In high school we called him “Slick.” He was handsome, swarthy, athletic, a bit of a rebel, with slicked back hair and cool clothes. He was Fonzie before Fonzie was invented.
He didn’t seem to mind the nickname Slick back then, but after we all grew up and moved away and fought in wars and married and then came back home to various places in North Dakota and started our professional careers, Slick was no more. He was Wayne. Or just Tanous, because there were a lot of Wayne’s around, but he was the only Tanous. Kind of like most people just call me Fuglie, because there lots of Jim’s around, but there aren’t any other Fuglies in the part of the world I live in.
Wayne Tanous, who died at his home in Bismarck the other night, was a couple of years older than me, and he was the coolest guy ever. I smoked my first cigarette with Wayne. I was probably 10 or 12, and Wayne was a couple years older. We grew up in Hettinger, and our dads were best friends. They hunted pheasants together. They’d take us along when we weren’t yet old enough to shoot and let us retrieve the birds. And as a bonus, Wayne was colorblind, and he could really spot those pheasants hiding in the weeds along a fenceline, or in the ditch, so he was a valuable addition to the trip.
One day, I don’t know why, the dads got out and went to hunt a bit and left Wayne and I in the car. Excuse me, the station wagon. Our dads both drove station wagons, because they were both Catholic and had lots of kids and, well you remember the 50s. I don’t remember which one we were in, his dad’s Ford or my dad’s Pontiac.
Anyway, as soon as Doc and Al got out of the car, Wayne reached up over the front seat, took two cigarettes and the matchbook out of his dad’s pack, and we got outside and smoked them behind the car while our dads were walking the other way. I turned almost green and damn near choked, but it turns out Wayne was already a regular smoker by then, and he said “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.” I didn’t, for quite a while. I finally started smoking for real when I was in college.
Well, Wayne’s dad, Al, who Wayne idolized and named his oldest son after, owned a bar in Hettinger. The bar was called the Mecca. None of us figured that name out until we were much older. Al was dark and squat with a funny little black mustache, and really looked like someone from Mecca.
The Tanous family had immigrated from Syria, I think, just after the turn of the century. There were a slug of them that ended up in North Dakota. They were “peddlers” we used to tease Wayne. In reality, they were all good businessmen, and Wayne’s grandfather, I believe, was one of the founders of Hettinger in about 1907. To this day there are a couple of stained glass windows in the Hettinger Catholic church donated by the Tanous brothers.
Well, Al spent too many days and nights in that smoky bar and developed emphysema, I think, in the early 1960s. The doctor recommended that Al move to a different climate, so he and Wilma sold the bar and moved to Pasadena, California.I visited them a few time when I was stationed in California in the Navy. Each time,Wilma would get some lamb, and Al would make some shish kabobs, like he used to do in Hettinger. I still think of him when I open the grill and get out the skewers.
But Wayne elected to stay in Hettinger when his folks moved west. I’m not sure if it was his sweetheart Karen (who he married not too long after high school) or his high school wrestling career (he took either first or second in the state wrestling at 138 pounds, I think, as a senior) that kept him here, but anyway, we had a spare bedroom in our basement, and Wayne just moved in with us and became part of our family, living with us his last two years of high school. He looked old enough, or had a fake ID, to get beer at the Kokomo Inn in Lemmon, SD—the drinking age in South Dakota was 18 then—and you can’t even imagine how good it is in high school to have a bootlegger right in your own basement.
Wayne left in the fall after he graduated and went up to Dickinson State and wrestled there for a couple of years, although he still drifted back down to Lemmon on occasional weekends and met us just east of Hettinger with a case or two of beer for us.
Then he married Karen and they moved to California and Wayne signed up for a four-year hitch in the Navy, and then a couple years later so did I, and our orders took us to different ports, and our lives drifted apart. Our paths didn’t cross again until we both ended up in Bismarck in the mid-70s. And I remember the first time we met here, and I said “Hey, Slick, how ya doin’?” and he said “Uh uh uh, no more of that Slick stuff. That’s days gone by.”
For eight years we traveled the back roads of the Old West together, as board members of the Old West Trail Foundation, and we often ended up in adjoining booths at the Pastime Bar (the Mecca being long gone) in Hettinger the night before the Pheasant Opener. Once in a while, in his lobbying days, he’d hire a limousine and take a few of his friends—lobbyists, legislators and bureaucrats—out to dinner, or to Prairie Knights for supper and a little gambling.
Our politics were a little different, but that never got in our way. When I first started writing this blog, I used to do more politics, and I have been, at times, pretty hard on Republicans. One blog post in particular back in March of 2010, I cracked down on someone pretty hard, and Wayne put a comment on my blog that said “Gee. You sounded pretty harsh about just about everything. Lighten up . . . Spring is here.” That was as close as he would ever come to criticizing something I said or wrote. Well, that was advice I took. At coffee the next day I thanked him and told him my blood pressure had dropped 20 points. And I wrote a nice calm blog about it.
We both lost wives to ovarian cancer, a few years apart. I was lucky–I found new love. But Wayne’s heart was forever broken, I think. Karen was the only woman he ever loved, and he was just too loyal to her to move into another relationship, and I’m sure he never dated after she died. We drank coffee together at 9:30 on weekdays for years, with Bob and Orv and Willy and the morning gang at the Elbow Room, and we had the greatest conversations. I can still hear him say one of his favorite lines, when making a point: “There’s no doubt in my military mind that’s true.”
And then a few years ago we kind of drifted apart again. For reasons I can’t explain. We’d cross paths at the grocery store, coffee once in a while, at funerals, lunch infrequently, because he almost never ate lunch, and no more hunting once his knees went bad.
I didn’t know he was really sick until our mutual friend Bob Martinson told me that he had died Wednesday night. I think his boys, Al and Jason, the pride of his life, were here this week, so he must have known. But Wayne would have never let them tell anyone. He was a proud and private man.
Wayne was only 72, coming up on 73 next month. He kept himself in shape, working out daily at home and not in a gym. He didn’t weigh a heck of a lot more than the 138 he wrestled at in high school, or at least he didn’t look it.
We’ll have a funeral for him at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church Thursday (Karen turned him into a pretty good Lutheran), and bury him out at the Veterans Cemetery, where Karen is waiting for him. With full military honors. He’ll like that. He was one of the most patriotic men I’ve ever known. The whole family is, and I hope to see the rest of them. I think all four boys–Wayne, Donnie, Larry and Mike–served in the U.S. Navy. Donnie was a career guy, and tragically was killed in an automobile accident many years ago. Little sister Kathy was still at home in California the last time I visited, more than 40 years ago. And maybe Donnie’s wife will come too. It should be a grand reunion for them, and sadly, that’s when most of us have our reunions these days–at a funeral of a sibling.
The hardest part of growing old is not the aches and pains that accompany the aging process. The hardest part of growing old is seeing your friends die, because they are old too. This was a hard one for me. Took my breath away. I’m pretty sure if I dug though old files downstairs I could find pictures of the two of us in the 1950s. Wayne might even have a cigarette tucked behind his ear.
Dammit Slick, you left too soon. See you down the road..