Donald Kaul: A funny sort of eulogy

Don Kaul rides RAGBRAI in 1981 with his trademark lack of enthusiasm. — photo courtesy of Greg Kovaciny

Donald Kaul, a twice almost-Pulitzer Prize winner; political humorist, satirist and columnist of the Des Moines Register’s “Over the Coffee” much more than twice; and unindicted co-conspirator and co-founder of Iowa’s annual bicycle ride and small-town-pillage-fest known as RAGBRAI, died Sunday, July 22 from prostate cancer and its complications. He had suffered a heart attack July 4, 2012, which was not something he really appreciated. Fireworks blowing up, yeah, sort of OK. Heart blowing up, not so keen. But he kept at the writing afterwards, regardless.

Leave it to Don to die on the first day of this year’s RAGBRAI — anything to get out of putting on more miles, even symbolically. RAGBRAI was something Don loved, but clearly didn’t like. He groused about it likely more than I did my first 24 years of RAGBRAI.

I stopped riding RAGBRAI after 24 years. I had run out of film and worn through my last pair of bike socks. I recently tried on a pair of my riding shorts, but found that Lycra seems to shrink noticeably if left in dark closets or not aired out regularly. Who knew?!

Don got wise before I did and left at the end of RAGBRAI 10. I was privileged, or possibly fated, to hear him announce his decision first-hand, since we had been riding together for some miles that day. He was riding faster than usual, and I was riding slower than usual. It might have been the other way around. It was the top of a hill, so it was mostly irrelevant.

“It was Voltaire who said, ‘Once is for experience, twice perversion.’ I’ve done 10 of these — I don’t know what that is, but it’s beyond perversion,” declared Don, in that sweet and sour way he viewed all the good, bad and mediocre crazy in Iowa, and the rest of the country.

Greg Kovaciny (left) and Don Kaul during RAGBRAI in 1977. — photo courtesy of Greg Kovaciny

I took photos of him being interviewed by KCRG-TV that day, and, if I had a clue where old photos go — perhaps to the same place office pens beam to, or how holes disappear in men’s belts, (leather, not Lycra, mind you) — I might have posted some. For now, take it as truth with a capital U, that what I say has a higher reliability quotient than what comes from a particular variety of virulent orange sci-fi churning somewhere near the Potomac.

Don came as guest of honor to the RAGBRAI “multimedia extravaganza parties” some friends and I held in Iowa City in the earlier years. On each ride, I took hundreds of slides (using the arcane medium called “film”), and for a number of years carried a portable tape recorder, to capture live sounds and interviews on RAGBRAI, a la the template later appropriated by NPR.

At this point in U.S. culture, “smartphones” referred to wall phones that nicely matched a room’s wall colors. I’d put them (the slides and tapes, not the phones) together into a sight and sound show chronicling the ride and making fun of ourselves with, of course, a roast or two of Don and fellow writer/rider John Karras. Iowa City and Don Kaul were meant for each other.

Two signs along the 1981 RAGBRAI route offer different messages for Don Kaul. — photos courtesy of Greg Kovaciny

Pry Don from his typewriter, and he could still tell a joke or make a biting quip with truth in or near the punchline — he was, if anything, funnier in person than in column, and in column he was bitingly and often howlingly funny. He also had a knowing sense of humor about himself, and saw the jokes from other riders as what they were: appreciation for the printed bites he took at the stupidity and absurdity lurking in the hallways of the governing, and quasi-governing, among us, as well as affection for Don the person, who had no logical reason to be on a bike ride across Iowa, yet did it for a decade before wising up.

His humorous, honest writing said what seriously needed to be said. He was threatened and castigated regularly in letters to the editor as often as he was praised, so, clearly, his decidedly liberal and often contrarian views must have struck some high-strung nerves.

I have two of his three books on my shelf. I’ve pulled them out — it’s a good time to read them again, like pulling out frozen spaghetti from the freezer and having it taste better than when you cooked it. Perceptive wit and humor are like that — the best marinate over time and taste great long after the making. I expect to be grinning and laughing soon, with a few tears likely as well. I’m surprised he didn’t call his column “Over the Pasta.”

I’ll miss you, Don, but your words will definitely be sticking around for a long time, long after heartburn from eating frozen spaghetti. No sagging, no flats.

Don Kaul rides RAGBRAI in 1981. — photo courtesy of Greg Kovaciny
A festive pumpkin rests along the 1981 RAGBRAI route. — photo by Greg Kovaciny

Gregory Kovaciny periodically writes in Iowa City, and has published nearly too many photos and stories on cycling, personal computing and other topics in publications small and not so small. He rode 24 consecutive RAGBRAIs (you’d know that already if you actually read the piece), and is toying with the idea of a column titled “Out of My Head™”, which would give him lots of linguistic leeway to rant, rail and revel on the hazards of aging in a time of concrete absurdity, and get him to the point of having been published too much. He’s been writing for a long time, even though he’s old enough to know better. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 247.

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