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I chose Wrangler for two reasons : The name Steve didn't quite fit this gruff old Iron Ranger with the booming baritone, and back in the early 1950s he was actually known as Wrangler Steve during a short stint with a Twin Cities children's television show.
The man was a talker. Hell, he was the king of talkers. Nobody held court like Cannon. You either enjoyed it, sat back, took it in with a grin, or you fought for your time at the podium, wasting your energy and missing the show. I tried never to miss a show.
Some talkers are windbags, full of bombast and blather, too often boring. Cannon was simply endearing. His sessions with me over the last few years, either the brief two-and-a-half-hour evening phone calls or the longer six-hour afternoon chats in his kitchen, were marked by his astonishing honesty and vulnerability. Every story, delivered from his rich, colorful life, was told without gloss or patina, true to every detail whether it made him look good or seem less appealing. I could not help being charmed by a personality like that, and I developed a deep fondness for the man.
He told me behind-the-scenes radio stories from 13 years in morning drive at KSTP and another 27 years spent in the afternoon at WCCO. He spoke of growing up in Eveleth, describing the slurs he dealt with being the only Jewish kid in his class. He candidly revealed the joy of his first romantic experience and the glorious thrill of his very first radio show in Duluth (which he claimed gave him almost the same physical sensation that first romance provided). He told me how he came to befriend Lenny Bruce in the '60s, how he loved jazz and how he always dreamed of being an actor. And I ate it up. I knew I was listening, not just to a man, but to a part of Minnesota history, a slice of Americana.
Cannon had mannerisms and phrases I enjoyed repeating. You went to the bar for "a couple horns," a decent person was a "good scout," and if he didn't like you he'd have no "truck" with you. When I sit back in the evening now, knowing I can't visit with him anymore, I remember those lines, the stories he delivered, the way he'd laugh in the midst of them, trying not to let the laugh slow the pace of the tale. I think about how this hardened, take-no-B.S. hombre grew up on the Range with the nickname "Bunny," given to him when he was just an infant. I remember how, when we ate together in his kitchen, he'd always wear a large apron because his wife had once told him she was tired of washing food stains out of his shirts and if he didn't wear an apron he'd have to start doing his own laundry. I think about his stories as a University of Minnesota student going to classes with Big Man On Campus Bud Grant and wishing he could attract the same hot girls who gravitated to that big jock.
And I think about the day he was diagnosed with cancer. I knew he hadn't been feeling well. The last time we had gotten together he hadn't had much of an appetite. Still, the news was a blunt-force strike to the heart, made more difficult by the matter-of-fact way he addressed what was so awful about his situation.
"There's still things I want to see," he said. "These are such interesting times, aren't they? There's so much going on. I want to find out how this Obama does, I want to see what changes are going to happen in this country. I want to see the new Twins stadium and the Gopher stadium."
He was 81, but he might as well have been 21. The world around him was endlessly fascinating to Cannon. He kept up with everything. His mind was sharp, and his biting wit alive and devastating.
Cannon ended the phone call that evening by passing along his love. It was the first time he'd used that word with me, and it stopped me cold. A shift had occurred. Consciously or not, he was signaling a move into the final stretch of our friendship.
The next time he'd call would be the afternoon he learned there was nothing more the doctors could do. It was time to get ready to die. I wouldn't be home that evening, and he would leave a voice mail saying, "Tomaso, this is the Wrangler. Headin' for the last roundup, my boy. Next time you come over, why don't you bring a tape recorder and I'll tell you some stories."
I did visit four or five times after that, but I didn't end up turning on the recorder. The talks became too personal, too intimate. This wasn't the time for an interview. I just wanted to sit back and take in the man, the human being who I once knew only as a grand voice on the radio. He was now my dying friend. That he had stories to tell wasn't important. That he let me sit by his side was enough. I worked hard to burn his face into my memory, the sharp, upturned smile, the mischievous eyes.
The voice, of course, I didn't have to worry about forgetting. That voice so many of us in Minnesota will never forget.
Tom Mischke does a daily afternoon webcast for citypages.com.