluesapalooza weekend. People are friendly. He decides to move there [Mammoth].
“You know, that’s the only Bluesapalooza I’ve ever been to which I haven’t worked,” says Mike, who’s just completed his 8th.
“And what’s a shame,” he added, “is that finally, in my eighth year, I got it right. And now I’m leaving.”
“What’d you get right?”
“I had a bar full of hotties working for me all weekend. It was terrific.”
What’s been terrific is the past seven years. Not that it’s been perfect. We’ve seen the best and worst of each other,. We’ve fought bitterly. Laughed. Consoled. Pushed each other away. Pushed each other to be better.
When I met Mike, as a writer, he was … a work in progress. Mostly polished, but he couldn’t write a lead to save his life.
He’d paint-by-numbers for two paragraphs, and then unleash DaVinci.
For my part, I’d over-edit him. He was folky, wordy. It offended my minimalist streak, the influence of too much Ernie, another writer who’s spent too much time in the Sun (Valley).
We would war over words. Too many words.
And then somewhere along the line, the war stopped. His leads have become a strength of his writing. And I stopped turning everything into George Shirk.
*Note: Shirk is a tremendous writer who founded the Mammoth Monthly, but was notorious for editing everything to sound, well, just like him. Which was very, very good, if not entirely authentic.
Now? Mike McKenna is to writing as Greg Maddux is to pitching, You know what’s coming and you still can’t touch it.
What I’ll miss most about Mike, what most of us will miss, is just his simple company. He was fun to be around. He made roadtrips shorter. He made nights out longer. He can’t keep a secret. He can’t tell a lie. He is ridiculously optimistic and still believes that Marquis Daniels will be a key part of the Celtics next year.
I can still recall one roadtrip where he kept me laughing for an hour as he described his high school hockey career, in particular one story where he got into it with the fans at a Pee Wee hockey tourney in Montreal.
An opposing player gave the 14-year old Mac a cheap shot from behind, so he threw an elbow in return and both got matching penalties. Mac tried to plead his case but the refs were French. They couldn’t understand him. The crowd booed lustily. Mac then turned around and figured out why. He was skating to the penalty box with a player half his size.
It was an old school penalty box, encased by a chain link fence and netting.
The crowd kept screamng at Mac. He stood up and screamed back, complete with hand gesture.
A guy then walked down to the penalty box and motioned to Mac that he’d like to speak to him. When Mac got close, the guy spit in his face. The rest of the crowd then showered Mac with trash.
With two minutes left in the game, his team down a goal, Mac took the puck from behind his own net, skated the entire length of the ice, beat all five defenders, and flipped the puck over the goalie’s shoulder to tie the game. “It was the best goal of my life,” he said.
I love that Mac got the last laugh. And I hope those of us who’ve had the privilege of reading his work these past seven years fully appreciate how many laughs he’s given us, how many tears he’s evoked, how many lives he’s touched. A good man. They don’t make ‘em much better.