College Days

College is a time in your life when you can be gloriously ridiculously full of yourself and get away with it, a luxury once reserved for the aristocracy but, in America, extended to the child of a carpenter and postal worker, namely me. I was a middle-class kid from the West River Road where late at night fireflies sparkled in the field behind the dark houses and I sat on our rich green lawn and stared at the blinking red light on a distant water tower and tried to imagine a larger life though it seemed presumptuous and that fall I found it, ten miles south of us, at the University of Minnesota. I had been a B student at Anoka High School but I was encouraged by some tireless encouragers, my teachers Helen Story, Lois Melby, Helen Fleischman, Katherine Hattendorf, children of the Depression who grew up in farm families and for them teaching was a shining ideal and also the path out of a hard life they knew too well, the life of serfs. Miss Hattendorf grew up on a farm in Iowa; her German parents sent her and her sisters to board with a family in town so they could attend high school. When she was about to leave for the University of Chicago and it came time to say goodbye and get in the car and go to the train, she looked at her mother standing at the kitchen sink—“I wanted to hug her, but I couldn’t do it. She was a stranger to me. They wanted me and my sisters to get a good education and they made big sacrifices and that was one of them: they didn’t know us anymore and we didn’t know them.” She was sure I could be a writer and to show her faith in me, she paid me $20 to write her obituary, though she was in pretty good health.

I secretly imagined getting published in The New Yorker though of course I couldn’t tell anybody that. I had imagined it since junior high school. I still have the first copy I bought, 35 cents, with E.B. White in it, John Cheever, and A.J. Liebling, my hero. A.J. Liebling knocked me out, and he still does. He used to sit up in his office at the magazine and look down 43rd and see the Hotel Dixie and the Paramount Building, home of the Paramount Theater. To the Paramount, he had gone as a young reporter to interview the Hollywood femme fatale Pola Negri, whom he had fallen in love with when he saw her in a German silent film, “Passion,” in Hanover, New Hampshire, when he was about to be kicked out of Dartmouth for cutting chapel. Liebling interviewed her as she lay in a white peignoir on a white chaise longue like a crumpled gardenia petal and said, of Rudolph Valentino, “He was the only man I evair luffed. But I am fated always to be unhappy in luff. Because I expect so mawch.” And the Hotel Dixie was the home of Liebling’s friend, Colonel John R. Stingo, the horseracing columnist for the National Enquirer. Colonel Stingo said, “I sit up there in my room at the Dixie, working away on my column. I finish, and it is perhaps one o’clock. Up there in my retreat, I feel the city calling to me. It winks at me with its myriad eyes, and I go out and get stiff as a board. I seek out companionship, and if I do not find friends, I make them. A wonderful, grand old Babylon.”That summer after high school, I worked as a dishwasher at the Evangeline Hotel for Women in downtown Minneapolis, a skinny kid with glasses in a white apron, lugging the racks of steaming hot plates off the conveyer, chipping the black crusts of food off the bottoms of the cooking pots. Dishwashing can bring out the romantic in a man. On a hot summer day, you come out of the steam and heat of the scullery and the beauty of the world overwhelms you and you feel cool and comfortable for the rest of the day. I walked onto campus for the first day of classes and strolled up the mall to Northrop Auditorium and gazed up at its great pillars and the Jeffersonian inscription on the facade above, founded in the faith that men are ennobled by understanding, dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth, devoted to the instruction of youth and the welfare of the state. Along the mall, a stately parade of utilitarian brick buildings with pillars pasted to their fronts, a river of youth flowing under the canopy of majestic elms, lost freshmen lolling on the steps studying campus maps and planning their route from one class to the next, and Africans and Indians and Pakistanis and Koreans come to study plant agronomy and engineering, Africans blacker than midnight who spoke with British accents like John Gielgud’s, black Africans speaking beautiful French (I turned and followed them, eavesdropping, so astonishing this was to hear), bearded Sikhs in turbans, women in saris with red dots painted on their foreheads, Korean War vets in fatigues and GI sunglasses, old bearded lefties in turtlenecks clutching their I. F. Stone Weekly and The Realist, cigarette-smoking women playing the role of beat princess or troubled intellect or Audrey Hepburn heroine, cool people who might possibly have been poets, anxious bookish people en route to serious encounters with history and literature. Ambition everywhere you looked, electrical currents jazzing the air. I walked over to Dinkytown to buy my books at Perrine’s, down the street from Al’s Breakfast Nook, near Vescio’s Italian restaurant and a rats’ nest of a bookstore called Heddon’s whose snowy-haired proprietor, after pondering a moment, could reach into the third orange crate from the bottom and pull out the very book you asked for, and Virg ‘N’ Don’s Grocery and a coin laundry called The Tub, and McCosh’s Bookstore with the sweet-faced bearded anarchist and bibliomaniac McCosh, Gray’s Drugstore lunch counter (a grilled cheese sandwich, chili, and a vanilla shake, please) and a fine little coffeehouse called the Ten O’Clock Scholar where a beaky kid with brushy hair played a battered guitar and sang “O Fair and Tender Ladies” and It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew, Where the dangers are many and the pleasures are few. The stage was in front, before the big double plate-glass window, and sometimes a passerby stopped on the sidewalk, peered in the window, into the dark room, and then realized he was part of a show and fled.

I walked over to Folwell Hall, home of the English Department and the divine Miss Sarah Youngblood and craggy old Huntington Brown and Samuel Monk the 18th Century man and Toni McNaron who propounded Milton and Archibald Leyasmeyer the Chaucerian and other noble and learned friends of literature, and I felt grateful that this institution had opened its doors to a dreamer like me who had no clear vocation whatsoever. I was operating on a wistful urge to sit in libraries and be a writer and that was all. I wasn’t like the anxious bookish people who seemed to be proceeding on a well-plotted course, boys climbing the slopes toward law school, smart girls in chemistry lab who would march on to distinction developing polymers. Myself, I just hoped to be lucky.

I paid $71 for a quarter’s tuition and another $10 or so for my books, a political science text, a volume of Horace and a Latin dictionary, and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style for my composition course—and notebooks with the university seal on the cover (Omnibus Artibus, Commune Vinculum) and I took a seat in the long reading room in Walter Library among men and women bent to the hard work of scholarship, folks for whom attending college was not an assumed privilege. The vets on the GI Bill and the African and Asian exchange students and the ones who were the first in their family to attend college, whose parents’ own hopes had been deferred by the Depression and the War—these students approached the U with a great chins-up pencils-sharpened sense of purpose. They sat at the long oak library tables, heads bowed, rows and rows of them, reading, reading, reading—sons of garage mechanics on their way to medical school, daughters of dairy farmers out to become professors of Romance languages—a great American migration as inspiring as anything that took place on the Oregon Trail. These pioneers craved a life in which beauty and delight and intellectual challenge are staples; they wanted to travel to farflung places, read novels, go to the theater, be smart about the world and not reflexively pessimistic like their parents. The craving for experience was powerful. Love and adventure and interesting work—a great many of us, fearing the regimentation of corporate life, would head for the burgeoning non-profit world. Such a purposeful bunch—who looked like me, were dressed like me, and like me had very little money—who plowed through the texts and took notes and shushed up the goofballs in their midst. Boys and girls who came to the library to sit and giggle were glared at and told to be still—this never happened in high school! These were people with a sense of vocation. It was a Thomas Hart Benton mural come to life—”The Children of the Great Plains Claiming Their Birthright At Last.” Their once-in-a-lifetime chance to realize their God-given talent, as scholars of medieval painting or operas or the breeding rituals of the Arctic ptarmigan. No guarantee of success, or even of gainful employment. Pure free enterprise.

My Latin teacher, Margaret Forbes, was an auntly woman, cheery and kind, who ran us through daily translations and sniped at us with questions about the anticipatory subjunctive—subjunctive denotes an act that is expected—Expectabum dum frater redirect—I was waiting for my brother to return—and we responded to her aequo animo—without anxiety, as she lay open the folded language—patefacio, patefacere, patefeci, patefactumO pace in perpetuum, Margareta, felicitas aeternas! Richard Cody taught composition, a slender Englishman sitting at a table on a raised platform, lecturing drily on the art of the essay, which he described as a 440-yard dash through natural obstacles, over rough terrain, an intellectual exercise also meant to be esthetically elegant. We were Minnesota kids striving to imitate William Hazlitt, Joseph Addison, George Orwell, E. B. White, and Norman Mailer. Once Mr. Cody called on me to come forward and read the first page of my essay on manure spreading, one of my jobs on Uncle Jim’s farm—a humorous essay, supposedly—and I jumped up to do it and fainted dead away—fell across a row of empty chairs and crashed to the floor and lay there. “Are you all right?” a girl asked under her breath. I got up and Mr. Cody called on someone else. We were all pretty cool back then. Asher Christiansen taught American Government, an elegant little man in dark slacks and gray blazer, bushy eyebrows, moustache, smoking his pipe—half the class smoked too, and I came to associate intellectual seriousness with bad air—propounding his grand theme, that the Constitution was a natural force for civilization, its checks and balances serving to dampen the fires of inner-directed ideologues and bring them into a respectful relationship to their antagonists and attend to the serious business of government. After class, some students formed another smaller class that followed Professor Christiansen out the door and stood in the alley behind Nicholson Hall for a few minutes, a gaggle of fifteen or twenty that dwindled as he headed down the Mall to his office in Ford Hall, arriving there with four or five of us still hanging on. I was a student in the last class he taught. In January I saw the front-page story in the Daily: Professor Christiansen had felt ill during lunch at the faculty club and went to a quiet room to lie down and died there of a heart attack. The story said he grew up in Little Falls, graduated from the U, where he taught from 1936 on, with guest stints in Wales, Germany, and Argentina, where he lectured in Spanish. He was 57 years old, married, no children. Just us students.

Dad had made it clear that he couldn’t contribute to pay for my education, which I hadn’t asked him to and I was relieved not to have to consider an offer. A nice clean break. I got a job working the 6 to 10 a.m. shift in the big parking lot on the river flats for $1.48 an hour. Nine hundred cars, and it filled up by 7:30 so there you were with a couple hours of paid study time. You learned to ignore your fellow attendant who liked to tell about students he had seen having sex in parked cars and you applied yourself to the U.S. Constitution and the separation of powers.

I got a job at the student radio station, WMMR, in October and a tall good-looking guy named Barry Halper showed me how to piece together a newscast from the Associated Press teletype. They needed someone to do the 12:15 newscast. “Today?” I said. “Today,” he said. He showed me how to switch on the microphone, read the VU meter, adjust the headphone volume, showed me the cough switch, and an hour later I sat down in a tiny room with green acoustic-tile walls at a table covered with green felt and switched on the mike and a red bulb lit up and I read the news under a gooseneck lamp, one eye on the big clock on the wall in front of my face. I was nervous of course, but it was a delicious nervousness. I felt sequestered, safe in the studio, a little fortress. I did the newscast and said, “That’s the news, reported by Garrison Keillor. This is WMMR, from studios in Coffman Memorial Union, broadcasting at 730 kilocycles.” And pressed a Play button and the tape deck clunked and a recorded voice talked about Campus Pizza and I got up and the next announcer slipped in and played something by Johnny Mathis and I walked out to the hall and Barry Halper nodded at me. “That was not bad,” he said.

An egalitarian spirit prevailed at the U that truly was noble. There was no rank, no hazing, no freshman beanies, we were all in the same boat. You were Mr. Keillor to your professor and he was Mr. Brown to you. You looked him in the eye. You said, “I don’t get this” and he explained it to you. That was his job. Yours was to pay attention. Money was no social asset whatsoever and if you went around in expensive clothes you were regarded with pity or scorn. A few goofball freshmen showed up in brand new suits for fall classes and they stood out in the crowd as if they wore red rubber noses and fright wigs. Everybody from the President to the deans and the faculty had their home addresses and phone numbers listed in the University directory, and if you were brave enough, you could ring up Dean McDiarmid or Vice President Willey and tell him your troubles. I did not but the phone numbers were there and I suppose somebody did. On my slender parking lot wages I was able to buy a season ticket to the concerts in Northrup and I saw Isaac Stern, Arthur Rubinstein, Andrés Segovia, the Royal Danish Ballet doing a Balanchine program, the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling, the Cleveland Orchestra, Glenn Gould—you could get a balcony seat for $1.50, about an hour’s wage. I couldn’t afford to see the Metropolitan Opera on their annual tour but one evening I did look up at a window on the side of Northrup and see a tall slender dark-haired woman standing naked in front of a full-length mirror for a whole minute, studying herself. A wardrobe lady sat nearby, smoking, reading a newspaper. The dark-haired woman turned, facing me, her hands on hips, one leg extended, looking over her shoulder at her rump, her delicate bush and maroon nipples, like a painting, nude dancer studying herself.

Robert Frost came to campus soon after Kennedy’s speech and drew a capacity crowd of 5,000 at Northrup Auditorium, the great stooped white-maned old bear reciting by heart “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and the crowd hushed in the cathedral of poetry—“For Once, Then, Something” and “The Oven Bird” and “Fire and Ice” and the one about the lover’s quarrel with the world—that soft lyrical cranky uncle voice beloved since junior high, a godlike presence in our midst, and afterward a hundred of us acolytes gathered at the back door to view the great man up close. I was proud of him for drawing that huge crowd and performing so well. He eased his old body down the stairs, our grand paterfamilias, and mingled with us, chatted, answered a few questions—I remember clearly, nobody asked for his autograph—and then he climbed into a black Chrysler and was taken off to lunch with the faculty. But we students were as important as anybody else and weren’t held behind ropes or shushed. That was how it was at the U. The field was wide open. At the Minnesota Daily and its literary arm, The Ivory Tower, you submitted your stuff and back came a polite note, “Sorry,” and that week they printed George Amabile’s poems instead of yours, but you sent more and of that second batch the editor accepted two and the next month they appeared, big glutinous symbolist things about owls on moonless nights flying to Arabia, all in lowercase, and you snatched ten copies out of a paper box and took them home to save to show your grandchildren you once were a writer. The publications weren’t in the grip of a gang, they were open to walk-ons.

I hung around the Daily offices, free of the petty miseries of high school, that small fixed universe. The University was freedom. A friend of mine dropped out sophomore year and married his girlfriend and they bought a little yellow rambler in Coon Rapids, the down payment a gift from her parents. He was a warehouse clerk and his wife got pregnant and woke up in a foul mood every morning and he went off to eight hours of an automaton job. What a waste of a perfectly good life. Women were the great tamers; they took you in hand and trained you to accept the leaden social life and waxen solemnity of marriage and instead of bumming around Europe you’d be spending two weeks with her parents at the lake. Women put their arms around you and cried that they loved you and wanted to make you happy and bwanngggg a trapdoor popped open and you dropped down the chute into a job you despised and a frazzled marriage in a crackerjack house with a mortgage as big as Montana—I intended to escape that. I longed for my flesh to touch someone else’s flesh but I remained chaste. I sat in clouds of cigarette smoke in a classroom smelling of linseed-oiled floors and listened to James Wright lecture on Dickens and gazed at the lovely girls in horn-rim glasses. I liked strolling around campus at night with Gail who wrote for the paper or my classmate Mary, put my arm around her waist and hooked my little finger in her belt loop and she with her arm around the back of me, hooked together, talking about Chaucer, Shakespeare, Eliot, arms riding across each other’s butts, our hips moving in meter, which, we two being different heights, came out in 9/7 time, like an old Swedish step dance, and I would maybe recite Housman’s poem about being 20—“And take from seventy springs a score,/It only leaves me fifty more./And since to look at things in bloom/Fifty springs are little room,/About the woodlands I will go/To see the cherry hung with snow”—and wind up back at Murphy Hall and the Daily office.

For winter quarter, I got the 5 a.m. shift at a ten-acre gravel parking lot on the West Bank, overlooking the Mississippi. I was turning into a night owl, always up past midnight, and the alarm clock went off at 4 and I lay in the warm trench of my bed, reviewing my options, preferring sleep, longed for it, nodded off, which shocked me into wakefulness and I rolled out and drove to town through the snowy world and parked beside the parking lot shack and hiked to the far end of the lot, flashlight in hand, like a sheep shearer waiting for the herd to come piling through the gate. The lot sloped down to the edge of the bluff and I looked down on Bohemian Flats, a ragtag village on the riverbank. Old frame houses that got flooded out every spring, where old Swedes and Bohunks lived a subsistence life in the middle of the Twin Cities. Smoke rose from their chimneys. One of the other parking attendants said there was a whorehouse down there. “Ten bucks a shot,” he said. “Indian women.“ I got good at parking. The cars came in a rush, starting at 6:30. Three ticket sellers stood in the street, and the flagman stood at the top of the lot and directed the flow to where I was conducting them into their spots, straight lines, double rows. No painted lines on the gravel, I did it all by eye.

I had to direct each car with strong hand signals into its correct space, the Leonard Bernstein of the automobile, and discourage the tendency to freelance and veer off toward a more convenient place. Every morning there were three or four pioneers who wanted to start their own rows. You had to yell to the flagman to hold the traffic and then you ran over toward the miscreant’s car and yelled “Your car will be towed in ten minutes.” The mention of towing got their attention, but you had to make it sound real. “That’s a twenty-five-dollar fine.” Usually that was enough to get them to move the car. If they hesitated, I said, “Plus twenty-five for the impound lot. It’s up to you.” I had no idea who to call to come tow a car or what they would say, I just did what other attendants said to do, and it worked. Creative parking couldn’t be allowed, chaos would result, cars skewed everywhere, blocking other cars, holding up traffic, people late, angry, honking—it was my responsibility to make the grid system work. For the common good. To be direct. Exercise authority. No, sir. Not there. Over here. Right here. Yes. Here. Your individualists and comedians would test the limits and if you gave them an inch, anarchy would ensue, cars going every which way like confused buffalo. Be firm. Make that bozo back up six inches. Straighten that line. Thank you. If you accept that variance, the line will buckle. If you do your job right, the lot fills to capacity in half an hour, you put up the full sign and huddle in the shack, the electric heater blazing away, and you take up with Natasha and Prince Andrei and War and Peace for Mr. Milgrom’s humanities class until 9 a.m. when the shift ends and you leg it over the Washington Avenue bridge to the East Bank. A cup of vending machine coffee and a cheese danish and off to class.

In the winter, we packed into Williams Arena to cheer the hockey team against our deadly rival, the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota. Blood lust in the air. Our Gophers were all Minnesota boys and the Sioux were all Canucks, paid thugs, big bruisers, mercenaries, and when a Sioux got ridden into the boards, we cheered from the bottom of our hearts. I dated a quiet girl, a church organist, and at hockey games she screeched and booed like a true peasant. I wrote a poem about hockey and took it to a writers’ club meeting at Professor Hage’s house and the poet James Wright said something encouraging about it and my face burned with pleasure. I can still picture it in my mind, where I was sitting, where he sat, and I still feel my face getting warm.

That spring the Mississippi River rose and there were urgent flood warnings on the radio. One afternoon I put on warm clothes and took the bus to St. Paul and crossed the Wabasha Bridge to the West Side where people were at work filling sandbags to bolster the dikes to save the low-lying houses. It was foggy, and then it began to rain. An army of hundreds of volunteers hard at work, men and women, drawn up in assembly lines, holding the sacks and filling them and passing them in a chain to the dike. It got dark. Nobody left. The Red Cross brought around sandwiches and coffee. We rested and went back to work. Trucks brought in more sand and bags. A couple of front loaders worked at anchoring the dikes with earthen banks. I worked until after midnight and lay down in the back of a truck under a tarp and slept until daybreak and got up stiff and cold and they brought us more sandwiches and coffee and I got back in the gang and worked until noon. I stayed because everyone else stayed. I sort of collapsed in the afternoon and was going to go home but slept a couple hours on a tarp in somebody’s front yard and when I woke up, there was water in the street, people wading through it, some men with muddy overalls, pitched emotion in the air, though nobody said much. We had put so much into beating back the flood, and we kept working—shovel, fill, tie, and pass, shovel, fill, tie, and pass—and felt privileged to be there doing it. I could hear the river boiling by and slabs of ice heaved up on the dike and National Guardsmen patrolling and when people couldn’t stand up any longer, they sat down and ate baloney sandwiches and drank coffee. And got back up.

I went home in the morning. I sat on the bed and cried. For the relief of getting out of those mud-crusted clothes and standing under a hot shower, but also for what I’d seen, the spirit of all those workers caught up in the job of saving their neighbors’ houses. Forget all the jabber and gossip, all the theoretical balderdash and horsefeathers, here is reality: the river rises up in its power and majesty, and the people rise up in theirs, and while one can do only so much, you must do that much, and we did. We saved several blocks of homes. Nobody thanked us. It didn’t matter. It was an experience.

The University was a monument to the Jeffersonian faith in the power of learning and in the ability of all people to recognize and embrace excellence, a grand old American notion. To offer Jussi Bjoerling and Arthur Rubinstein to 18-year-old kids at prices they can afford is an astonishment. Utterly. To witness such grandeur can change a person’s life. But that was the spirit of the Morrill Act of 1862 that granted to the states a tract of land in proportion to their population for the endowment of a state university to teach the classic curriculum as well as courses relating to agriculture and industry, open to qualified students regardless of financial means. I stuck around at WMMR and did the noon newscast for six months, five days a week, and then in May was told that the station had been off the air for at least that long. Doggone it. Our engineer, a brilliant young man, had been busy building a state-of-the-art control room and hadn’t had time to do maintenance on the transmitter and it had burned out. I was in some anguish over having spent six months editing a newscast so I could sit in a room and read it to myself, but as Barry Halper said, “It was good experience.” And had I ever, in those six months, thought about the listeners and wondered why the cards and letters weren’t pouring in, or trickling in, or even dripping in? No. I was having too much fun. “You sound terrific,” said Barry. “You could get a job on any station in town.” He was a pal and a real positive guy. He was 20, he drove a big white convertible, he was Jewish and smart, he’d been to LA and Las Vegas and met Jack Benny and Shelley Berman. If he’d asked me to, I would’ve shined his shoes.

I was a serious young man and did not go to parties at the U except one in the spring of my sophomore year at somebody’s parents’ house in Kenwood, a tony neighborhood in Minneapolis, where a mob of students was drinking something called Purple Death out of a washtub in the kitchen. Fortified with this, people started spouting off their big opinions about Kennedy and Hemingway and Ornette Coleman and some of us got into a contest to see who knew more dirty limericks. There was the one about the young man from Buckingham and the young man from St. Paul whose cock was exceedingly small and the Bishop of Chichester and the sailor named Tex who avoided premarital sex and the young woman of Edina and her vagina.

The base of Purple Death was grape Kool-Aid, plus whatever the guests had brought. It was a potluck cocktail: Old Buzzard Breath bourbon, crème de banana, licorice schnapps, vodka, anything would do, and after drinking for a while and telling dirty jokes, some of us headed over to Cedar Lake to go skinny-dipping, and we stripped off our clothes, but it wasn’t the erotic thrill it should’ve been, not for me anyway: I could feel the hangover mounting up behind my forehead, a truly monumental one, with shades of surrealism—I remember naked women and I also remember the dark angel of projectile vomiting—and in the morning I awoke with a taste of what mental illness might be like, a sort of vacancy with dark shadows. And I was glad to be alone.

As U of M students we walked around with a fine chip on our shoulder toward eastern finishing schools like Yale and Harvard where children of privilege slept until noon after a night of inebriation, were brought cucumber sandwiches by a porter, sashayed off to their 3 p.m. music appreciation class, and then played squash until dinner. Oxford and Cambridge were held in even greater contempt: dandruffy men quivering with borrowed sensibility drinking sherry and propounding fabulous foolishness with great certainty. You walk around with a brown bag lunch and a few bucks in your pocket, trying to scrape together next quarter’s tuition, and a little class resentment is good for you, a balm and a prod both. I envied cool people, good tennis players, opera singers, sandy-haired rich guys who looked princely even in ratty old clothes, all Frenchmen, men with lovely girlfriends, guitarists, but the U was the antidote to envy. So many cool people seem on closer examination to be trapped in a set of mannerisms that are not so interesting and lead nowhere, whereas the U appealed to your curiosity and drew you into scholarship, which took you through doors you hadn’t known existed. In one smoky classroom after another, sitting elbow to elbow at little arm desks, you felt illuminated, there was a quickening almost like drunkenness, a feeling that you and the professor were conspiring in a noble enterprise that would last you to the end of your days. I learned how to plant myself in a library chair and open the books and take notes in a yellow legal pad. Having a good ear for multiple-choice tests had gotten me through high school (the correct answer, two-thirds of the time, was C) but now I needed to actually do the work. I soldiered through and learned how to write profoundly at great speed late at night about books I barely understood.

American universities have seen plenty of radicals and revolutionaries come and go over the years, and all of them put together were not nearly so revolutionary as a land-grant university itself on an ordinary weekday. To give people with little money a chance to get the best education there is—that is true revolution. When I graduated from Anoka High School, I believed that my chances would be as good as anybody else’s, and the good people of Minnesota did not let me down. I got my chance and right there is where a Democrat is made—a kid from Anoka sits in a parking lot shack on Fourth Street SE where, earning $1.48 an hour, he translates Horace for Mrs. Forbes—whose standards are high—as birds sit scritching on the telephone wire and a fly buzzes at the window. A bright fall day and he has no money to speak of and no clear plan for the future but he has teachers who engage him with gravity and fervor and that’s enough. That was the true spirit of the University, the spirit of professors who loved their work. That was the heart and soul of the place, not the athletic teams, not the architecture. The University was Mary Malcolm, a native of Worthington, who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and came back to teach music theory for forty-three years. She had perfect pitch and could write down on paper anything you could hum or plunk on the piano. It was Izaak M. Kolthoff, a Dutch chemist who guided Jewish scientists out of Germany in the Thirties and worked on the crucial war project of creating synthetic rubber and became a peacenik in the Fifties. It was Marcia Edwards, a chain-smoking authority on adolescent psychology and a fanatical Gopher sports fan who went to angelic lengths to help her students, even lending them money, and who turned down the offer to become dean of the College of Education because she didn’t want the hassle, especially the foofaraw of being the first woman dean. It was Bill Marchand who taught Shakespeare to kids majoring in animal husbandry and horticulture. It was Nils Hasselmo who came from Sweden to study the Swedish emigrants and got his doctorate and became chair of the Scandinavian Languages Department and eventually President of the U. And it was Margaret Forbes who could make you feel that a few lines of Horace held the key to everything noble. And if you start to feel ennobled, you lose interest in how you are perceived by other people. You walk into the library and that Niagara of scholarship holds you in its sway, the deluge and glory of learning, and you begin to see where work and play become one. And imagine working at something you love. And that was how the University of Minnesota gave me my life.

Some New York thoughts on solitude

I stood around looking at J.D. Salinger stuff last Friday, his old black Royal typewriter, family snapshots, and typewritten letters, at the New York Public Library, and it was a wonder to see. I’m one of the many millions for whom The Catcher in the Rye was an important book back in my teens and back then, Salinger was famous for guarding his privacy. He didn’t do interviews, was never on TV, and so was portrayed in the press as a crank, an anti-social weirdo. It’s clear from the exhibit that he was not.

He seems quite content, raising his vegetables, writing beautiful letters to his son, Matthew, studying in France, writing to an Army buddy with whom he shared a jeep during the Battle of the Bulge, writing at length to a 14-year-old reader named Laura in Huntington, WV. She had not included a return address and Salinger called Information in Huntington and got it. I speak for all his readers when I say I’m glad we were wrong about him. He was a sweet and happy man.

It did occur to me that Cornish, NH, was not a good place to live if you wanted anonymity. Reporters went to the town, talked to Salinger’s neighbors, his mailman, tried to dredge up tales about him, but if he’d stayed in New York, he’d have been better off. Anonymity is New York’s gift to us all.

I was in the library to sit in the magnificent Rose Reading Room, one of my favorite rooms in America, where a writer can sit and work at a long table under a magnificent high ceiling, in the company of a couple hundred others, most of them younger, working on Lord knows what. I’m working on a memoir, Lord knows why. Nobody bothers you there. I work until the library closes at 5:45 and make my way east on 42nd Street to Grand Central Station and down the ramp to the Oyster Bar and get a little red-checked table in the corner and order five bluepoints and coleslaw and broiled sea bass. Solitary supper, reading the paper, a great luxury.

I walk through the throng and remember when I came here with my dad in 1953. I was 11, a Minnesota kid on my first trip to the big city. I wandered away from him and it scared him, the thought that I might get lost, and he ran and grabbed my hand, and I still remember the feeling I got — that my dad loved me. He’d never say it, of course, but he did. I remember him as I walk through the station and head downstairs to the Times Square shuttle to take me to the uptown C train.

Dad was a train man and New York is a city of trains. Without the vast network of underground lines, the city would die. I like the company of New Yorkers on trains, their keen awareness of surroundings, their remarkable politeness. Once on the uptown One, I met a young guy from Texas who’d been at the same piano recital I’d been at and heard a Philip Glass sonata that sounded unGlass-like, melodic, more like Richard Strauss. We discussed that for a mile and he got off. The subway, the Rose Reading Room, the Oyster Bar — citadels of solitude. Salinger could’ve been quite happy here. I once saw Philip Roth walking in Central Park and nobody bothered him. He looked at me, I nodded, he nodded back. Who needs more?

I went to the ER once, about a year ago. My right knee hurt so that I could hardly put weight on it. I took a cab to Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s on 114th. I took a number and waited. The ER was crowded with anonymous people, most of them in worse shape than I. Three hours later, I was X-rayed and after a short wait, a doctor told me nothing was broken, I was okay to go. She was kind, thoughtful, friendly, and I looked at her name tag and decided to invade her privacy. I asked her to pronounce her name, she did, and I wrote:

The ER doc Elise Levine
Is dealing with chaos just fine;
Your calm expertise
And kindness, Elise,
Bring the Upper West Side some sunshine
In the shadow of St. John Divine.

Nobody had written a poem for her before, she said. She was touched. I thanked her and walked home. The beauty of solitude is that it makes each encounter so memorable. Dr. Levine, the music student from Texas, my dad taking my hand.

The art of love in the far North

Winter is a thoughtful time. Snow falls in the trees and my natural meanness dissipates and the urge to bash my enemies’ mailboxes with a baseball bat. I put fresh strawberries on the cornflakes and taste the sweetness of life. I speak gently to the lady across the table. Marriage is the truest test — to make a good life with your best-informed critic, and thanks to her excellent comedic timing, we have a good life. My third marriage and this year we ding the silver bell of twenty-five years.

America is the land of second and third chances, not like Europe. We have remedial colleges for kids who slept through high school. In Europe, the system is geared toward efficiency: it separates kids by age 12 into Advanced, Mediocre, and Food Service Workers, and once they assign you to a lane, it’s hard to get out of it. In this country, if our children are lazy and undisciplined, we try to see signs of artistic ability. We put them in a fine arts  program. They spend three years writing weird stuff and get an MFA and you drive through McDonald’s and the young people fixing the Egg McMuffins are poets and songwriters.

It’s a land of high hopes, thanks to the Atlantic and Pacific that serve to isolate us from reality. Our ancestors were happy to escape the zeal of revolutionaries and the madness of despots and come to America and work like draft horses, hoping their children and grandchildren would have an easier time of it. And we do. Fifty years ago, when we referred to “homosexuals,” it sounded like people suffering from a condition that required treatment, but when “gay” became common usage, it changed everything. How can you be opposed to happiness?

For an old man, there aren’t many second chances, but we still hope for them. I miss my youth, the buzzin’ of the bees in the cigarette trees near the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings, and now the bee population is down, the smokes are gone, lemonade contains dangerous additives, and when did you last see a bluebird? In my youth, men worked on their cars, changed the oil and the spark plugs, replaced the fan belt, and other men gathered, squatted around the car, and talked about manly things. The driveway was their territory. This is all gone now. Cars can’t be repaired by ordinary people with ordinary tools. Men have been forced into the living room, which belongs to women. They say, “Take your shoes off” and you have to do it.

The country is falling apart. There are new food allergies every week so we can’t have dinner parties anymore unless we limit the menu to locally sourced artisanal lentils. And people who come for dinner spend the first half hour talking about how long it took to get here — rush hour is horrendous, three and four hours, so people email and text behind the wheel, even shave, and do makeup, change a shirt, put on a tie, nobody dares tailgate because they’re steering with their knees so traffic moves even more slowly. Online medical education means someday we’ll go in for a tonsillectomy and come out missing our left lung. The Boeing debacle means we can only ride Airbuses now, planes designed by engineers who eat mussels and wear silk scarves. And Washington — Mr. Trump wouldn’t have been a capable water commissioner in a midsize city but here he is, running foreign policy based on phone conversations with Tucker Carlson. Republican politics is based on the imminence of the Second Coming: if Jesus doesn’t descend within three years and take the Republicans to heaven, they are going to be in very deep waste materials.

But hope remains. People still fall in love. I know millennials who are crazy about each other and don’t try to hide it. The country is on the skids but still I see people going to the trouble of seducing each other. In Minnesota, this is done by owning a snowblower and going to the home of the person you adore and blowing the snow, and if he or she (or they or we or those) is receptive, they will invite you in for a bowl of homemade chili. I don’t know what Californians do but in the north, it’s very simple. Snowblowing followed by chili. Chili with ground beef or chicken in it. What the heck — take the risk. Veganism can wait until after marriage.

Man of the north finds bliss, becomes incoherent

My family and I are at a swimming pool under the palm trees behind a pink stucco 1929 hotel in San Diego, my wife reading a memoir, my daughter swimming laps of alternate crawl and butterfly, and I am trying to think of what one can say about blissfulness other than that, for a Minnesotan brought up on the principle of “It could be worse,” blissfulness comes as a major surprise, like weightlessness. The hotel looks out on the Pacific, a beach where sea lions fraternize and waves crash on the rocks. As I ate my oatmeal on the balcony this morning, a seagull landed on the railing and cocked his eye at the raisins on the cereal so I tossed him one and he caught it. This almost never happens back on the frozen tundra where nature makes serious attempts to kill us. In paradise, it’s Live and Let Live.

My family was evangelical and believed in the imminence of the Rapture when the Lord would appear in the air and we would rise to meet Him and ascend into glory, but we were simple Midwestern people and had no clear idea of glory. It certainly didn’t resemble Anoka, Minnesota. We knew that much.

When I was a kid some relatives moved to California and sent a Christmas card with a picture of an orange tree in their backyard and we didn’t understand how they could bear to live so far from us. They visited us in June, in their pastel outfits, driving cars with enormous tail fins, Lutherans who’d become Universalists and then Theosophists and (who knows?) maybe nudists and meanwhile we endured the cold, the flatness, the oceanlessness, the angry theology, the merciless scrutiny of neighbors, and they sat in San Diego feeling wonderful. I felt contempt for them and looked on snowbirding as weakness of character and the first sign of dementia, but here I sit, under a white canopy, feeling happy.

APHC cruise 2020 logo


Aboard the ms Veendam
March 18–25, 2020

Letter from Garrison





Note: Some of you may have heard rumors that U.S. citizens will no longer be able to visit Cuba by the time the ms Veendam sets sail. Please know that at this moment, we are fully planning to keep Cuba on the itinerary, but that we have backup options as well. In the event that the itinerary changes, reservations will not be canceled or refunded.

6/20/2019 UPDATE: Cuba must be removed from our itinerary. U.S. travel to Cuba for tourist activities is now banned by the U.S. government.


Dear Prairie Home Cruisers,

It was a long hard winter in Minnesota, and I am in a mood for warmth and pleasure next winter and that will be The 12th Prairie Home Cruise, a one-week jaunt from Fort Lauderdale with stops at Jamaica, Cozumel, the Cayman Islands, and Key West, sailing March 18, 2020.

All a person needs to get through the blizzards and darkness is a bright light on the horizon — a candle in the window — and so, next winter, I will dream of March 18, the flight to Fort Lauderdale, the surprise at seeing sunshine, green plants, people in shorts and T-shirts.

And then the cruise!!!

Rob Fisher and his 10-piece Coffee Club Orchestra will perform for your dancing pleasure. The amazing jazz singer Nellie McKay is coming, a powerful pianist and ukulelist. Gospel will be represented by Jearlyn Steele. Pat Donohue will join us, as will Dakota Dave Hull, a veteran of early PHC days who is in all-time top form. Robin and Linda Williams are on board, as are Joe Newberry and April Verch. Heather Masse is coming, and Christine DiGiallonardo so Brooklyn will be represented. Maria Jette and Vern Sutton will sing from the piano bench tropical hits such as “Bésame Mucho” and “Perfidia.” Of course our acting company of Sue Scott, Tim Russell, and Fred Newman will be there, and thanks to them, Dusty and Lefty will ride the plains and Guy Noir will scour the back alleys and Mom and Duane and Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian. Rich Dworsky and the Guys All-Star Shoe Band will support all of this and I will be there, as well. Talking about Lake Wobegon, coffee, rhubarb pie, reminiscing about early radio days. Doing poetry. Emceeing the story hours. Writing limericks for guests who win the limerick lottery. And singing with Heather and Christine, Robin and Linda.

If this cruise is as much fun as I expect it to be, maybe we’ll do another. As Emily Dickinson wrote:

Wild nights — Wild nights! Were I with thee
Wild nights at sea! With PHC!
Off to Jamaica! Freely we go!
Peel that banana! Let’s do a show.
Winter, goodbye!
Minnesota, New York!
Hello, Miss McKay
And the Coffee Club Orch.

Keep in touch,

See EMI’s website for cabin pricing

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See EMI’s website for cabin pricing

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As on previous cruises, guests will have the opportunity to enjoy music performances, lectures, and nature viewing in multiple locations. We’ll gather at the Mainstage for live A Prairie Home Companion shows followed by dancing with the Coffee Club Orchestra, the Crow’s Nest for early morning singing and late-night dancing, and the Wajang Theater for lectures. Guests can catch live music sets in intimate settings such as the Ocean Bar and bring acoustic instruments to picking sessions at the Explorer’s Lounge. Of course, bird-watching will take place ­­on the decks!

Dan Chouinard

Dan Chouinard is a St. Paul-based honky-tonk pianist, concert soloist and accompanist, street accordionist, sing-along enabler, Italian and French teacher, and bicycling vagabond. He’s been commissioned to write and host a number of live programs blending history, memoir, and music for broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio and Twin Cities Public Television. He played on a dozen live broadcasts of A Prairie Home Companion and served as rehearsal pianist for Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, and Lindsay Lohan during the making of the 2006 Robert Altman film of the same name.

The Coffee Club Orchestra

The Coffee Club Orchestra sprang into existence in the fall of 1989 when Garrison Keillor asked musical director Rob Fisher to put together a group for his radio show. Chosen for their breadth of experience and their versatility, the Coffee Club musicians delighted public radio listeners with their rambunctious renditions. Rob Fisher and the Coffee Club Orchestra have since appeared on many of New York’s stages, from the plaza at Lincoln Center to City Center’s Encores! series. Their album of Depression-era popular music, Shaking the Blues Away, was released on EMI/Angel in 1992. They can also be heard on Kristin Chenoweth’s debut album, Let Yourself Go.

Christine DiGiallonardo

DiGiallonardo photo

New York-based vocalist Christine DiGiallonardo is at home singing in early-music chamber ensembles as well as jazz and rock bands. She has performed in New York City Center’s Encores! productions of High Button Shoes, Me And My Girl, Brigadoon, The New Yorkers,Annie Get Your Gun, Lady, Be Good!, On Your Toes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Fiorello! She also performs solo and with her sisters, Daniela and Nadia, as The DiGiallonardo Sisters, and her voice can be heard on commercial jingles for Aquafresh, Mr. Clean, Playtex, and Febreze. 

Pat Donohue

Donohue photo

Grammy-winning fingerpicker and songwriter Pat Donohue has a devotion to acoustic guitar that has made him an American standard, as he echoes the tones of Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, Charlie Parker, Muddy Waters, and Chet Atkins. A versatile guitarist’s guitarist, he wows fans with intricate fingerpicking, easy wit, and nimble interpretations of old blues, swing, R&B, and original tunes. For over 20 years, Pat was lead guitar and songwriter for A Prairie Home Companion’s Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band. He now tours the U.S., playing performance halls, clubs and coffeehouses, conducts workshops, and teaches at prestigious guitar camps.

Richard Dworsky

Dworsky photo

For 23 years, Richard Dworsky served as pianist and music director for Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, providing original theatrical underscoring, leading the house band, and performing as a featured soloist. The St. Paul, Minnesota, native also accompanied many of the show’s guests, including James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Yo-Yo Ma, Sheryl Crow, Chet Atkins, Renée Fleming, and Kristin Chenoweth. Rich’s original compositions for piano (and piano with ensemble or vocal) can be heard on his CDs All In Due TimeSo Near and Dear to Me, and The Path to You

Rob Fisher

Fisher photo

For four seasons, Rob Fisher served as APHC’s music director and led the Coffee Club Orchestra. An internationally recognized music director, conductor, and pianist, and a leading figure in musical theater, he has been a guest of every major orchestra in the country as conductor or pianist. With the New York Philharmonic, Fisher conducted the acclaimed concert versions of Carousel (Emmy nomination for Best Music Director) and My Fair Lady, as well as Mr. Keillor at 70. For his work on the Tony Award-winning Encores! series at New York’s City Center, he was presented the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Special Achievement.

Dakota Dave Hull

Hull photo

Fargo native Dakota Dave Hull calls what he does “classic American guitar.” Hailed by everyone from Dave Van Ronk to Doc Watson, from the Washington Post to DownBeat magazine, his style spans a wide musical geography to create an infectious, uniquely personal blend of jazz, ragtime, folk, blues, Western swing, and vintage pop. He is a restlessly curious, adventurous traveler along the broad highway of America’s music. Most of all, his music is great fun. As Douglas Green (Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky) puts it, “There is an imp within Dave Hull that always expresses itself on the fretboard.” His recent albums include his Sacred and Profane set, Heavenly Hope and This Earthly Life (Arabica Records).

Innocent Reggae Band

The Innocent Reggae Band is a Minneapolis-based reggae band that has been performing together since the 1990s. With members from from Tanzania, Trinidad, St. Croix and America, the band embraces the various rhythms of the diaspora to create a sound that embraces both the laidback lilt of reggae and the fiery sounds of Tanzania.

Maria Jette

Jette photo

Versatile soprano Maria Jette was a frequent performer on A Prairie Home Companion. She can sing dozens of operatic roles; she also performs pop songs, chamber music, oratorio, and show tunes. Maria spent a decade singing with the Twin Cities Baroque opera company Ex Machina, and has appeared with orchestras nationwide, including the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, New York Chamber Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Minnesota Orchestra.Among her recordings is The Siren’s Song: Wodehouse and Kern on Broadway, her second volume of P.G. Wodehouse songs, both with pianist Dan Chouinard.

Larry Kohut

Kohut photo

Bassist for Prairie Home Companion’s house band, Larry Kohut is equally fluent on both upright and electric bass. He’s a first-call studio musician as well as a favorite with jazz musicians, playing with artists such as Kenny Werner, Ramsey Lewis, Bruce Barth, Benny Golson, Michael Brecker, George Coleman, George Garzone, Phil Woods, Chris Potter, Kurt Elling, Karrin Allyson, Patricia Barber — and the list goes on. His discography includes more than 100 albums, as well as several major movie soundtracks and hundreds of commercial jingles.

Richard Kriehn

Kriehn photo

When Richard Kriehn turned 10, his mom bought him a mandolin; at 19, he’d won the Buck White International Mandolin Contest. He went on to play with the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble and bluegrass group 1946. On the classical side, he has performed with numerous orchestras and was principal second violin for the Washington/Idaho Symphony. He first appeared on A Prairie Home Companion in 2006, when the show broadcast from Washington State University, where Richard had just completed a master’s degree in violin performance and conducting. A few years later, he was a fully established member of the APHC house band.

Heather Masse

Masse photo

Trained at the New England Conservatory of Music as a jazz singer, Heather Masse is equally versed in a variety of American song traditions — folk, pop, and bluegrass. A member of Billboard-charting folk group The Wailin’ Jennys, she has performed at hundreds of venues across the world. She was a frequent guest on A Prairie Home Companion, both with The Jennys and as a solo performer, and collaborated with artists such as Elvis Costello, Wynton Marsalis, Sheryl Crow, Renée Fleming, and Emmylou Harris. Her recordings include August Love Song — on which she joins forces with trombone great Roswell Rudd.

Nelly McKay

McKay photo

Nellie McKay has released a stack of acclaimed albums, among them: Sister Orchid, My Weekly Reader, and Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day. She won a Theatre World Award for her portrayal of Polly Peachum on Broadway in The Threepenny Opera and performed onscreen in the films P.S. I Love You and Downtown Express.She co-created and starred in the award-winning off-Broadway hit Old Hats and has written several musical biographies, including A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, and The Big Molinsky: Considering Joan Rivers.

Joe Newberry

Newberry photo

Known worldwide for his exquisite clawhammer banjo playing, Joe Newberry is also a powerful guitarist, singer, and songwriter. The Missouri native was raised in a family full of singers and dancers. He took up guitar and banjo as a teenager and learned fiddle tunes from great Missouri fiddlers. After moving to North Carolina, he quickly became an anchor of the incredible music scene there. The Gibson Brothers’ version of Joe’s song “Singing As We Rise,” featuring guest vocalist Ricky Skaggs, won the 2012 IBMA Gospel Recorded Performance Award. With Eric Gibson, he shared the 2013 IBMA Song of the Year Award for “They Called It Music.”

Fred Newman

Newman photo

Fred Newman is an actor, writer, musician, and sound designer for stage and screen, cartoon and concert hall. For nearly two decades, he added myriad sounds to A Prairie Home Companion. Originally from small-town Georgia, he worked with Jim Henson and created sounds, voices, and music for the Nickelodeon cartoon series DOUG, PBS’s Between the Lions, and films like Gremlins, Cocoon, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He even created the sound of Old Faithful for Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Visitor Center — all with his mouth. Author of MouthSounds, he’s now at work on a new book and series: From the Sound Up (The New Anthropology of Sound).

Tim Russell

Russell photo

Tim Russell worked on-air for WCCO Radio in the Twin Cities for some 33 years. In 1994, he became an actor on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion until the fall of 2018. The CD Tim Russell: Man of a Thousand Voices (HighBridge Audio) is a collection of his work on APHC. Tim is still a man of many voices and a proud SAG-AFTRA Voiceover Artist. He appeared in the Robert Altman film A Prairie Home Companion, in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, and opposite Christopher Lloyd in I Am Not a Serial Killer. Tim is also a film critic on his blog,

Sue Scott

Scott photo

After enjoying 24 years as the female cast member on A Prairie Home Companion, Sue Scott has rejoined the vibrant Twin Cities theater community. She recently appeared in Barbecue at Mixed Blood Theatre, Little Wars with Prime Productions, and in the sold-out run of Sisters of Peace at the History Theatre in St. Paul. A veteran voice-over talent, Sue has also been cast in some interesting roles in film and television: ABC’s In An Instant and the Netflix series Lady Dynamite. In addition, she is immersed in creating and producing her new podcast, Island of Discarded Women. 

Chris Siebold

Siebold photo

Chicago-based guitarist, singer-songwriter, composer, and arranger Chris Siebold leads his own bands — Lennon’s Tuba and Psycles — and collaborates often with Grammy-winning harmonica player Howard Levy. House guitarist for the last two seasons of A Prairie Home Companion, Chris joined Garrison Keillor and company for the “America the Beautiful” and “Love and Comedy” tours. This is his fourth appearance on an APHC Cruise. Chris lives in Batavia, Illinois, with his four-year-old son, Julian.

Billy Steele

Steele, Billy photo

Youngest of the Steele siblings, Billy Steele, performs, writes, produces, and serves as assistant director for the Grammy-winning Sounds of Blackness. He writes and produces for various other artists as well, including the Steeles, and his voice has been heard on soundtracks with the likes of Rod Stewart and Luther Vandross. Recently, he collaborated on the Disney soundtrack Legends, The John Henry Story, narrated by James Earl Jones. Billy is the musical director for Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Jearlyn Steele

Steele Jearlyn photo

Growing up in Indiana, Jearlyn Steele sang with her siblings as The Steele Children. One by one, they moved to Minnesota and started singing together again. Now music is the family business. She has performed with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall and at the 2018 Super Bowl LIVE Verizon stage. In addition, Jearlyn is a public speaker (the singing speaker, she calls herself), an entertainment reporter for public television, voice-over talent, and host of Steele Talkin’, a Sunday-night radio show that originates on WCCO in Minneapolis. Among her solo CDs is Jearlyn Steele Sings Songs from A Prairie Home Companion.

Vern Sutton

Sutton photo

Vern Sutton has collaborated with major musical organizations as a singer, actor, director, and educator. He was a founding member of the Center Opera Company, which became the Minnesota Opera, and composers Dominick Argento, Robert Ward, Conrad Susa, Stephen Paulus, David Thomas, Libby Larsen, and others have written for his voice. For 36 years, he taught at the University of Minnesota School of Music, and for four summers he was artistic director of Opera in the Ozarks. Vern was a guest on the first broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion and on innumerable shows after that.

April Verch

Verch photo

Growing up surrounded by living, breathing roots music, April Verch thought every little girl learned to stepdance at the age of three and fiddle at the age of six. She decided early on that she’d be a professional musician, and for decades she has been captivating audiences across the globe. From her native Canada to Europe, Australia, China, the United Arab Emirates, and beyond, she has spread a signature sound that blends regional Canadian, American old-time, bluegrass, country, and Americana. In 2019, April released her 12th recording, Once A Day (Slab Town Records), a heartfelt homage to 1950s and ’60s classic country.  

Robin and Linda Williams

Williams photo

For decades, Robin and Linda Williams have made it their mission to perform the music they love: “a robust blend of bluegrass, folk, old-time, and acoustic country that combines wryly observant lyrics with a wide-ranging melodicism.” Today some might call it “Americana,” but these music masters were living and breathing this elixir 20 years before that label became a radio format. The two first appeared on A Prairie Home Companion in 1975, the same year they recorded their first album. In 2013, they released Back 40 — marking 40 years on the road and 40 years of marriage.

Jed Wilson

Wilson photo

A versatile pianist equally at home as an improviser and as an accompanist, Jed Wilson earned a degree in jazz performance from the New England Conservatory of Music and has worked extensively in the worlds of jazz and folk music. In addition to maintaining a long-term collaboration with singer Heather Masse, he has performed or recorded with Aoife O’Donovan, Dominique Eade, and Rushad Eggleston. His most recent recording is a solo piano EP titled Nocturnes.


Aly Busse

Busse photo

Aly Busse is the Vice President for Education at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, a nonprofit research laboratory. She comes from a diverse background in informal science education, including aquariums, museums, and community outreach programs. Before joining Mote Marine Laboratory, Aly was Education Director at UnderWater World, Guam, and Youth and Family Programs Coordinator at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. She also held dual roles at Rutgers University as the Senior Program Coordinator for a science outreach program and Associate Director of the Rutgers Geology Museum. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from the University of North Carolina–Wilmington, a Master of Science in Science Education from Old Dominion University, and is a PhD candidate at the University of South Florida.

Kiley Gray

Gray photo

Originally from Florida, Kiley Gray has always known that marine biology was her passion. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from the University of West Florida, Kiley worked as a fisheries biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. She is currently the Coordinator for Public Programs at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, an independent, nonprofit research laboratory with a public aquarium. In this position, she is responsible for bringing marine science and research to the public through a variety of programs for audiences of all ages and is an instructor for the Florida Master Naturalist program.

Lytton John Musselman

Musselman photo

Lytton John Musselman earned a Ph.D. in botany from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and was chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where he holds the Mary Payne Hogan Distinguished Professorship of Botany. He established the Blackwater Ecologic Preserve in 1984 and is the Manager of that property. In addition, he has been a consultant for new Qur’anic gardens in Albania, Qatar, and Brunei Darussalam. Lytton is co-author of ​recently published Wildflowers of the Adirondacks (Johns Hopkins University Press). His other ​publications include 2019’s Parasitic Plants in African Agriculture. Described as a “passionate botanist” by Garrison Keillor, Lytton received the Meritorious Teaching Award from the Association of Southeastern Biologists in 2019.


Dr. Tyehimba Salandy

Salanday, Tye photo

Dr. Tyehimba Salandy is a Caribbean sociologist, lecturer, and consultant who resides in Trinidad and Tobago. With his passion for Caribbean history and culture he is a sought-after speaker who is known for delivering unique presentations on a diverse range of topics. Over the years he has engaged these issues through academic articles, radio and television programmes, and newspaper columns. He is currently a director at the Institute of Indigenous Knowledge, Empowerment, and Research where, among other things, he works on a project that uses nature as a basis for people to learn about history, society, and self.        

Jon Wiant

Wiant, Jon photo

Jon Wiant is an authority on intelligence and international affairs. His senior intelligence career spanned the Cold War and the security challenges that followed.  In retirement, this recipient of the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal has taught at Washington universities and is a widely popular cruise and tour lecturer.

See EMI’s website for cabin pricing

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Ocho Rios beach

Ocho Rios, Jamaica 

A lot of history is packed into Ocho Rios, Jamaica — or Ochi, as the locals call it. Christopher Columbus was marooned near this site for more than a year, until a rescue ship finally arrived and the explorer returned to Europe. It was his final voyage. Playwright Noël Coward lived in the vicinity. So did swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn and author Ian Fleming. (Parts of Dr. No, the first James Bond movie, were filmed nearby.) And reggae pioneer Bob Marley was born in this same parish: St. Ann.

The area is a bonanza for nature lovers, featuring scenic hikes, spectacular waterfalls, and sandy beaches. And the area’s cross-cultural cuisine runs the gamut from spicy jerk chicken to the leafy greens of callaloo to ackee with saltfish (the country’s national dish).

George Town image

George Town, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

George Town, the capital of the Cayman Islands, is located on the western shore of Grand Cayman. Here, you’ll settle into just the right tempo for you: prestissimo (very quick) or larghissimo (did someone say sloth?). Enjoy swimming, snorkeling, diving, moseying through lush gardens, hiking through nature, bird-watching, sauntering along the fabled Seven Mile Beach (one of the best in the Caribbean), shopping, or taking in historic sites and the National Museum. Or just plunking down in the sand and daydreaming.

Then let the grazing begin! A melting pot of cuisines and a magnet for top chefs, Grand Cayman has culinary offerings to suit any palate.

Cozumel ruin

Cozumel, Mexico

Twelve miles off the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, the island of Cozumel serves up a visual feast — from the stunning beaches to an array of birds and tropical fish to ancient architectural ruins of the Maya, whose settlements in the area date back to early in the first millennium A.D. Scuba dive or snorkel in the crystal-clear waters. Rent a bicycle and pedal the island’s paved bike path. And leave a little time for shopping — leather goods, Mexican handicrafts, silver, and maybe a brightly colored hammock to doze in back home in your own backyard.


Key West, FL

Key West — the westernmost of the Florida Keys and the southernmost city in the contiguous United States — has a ton of history, culture, and charm packed into a few square miles. John James Audubon, Tennessee Williams, and so many other notables drew inspiration here. Tour historic buildings, including the residence of one of the great American writers of the 20th century: Ernest Hemingway, who called Key West home for more than a decade. (And keep an eye out for those six-toed cats!) Enjoy water- and nature-related activities. Take in the stunning scenery. Sample sumptuous seafood. Soak up the sun. Relax.

See EMI’s website for cabin pricing

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Here you will find answers to the more common questions we have been asked about our cruises. We also address some important issues specific to this cruise.

Before sailing with us, you must read and sign EMI/PHC Terms and Conditions, which spell out important and contractually binding guidelines for our cruise.

We recommend that you visit the Holland America website. You will find extensive and detailed information about sailing on their ships. They have been in the cruise business much longer than we have — please make use of their expertise.

EXECUTIVE MEETINGS and INCENTIVES, INC. (EMI) is your partner in travel. They are your first stop for any help you may need with travel arrangements or any question you may have. See EMI’s website for more information.

YOU MUST HAVE A CURRENT PASSPORT TO SAIL ON THIS CRUISE. Even though this cruise originates and returns to the same domestic port, you must have a passport to sail this cruise. U.S. citizens under the age of 16 may present an alternate government-issued proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate. Please refer to Holland America’s website for Passport Guidelines.


You must also provide details as to how you plan to transfer to and from the cruise terminal in Fort Lauderdale. This is a Holland America requirement and can be provided during the OLCI (Online Check-In).


We were scheduled for two (2) stops in Cuba — Havana and Cienfuegos, as well as Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and George Town, Cayman Islands. Holland America uses this language in their agreements with passengers: “WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO DEVIATE FROM SCHEDULED ROUTE, CHANGE PORT OF EMBARKATION/DISEMBARKATION, SUBSTITUTE TRANSPORTATION, CANCEL CRUISE AND ACTIVITIES, AND CHANGE OR OMIT PORTS OF CALL; SUBSTITUTION.” As this change was necessary and the cruise will sail as scheduled March 18–25, 2020, there will be no refunds. Please refer to EMI/PHC Terms and Conditions for more detail.


PRAIRIE HOME CRUISES (PHC) is an independent company that was formed under the umbrella of PRAIRIE GRAND, LLC, for the purpose of chartering cruise vacations. PRAIRIE HOME PRODUCTIONS is the sister company that produces “A Prairie Home Companion” and “The Writer’s Almanac.” PHC is responsible for all changes and additions made to the regularly scheduled HAL cruise. We will provide the APHC performers, entertainers, and lecturers sailing with you.

HOLLAND AMERICA LINES (HAL) operates and manages the Veendam; provides for passenger safety and comfort; and is responsible for your cabin accommodations, food, beverages, recreation, and shopping while on board. Go to Holland America website for more information about life aboard the ship.

EXECUTIVE MEETINGS and INCENTIVES (EMI) is our agent in charge of selling our cruise and booking your accommodations. They will provide you with the highest levels of professional travel-related services. They will book your passage on the ship. EMI will help you with transfers to and from the cruise, cabin selection, and dinner table seating, and will provide guidance for other onboard needs.

For other questions, email us or call EMI’s Prairie Home Cruise number at 908-458-3591.

I. Booking

How much does the cruise cost?
For pricing information, visit EMI’s pricing page. We have cabins in a wide range of prices. You will find that we are offering favorable rates compared to our other cruises, especially when you look at how much we are charging per day.

What types of cabins are on the ship? Where are they located?
There are a wide variety of cabins throughout all levels of the ship. You will always be close to the action on the Veendam. If you are interested in a Verandah cabin, we suggest that you book early, since there are relatively few of these available. See HAL’s Deck Plan for pictures, descriptions, and deck plans.

Is this a different ship than we have sailed before?
For those of you who have traveled with us before, we will be sailing on the original class of ship with the Veendam. We sailed the same ship for a seven-day trip to Alaska in 2006. This ship will feel familiar, since the layout is similar to previous charters we have sailed. You will come aboard and immediately feel at home. Check out the Veendam Deck Plan.

How do I book a cabin? What types are currently available?
For booking information, visit EMI’s pricing page. You will see a list of the currently available cabins. Just click on the one you are interested in.

May I sail only part of this cruise?
Deviations need to be requested in advance of the sailing via EMI. We do need to ensure that you are aware of a few stipulations. As with any travel, cruise guests must comply with all customs and immigration specifics that are applicable to the port in which they embark/debark the vessel, including any additional costs that may be involved at the pier/port to embark/debark the guests. Additionally, while we endeavor to follow our published itinerary, please understand that unplanned circumstances may require that we change or cancel our scheduled call to this port, or otherwise prohibit our ability to honor the deviation request. Should this occur, you as the guest assume all responsibility for any additional costs incurred.

Unfortunately, we are unable to adjust the cruise fare or make a change to individual invoices to manually reflect the shorter cruise segment. Please be advised that because this is not a standard embark/debark port with porters on staff, guests will be responsible for carrying their own luggage off the ship. We regret any inconvenience and appreciate your understanding.

Are wheelchair-accessible rooms available onboard? What about other special needs?
Holland America, PHC, and EMI do not discriminate against persons on the basis of disability. We seek, to the fullest extent feasible, to accommodate guests with special needs. Holland America offers a limited number of staterooms designed to be wheelchair and scooter accessible. Most public areas of the ship are wheelchair accessible; some areas such as the topmost outdoor observation area are not. To learn more about HAL’s options for guests with special needs, see the Shipboard Life section of Holland America Frequently Asked Questions. You can explore the deck plan (Veendam Deck Plan) to see where the wheelchair-accessible rooms are located. Please contact EMI directly at 908-458-3591 to discuss any special needs you may have.

II. Payment/Finances

Is travel insurance necessary?
We strongly recommend purchasing travel insurance. You will be booking this cruise many months before we sail; circumstances can easily change. Insurance is your only recourse for reimbursement in the event of change, delay, or crisis. For more information, see EMI’s pricing page.

What is included in the payment and what will cost extra?
Please refer to EMI/PHC Terms and Conditions page. While on board, you can spend a minimal amount or incur significant charges by the end of the cruise. You will certainly be able to have an enjoyable time no matter how little or how much you spend. Alcoholic beverages, soda, spa services, the casino, and other onboard services are not included in your fare. We do not include airfare, ground transportation, shore excursions, or other off-ship expenses in our fares.

I’m a Holland America stockholder. Can I get a discount on my cruise?
No. This cruise is private and chartered.

I’ve booked my cabin. What’s next?
EMI will confirm your reservation with you electronically and provide an EMI confirmation number they will use to track your reservation. Closer to the cruise, EMI will provide your Holland America booking number and cabin number, which you will use to prepare for your trip to Book Shore Excursions.

How do I check in?
Check-in and preparation for your cruise is an online process that HAL calls Express Docs. All passengers are required to check in using this system in advance of the cruise. You will need your HAL booking number to do this. You will be prompted to accept Holland America Terms and Conditions online. Once this is clicked, the contract is accepted.  All documents necessary for your cruise will be provided online through Express Docs, including your cruise contract and your boarding pass. You will need to print out the boarding pass portion of these documents for each person in your party and have the boarding passes available at check-in. See EMI’s website for step-by-step instructions on how to use Express Docs.

It is essential that you review all documents thoroughly and that you bring everything with you. This process is similar to checking in for an airline flight, just more extensive. It is required.

May I cancel my reservation?
You may cancel, but we have a strict refund policy. Within TEN (10) DAYS of your registration, your deposit becomes nonrefundable. On or after November 20, 2019, your full cruise fare will be collected and is not refundable. Please see EMI/PHC Terms and Conditions page.

How do I pay for extras while on board?
While on board, HAL maintains a “cashless society.” All additional purchases made will be charged to passengers’ onboard accounts. These accounts must be settled before disembarking.

If you have not done so already online, you will need to register your credit or debit card in order to use your onboard account for shipboard purchases. On the day of sailing, your card will be pre-authorized for U.S. $60 per person for each day, or $420 per person. Your account will then be activated, and you may make purchases by simply showing your guest identification card and signing a receipt. At the end of your cruise, you will receive a final statement, and your card will be charged only for the actual amount of your purchases. Please inform your credit or debit card issuer in advance that your card will be used on a Holland America Line ship. This will help prevent delays in obtaining pre-authorization on board. Some banks may keep the pre-authorization in place for up to 30 days. If you do not want to use a credit or debit card, the ship will collect a cash deposit from you at time of boarding in the same pre-authorization amount. Any excess deposit will be refunded to you at the end of the cruise. Traveler’s checks may be cashed at the front office to make your deposit. Personal checks are not accepted on board.

What about tipping? To whom and how much?
A prepaid gratuity is included in your cruise fare. The gratuity currently is $14.50 (cabin) — $16.00 (suite) per person per day, or $101.50 (cabin) — $112.00 (suite) per person for the cruise. This will be shared among the Veendam’s entire staff. In addition, an automatic 15 percent gratuity is added to all bar and beverage service. Any tipping above this is entirely up to you. It is common, but not required, to tip for personal service in your cabin. Spa services include a 15 percent automatic gratuity. Additional tipping for bar service, dining room service, or the ship’s transportation services is not expected. For more info regarding these charges see Gratuities and Service charges.

In terminals, airports, ports of call, on-shore excursions, and at hotels, we suggest that you extend gratuities consistent with customary practices.

Are guests from outside the U.S. able to purchase online?
Yes. International guests will be able to book their cabins online. All credit card charges will take place in USD and be converted to your local currency the day of the transaction.

III. Travel To/From the Cruise

Regardless of who books your air travel, you must send EMI a copy of your flight itinerary. If you book your own travel, you must still provide EMI with your flight itinerary. EMI must provide HAL with travel itineraries for all passengers. This is a legal requirement: you will be denied boarding if you do not provide your travel itinerary in advance. You must provide a cell or other phone number that can be used to communicate with you in the event of travel delays.

We recommend that you purchase airline tickets early. We hope you can find a good deal for travel to Fort Lauderdale. EMI can help you book your flights; see EMI’s website for more information.

When do we leave? When do we come home?

Please note: This cruise departs and returns on a WEDNESDAY.

Boarding will begin in Fort Lauderdale at approximately 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 18, 2020; please do not arrive at the terminal before 11:00 a.m. You must be on board no later than 3:00 p.m. We sail at 4:00 p.m. local time and cannot wait for delayed passengers.

Fort Lauderdale is a major cruise port and there are many options for same-day travel from the airport to the cruise terminal. The two are quite close to each other. Please be sure to allow ample time for travel complications, understanding that you should arrive to the cruise terminal no later than 2:00 p.m. For those that choose to fly into Miami International Airport, driving time between the Miami airport and the port is approximately 40 minutes. Leave ample time to transfer as you would in any major city.

Upon our return to Fort Lauderdale, disembarkation may begin as early as 7:30 a.m. and will end by 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Passengers should easily be able to depart from Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, if you wish. We suggest a departure time no earlier than 1:00 p.m.

What if my luggage gets lost by the airline?
In the event your bags are delayed, Holland America will make every effort to work with local operators to help your bags catch up with the ship. Guests will need to submit a claim at the airport before joining the vessel, once onboard the Veendam, guests must submit their claim along with any other details to the Guest Service desk. Please note that some major discount air carriers require that lost or delayed luggage be signed for personally by the owner at the airport. Please check their policies carefully before booking your air travel.

Where can I stay in Fort Lauderdale?
EMI has blocked out rooms in a nearby hotel, before and after the cruise. See EMI’s website if you are interested. Fort Lauderdale hotel rooms are not included in your cruise fare. EMI will not book a hotel room for you unless you ask them to do so.

What are the arrangements for travel from airport to ship?
We recommend that you purchase a transfer package from EMI when you purchase your cruise — they are available for both Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airport

They will offer a number of options; see EMI’s website for details. These transfers will include luggage handling. EMI will not book any of these options for you unless you request them. Costs for these transfers are in addition to your cruise fare. Here are the basic options:

– Airport to hotel on March 17th, hotel that night, and transfer to the ship on the 18th

– Airport to ship on March 18th.

– Ship to airport on March 25th.

– Ship to hotel March 25th, hotel that night, and transfer to the airport on the 26th.

How about getting to Fort Lauderdale on my own?
This may be a good option for many of our passengers. There are parking facilities available at or near the terminal, including a garage adjacent to the terminal.

How do I get my luggage onto the ship?
They do it for you! Once at the port terminal, you will leave your bags at the designated drop bag area for transfer to the ship—much the way you would check bags for a plane flight. There is no cost for this service. Your bags will be delivered directly to your cabin. A similar procedure will happen in reverse when we return to Fort Lauderdale.

When you first get on and last get off the boat, there will be a lengthy period of time when you will not have access to your baggage or to your cabin. Please be prepared with a small carry-on bag to hold the items you need, including all of your travel documents, medications, and any valuables you may have with you.

Whenever your bags are being transferred for you, please be sure to respect deadlines for having your bag ready, properly tag your bags, and reclaim them promptly. In particular, remember that just as at an airport, you will always need to claim your luggage in the cruise terminal. It will not automatically be transferred to your hotel.

Is there security screening?
Before embarking the ship, your luggage will be screened before being loaded onto the vessel. If electrical devices or illegal substances are detected, you will be called to security to verify your items.

Will I need a passport?
All passengers 16 years of age and over need passports. There are exceptions for infants and minors under the age of 16. Passports must be good for six months beyond the duration of the cruise. These regulations are strictly enforced. Please refer to Holland America’s website for Passport Guidelines.

May visitors come onboard?
Holland America does allow for guests to have onboard visitors. If guests are interested in having a guest on board, they can visit the front office to find out the terms and conditions.

What about after the cruise, in Fort Lauderdale?
We arrive early in Fort Lauderdale, allowing a great opportunity to explore all the area offers. EMI has blocked out hotel rooms in Fort Lauderdale for the night following the cruise, if you’d like to stay overnight.

EMI will offer you the option of booking a transfer directly to the airport if you are flying immediately following the cruise.

You will require a minimum of two (2) hours to transfer off and get from the ship to the airport, plus time to navigate the airport itself. We suggest booking flights out of Fort Lauderdale that leave after 1:00 p.m.

IV. Traveling Abroad

Will I need a passport?
Yes, all passengers must carry a passport that expires a minimum of six (6) months following the cruise. For this domestic origination cruise, infants and minors under the age of 16 may prove citizenship with a government-issued birth certificate, and copies are acceptable. Please refer to Holland America’s Passport Guidelines.

Do I need shots?
We are not aware of any special vaccinations or immunizations required for the areas to which we are traveling but please refer to Immunization Recommendations for additional information. Please refer to Travel Advisories for current details regarding all advisories.

What languages will be spoken at our ports of call?
English is the official language in Ocho Rios and George Town. In Mexico, the official language is Spanish, though many citizens speak English.

What about currency?


The currency of Jamaica is the JAMAICAN DOLLAR. ATM machines will be available to draw funds, but with arrival in Jamaica on a Sunday, banks will be closed. Credit cards are widely accepted.


The currency of the Cayman Islands is the CAYMAN DOLLAR, but the U.S. dollar is readily accepted. Credit cards are widely accepted.


The currency of Mexico is the MEXICAN PESO, although US dollars are still widely accepted in most local businesses in Cozumel. Your best bet is to use Mexican Pesos instead of other currencies to pay for your shopping, dining out, and other purchases as local business exchange rates are usually not good. Alternatively, you can pay with your credit card and be charged your bank’s exchange rate.

For ATMs, it is best to withdraw Mexican Pesos, as you will pay to convert your money twice if you withdraw USD.

V. Entertainment

What will we do on board?
Boredom is not an issue. Never has been, never will be. We will schedule a full slate of musical performances. In the main showroom and in smaller venues throughout the ship, you will have ample opportunity to enjoy your favorite “Prairie Home” performers. There will be sing-alongs and storytelling and gatherings with Garrison. We will add lectures, readings, and other events to HAL’s regular cruise offerings.

The APHC events are in addition to all of the activities you would expect on a cruise ship: dining, swimming, spa services, eating, relaxing, sports, gambling, shopping, eating, entertainment, other special events, and more eating.

When do we attend the evening performances?
Our main attraction on board is the evening performance in the main showroom. These can be similar to APHC broadcast shows, or they can be music concerts, or even shows featuring the various talents of your fellow passengers. Regardless, everyone wants to come see them.

The showroom only holds about half of the ship’s passengers, which is why we repeat the show each night. The problem comes when people try to see both shows. This can deny your fellow passengers the opportunity to see the show, so we use a plan that we hope you think is fair.

You will receive a color-coded Holland America ID card. This will identify which show you may attend each night. We are going to check this identification for each main evening show, just as we would take tickets for a regular performance. We will clear the auditorium after each show, and we will not allow people to reserve seats in advance.

Will you publish a schedule of activities?
We are always adding new things to do, right up to the day of departure. When you arrive on the ship, we will have for you a schedule of activities for the entire cruise. Once aboard, we adjust the schedule daily. HAL and APHC will publish an official daily schedule, which will be delivered to your cabin every morning.

Will I actually SEE Garrison and other performers?
The Prairie Home Company will be guests of Holland America just like you, living in cabins right down the hall or maybe next door. You’ll see them in the elevators, on the Lido Deck, at the buffets and bars, and, of course, on stage. Don’t hesitate to say hi, ask questions, or tell us you loved a particular event, but do understand that we may be running to our next assignment or just need some time on our own.

Should I bring a musical instrument?
Sure! On this cruise we plan to give our passengers opportunities to play together and we will schedule “jam” sessions with a few of our performers. In casual — purely unplugged — settings you’ll have the chance to share your musical talents with your shipmates. Acoustic instruments only — Garrison wouldn’t have it any other way!

Will any of the shows be broadcast?
No, but they will be recorded for possible later use. We may feature some video, photos, and audio segments via within a month or so of our return.

Will there be opportunities for autographs?
While on board, feel free to ask for autographs at your leisure. We will also schedule autograph sessions in coordination with the gift shops on board. Check in with a Prairie Home or EMI staff member on board if you have questions about this.

Will there be APHC merchandise for sale?
Yes. Check out the gift shops on board. We’ll have clothing, books, and lots of music featuring your “Prairie Home” favorites.

VI. Dining

When do we schedule our dining? May we sit together at dinner?
When you register for the cruise, you will request your seating preferences for dining. EMI will do everything possible to honor seating requests. In most every case you will be able to sit near friends and family (assuming you want to!). You may meet new friends at your table as well. Note that your dining time preference determines which performance of the evening Showroom events you will attend.

What is the difference between early seating and late seating?
The Dining Room and the Main Show Lounge each hold half of the ship’s passengers, so we all need to rotate.
—EARLY seating passengers will eat at the first seating of dinner, at 5:30 p.m. Then they go to the second Main Lounge show, at 8:30 p.m.
—LATE seating passengers see the Main Lounge Show first, at 6:00 p.m. They then go to dinner at the second seating, at 7:45 p.m.

While accommodations can often be made, due to the popularity of our evening shows, we will use assigned dinner times: the “As-You-Wish” dining program available on regular HAL cruises will not be used.

If I have food allergies or other dietary needs, will the ship be able to accommodate these?
Yes, but you must inform us in advance. Upon your initial booking via the EMI website, you will be asked about dietary restrictions. You will be asked again when you check in to Holland America to receive your Boarding Documents. Any special needs should be noted at this time (e.g. need for distilled water for CPAP machines, etc.). You can learn more under Shipboard Life at Holland America Frequently Asked Questions.

What is the Dress Code?
Because we are chartering the ship, APHC has the freedom to set our own dress code policies. We are considerably more relaxed than the standard cruise. Sunday-go-to-church clothes is about as fancy as we get. If you like to dress up, please feel free, and many of us may join you.

The only time there will be an actual dress code is in the dining rooms during the evening meal. On most nights, the dress code will be “smart casual.” This means long pants and sports shirt or sweater for men, and skirt or long pants and sweater or blouse for women. We ask that you not wear casual T-shirts, swimsuits, bathrobes, tank tops, shorts, and the like in the dining room. Further, we will designate one or two evenings as “semi-formal.” This generally means sport coat and maybe a tie for men; and a dress, skirt, or pantsuit for women. These nights are an opportunity for you to dress up, and the crew will wear their dress uniforms, but it is not a strict requirement.

May we dine elsewhere?
Holland America offers many other options for dining. You are not obligated to join us in the dining room, although you may want to let your seatmates know you won’t be joining them. Dining options include a private table at the Pinnacle Grill or the Canaletto Restaurant, informal dining on the Lido Deck, and Room Service available 24/7. The Pinnacle and Canaletto options require a modest surcharge — well worth it for the high quality of food, level of service, and atmosphere. Remember that the dining room is a lovely, peaceful, option for breakfast and lunch — and it’s included.

VII. Life Aboard Ship

How do I contact an EMI or APHC staff person? How will they be identified?
We will staff an info table near the front desk. And we’ll all try to wear our ID lanyards.

After boarding the ship, how long before I can get into the cabin?
Boarding for the ship begins several hours before we cast off. You’ll be able to settle in once your stateroom is prepared. HAL has streamlined this process to a great degree but please understand that they have to turn around accommodations for more than 1,200 people in a very short period of time. Plenty of onboard activities will be available while you wait. Make arrangements for your week. And the buffet lines will be open.

An announcement will be made when your staterooms are ready; that’s when you can meet your cabin steward and get unpacked.

What kind of amenities will I find in my cabin?
Cabins on the Veendam are outfitted much like a good hotel room. You will find them to be comfortable, nicely decorated, efficient, and clean.

All linens and bedding will be supplied. Your bathroom comes complete with towels, toiletries, and your very own onboard bathrobe. You will find ample closet and drawer space, a dressing table, cabin-controlled air conditioning, a variety of cabin lighting, and a television with shipboard programming.

All staterooms are equipped with standard 110 AC (U.S.  port) and 220/240 AC (2-prong European port) power outlets. Personal care items and electronics will work just as they do at home. Hair dryers are available in all staterooms. You may wish to bring a travel alarm clock since they are not provided, although your cabin phone accesses an effective wake-up call system.

For safety reasons, the ship respectfully requests that you do not iron clothing in your stateroom. Ironing facilities are available in the self-service laundry rooms for your convenience. Full laundry, dry-cleaning, and valet services are available on the Veendam.

Where can I smoke?
Please note that Holland America has a strict policy of prohibiting smoking in all staterooms. This policy will be strictly enforced. Substantial fees will be charged for cleaning your cabin if you smoke inside. In Verandah cabins, smoking is permitted outside on the balconies only.

In deference to our performers and your fellow passengers, this is a “non-smoking” cruise with even stricter policies than regular cruises. You may smoke only in one designated public area on one outside deck of the ship. Our cruise designates all interior areas (including all lounge and restaurant areas) as non-smoking where smoking might be permitted on other HAL cruises. See the Holland America Smoking Policy.

How can I be reached in case of an emergency?
Holland America has procedures in place for situations that require emergency contact with your loved ones. Please refer to Emergency Phone Numbers for more information.

What if I need medical attention?
Fully trained medical professionals are on board at all times, and a complete medical facility is available. Aspirin and seasickness pills are available at guest services, but you may have to pay for other items or services.

Can I call my friends in their cabin? Can I call home?
Your stateroom comes equipped with telephones that can be used to call your fellow passengers just as in a hotel. They can also be used for ship-to-shore communication, however significant charges apply. Please refer to Ship-to-shore communication for more information.

Passengers may not see our guest roster, and we will not give out cabin numbers.

Will my cell phone work?
Probably not while on board, almost certainly while in port — but be careful. Call your carrier for details for your plan. We suggest purchasing a data roaming package or making sure you deactivate your roaming feature before you leave port. Cellular at sea is very expensive.

Will I have access to the internet?
Yes. You may bring your own computer or use ones provided by HAL. You can buy minutes for surfing the internet at any point throughout the trip. Wi-Fi is available throughout the entire vessel, including your stateroom, and is charged under the same system. Please be aware that the prices are high and can add up quickly. Please refer to Internet Use for more details.

We know that on previous cruises, many of our passengers have not been satisfied with the internet service on board. HAL continues to do what they can to improve service. However, a ship on the open ocean will only be able to access a certain amount of bandwidth and there will definitely be service outages. For your information, the biggest problems on our cruises occur when all of us try to get on the internet between leaving port and having dinner.

We recommend that you do not plan on accessing the internet to stream video, hold conference calls, engage in an activity that requires to you to maintain one consistent connection, or any other activity requiring high-quality internet service. You should expect to be able to check your email and keep up on basic social media but there will be times when service is simply not available. It is also advisable that you LOG OFF when you have finished using the internet.

On this cruise in particular, reliable high-quality internet service will be readily available in all of our ports.

Can I get married on board ship?
No. This is a private, chartered cruise. No weddings. No divorces, either.

Will there be stuff for my kids to do?
Holland America provides a range of activities for kids through their Club Hal program. See HAL Onboard Activities for details. The Club HAL room is regularly available with games electronic and otherwise, and has daily special group activities. The schedule of events is determined by the number of kids who sail with us; we will include APHC programming in their schedule.

How should I dress for the weather?
March is one of the prime months to sail the Caribbean, when the seas are generally calm and weather temperate. Expect good beach weather.

When on deck, it can always be windy and cool; be prepared for that. Of course, be prepared for rain. Be sure to bring comfortable shoes for walking on deck or on shore.

Should I bring anything else?
If you are interested in “knowing stuff,” you might want to bring along your binoculars and a field guide or three (birds, marine mammals, wildflowers, and geology are just a few). Previous guests have found benefit from bringing a camera, a journal, an instrument, or their most recent knitting project.

What will sea conditions be like?
We could have calm seas. We could have large waves. The ship may glide placidly along with barely a perceptible movement. The ship may rock back and forth, making even the stout of heart (and stomach) reach for the Dramamine. We will probably see a bit of everything. Holland America schedules cruises for favorable weather, something we’ve certainly experienced over the years. It is unlikely that we will experience severe weather, and HAL does an excellent job of tracking and avoiding storms as necessary.

VIII. Excursions

You’ll find all the information you need at Shore Excursions. You will receive an email notice when they are available for your review and booking.

Booked guests may confirm shore excursion requests in advance of sailing. Once you have your Holland America booking number and cabin number, you may use it to view shore excursion information specific to your itinerary. To complete a booking, please proceed through all screens on the HAL booking page until you receive confirmation from them that your booking is complete.

Before you leave from home, we suggest you make use of a handy feature on the website: you can generate a complete schedule of your cruise that includes your pre-booked activities.

Guests may pre-book shore excursions online until five days prior to sailing. If your departure date is less than five days away, please call Shore Excursions at 1-888-425-9376 to book directly with an agent. All shore excursion requests are processed on a first-come, first-serve basis. Wait-listed requests for sold-out shore excursions will be processed prior to requests made on board. Children under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or responsible adult over 25.

Excursion cancellations may incur a cancellation fee, and any refund may be issued in the form of credit to your onboard account. Excursions have individual deadlines after which no refund or credit is given. Please refer to Shore Excursions for details.

All excursions are the responsibility of independent tour operators. HAL acts only as an agent to help you book your tours. We have no financial or operational relationship with them. While excursions may be arranged directly with independent operators on shore, you will have limited recourse in the event of an unsatisfactory experience.

All of our ports afford the opportunity to explore on foot at no cost or by local transportation. We will have extra information on all of our ports for you before and during the cruise. Please feel free to set out as you wish.

Wherever and however you explore, be sure to be back on time. Be sure that your watch is set to ship’s time; local time on land can be different. The ship cannot wait past scheduled departure times.

IX. Contact Us

Email us or call EMI’s Prairie Home Cruise number at 908-458-3591.

See EMI’s website for cabin pricing

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Madison, WI

February 14, 2020

Garrison Keillor: Stories, Songs, Poetry, Humor. Tickets $40.00 and up

Buy tickets >>>

February 18, 2020


7:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

February 18, 2020

Garrison Keillor with Heather Masse at the Dakota. Night 1 of 2. Tickets $30+

Buy tickets >>>

February 19, 2020


7:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

February 19, 2020

Garrison Keillor with Heather Masse at the Dakota. Night 2 of 2. Tickets $30+

Buy tickets >>>


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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, January 21, 2020

It’s the birthday of Eva Ibbotson (1925), who said, “My aim is to produce books that are light, humorous, even a little erudite but secure in their happy endings.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, January 20, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, January 20, 2020

It’s MLK Day and the birthday of the musician known as Lead Belly (1889), whose hit songs include “The Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line,” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, January 19, 2020

Today is the birthday of Dolly Parton (1946), who started performing professionally when she was 10, and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry when she was 13.

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A Prairie Home Companion: January 25, 2014

A Prairie Home Companion: January 25, 2014

With country and bluegrass outfit Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Mike Compton and Joe Newberry, and women’s vocal group The Nightingale Trio (pictured).

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, January 18, 2020

Today is the birthday of the man who answered Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone call: Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson (1854).

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, January 17, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, January 17, 2020

The Eighteenth Amendment took effect on this day 100 years ago, making illegal the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor in the U.S. Prohibition was repealed in 1933 with the 21st Amendment.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, January 16, 2020

Today is the birthday of poet and memoirist Mary Karr (1955), who said, “Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, January 15, 2020

“If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion…” –Martin Luther King, Jr. (b. 1929)

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, January 14, 2020

It’s the birthday of Emily Hahn (1905), who wrote 54 books and more than 200 articles for “The New Yorker,” crossed Africa on foot, and kicked an opium habit through hypnosis.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, January 13, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, January 13, 2020

Today is the birthday of Michael Bond (1926), author of Paddington Bear, who wrote, “One of the nice things about writing for children is their total acceptance of the fantastic.”

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Some New York thoughts on solitude

I stood around looking at J.D. Salinger stuff last Friday, his old black Royal typewriter, family snapshots, and typewritten letters, at the New York Public Library, and it was a wonder to see. I’m one of the many millions for whom The Catcher in the Rye was an important book back in my teens and back then, Salinger was famous for guarding his privacy. He didn’t do interviews, was never on TV, and so was portrayed in the press as a crank, an anti-social weirdo. It’s clear from the exhibit that he was not.

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The art of love in the far North

Winter is a thoughtful time. Snow falls in the trees and my natural meanness dissipates and the urge to bash my enemies’ mailboxes with a baseball bat. I put fresh strawberries on the cornflakes and taste the sweetness of life. I speak gently to the lady across the table. Marriage is the truest test — to make a good life with your best-informed critic, and thanks to her excellent comedic timing, we have a good life. My third marriage and this year we ding the silver bell of twenty-five years.

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Man of the North finds bliss, becomes incoherent

My family and I are at a swimming pool under the palm trees behind a pink stucco 1929 hotel in San Diego, my wife reading a memoir, my daughter swimming laps of alternate crawl and butterfly, and I am trying to think of what one can say about blissfulness other than that, for a Minnesotan brought up on the principle of “It could be worse,” blissfulness comes as a major surprise, like weightlessness. The hotel looks out on the Pacific, a beach where sea lions fraternize and waves crash on the rocks. As I ate my oatmeal on the balcony this morning, a seagull landed on the railing and cocked his eye at the raisins on the cereal so I tossed him one and he caught it. This almost never happens back on the frozen tundra where nature makes serious attempts to kill us. In paradise, it’s Live and Let Live.

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Wave your arms, kick your feet, do the 2020

I don’t do New Year’s Eve anymore because the parties never were that much fun and we wound up trapped in corners in the usual intense conversations (kids, schools, political lunacy), and some people drank too much and forced the rest of us into a guardianship role and the sheer awkwardness of telling an old drunk to let his wife drive him home, and so the party ended with us wondering: why do we not know how to have a good time? White liberal guilt? The inbred gloom of northern people? Too many books one has read and is eager to quote? Lack of dancing skills?

The correct answer is No. 4.

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Suddenly, once again, good Lord, it’s Christmas

Coming through airports this week it struck me how kind everyone was, ticket agents, TSA people, cab starters, and then light dawned: it’s Christmas. Charles Dickens had a big impact on the world and so did Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart, not to mention St. Luke. I stood in a long winding line in LaGuardia and sensed no impatience; the TSA guy even smiled and asked how I was. And when I lost my ticket in Atlanta, I walked to Gate T7 and asked an agent and she made me a new one, no problem.

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Thoughts from the back row of the memorial

I learned a new word last week: “anonymized.” It means just what it says, “made anonymous,” and was used in reference to government reports obtained by the Washington Post that contained truthful revelations about our 18-year war in Afghanistan that the government was lying to the American people about while spending a trillion dollars to achieve something that nobody in the Pentagon could quite define.

My uncles, may they rest in peace, would not have been surprised by the Post’s story. Their regard for generals was low, based on their own military service, and their opinion of politicians lower: they associated high office with adultery, alcohol, and bribery, end of discussion.  

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So much one can live without and should

I keep unsubscribing from junk mail and it seems that the simple act of unsubscribing opens the sluiceway to even more junk. I get offers to pay cash for my current home, to consolidate my debt, to save up to 50% on things I don’t want, to get a credit card for people with bad credit, a hair implant, introduce me to other lonely people, and so forth.

So I keep clicking and praise God for the Delete key, the invention of which ranks with Gutenberg’s movable type in the annals of human progress, not so much for eliminating junk mail as for eliminating one’s own dim-witted writing. Back in the typewriter age we had erasers and liquid white-out and so-called “Lift-Off Tape” or correctable ribbon, which was okay for fixing a misspelled word, but Delete enables you to remove whole pages of pretentious garbage from your writing such as the passage about the privilege of washing blackboards in Mrs. Moehlenbrock’s fourth-grade classroom at Benson School, which I just deleted here and unless I click on “Undo delete” which I will not do, you need never read it.

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The old man’s Sunday sermon to himself

Probably the greenhouse gas report of the U.N. Environment Program shouldn’t have come out the week of Thanksgiving, a time when gassy emissions are quite heavy in the U.S. and people are likely to use the newspaper for guests to park their snowy boots on, but there it was and the picture is bleak, perhaps dire. The planet is heating up at a rate faster than scientists had ever expected, the U.S. is turning our back on the issue, and most people are dozing comfortably through it all. The press leaps when the White House tweets but it doesn’t know how to cover the major crisis of our time, the slow demise of Earth itself.

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What we did Friday night, if you want to know

I didn’t mention 1963 though the day is clear in my mind. I was 21, walking across the University of Minnesota campus, and a man ran by saying something weird about the president, and I went in the back door of Eddy Hall where KUOM had an AP teletype and there it was, clattering away, typing bulletins in incomplete sentences. He was dead in Dallas.

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Lighten up, people, it’s Thanksgiving for God’s sake

It worries me that I’m using GPS to guide me around Minneapolis, a city I’ve known since I was a boy on a bicycle, and also that I text my wife from the next room, and when I get up in the morning Siri sometimes asks me, “What’s the matter? You seem a little down. Would you like to hear the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3?” And I say, Leave me alone, I just want to think, and she and I wind up having a conversation about delayed gratification.

Too much technology in my life. I used to go to Al’s Breakfast Nook and now I go on Facebook. Thanks to social media, my handwriting has become illegible. It took me half an hour to decipher a note I left on the kitchen counter that said, “Why am I here? What’s the purpose of it all? Who needs me?”

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Press Kit

If you are hosting a show with Garrison, please feel free to use the below press photos for marketing, as well as the below short biography. Promo video for purpose of booking is available here.

Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

Recent reviews:

“Fans laughed, applauded and sang along throughout Sunday night’s two-hour show” -Jeff Baenen, AP News

“His shows can, for a couple of hours, transform an audience of even so-called coastal elites into a small-town community with an intimacy only radio and its podcast descendants can achieve” -Chris Barton, LA Times

“[Keillor is] an expert at making you feel at home with his low-key, familiar style. Comfortable is his specialty.” -Betsie Freeman, Omaha-World Herald

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