Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth's Gator: Essays

Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth's Gator: Essays

by Michael Perry
Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth's Gator: Essays

Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth's Gator: Essays

by Michael Perry



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Whether he's fighting fires, passing a kidney stone, hammering down I-80 in an 18-wheeler, or meditating on the relationship between cowboys and God, Michael Perry draws on his rural roots and footloose past to write from a perspective that merges the local with the global.

Ranging across subjects as diverse as lot lizards, Klan wizards, and small-town funerals, Perry's writing in this wise and witty collection of essays balances earthiness with poetry, kinetics with contemplation, and is regularly salted with his unique brand of humor.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061852800
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Format: eBook
Pages: 304
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Michael Perry is a humorist, radio host, songwriter, and the New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including Visiting Tom and Population: 485, as well as a novel, The Jesus Cow. He lives in northern Wisconsin with his family and can be found online at

Read an Excerpt

Off Main Street

A Way with Wings

One summer day when I was a child, a rocket rose through the snow in Oleander Caporelli's television, headed for the moon. I have always believed Neil Armstrong was on that rocket, bound to make his giant leap for mankind -- but my little brother, who recalls the same scene, believes we saw a later mission. He was just two years old in 1969, and doubts he would remember Apollo 11. We do agree that we sat together on the Caporellis' floor and watched a launch, our heads tipped back as if we were tracking the ship itself into the stratosphere. The television sat on a shelf high above the fireplace mantel, the power cord clipped to a car battery. The Caporellis lived deep in the Wisconsin woods, in a small house without electricity. We had electricity on our farm, but no television, and so, with history in the air, Mom loaded us into the car and drove us down the snaking, dead-end dirt road that wound around the old cranberry bog, up a sharp hill, and then hairpinned back on itself in a long decline leading to the Caporelli place. For the last five hundred yards, the driveway ran parallel to a narrow cow pasture that doubled as a runway.

Crazy Joe Caporelli hung billboards for a living, but he had also trained fighter pilots in the Middle East. So the locals told it, anyway; or some said Korea, and others said he had been a test pilot, and you got to where you entertained all versions, because Crazy Joe had a way with wings. He carved us balsa wood jets the size of dragonflies. If you flung them low, they swooped high. Crazy Joe said the secret was in the tiny wire counterweight he crimped over the nose of each craft. Crazy Joe built a jet out there in the woods. I remember the tubular cowling on his garage floor, remember Crazy Joe with his goggles and gas welder. But when he bolted the engine to a hand-built fuselage, pointed the nose down his dandelion runway and throttled up, the jet wash incinerated the tail works. Later, he repaired the tail, switched the jet engine for a snowmobile engine, and got the rig airborne, but the Chippewa County jet age never took off.

Mostly Crazy Joe flew his homemade canvas two-seater. Summer evenings, our yard would go dark early, the sun blocked by the tall white pines sheltering the house and barn, but the sunlight that cleared the treetops gave everything to the east -- the oat fields, the popple trees, the fence rows -- a deep swab of color, a promise for the morning, as it were. And just when everything was glowing, there would come a buzzing from the northeast, and Crazy Joe would clear the treetops, flying through the last of the sun, his plane bright as a little red wagon against the blue sky. It was an evening ritual as common as the deer emerging in the meadows.

Some nights, after the cows were milked, and Joe had flown home, Dad took us swimming. He drove us to Fish Lake and sat on the grassy bank reading the paper. We swam and splashed until it got so dark Dad could no longer keep track of us. When he stood up, it was time to go. One day some men came to build a steel shed behind our barn. It was abominably hot, and at noon, Dad loaded the entire crew into the truck and hauled them to the lake. It was a rare treat to swim in bright sunlight. I scissor-kicked beneath the surface with my eyes wide open, trying to touch bluegills. At night, the sunfish appeared dark green, almost gray. Here at high noon, they hung in the underwater sunbeams like electrified ornaments. If you stabbed your hand out quickly, you might brush a fin before they flashed away. Given a reprieve from gravity, I hovered above the lake bed until my lungs ached for air.

Crazy Joe used to climb high in the sky over our hayfield, stall out, and then drop in a silent free fall. It put us right on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear the engine sputter and kick in. Can you imagine us, young boys in the country, playing all day, with an air show every evening? Crazy Joe used to bring his plane in low right over the garden, swoop by the house at bedroom level, dip to the clover blossoms in front of the barn, then yank back on the stick and just clear the oak trees at the end of the meadow. My brother and I would go pelting out of the house to watch. My mother had slowmotion plane crash nightmares and dreaded the day she would have to pluck Crazy Joe from the brush. Finally she forbade him to buzz the house, and he complied, but when he spotted us boys waving from the yard, he'd waggle his wings.

One night all the neighbors -- from babes in arms to the two elderly Norwegian bachelor brothers who worked the farm adjacent to ours -- queued up in a hayfield and Crazy Joe gave everyone rides. My brother and I rode together in the seat behind Crazy Joe, and I remember the homemade stick swaying and dipping at our knees, mirroring every move Joe made in the front. He flew to our farm and banked hard over the barnyard. He looked back and hollered over the engine noise. "Can you see?" My brother and I nodded. "You can't see!" he yelled, and flung open the side doors. We clamped hold of the seat but were transfixed. There was our yard, the green shingles on our red barn, Dad's aqua-blue wheelbarrow propped on its nose in the driveway; now we knew how it was to look down from the moon.

Off Main Street
. Copyright © by Michael Perry. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide


Prior to writing the beloved memoir Population: 485, freelance journalist Michael Perry wrote essays on such diverse topics as big-rig truck driving, country music, butchery, farming, nursing, and the many fates of small-town America. Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth's Gator is a collection of Perry's off-beat reporting, and is confirmation of his one-of-a-kind world view and deeply personal and humane insights.

In "Branding God," we witness Perry working on a cattle ranch and recalling time spent under the spell of a fire-and-brimstone preacher by the name of Brother Timothy. In "Rolling Thunder," Perry rides with a convoy of Vietnam veterans on their chopper-rigged march to the nation's capital. In such pieces as "A Way with Wings," "Swelter," and "Manure is Elemental," Perry reflects on his own boyhood, spent in rural Wisconsin amidst the ordinary heroes of the American Midwest.

Questions for Discussion

  1. In what ways are swimming and flying connected in the essay "A Way with Wings?"

  2. Many of the essays in Off Main Street describe physical work in precise and colorful detail. What are the similarities in the types of work rendered throughout the collection, from pig butchery and music making to truck driving?

  3. Which local characters recur throughout these pieces, and what is the overall effect of seeing these people in different contexts, from different angles, and related to different stories?

  4. Perry's memoir Population 485 was anchored to a strong sense of place. In Off Main Street, many of the essays speak to freedom, movement, and a love of the road. How well can a convoy of trucks, motorcycles or country music tour buses replicate the feeling of a conventional community? Is sense of place "portable"?

  5. Perry often writes about groups of men (think of the truckers in "Convoy;" the veterans in "Roots Remain;" the bikers in "Rolling Thunder"). How does Perry dissect the idea of masculinity itself (think of "Fear This," "Rock Slide!" "Steve Earle: Hard-Core Troubador," "Scarlet Ribbons," and "Hirsute Pursuits" in particular)?

  6. How is Michael Perry similar to Aaron Tippin and Gatemouth Brown?

  7. At the beginning and end of many of the essays, the author has inserted up-to-date, reflective commentary. Do you find this commentary helpful in interpreting the pieces as a whole?

  8. Discuss the author's overall presence in the essays. Does his involvement seem consistent? If not, when does he appear and what seems to prompt his appearance? Is he a part of the worlds he documents? What is Perry's role as a writer in these people's lives?

About the Author

Michael Perry was raised on a dairy farm in New Auburn, Wisconsin. In addition to penning the acclaimed memoir Population: 485, he has worked as a forklift driver, backhoe operator, truck driver, proofreader, physical therapy aide, and put himself through nursing school by working as a cowboy in Wyoming. His writing has appeared in Men's Health, Esquire, Newsweek, New York Times Magazine, Salon, The Utne Reader, and No Depression, among others.

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