It's a sickening feeling when you're driving down the road, and you hear that sound, almost like a pop or snapping noise; it's when a rock hits your windshield. I know this because it happens to me too often, certainly more often than the average driver. Maybe it's just bad luck, but I've dealt with windshield issues most of my driving life, especially when I started exploring out to see more of the country.
A sizable rock came off a construction truck in Iowa and broke my windshield. A large section of slushy, frozen snow popped off the top of a semi-trailer while driving through the twin cities. It seemed to float like a potato chip through the air before smashing my windshield. When I reported it, the state trooper asked if I was following too closely. "I wish I had been," I told him, "then the icy chunk would have sailed right over my car."
Shoot, I was on a four-lane highway in Idaho, in the left lane passing a semi-truck, and sugar
beet flew off the top of her trailer and cracked my windshield. Can anyone else tell me a sugar beet has stuck them?
In most states, if a vehicle kicks up a stone or any other debris from the road and hits your car,
it is considered a "road hazard," and the other driver has no responsibility for damages. However, if something falls off their vehicle, they do. In each case mentioned, I contacted the companies, and they paid for my repairs.
I don't even have to be driving to have an incident. One time I was watching a baseball game at
Wildwood park. A foul ball was popped up very high in the air. Naturally, it came down and hit my car, cracking the windshield.
Another time, I was following my wife to Duluth to drop off my car at the service shop; she was my ride home. All of a sudden, I heard it; SNAP! "You've got to be kidding me!" I said, then looked for the chip. Sure enough, there was a fresh new star in the glass just under the rearview mirror. I called her immediately, "You just kicked up a rock, and it chipped my windshield." At first, she didn't believe me, then denied any liability or wrongdoing. She claimed she was too far ahead of me for a rock from her tire, hit my car. "Well, it did," I said, then adamantly insisted, "and you're going to pay for my windshield." There was a long silent pause. "Hello? Are you there? Hello?" My car glass is immune from nothing, not sweet things, not even love!
A chip can turn into a crack running wild random directions across the glass in extremely hot or cold temperature changes. Having the chip repaired or filled can help avoid cracking. I get rock
chips frequently, so I'm familiar with the auto glass repair shop.
When I lived in Iowa, it was not a problem to drive a few blocks where Ottumwa Glass would repair my windshield. But living in northern Minnesota is different. We live sixty-five miles from the glass shop, a hundred-thirty-mile round trip. A rock chip is a real pain in the glass - if you know what I mean.
In the old days, doctors made house calls, but you had to take your car to the shop for a new
windshield. Times have changed; doctors don't make house calls anymore, but the glass shop does.
Shortly after we moved to Minnesota, I needed to replace the windshield on a truck I bought. I called City Auto Glass in Duluth for an appointment and was told, "We come to Silver Bay every Tuesday. Do you have a heated garage?" I did not, so she gave me the name of a local garage, "If you can bring it in a ten-o-clock, we can fix it for you there, and it will be ready to go in about two hours." Being skeptigal, as I am, (that's not a typo, it's a person who is skeptical and frugal – you know, cheap?) I asked how much more it cost to have them come up. "It's the same price. If the weather was warmer, we could replace the glass right there in your driveway." Wow. How could I refuse a deal like that?
The bright red City Glass van has been in my driveway several times since then, in addition to the numerous times I've been to their shop. About a year ago, they came and repaired a rock chip on my truck. During the past winter's spell of minus thirty-five-degree temperatures, the chip ran, making a large circle from the passenger to the driver's side of the glass. It was time to make an appointment to get a new windshield.
Admittedly, I'm not a real fan of some of the new technology; I don't get it; that's why I still carry a flip phone; however, some of it just makes good sense. For example, City Auto Glass has locations in several towns. If the office people are busy or on the phone when you call the local number, someone from another site will answer your call. You'd never know you're talking to someone out of town – unless, of course, you are one to break a lot of windshields. Lisa answered the phone, and I knew there's no Lisa in the Duluth office.
Lisa got some information from me about the vehicle. She wanted the VIN to make sure she ordered the correct windshield. I told her I didn't have the number with me, but they should have the truck in their system. "Ah yes, I see we repaired a rock chip on this vehicle last May." It's a mystery to me how she knew that or how she knew the schedule for the Duluth shop. "Okay, the guys will be out Tuesday morning at ten to replace the windshield on your truck in your driveway. Is there anything else I can do for you today?" With the business portion of our call done, it was time to have some fun.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, there is." I said, "While they're here, could you ask them to bring in the trash can from the curb and set it inside the garage?" There was a slight pause as Lisa tried to figure out if I was serious. "Also, can they feed the dog and do the dishes? Oh, and sweep the floors if they have time." We shared a good laugh about that. "You are full service, aren't you? This is my idea of full-service."
Lisa was still laughing when she asked, "Is there any laundry that needs to be done and would you like them to mow the lawn?"
I was pretty sure she was kidding, but just in case, I asked, "Do you think they'll have time?"
We shared another good laugh; I told her I'd look forward to seeing the guys on Tuesday. Amidst all the merriment, I forgot to ask about payment.
I called right back and reached Lori. I gave her my name and told her I had just set up an appointment. "Yes, I see Lisa scheduled your windshield replacement for Tuesday," I
explained that I forgot to ask about paying my bill, then asked if I could speak with Lisa. "Lisa is in our Rochester office, but I can help you."
"Rochester?" I questioned, "Then you must be in the Duluth shop."
"No," she replied, "I'm just down the road from you - in Mankato."
"Mankato? That's two hundred and fifty miles from here." I expressed.
"Right," she confirmed, "just two-hundred-fifty miles down the road from Duluth." I got thinking about it; when anyone drives enough to get as many rock chips as I do, two-hundred-fifty miles is just down the road.
"Let me see if I've got this right; I called Duluth, and Lisa answered the phone in Rochester and
scheduled an appointment for the Duluth shop. I called back with a question for Lisa and I get Lori in Mankato to discuss a question I had for Lisa, in Rochester, about the windshield the Duluth shop is going to replace in my driveway in Silver Bay?" My head was spinning. "Are you keeping all this straight, Lori?"
Lori laughed, "Absolutely, and to answer your question, Lisa, in Rochester, already received the authorization from your insurance company for the Duluth Shop to replace your glass. So, the service technicians will give you a paid receipt for replacing your windshield when they come to your house in Silver Bay – and they'll still be there on Tuesday at ten a.m." Whew! Somehow through all that, I was sure they’d come through as they always do. They've never let me down.
On Monday, I called again and got Debbie in the Duluth office. She confirmed, "The guys will be
there tomorrow, and the insurance company has already authorized the repair, so you won't have to pay anything – it's all taken care of." How could she possibly know this? That information was in Mankato – or was it Rochester? I was impressed, but that's not why I called.
I explained, "There's rain in the morning forecast, and they'll be working outside in the driveway,
so that's not going to work. Would you be able to get me in the shop if I bring the truck to Duluth tomorrow?" She said that it would be no problem if I could be there at nine.
I arrived at the shop just a few minutes early. The big overhead garage door opened, and Dakota, the technician, came out, "You must be Tom, with the Dodge Dakota?" I told him I was, "We're all ready for you." I handed Dakota the keys to the Dakota, then walked into the office, making no mention of the coincidence of names.
Debbie said, "It will take about two and a half hours to change the glass and allow drying time. Are you going to wait here?" I told her I would go to the restaurant next door to write while they had the truck in the shop. "The restaurant's dining room isn't open, just the drive-through," she said, "You can take our loaner car if you'd like to go someplace else." I thought that was pretty
nice, and I took her up on the offer.
About 10:30, I got a call from Dakota at the shop, "We finished your truck; it just needs to set a
while longer to dry. You can come to get it any time after 11:10." Wow, that was fast – they're twenty minutes early.
Another thing I like about City Auto Glass, if a chip they repaired turns into a crack, they'll take the repair cost off the price of a replacement (some exclusions apply.) I asked Dakota about it. "Well, the chip we repaired in May was on the bottom right side, and it ran up to another chip on the top right side." How could he possibly know that – not about the second chip, but the windshield repair in May, that was done in my driveway?
"I had two chips?"
"No," he explained, "the chip on the top right ran across the glass, then looped down to join the third chip on the bottom left, which then ran back over to the original chip. That's how it made a big circle."
"I had three chips." I was surprised.
"Four. There's another small chip down in front of the VIN."
I queried, "Does this fall under some exclusions apply?" We shared a good laugh about that. When he told me about the other chips, I remembered getting the one in the top left. I felt sick when I heard that popping noise when the rock hit the glass, but I had no idea there were two more.
I was very pleased with the work and they were right on time as promised.
In front of the shop, a van with a lift bucket was parked in the first sp*ace. I stopped to chat with the driver and his helper, "I wouldn't park there if I were you."
"We're changing the sign, the driver explained, "we'll have it done soon."
"I know," I said, pointing my thumb toward the shop, "But these guys are fast! If you're there very long, they'll slap a new windshield in your van before you know it." We all shared a good laugh about that. "By the way," I added, "the new sign looks great! You two do good work!"
When I left home, it was raining. Now, it was a beautiful sunny day in Duluth. It seemed even more beautiful than usual, but it always does when looking through a shiny, brand new windshield. I was sure glad it worked out to bring the truck to the shop in Duluth. Even though we changed locations, they still completed the job on Tuesday - and an hour and twenty minutes early at that.
I returned home to a real surprise! Someone took the trash in from the curb and fed the dog. The dishes were done, and the floors swept. Even the laundry was washed, dried, and folded. The lawn didn't need mowing yet, but still, I wondered, "How could those technicians possibly have got all this done? I was only in Duluth for a few hours?" The thought made me laugh.
My wife did all those chores while I was gone, but if City Auto Glass would have come to my house that day, I'll bet they would have done those things for me. Speaking of my wife, now that I think about it, she never did pay for the windshield when she threw that rock at me with her car.
Rock chips and cracked windshields are a pane in the glass - if you know what I mean, but having good people to take care of things, sure does ease the pain.
I was trying to write a story, but it wasn't coming easy – I just wasn't into it and didn't feel like finishing this story this week. I pulled up another story I had already started. I had a good idea what it should be, but again, the words just weren't there, and to force the storyline would do it no justice. There was too much tension and turmoil inside of me, and I couldn't focus. I wanted to go for a drive to clear my head, but my story has to be submitted on Monday to the newspapers that print it.
My van is set up for writing when I travel, so I decided to take off in it for a while. Maybe something would come to me on the road. I drove about twenty miles and pulled off Highway 61 into a familiar wayside that overlooks Lake Superior.
I opened my laptop and began writing yet a third story for today. So many thoughts were running through my mind – I couldn't focus. I got a text from one of the publishers, "Do you have an ETA for your column?" I told him I would have something in thirty minutes – but what? I looked out the window over Lake Superior and thought:
From where I sit, I can see the lake. Her water changes colors daily, sometimes multiple times. The lake is a dreary shade of grey today. At the horizon, it blends into a similar grey, the overcast sky. The water is choppy with whitecaps. Waves are coming in, breaking a substantial distance from the shore. "She's a little rough today."
From where I sit, I could see Split Rock Light House. Her tan bricks didn't show their usual bright luster against the background.
I could see a faint silhouette of an iron ore boat far out on the lake. I wondered if the Captain and crew felt the rough waters the same way a smaller vessel would. A fishing boat or a pleasure boat would certainly get tossed and bounced about in those waves. I suppose that's why there were no other boats on the lake today. Of course, the ship had to be there despite the rough sea - it's their job.
It's just a dismal day – not even the pine trees seemed excited about this day. The ravens and seagulls weren't out flying. I sat and listened to the rain falling on the tin roof of my van. That sound is always soothing. I closed my eyes and saw a vision of another time.
From where I sit, I could imagine the lookout tower which used to be on this site before the state improved the sharp curve in the road. In days of yore, the tourist would pull over here and pay their admission to climb the tower for the best view of the lighthouse.
In my mind, I could see the people, families laughing and having fun on a sunny day. Excited children are running up the steps of the tower. Moms are grabbing their kids by the arm to keep them close, away from the traffic on the road.
I could see the lake with bright blue, smooth waters. Several ships were passing, going to and from destinations unknown. Fishing boats and sailboats played on the lake. Ravens danced in the blue sky, calling out to the people, "Rawk, rawk," Welcome. Seagulls swooped in to see if anyone had anything for them to eat. People wore sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats in the bright sun. Split Rock Lighthouse glowed warmly in the sunshine. Even the trees swayed in the breeze, showing their beautiful shades of green. I felt peace.
From where I sit, not all waters are smooth, not all times are peaceful. Not all days are sunny, nor all skies blue. But from where I sit, I can close my eyes and make them that way.
Things can get foggy when I try to put my earliest life memories into chronological order. It’s probably because they are not complete, but more like fragments, bits of events, or things I recall. I remember a wooden privacy fence in a backyard with vertical boards that seemed to go all the way to the sky. The enormous green dinosaur, way up on the hill at Dinosaur Park, and Mount Rushmore, the four giant heads carved into a rock in Rapids City, South Dakota; were places our family visited when we lived there.
I always seemed to remember cars. Dad drove a Cadillac and bought an American Motors Rambler station wagon; I think it was pink and white; I clearly remember it smelled terrible inside. One day he came home with a new, green and white Chevy Greenbriar van. Mom was happy about that.
I recall a cement building inside a fence. One of my brothers told me it was a prison for bad people. It had a large door that was usually open. Although we couldn't see what was inside, my brother said there was an electric chair and explained its purpose. I have no idea what the building was, but it was creepy, and I wouldn't say I liked going by.
One day two of my sisters, in their early teens, decided to sneak out after Mom told them they couldn't go. I'm not sure they remember the story the same way I do, but we all agreed there was big trouble when they got back home. I remember thinking Mom might take them to the prison; she was mad!
I have a few memories of water in those early years. As kids, we ran through a water sprinkler in the yard. My brother and I collided and crashed to the ground. I went into the house, crying. We went to a swimming pool where I had to stay in the little pool while older brothers and sisters went to the big kid's side. I also remember the day the creek at the end of Jane Drive flooded.
Although it never got into our house, the floodwaters covered the street and rose into our front yard. Mom was worried and wanted to know where all the kids were. Dad didn't seem overly concerned except that his car was in the street. I always remember that creek being considerable in size. Maybe it was because of the flood or because I was four years old, and everything seemed larger than it was.
When I was five years old, my family moved to Ottumwa, Iowa. The Des Moines River runs through the middle of the town, and it was huge compared to the creek in Rapid City. As a kid, we went swimming in the lagoon at Ottumwa Park. There was a sand beach and a shower house, and we had a lot of fun swimming there. The lagoon, the largest body of water I'd ever seen, presented opportunities I'd never known.
One day my brother and I were going to sneak under the rope with buoys, swim to the far shore and back. I was worried about making it all the way. We took deep breaths of air before going underwater and coming up outside the boundary line. We only made it a few feet before the man with the white nose, sitting in the tall chair, started blowing his whistle and called out, "You two boys get back inside the ropes. Now!" The authorities thwarted our adventure; we would have to try it another day. This wouldn't be the last of our daring big water adventures.
When I was eight years old, we moved to Wisconsin. It took about ten minutes to walk from our house to Lake Monona, the second largest of four lakes in Madison, by far the most significant lake I had ever seen in my life. As kids, we spent plenty of summer days at Sandy Beach in Olbrich Park. From our side of Lake, we could see the state capitol building downtown. It was stunning at night when lighted.
Dad bought a boat, a 17’ Lone Star. It was a metal boat, painted white on the bottom and red on top. It sported a 45 horse-power Mercury outboard motor, and I thought it was the fastest boat in the world. My older siblings could water ski behind the boat, but I was too young. I would reach over the side in my orange life jacket and make my hand skip across the top of the wake, just like my brother did on skis in the water behind the boat.
One day, we launched the boat in Starkweather Creek. Dad took some of us kids for a boat ride, the rest of the kids went with Mom in the van. Passing through the Yahara River, we left Lake Monona and went to Lake Mendota – the biggest lake in Madison. We had to go through the locks to get from one lake to the other. Mom met us with the rest of the family, and we had a picnic at a park on Lake Mendota. I was so impressed by the bigger lake I went home and got the map out to see just how much bigger it was. I asked Dad if I could use the boat someday to take a trip across the lake. He said no.
By the time I was ten, my brother and I had met a lady who lived on Lake Monona. She was a widow who needed a little help around the yard. She had a rowboat, and we were two boys with plenty of energy and time on our hands. We worked out a deal where we would rake her yard and do other odd jobs to use her boat. Our arrangement was working out fine until one day when Gerard and I decided to row her boat across the lake.
We set out early in the morning - even before Mom left for work. We took three lunches, a thermos jug of Kool-Aid, two fishing poles, and a sack of worms. We pointed the boat toward the big white dome across the water. We knew that Mom worked in the city building next to the lake, just down from the state capitol building; Dad pointed it out one day when we were in the car. We would surprise Mom by taking her lunch. It was farther across the lake than we anticipated.
While one of us would row the boat, the other would cast a line to catch fish. Unfortunately, while launching the boat, we somehow managed to launch our paper sack of nightcrawlers into the water as well. The fish weren't biting on hooks without an entrée attached. It was just as well; I didn't know what we would do with our fish while visiting Mom. As the morning went on, the boat became harder to row.
The sun was hot, and the water was getting choppy. The little boat surged up and down with the pulse of the water; some of the waves would splash over the edge. Gerard said it was harder to row because we were heading into the wind. He was smart about that sort of thing, although I didn't even know what it meant. I thought about Gilligan's Island, envisioning such a fate for ourselves, but there was no island insight when I looked out over the water. We both sat on the center bench, each taking an oar, and rowed together the rest of the way.
We finally made it across the lake, pulled the boat up onto the steep bank of lime-stone rip-rap. We stretched out the chain connected to the bow and laid rocks on top of it so the boat couldn't drift away. Then we walked up to the city building and started asking people if they knew where Beverly Palen worked. A nice man asked us in what department she worked. We weren't sure. "She Mr. Gordon's secretary."
"Oh, in the water department." He said, then took us to her office, showing us to her desk, "Wait here. I'm sure she'll be right back." We knew Mom would be surprised to see us – and boy was she!
Mom and Mr. Gordon came out of his office. Mom was carrying her notepad with all the squiggly lines (short-hand) and telling him, "I'll type this and have it back for you to sign, this…" She stopped talking when she saw us. She forced a smile on her face, "Mr. Gordon, these are two of my sons, Gerard and Tommy, and I don't know what they're doing here." Keep in mind this was in an age when all the men wore suits and ties, and the women wore dresses in a professional office setting.
We stood out from the crowd; two hot, dirty, skinny little boys dressed in cut-off shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers with no socks. We told Mom we came to surprise her by bringing her a lunch – however, we had no meal to offer - we ate them on the ride over, including hers. Mom walked us to the front door and told us we were to return the boat and go straight home. She probably would have been happier if we didn't eat her lunch.
Rowing back home was eerie. I suppose it was at least a couple of miles, and we didn't have a tall white dome to use as a landmark. I was a little scared, but Gerard said he knew the way – he was smart about that sort of thing.
When we arrived at the lady's house with her boat, she was standing in the yard waiting for us. "Where have you two been? Did I give you permission to take my boat out all day? I was worried sick." She was furious, "This will be the last time you two use my boat." We got fired, but still, she reminded us, "You didn't get all the leaves out from under the bushes, so I will expect you back here tomorrow to finish the work you owe me."
By the time we walked home, Mom was off work and chewed us out again. The day didn't turn out to be the exciting adventure we expected as we set out in the early morning hours, but it didn't deter us from future big water adventures.
In 1972 my dad bought WGLB Radio in Port Washington, Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan. It was my first time to see any of the Great Lakes, and I was in awe. One day Dad took us to a beach on the lake. I scooped a handful of water and drank it. "Don't do that!" Dad scolded, then told me lake water had to go through purification before drinking. I didn't care; I just remember the lake was so big, we couldn't even see across it. Oh, the adventures I dreamed of.
The family continued to reside in Madison while Dad commuted to Port Washington on Monday, returning home on Friday. Gerard and I would go with him whenever we could. One summer's day, we walked from the radio station into town. It was only a couple of miles. Near the Smith Brother's fish house on South Wisconsin Street, we discovered a large, old white boat stored on dry land at the end of the marina. The wooden cabin cruiser sat on top of pallets and barrels with tall grass and small trees growing around it. She seemed abandoned, so we climbed inside to have a look around.
There were two long benches below deck, one on each side of the boat, with windows above that had old tattered curtains. There was a galley for cooking and even a tiny bathroom with a head and a shower. In the front of the boat was a small bedroom we could share. I imagined what it would be like to live on this boat. It would take some work getting it seaworthy again, "Mom can make new curtains for us,” I offered.
Gerard lifted a trap door on the floor of the back deck. Below were two big motors, "I'll bet they don't run, but I can probably get them going again." The ship was missing one propeller and a rudder, "It's supposed to have two – one for each engine," he said, "We can find a new one." He was smart with that sort of thing. There were some spots of rotted wood on the outside. I figured we could cover those holes with the lids from tin cans, the same way we patched mouse holes in the wood floors of the barn. We were anxious to get started.
We told Dad about our discovery back at the radio station and even got him to drive down by the boat with us after work. "Can you help us find out who owns it so that we can buy it?" Dad didn't share our enthusiasm, saying there were probably boats available that didn't need as much work, if we really wanted to buy one. He also suggested that the boat belonged to someone and we should not climb on it anymore. His negative attitude didn't sway our determination to become boat owners – of this vessel, and take to the sea. We decided to start saving our money.
When the next school year started, I told my science teacher, Mr. Savoy, about our find. I wanted to know what was on the other side of Lake Michigan from Port Washington. Mr. Savoy had a big map and helped me find White Lake; it had a canal coming in from the big lake. That's where Gerard and I would take our first trip with the boat.
Mr. Savoy told me there was a lake even bigger than Michigan and that Michigan was just one of five called the Great Lakes. He showed me on the map how all of the lakes were connected. I became more interested and decided our first trip should be an adventure sailing all five lakes. We could do it next summer – if we came up with the money for the boat, made some repairs, and got Mom to make new curtains. Walking home from school, I told Gerard about the new plan. Although we never bought the boat, my interest in these lakes continued to grow.
My family never moved to Port Washington; instead, Dad bought KLEE radio, and we returned to Ottumwa, Iowa. I traded my dreams of exploring by boat for something more affordable – motorcycles and cars.
In the summer before my senior year of High school, my friend John and I rode our bikes to Port Washington - mostly so that I could show him Lake Michigan. I told him of my dreams to explore all the Great Lakes. The year after graduation, and with a better-paying job, I traded my Kawasaki 650 for a Kawasaki 1100 full dresser – a real touring machine. At different times I rode to Lakes, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario. At each lake, I would scoop up a hand full of water and drink it. When I rode over the top of Superior – I forgot to get a drink from the lake. I guess I was too excited to get to Canada.
Years later, when I met Melissa, she told me how much she loved Duluth, Minnesota, and wanted to move there. One day, to surprise her, I was going to fly her to Duluth for dinner. When she figured out where we were going, she asked if we could go to Two Harbors instead – just up the shore. She wanted to take me to a place she knew of called Betty's Pies. "They have the best pies in the world." (at this point, she didn't know of my mad pie-making skills) I called the Duluth tower on the radio and gave them our new destination. I canceled my flight plan, then lowered the nose and went screaming down toward the water. We flew full speed along the shoreline a few hundred feet above the lake to the next town. I wanted to go out and buzz an iron ore boat but thought better of it. Okay, we did go circle the ship, but I gained a little altitude before doing so just to be legal. We waved at the captain in the pilothouse as we flew by.
After dinner, we drove down to the harbor and stood looking out at the big lake. It was calm and beautiful. The sky was full of stars, and a ship was passing by. Moved by the moment, I knelt and scooped a handful of water from the lake and drank it. "Don't do that!" She scolded, "You can get sick drinking water that isn't purified." At this point, I figured she must really like me – a lot. Actually, she was head over heels crazy about me, but that's another story.
Melissa and I got married and eventually moved to the north shore. We've enjoyed a trip known as the Circle Tour a couple of times, driving around Lake Superior. On one of these trips, we stopped to watch ships pass through the Soo Locks, at Sault Ste, Marie, Michigan – the route from Lake Superior, to Huron, then the other Great Lakes, and even to the Atlantic Ocean. It reminded me of the day Dad took us through the locks between the lakes in Madison, but on a much grander scale.
Watching the Michipicoten, which came in from Lake Huron, pass felt like we were even closer to the ship than watching the big boats go through the canal at Duluth. Maybe because we were on an observation deck looking down at the boat in the narrow lock. It was impressive watching the ship's propeller engage and the thrust of water hitting the back gates as she took off from a dead stop. I told Melissa Huron was the only Great Lake I had yet to visit. One day I would get there, but it wasn't in the cards for this trip. I do love the Great Lakes.
A few years ago, I had finished a working trip out east. My trek home began in Hamlin, New York - west of Rochester and not far south of Lake Ontario. I was too tired to start driving home, but it was also too early to go to bed. I had an idea.
There was something I'd long thought of doing but had not yet done; I didn't know anyone who has done it either. If I followed through with my idea, I might very well be the only person in the world who has done this. I took my Atlas, went to a restaurant, and sat down with a cup of coffee and a notepad.
The following day, at the crack of dawn, I was at Hamlin Beach State Park, on Lake Ontario. I climbed over a small concrete wall and walked down to the water's edge. Greeting the new day, I said a prayer, then knelt. Cupping my hands together, I filled them with water and splashed my face; then I did it again. I did it three more times before walking back to my car. A man sitting on the concrete wall asked me what I was doing. "My friend," I said, "before this day is over, I will splash my face five times with water from each of the five Great Lakes."
"Why do you want to do that?" The idea seemed pointless to him.
"Have you ever done it?" I challenged.
"Can't say as I've ever even thought about doing it."
"And, do you know anyone who has done it?" I continued.
"No. No, I don't," the man admitted.
"I don't either," I said, explaining, "so as I see it, that's reason enough for me to do it."
He seemed a little more spirited when he added, "Well I hope you make it and don't fall in." I thanked him for his good wishes; we said farewell, and I went back to my car.
I crossed over the Niagara River, north of Buffalo, headed across Canada via Ontario 403 – part of the QEW – Queen Elizabeth Way. I felt like royalty as I traveled these roads. At London, Ontario, I turned south toward St. Thomas (I had to take this route for my name's sake), then down to Port Stanley. I said another prayer at the water's edge, then knelt, splashing my face five times with the water of Lake Erie.
I crossed back into the United States at Port Huron, Michigan, then drove north to Bay City, where I found my way to the shoreline of Lake Huron in Saginaw Bay. The water was murky, with plenty of green stuff floating on top. "Maybe I could find another place." I said out loud, then reminded myself, "You're halfway there, don't blow it now." A deal is a deal. I said a prayer, then knelt. I pushed the algae to the sides seeking clearer water below. I dipped my hands into the lake and splashed my face five times. I refrained from taking a drink, even though Huron was the only Great Lake from which I had not done so. I used a couple of wet wipes at the car to clean green dots from my face before heading north.
My next stop would be in the UP. I programmed the GPS and drove away laughing at the little voice in my head, "I'll bet Huron's water would have been clearer at Mackinaw City."
Two and half hours later, I took a break, fueled the car, bought a snack and an ice tea. The Mighty Mack Bridge spans the Mackinaw Straights, which connect Lakes Michigan and Huron. Before crossing, I drove down through town.
I parked and walked down to the water. I cupped my hand, dipped it into the lake, and sipped Lake Huron's water. Finally, I drank water from each of the five Great Lakes. As I stood up, I imagined Dad was on my left; Melissa was to my right. They preached in unison, "How many times do I have to tell you, don't drink lake water. Unpurified water can make you sick."
Walking to my car, I laughed, "I guess we'll know tomorrow."
In the tiny town of Naubinway, I made my way down to the next lake, where I repeated my ritual. It was almost dark; Michigan's water felt icy-cold against my skin. Despite the dark of night coming on, I was confident I would make it. About an hour and a half later, not far west of Christmas, Michigan, I pulled over at one of the roadside parks. With a small flashlight in hand, I made my way down the steep, dark trail that led to the beach.
I took a deep breath. “The Big Lake - Superior.” The largest of the Great Lakes and the largest freshwater lake in the world was also the calmest of the five lakes I'd visited that day. Reflections of the stars danced on the smooth water's surface, and the lights of two different ships twinkled on the horizon as they made their way west. They were most likely coming from the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, making their way to who knows where.
In the tranquility of the night, I offered a prayer of thanksgiving. When I knelt, the knees of my jeans soaked up water from the wet sand of the beach. I smiled warmly as I recalled the advice offered that morning by the man sitting on the concrete wall at Lake Ontario; "Don't fall in." Wouldn’t that be a hoot if I did? I dipped my hands into the ice-cold water and splashed my face, then did it four more times.
I stood up very much refreshed and at peace with myself; a sense of accomplishment swelled within me because I did something I had dreamed of from time to time for much of my life; I visited all five Great Lakes in one day, refreshed by the waters of each. It might not have been a big deal to most people – but it was to me, and I did it.
I dried my face on the tail of my flannel shirt. My flesh was chilly and felt soft and smooth, not sticky like it does when you come out of saltwater. As the T-shirt says: “Superior. Unsalted and shark-free.”
I stayed there for a while, basking at the moment. I taxed my memory to think about all the water adventures I had experienced. Some changed from how I viewed them as a child. For example: visiting Rapid City as an adult, I found the huge creek was just a trickle running through a gulley until it rained hard. The lagoon in Ottumwa was just a small to average-sized pond. Others didn't change. Lake Michigan is just as massive as I recalled when first seeing her.
I've been to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. Lake Superior isn't the biggest body of water I'd known, but it sure is the greatest.
Seven hundred fifty miles, and about 15 hours later, I had completed this journey. This dream had now become a memory; it was time to move on to another. Maybe this year, we'll drive to White Lake, the opposite shore of Lake Michigan, from Port Washington, where my Great Lake adventures began. Where they'll finish is anybody's guess.
There's a difference between putting things off and procrastinating. If you put something off because you don't want to do it, that's procrastination, and it comes with a penalty. For example, if I put off mowing the lawn until next week, the grass will be much taller, more challenging to cut, thus taking more time to complete the job, and it leaves those unsightly waves of cut grass through the yard.
You might put off a project because you're not sure how to do it. Putting off a leaky pipe or a running toilet repair because you're not sure how to do it will weigh heavy on your water bill. The high cost of wasted water can reach hundreds of dollars - not to mention the possibility of causing water damage.
Still, procrastinating is human nature. Okay, not all humans do it, but I do, so I should say it's my nature.
On the other hand, we sometimes put things off that we want to do. Things we even dream about doing, but we just didn't have the time, or in my case, didn't make time; time to live that dream or know the experience. Putting important things or events off comes with an even higher cost than procrastination – regret. Such regret is portrayed perfectly in Harry Chapin's song, Cat's in the Cradle.
The song is about a little boy who was growing up – fast, but his dad had so much to do. It wasn't until later in life when the dad noticed, "…he learned to walk while I was away, and he was talking 'fore I knew it, and as he grew, he'd say 'I'm gonna be like you, dad. You know I'm gonna be like you.'" Those are some bittersweet lyrics. I think every man would like his child to grow up to be like him – at least acquiring his better qualities, but at what price?
I was very blessed to have made many good memories with my dad before he passed away, but bringing one dream to fruition eluded me. I always wanted to take my dad to Colorado.
I wanted to go hiking, and camping, and fishing with Dad in the Rocky Mountains. I wanted to show him the magical things and places I'd found. To share the peace and tranquility, I'd come to know in the forest and alongside a mountain stream. To gaze in wonder at how much brighter the stars are at ten thousand feet.
I wanted Dad to feel the joy of holding his open hands on both sides of his mouth, like a megaphone and hollering from a quiet mountain pass over a canyon below. We would send a ripple through the silence and hear our voices carrying on like a stone skipping over smooth waters. "Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello…" and, "Can you hear me? Can you hear me, hear me, hear me…
As the stone takes shorter hops, eventually sinking into the lake, our words would softly fade away, gently settling into the treetops of the forest.
Dad goes to the mountains with me often, and we do all these things – in my heart. Unfortunately, we never made the time to go while he was still living, and that's a heavy regret that can never be made right.
Not long ago, I got a message from Tim Werner, a man I'd met through a social media site. He asked if I would be willing to read a short story he wrote about a 3-generation backpacking trip to Isle Royale National Park. He went on this adventure with his 74-year-old father and 17-year-old son. "Sure," I replied, "Send it to me, brother."
Tim questioned, "Can I send it here, or would it be better via email? It's a decent size pdf file." I gave him my email address.
When his email showed up, I opened the file expecting to give it a quick read. "Human Nature, by Tim Werner. Page one of 128? Decent size pdf file?" The first thing that came to mind was, "I don't have time to read a book." I had several trips coming up and projects that couldn't wait and…
And then I thought about it. People take time to read my stories, and this one was about a hiking adventure through nature - with his dad. It started sounding similar to a trip I once didn't have time for – or should I say, I didn't make time.
It would do me some good to relax with a book in front of the fireplace. Maybe vicariously, through Tim's story, I would see what I missed out on with my dad. I replied, "I will read it, but it may take a couple of days before I can get to it." It took me nearly two weeks to get to it, but I didn't want to stop once I started reading.
Tim wrote about the hike they selected. "The Feldtmann Lake Loop? On Isle Royale? This guy is taking his 74-year-old dad on that trail?" I'd never hiked it, but it was a long trek with some pretty strenuous sections as I recalled reading about that loop. "Surely they went a different way." Not far into his book, Tim writes that the park rangers looked at him with the same skepticism. Now I had to keep reading.
The three rode on the Voyager II – the same boat we took to Isle Royale. The names of way-points and places he mentioned on the island were familiar – as were the aches and pains he described along the way and at each day's end.
I liked that his dad had never met a stranger – not even in the woods, on an island, in the world's largest freshwater lake. (sounds familiar) I could see the faces and knew the personalities as Tim described people they'd met, especially "Pat." I've met a Pat or two in my time, and I'll bet you have too! The book had me in suspense, brought back memories, and caused me to ponder, "what if."
Tim's timing in writing the book reminded me of Dan Fogelberg and his song Leader of the Band, which he wrote for and about his father. Dan expressed what the song meant to his dad, who was still living. His father was able to share and enjoy the song's success, and in turn, what that meant to Dan. It was simply beautiful. I felt that same sensation for Tim.
Tim wrote the book as a surprise, a gift. He wanted his now 82-year-old father to be able to read it. We never know what tomorrow will bring, and time waits for no one. Tim accomplished his goal.
His dad was thrilled and boasted of his son's accomplishment. I could feel Tim's gratitude toward his dad and son for going on this journey, making a long-time dream of his come true. Tim's deep satisfaction with himself was evident for writing and publishing the novella in time to share yet another joy with his father.
We chatted several times. I asked if he was an author; if he had written other books. I loved his answer, "I'm just a guy living in northern Minnesota." Me too, brother.
Tim mailed a hard copy of his book to me. Without procrastination, I read it again - this time with my dad. I imagined our trip to Colorado would have been much like Werner's adventure, having similar challenges and satisfactions. I'm not one to give away an ending, but the last six words of Tim's book perfectly described the way such a journey would have gone for my dad and me: "We didn't want it to end."
With Tim's permission, I've tagged him in this story. If you'd like to find out more about his book, Human Nature, you may contact him.
"Evelyn's preschool is closed on Good Friday. How would you feel about spending the day in Duluth?" Let me think about that; hang around the house watching the snowmelt on the edge of the woods, or go hang out with my granddaughter for the day? I went to Duluth Thursday and spent the night.
Friday morning, we were up early. Ev and I dropped Addison off at school, then took her mom to work. Coming down the steep hill of Lake Avenue, we could see a ship in the Duluth Harbor. We drove behind the DECC center to watch the big boat maneuver in the port. Standing on the sidewalk by the railing made of steel posts and chains, I took notice of how clean and pretty the city was in the soft morning light. The air was fresh and chilly - the water in the harbor was smooth as glass. They are so graceful; the big vessel barely made a ripple in the water's surface.
Leaving Canal Park, a homeless man was sitting on the concrete boulevard, leaning against a signpost. He had a plastic bag of his belongings by his side. With his hood pulled over his head, partially covering his face, he looked cold and hungry.
Ev and I went through a drive-up to get breakfast, then back to Canal Park. I stopped at the red traffic light and rolled down my window. "Have you had breakfast?" He didn't look up but shook his head no. I offered the bag, "We bought an extra meal for you." He got up to his knees to take the sack. I reached toward him with a large cup, "Do you like coffee?"
"Coffee is really good; I like it a lot." He set the sack down, stood up, and took the coffee. Wrapping both hands around the warm cup, he started a brief conversation, "I've been on the streets for a long time, mostly in the south during the winter, but I'm 57 now, and I just can't do it anymore." His eyes looked empty and lonely as if he just wanted someone to listen to him.
"I haven't seen my kids for over seven years. A couple of months ago, I found out they're living up in Hibbing, so when the weather got warmer, I started making my way north."
I inquired, "Do they know you're coming?"
"My girl said If I could find a way there, I could stay with them." He looked exhausted, "It's just taking so long to get there. I've been trying to save some money for a bus ticket, but that's hard too." He seemed beaten down, losing hope.
I offered him a twenty-dollar bill, "You can use this toward a ticket?"
"Are you sure," he asked as if I was unaware how much I gave him, "The ticket is only ten bucks."
I smiled, "You might need a sandwich or a bottle of water to take on the bus." He thanked me and expressed his appreciation. "Tell your daughter we said hi and give her a hug from us."
We said our farewells, and I pulled away. "Who was that man, Papa," Evelyn asked from the back seat.
"Just a friend who needed a few minutes of my time," I replied and smiled at her in the rearview mirror.
Ev and I went back to the house. She turned on a DVD (The Princess Bride) and watched as intently as if it was the first time she'd seen the movie, not her 500th viewing. The character Vizzini would say, "500 times? Inconceivable!" But, whatever he declared to be inconceivable – turned out to be true.
After the show, we got Addison from school; it was a mild, sunny afternoon, and I had an adventure in mind. "We're going for a hike," I told the girls, "you should each bring a coat."
They insisted, "Papa, it's too nice to wear coats – we'll get hot." Fair enough. I let them make the call but told them they had to wear long-sleeve sweatshirts. We put on our boots and walked to a trail not far away.
Stopping at the trailhead, we looked at a map of the trail. "It's a half-mile loop, so we should end up right back here after our hike. Addie, you'll be the leader." She welcomed the responsibility and set out with an enthusiastic stride. "Addie, you might need to slow down a little. A good trail leader makes sure their group stays together."
Not far in, we came to a fork in the trail. We discussed which way to go. Addie opted to veer left. After a couple more splits in the path, we came out of the woods into a parking lot.
"Papa, this isn't where we started." Our leader declared we were lost. I suggested we go back to the last fork. "Should we go right?" I was proud of her for knowing that was the direction we came from; however, I suggested a turn the other way would probably take us where we wanted to go, and so we went left. "Watch your shoes," Addison would announce whenever we came to a muddy patch, a steep incline, or descent.
Once the sun begins setting in the Northwoods, it gets chilly quickly. "Papa, I'm cold," Evelyn said. We kept walking, and I helped Addie with navigation. I wanted them to experience the cold – it led to a good conversation about hiking.
We talked about bringing a backpack on our next hike and what to carry. The girls agreed coats, hats and mittens would be a good idea. Addison thought we should pack some snacks just in case we got hungry. Ev suggested water too. I prompted them for other items to bring along. "What if we were still in the woods and it started to get dark?"
"We should bring a flashlight," Evelyn added. Excellent thinking for a three-year-old. I asked Evelyn if she wanted to ride on my shoulders. "No, I want to walk." Then asked, "Papa, are we lost?"
"No. I know where we are. We'll be out of the woods in just a few minutes."
Our leader spoke up, "I knew you would know the way." I appreciated her trust in me.
We arrived back at the house right at six-o-clock. "Everyone, take your muddy shoes off at the front door." I instructed, "I'll clean them off after we eat."
Their mom made dinner the night before, so all I had to do was heat and serve. Both girls ate well, especially Evelyn. She was hungry, and she looked exhausted. The half-mile walk was nothing for me, but when one's legs are only fifteen inches long, she took many more steps than I did.
After supper, Ev got out a container of colorful plastic discs. Each had a hole in the center and slots around the edges. They snap together to build things. For this story, I did a little research and found they were Lego Brain Flakes. I was humored by the name as I have met people with flakey brains but had never seen an actual brain flake. But I digress...
Intending to play, Evelyn scattered the Brain Flakes on the table, the couch, the chairs, and all over the hallway, living, and dining room floors – then disappeared. The blue, red, yellow, green, orange, and white pieces looked like wildflowers in a meadow. I found Evelyn lying in her bed, reading a book. "You need to pick up your toys before you go to bed."
She looked over the top of the book, "But Papa, I'm tired."
"You need to clean up after yourself, Ev," I said, walking out of the room, "Come on. I'll help you."
She cried, "I'm tired."
I returned to the bedroom a moment later and found her sound asleep. The book she was hold laid open on her chest. I thought for a moment about waking her but recalled my uncle John telling me, "Choose your battles wisely." If she put herself to bed and was asleep by 7:25, she must have been tired. I figured I'd best let her be. I took the book and her glasses, then pulled her covers up. After kissing her on the forehead, I turned off the light and quietly pulled the door closed.
In the living room, Addison had gathered the colorful discs into one pile on the coffee table. Nobody can set Lego products in front of me and expect me not to start building.
I snapped pieces together until I formed a body with four legs. I added a neck, head, and tail. I envisioned the iconic green dinosaur at the Sinclair station on the expressway between Duluth and Two Harbors – but mine was multi-colored.
"What is that supposed to be," Addison asked.
"It's a Sagulla," I replied with a tone as if everyone knew what a Sagulla is.
"It's a what?"
"A Sagulla. It rhymes with koala; like a koala bear – but it's not a bear." I explained. "What are you building?"
"A fence to keep our Sagullas together." She explained.
I corrected her, "Sugullas is plural. We only have one."
Addison was excited and began building something on her own, "Make a smaller one be the mommy Sagulla." I wasn't sure I could make one much smaller, so I made one larger – like a full-size adult Brontosaurs. I told her it was a daddy Sagulla, then asked her what she was making. "The mommy is pregnant; this is a baby."
I laughed, "The baby is taller than the mom?"
"It's a teenager; it's supposed to be taller than the mom." Addison worked diligently to build two smaller, twin baby Sagullas while I finished the corral fencing.
I quizzed my granddaughter, "Where do you think Sagullas come from?" She shrugged her shoulder, saying she had no idea. I suggested, "Maybe they live in the woods – in the mud. They probably came into the house on our shoes and our clothes. I think that's where they came from, don't you?"
Addison looked at me as serious as could be and said, "I think Sagullas came from your brain and your heart." That made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Addie was writing on a Post-It note, "Now you have to write a story about Sagullas, Papa. That's your homework. Let me know when you're done, and I'll check your work." (touche) I smiled. She knows her Papa well. She pulled the note from the pad and stuck it to the tabletop next to me.
At the top, she wrote the title, "Sagullas" (that's where I learned how to spell the word). On the bottom; "By Tom." I raised my eyebrows with uncertainty. "Mom told me your real name." That made me laugh, but what had me smiling the first time were the four lines she drew on the small paper – the amount of space she allowed me to write my story.
"I only get four lines."
"You can do it. You have to use your words carefully," the teacher instructed.
Although you don't often see them physically, you will always feel their presence. Sagullas are the contentment felt when holding a child's hand in the morning, the serenity of watching a ship together as it moves slowly on calm water. They are the feeling of equal worth that comes when you feed a homeless man and take a moment to listen to his story. Sagullas share a child's joy watching a favorite movie with the same intrigue as the first time she saw it. Sagullas come from taking little ones on a walk through the woods, helping them learn and understand. Sagullas are lifting a book, taking the glasses off a sleeping child, and tucking her in bed. They come when letting your imagination run alongside that of a creative seven-year-old. A Sagullas is a child recognizing something that came from your heart. How could I possibly write all of this on only four lines? I pondered it overnight.
A Sagulla is a meaningful time spent with another person. Sagullas are love.
By: Tom - with help.
A few years ago, my brother Dan, the plumber, came up to Minnesota to help with my home remodeling project. I went to Duluth to pick up an order he had called in for supplies. I decided to take my car as it gets substantially better fuel mileage than the pickup. Besides, I still had the big trailer hitched to the truck and saw no need to disconnect when the car would do just fine. My dog June wanted to ride along but told her she had to stay home this time.
When Mike, the cashier, was totaling the order, he struck up a conversation, "So your brother Dan is a plumber?"
"Yep." I answered, "The funny thing is, I can get him to help plumb the house, but I can't get him to pay for my materials." We laughed about that, then I asked Mike, "Do you have a brother like that?"
"Nope," he said, "I'm an only child."
"I can't even imagine that," I said.
"Can't imagine what?" Mike asked.
"I can't imagine being an only child."
"Is Dan your only brother?" He asked.
"No," I chuckled, "I grew up in a family with sixteen children. I have seven brothers and eight sisters."
"Wow! I can't imagine." He said, "Did you ever have your own bedroom?"
"Are you kidding?" I replied. "I didn't even have my own bed until I started paying rent at my first apartment." We had a good laugh over that.
"That must have been tough," Mike said.
"Not really, it's just the way it was – the way I thought it was for everyone." I explained, "You see, you and I grew up on the opposite ends of the sibling spectrum. As I see it, the problem with being an only child is that your parents already knew who did it whenever something got broken. My parents, on the other hand, had to figure it out. I had a pretty good chance of dodging the blame."
"I never looked at it like that," Mike said, "You're right; they always knew I did it - you can't blame the dog for everything." We shared another good laugh over that. I paid for my order, thanked him for his help, then headed out to put my purchase in the car.
One significant error I make repeatedly is tending to forget my car is just that, a car - not a truck. My order was mainly ten-feet long pieces of PVC pipes and bags of fittings for the drains. To reduce the pipes' bulk, I slid the inch and a half pipes inside the two-inch lines, then slid the two-inch pipes inside the three-inch pipes. There were a lot more pieces than I anticipated.
Out in the parking lot, I discovered the pipes were not going to fit inside the car. "I don't understand; I've had boards that were ten feet long in the car before." Admittedly, they go from the tailgate, almost to the windshield, but they do fit. I failed to consider that the pipes are over three inches, where the lumber was only one and five-eighths thick. I also didn't t take into account how many pipe sections I would be hauling and that they would have to be stacked a few rows high.
With the back seat down and the front passenger seat fully reclined, I managed to get all the three inches pieces in by running them diagonally from the left rear corner to the front right. I closed the tailgate carefully. No problem. Looking through the back window, I had well over an inch to spare. It appeared the next row would go in just fine as well. I smiled, thinking I was pretty clever. "I've got this under control."
I reopened the back hatch and loaded another row of two-inches pipes that had smaller tubes inside. I again closed the gate slowly. It was pretty tight; the pipes barely touched the back of the end gate, keeping it from latching, but it looked like it would close, so I gave it a little extra push. Nope. The tailgate and the windshield both curved inward toward the top of the car, shortening the clearance. The pipes were not going to fit.
"Not a problem," I thought to myself. I would have to put the passenger window down and let the pipes hang out a few inches. It seemed like a redneck way to do it, but it would work. I'd turn the heat up to high for the 65-mile trip home with an open window.
When I went to the front of the car to put the passenger window down, I noticed two new star-shaped cracks in the windshield. You know the kind; they start at a single point, then sprawl out like a spider web. I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach as I looked at my windshield. "Aw crap! That's going to raise the cost of this project." It's a sickening feeling when you do something so stupid.
I immediately began trying to figure out how this could have happened. I know glass will fracture more quickly when it is sweltering hot or bitterly cold, but today it was neither. "There is no way I could have pushed the end gate hard enough to crack the windshield. There's just no way!" It was impossible. What could have caused this?
Well, maybe it was not impossible. Maybe I did push too hard. Maybe I should have tied the pipes to the rack on top of the car. Maybe I should have unhitched the trailer and driven the truck to Duluth rather than using the car as a truck. Maybe I should have...
Maybe, maybe, maybe. None of these maybes mattered now. The fact is the windshield cracked, and I did it. I must have done it - I was the only one there. Not being one to cry (too long) over spilled milk, I started laughing over a silly idea, "Maybe I should have let June ride along."
Then I heard a voice in my head. It was Mike reminding me, "You can't blame the dog for everything."
Once upon a time, grasshoppers threatened to devour all of Finland's grapes in a land far away. Legend has it; Urho chased the hordes of insects away, saving the vineyards in ancient Finland. His noble deeds resulted in canonization and earned Saint Urho a day on the calendar: March 16th - the day before Saint Patrick's. Coincidence, or not?
At my first such celebration, I met an "honest Finlander" who'd consumed his portion of pints and then some. He told me Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland after seeing Urho chase away the grasshoppers. "That's why Saint Urho's day comes first."
His friend, an Irishman, shook his head, "For starters, there is no such thing as an honest Finlander, okay, because they're called Finns – not Finlanders. They made that up too." The Irishman wasn't too steady on his feet but raised his glass and went on to state, "Now Saint Patrick, he was a real hero."
Whether the account of Saint Urho is accurate or not, I do not know. We raised our glasses to toast both saints.
I do know, lots of people gather every year to celebrate Saint Urho in a small town just up the road from me – Finland, Minnesota, population 179. On the Saturday following Saint Urho's Day, Finland will have a parade followed by festivities for all ages. This year, that Saturday was also the first day of spring.
It was a beautiful sun-shiny day; people were anxious to get out of their houses. A parade was just what we all needed. We were part of the masses that migrated in, causing the town's population to swell at least ten-fold for the day, maybe more.
The Lake County Sheriff lead the way, followed by the Finland Fire Department. The diesel motor rumbled smoothly; I could feel the power of the massive shiny red truck as it made its way slowly up Highway 1, right through the middle of the town. The lights flashed, and the siren blared; fire-fighters tossed showers of candy to people lining both sides of the road. Kids were gathering the treats as efficiently as a combine harvesting corn in the field. Autumn seemed so very long ago.
Seeing the firetrucks reminded me of a story I read last fall about the fire hazard created when lint builds up inside a clothes dryer. I had been meaning to check my dryer but hadn't got around to it yet. Being the vernal equinox, perhaps some spring cleaning would be in order – tomorrow. Nobody works on Saint Urho's Day.
After church and a good breakfast, I was ready to tackle the dryer. I almost forgot my wife telling me the washing machine took over two and a half hours to do a load. The water was running really slowly into the tub; it was probably the water inlet valve. I would look into it another time; the dryer was my project for today.
I questioned my thinking: what good is a dryer without wet clothes from the washer? "Maybe, I should look into that first - how difficult could it be?" I headed to the basement with a couple of hand-tools and a head full of knowledge.
Without a service manual, I used simple common sense and pulled the machine away from the wall. I disconnect the power cord, hot and cold-water lines, and the drain tube. On my knees, I examined the back panel on the unit. "Simple. Take these four screws out, and the back comes off." I removed the screws, but the back didn't come off. I found a fifth screw and took it out; still, the back remained in place. I didn't see any more screws.
A variety of plastic connectors were poking out through the panel. Using a pair of pliers, I squeezed each of them together and pushed the little white nubs back through. A couple of larger plastic connectors were giving me trouble; I finally got them back in as well – but still, the back panel didn't come off. After each pair of connectors was pushed through, I would hear something drop inside the cabinet. I was a little concerned.
There were two metal tabs toward the top that could have been holding it on. I tried without success to manipulate or bend them out. Frustrated, I stood up, scratching my head, "What the heck!" I took a ceremonial look around the room to make sure I was alone – to be sure there were no other men present to witness what I was about to do.
I took the walk of shame up the stairs to the living room. My wife was sitting in her chair. "Is everything going okay down there?" I assured her it was. "It seemed like there was a lot of banging and some cussing."
"Everything is fine. I thought I'd take a break and see what everyone is doing on Facebook." It's a genetic thing. Men were not designed to ask for directions or seek help with simple things we can figure out on our own. Who am I to break tradition?
I opened my iPad and started to type "Facebook" in the search bar. Instead, I accidentally typed, "How to remove the back panel on a Maytag washing machine model #8318015." I'm sure everyone has experienced the way Google tends to answer a question you did not ask.
My search results popped up: How to replace the water inlet valve on a Maytag washing machine. "Hmm. Smart-aleck computer!" I opened an instructional video. An appliance repair expert named Steve said I would need a putty knife, a ¼" nut driver, a pair of slip-joint pliers, and a flat-head screwdriver. He said, "The first thing you needed to do is disconnect the power cord and remove the water lines."
"Seriously? I came upstairs for this?" I said sarcastically, "At this point, I could be an expert making millions of dollars producing 'how-to' washer repair videos!"
Steve showed me how to use a putty knife to release two catch springs under the control panel's front. By release two more brass catch springs located under the board, I could remove the top of the washer and access the water inlet valve. "What? I don't go through the back panel?" Steve replaced his valve in a four-minute video. I was already ninety-minutes into my repair.
I returned to the basement with a headful of new knowledge. I would first have to support the back panel to keep the whole machine from falling apart by replacing some of the screws I'd removed. "Ha! Something I know that even Steve the expert didn't know."
Using Steve's method, I had the top of the machine off in less than two minutes. I always thought automatic washing machines were self-cleaning. I mean, every time you do a load of laundry, you wash the inside of the machine – right? When you open the lid, they always smell like clean clothes. I turned the top over to set it on the dry while I worked; I saw the underside for the first time. "Ick! I'll clean that before I put it back on."
Remember all those connectors I pushed into the machine? Well, parts and components were hanging everywhere. It was going to be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a box top to look at. I seriously questioned whether this machine would ever run again. I would remove the front cabinet from the device to reach them, which was easy because the top is basically what holds all the sheet metal on the front. "These things are built so cheaply – it's no wonder the new units only last five years."
With the cabinet removed, I began reattaching dangling things to the back wall. Once the puzzle was completed, I removed the only thing I didn't disconnect from the rear panel – the water inlet valve. I took it to the sink to examine it. The filter screens were plugged up with sediment. I pulled them out and cleaned them with a brush. After reinstalling the valve, connecting the water lines, and plugging in the electrical cord, I started a wash cycle.
"Wow!" Water was rushing into the washtub like water crossing a concrete spillway at the pond after a torrential summer's rain. I was pretty darn smitten with myself. I pushed the knob in to stop the water, then shook my head. "I could have cleaned those screens without taking the whole darn washing machine apart."
I stood looking at the exposed inside of the machine, mainly the washtub, "That's disgusting." I said, then committed to giving her a good spring cleaning as long as it was already disassembled. There was gunk in there one would never suspect!
When you lift the lid and look into your washer, what you're seeing, the thing with all the perforated holes, is the wash basket – not the tub. (Remember, I'm an expert now - I watched some videos.) The basket, which sits in the washtub, was clean and shiny - on the inside; the tub was not, nor was the back of the basket- the area we never see. I would scrub them while I had it apart.
I don't want to gross anyone out, but what I found beyond the clean parts we see through the lid would send a person with OCD screaming and running to their therapist! The washer always smells clean because of layers of built-up "fresh scent" laundry detergent that sticks to areas we cannot reach for regular cleaning.
Our machine has the fabric softener cup at the top of the agitator. I removed and cleaned the agitator assembly inside and out. I don't care how cute that little bear is; I will never put liquid fabric softener in my laundry machine again. What a sticky, gooey mess!
Deep cleaning our automatic washing machine caused me to consider alternate options. I could go down to Lake Superior to beat my laundry on a rock or take a bar of lye soap and a washboard – but the DNR would probably frown on that. I could always get an old Maytag wringer washer and use a clothesline in the yard. These seemed like good ideas, but the reality is, we'll keep using the automatic washing machine and dryer.
Oh yeah, the dryer. That was the project I was supposed to be on.
I managed to get the washer put back together with no spare parts, and everything worked, so I felt pretty confident. I put a load of sheets in the freshly cleaned machine. While they were in the washer, I would have time to take a look at the dyer.
I pulled the dryer away from the wall. I've done this before, so I felt like a seasoned pro; I needed no tutorial videos. With nine screws removed, the back panel came right off. Inside wasn't too bad at all. I vacuumed up any dust and lint. I also cleaned the heat and exhaust ducts inside and the vent tube outside the dryer. I wanted to open the cabinet to check around the drum.
Since I bought the washer and dryer together, I tried the same technique to remove the dryer's control panel and cabinet. It all worked as it should, "Ha! I am a pro." I boasted. When I was done cleaning, I put everything back together. I installed eight of the screws in the back panel before dropping the final screw. I looked around the floor but couldn't find it; it was lost forever. "It's just going to be missing a screw." I conceded, then replaced the vent tube, plugged in the big 220 cord, and slid the dryer back into place.
The wash cycle had just finished; I checked the time. "Thirty-eight minutes. BAM! I am the Northwoods master appliance repairman!"
I pulled the clean sheets from the washer, bending over to toss them through the front door of the dryer; something caught my eye. There was a single screw on top of my shoe, resting on the laces. I laughed and looked at the trash can. I considered pitching the loose screw, but I was on such a good roll.
After I pulled the appliance back out from the wall to insert the final screw, I then started the dryer and went upstairs. "Man, I am killin' it on this spring cleaning." I removed a towel laid over some clean dishes at the kitchen counter – pots, pans, utensils; the stuff we don't put in the dishwasher. I started putting items away.
I bobbled the plastic sleeve that protects the candy thermometer. It bounced off the counter, up onto the back of the range, then fell back down the wall and behind the range. I cursed. After seeing what I had just seen inside the washing machine, there was no way I wanted to pull the stove out right now. If I did that, I would start having ideas about pulling put the refrigerator too. "That sleeve can just stay there until I get around to it."
I'd had my share of spring cleaning. I cracked open an ice-cold Castle Danger IPA and prepared to do nothing for the rest of the day. I wondered if Saint Urho's chasing the grasshoppers out of Finland was part of a simple spring-cleaning project he started? I raised my glass, "Here's to you, Saint Urho, for a job well done. May there be lint in your belly-button, but never in your clothes dryer!"
Unless I have a reason to go there, I prefer to avoid the Chicago metro. The heavy traffic and never-ending road construction create constant congestion on the highways. I’ve even tried driving through at 4:00 am on a Sunday morning and still ran into backed up and stopped traffic.
Chicago drivers have two hands for a reason. One to blast the horn and the other to wave their middle finger at drivers who fail to demonstrate courteous motoring skills. And, the toll booths? Well, that’s another story. Finding a different route is an excellent way to avoid the stress of “passing through” Chicago.
I was headed to the east coast, without a particular destination, I was just going, and in no hurry at all. I decided to take an alternate route I’ve traveled many times. I go around Lake Superior, through northern Wisconsin, and across the UP of Michigan. From there, I join I-75 south, cross the Mackinaw Bridge, and drive the length of the state.
At Flint, Michigan, I can go east, over the top of Lake Erie, cut through Canada, and into Buffalo, New York. Or, continue to Toledo, Ohio, passing south of the lake. Either way, I come out well east of Chicago’s traffic fiasco.
I like to journey with a free spirit – having an idea when I want to be where I’m going, but without rigid schedules. For this trip, I would drive well after dark, catch some sleep at a rest area, and cross the Mighty Mack in the morning. With frigid temperatures forecast and traveling on a road where you seldom see other cars at night, I laid out an itinerary that was well planned, including fuel stops. But, even the best of plans can often require improvisions.
The gas station where I was going to refuel was closed permanently. No problem. There’s another gas station twenty-five-miles down the road that’s open until midnight. We continued on.
When we arrived at the next station, the place was dark. Using the light from my cell phone, I read a handwritten sign on the front door. “New hours. Now closing at 8 pm. Open at 6 am daily.” Great. I glanced at the time on my phone; it wasn’t quite ten-o-clock. “Eight hours until they open.” I zipped my coat, raised the hood to block the cold wind, pushed my hands deep into my pockets, and walked back to the truck. I climbed inside the warm cab. A little more than concerned, I gave my dog June a rub on the head and said, “This isn’t good.”
I scrolled through the GPS. The next gas station was only fifteen miles farther away, but my truck was so low on gas I was afraid to attempt it, and who knew if they would even be open? I had a one-gallon can of gasoline in the back, but my truck only gets 12 mpg, so that wouldn’t take me far. “Hmm. What to do.”
There I was, nearly out of gas on a barren road in extreme northern Michigan, at a gas station that didn’t have card readers on their pumps. The weather was bitterly cold, and the camper didn’t have a heater. Adding to my situation, there is no cell phone service in this area.
I decided to stay in the gas station parking lot until morning; at least, I knew this place would open in eight hours - probably. And, If I froze to death, I’m sure someone would be curious enough to investigate this abandoned truck and camper, to find my body. It was really cold.
I had a zero-degree sleeping bag and a few blankets in the camper. I would save the gallon of gasoline to put in the truck and let it run if the camper was too cold. June and I crawled into the mummy-style bag but couldn’t close the zipper. The bag wasn’t designed for a border collie and a man. I laid the blankets over us and kept my coat on with the hood up. It was actually pretty warm when we snuggled together, but June didn’t much care for the feeling of being confined. She would wiggle out from under the covers and lay next to me until she got cold, then wanted back inside the bag again. This went on all night long, and neither of us slept well.
In the morning, I pumped 25.2 gallons of gasoline in my twenty-five-gallon tank. Inside, I poured a cup of coffee and went to the register to pay for my gas. “How cold is it out there?”
The cashier glanced at a digital thermometer, “Twenty-four below, before wind chill.”
She looked out on the driveway. My truck was the only vehicle at the pumps. “Did you stay in that camper last night?” I told her I did. She laid a credit card slip on the counter and handed me a pen. “Boy, you must have a real good heater in that thing.” I nodded
Had we tried to keep going in the night, I might have made it a mile or two down the road before I ran the tank dry. At that point, one gallon of gas from the spare can wouldn’t have done much good. In the morning, I also found the next station (15 miles down the road) had also gone out of business!
I was saved by a zero-degree bag, a warm dog, and the grace of God, who told me to stay put.
Given a chance to make that trip over, I would take the same route, and I’d still do it after dark - but I wouldn’t let the tank get below half - anything to avoid that Chicago traffic.
A schoolmarm's role was pretty straightforward; hand out assignments, wear out a red pencil each day, discipline young Mr. Palen, and monitor the playground. "How sweet it would be to be a teacher." I thought. They work six hours a day, get every weekend and all major holidays off, a week of vacation at Christmastime and another in the spring, plus three months in the summer. Of course, back then, I also thought priests and ministers only worked one hour a week.
In time, I became friends with several school teachers. Two of my three daughters are now school teachers; Delaney in the Twin Cities and Annie in Sheffield, Iowa. Now that I think about it, I've never heard any of them say, "I became a teacher for the short hours and great pay." The ability to teach is a gift - they desire to do so is a passion.
I've recently had a few encounters with the everyday challenges of an educator. My granddaughter, Addison, had a homework assignment – how to count money. Easy-peasy. I could help her with this.
I went to the bank and withdrew $5; one-hundred pennies, twenty nickels, ten dimes, four quarters, and a crisp one-dollar bill. "As soon as you can count it, I'll let you keep all of this money," I told my young student. Eager to earn her pay, Addie and I went right to work.
With the coins in their respective piles, I asked, "Which pile has the most money?" She chose the pennies. "Which has the next biggest amount of money?" She picked the nickels, then the dimes, the quarters, and finally the dollar bill. "What if I told you each pile has the same amount of money?"
"That can't be, Papa, because all these pennies are more than one dollar," she explained.
Our lesson began, "Which would be easier to put in your pocket: this one dollar, or all these pennies?" We agreed the dollar would be more comfortable. "Everything is based on one-hundred pennies, but that many pennies would be hard to carry, so they made the dollar bill – which is the same as one hundred pennies." Next, we made twenty stacks of pennies with five coins in each. She totaled the piles by counting in fives.
"One hundred." She answered
I had her lay a nickel in front of each stack of coins, explaining that one nickel was the same amount as five pennies. Again, counting by five, she reached a total of one hundred. We did the same exercise with dimes but would save the quarters for the next lesson. "How old are you?" I asked Addison.
"Papa, you know I'm seven." She replied as if the answer was obvious.
"Okay, give me enough coins to make seven cents." She counted out seven pennies. "What's another way could you give me seven cents, using fewer coins?" She thought hard; I prompted her, "How many pennies are in a nickel?" As if a lightbulb lit up over her head, she gave me a nickel and two pennies.
We explored the age of other people. "How old is Evelyn?" She gave me three pennies. Asking, "How old is your mom," allowed us to find several combinations of coins totaling thirty-one cents - without using quarters yet. "How old is Papa?"
As innocent and sincere as a child can be, Addison asked, "Do we have enough money to do you, Papa?"
"I think our lesson has gone on long enough for today," I said and began gathering the coins.
In our next lesson, her teacher wanted us to convert cents to dollars and cents. I laughed as I recalled my mom telling me many times, "Son, you have more dollars than sense." I always appreciated that play on words, but I digress; homophones are fun, but that's English, and we were still working on math – counting money, to be specific.
Her teacher wanted us to convert 132 cents to dollars and cents. First, I had to explain the decimal point and the importance of its placement. I explained, "Numbers to the left of the decimal point are dollars, and the numbers to the right of the point are cents." I went on to tell her, "When you put the decimal point between the three and the two, made the amount thirteen dollars and twenty cents." She wasn't getting it – yet.
A teacher once told me, "If a student's struggling with a lesson, it doesn't mean they're not smart enough to get it; it could be I haven't explained it in a way they understand. It's about communication." I concluded: if I fail a subject, it's the teacher's fault, but I missed the point.
It was frustrating for both me and Addison. Something so simple as a decimal point, which I take for granted, was challenging to comprehend for someone who had never heard of one before today.
"So, I have to get the point right?" She asked. I drifted off for a moment, recalling first grade at Horace Mann Elementary School. I was in Mrs. Sales' class.
One year older than me, my brother Gerard was in Mrs. Sales' class the year before. He warned me, "When you go to her desk to get your paper checked, she'll ask you to go sharpen her red pencil. Then, if you have a wrong answer, she'll bonk you with it, and the point breaks off in your head."
I don't know if his story was true or not. But I do remember shaking at Mrs. Sales' desk one day when she handed me her red pencil, "Tommy, will you please go sharpen my pencil."
I returned with her the freshly sharpened marking device. She went over my assignment. The fine tip of the lead broke off when she firmly circled a math problem. "Eight plus two is not nine. Now you tell me the correct answer."
This was a critical life moment. I rolled my eyes rolled up, and to the right. My mouth puckered, my lips moving to one side and then the other. In my head, I saw eight fingers, then counted two more. Sheepishly and nearly scared to death, I replied, "Is it ten?"
"You know the answer is ten, but you get in a hurry and rush through your work." She began to shake the eraser end of her pencil at me. With each motion of the pencil, I flinched. "Slow down. Take your time. There is no rush." She drew a red checkmark through my answer. At the top of the paper, she wrote +9 B. I gave a big sigh of relief. I had escaped the wrath of the red pencil my brother had warned me about – this time.
Interrupting my daydreaming, Addison repeated her question. "Papa? So, I have to get the point right?"
Her question was worded a little awkwardly, but I understood. I was delighted she was catching on. "Yes. To have the correct answer, you must put the decimal point in the right place." I gave Addison a hug. I told her I was proud of her progress in math, then dismissed my class.
Our lesson gave me a small taste of what teachers do every day – I couldn't imagine trying to teach twenty kids simultaneously. I thought to myself, "Being a teacher would require a lot of patients – or is it patience? It doesn't matter; I've never had many or much of either."
My bit of spelling humor caused me to laugh and reminded me of another of Gerard's tales from first grade.
"Mrs. Sales got really mad about my spelling paper," Gerard told me, "I don't know why, but she said she was going to call Mom." My brother showed me his spelling assignment to see if I could figure it out.
The page featured several images: a ball, a cat, a flag, a car, a bus, etc. There was a line next to each to write the word that went with the picture. It looked like he spelled them correctly. I focused on the big red checkmark going through one image. Mrs. Sales drew several circles around the word Gerard wrote.
I was not a spelling whiz in kindergarten by any means, but I could spell some words. "Gerard, there's supposed to be an R in the word shirt." We would have shared a good laugh about that, but we didn't know what he wrote at our young ages - we didn't get the point. Oh, the challenges of being a teacher.
A couple of days later, I picked Addison up from school. "If we go home and finish your math homework right away, you'll have time to read your book. After that, we'll get Evelyn from her school, and I'll take you girls someplace fun!" Anxious to find out what was in-store, Addison was eager to do her assignment.
It was the first time I'd picked Evelyn up from school, and she was excited to see us. She handed me a heart she colored in class, "I made this for Mommy." I told her it was beautiful as we walked to her cubby to get her coat.
Apparently, her school was doing an animal theme for the day. Instead of a coat, Evelyn wore her grey corduroy mouse suit, complete with a long rigid tail and a mouse head hood with big ears. This would fit perfectly into my planned excursion. On the way to the car, Ev's big sister followed her. Addison held the mouse tail like a bridesmaid carrying the train of a wedding dress to keep it out of puddles on the sidewalk.
I drove across the high bridge from Duluth, Minnesota, into Superior, Wisconsin. A short way down Hammond Avenue, I turned left into the parking lot. Addison was impressed with the big brown "cow" on top of the sign; "Dan's Feed Bin," she read aloud. (Actually, it's a steer, but that's another day's lesson.)
Several bails of straw were sitting on the loading dock. Inside the big sliding doors, the girls saw large sacks of corn, sunflower seed, and animal feed stacked in big piles. Again, carrying the tail to keep it clean and dry, Addison said, "Papa, as soon as we get inside, you have to tell the people, Ev is a mouse, not a barn rat, so they don't try to catch her." The kid is smart.
At the front counter, I ordered a sack of sunflower seed, corn, and an apple-flavored mineral block for the deer. Addie and Ev ran off to explore the store. They were thrilled to find aquariums with pet mice, hamsters, and rats. Other cages had colorful birds. Addison looked at the top shelf and read the tag. "Crickets are gross," she said, wrinkling her face.
They were most fascinated by the mice. Addie was studying the tags on the glass front. "What does that say," I asked her.
She read, "Mice. Females, two dollars, ninety-five cents. Males, two dollars, ninety-five cents."
"How much are the crickets?"
She looked to the top shelf, "Crickets, ten cents each. They're gross. I would never touch a cricket."
"What does that say on the
bin with seeds and a scoop?"
"Hamster food. One dollar, thirty-nine cents." She continued around the aisle. "Finches. Five dollars, ninety-five cents. Parakeets…"
I asked about another. "How much is the cockatiel?"
We hadn't worked on anything with more than three numbers. She seemed stumped for a moment but didn't give up. She rolled her eyes up, and to the right, her mouth puckered, and she moved her lips from one side and then the other. "Fifty-six dollars, ninety-five cents?" I picked her up, gave her a big hug, and told her how proud I was of her. The other day during our lesson I wasn't sure if I was reaching her, but now, my heart was full.
Suddenly, I had a vision of a school teacher sitting at their kitchen table. The late show was on TV in the other room, but no one was watching it. A basket of clean laundry, waiting to be folded, sat on the far side, next to a few bills and a checkbook. With a sandwich in one hand and a red pencil in the other, they were grading papers from their class that day.
No one becomes a teacher for the short hours and great pay. But, watching Addison read the price tags at Dan's Feed Bin, I was clearly getting the point.
It was late in the afternoon, actually early evening. I pulled the airplane onto the end of the runway. I made my radio call, "Ottumwa traffic, twin Cessna seven-six kilo tango, is holding for departure, runway 2-2 Ottumwa."
I did a check of the instruments and gages on the panel. I double-checked the fuel selector levers; both were on the main tanks. I placed my hand on propeller levers, feeling the smooth contour of the knobs. I did the same with the fuel mixture levers. Then I moved my hands to the throttles and began advancing them while holding the brakes. The turbochargers whined as they spooled up; the engines were at twenty-five inches of manifold pressure.
I made another radio call while simultaneously releasing the brakes and easing the throttles full forward. "Ottumwa traffic, seven-six-kilo-tango (7-6KT) is rolling runway 2-2 Ottumwa. Will be departing to the north."
The airplane picked up speed, rolling down the runway. Looking out the side window, the wings were bouncing with rhythm as the wheels crossed any bumps in the pavement. Each tip tank holds fifty gallons of AV-gas; that's three-hundred pounds each. It's always amazed me the wings can carry that much weight - just hanging there on the very end.
At 90 knots, I pulled back gently on the yoke, raising the nose wheel, and held it steady until the airplane lifted off the runway on her own. While climbing, I tapped the brake pedals to stop my wheels from turning, then raised the lever to retract the landing gear.
I banked the airplane to the left, climbed to 1,500 feet, circling around back to the runway I just took departed. "Ottumwa traffic, 7-6KT is on final for 2-2 Ottumwa - will be a low pass only." Lowering the nose and applying full power, I was picking up speed. Dropping down to about fifteen feet above the runway and I buzzed the entire length of the field, at over 170 miles per hour, then pulled the nose up and turned right toward the sun. I adjusted the engine settings and climbed to 2,500 feet.
The air was cool and smooth; the airplane was running very well. It felt good to be flying again. I switched the radio to 118.15, "Good evening, Chicago Center, 7-6 KT is with you off Ottumwa, climbing through two-five-hundred for three-five-hundred feet."
The traffic controller answered, "7-6 KT, are you looking for flight following?"
"Yes, sir. 7-6KT," I replied.
He instructed, "7-6KT, squawk six one zero five and ident. What is your destination?"
"Just going up to Oskaloosa tonight," I told him.
A few seconds later, the controller called back over the radio, "Twin Cessna, 7-6 Kilo Tango, radar contact, three miles west of the Ottumwa airport at three thousand one hundred feet." I replied, "Altitude checks, 7-6KT."
The controller gave an airliner an altitude change, then the frequency was quiet. I called "Chicago Center, 7-6KT. Do you have time for a comment?"
He answered, "Go ahead, 76KT."
"Chicago Center, I've been a pilot for 33 years. For the last 32 years, I've been flying with Ottumwa Flying Service. The city decided to pursue a different fixed-based operator and terminate their business relationship with Ottumwa Flying Service. I think they've made a big mistake, but only time will tell. This is the last time I'll ever fly the charter plane for OFS.
"Over the years, the men and women of Chicago Center have tracked my flights' hundreds of times under blue skies. You've stayed with me all the way to the airport in some nasty weather, too.
"I just want you to know you've been a good friend and a darn good co-pilot for the past 33 years. It's important to me that you know how much we've appreciated you and all that you do for us!"
There was a pause, then the controller replied, "7-6 Kilo Tango, thank you. I appreciate that very much." He sounded a little choked up.
I reported, "7-6KT has the Oskaloosa airport in sight. I didn't really need flight following today; I just wanted to hear you release me one last time."
"No problem, sir." Then, with respect, he paused and said what I've always loved hearing them say, "7-6 Kilo Tango, I see no traffic between you and the field. Radar service is terminated, squawk VFR, one two-zero-zero. Change to advisory frequency is approved."
I repeated, "7-6 Kilo Tango, squawking VFR and changing to advisory frequency" Typically, this would have been the end of our conversation. In the old days, pilots and air-traffic controllers exchanged a salutation unique to aviation. We never said goodbye.
Affectionately, I said, "G'day Chicago Center, thanks again for all your help."
"G'day, Seven-Six Kilo Tango, I wish you well, sir." I must admit, that got me, and my eyes welled up. I couldn't land yet.
I wanted to keep flying forever. I banked the airplane in a steep 60-degree turn, away from the airport, and descended to 1,800 feet. Flying over Ottumwa's northside, I could see my parent's headstone not far from the bell tower in the cemetery.
Turning a full circle, I looked down the wing toward the ground. "Come on, Dad. Get in, go for a ride with me. After all, you're the one who got me into this flying business in the first place."
Feeling my father's presence, we flew together over our radio station building, then out over the radio tower site. I could hear Dad giving me instructions: "Keep your wings level, watch your altitude, stay on your heading. You may need to crab into the wind." I smiled. Oh, how I miss those days, flying with him. Dad would have been so proud of me for being a charter pilot. Together we flew back north of town and circled over our old farmhouse on Angle Road.
I reminisced days long ago, how much Dad loved living there, watching the airplanes flying low, coming into land – our house was on the approach to runway 3-1. Every time Dad heard a plane coming, he'd look up.
Blocking the sun by holding his open hand like a visor toward the sky and squinting, Dad would announce the make and model of the aircraft passing overhead. Most of the time, he could name the pilot, too. Sometimes, he was inspired to say, "I think I'll go out to the airport. Do you want to ride along?" I never turned down that offer - it meant we were going flying.
As long as I was in the area, I decided to make a final pass over Ottumwa's runway, then climbing out, I turned the airplane toward Osky.
The setting sun before me was bright and warmed my face as I descended to the runway. The tires squeaked softly as they settled gently onto the pavement. It was a perfect landing. How appropriate, landing into the sunset on this, the final flight I would make for Ottumwa Flying Service.
I taxied to the ramp, then pulled back both fuel mixture levers. The engines shut down simultaneously. As the propellers came to a rest, I said, "G'Day OFS. So long, Seven-Six Kilo Tango. You've all treated me very well."
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!