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DA YOOPERS DECONSTRUCTED

 An essay from my book

A Location in the Upper Peninsula (1995)

by Jane Piirto

A few years ago, there rang throughout the airwaves of the clear channels of WJR radio in Detroit, a song called "The Second Week of Deer Camp." This song, about a camp full of flatulent men and lots of empty beer cans but few deer, caused many a smile on the faces of commuters stuck in gray sky November traffic around the Detroit area. I understand the same thing happened in Milwaukee and Chicago. Da Yoopers, the people who sang this song are like I, also natives of Ishpeming, Michigan, and by now may be the most famous—or infamous. The song catapulted them to regional fame. Their concerts are sold out as thousands of people rock and roll to the words of this bar band who started writing their own songs about their own land.

 

I listen to the tapes of their songs whenever I am nostalgic for the thick accent of the natives of Ishpeming and Negaunee, the central Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There is one man on the tapes who sounds just like my father. He is the man on the "Rusty Chevrolet" song, a song sung to the tune of "Jingle Bells." That accent is something that has been educated right out of me, and I regret it during the times that I listen to Da Yoopers.

When you drive on US 41 past Ishpeming, you see a place called Da Yoopers Tourist Trap. The establishment is recognizable by the figures of the canoeist in the lumberjack flapped hat pulling a water skier in long underwear, and by the pink flamingoes on the front lawn. Parking next to a tableau with deer playing cards and hunters gutted and hung out to drip gut blood into the snow, you go up the ramp and enter the building. A busload of Boy Scouts may be giggling at the first thing you see. These are canned partridge gonads, porcupine peckers, fish assholes, canned fresh air, mugs proclaiming "Rusty Chevrolet," a booklet, "Da Yooperland Dictionary," to read in "Da Yoopers Reading Room," the outhouse. You see bags of Trenary Toast ("dunk it in coffee like a real yooper does"), bottles of maple syrup made in Champion, and tapes and CDs of Da Yoopers songs. So far there are no refrigerated cases of juustoa (Finnish cheese) or potato sausage.

"Da Yooperland Dictionary" contains such terms as "pills" as in "I gotta pay da pills"; "raha," or money; "shining" or using lights to poach deer or bear; "mud" or coffee; "no hunting" or this sign should be shot; "Dominic Jacobetti," a state representative of immense power in Michigan; "Carl Pellonpaa," a host on a local Finnish-American television show, Finland Calling (and a native of Cleveland Location); "stump jumper" or someone who works in the woods; "swampers," or rubber boots worn in mud; "trash fish," any fish that is not a native brook trout; "troll," someone from downstate, below the Bridge; "youbetcha," a common phrase meaning "yes"; "pasty," a Cornish meat pie, or "Yooper soul food"; and "tanks," an expression of gratitude.

The bathroom humor continues on other shelves throughout the store, with numerous models of outhouses and signs to put up in the outhouse, past sweatshirts proclaiming the U.P. as the land of 10,000 Makis. (The joke here, to those in the know, is that "Maki," a Finnish name as common as "Smith," means "hill," and so the Upper Peninsula is the land of 10,000 hills, as Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes. Get it?) Several comedy albums have now been made, all of them proclaiming that people from the Upper Peninsula, or Yoopers, drink a lot of beer, work in the mines or in the woods, pick each other up in bars that play country-western music, and just generally live a happy-go-lucky rural life. Their women are fat and their men are fatter, with huge beer bellies. They drive rusty Chevrolets and get sick of shoveling snow. They play cribbage and horseshoes and make love in the sauna. They are in exile when they have to go "down below" (the Mackinac Bridge) to work. They perform ancient rituals when there is not enough snow, dancing around trees on the lawn and shouting to the snow god, Heikki Lunta.

When deer season comes, everyone takes two weeks off; the men go to camp and play cards, drink, drive around getting lost, and wipe themselves with Sears Roebuck pages. The women become deer widows and go shopping in Green Bay, or go out dancing, picking up deer hunters from down below at the local night spots—one club famous for this purpose was the Diamond Club, now a restaurant. This is a world where everyone has a nickname. They say, "What the hey?" They go to snow machine races, Brewers games, and wake up in fields among cow pies after blackouts from drinking whiskey chased by beers.

They say the reason drinking and driving is bad is that it makes the beer spill. Their older relatives become addicted to Bingo games at the reservation in L’Anse. They love their children and willingly attend two-hour long seventh grade band concerts at the National Mine School. They advertise items for sale on "Buy, Sell, or Trade" on the local radio station, which features a company which makes several sizes of condom—hot dog, bratwurst, and zucchini. They own stinky beagles that ride on the tops of the boxes in the beds of their pick up trucks. They wonder whether they’ll be late for work because their cars won’t go during snow storms. Even neighbors with four-wheel drive cars get stuck.

The men look like this: they wear Martinen’s Gas Plus baseball caps stained with chain saw oil, and have three-days of stubble on their faces. They wear red and black flannel shirts, have beady eyes, red noses, and jeans with the crotch hanging down to the knees because of their big beer guts. They wear swampers and have big feet. They lay on the couch and their wives call them "the couch that burps." The women look like Maki’s cow and roll over and crush their husbands while making love. These women eat cudhigi sandwiches (Italian sausage), Tino’s pizzas, pasties, and the cookies and blueberry pies they bake. They drink Miller Light. Their husbands love them anyway. They call the Upper Peninsula "the last frontier," where nothing is easy. They split wood, swat horseflies and deer flies and the mosquitoes are true killers. But they thank God they live in the Upper Peninsula, where they don’t have to lock the doors, even though they work for minimum wage. They laugh at people exiled below the bridge, who warn "don’t go up ‘dere" where the U.P. natives still have to carry water from the stream and where the bears will get you.

Da Yoopers Tourist Trap is a "goldmine," a dean in the engineering school at Michigan Tech tells me. He is from Negaunee and is as nostalgic as the rest of us for this mythical land of the U.P. that Da Yoopers proclaim in concerts throughout the Midwest. A dean at Northern Michigan University gave a serious scholarly paper on Da Yoopers at a conference in Chicago where he reported that they gross about a million dollars a year, and are geniuses at self-management and self-promotion of their comedy albums and routines.

This dean, who had been living in the Upper Peninsula for only a year, also said that the first day of hunting season is a "national holiday" in the Upper Peninsula, and that "they" (meaning people who live in the Upper Peninsula) don’t do any work during hunting season; even the university professors cut school. When I mentioned this comment to university professor friends they were quite irate. I told the dean my father never owned a deer rifle, and none of our teachers missed school when I was growing up. I said I feared that he, like Da Yoopers, was stereotyping the people of the Upper Peninsula and he apologized. He sort of mangled the pronunciation of the band's last names: "Du-cu-ah" for "DeCaire " (emphasis on the first syllable) and "Poh-tee-ya" for "Potila " (emphasis on the first syllable). In fact, it's pronounced by natives, "Poh-t'la." As in Finland, you seldom go wrong in the Upper Peninsula if you emphasize the first syllable of a person's name, no matter the name's nationality.

One Sunday after church and brunch with my mother, as we idly wander around the tourist trap, I overhear a young couple earnestly discussing a purchase. I transcribe their conversation, pretending to be taking notes about the lace-edged tablecloths. "Get him a can of fish assholes. Do it," says the man.

"I don’t want to do it. I’ll just send him the tapes."

"How about the porcupine peckers?"

"I got him the deer turd necklace."

"What’s the difference? A turd necklace or fish assholes?"

"Let’s just get him a bumper sticker."

I watch them and they go to the bumper stickers and get him the green and white one that says, "Say ya to da U.P., eh?" Yes. This was an actual conversation overheard at Da Yoopers Tourist Trap, where bathroom plaques proclaim "Bear Bottoms Welcome, But Please Don’t Leave This Room UnBearable," and a U.P. weather map says, "Shitty, Pretty Shitty, and Really Shitty" with regard to the weather, where safe sex is a dog jumping on your leg, and Da Yoopers Moose Rut Beer is Brewed in Yooperland USA, Brewed from the U.P.s finest Moose Nuggets. All these are for sale. I used to have that same "Say ya" sticker on my car when I lived in New York City, and someone flagged me down on the Brooklyn Bridge as we were stalled in traffic, and asked me what language my bumper sticker was in, Dutch?

The rest of the store is filled with what my Jewish friends call Tchotschke—tourist trap junk mixed in with reprints of nature paintings from local artists, some quite talented, with sculptures of mushrooms and toadstools, Christmas ornaments, sauna soap and sauna towels, His and Hers bathhouse coin banks, carved stumps and birdhouses, mixed in with photographs from the old mining days and samples of ores from the area and from India, China, and South America. They have Michael Loukinen’s films of the U.P. culture, "A Good Man in the Woods," "Finnish American Lives," and "Tradition Bearers," and a rack of books pertinent to interest in the area, as well as prominently displayed CDs, cassette tapes, and videos of da reason for all this hoopla, Da Yoopers. Local advertisements said that Da Yoopers are looking for old cars, old snow machines, and other machinery to put into a museum that will be attached to the property.

On a summer evening in July, Da Yoopers give a free concert in town in honor of the Upper Peninsula Volunteer Firemen’s Annual Convention being held there. The vacant lot on the corner of First and Pearl Streets, where there used to be a furniture store, a grocery store, and a dress store, fills with people, locals and the firemen. Many fists grip many beer cans.

Da Yoopers take the stage and say they are going to try out their latest album, "One Can Short of a 6-Pack" before they go on an extended tour of county fairs throughout the Midwest. They say that finally they got booked into Duluth by a promoter, and 2500 people showed up in a hall made for 900, so they guess they won’t have any trouble playing Duluth in the future. My childhood friend from Cleveland Location, Linda Lou, and I find a spot at a picnic table with five young mothers who have just finished their summer classes at Northern Michigan University and who are celebrating. This is both Linda Lou’s and my first Yoopers concert, and as they swing into their familiar comic territory—the snow, deer camp, fishing, hunting, and the relations between the sexes—we clap and hoot along with the rest of the crowd.

Like the rest of the audience, we are glad they have sold a fishing song to Hollywood. We laugh at the clowning and prancing cross-dressers in wigs with balloons for boobs who remind us of the Benny Hill show. Our laughter is a little nervous at times, not as hearty as that of the seventh grade boy standing next to us who can hardly contain his glee at the fart jokes, nor as rousing as that of the beery woman standing up and clapping, her beer can in a toast sign in the air, nor as the man next to us who takes off his t-shirt and flops his flabby belly in time to a song about how men’s beer bellies make it difficult for their wives to find their penises.

The leader of the band, Jim DeCaire, thanks his mother who is in the audience, and we all clap. He thanks Tony, a local restaurateur who owns the Venice Bar where the band got its start in 1963. They go into their last song, a song about bum sniffing, where DeCaire, dressed as an old man, puts on a gas mask and nuzzles it into the rear end of the keyboard player, Lynn Coffey, who is dressed as an old woman. Agism and sexism are not concepts Da Yoopers care about, though DeCaire made a public service radio announcement played throughout the Midwest about snowmobile safety after he himself had a snowmobile accident one winter (while partying, the rumor goes). Though Linda Lou and I wince, this is all good naughty fun to them and to most of the audience. DeCaire ends the show by complimenting the firemen on their bellies which were on display during the dress parade earlier in the evening. People flock to buy t-shirts which proclaim, "I partied with Da Yoopers" and which feature a cartoon of a kneeling figure next to a toilet bowl, worshipping the "porcelain god," as Da Yoopers say. Linda Lou and I walk a few blocks to have a drink at the Royal Bar while we wait for her husband and children to join us at 11 PM for the shirt-tail parade where the volunteer firemen will compete in cross -dress and horse suits and strut in high heels and sequins down Main Street for the local crowds who will also duck, prance, and shout out when they get squirted with fire hoses by the firemen.

The genius of Da Yoopers is that of exploiting, making humorous, and writing their folk-country songs about the area. They make iconic characters out of local people and make most people laugh and feel nostalgic. Some locals feel ashamed that these local musicians from Ishpeming would make such fun of the working class mining culture that is a mix of Finnish-American and the other ethnicities—Cousin Jack, Italian, French-Canadian, Irish, Swedish, Norwegian. Da Yoopers have received complaints from some Upper Peninsula natives about their stereotypes, but that is what makes comedy. They are in the tradition of "Hello Mudder, Hello Fadder" Alan Sherman, Jackie Mason, and other ethnic humorists. They tell Finn jokes about Toivo and Eino, modifying Polish jokes for the purpose. They wear silly costumes, do amateur dances, and entertain their audiences. And their audiences love it.

One morning, visiting Da Yoopers Tourist Trap to buy the neighbor taking care of my cat back in Ohio a souvenir white pine nut bowl at a quite inflated price, I see one of Da Yoopers drive into the parking lot in a big white fancy car, in sunglasses, smoking a cigarette. She and my sister used to sing in the Ishpeming High School elite singing group, the mixed ensemble, and she's used her vocal talents well. I am glad for her. Heck, now, if good -ol’- boy and girl natives of the mining town of Ishpeming, fellow Ishpeming Hematites, can gross a million dollars in a mom and pop business that caters to baser instincts that make people laugh with embarrassment and the pleasure of recognition, more power to ‘em, hey? eh? Right. You betcha!

Copyright 1994 Jane Piirto