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Death in the Family

Last Friday night Judy Heneghan and Peter Staloch opened up their Silver Lake home for a wake. Actors from Minnesota who balance their time in Los Angeles between theater and more commercial pursuits, the couple preside over a fairly sizable community of Midwestern expats, most of whom performed at one time or another on the stages or in the comedy clubs of Minneapolis. And Friday was a day when the kinship of a common state mattered: Senator Paul Wellstone, along with his wife, daughter and four others, had died in a plane crash, and for those of us who still call that land of 10,000 lakes home, it felt like a death in the family. When the invitation came, I canceled all other plans. I was not only eager for the commiseration; I was hoping to score a Wellstone campaign T-shirt to wear the next day at the anti-war rally in San Francisco.

It turned out to be a historic party. Under a “Famous Hot Dishes” map of Minnesota and next to a refrigerator decorated with magnet ornaments of walleyed pike, Heneghan laid out snacks and opened bottles of red wine, and we assembled in the kitchen to tell stories: of performing at Wellstone fund-raisers, of literature dropping and phone canvassing for his unlikely 1990 campaign, of shaking his hand at the Minnesota State Fair, where he always campaigned and where my friend Bernadette Sullivan, the “brand that fits” voice in the Lee Jeans commercial, once sneaked in behind him for a snapshot, to make it look as though she was standing next to him. (Wellstone may have been only 5-foot-5 and happily married, but crushes on him were not unusual.) Someone brought up the letter then-incumbent Rudy Boschwitz had penned to Minnesota‘s Jewish community in ’90, declaring Wellstone a Bad Jew for marrying a Christian woman from the South. “Can you imagine?” said Sullivan, in that exaggerated regional accent most people recognize from Fargo. “Oh, Gad. That‘s just not nice.” Sullivan told us she’d done the voice-overs for Bill Hillsman‘s radio ads during the homestretch of that campaign; I talked about how we’d written advocacy journalism about Wellstone in Minneapolis‘ City Pages (“Don’t Count Him Out,” we proudly insisted), where I worked until 1991. I celebrated the election-night returns with my then-husband by jumping up and down on the bed in our St. Paul artists‘ loft until its wooden frame cracked in half.

Some in our crowd complained of having spent the day on sets or at wardrobe fittings with people who had little sympathy (“Oh, right, I heard about that -- senator from Minnesota right? Oh, that’s sad. Could you go try this on now?”), but we all agreed the uninitiated could not be blamed for their ignorance. After all, none of us could remember where we were the night Missouri Senator Mel Carnahan died the same way, three weeks before the election in 2000. Suddenly, the tone of the conversation shifted: The death of Carnahan, which Yahoo! News recalled as “eerily similar” to Wellstone‘s, brought to the surface that darkest thought on all of our minds: What brought down that plane? None of us believed it was something so prosaic as bad weather. Minnesota, especially on the Iron Range where Wellstone’s plane was landing, is about bad weather.

Conspiracy theories have been founded on less: Wellstone had just pulled six percentage points ahead of his Republican opponent, Norm Coleman, because of (not, as some media like to erroneously report, in spite of) his vote against war in Iraq. Washington had been campaigning so relentlessly in Minnesota that Minnesotans were starting to resent it. The plane had been reduced to ashes. “These people are like the Mafia,” said a young woman who was leaning on the stove. “They don‘t even try to cover it up!”

As it happened, Staloch had the perfect large-size T-shirt secreted away in his closet, the one from the ’96 campaign that says on the back, one word per line: “Mumble. Grumble. Complain. Wallow. Hope. Despair. Worry,” and then, a few spaces down: “Vote.” He gladly handed it over for the cause, and the next morning, when I arrived in San Francisco wearing it over a black turtleneck, I found myself being treated with the solemn respect typically reserved for the bereaved. “Hey, Minnesota, how are you doing?” asked one man who stopped me in Lefty O‘Doul’s, our meet-up spot on Geary and Powell. “Are you okay?” One woman touched my shoulder gently with her fingertips to get my attention and intoned at a near whisper, “I‘m so sorry for your loss.” In general, however, these strangers were not sympathetic to my compatriots’ suspicions of conspiracy. When I confided to this woman that I could not get myself to believe that ice on the wings downed the plane, she smiled the kind of smile we reserve for crazy people, and backed away tactfully until she disappeared in the crowd.

What she may not have understood was that, according to writer Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the first two stages of grief are anger and denial. If few reasonable people outside my circle of devastated fellow Minnesotans were seriously questioning the cause of the crash, it may be because conspiracy theories, like malpractice suits, are a way of bringing order to the chaotic cruelty of accidental death. While even my most Republican relative admitted doubts about the accident, liberals from other parts of the country would not.

Nader-voting radicals, however, were a different story. As the anti-war march began to move out from the Embarcadero, a young black woman carrying an REI backpack stopped me. “Do you think he was killed?” she asked, pointing at my T-shirt.

“I wish I didn‘t,” I told her.

“Me, too.”

She told me her name was Jeanine, that she lived in Oakland, and that she knew where to find bathrooms nobody knew about along the march’s route -- like the ladies‘ lounge in Saks’ fur-coat department. We spent the rest of the march together, sharing apples and water, lining up with marching bands, pointing out funny signs. When the 40,000-strong march arrived triumphantly at the Civic Center, Jeanine offered me a ride to the airport. I accepted. She took me to her house near Fruitvale to freshen up before the flight home, and I slept in the back of her VW van all the way to the Southwest terminal.


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