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Last Night I Went to Sleep

My friend Lynn, a personal trainer, has given me a list of twelve useful exercises to strengthen the core muscles and improve the sense of balance and I’ve been thinking about doing them, meanwhile I’ve been concerned with other matters, such as which came first, the can or the can opener. This question has no relevance to my life or yours and yet — what is the relevance of relevance at this point in my life? I need questions to answer, otherwise I lie in bed at night with a song repeating in my head, such as “Please Please Me” or “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” both of them infectious. So the question of can openers is how I spare myself from thinking “Last night I said these words to my girl.”

The answers to all of life’s questions are on the internet and this is why I don’t get out and walk. Things I might’ve had to walk to the library to find out are in my computer on my desk. So here I am. An English merchant named Peter Durand invented the can around 1800, which made it possible to preserve food aboard ships for long voyages. People used knives or other sharp instruments to open them until 1858 when the can opener was patented. This probably saved a great many sailors from stabbing themselves in the hand, which, in those primitive times, probably meant serious infections from bacteria on knives also used to gut fish and shuck oysters. Some galley crew, opening cans, probably lost a hand to a fish-borne disease and replaced it with a hook and thereby became pirates and wound up being hanged. Mothers grieved for them back in Yorkshire and Liverpool. Then the can opener came along and piracy went into decline, shiploads of immigrants sailed unmolested to our shores, the Industrial Age began, slaves were emancipated, the automobile was invented, radio came along, and the 20th century, without people having to jab holes in cylindrical containers.

Thomas Keillor sailed over from Yorkshire in 1774, before the can was invented, a five-week voyage to Halifax, and Lord knows what the family ate: ships in those days assumed, in stocking provisions, that a good number of the passengers would perish at sea, but the Keillors persisted, hardy country folk, Christians, and we persist to this day.

When we took a long car trip out west, we carried a box of gospel tracts titled “The Wages Of Sin Is Death,” which we rolled up and wrapped in gold cellophane and threw out the window at rural mailboxes for people to read and be converted to Christianity but Dad drove very fast through North Dakota and Montana so as to avoid the expense of an extra night in a motel for six kids and two adults and this made accurate bombing impossible and it dawned on me that Christianity is the prevalent belief in that part of the country, the Buddhist population of North Dakota is rather slight, and so I gave up evangelism though other Keillors persist.

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On Saturday I went to a Lutheran funeral in St. Peter for a dear childhood friend and we stood around the grave and sang a cappella “How Great Thou Art” and “Till We Meet Again” in Mary Lee’s memory, and I remembered the last time I saw her in St. Peter when she told me a story she’d heard me tell on the radio about a hundred-pound stone plaque that fell off the façade of a building almost hitting Bud Mueller, who had just stopped and turned because Mrs. Burkert mistook him for her daughter Donna’s boyfriend Merle. Mistaken identity saved his life. So when Merle was killed in a car crash, Bud married Donna and did his best to make her happy. I had forgotten the story and Mary Lee remembered it.

I once saw an MRI of my brain and the damage a couple strokes did to it but I still remember her and her sister Margie singing duets and I remember my boyhood home, the big garden out back, the old dog who guarded it against raccoons. We had hundreds


of jars of canned food from the garden in shelves in the laundry room so we seldom needed a can opener, you just pried the Kerr lid off the Ball jar and there was the corn and green beans. And Saturday night I could hear the two of them singing, “By his counsels, guide, uphold you, with his sheep securely fold you,” and their mother, Leila, at the piano. A good memory to go to sleep on.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions