5) BOB DYLAN DRIVE
In Northern Minnesota, a “Ranger” is an inhabitant of the mining towns along the Mesabi, Vermillion, and Cuyuna Iron Ranges. Unlike a mountain range, a Minnesota iron range has no elevated topography, no grand vistas and no snow-capped peaks. An iron range is a geological phenomenon, named for the deposits of rich iron-laden minerals just beneath the earth’s surface. Rangers take great pride in their iron mines. They’ll tell you the American ships, tanks, and planes which won World Wars I and II were constructed from steel that originated in these Minnesota mines. No tunnels are required to mine Minnesota ore—a mere scraping of the top layer of trees and topsoil is all that’s needed to expose the largest deposits of iron-containing rock in the United States.
Johnny and I passed the open pit of the Pillsbury Mine, five miles outside of Hibbing. Deep in the concavity of mines like this one, electric shovels the size of small office buildings excavated the iron-containing taconite rock, while the largest dump trucks on Earth carried 240-ton loads of rock to the mining factories on the edges of pit.
Johnny pointed to a solitary billboard standing in the woods on the left side of the highway, and said, “Whoa, check that out.” The billboard depicted a giant fetus in utero. The caption read, Hello world. My heart was beating 18 days after conception.
“Hmm. Disturbing,” Johnny said. “What’s the point of that?”
“Some folks up here don’t believe in abortion. They believe life begins in the womb. I guess they pay for billboards to try to sway people to their way of thinking.”
Two more curves up the road, the town of Hibbing spread out before us. A row of boxy stucco homes stood shoulder to shoulder, their canted roofs covered with fresh snow. A silver water tower bearing the stenciled name HIBBING crested a hilltop behind them. Our journey was at an end.
Bob Dylan once wrote, “Hibbing’s a good ol’ town… I ran away from it when I was 10, 12, 13, 15, 15 ½, 17 an’ 18. I been caught an’ brought back all but once.” I followed a similar path. I blew out of this town years ago, and clawed my way to a better life in California. I vowed never to return. That was before I had a son, a son who needed Hibbing.
I turned onto Howard Street, the main thoroughfare, and drove along the downtown strip of commercial buildings. Neon lights flashed the names of two banks, three restaurants, three taverns, and a liquor store. Six inches of new-fallen snow covered the surface of the two-laned street. Our tires made a scrunching sound as we drove. Mounds of ice and snow lined the perimeter of the road like levees isolating the street from the storefronts.
The vista was familiar, and it saddened me. Hibbing was unchanged from the Januarys of my youth. A woman dressed in a bulky goose-down parka crossed Howard Street in front of us, her scarf trailing in the wind behind her. I slowed to let her pass. She tested the snow-covered surface with exacting steps. Johnny followed the parka-clad woman’s progress in wordless wonder.
I drove the 12-block length of Howard Street and made a left turn onto 1st Avenue, the second of Hibbing’s two main business routes. Similar to Howard Street, 1st Avenue was home to three gas stations, four more bars, and two liquor stores.
“What do you think?” I said.
“There’s not much here,” Johnny said. “It looks like a ghost town. Black and white. Dark buildings and white snow. Lots of bars and liquor stores.”
“Alcohol is a tonic against the tedium. It’s a long winter up here.”
“Iron miners drink a lot?”
“As long as there have been mining towns, there have been mining towns with taverns. But Hibbing is different. There are a lot of educated people here. Remember, this is the biggest urban area between Duluth and Winnipeg.”
Johnny laughed. “That’s not saying much, Daddy-O.”
I turned off 1st Avenue and drove through six blocks of humble residential neighborhoods until I reached 7th Avenue, a narrow tunnel between rows of stark leafless trees. Stocky two-story homes lined up behind the trees like chess pieces behind pawns. Windows were miniscule. Walls were thick. The buildings were efficient barricades for holding in heat against brutal conditions. Hibbing houses weren’t built for style; they were built to protect people from bitter cold.
After five or six blocks, the 7th Avenue street signs changed, and read Bob Dylan Drive. I parked the car when we reached the corner of 24th Street and Bob Dylan Drive. The corner house was a two-story grey cube lacking a single gable. Foot-long icicles hung from the roofline. No sign or placard designated the structure as a famous building.
“Why are we stopped here?” Johnny said.
“This was Bob Dylan’s house.”
“This was where he was born?”
“No. He was born in Duluth, 75 miles south of here. His parents moved to this house when Dylan was a boy. His real name was Robert Zimmerman, and this was his home back in 1959 when he graduated from Hibbing High School.”
“So it’s not a museum or anything.” Johnny craned his neck to take in the particulars of the scene.
“No. It’s someone’s residence. I don’t know who lives here now, but it’s just a regular house.”
As I spoke, a man came out of the front door. He tightened the hood of his parka against the wind and aimed a shovel at the snow on the walkway. After his second shovelful, he stopped and looked up at us in our bashed-in BMW. A $120,000 German sports car with a smashed-in front end and California license plates couldn’t be commonplace in Hibbing in January. On the other hand, I suspect an out-of-town vehicle perusing the old Zimmerman home was not unusual. Muslims made pilgrimages to Mecca. Dylan fans made pilgrimages to Hibbing.
The shoveler wore his hood pulled down over his eyebrows and a brown scarf wrapped snug over his mouth. Only his eyes were exposed to the frigid air. He continued to stare at Johnny and me.
Behind my windshield, I felt like a goldfish inside an aquarium. To ease the awkwardness of the moment, I waved at the man. The resident of 2425 Bob Dylan Drive only exhaled steam into the frigid Minnesota air. He did not wave back.
“Friendly guy,” Johnny said.
“Cut him some slack. I’ll bet every day some dude from New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, England or Italy knocks on this guy’s door and asks him if they can take a tour of the house. It must get old.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Johnny said.
I put the car in gear and drove thirty seconds down the road to the intersection of Bob Dylan Drive and 21st Street. To our right, an imposing three-story red brick fortress sprawled over four square blocks. It was easily the largest building in town.
Johnny craned his neck up at the structure, and said, “What’s this?”
“This is your new school.”
“It looks like a castle. How can they have such a monster school in such a little town?”
“A hundred years ago the town of Hibbing was located two miles north of here. When the mining companies discovered the richest supply of iron ore in the United States in the soil below the existing town, they cut a deal. The mining companies agreed to move the entire village and build Hibbing this wonderful high school in the new location as a reward for being relocated. C’mon, let’s go take a look.”
We walked up the front steps of the high school. I touched the brass railing with my bare hand, just like I had when I was 17 years old. At that moment, I was proud of my roots and proud of my alma mater. The front door was unlocked, and we stepped inside. The entryway was adorned with a tiled mosaic floor, a majestic marble staircase, and original oil paintings and murals on the walls depicting the history of the Iron Range.
“It looks like a museum,” Johnny said.
“See that plaque? This building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Wait until you see the auditorium.”
We walked to the end of the main hallway and passed through a set of double doors into the auditorium, an Art Deco wonder adorned by cut-glass chandeliers built in Czechoslovakia, and modeled after the ornate Capitol Theater in New York City. With a capacity of 1,800, the auditorium could seat every student in the school at once.
“This is where I received my high school diploma. And this is where Bob Dylan first performed and sang in public. They say he banged on the piano like a Little Richard clone.”
Johnny said nothing. He was biting the nails of his right hand, and he looked nervous.
“You OK?” I said.
“I don’t know. Now that I see this place, I’m getting worried. What if it doesn’t work out for me here? I mean, wherever I go, I’m still Johnny Antone. What if I’m in the middle of the pack here, just like I was in Palo Alto? What if we moved here for nothing?”
“You’ve got what it takes, Johnny. You’ll do great here. Let’s go. I’ve got something else to show you.” I led him out the front entrance of the school, and pointed across the street to a white colonial mansion on the corner of Bob Dylan Drive and 21st Street. It was twice the size of any house we’d seen in town. The front lawn was an expansive half-acre of drifted snow.
“That’s Uncle Dom’s house,” I said.
“It’s one of the most impressive homes in town. When I was a schoolboy, doctors were the wealthiest people, and Dr. Dominic Scipioni was the top surgeon in Hibbing.”
We crossed the street together. Dom’s front walk was covered by a foot of crusted snow, unbroken by a single footprint. Johnny tip-toed up the path, his Nike Air Jordans sinking in and filling with snow on every step. “Dom isn’t doing a great job of keeping the snow off his walk,” he said.
“He doesn’t live here anymore, that’s why we got the place. Dom has homes in Arizona and Montana. He keeps this family house for the nostalgia of the old homestead.”
“What’s the deal with this Uncle Dom, anyway?” Johnny said. “Is he your uncle, or is he my uncle?”
“He’s nobody’s uncle. Dom’s not related to any of us, but he’s always treated me like family. Dr. Dom was my role model and mentor ever since I was a teenager.”
I bent over and peeled back the corner of the welcome mat. A shiny steel key lay underneath. “This is a sweet deal for us. We get one of the best houses in town, two blocks from the hospital and across the street from the high school, no questions asked. It’ll be our Minnesota man-cave.”
Johnny followed me into the house. The interior was meat-locker cold. We could see the water vapor of our breath. A lifelong ectomorph, I loathed hypothermia. I turned the thermostat up to 72 degrees and switched on the lights in the living room. “I recommend you proceed at once to the den in the basement. Dom has three big screen televisions, side by side by side. You can watch the NBA, the NHL, and the PGA Tour at the same time, by the mere effort of swiveling your neck a few degrees. And you want to know the best thing about Dom’s house?”
“There’s no one here to yell at you.”
“I’m with you there, Dad.” Johnny descended the stairs into the basement.
I toured the living room. Dom’s house lacked the towering ceilings of our glassed-in California home. The space felt claustrophobic with its tiny square windows, dark paneled walls, and smoke-stained brown-bricked fireplace. I knew every knot-hole in this room from my previous lifetime here, when Dom’s family was my family. Once upon a time, this room represented the height of luxury to me.
I walked over to the framed black-and-white photograph I knew would be standing on the fireplace mantle. The photo portrayed a young man and a young woman dressed in formal attire. The dark-haired girl wore a square-necked white dress, and held a broad bouquet of flowers. Her lips were closed, and she had a solemn, far-away look in her eyes. The man wore a tuxedo and a goofy smile that was incongruous with the woman’s apparent gloom.
A flood of grief overcame me. I’d traveled all day, and this picture was the tortured endpoint to my journey. It was Dom’s house, and Dom could decorate the place as he pleased. Some people preferred to put their memories on their fireplace mantles. Some memories were better left hidden.
The boy in the picture was Nico Antone. And the girl? She was from another lifetime. I’d shoveled dirt over this unsmiling girl years ago. She was dead, and I needed her to stay dead.
Published in September 2017: The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.
Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.
Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.
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