A tale of two Kens

April 13, 1989

There are plenty of Mary Smiths and Stephen Johnsons getting confused with one another in this country. They get the wrong phone calls, the wrong mail, and the blame for things they didn't do. When your name is as generic as John Smith, you should expect some trouble, and have only yourself and your parents to blame. They knew the risks, but blandly christened their kid anyway.

But when your name is as uncommon as Kenneth Funck, you should be able to avoid most of that confusion. There aren't a lot of Funcks in the world, and even fewer of them are named Ken. His parents didn't exactly give him a dynamic, unique firs name, but they didn't have to. A Ken Funck should be as rare as a Bono Funck in any phone book.

And in the Chicago phone book, it was. The book was utterly devoid of ken Funcks. Ken spent the early years of his life in Chicago, and had no need for his own phone then. As far as he knew, he was the only Ken Funck in the world. So far, so good.

When the Funck family moved to Barron, Wis., young Ken still had no need for his own phone. Barron didn't have a big phone book. Better known as Turkeytown for its utter subservience to Jerome Foods, a turkey-slaughtering empire, Barron was the small county seat in a small county. There wasn't much to Turkeytown.

Turkeytown, and most of Barron County, orbited around Rice Lake, the local version of "the Big City." Rice Lake, known less commonly but more accurately as "Putzville," was big on shopping and not much else. It possessed the nation's largest onion ring factory, Moore's Foods Inc., but it was mostly into retail. Christmas City, U.S.A. Big tourist trap.

Ken, as any sane child would've been, was infinitely disappointed by the move.

Baron had its own school system, but it was so dedicated to mediocrity that Mr. and Mrs. Funck wisely paid the extra taxes to send Ken to Rice Lake for schooling. The Rice Lake educational system was dedicated to the Chamber of Commerce, a far nobler cause.

Putzville High seemed harmless enough. It was (to borrow a line from a Harold Lloyd movie) a football field with a school attached. Its two highest endeavors were sports and the local branch of the Distribution and Educational Clubs of America. DECA taught kids how to sell things to other kids. Anything. Pizza, candy, sweaters, school supplies, frozen pork chops. DECA sold things to raise money to help teach them to sell more things. The school administration loved DECA dearly.

But in dear old Putzville High, just two grades and several years ahead of Ken Funck, lurked his evil twin, Ken Funk.

Ken Funk wasn't exactly evil. he was disadvantaged, horribly raised, and not especially bright, but not all sinister. And he certainly wasn't Ken Funck's identical twin, either. Ken Funck, better known as the Hop for reasons way too complicated to explain, was blond and hobbit-like. Ken Funk was thin, dark-haired, and greasy, with a peculiar lack of awareness in his eyes. It wasn't as if the Hop had a diabolical look-alike running around killing well-loved individuals and leaving him to take the blame. But i a small county of gossips, with minds ever-curious but never inquiring, he might as well have.

Funk's crimes were basically petty. None of the ghastly, entertaining sorts of wrong-doing that make for fun trials and increased tourism, just the kind that keep you in the public eye and out of a job. Funk broke into small businesses, stole small wads of bills and usually an unfenceable item or two. And, invariably, he got caught. He usually spent a few days in the local pokey, then was released to ponder his crimes and repeat them all over again.

None of this did much for the Hop's job at Woolworth's, where he sold major appliances without commission. Since the Rice Lake Chronotype didn't concern itself with local news (most of its copy centered around the latest dairy promotion beauty pageant, or who just visited whom), most people got their information from the radio or the telephone, over which "Ken Funck" sounds just as guilty as "Ken Funk." No one ever bothered to keep track of the c .

The Hop didn't at all seem like the kind of guy who'd break into unclaimed furniture warehouses, but he was branded an umbrella-stand thief nonetheless. He was no saint, but he was no idiot, either. The Hop did everything to get into trouble short of getting into trouble. Funk got into trouble all the time.

Strangers, friends of the family, customers, and co-workers all assumed that Ken Funck and Ken Funk were one and the same. As Funk's crimes grew worse, the Hop had to spend more and more time clearing his good name. It was futile, generally.

When Ken Funk's mentally retarded sister Janice went on trial for killing her baby, the mother of the Hop's friend Kevin Moore (no relation to the onion ring company) asked her son, "Now, I know he's not the same Ken Funk who's in all that trouble, but is he the same Ken Funk whose sister killed her baby?"

All this did wonders for the Hop's sister, Kathy.

And at Woolworth's it didn't help much, either. Many of his co-workers read The National Enquirer as their main source of news, and they found the Hop's rumored crimes equally believable. The Hop would've had better luck telling them that aliens were committing all these crimes in their search for Elvis. This goes for middle management as well as for the cashiers. One of the managers, expecting Ken not to come in after his arrest, found a replacement o cover major appliances for him. She was surprised to see the Hop show up for work. Fortunately, the Hop's boss, George Moore (father of Kevin Moore) fully understood the situation after lengthy conversations with his son.

The Hop's friends understood, too. They were in and out the same sorts of trouble than he was, and none of those sorts involved breaking and entering. The Hop was capable of underage drinking, illicit use of naughty substances, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor (himself, if need be), but they knew he was no thief, and in any case, he wouldn't have gotten caught. He was a regular droog, but he wasn't stupid.

Besides, as many an underage-drinking fraulein would agree, he was "the nicest guy in Barron County."

I've heard it said. Really.

After high school (Our motto: "Do or try, Putzville High") and a few years at the Barron County Campus, the Hop left for Madison, where he could start a new life. A life without his evil twin. There he could be a man, instead of a fugitive.

A few months ago, the Hop was walking the sidewalks of beautiful downtown Rice Lake with two of his friends, the honorable J.W. Essick and myself. Making our way from one bar to another, we were accosted by a small-town vagrant, who told us it was his birthday and asked us to buy him a beer. I didn't recognize him right away. He was bearded, scraggly, and looked about 40, but it was him.

Ken Funck met Ken Funk, and neither recognized the other.

It may or may not have been his birthday, but none of us had more than a buck on his person and we didn't have a car, so we didn't feel generous. We turned him down. So he asked us if we wanted to buy some coke. Again, we politely refused.

After we parted ways, J.W. and I snorted with laughter.

J.W. spoke first. "Won't be too long before the cops pick him up. You say that to someone from one of the high and mighty families in this town and they'll take you in just for that."

"Who was that?" asked the Hop.

"That was Ken Funk," I said, "wasn't it?"

"Yeah, your alter-ego," said J.W.

The Hop reflected on meeting his doppelganger .

"Holy Jesus, every day."

© 1989 Randel Shard. First published in The Minnesota Daily on April 13, 1989