It was around ten in the evening. I stood on the front porch looking toward the northwest. In the distance I could hear thunder rumbling. I watched the black skies. With each flash of lightning, the overcast of clouds lighted, turning to a greyish-purple color. The wind kicked up substantially, coming sporadically from different directions. The temperature dropped rapidly and large raindrops started to fall, making a plunking noise as they hit the wooden steps. The thunderstorm the weatherman promised, was arriving. I went inside and started closing windows until I could determine from which direction the rain would come.
I tiptoed quietly into the dark guest bedroom where my two granddaughters were fast asleep – or so I thought. After closing each of the windows about halfway, I silently moved toward the door. “Papa, what are you doing?” came a soft, sleepy voice.
“I’m closing the windows a little.” I whispered, “It’s starting to rain and I don’t want water to get in.” I pulled the covers up over her shoulder and gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead. “I love you, Evelyn.”
“I love you too, Papa.” She whispered back. “Papa can you stay in here with me?” Those words would melt any man’s heart.
“I can for a little bit.” I replied, still whispering so as not to wake her sister. “Are you okay?”
From the other side of the bed came a not so sleepy voice, “Papa, Ev doesn’t like the lightning and thunder.” Addison explained, “It scares her.” I assured them both, they were safe inside the house and that I would be in the living room if they needed me.
As I walked down the hallway lightning illuminated all the rooms through the windows; a very loud crash of thunder seemed to shake the whole house. I heard Ev start crying in the dark bedroom. I went back and laid on the bed next to her. “Would it be okay if I stayed in here with you for a while longer?” Stretching my arm across the pillow, Ev curled up with her head on my shoulder and nodded, yes. “Addie, are you okay with the thunder?”
“Not really,” she said, “I don’t like it.” I reached my arm a little further laying my hand on her shoulder, asking if that made it better. “Yes.” She said, scooching toward Ev and me. She let out a sigh of contentment and drifted off to sleep. Funny; I went in to comfort the girls and somehow, laying there with them, they made me feel safer in the storm.
After a while, Sydney came into the room. She would stay with the girls so I could get on the treadmill for my evening walk.
I picked up my stride as rain continued to fall and thunder boomed. With the windows open, I enjoyed a cool breeze and the smell of fresh rain. It was very pleasant. I would normally be looking out a large picture window into the yard, but this night, the big window looked more like a black TV screen. When the lightning would flash, the whole yard lit up like daytime, then, just as quickly returned to darkness. I love walking in the dark on nights like this, it’s a good setting for me to think and reflect; taking time to consider what is really most important in life.
I thought about our day; the Fourth of July. It was 90 degrees. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun was hot, the air was humid and there was not the slightest breeze along the Northshore. Melissa and I took Sydney and our two granddaughters down to Grandpa Ken’s Beach on Lake Superior. The water is always cold, but today it felt good.
The beach was busy with sunbathers and swimmers. Paddle boards and kayaks glided over the calm waters. Dogs joined in the fun, charging into the lake to retrieve sticks and balls and such, then dog paddling back in to shore. The spot we wanted was already taken by another group, which was no problem. There is plenty of shoreline for everyone. We walked down a little further.
We all waded into the lake. My wife and daughter stayed with Evelyn, close to the shore. Addison and I went out beyond what I call the safe rocks, out to the slippery rocks; the slippery rocks are larger and tend to stay put when the waves kick up, thus building up slime. The safe rocks are smaller and roll in and out with the waves. As they say, a rolling stone gathers no moss.
Addison cleaned the top of a rock by moving her foot back and forth over the surface, removing the slime. She stood on the rock while I stood in front of her in my own sure-footed spot. We counted to three then she sprang up as high as she could. With my hands on her waist, I continued to lift her over my head, much like a talented figure skater would lift his partner high into the air, performing a platter lift. With a little more practice, we might be Olympic contenders, but for now we were just a little girl and her Papa having a good time in the largest fresh water lake in the world.
The people up the way headed out so we moved to the spot we first wanted where there’s a very large, flat rock formation. Between the rock and the shore, is a real nice place for little kids to play and splash in the water. Most of the rock’s edges taper off into the lake but the western end is more like a small ledge, dropping straight into the lake. Addison, would come to that end to jump into the water. The ledge is less than thirty inches high and the water about sixteen inches deep with a nice area to land. Pretty small for an adult, but when you’re six years old? What a thrill.
Evelyn, wasn’t so sure about this jumping in business. At three-years-old, that twelve inches down to the water seemed like a really big fall. She wanted Papa to help. Ev would hold onto my hands and swing forward down into the water, like a teenager swinging out into the swimming hole on a rope tied to a tree branch above. I did get her to jump in on her own once while I was standing there, but she didn’t like it much so I didn’t push her to do it again. She eventually did jump off with her older sister and her mom.
The three of them stood at the edge, holding hands, pondering the challenge before them. It was like they were on the edge of a jagged cliff looking at a raging river, one hundred feet below in the canyon. Collectively, they mustered up their courage. “On the count of three!” Sydney called out, “One. Two. Three! Ahhhhh!!”
They all jumped together, plunging into the icy waters below. Laughing with excitement, Evelyn started climbing back up the rock, “Come on Mom, let’s do it again! Let’s do it again!” Her sister and her mom were right behind her. We jumped and played and splashed together until the sun and the waves had us all worn out. We gathered our things to head for home. As we were leaving, I took a look down the beach. There were a lot more people now than when we got there. I smiled. We were having so much fun swimming and rock hunting, we didn’t even notice them come in. It was a day that provided memories to last a lifetime.
I increased the speed on the treadmill just a little and thought about the contrast between our day today on Grandpa Ken’s Beach, compared to the last time I was there about two weeks before.
I woke up around 4:30 on a Thursday morning. Like a prelude, the soon to be rising sun turned the horizon bright magenta behind the tops of the pine trees. I decided to stay up for the main show. I put on a pot of coffee then went to the bedroom to ask my sleeping wife if she wanted to go watch the sunrise. “Uuh nuh da blah duh muh.” She mumbled then rolled over, adjusting her pillow. (translation: “I need to sleep some more.”) A morning alone with the sunrise would be good for me, giving me a beautiful time for meditation and prayer.
I filled my thermos and made way for the front door where my dog June, was waiting for me. “June Bug, I’m going alone this morning.” I told her. I gave her a good rub on the head, “I’ll be back in about an hour.” I hurried to the van and drove to Grandpa Ken’s Beach.
There are two vertical posts with an upper and lower chain draped between them to keep cars out. A spider had woven her web diagonally from the post down to the chain. Dew that collected on the web overnight, glistened in the morning light. An unsuspecting insect that flew into the trap was bound in silky webbing. The spider sat on the edge of the web near the post, keeping watch on her prey. “Nice catch, Charlotte.” I congratulated her, “That bug will make a nice meal for you.”
Dew collected on my toes, making my sneakers wet as I walked down the path through the open, grassy field. I felt like someone was with me. I turned around looking for June; did she sneak out the door and come with me? No. She wasn’t there. The presence was very strong. I turned again, “Charlotte?” I called out softly. “I’m losing my mind. A spider did not follow me down the trail.” I looked all around me and into the edge of trees. I couldn’t see anyone but there was definitely someone there; not in the woods watching me from a distance, but very close – like right next to me.
The presence was not threatening, but gentle, loving and nurturing. Being one who believes in angels, I pressed on. “Fine,” I said, “If you’re going to follow me, keep up. I don’t want to miss the sunrise.” I walked quickly toward the lake. On the beach, I picked a spot to sit and drink my coffee. I gave thanks to the One who created all this beauty before me.
Off the very peak of a peninsula to the east, the sun broke over the horizon. She cast her beams into low wisps of clouds, turning them amazing shades of yellow and orange. Silhouettes of three small pine trees on a rocky island, seemed to face the sun; anticipating her arrival and welcoming her as the new day began. The sound of gentle waves touching the shore was mesmerizing.
Consumed by serenity, I felt completely weightless. I had no worries; no problems. Just the gift of a glorious new day filled with hope and promise…and the presence of someone beside me, although I had no idea who this friendly spirit was.
As the sun rose higher into the sky, I picked up my thermos and started walking back to the van. I looked up and down the shoreline, and again, into the woods. There was no one there, but the spirit was still with me. Walking back through the open grassy field, I looked toward the memorial marker that had been placed for Grandpa Ken. At the base of the large grey stone there were three very colorful painted rocks. I must have overlooked them in my haste to get to the beach before sunrise.
I knelt down to have a look. The first stone had a purplish cloud with a white edge – a silver lining if you will. The name Melina, was written between two red hearts. On the back it read, “Thank you for loving me from heaven…and I love you. XO Melina.”
The next rock had a turquoise background with a colorful rainbow pattern that had three pink hearts on top. Vertical lines looked like a forest under the rainbow and the name Asher, was written in big pink letter. Below, in smaller green letters, were the initials, gpk. I assumed this to be Grandpa Ken. On the back it read, “Thank you for watching over us, love Asher. And for teaching my mommy so she can teach us.”
The third, and smallest rock, was perfectly round. It had what looked like two flowers on green stems. The word “Bing” was written in pink letters with a red and white heart to dot the i. I thought to myself. maybe those aren’t flowers; they’re Bing cherries. I turned the rock over and read the back: “Love you grandma Bing! XOXO Lisa Rose.”
Still on my knees in the wet grass in front of the marker, I smiled. “So that’s who you are.” I said to the angel. She stood behind me, looking over my shoulder as I gently placed each rock back exactly as I had found them. I stood up and thought about the three pine trees on the rocky island out in the lake, facing the rising sun to the east. “You have three beautiful granddaughters who sure love you a lot, Grandma Bing.”
I stood up and looked out to the lake. The sun was shining brightly. Even with cold, wet feet and knees, I suddenly felt very warm and content; completely at peace, but it wasn’t the sun that was warming me. I felt like I was being squeezed – in a good way. Grandma Bing was giving me a big hug. “Thank you for coming and having coffee with me this morning.” She said, “If you should see those three granddaughters of mine, you tell them I love them and I am watching over them. I will always be watching over them.” The squeeze lightened as she said, “I have to go now. Thank you again for coming by.” The breeze picked up lightly from the north, blowing toward the water. I could feel her departing; returning to the beach by the big lake.
I slowed the pace as I was finishing my walk on the treadmill. I recalled that morning on the beach with my new found spiritual friend. As well, I thought about all the fun Melissa and I had with our granddaughters on the beach that day; laughing, playing, splashing in the water, swimming and collecting rocks – we were making lifetime memories. I hope Nana Mac (Melissa) and I are creating as many good memories with our children and grandchildren as Grandma Bing did with hers.
It was just before eleven in the evening when I shut the treadmill off. During my walk, my mind was so full of thoughts and memories, I didn’t even notice the thunderstorm had ended. The angry clouds had moved out leaving thin wisps of clouds in the sky. The full moon was breaking through, rising above the silhouette of pine tree tops, lighting our yard brightly. The picture window again looked like a big screen TV playing the best show in town. I walked outside on the deck. A light breeze was blowing gently southward, toward the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.
I have a house in Ottumwa, Iowa, with an extra lot adjacent to it. The property used to have a large, very deep ravine behind it, rendering most of the land unusable. Over a twenty-year span, we filled in the gorge and now have a house that sits on a rolling hillside, with a huge yard. I’ve owned it for many years, most of which it’s been a rental property - but I have lived there a couple times and some really good things happened while there.
We stayed there while Melissa and I were searching for just the right home to buy. We eventually found just the house we wanted, but we were still living in that rental house when we got a puppy and named her June. Since the day we met that cute little border collie-blue heeler mix, she has loved to play ball.
From the back porch, I could throw a tennis ball way out into the yard. Because the house sat much higher than the back of the lot, it appeared I was throwing the ball much farther than I am capable. It worked out well. I got to look like a pro athlete and June loved making those long runs to retrieve that ball.
One beautiful spring morning, Melissa stood in the kitchen window enjoying her coffee while overlooking the yard. The rising sun created beautiful colors and shadows across the lawn. “Come look,” she said softly, “Gus is in the back yard.” Having no idea who the heck Gus was, I joined her.
I didn’t see anybody in the back yard, but there was a very large groundhog sitting upright on his back feet, eating clover. He held the little round, white blooms in his front paws; his whiskers wiggled rapidly as he nibbled away the flower, stuffing it in his cheeks, then munched down the stem like people will do with spaghetti. The angle of the sun cast a long shadow from the marmot. “Look at the size of that groundhog!” I said, pointing him out to Melissa. She wrinkled her face and looked at me oddly.
“That’s Gus.” She said as if I should have known.
“Gus?” I repeated, “You named a groundhog Gus?”
“Yes. Gus.” She explained, “He’s out there every morning, so I named him.”
Doing the morning show at the radio station, I would leave the house (usually in a hurry) about four hours before Melissa had to be at work. In my haste, I’d never noticed a groundhog in the back yard. I did however, start noticing Gus in the yard when I drove by during the day and in the evenings, especially when I was mowing the lawn. It seemed he was always out there eating and he wasn’t bothered much by my lawn tractor.
Sometimes I would talk to him from the seat of my John Deere, “Hey Gus, if you’d eat more, I could mow less, but you are getting a bit portly there, big fella.” I’d laugh and keep riding by. Another time, I just couldn’t resist, “Hey Gus, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” He shook his head, rolled his dark eyes and snatched another clover stalk.
One day Melissa and I were driving down the alley behind our house. Gus was in the yard eating as usual. “Gus is looking kind of thin,” I said with concern, “I wonder if he’s feeling okay?”
“That’s not Gus,” She said as if I should have known, “Gus is over there. That’s Millie.”
“Millie?” I repeated with a mischievous smile, “Gus has a lady friend? Atta boy, Gus, you da man!”
I drew a look of disapproval from my wife, “She’s not just a lady friend, she’s his better half. She is a proper lady and I’ll not have you speaking of her in that tone, thank you very much.” We shared a good laugh about that, even though I knew I’d just been put in my place.
After moving into our new house, just a few blocks away, we would often go by the old house (once again a rental property) and we would see Gus and Millie. I also saw them every time I went to mow the big lawn. They would be out in the yard eating together; clover tops, daises and any other flowering weeds they came upon. Millie didn’t seem to mind the lawn tractor either. Gus must have told her the guy on the mower is safe; albeit a little annoying at times. They always seemed to watch out for one another.
One day while mowing, I passed Gus, “Hey Gus.” I called out in jest, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if…”
Millie stood up on her hind legs, placing her paws on her hips. She gave me a stern look of contempt then interrupted me in mid-sentence, “Okay, give it a rest, lawn boy! We’ve heard that one a million times, alright?” We shared a good laugh about that, even though I knew I’d just been put in my place.
Gus and Millie never seemed to be very far apart. If they were spooked, they always ran away in the same direction. While Gus and Millie moved together in one direction, Melissa and I moved together in another.
Our long term plan was to relocate in Minnesota. We found our house on the north shore. Our youngest daughter would be heading off to college in the fall and I hired someone to mow the big lawn at the rental property. Things were falling into place nicely. The time was right for us to go.
At our new home in Minnesota, we have a lot more wildlife going through our yard. Deer and moose, bears, wolves, lynx, fox, martens and fishers. Of course, squirrels, rabbits, racoons and this one possessed chipmunk. We have all kinds of birds too, ravens and eagles, seagulls, hummingbirds, chickadees, nuthatches, and many more. But for all the wild things in our yard, we just don’t see many soulmates like Gus and Millie.
We did see a pair of pileated woodpeckers together in a tree, doing what I thought was a courting ritual – until someone explained they were both males. (how was I to know?) There’s also a lot of grouse courting that goes on in the springtime, under the apple tree. It’s easy to spot the male grouse. He’s the one that struts an awful lot like that swanky guy in a nightclub. I miss old Gus and Millie.
A couple weeks ago, I was back in Iowa. I drove down the alley behind our rental property, stopping to take a couple pictures of a large woodchuck in the yard behind the house. He was sitting on his hind legs, eating dandelions in our back yard. I smiled and wondered, “Could it be? Nah, it can’t be.” It has been almost six years since we moved away.
Less than a minute later, another woodchuck, a smaller one, lumbered across the alley, passing in front of my van. It kept going until it was within ten feet of the first, where she also started eating the bright yellow flowers tops of the dandelions.
Curious, I rolled down my window and called out softly, “Gus?” The bigger marmot stopped chewing for a moment and stared at me as if he knew me; he recognized my voice. I smiled, “Hey Gus, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” He rolled his big dark eyes and picked another dandelion. The other groundhog sat up on her hind legs, placing her paws on her hips. She gave me a stern look of contempt. I laughed, even though I knew I was about to be put in my place.
It’s a five-hundred-mile trip from our home on the Northshore of Lake Superior to the airport in Ottumwa, Iowa. It’s an airport I am very familiar with after flying in and out of there for decades; both as a child with my Dad and as a pilot myself in my adult years. This would be a bittersweet trip.
You see, my very dear friend, Steve Black, and his family, had operated Ottumwa Flying Service at the airport for over 32 years. As a private pilot, I kept my airplane there and I also flew commercially as a charter pilot for OFS. Steve had recently passed away and today we were gathering there to celebrate his life. Of course, there would be tears, but many more moments of joy would be shared in remembering some really good times and seeing old friends.
Melissa and I moved to the Northshore in 2014, but I always made it back to Ottumwa on the third Sunday of June. For over twenty years, it became a tradition that Ottumwa Flying Service would offer airplane rides to the public on Father’s Day - and we flew a lot of them! One year we took almost seven hundred people up for rides in one day!
I wondered if I was stealing Father’s Day from my kids by flying all day, but they insisted it was my day to do what I wanted to do. My last flight of the day each year was reserved for my girls. We took a flight together, catching the setting sun, then went out to dinner.
Flying on Father's Day was special for me. Each year I met some new people, got to see some old friends, and most of all, enjoyed sharing the gift of flight with a lot of people. There is a great thrill that comes with taking a person up in an airplane for their first time as well as some people who hadn’t flown for many years.
I particularly enjoyed taking up older pilots who no longer met the physical and health requirements to hold a pilot’s medical certificate but never lost their love of aviation. One gentleman would come out each year to fly with me. Shortly after takeoff, I would tell him to take the controls, “It’s your plane.” I would say.
“I can’t fly this. I don’t have a medical anymore.” He would say.
I would jest, “What makes you think I have one?” We always shared a good laugh about that. “Level off at two-thousand feet, then head over the town.” He would take the controls, adjust the throttle and set the trim.
“Can we go up to three-thousand?” He asked.
“It’s your plane.” I’d say, then mimic the air traffic controller, “Nine-six Charlie, climb and maintain three thousand.” He advanced the throttle and climbed, leveling off at exactly three thousand feet. It was like watching him fly for the first time again as he turned to the left then back to the right. The look on his face was priceless as the airplane responded gracefully to his gentle touch. I wanted to let him keep flying, but after a bit, I told him, “We need to head back to the airfield now.” He seemed a little sad when I said that, but nodded and turned the plane. I didn’t have to tell him which direction, he knew the way.
He entered the downwind leg parallel to the runway, lowered the landing gear and gave her ten degrees of flaps. He added more flaps on the base leg then turned onto final. I made the radio calls for him, “Cessna nine-eight-nine-six Charlie is turning final for three-one, Ottumwa.
He lined the aircraft up perfectly with the runway and descended to about eight hundred feet above the ground. “You probably better take it from here.” He said.
I put my hands back on the controls, “Okay, it’s my plane.” I said and brought the airplane in for the landing. I’ll never forget the wonderful feeling of flying with him every year and so very many others like him. But those days of Father’s Day airplane rides were long gone.
This Father’s Day weekend we were gathered to celebrate the life of our good friend, Steve Black, sharing memories and recalling stories. There would be only one airplane ride given this time.
Rich Wilkening, a longtime friend and pilot, would take Steve’s wife, Felicia, and his son, Schuyler, up for a ride over the Ottumwa airport. Steve passionately loved this airport, devoting over half his lifetime to Ottumwa Flying Service. They carried Steve’s cremains with them. The crowd began migrating from inside the hangar to the ramp to observe the flight.
Steve’s mom is almost 87 years old. She worked in the office at the flying service for all 32 years that Steve was there. She fully knew and understood his passion and commitment. I walked up to her, seated in her wheelchair, “Donna, do you want to go outside to watch the flight?” She said that she did. “Well, please allow me to give you a ride.” I felt honored to push her chair toward the walk door.
I had an idea. I leaned over, “Donna, would you like to go up in the plane with Schuyler and Felicia?”
“I don’t think they’ll have room.” She said, sounding sad. I assured her there was an open seat. “Tommy, I don’t think I can even get up into the airplane anymore.” She wasn’t sure about all of this but I could tell the thought of going along had her attention.
I pushed her across the ramp toward the airplane. “I’ll tell you what, we’ll go over to the airplane. You can decide when we get there if you want to go. If not, I’ll bring you right back.” When we got to the airplane, Donna looked through the open door, inside the cabin. I could feel her yearning to go fly with her son one last time. “What do you think? Do you want to go?” She again said she couldn’t get up into the airplane. “If you want to go, I will get you in the airplane.” She was thinking about it – she was tempted.
“Do you really think you can lift me into that airplane alone?” She challenged, almost as if she didn’t want to impose, but I knew what this would mean to her.
“Rich is here, he’ll help me and if the two of us can’t get it done – have you seen the size of your grandson, Schuyler?” We shared a laugh about that.
Donna thought hard for a moment, then as determined as I’ve ever heard her say anything, she said, “By God, I’m going with them.”
My chest was swelling. I was grinning, “Can you give me a hand, Rich? Donna is going to ride with you.” His smile shot from one ear to the other.
The doorway of Cessna 170 isn’t very wide; certainly not three people wide, and because the airplane is a tail dragger, the cabin sits a little higher. With Rich on her left, and me on the right, we each put an arm under hers and a hand under each knee. We easily lifted her in a sitting position, setting her feet on the floor inside the plane then moved her through the passenger door. Schuyler was inside the airplane and helped her the rest of the way into the back seat.
Standing outside the plane, I buckled Donna in with the seat belt. Felicia got in on the other side. Donna is very at ease in an airplane. With a smile so big and genuine, her excitement was radiating. I choked up a bit. “Have a good flight.” I said, then Schuyler and Rich climbed in and closed the doors.
When Rich started the engine, the propeller blew a gusty wind our way. A full crowd looked on as he taxied away from us toward runway three-one. Soon the little blue and white airplane was rolling down the runway. The tail raised and they picked up speed, now riding on the two main wheels. The wings lifted them gently off the ground. Rich held it about ten feet above the pavement. The crowd of people all waved with arms reaching into the air as they flew past us, straight down the runway before climbing out at an easy, steady pace.
The plane faded, becoming just a dot against the blue sky with bright white clouds behind them. People (non-pilots) pointed upward, “Is that them?” “I think they’re over there.” “That’s them right there, isn’t it?”
Soon the airplane appeared in the distance off the approach end of runway three-one. I pointed that direction, “Here they come.” All heads turned left. Rich brought the airplane down close to the ground for a low-level fly by in front of the crowd. Again, all arms waved in the air as they passed.
Rich came back around in the pattern, landed the airplane and taxied up to the ramp. Several of us greeted the airplane. He shut off the motor, coasted in then kicked the tail around before stopping. Schuyler opened the passenger door and hopped out. I slide the seat forward and looked at Donna in the back seat. “How was the flight, Donna?”
“It was wonderful, Tommy,” she said with tears welled up in her eyes, “absolutely wonderful.”
To keep from crying myself, I reached in the airplane, unfastened her seat belt and said, “Put your arms around my neck.” She did and I put my left arm around her waist and my right arm under legs, lifting her out of the plane. “Getting you in the airplane was free,” I said, “but getting you back out is $100.”
“Put it on my bill.” She said. We shared a good laugh about that, then I shed a tear or two of my own.
I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I landed my airplane and taxied into Ottumwa Flying Service. After the line guys fueled my airplane, they would come into the office where Donna and I were sitting, shooting the breeze. Donna would push a few buttons on the calculator then tell me how much I owed for the AV-gas. “Put it on my bill.” I would say.
Later that night, while driving back home, I had visions of Maverick buzzing the tower at Miramar, in San Diego. At an incredibly high rate of speed in his Navy F-18 Hornet, he caused Air Boss Johnson, to spill coffee on his uniform inside the tower. There’s a substantial difference between a military jet passing at close range doing nearly 350 miles per hour and a Cessna 170 plugging along ten feet over the runway a quarter mile away, doing about 80 miles per hour.
Although the fly-by may have been a little less dramatic, knowing Donna, Felicia and Schuyler were onboard taking one last airplane ride with their son, husband, father - and my very close friend, made this one of the most memorable fly-bys and Father’s Day flights of all time.
Until we fly together again, blue skies, Steve.
“To fly west, my friend, is a flight we all must take for a final check.” (Author unknown)
It was close to noon. We were ready to leave Iowa and head back home to Minnesota. Since both of us were hungry, we decided to stop for a sandwich before we got on the road. I pulled in line. There were several cars ahead of us at the double-lane drive thru. A yellow horizontal sign stretched across each drive thru lane advising: Caution! 9’ Clearance! Melissa noted the warning. “Will we clear that?” she asked. She seems to always ask that when we’re going through a drive up because we have a taller than normal van.
I’ve explained this before, but told her again, “The van is one hundred inches tall; that’s eight feet, four inches plus the roof vent which is another four inches, making us eight feet, eight inches tall. We have four inches to spare...”
“Is the roof vent open?” I wasn’t sure if she was asking me, or telling me.
“…Unless the roof vent is open,” I said, explaining, “at which point, we’re about nine feet, three inches tall.” With several cars still ahead of me, I put the van in park, slid my seat back, then walked to the rear of the van to close the roof vent. I hurried back to the driver’s seat, pulled the seat forward, fastened my seat belt, put the van in drive and held my foot on the brake. I was pretty proud of myself: I felt about nine feet tall for avoiding an accident. As the line started to move forward, I told my wife, “It’s a good thing I thought of that.” Melissa rolled her eyes.
I opted for the outside lane which had less tight corners to maneuver in a large vehicle. To my left was a black and white Dodge Charger – a city police car. At this point I would normally get the cop’s attention and ask them if they wanted to race. But we were pretty close together and being in a substantially taller vehicle, all I could see was the roof and lights of the patrol car. We simultaneously pulled up to the speakers in our respective lanes. I must have ordered faster because I beat the squad car off the line. As I was rounding the corner to the left, headed for the pick-up window, I rolled my window down. Knowing there was a cop behind us, Melissa said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but you should just leave them alone.”
Hanging my head partially out the driver’s window, I gave the peace officer the peace sign. They responded with a weak, quick wave. “Oh no.” I said, “I don’t know if I had my fingers spread far enough apart. I hope it didn’t look like I was waving just one finger at that cop…”
…thinking I was flipping them off…the squad car followed me…the officer said…
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Melissa reminded me of her suggestion to leave them alone. “I don’t want them thinking I was flipping them off.” I said and leaned considerably further out the window. I spread my two fingers wide and made sure they were totally perpendicular as I waved again to the officer. This time they responded with a much more vigorous wave and returned the peace sign.
I pulled forward to the window. The man repeated my order and told me what I owed. I gave him my card, then he handed my card back wrapped in a receipt along with a paper sack of food, two drinks and thanked us for our business. I paused at the window and he asked if I needed anything else. “Yes,” I said, “I do. There’s a cop right behind me. I want to pay for their order as well.”
Not sure if I was serious or not, the man leaned out the drive-up window, looked behind my van and asked, “You want to buy lunch for the policeman behind you?”
“Yes, I do.” I said, then handed him my card again.
He ran my card and handed it to me folded inside another receipt. “That’s pretty nice of you guys to pay for their order,” he said, “especially these days.”
I smiled and said, “Please tell them we appreciate the work they do.” I could hear a sincerity in the cashier’s comments and that made me feel pretty good.
As we pulled away from the drive-up window, my wife said, “That was a really cool thing to do, Tom. I’m glad you did that.” We turned right out of the parking lot. The street paralleled the drive-up lane at the restaurant. As we drove past, we heard a horn honking a couple of times. The officer’s hand was waving at us out their passenger window.
At the corner we stopped for the red light, then turned right onto the four-lane street. By the next traffic light, I noticed the cop car was behind us again. A couple blocks later, we turned left onto the four-lane highway – the squad car followed me. They stayed behind us for about a mile, until we stopped again for a red light.
The officer pulled up alongside me and lowered their passenger window; I lowered my window as well. She had to lean our way to be able to see up into my van. “Hey, I just wanted to thank you, again.” She said. “That was a real nice surprise.”
I smiled and told her, “We just wanted you to know, not everyone is against you.”
“Man, it sure seems like it these days.” She replied, shaking her head.
I smiled at her and said, “Just remember the silent majority. The majority of people still support you and appreciate the work you do. I know we certainly do.” She thanked us again. I told her, “You have a nice day and be safe out there.” The light turned green and we both pulled away. We drove along behind her for awhile and then she sped away.
As the distance between our vehicles became greater, I wondered if she had time to eat her lunch? Or, did her lunch break get cut short to respond to a call? Was she rushing off to help someone in trouble or danger? I said a little prayer for her, that she would be fair to all in her line of work and that God would protect her and keep her safe.
It might have been the simple gesture of paying for her lunch; not just as a cop, but as another human being. Or, maybe the words of assurance we offered and sharing our appreciation for the work she does. Whatever it was, it seemed like we made her day a little better and that made me feel really good. As a matter of fact, I felt at least ten feet tall. I took a bite of my sandwich and smiled, thinking, “It’s a good thing we already had our lunch, because being ten feet tall, there is no way I would fit under that nine-foot clearance – whether the roof vent was up or not.”
My daughter was driving, headed back to her house. I was just a passenger looking out the window. In the distance there were areas of dark gray vertical streaks running from some rather ugly clouds to the ground; heavy rain showers embedded in isolated thunderstorms.
A few sprinkles fell on and off, then a few big raindrops hit the windshield. There was a loud boom of thunder. The big raindrops stopped for just a moment then began to fall again. Sydney hit the wipers to clear the glass. Getting bigger and coming down faster, it was as if the rain made a sneak attack upon us and before we knew it, the rain was coming down very heavy. She turned the wipers on low, then high.
The rubber blades slapped back and forth across the windshield, sloshing water in every direction. The wipers couldn’t keep up. It was getting hard to see as if the windshield was steaming over. I ran my finger over a small area of the glass. There was no moisture; it was just rain on the outside. Cars were shooting wakes of water from their tires like boats moving across a lake. A truck going the opposite direction hit a big puddle sending a solid sheet of water our way, crashing into the windshield with a bang.
Every bit as quickly as the heavy rains came up, they stopped again. There were more gray streaks in the area indicating the storms weren’t done yet. The remaining drive home was calm. As we turned into the driveway, the winds were kicking up again. Claps of thunder echoed through the Iowa skies. Sydney pushed the button for the automatic garage door opener. As we waited for the door to lift, more sporadic large raindrops hit the windshield. What happened next, happened very quickly, although it felt like everything was moving in slow motion.
The large blue recycling container on wheels, filled to the brim, sat just outside the garage door, waiting to go to the curb that evening. The wind was lifting and slamming the lid. It looked like one of those yellow Pac-Man guys eating dots in a video game. The barrel started to teeter. I had visions of an inflatable toy with sand in the bottom, trying to keep the calm by reminding me, Weebles Wobble, but they don’t fall down. I hoped the receptacle would stay upright. Sydney frantically prayed out loud. “Oh, dear Jesus, no! No!” I was already unfastening my seat belt, thinking I could save the day, but before Jesus or I could get there, the wind toppled the big container.
Pizza boxes, cardboard and newspaper, milk jugs and various plastic containers, tin and aluminum cans burst from the can and spewed across the lawn.
I got out of the van to chase the blowing debris. I jumped and twitched as every large rain drop that hit me sent a cold chill all the way to my bones. Sydney pulled her van into the garage and quickly secured the next-door neighbor’s recycling bin. She called out, “Just leave it, Dad. We’ll get it later.”
The rain started pouring down. In a matter of seconds, I was completely soaked as if I had been submerged in water. I was determined to gather the mess before it stretched out all across the neighborhood. The rain quickly saturated the carboard and newspaper making them stick to the lawn and sidewalk, but the plastic and aluminum cans continued to travel. Other debris blew into the yard from an upset can a few doors to the west. I was grabbing items as quickly as I could when a very sickening feeling hit me.
Last week, my cell phone died after going through the washing machine. I had a brand-new phone that I had picked up earlier that day in my pocket – my water-drenched pocket. The rain was blowing six or seven feet into the open garage. I set the wet phone on the rooftop of the red and yellow Little Tikes plastic car. I ran back outside to finish cleaning up.
My granddaughter came running outside. With her arms outstretched, her head tilted back, laughing, she turned several times in the rain, then started picking up trash with me. Her mother called her to come back inside, but it was no use; her words fell on deaf ears. The already soaking wet child called out, “I’m helping you Papa.” Indeed, she was.
The rain was cold and it started to hurt as it hit my numb cheeks and bare neck. I turned my back to the rain and kept working. Each raindrop felt like it was stabbing me. Oh my gosh, dime size hail was pelting us. “Addison, go in the garage!” I told her.
“But I need to help you, Papa.”
This was no time to debate, “You need to get in the garage now!” I said with a firm voice. The hail was starting to sting more. She didn’t argue as she retreated to shelter. I picked up the last couple of items, putting them in the can and pushed the load downward. I closed the top and turned the container with the hinge toward the wind so the lid wouldn’t blow open again.
Addison and I stood in the garage shivering for a couple moments, watching the weather outside, then closed the overhead door. We went inside where Addison’s mother wrapped her in a towel and took care of her. I took a quick shower, changed into dry clothes and walked out onto the front porch. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining again. It was hot. The rain-soaked sidewalks, driveways and streets were already half dry. The air was so thick with humidity it was almost hard to breath. Steam rolled up from the green grass and sections of pavement.
With such calm, one would never guess a strong isolated thunderstorm had rolled through just minutes before. It came in, quickly released its fury and moved on. It was very short lived, lasting only minutes, but it seemed like everything moved in slow motion just before all hail broke loose.
People come from near and far to enjoy this magical place. The outdoor activities are numerous; the terrain, scenery and wildlife are spectacular. The north shore of Lake Superior is magnetic, drawing many. Some will choose to stay and call this place home. For others it’s a special destination; a place for people to relax, recreate and unwind. A few days here allows folks to decompress, then go back to daily life refreshed; it’s like getting a clean start. Our oldest daughter, Sydney, came to visit to get some rest.
She brought her bicycle to ride the paved trails along the lakeshore. When she got back to our house, she left her bicycle outside, alongside the front porch steps. We live on a quiet dead-end road in the country with only four houses on it. Still, I questioned her. “Are you crazy? Leaving your bike out there unsecured?”
“It’s not like anyone is going to steal it out here.” She justified.
“Where do you think circus bears come from? And where do you think they get their bicycles to learn to ride?” I responded.
We had a pretty good laugh about that as I imagined a black bear coming out of the woods, straddling her bike and riding off into the city to join the circus.
All in all, we had a real good visit. Sydney returned home relaxed; able to take on the next week with a clean start.
A week later, my brother-in-law and nephew came to visit. Jeff and Andy brought their new mini-bikes. They had a blast riding around our property and on some of the trails in the area. With the recent rains, they found some of the terrain quite wet. They were gone for a couple hours, returning to the house wet and covered with mud. “We went through areas where the mud and water were halfway up to our knees. We had to push and drag the bikes through. We nearly got stuck several times.” Jeff said.
Father and son took turns out in the yard spraying each other down with the garden hose. Melissa found them standing on the front porch in their boxer shorts holding their dripping wet clothes. They had a great time together. They were able to unwind and made some lifetime memories riding those mini-bikes out in the Northwoods.
But not all time up here is devoted to R-and-R. There is work to be done.
Andy, Jeff and I fired up the chainsaws to trim some of the pine trees around our yard, removing the dead branches from the bases. When we were done, Andy hauled some of the brittle branches to the yard where we enjoyed a relaxing fire in the fire ring. When the fire died down, we retired to the house.
At the back door, Melissa put her foot down, “You’re not coming in here covered with sawdust and dirt, smelling like exhaust fumes and smoke.” (She does keep a clean house.) She brought us a laundry basket. I stripped down to my boxer shorts on the back deck, dropped my dirty clothes in the laundry basket, then headed in for the shower.
After the other boys changed out of their work clothes, Melissa put our clothes in the washer for us. About an hour later, she called me to the basement. “Where is your cell phone?”
Logically I deduced, “Since you’re standing in front of the washing machine asking about my cell phone, it would be my assumption it’s in the washer.”
“Yes,” she said while presenting me with a perfectly clean flip phone, “and this time it went through the full cycle. I hope it’s not ruined.” Numerous times, I have made a frantic dash to the basement to retrieve my phone from the washer after leaving it in my pants pocket. It’s been wet, but never went through the full wash process.
I took the phone, removed the battery and gave the device a sniff. “It smells really good. Did you use that new Tide with Downy fabric softener?” She was trying to be serious while I was making light of the situation. “It’s been submerged in water at least six or eight times. This phone owes me nothing. I’ll let it dry for a couple days and if it works – that’s great. If it doesn’t – well, I’ve been talking about getting a new phone anyway. This is not a crisis.”
Melissa looked at the deceased flip phone in my hand. With a glimmer of hope she smiled and suggested, “Maybe a smart phone?” I snarled with disapproval and took my dead soldier upstairs. Opening and closing the phone, I noted how much smoother the hinge was working after a good cleaning. I also started wondering, what important text messages and photos I would lose if my phone was indeed…well, you know…finished; done for; kaput!
Just a couple weeks before, Melissa and I took a drive to the end of the Gunflint Trail to celebrate her birthday with a picnic. Our dog June rode between us in the middle of the bench seat as we rolled up the trail in our vintage Ford truck with the Alaskan Camper in the back. “I hope we get to see some wildlife today.” Melissa said.
June stood up. After turning two full circles on the seat (for no apparent reason) she sat down again. It was her way of telling us, “I’m all the wildlife you need.” Just then June stood up again to join us looking out the windshield at a beautiful fox. Trotting down the shoulder of the road, the full, bushy fox tail remained still as she kept an eye on us. “That tail is too big for her body.” June said with a bit of canine tail envy.
A little farther up the road, we stopped to watch a moose standing in water off the west side of the road. She dipped her head in the water pulling up another mouthful of delicious green water plants, paying no attention to us as she munched away.
At the end of the trail, we climbed to the top of a rock overlooking the beautiful blue waters below. A pair of eagles flew about chattering to one another. They carried talons full of sticks, obviously building or repairing a nest in the area. Two ravens flew by several times. Dancing and playing, they put on quite an aerial display of aviator skills as they were being chased by smaller birds.
We heard the song of a loon calling in the distance. A few minutes later, the pair swam into the water before us. They would dive below the surface, probably fishing, while Melissa and I took guesses at where they would resurface. They surprised us every time.
After our picnic, we picked up our things and began the short hike back down to the truck; June took the lead. Suddenly lunging ahead at something, she flushed up two grouse; one flew away while the other took refuge, landing on a tree branch right in front of us. Safely perched high above the predator at the bottom of the hill below, I’m not sure the bird noticed she was on eye level, and within arm’s reach of two humans. Or, perhaps she sensed we meant no harm to her. She posed while Melissa took several photos of our feathered friend.
June waited for us at the base of the hill. When we caught up to her, she was keeping watch over a rodent laying on the ground. It looked like a vole and it had fresh punctures in both sides of its body, probably from the talons of a bird. I’m not sure June ever saw the two grouse; I think she was chasing whatever had caught the vole and scared it away, causing the bird to leave its lunch and escape the potential dangers posed by a charging canine.
The three of us got into the truck and started on our journey home. As we rounded the sharp s-curves of the Gunflint Trail, we came upon a mother bear with three cubs! We stopped the truck, staying back a bit. The sow kept a close watch on us while growling commands to her young. The cubs, heeding her warning, ran across the road to a tree then looked back to their mama to see if she wanted them to climb the tree. The mother bear sensed we were not a danger to her babies and the four meandered off into the woods. What a treat to see them!
Just after I commented that we hadn’t seen any deer yet, Melissa said, “Look at that!” pointing to a doe with a very large, very round belly, she said “She has to be carrying twins – or even triplets!” I must admit, it was the most pregnant doe I’d ever seen.
After taking in the serenity of the Northwoods on a beautiful spring day, we felt truly blessed to see so much wildlife in their natural habitat while driving up and down the Gunflint Trail. We both felt refreshed. We would go home to welcome the new week with a worry-free, clean start.
I wasn’t too concerned over losing images of that day that were on my phone. Only God and Verizon know how many years I’d had that old flip phone. “Oh well,” I conceded, “the flip phone doesn’t take very good photos anyway and Melissa got plenty of good shots.” The irony caused me to laugh; apparently not everything comes out in the wash and even if my phone was destroyed, at least it would be going out as clean as it started.
One spring day about three years ago, in the early evening, Melissa and I were driving through Leadville, Colorado and saw something so cool I had to turn around to go back to check it out. An old Chevy Apache sat on the corner of a repair shop’s parking lot. The sun-beaten original turquoise paint was worn through on the hood and top of the cab. I chuckled. “Patina; a fancy word for rust.” From my driver’s seat, I gazed through the window at the old girl.
Her weathered look and character made me wonder what stories this truck could tell. The big heavy brows over the headlights invited me to come take a closer look. I got out of my car and walked around this classic. In the back of the truck was an old pickup camper.
The camper paint was chalky and worn thin but I could easily read the metal emblem: The Alaskan Camper. It Raises – It Lowers. I peeked through the glass window in the back door. “This is so cool.” While admiring the rig I began dreaming of adventures my wife and I could have traveling in such a vessel, “Oh the fun we would have…” I saw a lady walking near the building. She looked our way and kept going. I approached her, “That is really a cool truck.” I said, “Is it for sale?” She told me it was only there for repairs. We talked about it for a bit.
I knew she couldn’t tell me who owned it, but offered my contact information, asking if she would forward it to them – I wanted to inquire about buying the truck. “I can give it to him,” she said, “but you won’t get a call.” I assumed he had lots of offers. “The kid just got it,” She explained, “His grandfather bought the truck and camper brand new in 1962 and just recently gave it to him.” I smiled. This truck was clearly not for sale. I kept looking at the Apache in my rearview mirror as we drove into Leadville to find some place to eat dinner.
A few months later, in the summer, we were headed for the west coast – Washington. Melissa found an advertisement for an Alaskan camper, just like the one we saw in Colorado. It was in Bellingham; an hour north of our destination. I called the lady and she agreed to hold the camper until we could get there.
We really liked the camper and were comfortable with the price, but we were almost two thousand miles from home. It wouldn’t be feasible to run home to get my truck and come back. I couldn’t very well strap the camper to the luggage rack on top of my Subaru either. I drove to another town and bought a small trailer, five-feet-wide by eight-feet-long. With the trailer in tow, I went back, finished our paperwork and lowered our Alaskan Camper onto the little trailer hitched to my Subaru wagon. We sure got a lot of looks on our way home.
In western Montana, I took an excursion off the interstate. I wanted to cut down through Darby, in the Bitterroot Valley, then up through Wisdom and Wise River, coming back to I-90 just outside Butte, Montana. It’s a gorgeous drive.
Somewhere along the route, I saw something so cool, I had to turn around to go back to check it out.
There on a dealer’s lot was an old truck. I stood looking at the 1966 three-quarter ton, GMC truck. A livestock rack made of white wooden boards was mounted on the bed sides. The palomino tan paint still had a respectable shine - the truck was in good shape. It was a very similar style as the Chevy Apache we saw in Colorado – and here I sat with a vintage Alaskan camper. Thinking it was a sign from above, I went inside and talked to the dealer.
“The truck is on consignment.” He told me, “It’s only got fifty-six thousand original miles on it.” I asked if the mileage was verified. “Sure is,” he said, “the man bought it brand new to take his cattle to market. It’s a one-owner truck. He’s 97 years old now, not ranching anymore and figured it was time to sell it.” Melissa and I went out to test drive the old truck.
“Where are the seatbelts?” She asked. 1966 trucks didn’t come with seatbelts – I don’t know if they were even an option yet. It was hot outside, so we had the windows open as we cruised down the highway. The wind was blowing her long hair all about. “It’s pretty loud.” She said. I explained it was a farm truck and was geared really low to work. The truck seemed to be hitting top speed around fifty miles-per-hour. At sixty, the engine was really wound up.
“I like it.” I said, “I think we should buy it.”
“I’m not traveling in a pink truck.” She replied. Pink has never been her favorite color. She even told me once, “I can’t wear pink clothes; pink burns my skin.” Hmm. We went inside and I told the dealer we would think about it and get back to him.
As we walked back to the Subaru, I kept looking back over my shoulder at the truck. “It’s not pink,” I insisted, “It’s palomino tan. A very popular color in the fifties and sixties.”
At the car, she lowered her eyebrows, looked at me and adamantly said, “It’s pink.”
We got in the car. I kept gazing at the truck on the far end of the car lot. “Palomino tan is not pink.” I pouted as I started backing up. I gave the truck one long last look almost as if to say goodbye while admiring it. Just then I began hearing a noise – much like crunching sheet metal. “CRAP!” I blurted out, “Trailer!”
I had jackknifed the trailer, hitting the side of my car. We got out quickly. I let out a big sigh of relief. The steel railing on the trailer protected the camper. “Oh my gosh,” Melissa said, “look at the car.” I didn’t really care about the car so long as the Alaskan didn’t get hurt. We got back into the car and turned onto the highway, headed east toward Wisdom, Montana. Oh, the irony; I felt so stupid. How much wisdom can there be in staring at a truck while backing up and jackknifing a trailer behind my car. We were on our way home with our new camper – and a new dent in the car. Every time I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the damaged fender, I felt more foolish.
On the way home, we decided not to stay at motels. Instead, we would pull into a rest area, raise the top and sleep in the camper…on the trailer…behind our car. I couldn’t wait to find a vintage truck to carry our Alaskan.
The camper sat on the trailer in our driveway for the rest of the year until we wrapped it with tarps and put it away for the long winter ahead. All through the winter months both Melissa and I kept watch on eBay, Craigslist, Marketplace, and any place else we might possibly find the right vintage truck for our camper. We even had friends looking for us. We brought the Alaskan out in the spring with high hopes of finding the truck. We kept looking through the summer. We didn’t find anything so in the late fall, we wrapped it up in tarps and put it away for another long winter ahead. It seemed like all the trucks we would consider for the camper were either way out of our price range or needed too much work.
One day I was quickly flipping through ads for old trucks when I saw something so cool, I had to scroll back to check it out. A real clean 1971 Ford F-250 Camper Special with only fifty-six thousand miles on it. “No way.” I thought to myself. “That’s the same mileage that old ‘66 GMC in Montana had on it.” The price was really low, so I placed a bid, knowing full well the truck would end up selling for way more than we could afford.
I showed the listing to my wife. “I really like that shade of green,” She said looking at the photos, “it’s a lot better than that pink truck you liked out in Montana.”
I gave her a scornful look, insisting, “It wasn’t pink, it was palomino tan.” I was trying not to get too excited about the Ford. Sure enough, a few days before the auction ended, I was outbid. As the auction got closer to ending, I reconsidered the value of the truck and raised my maximum bid. Just a few minutes before the auction’s end, I was outbid again.
I was struggling with my decision. I said that was the most I would pay for the truck, but from everything we had seen online, it really was a good deal. With twenty seconds left, I was going to raise my bid by three-hundred dollars. I hesitated…watching the clock tick down, ten, nine, eight…I told myself I shouldn’t do this. Seven, six, five…well, maybe I should – I don’t know. Four, three…I hit enter. The screen changed very quickly – You’re the high bidder, then, CONGRATULATIONS!
I drove to Cincinnati, Ohio and pulled the Ford home on a rented U-Haul auto transporter. Every time I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that Green Ford Camper Special, following me home, I got a little grin on my face. I backed the truck down the ramps and off the trailer then d parked it in our driveway.
When enough snow had melted, I went out back to retrieve the little trailer with the Alaskan camper from storage. We set the camper in the truck bed. Man, she looked good and fit like a glove. Melissa cleaned the inside with Murphy’s Oil Soap, then rubbed down all the wood with lemon oil polish. The luster defined the grain in the birch wood. It radiated with an absolutely beautiful amber glow.
I hooked up the LP gas tank and checked all the cooktop burners – they worked just fine. After changing one light bulb, all the interior lights worked. The shades rolled up and down freely. Even the fifty-year-old refrigerator came on and got cold. We were really smitten with our little Alaskan sitting in its new vintage ride.
It was still cold outside, but we drove the truck to Grand Marais, Minnesota, picked up a pizza from Sven and Ole’s, then parked along the shoreline of Lake Superior. I raised the top on the Alaskan. The wind was strong and pushed hard against the sides, rocking the truck and camper.
Melissa and I sat inside, grinning like fools and enjoying our pizza. On the other side of the big windows the lake sent waves rolling and crashing into the shore. Finally! After more than two years, we had a vintage truck to carry our vintage Alaskan camper. Let the adventures begin.
I’m not one to watch a lot of television but when I do get into a show, I really get into it. Maybe I avoid watching because I become addicted, or I am too easily influenced by the shows.
For example, I never watched a single episode of the TV show, M*A*S*H when it originally aired for eleven years. I didn’t start watching until it became a syndicated series of reruns in the mid 80’s and I became hooked on the show. I would rush home to watch it at 5:30 on WOI-TV, channel 5. If I still had work to do at the office, I would go back. They ran two more episodes back-to-back at 10:30, after the news and I seldom missed those.
My kids swear they grew up falling asleep to the sound of an incoming helicopter and the theme song for M*A*S*H. When the TV station changed their programming and stopped airing the show, I bought the VHS tapes, then the box set of all the episodes when it became available on DVD. Yes, I was and still am hooked on the show. There’s no doubt I am influenced by what I see on the screen.
Just the other day, I watched the episode where the 4077th gets a can of tomato juice by mistake. When Colonel Potter sees Radar with a glass of the deep red juice, he reminisces; saying he hadn’t had tomato juice for years. Radar gave him the juice. The colonel drinks it and smiles, “Delisch. That really hit the spot, Radar.”
Wanting to please his commander, Radar started weaving a web of deals to assure the colonel would get tomato juice every morning. When Radar presented the tomato juice to the colonel, Potter pushed it aside, “No thanks Radar. I like it, but it doesn’t like me.” The juice gave him a rash.
After watching that episode, I went to the store and bought a big can of tomato juice as I hadn’t had it for years. The first glass was mighty tasty, but now I have bunch left in the refrigerator.
TV shows aren’t the only form of entertainment that can have an influence on me.
I was teenager on my motorcycle, racing down the alley alongside the Green Street parking lot, behind the movie theaters in downtown Ottumwa. I was speeding – going way to fast. A cop on second street saw me, turned on his lights and came after me in his Dodge Diplomat police car. I was going to take off to ditch him, but then thought it would be better if I stopped.
Ron Tolle, an Ottumwa police sergeant, stood next to me, sitting on my bike. The badge pinned to the front of his dark blue hat with the rigid, shiny plastic bill reflected the street light. He looked ten feet tall. “What’s your hurry, Mr. Palen?” How did he know my name?
I was scared to death. It was the first time I’d been pulled over by a cop – well, since getting my driver’s license; there was that one time on a bicycle but that’s a different story. I explained, “I’m not in a hurry. I just watched that new movie at the theater, Smokey and the Bandit. I guess I’m a little pumped up.” He let me go with a verbal warning; telling me to slow down. I love that movie!
A few years later I was watching Smokey and the Bandit, edited for TV. It sounded goofy when Sheriff Justice would curse, “You scum bum!” Certain words just couldn’t be said on television. The Bandit had just stopped to get a couple of cheeseburgers, when Sheriff Justice rushed into the same restaurant and ordered a Diablo sandwich and a Dr. Pepper. He wanted it fast as he was in a hurry. Despite seeing the movie over and over, that was the first time I ever wondered what a Diablo sandwich was. I wanted to try one.
Betty had a recipe for everything. I looked in my Betty Crocker cookbook but there was no such sandwich. I went to the public library to check Better Homes and Gardens and several other cookbooks. Still no success. I spent what seemed like hours, thumbing through pages in the aisle at Newsland, but not a single cookbook had the recipe. I asked friends and people I knew were good cooks; nobody seemed to know. People who had heard of the sandwich, only knew about it from the movie.
Over the next few decades, I watched that movie many times, but I eventually gave up on the Diablo sandwich.
A few weeks ago, Melissa and I sat down for a movie night. We watched a classic – Smokey and the Bandit. All my desires to try that elusive sandwich were rekindled. The internet is a much better source for researching such things since the last time I had looked - which should’ve made it easy to find the recipe, right? Wrong.
I typed “Diablo Sandwich” into the search bar, hit enter and sat back to review the results. “Come on. Are you kidding me?” In this age of technology and information, the best online recipe pages have to offer is a taco burger with corn and cheese. “Clearly, that was not the sandwich in the movie.”
I posted my dilemma on Facebook where friends responded with a variety of links to recipes. The people posting recipes claimed they were “real,” “actual” and “authentic from the movie.” One recipe claimed the Diablo sandwich was a glorified sloppy joe with corn and lettuce – but their photo had coleslaw with purple cabbage on the meat. Ick. There were no vegetables on the Diablo sandwich featured in the movie.
A couple other articles said the Diablo was a fictitious sandwich made up for the movie and didn’t really exist. Unwilling to accept that, I wasn’t going to give up. Later that night, after spending a few more hours searching the web for the recipe, Melissa said, “You’ve invested a lot of time in this Diablo Sandwich. It was a movie – it doesn’t really exist.” I couldn’t believe those words came forth from my own wife.
I felt abandoned - like Linus Van Pelt, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear in the pumpkin patch, when Sally Brown gave up, leaving him there alone. I wasn’t going to give up. Not when I knew in my heart the Diablo sandwich was real.
The next day, a friend sent me a link to an article where someone took the time to investigate the Diablo sandwich mystery in a near forensic manner. They found the restaurant location where the movie scene was filmed; The Old Hickory House restaurant in Forest Park, Georgia. They researched the menus from the seventies and concluded no such sandwich existed. However, they were able to demonstrate the meat in the sandwich Sheriff Justice ate was shredded, not ground beef like you would find in a taco burger or sloppy joe.
Because of the name Diablo, which is Spanish for Devil, they reasoned the sandwich was probably served with a hot or spicy sauce. Their article produced an old family recipe, handed down for generations by the actual restaurant owners, for a spicy BBQ sauce that would have been served over pulled pork or shredded beef. Then they determined the meat in the sandwich must have been pork based on its color.
The author of the article, concluded the Diablo Sandwich was what most Americans would call a pulled pork sandwich with BBQ sauce. They suggested the name of the sandwich may have been ad-libbed into the movie by Jackie Gleason, who played Sheriff Buford T. Justice.
The authors research was thorough. The article was very convincing, backed up with logical information and facts that included the recipe for the sauce. I was now on a mission to recreate the sandwich.
I planned ahead, picked out the perfect pork roast and made sure I had all the ingredients needed. I made the sauce a couple of days ahead so the spices would have time to blend well. Friday morning, I began slow cooking the meat. The moment was finally at hand.
Friday night I warmed the BBQ sauce and assembled the sandwiches. They were beautiful and looked exactly like the sandwich presented to Sheriff Justice at the counter in the movie.
We garnished the plates with kettle chips and a pickle spear and, of course, included ice cold glasses of Dr Pepper. When I took the first couple bites, I knew I had finally found it - the elusive Diablo Sandwich was mine at last; ‘twas a dream come true. By the third bite, a tear welled up in my eye. (My wife was laughing at this point.) Yes, I was pretty emotional, but the tear was most likely from the BBQ sauce – it had a real good kick to it. Wow!
For years, people have told me, “There is no Diablo Sandwich - it’s just pulled pork on a bun.” But I knew better! The Diablo Sandwich is just as real as the Great Pumpkin, the Great Oz, the Tooth Fairy and a few others I know of. But in order for any of these to exist, one must believe. I believe.
If anyone wants to stop by, I’ll let you try a Diablo Sandwich - I made plenty of extra. While you’re here, you can have a glass of tomato juice – I have plenty of that too. I’ve got to stop staying up late, watching old TV shows and movies. I’m too easily influenced…
We’ve always had pets in our house. Sometimes having indoor pets requires a little adjustment – or a lot. We have oak floors all through our house, except the kitchen and bathrooms - they have tile floors. We find it’s easier to keep the hard surface floors clean and we prefer their look to carpet. To avoid scratching the hardwood floors, we don’t wear shoes in the house.
Not everyone likes hardwood floors. I’ve heard many people complain, “They’re too cold.” They would say. “I grew up on those cold floors, I like carpeting – it’s warmer on my bare feet.”
Personally, I find our oak floors are usually warm to walk across barefoot, but will admit to telling family and friends, “we are a slippers house” and advising them to bring a pair when they visit. Especially if they are coming in the winter months. The hard floors can be cold in the winter; particularly the tile.
I got up from the couch. Since I was going to bed soon, I opted not to put my slippers on. Besides, I was wearing a pair of thin socks. I let our dog, June, out the front door to potty. There are wolves and other such critters around our place, so I walked out on the front porch to keep an eye on her. The wooden floor was cold, but not as cold as a concrete porch would be. June did her business, then continued sniffing around the bushes, “Come on Bugs. Let’s go inside.”
I made sure the front door was locked, then strolled across the wood floors to look out the east windows to check the driveway. I don’t know why I do it, but it seems like checking the drive is something I need to do every night. That end of the living room is over our unheated garage and those floors are chilly in the winter.
With the driveway secure, I walked through the dining room and into the three-seasons room. It has quarry tile floors and that room is open below. Those floors get really cold in the winter. I looked out the windows and made sure all was well in the backyard. The sky was clear, so I walked out onto the deck; June accompanied me. The wooden deck boards felt warmer on my feet than the cold floor in the three-seasons room.
I looked up in awe. It was a new moon and stars glittered, twinkled and danced about. The Milky Way was really bright against the dark sky. It’s such a beautiful scene, I could just gaze at the heavens for hours. I looked for satellites and planets, spotting just a few. Each time I exhaled, a puff of steam came from my mouth and disappeared into the night. I was getting chilly. My socks felt damp, like they were drawing moisture from the deck boards and my feet were getting colder. I went inside to the kitchen.
The kitchen floor is ceramic tile and most of it is also over the cold garage. I stood on the throw rug at the sink and drew a glass of water. The rug felt good under my cold feet. As I took a drink, I remembered there was laundry in the washing machine, that I needed to put in the dryer.
The basement floor was ice cold. I wasted no time getting the clean items transferred from one machine to the other. I closed the door, turned the knob, and pushed the button turning the dryer on, then quickly made my way to the steps. “Darn it.” I turned around, went back, opened the dryer and tossed in a couple dryer sheets, then high stepped it across the cold concrete floor to the steps going upstairs. June was waiting for me at the top of the steps.
In the bathroom, I stood in front of the sink, brushing my teeth. Again, the tile floor felt like standing on ice. I shuffled from one foot to the other. “I wished I had remembered to put the laundry in the dryer earlier when I was supposed to.” I told June, “The bathroom throw rugs were in that load.” I chuckled as I spoke to my dog, “I guess I should have put my slippers on when I got up from the couch.” June didn’t laugh. I looked down and she was no longer with me. Apparently, the floors were cold on her paws and she headed for her warm bed.
I walked through the dark bedroom, removed my dirty socks and slipped under the covers. Melissa had been in bed sleeping for over an hour. I pulled the covers up tight to my chin, rubbing my left foot vigorously on top of my right, then my right foot over my left. I was trying to warm them the same way one would warm their hands by rubbing them together. When your feet are cold, your whole body feels cold. I shivered and rolled over on my right side and curled up with my back toward her. I was trying to get warm.
I could feel the heat on my wife’s side of the bed and started to scoot a little that way. I wanted to take advantage of the warmth but was careful not to let my cold body come in contact with hers. I rubbed my feet together again then all of the sudden, it happened. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
It was as if my feet started thinking on their own – without me and without using good judgement. They couldn’t resist the warmth. They migrated her way and planted themselves firmly against her warm, bare calf. Ahh… The gratification was short lived. Very short.
The screams were incredible - first hers, then mine as she quickly and forcefully launched my feet and the rest of me, back to my side of the bed. “What are you doing?” She demanded, while pulling away. “You don’t come to bed and stick your freezing cold feet on my leg. What’s the matter with you?”
“You do it to me all the time.” Was my only defense.
“No, I don’t – and besides, that’s different!” She scolded, “My feet are never as cold as yours.” Then she questioned, “What did you do? Stand outside barefoot or something?” I was in no position to argue.
She went back to sleep and I curled up on my side of the bed, rubbing my feet together, still trying to get warm. After a few minutes, my feet, with a mind of their own, thought they had warmed up some and returned to the scene of the crime – this time trying to mingle with her warm feet. “Are you crazy? What’s the matter with you?” She blurted out.
Sensing the impending doom, potential injury and possible loss of limbs, my feet quickly retreated to my side of the bed. I justified their actions, “You said not to touch your leg and I didn’t – I touched your feet.” My defense was weak and I knew it.
She went back to sleep. A few minutes later, I was still rubbing my feet together. They were resting right on the edge of the warm area. I started wondering, “They might be warm enough to try again…but I don’t know about possibly waking her a third time…”
“What’s an ice cream social?” I asked my mom, who was busy getting all the kids ready to go. She explained that people just get together for ice cream. They talk and sometimes play games and such; it’s a social event. Ice cream? That was all I needed to hear.
I attended my first ice cream social a long time ago. Mom took us to a fundraiser sponsored by the St. Joseph’s Hospital Ladies Auxiliary Club. It was held on the lawn by the circle driveway at the front entrance of the building in Ottumwa, Iowa.
The ladies brought their own ice cream machines. A few had old fashioned hand churns. Most had electric motors that turned paddles in stainless steel tubs. All of the tubs were immersed in wooden buckets of ice. The homemade vanilla ice cream was still soft and creamy, being served right out of the ice cream makers. They had Hershey’s chocolate syrup in a can, if you wanted it. There were games for the kids to play while adults sat at little round tables on the front lawn, socializing. I remember it was a lot of fun and I’ve been to many such events since then – I even helped plan one.
Myself and a few colleagues from the local media met with Connie, a friend who worked at Evans Middle School. Her students were looking for ideas for a community service project. They wanted to raise money for the local fire department to purchase batteries and smoke detectors. The firemen provided and installed detectors for elderly people and anyone who needed them. They also went out annually to change batteries for people who needed assistance doing so.
I suggested holding an ice cream social in the garage at the central fire station. Surely people would come; they’re always curious about firetrucks and what’s inside the fire house. A second meeting was held with the fire chief who loved the idea. Another person from the media suggested a name for the event, and just like that, the first annual “Fire and Ice,” was underway.
The kids worked with Hy-Vee, a local grocery store, and several sponsors who provided the product. They took in donations from people who came for the ice cream and played games. Everyone was offered a tour of the fire station and a lot of kids (adult kids too) had their photos taken sitting in the driver’s seat of a shiny red firetruck. I couldn’t even guess how many people came sliding down the brass fire pole. It was a real fun time and the students raised a good amount of money for their cause.
Fire and Ice was a successful event for several years to follow, but coming back to the day at hand, ice cream was the furthest thing from mind.
We now live along the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. It was cold with temperatures in the single digits and wind chill values well below zero. There was five inches of fresh snow on the driveway and no matter which way I turned the chute on the snow thrower, the wind blew the white stuff right back in my face. Snow stuck to my coat, hat and gloves as well as my goatee and eyebrows. My cold, wet cheeks were bright red. It felt like someone was poking my face with needles and my fingers were going numb.
I wasn’t just clearing the driveway, I was on a mission that involved digging through banks of previously piled snow. I called it quits for the day and put the snow blower in the garage. I would come back to this project tomorrow.
It took me several hours to cut through the three-foot-deep banks, then clear a path down the left and the right sides to free our little snowbound Scamp trailer. It was time well invested.
As we prepare for road trips, more and more we are finding “pet friendly” lodging, means dogs only – no cats. Even after telling them up front that we travel with a dog and a cat. Melissa had booked a few accommodations, only to be called the next day and told, “Sorry. We don’t allow cats.” We decided to take the camper where our dog, June, and our cat, Edgar Allen, are always welcome - with no additional pet fees or deposits required.
We made our way south to Gulf Shores, Alabama. The milder temperatures were a nice break from Minnesota’s March climate. We set up camp for a few days at the Fort Morgan RV Park. Our days were spent leisurely walking sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, looking for seashells and treasures. Our favorite restaurant had changed hands, so, we were also searching for a new place serving the best grilled shrimp and handmade hushpuppies. At night we relaxed around the campsite.
Each night I went for a brisk, two-mile walk. On our final evening, at dusk, Melissa and June wanted to go for a walk with me. We strolled down the lane toward the road. That’s when I spotted it; a yellow Schwann’s truck was pulled over at the end of the drive. It was like hearing the bells and music, faintly making their way through the neighborhood on a hot summer’s day – and then spotting the ice cream truck. We had to rush before it pulled away. I grabbed Melissa’s arm, “Come on, we have to hurry!”
“We don’t need ice cream!” She protested, dragging her heels in the rock. I had an idea and insisted we had to hurry.
I compromised, “If we get there before the truck leaves, it was meant to be. If not, then we weren’t supposed to have ice cream tonight.” June pulled hard on the leash in my left hand, I latched onto Melissa’s hand with my right. I leaned toward June; with the two of us pulling together– Melissa was coming along, like it or not.
We reached the truck and met Vicki – the driver. “How much is a box of ice cream sandwiches?” I inquired.
“Thirteen dollars,” Vicki replied, “plus tax…it’ll be fourteen-twenty-nine all together.”
“How many are in a box?” I asked.
“Twenty-four.” She said.
I quickly did the math. “That’s a little less than sixty-cents each.” Melissa asked about other options; drumsticks, fudge bars or cones with sprinkles, but I quickly decided, “I’ll take one box of ice cream sandwiches.” After some brief paperwork, we were on our way back to the campground.
“What are you going to do with all this ice cream?” Melissa wanted to know.
“I’m going to hand them out to people at the campground.” I said with excitement. Melissa was skeptical about my idea. It was now after dark and we were going to walk up to people, offering them ice cream from a stranger. “It will be fun; like reverse trick-or-treating.” I assured her.
At the first camper, I announced myself plenty early from the road. “Hello,” the people were friendly in greeting us. “We just scored a box of ice cream sandwiches from a Schwann’s truck at the end of the road.” I explained, “and we’re sharing them with all our neighbors.” The people seemed leery at first, until the first man spoke up in a thick southern accent.
“Ice cream sandwiches? Heck yeah, I’ll have one, thanks y’all!” The other three people each took one, too, and they were all peeling off wrappers before we left.”
At the second trailer, the people were very receptive, welcoming our unexpected treat. “I’ve got a big freezer in my RV,” the man offered, “If you need a place to keep the extras, I’d be happy to help.” We shared a good laugh about that, then moved on to the next couple. Melissa was adamant that I was not to knock on any camper doors. I could only give ice cream to people who were outside. We finished making our way around the campground and headed back to our campsite.
Another trailer had just pulled in and I was looking their way. “Leave them alone.” My wife advised, “You’ve had your fun for the night, let’s just go home.” We took the last six treats back to our Scamp and put them in the freezer. While Melissa went up to check on our clothes in the laundry room, I snuck over to the newcomers with my box of treats.
“Ice cream? Really?” The dad said, while unplugging his trailer from the truck. “This has been such a crappy day - I’d love some ice cream.” His wife quickly snatched up the four bars, thanked me and said she would put them in the freezer for their kids, until after they finished setting up camp.
It really was a lot of fun and I have to say, fourteen bucks and some change sure bought a lot of smiles. We shared treats, good conversation and plenty of laughs with people whom we’d never met before.
When Melissa came back from the laundry room, she ate her ice cream, leaving just one in the freezer. Guess who it’s for? Not me. I gave up desserts for lent. I just bought the ice cream for its social value. So, if you’d like to stop by the Scamp, I’ll give you my last Schwann’s ice cream sandwich. You can pull up a camp chair and we’ll chat for a while – it will be just like an old-fashioned ice cream social.
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