On Keys


In my hometown of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin – it seems nearly everyone of the 6000+ people must go through a ritual that is part flattering, part funny, and awfully humiliating.  It’s mostly bestowed onto kids, and was a rite of passage through the middle school for over three decades.  It occurs annually, but sporadically.  Some dreaded that event as the date it would occur was known to them from the moment they were born.  I will not lie, it was something that loomed heavy over my head when that date approached, and I looked forward to the dread like nothing else.  Even twenty years removed from living in ‘the du’, it’s tenticals still find me, and still find ways to make my teeth grind and my face redden until the event is over.

You see in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin … if it is your birthday, and if he finds out…

Tom Nelson will sing you Happy Birthday!

Oh no … this isn’t some “isn’t that nice” moment, or a “how thoughtful” … it’s a full on production.  Think, one of those goofy chain restaurants who do some birthday song … but the singers actually care … and aren’t that good either.  First he drags you out into the center of whatever you are in, and makes an announcement so that everyone in the area knows exactly what is going on.  He takes his truck keys out of his pocket, throws them on the ground, and kneels on the keys … why you ask?  Because he has a problem singing ‘on key’ so he sings ‘on keys’.  He takes the hands of the doomed center of attention, and proceeds to lay in.  Each word is either drawn out too long or too sticatto to get more then the idea of what he saying.  The pitch fluctuates so often that Christina Aguilar goes “dang, back it off a little”.  Each verse takes way too long, which in the middle of it feels like forever.  Then of course when he gets to singing your name, he also throws in your age … and is never close, even when he tries.  Then comes the sweet sweet release of the end … and it’s over.

It is the epitome of the embarrassment of the parents.  You know what I mean, just watch any sitcom that includes teenagers who overreact to something goofy a parent does … so the parent just does it bigger and wilder.  It didn’t help that he kept finding more and more creative ways to get me with this — like during High School Latin Class where my teacher goes to turn on a language tape, and it’s a recording of my dad singing for me.  Or I am having brunch at my cousin’s wedding, and he parades me out in front of that group.  This year, I am judging bands down in Louisiana for my birthday – and I know from past experience the smart thing to do is get up early and sneak away from the other judges so when that call comes I can take it without the rest of them seeing my eyes roll right of out my head.

All kidding aside, this is part of what makes my dad (and both my parents) such a positive part of the community.  In a small town, it is the people that keep the foundation of it solid – and it is the individuals doing their part to uplift the whole.  Even though it was a small town, my dad could be easily called one to the local ‘celebrities’ and his birthday shinnanagans is a big part of that.  He was a middle school teacher, and generations not only passed through the halls to learn what he had to offer, they were dragged in front of their friends and were serenaded with an ‘On Keys’ rendition of Happy Birthday.  As a guy who returns occasionally with an outsider’s observation ability, it’s pretty easy to see that most people in the town know who he is, and a vast majority of those  smile because of him.

So … today is my dad, Tom Nelson’s birthday.  While I can’t be in Prairie du Chien today to celebrate with him, I am using my own open space to announce his “one-and-only-thirty-ninth-birthday” and maybe bring a little embarrassment into his life.

Happy Birthday Dad.

And if the rest of you see him, feel free to sign to him … just make sure you do it ‘on keys’.

(I mean, it was either this or try to start #tomnelson, but that would also come with the #whatsahashtag .. which would lead to a #whatisinstagram #isthatthesameasfacebook #whatissmartphone and #isthatthesameascarphone and #IdontusethosebecauseIcanneverfigureouttheansweringmachineonthem … Did I mention he was a ‘Technology Education’ teacher?)


4 thoughts on “On Keys

  1. Susan McDonald

    Imagine sharing a birthday with your dad! He popped in my classroom, to the kids’ delight, and sang?!? as only he could!
    I have to admit, I’d have felt pretty bad if he missed it! We sang back to him! Thanks for the great story, and tell your dad to keep singing!

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