I have a friend whose idea of a nice business suit is a camouflage shirt, pants, jacket, and a matching hat. On the best business days, his outfit will include enough orange to be safe. His ideal office has a view, preferably from a deer or turkey stand or looking out from a duck blind. He writes a weekly column: Water Scott's Outdoors. As the title implies, he writes about the great outdoors. Whether it's a recent adventure he was on or just sitting and observing nature; his column is always fun to read. This week he wrote about the challenges that come with running a local newspaper during a pandemic.
Walter closed the offices of his newspaper. He and his staff all work from home now. He dedicated a downstairs room in his house for his office. The office window looks out over his countryside property, including the lake, the rolling hillsides, and into the woods. He wrote, after some adjustments, the transition has been pretty smooth. I wondered how a guy like Walter would get any work done with that view!
He wrote in his column that the biggest problem working from home had been the scenery. When something outside is more interesting, like two bucks sparring on the dam, it distracts him, taking his attention away from his work. It is a blessing to have such a problem. Walter wrote of more significant issues in the home office setting.
The other day, through his window, he spotted the largest buck he had seen in years. It was well within bow range, and he had his deer tags in his pocket. The problem was his bow. It was in the garage.
While planning how to sneak to the garage without disturbing the buck, Walter's mind got ahead of him. He had visions of his new deer mount proudly hung on the office wall. He envisioned a freezer full of venison and probably a steak on the table, a baked potato with melting butter and sour cream, a side of buttered carrots, a dinner roll, and a slice of warm apple pie – ala mode. But Walter had more problems than bow separation anxiety.
Billie, the designated office guard dog, was on duty. Sensing an imminent invasion, the poodle sounded off. The buck heard the dog. Fearing what sounded like a pack of wolves hunting, he hightailed it over the crest of the hill and out of sight. I can only imagine the look of disgust Walter gave his comrade, Billie.
Walter took steps to correct the problem. For the next few days, he kept Billie upstairs should the buck return, and his bow next to his desk with all the other office equipment necessary to publish a newspaper. True outdoorsmen can be fanatical like that. The sportsmen of northern Minnesota are every bit as enthusiastic.
Every opening day is an event treated like a national holiday. Men and women will take time off work for the fishing season's opening day, bear season, hockey, and such - deer season included. Although I don't hunt anymore, I listened with interest, hearing people talking a week or so in advance about their opening day plans.
They told stories of a huge buck they've seen on the trail cam, a specific group of does moving together, bedding spots, and wolves. Occasionally someone will ask, "Where did you see that?" The answer is always specific: "Out there in the woods." Hunter's discuss their equipment, the terrain, different weather scenarios, all in anticipation of Saturday, opening day.
It was just a few minutes after eight in the morning when I heard the first gunshots. Someone filled their tag early. All-day long, I saw pickups and SUVs along the roadside, many pulling trailers with four wheelers and side-by-sides to retrieve their game from the woods.
Hunters in camouflage with proper orange markings gathered at the side of the road. Some were getting ready to head into the woods. Unsuccessful hunters discussed what area they would try next, while a successful hunter boasted details on how they took down the buck tied to the rack on their ATV. Others were taking a break, enjoying a cup of coffee. All the activity tapers off at sunset when the hunters go home - well, most of them. I was just getting started. Hunting deer after dark is illegal, but that's when I went.
I was driving into town when a large doe came sprinting out of the woods across the highway. "Oh darn," I said out loud, or something like that. I hit the brakes hard. I could hear everything in the bed of my truck slamming forward. It looked like I was going to miss her, but BAM! I got her in the hindquarter. "Son of a gun," I yelled, or something like that. Thrown by the impact, the doe spun in the air before going down on the shoulder of the road. I quickly thought, "At least I can fill the freezer."
I envisioned my deep-freeze filled with packages, neatly wrapped in the white butcher paper, and a steak on the table, a baked potato with melting butter and sour cream, a side of buttered carrots, a dinner roll, and a slice of warm apple pie – ala mode. I imagined the kids asking, what's for dinner, Dad? "Roadkill." I would tell them.
I quickly turned the truck around just in time to see her get up, shake off the injury, and bound off through the ditch. "Are you kidding me?" I asked her as she disappeared into the woods. I cursed the deer, "Hunting after dark is illegal, but so is fleeing the scene of a hit-and-run accident!" I laughed to myself. Usually, when an outdoorsman tells about the one that got away, they're talking about fishing.
Next came that sinking feeling in my gut, wondering the extent of the damage done. Maybe I got lucky, and it would be minimal since I barely got the doe. The headlight was still on but pointing downward, toward the road. I pulled under the lights at the gas station to assess the damages.
"Darn it!" I said, or something like that. "A wrinkled fender, a broken headlight, and all for naught – no meat for my freezer!" There's no sense in crying over spilled milk. It is what it is. I tried to find some humor in the situation by asking myself, "What's the penalty for taking one doe after dark? About twenty-five hundred bucks," I chuckled, wishing I had someone with whom to share my quick wit.
Just like Walter, I had been thinking ahead of myself. Now when the kids ask, what's for dinner, I'll sarcastically tell them, " Just eat your mac-n-cheese, and I'll nuke some hotdogs."
I looked out the window across the driveway at my damaged Dodge pickup. I cringed a little, and then I looked at my old dump truck parked next to it. Not everything was terrible. Behind it, I stacked a load of split firewood about twenty feet long and six feet high. There were logs scatted on the ground. "Hmm. I thought I had put it all up." The top two feet of my stack was toppled over. "Wow." I said, "we must have had some pretty strong winds while we were gone this past weekend."
It was then I noticed a bird under the old Ford's dump box. A grouse, if you're an Iowan; a partridge, here in Minnesota. The hen looked like an inflated balloon with her feathers thoroughly roughed. Then I saw a second bird behind the truck by the spilled firewood, and then a third! They were pecking at seeds or something in the grass.
Suddenly, it occurred to me; I parked the truck and stacked the wood right where those birds frequently gather. The wind didn't blow that pile over – it was those grouse. They knocked my woodpile down! And Walter thought he had problems? Between the deer that boogered-up my truck and grouse that vandalized my woodpile - Geesh!
It is a blessing to live amongst all this wildlife, but maybe it'd be best to let Walter write about it in his Outdoors column. On a brighter note: Hey Walter. I got a deer on opening day. How'd you do?
It had been a productive week. I got a lot of work done, including splitting and stacking several face cords of firewood. It was no wonder I went to bed with a few stiff and sore muscles. The next morning, I slid out of bed. My back was still stiff when I bent over to get my slippers. I wondered, "Did I move that much wood?" Then it hit me like a ton of bricks; smacked me right in the face, "Dude. You're sixty! It might just be old age." I didn't feel sixty, but then again, I've never been sixty before. I had no idea how it should feel. I was a little confused, almost like I was in the Twilight Zone. I needed some confirmation and orientation.
I went to the bathroom, put on my glasses, and picked up my cell phone. "6:37 a.m., November fifteenth. Yep. It's my birthday." I had planned to welcome sixty with a cup of Norseman Grog, watching the sunrise over Lake Superior. With rain and snow falling from a completely overcast sky, I wouldn't be seeing the rising sun on this birthday. I cleaned my glasses with the bottom of my T-shirt, put them back on my face, and looked in the mirror. "Glasses." Sigh.
I remember when I first got glasses as an adult. I was having a little trouble reading, mostly at night when I was tired. The optometrist prescribed reading glasses. Several years later, I found myself using the readers more and more, even when I wasn't reading. Eventually, I needed a little correction all the time and something a little more substantial for reading. After wearing spectacles for about ten years, Dr. Mark suggested bifocals. "Bifocals?" I questioned his absurd comment, then laughed, "I don't think so."
He suggested bifocals again at each of my annual eye exams over the next four years, but I consistently refused them. He finally asked me, "What is your aversion to being able to see well?"
"Bifocals are for old people, and I am not old!" I adamantly told him. "I'm barely in my fifties!" Mark had a good laugh about that, then explained he had patients in their twenties wearing bifocals. "Really?" I raised my eyebrows, quite surprised. I agreed to bifocal contacts, "But not glasses. Those are for old people, and I am not old." I smiled, recalling that visit, then put my glasses on to look in the mirror.
Examining my face, I found no new wrinkles. Oh sure, my crow's feet were still there, but I'm rather proud of them. I didn't get them squinting at the sun; I earned them by laughing – a lot. As a matter of fact, I prefer to call them my laugh tracks. Rows of horizontal lines run across my forehead, but they've been there for as long as I can remember. I got those by raising my eyebrows.
Over the years, I've had many brow-raising experiences and surprises, some good and some bad. Some amazed me while others frankly scared the daylights out of me. Having three daughters caused my brows to rise quite often. It also happened while flying airplanes, driving fast cars, riding motorcycles, running up and down rivers in a boat, and riding my Jet Ski. I’ve been blessed with so many experiences, I could write a book – actually several books about them all.
In the mirror, I noticed a small cut on my head. I banged it while stacking firewood. I started talking to the man in the mirror. "Back when you had a full head of hair, no one would have noticed a little scrape on your noggin, but with all that bare space…" I laughed. The man mimicked me and laughed back. "It's not funny," I told him. "It is so," he argued. "Oh my gosh. I'm talking to myself, and he's answering!" I quickly put toothpaste on the bristles, brushed my teeth, then straightened my hair on the sides of my head. My hair has been slowly departing since my late thirties, but I still have over half of it, so I'm doing okay. I got dressed, ready to go to church.
The readings were about a master entrusting his servants with talents. Father challenged us to ask ourselves, are we best using the God-given talents our Master has entrusted to us in serving one another? It was a good sermon prompting me to do some personal soul searching.
When I got home, my wife offered to make breakfast; I told her I wanted to cook. I would use some of my talents to serve her, even if it was my birthday. I made scratch buttermilk biscuits and gravy while she prepared the table in the dining room. She placed a birthday card in front of my plate. A large box was in the chair to my right and a whole onion was sitting on a placemat. I don't know; maybe she was going to ask me to cook something else later.
After breakfast, I opened the card. It was very cool. Melissa has a knack for choosing very thoughtful, meaningful gifts. She had bought the card over twenty years ago and kept it, waiting for the right person to give it to. "You're that person." She said. That made me feel very warm and fuzzy inside. She said to open the present. I reached for the big box. "No, the smaller present with the bow." She said. I started laughing as I remembered.
A year or two ago, I gave her a present, but I didn't have a bow – so I put an onion on the gift box. "That's a bow." I said, explaining, "An onion has many loops just like the ribbon that makes a bow." I noticed a flat bulge; something was under the placemat. I lifted it to find a book: Gone…But Not Forgotten; Ottumwa, Iowa in the twentieth century.
I opened the book, where she placed a note marking page 174. It was a nice feature on my dad and his positive impact on the city. Of his forty-one-year career in radio broadcasting, Dad had spent twenty of them in Ottumwa.
I smiled, reflecting on the good times I had both working with and learning from him. Dad taught me that radio was about serving the public; your community. He did that exceptionally well, instilling that talent in me to carry on in my thirty-five-year broadcasting career. Melissa and I spent the next hour or so looking through the book together; then, it was time to open the big present.
I cut the top open. Inside was a ton of plastic packaging. After digging through the large air pouches, I pulled out something rectangular wrapped in large bubble wrap sheets. "More layers." I smiled, thinking about the onion. I carefully unwrapped it and found a beautiful watercolor painting.
I recognized the piece as being the talent of Richard Dutton, one of our favorite artists. Richard was Melissa's art instructor in college, as well as a good friend of my family's for decades. Although I knew it was his work, I didn't recognize the scene. It reminded me of a road on the Arrowhead Trail in northern Minnesota, but I don't know that Richard had ever been there.
He titled the painting: "Lake Wapello Trail." She liked the image because it depicts a place from where we came, southeastern Iowa, and also looked like places in northern Minnesota, where we live now. The fact that Richard created it made the artwork much more meaningful for both of us. It was a special gift that we will proudly display on our dining room wall.
Melissa and I spent the rest of the day lounging around the house. All three daughters and our two granddaughters called to wish me a happy birthday. We had homemade potato soup for dinner, then shared a slice of rich, dark, chocolate birthday cake for dessert. Afterward, we retired to the living room to enjoy a local brew and conversation near the hearth of a warm fire. Our dog, June Bug, and cat, Edgar Allen, took advantage of the woodstove's heat; it was an opportunity for a well-deserved evening nap.
Later, as I climbed into bed, I thought about my life so far, the person I have been, and who I am now. I considered my blessings and talents. Am I using them in the best way possible? Could I use them better in serving others? Much like the scene in the painting, where I came from looks a lot like where I am. I wonder what it will look like where I am going?
As I laid there, it occurred to me; my back hadn't been stiff throughout the day except right after I got up in the morning. I guess it wasn't old age, after all. "It must have been all the firewood I moved." I smiled, giving thanks for the gift of my good health as I pulled up the covers. "Sixty is going to be a breeze."
Just the other day, my brother Dan and I were going through a storage area of mine. I was looking for a couple of things, and I found some things I wasn't looking for, but it was convenient to take them home while we were there.
One of the items I wanted was an American flag displayed in a triangular wooden case my brother-in-law Gary made. Through the glass front, the properly folded flag shows only the blue canton of white stars. This specific flag was draped over Dad's casket at his funeral. I'll always remember the military service performed at his graveside by the men of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, VFW Post 775 from Ottumwa, Iowa. I could see it again in my mind.
On a sunny day in February, my family, relatives, and friends gathered under a blue tent in the cemetery. Father Nick had completed his service. Outside the tent, a line of seven veterans in military dress stood in formation. The leader called out, "Present arms." Simultaneously the soldiers lifted their rifles, cocking them. "Aim." They raised their firearms to a 45% angle above the horizon. "Fire!" All seven men fired their guns, sending a deafening shock of sound echoing across the land. "Aim. Fire!" They fired again. "Aim. Fire!" They fired their third and final round. "Ceasefire." The leader ordered. The soldiers lowered their arms. Except for sniffles and crying, everyone was silent. My knees were shaking; I had goosebumps on my arms.
I shivered, and a chill ran down my spine as the bugler, who stood alone, played taps from a short distance away. The solitary brass horn sounded soft but powerful as it penetrated the air with an emotional song that pierced my soul. A group of local pilots flew their airplanes in a low pass above the cemetery, followed by a high-speed jet.
Two veterans returned inside the tent. With one on each end, they lifted the American flag from Dad's casket. Methodically they folded the flag. The leader narrated the significance of each of the thirteen folds. He tucked the ends, making a neat triangle, the same shape as the American Revolution's patriots' hats.
The leader carried the folded flag in his two hands at waist height. He leaned forward, presenting the American flag to my mother, who was seated. "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army Air Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your husband's honorable and faithful service." Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she received the flag and thanked him. My tears flowed, as well. I don't know if I had ever been as proud of my father as I was at that moment.
I began thinking about the people who have fought and died for this country under variations of that flag. In states that were the original thirteen colonies, I visited graveyards and read faded names on deteriorating shale and slate Patriots' grave markers. They died in the American Revolutionary War. A war to gain independence from British rule and assure our religious freedom.
I recalled visiting numerous Civil War battlefields in the east. The spirit of what happened on those fields is still vibrant. In cemeteries and graveyards around the country, I've read the names of young men whose bodies were returned home for burial. Men who died fighting under this flag in a war to end slavery and hold this country together.
I've seen many memorials around the nation honoring the men who died while fighting under this flag in World Wars One and Two. In Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, I flew over the USS Arizona. I could see the ship beneath the shallow water where she rests on the harbor floor, next to her mooring. Oil still weeps from the vessel as she continues to mourn. A bright white memorial structure straddles the deck of the battleship, which has become the tomb for those servicemen onboard. In the warm Pacific breeze, the American flag waves high above the sailors at rest.
In Washington, D.C., I ran my fingertips over names engraved in the smooth polished black granite at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. I felt the spirit of those lost soldiers. It was humbling to read just some of the over fifty-eight thousand names on that wall. People had placed small American flags near their loved one's name. The emotions are overwhelming.
The feelings of pride for my father returned as I stood there, holding his flag. The feeling was bittersweet, for I also carried a sense of shame for not having served myself.
I thought of my family; Dad and his brother Dick were both in the Army Air Corps. My brother Dan, standing right next to me, and his son Warren served in the Air Force, as did my uncle John. My brother-in-law, Bill, was a Navy pilot. My nephew Avery was a Marine. Another nephew, Drake, is now serving in the Corps, and my niece Melissa, currently serves in the Illinois Army National Guard. I am proud of every one of them.
I picked up another flag in the storage area; it too was appropriately folded. It was a cotton flag with strong stitching binding the red and white stripes; the white stars were embroidered on the field of dark blue.
I found that banner in Winona, Minnesota. It was in the garage of a property we purchased from the estate of Ruth Brendel. She had been a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Medical Services Corps. I have reason to believe the flag laid over the top of her casket. I tried to reach her children to return the flag to them. Without success, I've kept the flag for the past six years.
I offered it to Danny, "Do you want this?" I asked, telling him the history. He gladly accepted it. I knew he would appreciate and take care of the flag; I also know he would respectfully return it should one of Lt. Brendel's children ever inquire about it.
I thought it was appropriate for Danny to keep her flag. Lt. Brendel never met either of us, yet she and veterans from every branch served in a military that protects us all as Americans.
I love this country. I love our American flag and everything it stands for. I'm grateful to all veterans who fought and kept a vigilant watch over our freedom, the veterans who protect my right to display the red, white, and blue so proudly.
Every place we go in our travels, my wife and I seem to pay attention to houses and businesses that are for sale. She’ll always grab a local real estate magazine from a literature rack and thumb through it, pointing out interesting properties. Neither of us want to move away from the north shore, but still…
We are always looking; wondering what it would be like to live in this town; to build a business here and then in a few years, move on to the next. Or perhaps we see a classic looking old house – one that is dilapidated and grown over with vines, weeds and trees. Sometimes it’s even falling in. I dream of how we could restore that old house, making it our home for a while and then move on for the next owner to call it home.
I suppose I could just chalk it up to being a dreamer, but a for sale sign in a front yard always causes me to turn my head. Recently I was looking for a property to take on as a project and that’s when I noticed it. Signs! Egads, they’re everywhere. Hundreds and thousands of them. This must be an election year.
Signs asking you to vote for this person for city council; that person for county supervisor. Another person wants to be the mayor, the auditor, the treasurer or the sheriff. State representatives and senators want your support as well. This doesn’t even include the signs for issues; people asking you to vote for or against something. There are signs everywhere and most of them seem to be about the same size as a realtor’s yard sign. This is confusing to a dreamer such as myself.
I’m frequently turning my car around to go back and look, thinking a house is for sale, only to have my hopes dashed because so and so wants to be the next elected dog catcher. Lately, I’ve been spinning my head around so often I think it just might come completely unscrewed! I’m not so easily fooled on the highway as I am in town.
With a heated presidential election for 2020, people have been most creative in the signs they put up and the way they display them. Long banners for a candidate will stretch a good distance, tied to sheep-tight fencing on the side of the road. The broad side of a semi, parked in a field, is a good place to hang a banner. Shoot, some of the people have painted the whole side of the trailer. Banners wave, tied to the cable of a crane. The heavy steel ball on the end holds it in place in the wind.
People have set up scenes on flatbed trailers, like a set in the theater. Hay bales are stacked specifically so the large round ends can be used to show support; printed and hand-painted signs get the point across. Farm tractors and heavy machinery are useful as well. Just the other day I saw five front loaders, parked side by side, facing the roadway. Each had its bucket reaching high into the air; each filled with a billboard for their candidate. The passion of this election has brought out the most creative sign displays I’ve ever seen.
I spotted a sole sign in the front yard of a really cool house; a realtor’s sign? I turned my car around to go back. Maybe I would get lucky and they would have the little box of information flyers at the curb, telling about the house. If nothing else I could at least write down the name of the real estate company and the address. I could look up the property at home. I started laughing out loud when I pulled over in front of the house. The sign read: “I Just Wanted A Sign For My Yard.” It was the most honest sign I’ve seen yet.
It reminded me of that song from the early seventies; Signs, by the Five Man Electric Band. “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind.” I’ve had that song stuck in my head for several days now.
I appreciate the enthusiasm people are showing for their candidates, but honestly, I’ll be glad when the election is over and the political signs start to come down. Maybe then I can find a house for sale and fulfill my dream.
The trash man came by this morning and as is my usual practice, I met him at the street. They didn’t pick up our garbage last week because an open trench to replace a culvert was blocking the way. So, today there was our regular trash can plus a large sunflower seed bag full of stuff. I also had two broken down window frames. I had removed the antique stained-glass panels and was throwing away the rotten wooden sides.
I met the driver at the back of the truck. I tossed in the big bag and the frame pieces; he got the heavy container that had two weeks of trash inside. I watched as he dumped it into the bin on the truck. “You know a man should never look at what’s in his trash can.” I said.
“Why’s that?” He asked, “Did you see something of yours that you didn’t mean to throw away?”
“No. I saw something of mine that my wife DID mean to throw away.” We shared a good laugh about that. He was going to give me time to retrieve the item from the truck.
The item was a four-cup Mr. Coffee brewing machine. I had bumped the pot on the quartz countertop in our kitchen, shattering the glass. I looked online and found a replacement carafe for $8 plus $11 shipping. Another was $18 with free shipping. I also found I could get a completely new coffee maker for $16 at Fleet-Farm, in Duluth.
I only gave $5 for this coffee maker at Goodwill when I was working on a project in Winona, Minnesota. When the project was done, I brought it home to use. We have a Bunn coffee maker, but I started drinking decaffeinated coffee and my wife drinks regular. It was good to have a second machine. Besides, it was so small it didn’t take up much room on the counter. Without a pot, my wife suggested throwing it out.
The coffee maker worked perfectly – it was too good to throw away. I knew if I went to the Dilly Dally Thrift Shop in town, I could find a used pot for a buck or two. I’ve often wondered why thrift shops have so many glass pots? I always manage to break the pot and still have a good machine. Apparently, I am not normal.
While I pondered grabbing the unit from the garbage truck, the driver told me about an elderly man and a woman who were down-sizing. “It took me twenty minutes to get the man away from the dumpster.” He said, “The man kept picking up items, saying, ‘I could fix this.’ Then about another item, ‘Why did this get thrown away – it still works.’ His wife finally came out and got him.” Although we shared a good laugh about that, I empathized with the old man. “Did you want to grab that coffee maker?” The driver asked.
My mind drifted. I started to think back fondly on my school days. My brother Gerard and I walked about a mile or so to Schenk Middle School. Tuesday was our favorite day to walk because it was trash day. We often found ourself junk pickin’ – seeking treasures along the way. If an item was cool enough, we would drag it home before someone else found it, then forge a note from Mom for the attendance office, asking them to excuse our tardiness.
We found some pretty cool things. Some we kept, others we made a couple dollars by selling. Truthfully, most items went right back into our trash when we figured out why the original owner threw them away in the first place.
Although we thought junk pickin’ was a concept we created – it was not. Dumpster diving and curb shopping have helped students furnish college dorms since the beginning of higher education. Many first-time apartment dwellers found a couch, end tables, a lamp or a dresser on a curbside. The furnishing often lasted for years and created some very fond memories. The practice carries on today.
A lot towns now have specified “Curb Days.” People will put items they no longer need on the curb and then peruse the town themselves, looking for treasures they just can’t live without. Things we don’t need, don’t need to go to waste. Someone else might have use for them. The old phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” is so true. My nephew scored a really neat cooler on curb day in Hutchinson. It was a plain white, rectangular plastic cooler with a split lid on top. It was in decent condition, but this cooler was different.
It was a motorized cooler with two wheels on the back and one on the front for steering. The back compartment had an electric motor with vents in the side for cooling and a space for a battery. On the front there were chrome handlebars with a throttle on the right and a brake lever on the left. Foot pegs were mounted to the lower front end. The driver could sit on the back lid to ride it, while keeping his beverages ice cold in the front compartment. How cool is that?
Unfortunately, it didn’t work – I suppose that’s why it was on the curb. But Andy saw the potential. He called his Dad at work, telling him about the find and urging him to come home right after work to help retrieve the unique vehicle before someone else laid claim to it. At five-o-clock, Jeff made a B-line from work to home. Jeff and Andy viewed the curbside treasure and Jeff agreed; it had potential. The two of them loaded the cooler into the back of the truck and took it to the house.
Together they gave the vessel a good inspection. Determining it needed a new battery, they got one on order. Over the next few days, several hours were spent cleaning the various components, lubricating wheels, making sure the brakes were in working order and so on. When the battery arrived, the two men installed it. The motor seemed to work just fine. Andy took it for a slow test ride in the driveway, then bolted up and down the neighborhood and into the parking lot next door, having a blast. Melissa and I heard all about the fun being had. We decided to venture to Hutchinson to see the amazing machine.
It was near Halloween, so we wore our costumes. Melissa was a witch in a stylin’ blue dress. She wore a black, long sleeve thermal shirt and long johns under her getup. She wore her long hair in two braids, draped over her should from under her classic, tall pointed witch’s hat. Lime green, knee-high socks with horizontal stripes and brown leather cowboy boots really made the outfit special. In a bright orange thermal, hooded jumpsuit, fitted with a stem on top and green leaves, I was the coolest walking pumpkin around.
In the driveway, Andy gave a demonstration of how to operate the motorized cooler. The witch climbed on board as she would have if it was a broom. Placing her feet on the foot pegs, she twisted the throttle and the cooler lunged forward. “Ohhh!” she declared, “This thing has more zip than my broom.” What a sight it was to see! The witch cackled and laughed as she rode slowly up and down the driveway. With a little confidence, she began to go a bit faster…and nearly upset the three-wheeled cruiser while cutting a corner. She soon found the ride would not fly like a broom. Or would it.
Andy took his ride back and showed us how the cooler would really fly. He cruised across the lawn, under the pine trees, into the parking lot next door, whipped around and came back full speed. He cut across the driveway, aiming for the end where the pavement curves up slightly. He hit it just as fast as the motor would run and went airborne, jumping the curb! We all cheered as we shared his thrill and excitement.
It’s amazing! With a little work and plenty of determination, a broken-down gadget found on the curbside provided numerous hours of entertainment.
Andy and Jeff eventually advanced to minibikes with gasoline engines and big tires. I often wondered what ever became of that motorized cooler? Maybe it went back out on the curb for someone else to discover; Afterall it is true: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
The driver repeated his question. “Did you want to grab that coffee maker?”
“Nah. I better let it go.” I admitted, “If I haven’t bought a pot for it in the last several weeks, I probably won’t.” We said our farewells, then he climbed into the cab. The air brakes hissed. The diesel engine belched a puff of black smoke into the air and the big truck pulled away. I stood alone in the street watching him disappear around the corner by the neighbor’s house. I gave a shallow wave. “Goodbye Mr. Coffee. You were a good friend.”
Running behind as usual, I didn’t have time for breakfast as I rushed out of the house to make my 8:00 a.m. appointment in Superior, Wisconsin – 65 miles from home. I was getting hungry while waiting for my van to be serviced at the dealership. To take my mind off the unhealthy snack chips, popcorn and candy offered in the customer waiting area, my mind wandered off to food and what to have for dinner tonight.
My wife made meatloaf last night – it’s really good stuff and there are always leftovers. I suggested we should have a repeat of last night’s dinner tonight. She said no. I started craving, of all things, beef liver and onions. I love them – my wife does not. I have not always loved them but our palates change through time.
When I was a kid, babies were delivered by the family doctor – a general practitioner, and prenatal vitamins weren’t a thing yet. Doctors instructed their expecting patients how to eat healthy to accommodate the nutritional needs of the mother with child. This included plenty of beef liver to increase iron levels. With seven younger siblings, my mom was pregnant through many of my childhood years and we ate a lot of liver.
It wasn’t my favorite and I certainly would not have requested it for my birthday dinner. I disliked the slimy onion more than the entree, but if liver was dinner – well, you ate what was put on the table. Times have changed. Young parents today are more likely to accommodate the individual likes and dislikes of their children.
I wonder if it was an advantage to be told to eat what was served, like it or not, or if my palate just changed as I got older. I took time to think about some things my granddaughters have recently said:
While reading something online, my daughter Sydney, blurted out, “Holy guacamole!”
Three-year-old Evelyn declared, “I don’t like guacamole.”
Surprised by her comment, Sydney repeated, “You don’t like guacamole?”
Evelyn confirmed, “No. It’s disgusting and it makes me nervous.” Good for you, Evelyn. I didn’t like guac until I was in my thirties…but it never made me nervous.
My seven-year-old granddaughter asked, “Papa, why did you eat the last grapefruit?”
Her comment caught me off guard. “Because I brought it with me to eat.” I said, then asked, “Do you like grapefruit?”
“Papa, I love grapefruit.” She informed me. I’m learning new things every day. When I went to the grocery store that afternoon, I bought another grapefruit. I peeled the citrus delight to share it with her.
Addison took one bite. Her face contorted; her eyes squeezed so tight they drew her brows to a sharp V. Her nose wrinkled and her lips puckered, pulling her ears forward. She spit the sour piece from her mouth onto her plate, then began scrubbing her tongue with a napkin while reaching for water. I guess Addison is also learning new things every day. Not all things were sour; some were sweet.
One day, from inside their fort made of blankets and chairs, they told me I couldn’t come in because boys have germs. “Besides you don’t know the password.” They said. I overheard them earlier and told them the password was Horse. The blanket moved to the side, creating a wedge-shaped opening and they let me in. When I wanted to leave, they informed me, “You can’t leave unless you know the password to get out.”
Evelyn whispered in my ear, telling me the outbound password was cookies. “Cookies.” I said, expecting the magic door to reopen.
“You can’t just say it.” Addison informed me, “You have to bring back the bag of cookies you took from us earlier.” I agreed to return with some cookies.
On a piece of paper, I drew several small round green things. I placed one of their toy horses on the paper with its tail over the dots. “That’s horse poop.” Addison informed me. “You have to bring us real cookies.”
“Those are horse cookies.” I said, knowing full well they were road apples, but some fruit in their diet would do them just as well.
My stomach growled and gurgled. I was really hungry and started thinking again about something to eat. Chips and guacamole would be good. So would some cookies. Heck, I’d have even loved a grapefruit. Then I remembered another comment from the grands. Addison called out, “Mom! Evelyn took my gum out of my mouth and now she’s chewing it.” ABC gum? Maybe when I was three, but today? Ick!
Our palates do change as we grow. I think I’ll stop at the store and get some beef liver for dinner tonight.
Normally our fall trip would take us into Canada; sometimes trekking all the way up to Nova Scotia, sometimes just camping at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Other times driving to Agawa Bay, or making the full circle around Lake Superior, however 2020 has been everything but a normal a year. The Canadian border was closed, so we would travel a different direction. We opted to head west to Ouray, Colorado, then south for Texas, before returning home.
Colorado has challenges unique to the mountains. Driving from Ouray, to Silverton, takes you along a route known as the Million Dollar Highway. This road offers some of the most spectacular sights in the San Juan Mountains along some of the most dangerous roads. Dangerous in that the narrow road winds and turns following the mountain side. Speeds are often reduced to 10 or 15 MPH to maneuver the multiple switchbacks in the road. Driving this route can raise the hair on your arms and the back of your neck as most of this road has no guardrails.
There are places where the white line marking the edge of the driving lane is literally on the edge of a cliff that falls hundreds – if not thousands – of feet to the valley below. The cliff is so close to the road and so steep, there isn’t room to put up guardrails. With all her beauty, the road is unforgiving and the consequences severe. If you’re one of those drivers who is constantly hearing the rumble strips on the side of the pavement, you should not drive this highway. There is no room for error.
Colorado offers beautiful fall colors and spectacular sights that can easily humble a man. Thousands of acres of brilliant gold aspen leaves and dark green pine trees against the mountain sides and down into the valleys, are a sight to behold – one you’ll never forget. Looking up at rocky cathedrals that reach into the purest of blue skies is humbling. It makes me realize how small I am in the midst of all of this majesty. Water babbling over rocks in the creeks and rivers, along with the sound of the wind, creates a symphony of nature’s best music. It’s absolutely breathtaking – or could it be the altitude?
Our home in Minnesota is at an elevation of 750 feet above sea level. Silverton, Colorado, where we would be camping, sits at 10,505 feet. That difference can make breathing difficult as the air is very thin. Albeit the most important, breathing is just one of the many challenges that come with high altitude. Thin, dry air changes all the rules for baking, too; something I love to do.
One of our destinations in the mountains would be Lake City. We rented a cabin from our new friends (whom we had yet to meet) John and Lynne. Lynne said she had heard many stories about us from her dear friends, Kenny and Gail - Melissa’s aunt and uncle from Texas. Lynne invited us to dinner one night, saying she felt like she already knew us and couldn’t wait to meet in person.
I was flattered to learn they had heard about my pies. I said I would bake a pie for them if I could use their kitchen. Lynne told Melissa she had also heard Gail raving about my dinner rolls but she didn’t want me to be stuck in the kitchen too long. I laughed because I love being in the kitchen, “Tell Lynne she will get the pie and the rolls and she can still order up to two entrees.”
It wasn’t long after I extended my offer that Melissa and I were hiking up the side of a mountain. The path followed the edge of a stream with several little waterfalls. The thin air had me huffing and puffing my way along the trail. We wanted to, or should I say needed to, be off the mountain before the sun went down behind the other mountains across the valley, leaving us in a cold shadow. Still, we wanted to make it to the top of the trail on the Continental Divide, where there was a really cool waterfall. We were both getting tired, although our dog June seemed to be doing just fine with energy to spare.
Each time I wanted to quit and turn around, Melissa would say, “Let’s just go a little further – ten more minutes.” When we had climbed ten more minutes, she would be ready to call it enough and start back down the mountain.
“Let’s go just a little farther.” I would tell her, “I’m pretty sure I can hear the waterfall now.” I’m not really sure if I was hearing the falls or if the sound was like a mirage of an oasis in the desert. Although tired, we eventually encouraged one another to the top of the hill.
Taking deep intentional breaths, we rested on a log alongside the waterfall. I started wondering just how high we were. “We must have climbed about 2,000 feet.” I figured. That’s when it occurred to me that Lynn’s house is at an elevation of 9,200 feet.
I’ve read that anything over 3,000 feet really changes the way baking works – especially when working with yeast and breads. There were high expectations for my pie and rolls. I’d never baked at high altitude. What if they didn’t turn out? Would I be shunned from baking in the San Juan Mountains for the rest of time? It was like driving one of those roads without guardrails; there was nothing there to keep me from falling. I started to feel a little panicky. “Maybe it’s just the thin air.” I justified as we started down the big hill.
Back at our cabin, I immediately got online to research high altitude baking. The article read: Pies aren’t as affected as yeast breads, although there can be differences… “Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah. Blah.” I rebuked the article. “I have my pies down pat. I don’t need any advice on pies – let’s get to the differences in bread making.”
I made notes: Cut the yeast by one third. Use cold water and add a quarter cup. Knead the dough with oiled hands, not floured. Watch the rising time and remember the rolls will bake quicker. “Got it!” I declared with confidence.
When we got to Lynn’s house, she showed me around the kitchen. It’s wasn’t long before I had a peach pie in the oven. I started my dinner rolls. I kept a close eye on the pie baking, as well as the dough while it was rising. Hmm. The pie seemed to take a little longer to bake before the filling boiled. “It must be the high altitude.” I concluded.
Soon, I took the pie from the hot oven. Everyone oohed and aahed at its wonderful appearance and sweet aroma. I was quite proud of the pie, however, I was concerned that it wouldn’t have enough time to fully set up before dessert was to be served. We set the pie outdoors for faster cooling.
I put the rolls in the oven as everyone was sitting down to eat. Again, I kept a close watch on them. When the rolls came out of the oven, I brushed the tops with melted butter and served them. The moment of truth was at hand; I watched for facial expressions as each person bit into their rolls. Everyone complimented how good they were. I tried to remain humble when everyone took a second roll, but inside I was dancing and cheering myself, “Yes! Yes! I did it. Who needs guardrails? Even at high altitude, I nailed the rolls perfectly!” I couldn’t wait to serve the pie.
With a stack of clean dessert plates, I took a knife and cut into my beautiful, perfect pie on the kitchen island. What? Why wasn’t the knife gliding through the crust? In the bottom of the pie pan it felt like I was cutting through a rock and my usual light, flaky top crust was hard and crisp like a cracker. When I lifted the first slice, the bottom crust stayed in the pan and the filling was runny. Suddenly, I felt like I was careening over the white line on the edge of the road and plummeting into the harsh valley below. There was no guardrail to save me.
I’ve always said, “Crust is easy and it will make or break your pie.” If you have a mediocre filling but a good crust, people will say, “The crust was great.” On the other hand, if you have a really good filling but a bad crust, people will note, “The crust was kind of tough.” I took a bite of the pie. The filling was really good, but all I could think is “This crust is lousy.”
“What happened?” I wondered as I retraced every step of making the pie. I did everything the way I always do. Then I remembered before I made the pie, boasting to myself, “I don’t need any advice on pies…” I guess it is true, the mountains do have a way of humbling a man – in many ways.
The heavy dose of humility was well deserved and brought me down a few steps in ways that I needed to be. I took another bite of the lousy pie I had baked, then thanked God that I was in the kitchen and not on the mountain pass as I went arrogantly speeding down a road with no guardrails.
This story began on the North Shore of Lake Superior. My friend of over thirty years, Stu Stetter, came to visit. His friend Martin and Martin’s dad, Marty, came with him. The four of us would enjoy a guy’s get-away, in the north woods.
We set up camp at Esther Lake on the Arrowhead Trail. With only four campsites, it’s really quiet, peaceful and very dark at night. Stu and I stayed in my Scamp; Marty and Martin pitched a tent. Before we set out to paddle on Devilfish, the next lake over, we met Travis. He was set up in the campsite next to us. He came to the north woods to “get away from it all,” relax and do a little fishing.
We learned Travis was from Knoxville, Iowa - about forty-five miles from our hometown of Ottumwa. He did some work in Ottumwa, as well. Names started being dropped and, although we had never met before, it turns out we knew a lot of the same people. Stu asked Travis if he ever listened to TOM-FM when he was Ottumwa. “All the time.” Travis replied.
Stuart pointed at me and said, “That’s Tom.”
Travis laughed, “Well, I guess I have to travel more than a thousand miles from home to find a place where nobody knows me.” We all shared a good laugh about that. We said our farewells and our group got ready to go fishing.
Stu was putting his things away in the Scamp. He came out and told me there was a mouse in the trailer. I assured him there was not. “We don’t have mice in our camper.” Stu showed me his backpack.
“Then what’s this?” There was a small hole chewed in the mesh pocket on the side and another hole chewed through his package of sunflower seeds.
I examined the damage. “It looks like a mouse chewed it.” Then warned him, “You better not have brought mice in your backpack, into my Scamp.”
It was cold and cloudy when we launched the canoes on Devilfish Lake about a mile away. The fish were biting okay but they were mostly little guys, so everything went back in the water. Stu had a few nicer fish on his line, but each popped off the hook before he got them in the boat. Now, as guys will do, we were keeping track of who caught how many fish.
Stu tried to take credit for the three fish that got away but I wasn’t going to let him count them. “It’s catch-and-release.” He insisted.
“Yes, but you have to catch them before you can release them.” I said, “Besides, you didn’t release them, the fish released themselves.” Stu continued to justify that he did catch them. “How many points would you get for those fish in a tournament?” I asked him. Stu mumbled something, then admitted they would not get any points. After a couple hours of fishing, the wind started to pick up and the water was getting choppy. It was a good time to head back to camp.
We feasted on brats, then sat around the campfire having a few beers, telling stories and making our plans for the next day.
We started our day by hiking into the High Falls on the Pigeon River; the border between the United States and Canada. The falls were beautiful as always. From there we visited the trading post at Grand Portage and a few other sites before heading back to camp.
After dinner we were gathered at the campfire. “I got a present for you.” Stu told me. “I set it up in the camper.” He and I walked to the Scamp. Stu bent over and picked up a mouse trap from the floor. There was a mouse in it. “Well, would you look at that?” He said, then picked up a second trap, presenting another mouse.
“Where did you get those?” I asked Stuart.
“I bought the traps at the C-store in Grand Portage, today.”
“No, I meant where did you get real mice to put in your traps?” I insisted, “Because I don’t have mice in my Scamp.” Stu shook his head over my denial and reset the traps before we went out to join the other guys by the fire. A little later he went back to the Scamp for something and returned to the fire with another mouse in a trap. “This is crazy.” I said, “We’ve never had mice in the Scamp.”
I suppose it was around midnight when we finally retired for the night. I gave Stu the bigger bed in the back because he is much taller than me. I took the couch in the front. I pulled the covers up to my chin and fell asleep with my right arm outside the blanket. Shortly after dozing off, I felt something moving on my arm. “Is it a fly?” I wondered, “Maybe a bug? Egads, it better not be a spider.” Still half asleep, I contemplated the possibilities.
It had creepy little feet that gripped my skin like a June bug, but it was too late in the year for beetles. Just then it occurred to me, the feet were spread too far apart to be an insect. “Good God, it’s a mouse!” I whispered with alarm, while remaining perfectly still. “I’ve got a flipping mouse crawling on my bare arm!”
I lifted my arm slowly to turn on the light. The critter hung on for a moment, then I felt it jump off my arm, on to the covers on my chest. Still in the dark, I quickly grabbed the edge of my blanket with both hands. Giving it a good, fast shake, I flung the intruder across the camper. I heard it hit the wall of the Scamp and I quickly turned on the light and jumped out of bed. I grabbed a flashlight and checked both traps. They were empty and I couldn’t find the mouse.
I am not afraid of mice, but I will not, WILL NOT share my bed with them. I crawled back into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin and tried to go back to sleep. Needless to say, I did not sleep soundly.
It was three in the morning when I heard a noise. I awoke and listened. I was pretty sure the mouse was on the counter rustling around. I got up and looked for him, but he wasn’t there. When I laid back down, I heard it again. Again, I got up to investigate but found nothing. As soon as I turned the lights off, the noise resumed. I got up a third time, this time checking the traps. Sure enough, there was a mouse in the trap, trying to get away with it. I put the critter outside by the others. The rest of the night was calm.
The next morning, Stu presented me with yet another catch from overnight. We broke down the campsite and moved to another campground – not that we’re scared by the mice, because we’re not. We are manly men, but because we had a site reserved at the end of the Gunflint trail.
We fished, hiked and explored all through the day, then retired to another evening campfire. I also caught two more mice. In all, seven mice perished during the men’s outing.
Stu pointed out that he caught four mice and I only caught three. “Not so, my friend.” I told him, “There was also the mouse on my arm. So, as I see it, we are tied at four mice each.”
Stu insisted that I did not catch that mouse, while I insisted I did. “How many points would you get for that mouse in a tournament?” Stuart asked. Hmph! He had me using the same logic I used on him. I conceded, Stu caught the most mice.
The next morning, I fixed an egg scramble for breakfast. Marty told me he looked over my Scamp and had a pretty good idea how the mice were getting in. “There’s a gap in the weather stripping at the bottom of your door.” He said, “If you put a new rigid foam seal there, I think it would keep them out.” I thanked him and said I would look into it at home.
Back at my house. Stu, Martin and Marty took hot showers. We said our farewells and they began their long trek home to Iowa. I told Melissa about the mice. “What? I let you guys use the camper for four days and you bring it back infested with mice!”
“It’s not infested,” I argued, “we got them all.” We had two days to get the Scamp ready for our next trip; heading west to Colorado. All the bedding was stripped, curtains were removed, the cabinets were emptied and the Scamp went through an antiseptic sterilization.
In Colorado, we set up camp on the edge of Molas Lake, near Silverton. The elevation was 10,505 feet above sea level. The elevation at our home on the north shore is around 650 feet. Both of us were finding it a little difficult to breath while acclimating to the thinner air. We finally got to sleep well after midnight.
Around three in the morning, there was some sort of ruckus in the camper. Melissa sprang up from her pillows and quickly turned on the light. Our dog June was sitting upright in the dark, pressed hard against the side of the bed trying to stay clear of our black cat, Edgar, who seemed to be possessed.
On the floor in front of Edgar, one mouse had already been slain. He had another in his mouth that wasn’t done yet. I tried to get the mouse from him, but the closer I got, the more Edgar snarled and growled like a wild panther in the woods. It was amazing how our nice, good-natured cat took on a whole new demeanor, that of a great hunter when an intruder encroached upon his territory. I didn’t how to get the mouse from him. I was considering cowering next to June to wait this event out.
Melissa told me, “Hold the mouse by the tail, and gently lift Edgar by the scruff. He’ll let go of the mouse.” I did as she instructed, but first put a heavy leather work glove that I use around the campfires on my right hand. I’m not afraid of mice, but this thing was still kicking and I wasn’t going to be bitten. As soon as I lifted Edgar by the nape, he let go of the mouse. I took the now expired mouse and the other mouse Edgar had caught, outside and placed them next to the fire ring.
Back inside the Scamp, I washed my hands then sat down on the floor next to June. “Man, Edgar looked like a wild cat the way he handled those mice.” June said. “It was kind of scary.”
“Yeah, I know.” I agreed then boasted, “Did you see the way I took that mouse from Edgar? Pretty cool, huh?”
June replied, “How do you suppose Mom knew how to make Edgar let go of that mouse?”
“Mom?” I questioned, “I’m the one who took the mouse away from the vicious hunter.”
“But Mom had to tell you how to do it.” June argued.
“Not so,” I defended, “I just…”
From the mattress top above us came a voice, “Both of you! Turn off the lights and go to bed.” We did as we were told. There were no more incidents the rest of the night.
The next morning, Edgar was his usual charming, goodnatured self. When I checked next to the fire ring, both mice were gone. The same thing happened with the mice Stuart and I caught on the Gunflint and Arrowhead trails. A really cool thing about nature – nothing goes to waste. Something will always come along and consider them an easy meal.
At the end of the camping trips, I tallied and shared the battle results with June. “In the Great Mouse Hunt; defending the Scamp, keeping it safe from pesky intruders; Stu was the main warrior. I came in second and Edgar finished third.”
“Not so fast handing out those awards, my friend.” Edgar said, as he jumped down from the front bunk and moseyed his way to the bed, then asserted, “As I see it, I won.”
“How do you figure that?” June and I both asked.
Edgar paced back and forth like the great detective; Sherlock Holmes in a black trench coat, tied at the waist, a double-billed deerstalker hat and smoking a pipe with a long swooping handle and large bowl. He was about to solve the mystery. Edgar Holmes explained. “It is true, Stu did catch the most with four mice. But more mice came in, allowing Dad to catch three mice. But still more came in. Even though I only caught two, no more mice came into the trailer under my watch. Therefore, it is I who holds the title as the greatest defender of the Scamp.
June said, “But Edgar, this contest was only among the men.”
Edgar gave June a firm look, “I am still one of the men,” then glared my way, “even though there was that most unfortunate ‘snipping incident’ which you initiated.”
I looked the other way, swallowed hard, then told June, “He has a valid point. In the contest of mice and men, Edgar wins.”
A really fun part of any adventure should be the journey to the destination. For worthy reasons, we didn’t get to the campsite until close to midnight. We quietly pulled into our space, got in the Scamp and went right to sleep, so as not to disturb the neighbors by making a ruckus. I could set up our camper in the morning.
It’s nearly the first thing I do when setting up our campsite, sometimes even before the Scamp is unhooked from the van; raising the American flag.
In the cool, fresh morning air in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, I stood, looking up at her, flying on top of the ten-foot pole mounted on my trailer. The red and white stripes rolling slowly like waves, billowing gently in the breeze. The dark blue field of brilliant white stars dancing just like the stars in the sky at night.
Feelings and emotions moved through me: pride, safety, honor, strength and humility were just a few. Standing alone, I placed my right hand over my heart: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Shortly after, a lady passed on her bike with her little grey schnauzer trotting on its leash ahead of her. She said, “I like your flag.” As she peddled on. Then, a Jeep, with the top down, drove by. The passenger waved; the driver saluted the flag. I saw an Army bumper sticker on the back when they passed. Another lady walking two dogs pointed up and said, “That’s pretty cool.”
I learned an appreciation and respect for our flag starting in kindergarten. I recalled those days at Horace Mann Elementary School, in Ottumwa, Iowa, so many years ago. The first thing in the morning, before class started, the students would gather around the half-circle driveway in front of the two-story brick building; the flagpole stood in the center in a small grassy area. The custodian would raise the flag, then together we would recite the pledge of allegiance.
My family moved to Madison, Wisconsin when I was in the third grade. Frank Allis School was also a brick structure, with an extra tall foundation. It had a Federal style main entrance. About ten steps led up to the porch where four white columns stood two stories tall, to the pitched roof above. Black colonial style lanterns hung on each side of the heavy wooden front doors. From the steps all the way to the street was a wide concrete sidewalk. In the middle was a small circle with a very tall flagpole. I remember the student body gathering around it to say the pledge as well.
In 1975 we moved back to Ottumwa, where I attended Washington Junior High School, it was hands down, the coolest school building of them all. Constructed in the late 1800’s with classic, large cut brownstone, it was a three-story building with a very high, steep pitched roof. The school stood proudly on a hilltop overlooking the Des Moines River valley below. Between the first and second floors across the front, in a band of lighter colored stone or maybe concrete, it read, “Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”
A small limestone retaining wall, about thirty inches high, ran across the front of the property, parallel to the sidewalk. There were four or five steps up to the walkway made of paving blocks that sloped steadily uphill toward the building. It got wider at the top, almost like a martini glass, creating a large area where students could congregate before and after school. At the top there was another retaining wall, about three feet tall, with a staircase on either side leading to the front doors. The flagpole was in the grassy area above that wall.
It was always a good feeling to get off the school bus and see the American flag flying high on the hill in front of my school. I liked watching it wave and flow in the breeze. When the wind was a little stronger, the flag would make a snapping sound; like when you take a towel from the dryer and give it a quick shake and it snaps and cracks like a whip. I liked hearing that.
More than once, I found myself mesmerized in a classroom by the steady metallic clanking sound of the clips holding the flag, slapping rhythmically in the wind against the steel flagpole. Even though I couldn’t see it, I knew the flag was there.
As I stood gazing at the flag on my Scamp, I thought about how blessed I am to live in this country. I reflected on the many places I have been able to visit and how fortunate I am to have the freedom to fly that flag so proudly, wherever my travels take me.
I considered all the schools I attended where I learned the history of this flag and all the things she stands for; the many places it has flown all around the world. I said a prayer for all those who fought for and served our country, under this flag. All these thoughts raised goosebumps on my arms. I did learn to appreciate and respect this flag at a very young age and I always will.
Now, on a cool morning in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, I found all these years later, the American flag has the same effect on me today. I was taken in, watching Old Glory wave in the breeze. I had work to do. I hadn’t even disconnected the camper from the van yet, but I was completely mesmerized hearing the steady metallic clanking sound of the clips holding the flag, slapping rhythmically in the wind against the steel flagpole.
“Peach.” “Peach.” “Apple,” were the answers I got simultaneously when I asked what kind of pie I should make. Melissa asked her dad, Phil, what kind of pie he wanted. “Oh, I’ll eat anything.” He answered.
Since his was the next birthday coming up, and this was going to be his birthday pie, she pressed for commitment, “Dad, if you were in a restaurant, what kind of pie would you order?”
Phil blushed, “Oh, I would probably order apple.” That’s his favorite.
“Then apple pie it is.” I said. This would require a trip to the store; the pie calls for four or five apples and I didn’t have any.
When we got back to their house, I was trying to find my way around Carol’s kitchen. It’s always a little more challenging to cook or bake in someone else’s kitchen because I don’t know where things are. I found the pie pan. “Carol, where’s your rolling pin? Carol, do you have more flour? Carol, where would I find…” With each call she came to the kitchen, pulling out what I asked for, then returned to the living room to visit with Phil and Melissa.
I looked through the drawer of utensils. “Carol? Where would I find your potato peeler?” Carol asked why I needed one. “To peel the apples.” I replied.
She called back, “Use my paring knife – it’s a real good one.” I told her it was easier for me to use a peeler. “I don’t have a potato peeler.” She said.
“How do you peel potatoes without a potato peeler?” I questioned.
Carol looked at me funny, as if I should have known and said, “With the paring knife. I always use a paring knife, don’t you?”
I confessed, “I can’t tell you the last time I used a paring knife to peel an apple, a potato or a carrot. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I have ever used one for that.” I guess it was time to give it a try.
When I peel apples (with a peeler) I start at the stem then make my way from top to bottom, around the apple, taking the whole skin off in one long curly piece that kind of looks like a stretched-out Slinkey. Sometimes I try to put the coiled piece back together in my cupped palm to reconstruct a hollow apple.
I tried my technique using the paring knife. After hacking three small, individual pieces of apple skin, I said, “This is going to take a long time to do five apples.”
“No, it won’t” Carol assured while walking to the kitchen. “You need to quarter the apple first.” With a large kitchen knife, I cut the apple into four pieces. Using her paring knife, Carol removed the core and seeds, then skillfully cut the skin off each quarter. As she worked, Carol told me how her mom had taught her to use the paring knife. When she was done, I checked out the skins she removed and they might have been even thinner than mine – they certainly weren’t any thicker.
I took two mixing bowls down from the top shelf of the cupboard; Texas Ware bowls. Texas Ware melamine bowls are cool! They were manufactured from the mid-forties, into the eighties. They come in a variety of sizes and colors; each is speckled with various colors making it unique. With the multiple sizes, they are easy to store stacking one inside another. They were often called “garbage bowls” or, “end of the day bowls.” Ladies would set one on the counter while cooking to toss peels, egg shells and other food scraps into the bowl. Then, at the end of the day, take them out to empty on the compost by the garden.
Carol has a large green and a smaller orange Texas Ware bowl. They belonged to her mom; Melissa’s Grandma, Lucille. The bowls are not only very useful, these are family heirlooms and it was certainly a pleasure to use them making Phil’s birthday pie.
After Carol peeled them, I cut the apples into thin slices and put them in the large green bowl. I stirred in my spices and set them off to the side. Using the smaller orange bowl, I mixed the flour and salt, then cut in the shortening. I rolled out the bottom crust and laid it carefully inside the glass pie pan – this was also Lucille’s.
Pie pan sizes are an opinion, if you will. For example: a “nine-inch pan” can range from eight and a half, to almost ten inches – and depths vary, too.
I formed the bottom crust into the pan and poured in the apple mixture. Since the pan was much deeper than most; I was sure glad I got five apples rather than four. I rolled out the top crust and trimmed and fluted the edges. Instead of cutting my usual pattern in the top crust, I used Carol’s sharp paring knife to carefully carve a large P for Phil. I put the pie in the oven and soon the whole house had the wonderful aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg; an apple pie baking.
That evening, after supper, we presented the pie while singing, “Happy Birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Phil...” His pie was still warm when I cut the first slice. Carol added a scoop of vanilla ice cream and handed the plate to Phil, then one to Melissa, me and one for herself.
Watching the family enjoy the pie, sure makes the baker feel warm inside. Using Grandma Lucille’s bowls and pie pan, and, watching Carol peel the apples the way she taught her, I really felt like Lucille was there with us. Even though I never had the pleasure of meeting her, that made me feel even warmer.
I decided when I make my next pie, I would try peeling the apples with a paring knife. I’m sure I could have learned to do it but I didn’t get the chance. You see the next pie I baked was for one of the girls who voted for peach.
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