Bill Geist is the funniest man in America, and now I know why. His latest book, Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America, is a nostalgic look back at summers spent working for his aunt and uncle at Missouri’s Arrowhead Lodge. It was the 1960s, and for a young man from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, the Lake of the Ozarks was an exotic oasis smelling of motorboat fuel and Coppertone. It was also where he discovered his calling.
When not removing June bugs from the pool or attempting to clumsily shed his virginity, Geist studied his Lake of the Ozarks surroundings of kitschy gift shops and roadside attractions, such as the Mystery Spot and Hillbilly Golf. “I became an aficionado of the tacky and outrageous,” Geist says.
He also liked the entrepreneurial hustlers who ran them. They appreciated Geist’s humor, and, for the first time in his life, people encouraged his wry observations with smiles and guffaws. That’s heady stuff for a kid who once had a teacher tell him, “You’re never going to get anywhere writing funny little stories.”
Geist recently retired after 15 years of writing “funny little stories” for the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, followed by 31 years traveling America’s back roads for CBS Sunday Morning. His stories introduced us to oddities like a chicken that lived for two years after having its head chopped off, competitive cow chip tossing and Donald Trump.
435: So what is it like watching a football game with Donald Trump?
Geist: Donald didn’t pay much attention to the game, even though he owned the team [the New Jersey Generals]. He was busy counting the attendance and multiplying by two. Howard Cosell was in the box drinking highballs and doing the play-by-play for Donald.
435: Your hometown of Champaign recently gave you the key to the city. What does it open?
Geist: I’m hoping it fits the front door of Twin City Liquors.
435: Your first date with your wife was a Dr. Timothy Leary lecture on Valentine’s Day. Interesting choice.
Geist: It was a test. She passed with flying colors, although with Champaign being in the heart of the Midwest, we found it difficult to “tune in, turn on and drop out” when you substitute Bud Light for LSD.
435: You were a combat photographer in Vietnam, and you survived coaching Little League baseball in New Jersey. Which was more dangerous: combat photography or trying to win the Ridgewood, New Jersey, World Series?
Geist: We finished second in both.
435: What’s the best part of retirement so far?
Geist: Having the time to write this book I have been thinking about for 40 years.
435: Your book describes Arrowhead Lodge as the beginning of Bill Geist. If you had never worked those summers at Arrowhead Lodge, how do you think your life would have been different?
Geist: I can’t imagine my life without Lake of the Ozarks. That experience gave me an appreciation for the rare breed of characters who I’ve pursued my entire career.
435: You talk about the earnest nature of your parents and how their low self-esteem challenged your upbringing. Was that difficult to write?
Geist: Revealing the personal side is something new for me. My readers probably won’t know when I’m kidding and when I’m not.
435: Arrowhead Lodge is gone. Do you think there’s another place like it out there?
Geist: I don’t think we could find another Arrowhead Lodge today. If it’s not in Lake of the Ozarks, it’s not anywhere.
435: How is the battle going with Parkinson’s disease?
Geist: Writing this book was a prolonged battle. Some days the Parkinson’s wins, and some days I win. For every five words I type, at least three are misspelled.
435: Did you ever bump into the “funny little stories” teacher?
Geist: No, but I liked to think of her reading my column in the New York Times or seeing me on CBS Sunday Morning.